I’ve always enjoyed going to Le Chandelier, a cafe in East Dulwich, where everything you see and touch is graced with a gentle beauty – velvet cushions, chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the flower displays and the large bench full of cakes.
I often went there to read, write or just sit and watch and think after a pilates or ballet sculpt class on Saturdays. I would perch myself in one of my favourite armchairs and the hours would just slip by.
Mark said he thought of it as my place, a place I met my women friends, although he did sometimes drop in and see me and would occasionally place himself at one of the outside tables and drink his coffee and smoke. I loved the times I met him there, the frisson of recognition when he waved to me from his perch, the kisses, the chat, the hand holding, the goodbyes if he was heading to Reggie’s. But it did feel like it was my place, where I could go to to recover when I was tired, where I could take a novel to read, or write in my notebook. And it felt like there was still a place for me there still when I went back just before Christmas, this time to talk about holding a small gathering for Mark’s friends.
The idea was inspired by an Iranian friend, Haleh, who told me that in Iran – and it’s the case in other cultures – mourning together doesn’t just end with the funeral, and that after 40 days, there would be a gathering, a time to remember the loved one. It happened that 40 days of mourning took me to Christmas day, a time of excruciating painfulness – within the context of overall kindness and tenderness of friends. I hadn’t quite anticipated how painful it would be. Looking back, perhaps there was s shift of some kind after that 40-day period. But having survived Christmas, New Year and my birthday, all within a 12-day period, when 9 January came round, I wondered if I’d done the right thing by arranging a gathering of ‘Mark’s people’.
But it proved to be a really good thing to do, for which I have not only the wisdom of Iranian and Greek cultures and their mourning rituals to thank, but also Daphne, the owner of Le Chandelier.
Daphne was warm and kind and understanding when I told her what I was planning to do. When she explained her ethos for the cafe, the idea of creating a nurturing, a place for the senses, I knew not only why I liked going there, but also that it was the right place for the event. I was touched when she said she had worried about moving my favourite chair and when I told her I was a talker, and had no difficulty whatsoever talking about what I was feeling, she said she mostly saw me as someone who sat quietly, reading writing or taking it all in.
Understanding that my brain was shot to pieces, that my ability to function was limited, Daphne said she would draw up the menu, and listed the warming, comforting food that would be on it, including pomegranates in the jewelled rice and pistachios.
Another of the things that Haleh told me was that it’s customary that others cook for the bereaved, and that they are not given large meals, but small portions and sweet foods often. It was her telling me that, I told Daphne, that helped me decide that yes, it was OK for me to eat Madeleines for lunch if that’s all I could manage – and often it was. We duly decided that the menu would include madeleines, to which Daphne added macaroons on the day. She also presented me with a bag of madeleines to take away when I left.
Despite my reservations, when I got there, it immediately felt profoundly right. The mezzanine room where we were was small and cosy, wrapping itself around you with smooth plastered walls that some people couldn’t stop touching. It was a time to remember Mark, and it was good to be with the people who loved him – grief can be very isolating. It wasn’t a repeat of the funeral, it was more gentle, which was necessary at a time when grief had, for many of us, become a slow painful grind rather than the shocked euphoria we had felt in the early days. We ate warming tagines, spiced with cumin and coriander, we ate madeleines and sweet, sweet macaroons.
In my home, as well as always having flowers if I can, I want to keep a supply of pistachios – and whenever I eat them I will remember the importance of creating space for the events in our lives – even the ones that are full of pain.