This is a story about handmade soap.

This is a story about a whole lot of other things, but let’s begin with the soap. I received a parcel in the post today, a heavy box filled with little parcels in butterfly-printed tissue paper. Inside were chocolates and a romance novel and temporary tattoos, and nestled amongst them were a shampoo bar and a bar of soap. These were made by a dear friend of mine, who is going through a time of personal horror, who nonetheless took the time not only to make these things for me but to then parcel them up and send them to me for Valentine’s Day, because she wanted me to know I am not alone.

Soap bubbles. Photo by Matthew Tkocz on Unsplash

Yesterday morning, a dear friend left my house after spending a quick couple of days here, having flown down from Scotland just to be with me on a wet February weekend, to eat takeaways and cuddle my daughter and make crafts on my kitchen table, and to be able to talk at a distance of a hands-breadth instead of over a phone.

Last week, yet another friend, one who lives nearby, cycled through the dark to hang out with my daughter for a couple of hours while I had an important meeting, and who didn’t mind that we only had time for a couple of minutes of snatched adult conversation amidst six year old chatter and eating dinner and getting the kiddo swept up for bed. Seemed to do it, in fact, with genuine affection for my daughter as well as for myself.

As I run the gauntlet of grim little anniversaries in the run up to the first anniversary of Kieran’s death, I have felt worn thin. I had a horrible cold last week and have just been pinged as a close contact for covid, so now will be testing every day this week. In recent weeks my jaw has got tighter and tighter until at last I could feel the ache in my cheeks, and my background tinnitus (left behind from a terrible ear infection four years ago) has raised in volume in ways I’ve sometimes found distressing. Yesterday I paid to see an osteopath and he said that I’ve been living with stress trauma for so long it has set all my nerves to high alert, so any wisp of smoke can trigger an alarm. What he wants to do is coax my head and neck back into a normal state of alertness, so that not everything has the ability to set off a clanging alarm.

It’s been very easy in this tired out time to think about the ways in which I am alone. I told my therapist today that I don’t feel especially lonely; that I miss Kieran, but that I have always been satisfied by being myself alone. I know I am fortunate in that. But there is still so very much I must carry by myself now, and it’s tiring. God, it’s tiring. Have you written much lately, my therapist asked, and I said – not for a while. I’m tired.

But my friend’s parcel arrived today, and in the gossamer-fineness of butterfly paper and the scent of lavender I found I wanted to write: about what a gift it is to be seen, and seen truly. By friends who will find space in their hearts in the midst of their own trauma to think of me; by friends who can see me and my home as they are, without special preparations or with me wearing my social face, the one that I turn out easily for seminars and meetings and parties and which isn’t false, not a bit of it — but is another layer between me and other people. I like being that person a good deal of the time, but I need to be another self too, one without a tissue-paper layer of make up and smart remarks, one where it’s enough to rest our hands together on the same table and watch steam curling from our tea.

I wasn’t an unhappy child or teenager, particularly, but I was always longing. Mostly for connection; to feel seen. With Kieran’s death it would be easy to think I’ve lost that, and it’s true no one will ever see me quite the way he did. My best friend is dead, and he’s never coming back. But I am seen, into the sinews and guts of myself, and I am loved for who I am. What an extraordinary thing. Thank you.

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