In March ’74 my best-mate-at-school took me along to the Youth Theatre. She’d joined a couple of months previously and had already given the world her Elderly Clerk. Later that summer, she and I would sweep the boards with our masterful First and Second Attendants to the Lady Olivia. But such delights were but pipe-dreams as I followed her into the rented school-hall that Friday evening.
The hall is bustling with teenagers and twenty-somethings. Technical types are in one corner, jangling keys and talking about wood. The actory types are about to start an improvisation game, organised by a couple of members who are also drama students at the local teacher training college. One, Sue, has long, dark permed hair and a maxi skirt which I envy. I love maxi-skirts but Ma claims they would make me look like a witch. The other student, a chap, is wearing purple flares and a black polo neck jumper, the epitome of cool. He also has long permed hair, lots of it.
Much, much later we come across the children, helpless with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” we ask. They point to a fading Instamatic photo.
“Daddy with hair!” they howl.
So that’s how I met Sue. There’s no time today to give you more than a flavour of our twenty-seven year friendship. We are sitting under a piano at a party, drinking vodka, smoking Disque Bleu (sorry, Ma), listening to Suffragette City and loudly discussing Tom Stoppard. We storm out of a pub in fury and – as no-one has noticed – creep back to storm out again. She and Frish are holding a New Year’s Eve party. Only ActorLaddie and I are there yet and we all smooch to Only You, having seen The Flying Pickets together the week before. Weddings and holidays. They are Aunty Sue and Uncle Frisha, adored by our kids. Rock pooling in France. Saturday night board games. Following the line of torches through a drizzling Epping Forest to the top of Pole Hill, Millennium Eve; Sue holding the champagne, me the sparklers. Cancer. Hospital visits.
We’d had a couple of false alarms; rushing up to the London Clinic to find that she’d rallied. But when Frish called us that Friday night, he was pretty certain this was the end. Sue had stayed childless, so as to not pass on the Cystic Fibrosis gene which had killed her brother. So round her bed that night were Frish, her parents and us.
I simply don’t have the skills to describe the atmosphere in the room as we kept vigil, taking turns to snooze and to hold her hand. Any attempt sounds like a Disney song. Adjectives will have to do. Palpable. Powerful. Helpless. Inevitable. And, strangely, Familiar.
Familiar in that, at a certain point in the evening I caught ActorLaddie’s gaze and it seemed strongly to me that we had done this before. I knew this feeling, I knew that shared look, and I couldn’t work out how or when.
Only a couple of days later, in the quiet of a Quaker Meeting, I pinpointed when ActorLaddie and I had exchanged exactly the same look. It was when I was having YoungLochinvar; twenty-something hours into a very difficult labour. The anaesthetist had just tried and failed to put in an epidural. ActorLaddie and I could only look at each other, completely helpless.
In my beginning is my end, as the poet said.
The reason for this less-than-chipper blog is that GrannieBorders is slipping away from us. Just short of ninety, her body seems to have decided that it has fought for long enough and is gradually coming to rest. ActorLaddie has so far managed to keep her out of hospital – no mean feat, I can assure you – so she is in her own bed, amid her furniture and photos, in a lovely light room. She can see into the garden. She is being cared for by staff who have appreciated her gentle, uncomplaining warmth and are repaying in kind. We’ll be going up there shortly to sit with her; ActorLaddie’s brother will come over this afternoon.
Everything else in life – house-viewing, YoungLochinvar moving out yesterday, work and all the rest – is just detail. If there are no blogs for a wee while, you’ll know why.