The punctures were a bit of a nuisance, simply because I dropped my crayon (for use in marking where the hole is) and couldn’t find it in the grass. So it was a bit fiddly, locating where each puncture was and then trying to remember where it was while reaching for the patches and the glue. But repair the punctures I did, and the only harm done was to my estimated time of arrival! The ‘Vicar of Dibley’ moment came when the sat nav directed me up a bumpy lane, near to a farm. There were massive puddles everywhere and at one particular point, the puddle concerned stretched right across the lane; so there was no choice but to ride straight through it. I was halfway through when my bike, and me, dropped about a foot further down, into the water, so that it covered about three quarters of my the wheels. My shoes and socks were soaked through and I was lucky that the water didn’t seep through my panniers and soak my clothes and my laptop; the bottom half of the panniers were in the puddle!
I could have ridden directly to Portsmouth from Speen, where I spent Wednesday night. But I purposely inserted a visit to Winchester into my itinerary because Julie loved the city and her favourite ever author, Jane Austen, died there and is buried in the cathedral. I could not pass close to the city on my way to Portsmouth, without paying it a visit and specifically, paying my respects to Ms Austen on behalf of Julie ... So I decided to have an overnight stop in Winchester and extend the UK leg of my ride by a day.
When I arrived at my B&B, I could see the top of Winchester cathedral from my bedroom window. I dumped my bags and decided to head straight for the city centre. First stop was a bike shop to see if I could buy a couple more inner-tubes. The answer? “No”; they didn’t have the size I need. No worries; I’ll just have to fix the punctures in the tubes that I have got and make sure that I don’t pick up any more punctures during the rest of my ride. Next stop was a fabric shop that Julie used to frequent, whenever we visited Winchester; indeed, there will be yards and yards of material bought from this particular shop, still lying in our loft at home (or rather, in Julie’s sewing & craft room). I was looking for some more fabric flowers for my bike, since the ones that I began with last week are slowly, but very surely, leaving me one by one. Then I saw the ribbon stand; in exactly the same place as it was two years ago when I remember Julie buying a union flag design, in the colours of cream and red, rather than the usual red, white and blue. I immediately forget about buying more flowers and decided to buy ribbon instead; “I’ll have two metres of lilac, two meters of green, and two metres of white, please”, I said to the woman behind the counter. The woman saw my T-shirt (containing a picture of Julie and I, and the words ‘The Julie Mountford Dawson Foundation’) and we began talking about Julie and my ride. As she put the ribbon into my hand, the woman said, “If we were allowed to carry our own money on the shop floor, I would buy this ribbon for you; Julie sounds like a lovely woman and what you are doing is amazing”. “She was”, I said, “she truly was”.
And so, to the Cathedral, where I burst into tears as soon as I stepped through the doors. I sat down and just stared ahead, and then up into the vastness of the roof space. I simply could not believe that I was there without Julie. Last time I was in that building, Julie was alive and although she had cancer, her imminent death was not something that I had genuinely considered or feared. I could not believe Julie was not there in Winchester with me in 2016; that her body now lies in the ground, just like that of Jane Austen. When we have visited the cathedral before, together, to pay our respects to Jane Austen, despite the author being dead, death itself has almost felt like an abstract concept. On Thursday, there was nothing abstract about it at all; on Thursday, today, and during whatever time I have got left on this earth, death is very, very real. Julie is dead; and I just cannot believe that fact. Not for the first time since Julie died, I lit a candle for her in a place in which she was lighting candles, in the very, very recent past, for people she loved but who were no longer with us on this earth. I lit 7 candles; one for Julie, one for her nan, one for my mum, one for all of the other people who Julie and I have known who have died, one for our pets, one for Jane Austen, and one for the loved ones of everyone in Widowed and Young.
After the cathedral, I spent a bit of time wandering around the city but couldn’t enjoy being there. I was simply hurting too much inside and I just wanted to tell passers-by, “My wife loved this city but she can’t be here with me because she is dead”. I didn’t, of course, and that just intensified the feelings, which remained until I eventually gave up on the idea of wandering around the city, and turned to the idea of a hurt cut for Spain. I went to the barbers, had a very drastic haircut and a lovely chat with the barber – whose mum had breast cancer for a number of years, but who is thankfully quite well right now – and left to the sound of Julie's voice in my head, declaring, “It’s too short!” I know it is my darling; but I am hoping for some hot and sunny weather in Spain, and I will be riding a bike and sweating a lot, you know!