Grief is a strange beast, sleeplessly prowling around our inner consciousness. It can neither escape, nor rest; caged within our own selves.
My parents died within 15 months of each other. In 2021, my mother died in a bitter January during the longest level five lockdown of the pandemic. My father followed her a little more than a year later, a fortnight off his hundredth birthday. In between those deaths were relentless months of various different kinds of grief.
Grief at the way my mother had vaporised overnight from our lives, and of not being able to have a proper funeral for her. Grief at her sudden, profoundly shocking loss. Grief at knowing how unmoored my father was without her: they had both remained living at home, and now he was there without her. Grief at knowing in those interim months what was inevitably coming for him. Grief when they were both reunited in a graveyard in rural Galway on Easter Sunday last year.
I wanted to be dispossessed of the grief that had consumed me for too long. The place I go when I need solace has always been the place I call Elsewhere. It’s my happy place; the lands and countries and adventures and people that lie beyond our own borders. Last autumn, I took some time off work, and headed away from Ireland without a plan, other than to dispossess myself along the way of that dark creature, still restlessly pacing within.
In those months, as I wandered at my whim, I had many conversations with strangers. Looking back on that time now, three in particular emerge from my memory. They all had to do with discussing different kinds of loss. The first conversation was as eccentric as they come. The second brought me back decades in time. The third was an unexpected, and valued gift.
The first conversation: Tilos, Greece
Early into my seven months away, I was staying with an Australian friend, Lucy, for a fortnight on the absurdly beautiful little island of Tilos on Greece. It has a population of a few hundred, one tiny main village, and a short string of bars and restaurants along an impossibly beautiful seafront. Our first-floor lodgings were right on the bright, pebbly beach, with no fewer than three balconies, plus a large terrace, all overlooking the ocean.
It was an absurdly storybook place. We really did get to know the Greek people who staffed the small, quirky bars and restaurants. Every morning at 8am when I did a bakery run for spanakopita – spinach and feta triangles – the bells were ringing from the tiny church. Every morning, I saw the same man stripping leaves from dried oregano, under a ripening pomegranate tree. We really did see everyone we knew from the various mini marts, restaurants and bars at the town square bar in the evenings.
There was pink Bougainville, and oleander, and the blessed shade of tamarisk trees on the pebbly beach. There was a ruined monastery high on the mountain behind us, which was positioned in such a way that it caught the evening sun for about 20 minutes, blazing with drama and history. There was a free bus at night-time to a deserted town in the mountain, which was lit by candles. There was local honey infused with thyme, and there were huge, ripe olives, and there was wine.
The many pictures that were produced for us to admire were of a stuffed toy goat
There were signs around the village for a free minibus that started running at 11pm each evening, to a place called Mikro. We took this minibus one evening, clueless as to where we were going. Mikro was in fact an abandoned village. But within some doors and windows of these ruined houses, were tea lights and solar lamps. The effect in the darkness was like some candelabra of light, swaying up the mountain; lights glimmering in the empty spaces where faces had once looked through windows and people had once gone through doors.
There was a terrace, and a stone building that operated as a bar. The sky was as black as you will ever see it. The Milky Way blazed within it. I looked up into the darkness and the furiously pulsing tiny points of starlight in a blaze across the night sky, and found myself unexpectedly weeping for a long time for my recently beloved dead.
Towards the end of that beautiful fortnight of renewed friendship and the idyll of Tilos, a place we renamed “Ti-Lost” – a quartet of older English women came to stay in the apartment beneath ours. I dropped by one day to invite them up to have a drink on our terrace that evening.
First to arrive were Helena and Vanessa. Helena was clutching a bottle of wine which still had the price on. “It’s very cheap,” she announced brightly as she handed it over. Helena’s budget offering was eclipsed by Vanessa’s, who brandished an already-opened bag of crisps in my direction. The other two ladies, Cat and Madeleine, arrived with nothing except a jukebox of stories, which proved to be the best gift of all.
“Would you like to see a picture of Frank?” Madeleine asked, a gin and tonic down. Or two.
“Sure!” Lucy and I chorused. Husband? Grandchild? Some class of important human in Madeleine’s life?
The many pictures that were then produced for us to admire were of a stuffed toy goat. Quite a handsome toy goat, but a toy all the same, and quite a large toy goat at that. Baffled, we looked at pictures of Frank out and about. Frank in a supermarket shopping trolley. Frank in a hair salon. Frank sitting on a chair in a restaurant. Frank in a chemist.
Cat – then scrolling through Madeleine’s pictures – stopped at the photo of Frank in a chemist. He was in a basket, alongside a bottle of nail polish, and the basket was being held by a pair of hands; person holding them absent from shot.
“That’s Frank buying nail polish for his hooves,” she said. “And those are my hands.”
It was at this point I noticed that Madeleine had a pendant around her neck of a goat’s head, on gold, and picked out in diamonds. “In honour of Frank,” she said, when I asked.
“Is Frank travelling?” I asked.
Frank was not travelling. Frank was at home. “He’s not good in the sun,” Madeleine clarified.
The sun went down, and so did the drinks. I laughed harder than I had in probably two years.
The four were very long-time friends of old. Now, they told us, all four were widowed, and they holidayed from time to time together. It then emerged that while Frank was not travelling, Jonathan was.
Jonathan was not an antique toy goat. Jonathan was Madeleine’s dead husband. “I always bring Jonathan with me to a new place,” Madeleine said.
It emerged that Jonathan was travelling in ashes form. And that some of Jonathan’s remaining ashes were allocated to various zip-lock bags from time to time, and then scattered somewhere “suitable” when Madeleine went on holiday to a place where Jonathan had never been before.
