Harriet Walker: 'We all fool ourselves into believing we are above loss'


Knowing that you have to write a column every week means you are often to be found walking around like some epigrammatic rodent, sniffing out and squirrelling away phrases and thoughts to use should the unthinkable happen and you find yourself all out of waffle. Most people who write columns are pompously gifted with an almost ninja-level ability to waffle, so when it deserts them, the feeling is very distinct. For the want of a better word.

Losing something that defines you is never a good idea, because you feel your outline go all wobbly. You worry that your atoms will separate and you won't be able to grab them all as they disperse and stuff them back into a person shape.

Losing things is also a tense all of its own: an active verb which happens to you. But there's no agency involved. It's not as though anyone ever decides to lose something. It just happens and then they're stuck, depending on the size, weight, usefulness and cost of whatever it is that they have lost. Depending on how vital it was.

Even when it's just a pen you've misplaced – and subsequently desperately need – there's that crashing and inevitable feeling of regret. "I wish I hadn't lost that pen," you sigh, trying to make your notes in the dust or write in your own blood. "Life would be so much easier if my pen hadn't decided to become lost." Because ultimately, sometimes it feels that even inanimate objects have an agenda to get away from you and make everything in your life that little bit more complex.

So imagine when that pen is actually a person, a best friend and a beloved, who you have lost without really choosing to. Like losing a pen, losing a person means you also lose the chance to make things in your head become permanent and real.

You can't make things happen when you lose a person; you just have to endure, knowing that you're probably not going to find them again. Knowing also that looking for them is a bit pointless, because the thing you really needed them for in the first place has become irrelevant. Like losing a pen and finding only a lump of cheese, which will be no use whatsoever when it comes to filling in the paperwork of the rest of your life.

When my nana died, my mum told me she was struck by how inescapably bereft she felt, and how strange it was that we should all know we will lose each other some day but that we just carry on regardless. Blithely, even.

We are all pompous columnists in this respect, all fooling ourselves into believing we are above loss and untouched by the natural order, able to simply waffle through whatever comes our way. We do this because the alternative – focusing on the fact that we will eventually be parted from the people we know – is just too awful and unfulfilling to contemplate.

But then something happens to make you realise some things can't be glossed over or inserted into your own narrative. You suddenly understand that you're not writing your own story after all, not least because you lost your pen, but because you don't know what will happen to you. In some sense, then, you are your own pen, waiting to be found and given a purpose again. To be used properly, so that you can feel your own outline again.

The person I lost will be fine, and so will I. Other people will find us and we will feel less like we fell down the back of the sofa or rolled under a cupboard. Or got thrown out with the rubbish by accident.

The reason I know that is because things that are truly lost don't change. You don't suddenly find, five years later, that your pen has a new girlfriend or is now an expert salsa dancer. By that time, an actual pen would have dried up and stopped working or been co-opted by a family of mice to be used as a ritzy modern sculpture to adorn their hidey-hole.

I feel dried up now, but I will function again. My hair is growing, the leg I broke is healing. I ran for a bus for the first time in four months yesterday, because I found that I could. So I'm not lost or broken, quite – it's just that my lid has fallen off. Or something like that. If you find me, please give me a little shake to get the ink flowing again.

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