Memories of flower and bird and wind and world, and all the living and all the dead.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Cousin J was fourteen when I was born. She had an older sister, elegant, witty, clever and very grown up. But J didn’t yet have that scary, sophisticated edge. She had plaits instead. I loved the plaits and would try to twist my crop into what I thought was plaiting. When I was six, we went on holiday and she came too. Her fingers must have been out of their sockets by the end of our holiday since I hung onto them all the time. Then she came back from college a teacher. Miss H while I turned into a repellent teenager without her grace and kindness. She developed a talent for teaching children with special needs. ESN as they were called then. Or backward, or retarded, or thick. She found the little special things that opened the doors in their lives. Caring for her own mother, she spent a huge amount of her time looking out for mine as well. A patient and loving daughter and niece. Both of our mothers are gone and we are still good friends. When I’m There, we spend ages together. I never did have plaits, but thanks to my cousin, I did inflict them on Madette.
Thirty-eight years ago, I arrived at university, wide-eyed and innocent. Dumb and clueless, if you like. My parents dropped me off and I stood at the entrance to the Hall and wondered what to do with my evening. Standing there, suddenly feeling not very grown-up, I looked briefly into my future and saw the next three years as lonely, friendless and very studious. Bugger that, I thought. I had met a girl briefly at an open day and discovered that we were going to be on the same floor. Remembering that she was petite and blonde, I set off to find her. There were only a thousand other freshers so needle and haystack comes to mind. Remarkably, I found her. We had a fabulous three years and stayed close friends after we each married but when Madette was born, we drifted apart and suddenly we hadn’t seen each other for half a dozen years and she was in Egypt with a little girl. We descended into Christmas card exchanges with a one year lag between our news. She rang me up one evening but I was in the middle of Madette and Junior Mad bedtime and didn’t ring back. Her Christmas letter told me that her father had died. She had worshipped her Poppa. I wrote but she didn’t write back. Serves me right for not calling her. In 2000, she sent me a Christmas card with a photograph of her daughter, then eleven. Looking at the picture, I realised I had never seen that child. Heart in my mouth, I picked up the phone and called her. “Hi, it’s Mad. Don’t hang up.” She didn’t. We haven’t.
In 1974, I started work in London. In those far-off days, you could live in a private hostel when you started work while you made some friends and found a place to live. If you were under twenty-one, you could have a bed in a dormitory and if you were over twenty-five, you had to have a single room. Falling in the gap, I was given a shared room with a girl I had never met before. After initial awkwardness on the first evening, we started to chat. I think we dropped off to sleep at about three am. I’m a proud god-mother to her son. She and her husband were the only non-family visitors to see Madette in the Special Care Baby Unit. In 1987 we were flooded out. While her husband baled, she took the children and gave them beds. Calm, gentle and re-assuring, she’s given me all the support I needed without asking questions. Thirty-five years on, we live five minutes apart. The nicest Sundays are spent with her and the family, dog-walking.
Spring 1983, was lovely. Junior Mad was due in September and Madette was a delicious little savage. One weekend, I watched two remarkably good-looking young guys moving into the house four doors away. Shame, I thought. Two fabulous looking blokes. What a waste. They toiled all weekend. At the end of the Sunday, a vast pregnant lady billowed up the path. She was married to the older of the two guys. The other one was his brother. The next day, I knocked on the door and introduced myself, Madette and the Junior Mad bump. Our sons were born a few months apart. She is tougher than almost anyone I know and gives her time and love without reserve. Whether it’s Childline, or the growing menagerie of rescue creatures, she’s always there. When you’re with her, you can’t help smiling. Seeing in the New Year is always outrageous. Somehow, while faintly plastered, I agreed to join her on one of her “things to do before you’re fifty”. A tattoo. A bloody tattoo! Mind, we haven’t done it yet … Life’s not fair, is it? She’s a widow.
When Junior Mad was a baby, I went to my one and only National Childbirth Trust coffee morning. It was full of Yummy Mummies with their delightful Laura Ashley and Osh Kosh dressed tots. And then the Stepford Wives chatter started: what did our husbands do? I sat there feeling my teeth dissolving with the acid reply that was bursting to spew out of my mouth. I met the eye of another mother. Red-and-gold-woman is a clever clogs of the highest order and is blessed with the kind of intellect that attracts rather than repels. She is an encyclopedia of interesting stuff, radiating energy and enthusiasm. A wonderful, generous hostess, she also brings a lovely level of chaos into the lives of her friends. She conned us into travelling to Eurodisney on a coach trip together shortly after it opened. Her husband had declared that he would not go. So she persuaded him that it would be a great hoot for the two families. Reluctantly, he caved in. The travel company was about to go bust, the drivers had never left the UK before, the bus (luxury charabanc, huh!) likewise and we had to have a whip round to get enough petrol for the return journey. We loved every minute of it. R&GW sat with me at my mother’s bedside before she died, understanding the terrible course of my mother’s last days. And next weekend, she will be visiting me There and we’ll walk, and read, and visit beautiful gardens. And enjoy a small glass of wine.
In 1990, we had a nanny who was stealing. I sacked the thieving trollop and we had a lovely temp for a month while I found a new permanent nanny. Just as the new nanny was about to start work, something came up in her personal life and we were back in the soup again. Our temp came back for a week but by now we were desperate. Providing she didn’t actually have a criminal record, we’d have taken anyone. The agency came up with someone who, they implied, was a bit out of our league. She had worked as a rather posh nanny but now that she was married, she didn’t want a live-in post and it was hard to find a role for her rather superior skill-set. Gulp. This remarkable, Juno-like creature arrived. She towered over me. But then everyone does. A no-nonsense, officer's lady. She scared the crap out of my husband and most of my neighbours. Madette and Junior Mad adored her. Like Junior Mad, she’s dyslexic and her formidable talents have been channelled into beautiful crafts and cookery. At Christmas, she asked if I would like a gingerbread house. I duly handed over some wonga and came home to find that she and the children had made this beautiful house, dripping with snowy icing. When I came home the next day, it had gone. She just knew that I would have wanted to give it to the local Children’s Centre. However, if I handed over the same amount of wonga, she’d make another one. Ever stupid, I handed over a fresh lump of cash and, the next day, there was another one sitting on the dresser. You just know where this is going, don’t you? When I came home from work the following day, she’d handed that one over to another charity. My revenge is that I am god-mother to her daughter. You wait, Juno.
I always felt that the great high privilege, relief and comfort of friendship, was that one had to explain nothing. Katherine Masefield