Taking the Back Roads with Martin: A Story of Love, Loss, Travel and Nature

Rose Rayner shares a poignant and vivid memoir about love, loss, travel and the healing power of nature.

The first time Martin and I drive together in his car he confounds me by not using the motorway.  Despite being a small island, travelling from city to city in Britain can usually be achieved by using only the motorway network.

Martin’s journeys take twice as long as they need to.  We could get to Chichester from Portsmouth in twenty five minutes.  Petersfield also twenty five minutes.  Portsmouth to Southampton, forty minutes.  I point out to him that we would reach our destination sooner if we just whizzed along the motorway.

‘Who wants to whizz?’ he replies. ‘Are we in a hurry then?’

We’re still getting to know one another and his answer surprises me.  For me, journeying to nearby places has always involved getting from one place to another in the shortest possible time.  Why would you want to meander along slower A and B roads and country lanes when there’s an alternative?  Why suffer winding narrow roads which are inevitably full of potholes?  Or lanes where you may be stuck behind a tractor for ages?  Martin tells me that potholes are easy to avoid and being stuck behind a tractor gives us more time to appreciate the surrounding countryside.

When I’m driving I stubbornly stick to the motorways because it’s what I always do, so Martin takes over the driving more and more.  After a while I realise that I’m starting to enjoy the scenic routes that he takes, even if it means having to leave earlier.  I also begin to shun the fast roads.

Travelling from place to place is no longer a chore; it’s becoming a relaxing delight.  On long journeys we lunch at welcoming oak-beamed pubs rather than enduring crowded, overpriced and dirty motorway rest stops where the offerings are burgers and other familiar fast food franchises.  We hear traffic news on the radio telling of roadworks, breakdowns or accidents on the motorways, causing long, slow tailbacks.  It feels good not to be hot, static and frustrated on the M27.  We give each other a smug smile.

On our journeys we stop to pet alpacas and ponies.  We cross a small bridge to see a deer drinking from the stream below it.  We pull over to open the windows and inhale the aroma of a lane edged with yards of wayside wild garlic.  We spot tiny violets and sweet cowslips poking up amongst ivy on steep south facing banks.  We turn corners to be met with the shocking red delight of a poppy field, the gentle blue of a flax field or the acid yellow of a rape field.  We watch quivering tailed lambs gambolling hilariously in bright green fields, their mamas bleating at them to not stray too far.  We see fat piglets rolling gloriously in the mud outside their corrugated iron shelters, and cows peacefully munching in meadows.  We stop at farm shops to buy creamy milk, homemade bread and artisan cheeses.  We impulsively pull into ‘pick-your-own’ farms then gorge on strawberries throughout the remainder of our journey.  In autumn we stop to gather bags full of wild rosehips to make into syrup, elderberries to make into cordial, and blackberries to make into pies.

The epitome of our excursions occurs for just two weeks in May; the breathtaking wonder of the English bluebell wood.  Martin and I stop and stand in the blue carpets that stretch for yards ahead.  We know that we’re surrounded by ancient magic; we feel the souls of the ancestors who also stood with awe in this place.  Dappled light beams poke through the overhead tree canopies, reaching the carpets to enhance their colour.  The sweet, clean scent from the flowers surrounds us; it not only enters our noses but seeps into every pore on our skins.  We appreciate the grandeur of the overall spectacle but also feel wonder at the individual curve-edged bells nodding at our feet.  Sometimes we think we hear the tinkling giggle of a fairy as she hides and runs amongst the fleshy stems.  Bluebells are the ultimate fairy spell; designed to draw you into the wood, overwhelm all of your senses and render you helpless with delight and intoxication.

Within a year of the onset of our relationship, neither of us considers using motorways.  It’s our thing; it’s what we do.  Back roads have naturally evolved to become our default option unless we have a very long journey ahead, but even then Martin studies maps to find places within a few miles of the motorway where we can pull off to eat and shop.

The blood comes after eleven years.  Martin coughs it up one morning and then again later that day, and again the next morning.  We hope it’s nothing serious, that the worst it could be is treatable tuberculosis, possibly caught from one of the patients that he works with.

