A good life that shines through death

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The Independent Online
My sister died a little over a fortnight ago. She was in her early fifties and had the kind of physical courage and sense of responsibility to everyone around her that made it really true to say that, for the last year of her life, she fought her cancer. It wasn't until within days of the end that a Macmillan nurse - a real guardian angel - was able to persuade her that the fight was over. That nurse was a true example of what Ivan Illich said we all needed, in the medieval way, 'a friend in death', half allowing, half forcing her patient (and perhaps her doctors) to accept that the time had come to let go.

Pauline had what so many contemporary terminal patients can now hope for: a few days of comparative comfort and then, at the very end, a slipping away into unconsciousness, surrounded by the people who feel a need to be there. Between the fight and defeat, there was at least a tiny period of alert repose. In my sister's case, this happened in the hospice wing of the King Edward VII Hospital in Midhurst.

The day John Smith died, it was clear that Pauline had declined very rapidly. She slipped into a coma and I suppose left everybody then. Bob, her partner, was there, and the more time I spent with him on the veranda outside her room, the more I realised how well matched they were. Pauline was somewhere to the left of Smith - a natural Bennite, I should say. She was also a natural Greenpeace supporter, and strongly anti-hunting. She used their big German four- by-four to cruise up from the country to take food to the homeless in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

I say country though, after a mostly London and Surbiton childhood, and spells abroad, her version of The Good Life was found in Surrey. Pauline trained latterly for the law, but she was really all her life a smallholder manquee. In Bob, she met and loved a very particular sort of countryman. He's a bricklayer, used to be very good at judo, and always managed to have a big Arab horse to ride. An ex- slaughterman, Bob is proud of the bull's penis horsewhip he stretched and cured himself.

As Pauline lay dying, Bob showed another side of his countryman's skill. He had brought birdseed for the veranda and we watched every kind of panoplied garden bird zoom in to feed. He knew his dunnock. He told me what the partridge in the flower-bed below was about. He identified the cuckoo on the wing. He had the knack of singling out a bird's song and could tell me where to look for the bird itself. Typically of Pauline, he said, she had been worried in her last conscious hours that the plastic net in which seed is sold might be harmful to birds.

Bob reminds me a bit of William Cobbett. The thought was planted partly because we have had to drive through Farnham, Cobbett's birthplace, quite often in the past few weeks. Cobbett was, of course, an opinion machine, and Bob is not like him in that way. But Bob seems to me to be keeping faith with Cobbett in this: he is a stalwart countryman, even in territory which looks suburban, or at any rate 'rurban'.

Cobbett saw his near-London countryside becoming a part of the 'Thing', the 'Wen'. He saw a world of money taking over from barter, of labour taking over from peasanthood. His dream of a lost world was false, but he was surely right to see London's maw spreading outward.

And yet these last few visits to Surrey and Sussex have made me even more aware how everywhere in Britain there is enormous beauty, even in what we used to call the stockbroker belt. Of course, we drove cross-country from Hereford, and therefore we went for I suppose 150 miles through loveliness. But it doesn't do to be snobbish: the woods of Surrey seemed every bit as fine as our more open land.

In one of those, Bob and Pauline had a post-war Forestry Commission cottage. They had - and he still has - three of the sweetest-natured dogs imaginable, and Bob has old English game birds which look ready to do battle with all and sundry. Not that Pauline would have allowed Bob to take them fighting, even if he had a mind to. He knows the gypsies of Surrey and Sussex, and I think he appreciates the way they keep an almost feral way of life going among their Mercedes and hacienda bungalows.

Of course, Surrey isn't Herefordshire. Half of Bob and Pauline's neighbours, in lovely redbrick and timbered houses, must be millionaires. With one of them, an Arab, Pauline is said to have flirted with great pleasure, perhaps taking a leaf from Oscar Wilde's book in knowing that it is quite indecent to flirt with one's spouse. Bob and Pauline were as good as married, but never quite put it on the books. Bob went so far as to buy a suit (it is still unworn) to prove how serious he was. But the couple discovered that marriage would have clobbered them on tax grounds, and so the fiscal had to put the traditional on hold while they both wrestled with the recession.

On the day of Pauline's funeral, Mrs North and I missed a great excitement in the village. One of our great eccentrics discovered a badger asleep among his grass cuttings. Well over a hundred schoolkids were trooped over to his garden to see this rare sight. We see dead badgers every day by the roads, but it is my firm ambition to see the living beast, and missed it.

So I am yet more resolved to learn to walk quietly, and wait patiently, so I can watch them without disturbing them. . Getting a little better at the tricks, I have found it quite easy to watch a vixen and three cubs playing in the evening by their earth, in a big field which, until three weeks ago, held sheep and lambs in quantity. I know foxes are two a penny, but they're exciting. The other night, coming away from cub-watching, I found myself nose-to-nose with a big fox. We looked at each other for a while, and then the eye contact got to me, and I sidled off home. I'll never be a countryman, I guess, but sometimes I think I might be coming close.