Madeleine had a handbag with her.
“Is Jonathan with us now?” I asked, my gaze magnetised to said bag.
“No, he’s back in the apartment,” she said.
Four days later, we saw the ladies again, on the island of Niscyros, where we had all gone for the day. The island has a famous volcano. Waiting for the ferry to dock, Madeleine told us she had left Jonathan behind her on the island: she had cast this holiday’s quota of his ashes into the volcano’s caldera.
At first, I felt horrified. Then I didn’t know how I felt, except I realised yet again that people who have lost those whom they love, all grieve in different ways.
The second conversation: Kampot, Cambodia
One evening in Kampot, in southern Cambodia, five months into my trip, I had finished writing my diary and was watching the sun go down over the river. I was thinking about an Australian man called David Wilson, about whom I had just been writing in my diary. He was a 29-year-old Australian backpacker who was travelling in Asia in 1994, as I was at that time. He and two other backpackers he had met up with, a French guy and a British guy, decided to ride the train to go to the then unspoilt beaches of Sihanoukville.
The Khmer Rouge were still operating in pockets of the country, and there were places foreign tourists were not meant to go. Not many of them were even travelling in Cambodia at that time.
What happened to David Wilson and the other two – Jean-Michel Braquet and Mark Slater – was that they were kidnapped from that train in July 1994, which was ambushed by the Kymer Rouge. They were held hostage for 100 days while bungled ransom offers circulated between three countries and three different doomed diplomatic efforts. All three were murdered after this unthinkable period of captivity.
I first heard this story from an Australian man called Paul. I met him in India that same year, 1994 and hung out together for a while. Paul had run into David Wilson in Cambodia, and they had done some travelling together to the temples of Angkor. David told Paul he wanted to go to the beach. Would Paul come with him? Paul did not go with him, because, as he told me quite bluntly, he was too scared. He took the bus to Thailand instead.
Paul found out about the horrific death of his former travelling friend when he picked up The Times of India one day and saw the story on the front page. He was in a fugue. He was still in shock when he told me the story. I know now it was trauma. Back then, I couldn’t process what he told me. It was too horrendous. It also tapped into our most primal fears of travelling: a trip gone so wrong; a train journey to a beach that ended in death. This was never how it was meant to be when us backpackers set off so hopefully and joyously from our respective homes, rucksacks on our backs.
It was this I had been writing about in my diary. With my own losses still so much in my head, I wondered how David Wilson’s family – and the other two families – had gone on living their lives afterwards.
We were sitting on the beach together looking at the sun starting its swift descent to the ocean: in the tropics, the sun sinks like a dropped gold coin within mere minutes
The man sitting at the next table to me stuck up conversation. His name was Jeremy. He was British. We were just chatting generally about Cambodia, when I asked him apropos of nothing if the name David Wilson meant anything to him.
“I met him travelling in Egypt when I was 29,” Jeremy said, immediately recognising the name. “We climbed one of the pyramids together in Cairo, when you could still do that, and sat there together, watching the sun come up. It was one of the best moments of my life.”
I was flabbergasted. I mean, what are the chances? Something that happened to someone almost 30 years ago, me writing about it in my diary, and the man sitting next to had, like Paul, also travelled with David Wilson? I took up my diary and read him the entry, as we both sat there, one more astounded than the other.
We went for drinks and Jeremy told me the kind of person David had been. He told me that after David died, he went and visited his parents in Australia, and told them about their travels together, and sympathised with their terrible loss. I thought that was such a kind thing to do, and how much David’s parents must have appreciated that visit.
Later that evening, I dropped some flowers into the river in front of my guest house, and watched them drift away, out towards where the river meets the ocean.
The third conversation: An island between Palawan and Coron, the Philippines
Six months into my trip, I was in El Nido in the Philippines when I saw ads posted around the town for a thee-night trip on an outrigger from El Nido to the northern island of Coron. El Nido is one of the most staggeringly beautiful places I’ve ever seen. There were karst rock islands at sea, and karst cliffs covered in jungle on land. A beach that lapped two feet from my balcony. A perfect semicircle beach. Streets composed of sand instead of concrete. Seafood grilled outside on the street. People hawking pearls on the beach.
I decided to take the outrigger to Coron, and duly signed up. We were to sleep in huts at night on tiny islands, and sail by day, with stops for swimming, cliff jumping, and snorkelling. (I did not cliff jump.) There were 15 passengers, and only two of us were over 30. After a few hours, I felt as old as Methuselah, but the views were older still, and utterly stunning.
On a beach before sunset on the third and last night on that trip, on an island so tiny it did not appear to have a name, I sat on the sand with one of my fellow passengers, and American man.
He was a doctor based in Manhattan, and he had worked in the midst of the hell that was hospitals all during the pandemic. He spoke movingly about how hard it was to witness so many patients dying before the vaccines arrived.
At some point, I revealed that I had lost both my parents to Covid; a fact I had not disclosed to anyone along the way of my travels thus far.
We were sitting on the beach together looking at the sun starting its swift descent to the ocean: in the tropics, the sun sinks like a dropped gold coin within mere minutes. Further down the beach, at the huts, we could hear people setting up for dinner, and music coming from a solar-powered boombox. I focused instead on the sound of the waves in front of us, making their familiar and eternal pulsing in-out sounds as they approached and disappeared: my favourite sound in all the world.
“You needed to reset,” is what he said, and I sat there thinking in the fading pink and white light, delicate as the colour of South Sea Filipino pearls: that is the most perfect word for what I needed to do all that time, but I could never find it until that moment. Reset.
Not move on
Not change the narrative.
And after that, everything about my grief looked different.
It still does.