It’s not.

The diagnosis is the worst possibility; inoperable, incurable Stage 3B lung cancer.  It’s August and I pray that we will have another chance to stand together in a bluebell wood.

Martin starts palliative chemotherapy and radiotherapy.  It won’t cure him but will improve his symptoms and maybe extend his life by a few months.  If we’re lucky he may make it to the next bluebell time.

We talk easily together about the cancer, laughing about the word ‘battle.’  Martin doesn’t want to battle with an enemy that he can’t win against.  He’s uninterested in entering into a fight which he’ll inevitably lose.  Rather, he wakes every morning and decides he will enjoy this day to the fullest extent that his body will allow.  When we greet each other in the mornings I ask, ‘Are we battling today?’  We giggle and he always replies, ‘No, we’re just going to see what the day brings and find some fun or magic if we can.’

Life carries on as normal; Martin has a constant cough, becomes puffy from steroids, but otherwise looks and feels well.  The months pass.  The treatments shrink his tumour a little; he is outliving all expectations and not only makes it to the next bluebell time but the one after that.  I begin to believe that he will live for a long, long time, and that we will stand together amongst the bluebells for a third time since his diagnosis, but the fairies are done with casting their spells on him.

The end comes at the beginning of June just as the last bluebells fade.  It comes unexpectedly, shockingly, and brutally, cheating us of the gentle hospice death that we were expecting.

I lay Martin to rest in a peaceful woodland burial ground; the fitting place for him to lie.  Not for him a quick, modern inferno; he needs to gently fade amongst the natural world that he loved.  His remains nourish a sturdy oak tree that is planted above him.  His woodland has no bluebells, but I pray that one day they will magically appear so that he can continue to take part in the enchantment for two weeks of the year.

I try hard to take the back roads alone but it’s impossible.  I regress to needing to get to my destinations and back as quickly as possible, not just because to be on the quiet roads without Martin is excruciatingly painful but also because my mild agoraphobia and introversion return within days of his death.  It’s safer to be at home, safer not to be the ‘alone’ person standing on the edge of other people’s families looking in, just as I was in my childhood.

As the years pass after Martin’s death I realise how quietly hard he worked to heal me.  I’d told him about my neglectful and abusive childhood as soon as we met.  Best to get these things out of the way immediately so that the opportunity is there for a person to run; not many people are prepared to understand and live with the methods of coping that damaged people can sometimes display, but my past didn’t faze Martin at all.  He spoke of ‘unconditional positive regard’ and overtly applied this to our relationship.  His acceptance was astonishing, but it was only when he died that I began to understand that his taking us along the back roads was a deliberate strategy to bring joy into my life.  He attempted to make every day magical in order to force me to focus on the present, to know the beauty, fun and wonder of life.  He intuitively understood what I needed.  Previously, ‘helpful’ people had urged me to get therapy, loaned me books, or bluntly told me to stop living in the past.  Martin’s method was gentle, beautiful and surreptitious.  He showed me rather than told me; I was unwittingly and automatically drawn into living in the moment.  As a healer he was instinctive and phenomenal.

Understanding how loved I was brings me some peace and strength, so after ten years of avoidance I think it’s time to thank him by finding some bluebells.

I drive out into the Maytime countryside.  The first haze of blue appears in the distance.  I feel my throat constricting with a lump of sobs.  My urge is to look straight ahead, put my foot down and get past the bluebells as quickly as possible.  I can’t be in this pain. Then I remember his gentle voice telling me so many times, ‘Oh look! Look!’, so I force myself to pull over, let down the window, gaze at the bells and breathe.

Oh Martin.  The tears are streaming down my face.  I can’t possibly get out; that would be too difficult, but I know that I’ve taken a step.

Next year I will be brave.  I know I can do it.  I will do it.  I’ll stand amongst the bluebells, listen for the fairies and drive home telling Martin all about it.

Image entitled ‘Bluebells flowering in Shaw Wood, Oakerthorpe, Derbyshire’ by Kmtextor re-used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.