Parked up on a cliff edge in East Lothian, gusts of wind rocking my car, I waited for my friend and his two dogs to arrive. Our Sunday morning plan: breakfast followed by a walk. I stared out onto the bruised blue of the North Sea, looked upon the vast nearness of the Bass Rock (a giant tombstone abandoned for winter by the gannets), then gazed upwards to the furrowed clouds in the shape of inverted lazy beds, as if the Gods had tilled the sky. I watched the last of the dawn slip away, pink stripes of a spun-sugar morning all drained to white. East of Edinburgh, this little edge feels flat and reaching. The sea, the land, the high wash of colour in the sky, all of it blank and vast, a place for the mind and body to settle. I found the scraped-back bareness of winter, the understated clean, angular lines between sky and sea and cliff, austerely beautiful. My friend arrived, and, after mushrooms, eggs, and coffee, we took the steep path down through scraggy buckthorn to a sheltered cove where we threw sticks for the dogs and talked as we walked to a soundtrack of oystercatchers crying out some urgent appeal by the low-tide mark. The rockpools were still and clear, filled with delicate algae that could have been vast rain forests in miniature. The bladderwrack looked like trees, and thick clumps of something small, purple, and feathery (carrageen? I don’t know) were a thicket of bushes. I told him it was an underwater Hobbit world. On we clambered, over rocks and around the coast, hugging the golf course, counting a line of canoeists paddling west towards North Berwick. Further out to sea, gulls followed a fishing boat, a microlight buzzed overhead, and I threw another stick for the dog, deciding that all of us – people, nature, wildlife – were held under the safe cloche of a softly domed sky. In some ways, everything about the morning was ordinary; in other ways, everything about it – not least my precious friend’s company – was extraordinary, especially when one decides to appreciate the remarkable moments of the everyday.
I had returned at the car, was half-sitting in the boot changing my walking shoes for runners, when the call came relaying sad, sad news from home. A good friend’s brother had died suddenly. And with that, the sky fell in. That terrifying feeling of loss came flooding back to me, the shattering silence of shock that takes root in the pause of processing bad news. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, wrote: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”
I cry, breathe, cry. I think of all those close to him: his family, his daughters, his vast network of friends – all those people who have woken up to a day where the sky has fallen in, all those people who will live out their grief in quiet, ordinary days waiting for that restlessness, that yawning sorrow, to slowly subside. But not yet. Not for a long time yet. Today we will see him off.
Rest in peace, Jon O’Hara: 1974-2022.