My Peter

Peter’s wife, Robin McKinley, gave this moving tribute at his memorial in January 2016. This text was first published on Robin’s blog.

Peter’s first romantic fiancé’s gift to me was a pair of secateurs. This was about four hours after he’d said ‘just because you’re taking me on doesn’t mean you have to take gardening on.’ I was in England seeing what I was getting myself into. Peter and I had had an unexpectedly life-altering weekend in Maine about a fortnight before; we knew each other slightly through the book world, I’d visited him at home once when Mary Rose was still alive, he was merely returning the favour. But a week after we parted, feeling dazed and saying to each other, ‘it would never work, we are separated by age, culture, background, about 3000 miles and a national boundary,’ my phone rang at 7 am and I knew who it was and what he was going to say: ‘if we don’t give it a try we’ll regret it the rest of our lives.’ He had an idea that we could commute; I wanted to settle down somewhere with him, and I was the Navy brat, used to moving on. I emigrated.

Peter and Robin’s wedding

Writing was the thing for both of us of course. He was an early riser and he’d be at his desk staring intensely at the page curling out of his typewriter or, eventually, the screen of his computer, by the time I staggered past him clutching a cup of strong tea, to go to my desk. In good weather both breakfast and lunch were in the garden, 7:30 and 12:30 sharp—one of his nicknames was Time Lord—tea followed at precisely 4:30 and supper at 7:30. He did most of the cooking; my right to make our bread half the time was hard-won. Over breakfast he did The Guardian cryptic crossword and lunch and dinner were followed by one of his complex versions of patience; if he started getting some pattern out too often he changed the rules. Mornings were at his desk; after lunch was in the garden—if it was raining he would declare ‘it’s not wet rain’ and go out anyway.

Peter with scythe

That garden. It was a little over two acres and an insane amount of it was labour-intensive flowerbeds. Visiting friends and family were shamelessly put to work. There was some wild, for nettles and butterflies, some lawn, for grandchildren to play on (although heaven help any grandchild whose ball landed in a flowerbed), and a vegetable garden beyond the old stables. A lot of it was flowerbeds, especially the walled kitchen garden: people walking into it for the first time in high summer went ‘oooooh.’ The Bramdean village fete was held there for years; Peter started opening on the National Garden Scheme with Mary Rose and carried on into my era. He was in his element on open days, holding forth about gardening, Latin nomenclature and plants, especially clematis, although he had many favourites, especially the weird and wonderful. I usually hid in the shrubbery with a bucket and trowel, although Peter extracted me occasionally to talk to someone about roses. He’d been slightly querulous when my rose mania burst out of the beds he’d assigned to it but since it made me a willing victim, I mean partner, in the whole gardening epic he adapted. He took wholeheartedly to having several whippets underfoot (who were rigorously trained to stay out of flowerbeds).

Peter, Robin and dogs

We lived in the old family house thirteen years after I married him. Peter started feeling his age in his 70s, and the DIY necessary to keep up a nine-bedroom-plus-outbuildings country house, even a ramshackle one, began to escape him. We moved to a nearby town almost twelve years ago, where Peter redesigned and replanted two more gardens, even if they were small urban gardens, including digging a pond for water lilies, newts and a fountain after he turned 80. Living there also meant he was walking distance of one of his bridge clubs; we were out two, three, four evenings a week, I bell-ringing and he playing bridge. There were still good times, but he’d stopped writing; ‘the well is dry’, he said.

How do I tell you about twenty-three years with Peter in six minutes? He was scarily intelligent and terrifyingly erudite; he knew a profligate profusion of poetry off by heart, and once when I was driving back to Blue Hill from Bangor, Maine after a late night flight from England in the winter, a treacherous trip that took over an hour, he kept me awake reciting poetry non-stop and without hesitation or repeat. He began with ‘Let me not to a marriage of true minds admit impediment’. He loved my books maybe even as much as I loved his, and believed in me and my writing without any edge or restraint; he never made me feel in any way less than him, despite being twenty-five years younger, and indeed after several years in his company I found I remembered the 1940’s well. (I was born in 1952.) But he was also not so much stubborn as monolithic: his way was the only way about many, many things and if you disagreed you were merely bowled over. He had kept four children quiet in the back seat of the car by telling stories; he now told stories to me and the whippets as we tramped across the glorious, if frequently muddy, Hampshire countryside. I called him the plot factory, and several of my stories spring from Peter’s ideas. I have a few in my notebooks that I’m still hoping to write, if I can stop crying long enough.

He was adorable and maddening in about equal proportions. I assume I’ll get used to his absence; most people do eventually adjust to loss and grief. But I’ll remember him every day for the rest of my life, even if I knock Methuselah out of the top spot.