Saturday February 25
Yesterday I tried to drive out to Freshwater to watch the sunset. Freshwater is a beautiful little town on the coast. A rugged road takes you there – to the place where Tennyson used to live.
It’s about 20 miles from where I’m staying and usually a stunning drive. But yesterday was grey and the mist grew heavier as I got closer to the town. In the end I turned back. I couldn’t see a few feet ahead, let alone the incredible view that I knew surrounded me.
Wherever I go here, my Nana’s state of mind is never far from my thoughts. The way it was when she died. The whole island could be a metaphor for that. I see maps of the island everywhere. On postcards, tourist leaflets, even a 3D version in a little paddling pool on Ventnor front. I keep imagining it is a picture of the human brain. Nana’s brain actually. All the little roads and towns are times in her life, trains of thoughts, events.
Today I attempted the drive again. This time the sun was high and the view stretched out in front of me. On a day like this, I defy you not to lose your breath as you look out over Tennyson Downs and Freshwater Bay.
The landscape is rugged and wild; a far cry from the close-by seafront towns with modern arcades and faded attractions. Here, on this road, it seems the same as it always was. But as you go on, you notice bits of the road that are crumbling under the weight of time and a viewing point that has half slipped into the sea.
I stopped by the road to photograph the scene. The sun was dark orange as it set, like an egg yolk slowly being swallowed by the sea. It reflected on the water and offered atmospheric light to the inhabitants of the nearby rock pools. I wanted to stay there.
As it disappeared, I drove through the dusk to Tennyson’s town. There was a hazy light over the downs. Some boys were playing rugby on the grass, their silhouettes dancing against the last of the sunlight. Running and laughing where Tennyson once walked.
Some people have asked me why I love the Isle of Wight. Some who have actually been here but only seen a small part of it. When I tell them about the beauty of the landscape and the way the sun sets on the sea, they nod but seem cynical, as if I have a sentimental view of the place because I’ve spent so many happy times here. It reminds me of the way people used to talk about Nana. The doctors or the staff in the home she was in right at the end. I tried to tell them that she had been sparkly and intelligent and funny, hilarious sometimes. That she had seen a lot. They nodded and attempted to understand, but to them she was just another ill old lady with little hope. And I was just another granddaughter with sentimental views of her old Nana.
Driving back to Ventnor, it was pitch black. The view was shrouded in a blanket of darkness, lit only by a picturebook moon and lots of tiny bright stars. If I had just landed there, on that road at that moment, I wouldn’t have known that the sea was lapping at my heels or that lush green downs were sloping towards me.
It was difficult driving in the dark on such a windy road, hitting corners and having to slow right down. Sometimes another vehicle would appear up ahead, full beam headlights shining in my eyes, and I’d have to hold on tight and keep my nerve as I passed, my little car clinging to the crumbling road.
I remembered Nana, a couple of years before she died, when her memory was bad. We’d go and visit and make small talk about everything and nothing. Someone might tell her that her sister Lily had been asking after her and she’d say, ‘who?’ and look completely confused. They’d say, ‘Lily, your sister, you remember.’ She didn’t remember. And suddenly she’d look scared. Like she knew she should recall this person. She’d sit, rubbing her head, while everyone waited for a flicker of recognition or something that would suggest the reality wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. It was like those bright headlights were being shone in her face. Eventually she’d say, ‘oh yes, Lily,’ and then she’d change the subject or break into a little song. I’m not sure what she remembered really. Lily was definitely there, somewhere, in her head. But she was probably a child, playing in their little family house, not an 89 year old woman with white hair and a nose just like Nana’s.
People say ‘focus on the good times’ and ‘take comfort in the memories’ and ‘it doesn’t do to dwell.’ The good times will always be there, for as long as my memory holds out. But at the moment, I don’t want to forget the Nana that was terrified of not knowing anymore. I played along when she pretended because I thought it helped her. To preserve her pride or something stupid like that. But I wonder if she wanted me to say, ‘I know, Nana. I know you are scared. I know you don’t remember who that person is. You don’t need to pretend. I am scared too.’
I never did. But I’m still not sure she would have wanted me to. Pretending helped her hold onto something, I think. And she was always Nana, right until the end.
Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.