Matters of the Heart
You think you know someone. Think you’ve known him your whole life. And then, one day, you find out something about him that you had never imagined. Never even thought possible. And it blows your mind.
How could it have happened? You spent so much of your life with him. When could this have happened? You always paid him so much attention. Treasured his words. Carried those words around with you. Spent countless days together. Moving between intensity and relaxation. Concentration and release. Separating for a while then coming back together again and picking up where you left off. Sometimes going back a few steps to make sure you got the best out of going forward again.
One time, you spent twenty four hours with him, locked away in a private space, never letting him out of your sight until you had both finished, together, exhausted but replete of emotions and knowledge and connection.
The space that brought you together
You understood him. Shared his values. His philosophy. His input into your life. His words had a resonance for you. A meaning without which your life would have felt empty and unrewarding. These feelings came from a deep place and they found a welcome resting place deep within you.
You knew the stories of his life. They were part of the story of your life. Sad stories, mostly. But they mattered. They helped you understand the world. Someone had gone before you, making his own mistakes. He reflected on them and gave you the chance not to make them for yourself.
He was with you in your formative years. In later times you have relied on your memories, the shared times together. What you knew and loved about him. Which was pretty much everything for some time. Nobody else knew him as well as you did. In your eyes, nobody else had a right to know him more.
And now, years since you spent your best times together, you discover something barely believable. Something that tears you apart and makes you wish you had been there in his last days, in his dying moments. Do not blame yourself. The event happened after his death. You were not there. Could not have been there. You were not the doctor. Nor the coroner. The body was not yet in the grave. It happened eighty nine years ago.
Blame it on the doctor. It seems unfair to blame the cat. Though it was the cat, if we are to believe what we have been told. And you have only heard this tale today.
The body of Thomas Hardy. Victorian novelist and poet. He thought he was more poet that novelist; you always liked his stories best. His body lay on a slab in the mortuary. Or was it the kitchen? That sounds more likely. A sad end to a sad life. A life which had a terrible beginning. The baby Thomas Hardy was believed to be stillborn, was cast aside and only attended to when he showed signs of spluttering into life. This rather set the tone.
Thomas Hardy, looking wistful. Portrait by William Strang
Such a sad outlook on life. You shared it. Hung on his every word. His words. His stories. They made sense. He was with you all those years, long after he was placed in the ground. You read and you digested and you agreed. You wrote essays saying how much. Sometimes you just sat and moped around and thought: ‘here was a man who knew how it feels to be me’. Here was someone who understood the world. How life was and is.
Millions have come to know and love his stories. Many have shared your despair. The tragedy of Tess. The grotesque, devastating tale of Jude. The astonish story of Michael Henchard, the man who sold his wife for five guineas and regretted it ever after. Becoming Mayor of Casterbridge was no consolation. The horrors suffered by Clym Yeobright, a returning native, losing his money through gambling and blaming himself for his mother’s death in devastating circumstances. There were exceptions, including happier times under the Greenwood Tree, but such times were rare.
A horrific exchange, on the way to Casterbridge
The famous Thomas Hardy. The local Dorchester boy. Too much of a celebrity to be buried in a rustic churchyard. Too much of a peasant to lie comfortably in a grand burial vault in London. It was agreed: the different worlds he shared his life with would share his remains. His corpse would go to Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. His heart would lie in St Michael’s churchyard at Stinsford. This was Hardy’s local church and where he was baptised.
Stinsford, the site of Hardy's heart
Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, the site of Hardy's remaining remains
Blame it on the doctor. Blame it on the surgeon. The one who removed Hardy’s heart. Left it on a slab next to the corpse and went for a break to have a cup of tea. On return, the heart was nowhere to be found. The cat, who never should have been allowed anywhere near the posthumous operation, was licking its lips. The heart was in the cat.
The cat wants what it wants
And this was its tasty treat
And still you chastise yourself. How could you never have heard this tale before? Did nobody ever tell you? Or if they did, were you never listening? You thought you knew this man. You were soul mates from afar, in different generations. Born centuries apart, but close in so many other ways. And yet you did not know about his heart. Did not know about the cat. You thought you knew his life history. You did not know his death history. As for the cat, there is much dispute over what happened. But you like to believe the cat was killed in an instant and dispatched unceremoniously to Stinsford churchyard, where the content of its belly found its rightful resting place after all. And thereby hangs a tale.
© Eddie Hewitt 2017