Back in Belgium

Earlier in the year (when we thought such diversions were beneficial) we’d been planning another trip to Belgium, partly to see Wilf and Gélise of course but also to visit the Keukenhof again and to take in the once every 10 years Dutch extravaganza of Floriade. But Charlie the oncologist blanched at the prospect of such excitements, muttered something about being maxed out on travel insurance, and clearly thought it was a less than good idea. At the time we applied our usual cheerful stoicism in the face of increasing adversity and deliberately ignored the unspoken message of life’s realities. But I parked the intent on my private to do later list and waited for the unwanted opportunity.

The planning took a bit of effort – everything takes longer not just because it’s all up or down to me but also because I dither, forget, procrastinate, have a quick dip in the pool of despair just in time to surface and hear a voice telling me to just get on with it. So the cats were packed with their travelling accoutrements in better baskets than last time, no loose litter and stern warnings that howling for the entire journey would not be necessary.

My stuff took ages to assemble and I decided to leave a day earlier which added to the pressure but before long on a bright Saturday morning we were all in the car, one smiling, two howling and off we set. I do like a pretty cross-country route and from Edinburgh I could well remember being in my early twenties and riding my Kawasaki 400 to Thetford down the A68 and some minor roads to Scotch Corner. Thirty years on I was stiff enough from sitting in a reasonably well-upholstered Golf to not miss the motorbike and my hands never need to get that cold again. The journey passed happily enough as long as I had either Radio Scotland or Radio 4 on as cats apparently don’t do modern music and the classical selection was too gloomy.

After some hours, potty and lunch stops and a minor detour because I ignored the GPS (Jane had warned me about such indiscretions) we eventually pulled up at Dorothy’s in Purley. After two nights enjoying her company and that of her family we set off on Monday morning for the Eurotunnel. It’s ridiculously easy when you’re not pulling a caravan – you don’t have to be in the end carriage on your own as you don’t have bottled gas, the staff couldn’t have cared less about the livestock and whoosh we were in the brilliant French sunshine. After a stop in Bray Dunes (couldn’t remember why the name was familiar – Atonement) for fuel, a brief potter around a French supermarket and a paddle on the beach, we eventually arrived at the Bâtiment. It didn’t take too long to unpack the car, settle the cats and sort basic things. Then I went to Box World, Wilf’s store room, to get my bedding and check on the bikes. Finding Jane’s flip flops with the impressions of her feet was that kind of exquisite pain you can always do without.

Being back in Belgium is a bizarre mixture of angst and fond memories, made harder because this was the last place we visited when Jane was well. She wasn’t but the innocence of ignorance makes it seem all the more poignant. Every cycle along the Dender either to visit the market at Geraardsbergen or fetch a few essentials from Lessines, or further still to Ath where ironically the Tour de France came through this year. How twisted is that – a burl along the river to Ath and then watching the Tour de France in situ, and she’s not here to see it with me. But I wore her Quick Step cycle top and took Meise the wee bear from the 2010 Tour when it was in Belgium and we were there.

Now I realise why I’m here – it’s a pilgrimage as was my recent visit to London. I am visiting places we went to together and renewing them for myself, to confirm that I can do so on my own and not feel alone. Perversely, the Bach remedy for bereavement is Star of Bethlehem – Gelise had advised taking it as I was struggling here more than I had Edinburgh. But now I understand – another return enhanced, guided by my inner bear to warm, peaceful memories both old and new.

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