Outside it rains. It's so heavy I can hear it above the waltz drifting from the radio next door. My desk is warmed by a small circle of light. The edges of the room are dark.
My head is muzzy, my limbs ache.
It's a Strauss waltz. I think of the concert broadcast from Vienna each year on New Year's Day. My mother Esme always listens. I've just spoken to her on the telephone. She is a long way away. Anna-M and the Bim are snug together at his. They were going to have one of their 'Movie Nights' - popcorn, lots of cuddles, a Disney classic.
I slept the afternoon, after they left. After breakfast, too, I had to crawl back to bed apologetically, slipping into a fitful half-sleep, trying to keep an ear open for Anna-M. Be sensible, won't you. I said weakly, ridiculously, like mothers do. Don't do anything dangerous. She pottered about, got herself dressed, stirred me only to fasten the button on her jeans, like six-year-olds do.
There are some days when you have to give in. You feel sad and alone and your limbs ache, and the skies roar, and the times when life was lived in colour feel light-years away, even though only a couple of days ago you felt that things were looking up.
When I was younger, in my Camberwell days, such evenings floored me. I hadn't lived long enough to know that everything changes. That it is possible to make everything change. That living in colour is a matter of waiting for a different lens.
I'll sleep, while I'm waiting. I don't want to feel any more tonight.
At last! I've been given something I've always wanted.
As anyone with a six-going-on-twenty-six-year old daughter will know, a mother's behaviour can sometimes go beyond the pail.
So it was for Anna-mouse the other morning, when I asked her casually if she would be cold without her cardigan.
No, Mummy, she replied dutifully.
Are you sure? I said, as I do. As I always, infuriatingly, do, having asked the question and received a perfectly good reply. Doubly, I suspect, if the question is anything to do with whether or not she is/will be/might possibly not be warm enough.
A small hurricane ensued.
MUMMY! she yelled. I'm a BIG girl now! If I say I'm sure YOU DON'T HAVE TO ASK ME AGAIN!
Honestly, I muttered to myself, I only said 'Are you sure?'.
Right! That's it! she cried, sounding so like me I couldn't help but notice, Mummy, you are getting a star chart!
Really? This I had not expected. I tried hard to sound nonchalant. What for?
But she had vanished, only to reappear several minutes later with a bright pink piece of paper marked up with fourteen irregular boxes and wording as follows:
Mummys are you sure chart
if she says are you sure see gets nothing.
Prize if mummy dosent say are you sure is a masagine
I'm doing awfully well. I haven't missed a day. Every morning Anna-m gets out her stickers and rewards me with a shimmery star or shiny butterfly, filling the little boxes in a satisfying, alternating pattern. Tomorrow I shall get another butterfly, and the day after that, if I'm lucky, a star. Anna-m is impressed.
The prize, I must say, I'm looking forward to. I love a good masagine.
It was dusk. She was coming home after a glorious yoga week in Italy. She had dropped off her daughter and was driving down the middle lane, lights on in the half-light, when she saw traffic ahead. She slowed. The huge, articulated lorry behind her did not.
She doesn't remember much of what happened next. She knows that the car was spun the wrong way into the inside lane. She opened her eyes and saw the traffic coming towards her. She remembers calling out - Don't let me be hurt! Don't let me be hurt! - and then somehow the lorry hit her car again and she was pushed off the road to land, nose-down, in the verge.
The Lithuanian lorry driver thought that she was dead. She knows this because she watched him stumble over to her, his hands covering his face. But he helped her out, and she told him she was fine, and tried to calm him down, and then the off-duty ambulance appeared, and a passing driver, and soon after the police.
She wasn't too bad when I saw her on Sunday. She was shakier today. Instinctively I touched her when she told me, touched her flesh-and-blood arm and said Oh thank God you're okay.
She isn't an old friend, but she is a very dear one, being the closest I have here in Kent Town. We began a spiritual journey together four years ago when we found ourselves the newest attenders at a Quaker meeting and discovered an instant, mutual bond. And so it was for her, really, that I made the effort to re-arrange life and childcare arrangements to attend the Peace Vigil this evening, which she had principally organised.
It was an unexpected pleasure, to sit in silence as the air grew dark around us. One long candle stood at the centre of the table, and as twilight turned to night I became aware that other, smaller candles had been placed on the wooden ledge running along the walls of the room. No-one spoke. For one whole hour fifteen people's thoughts turned themselves to the vast and open question of Peace.
I soon found that I needed to think of Peace with a small 'p'. I couldn't find any hope of making an impact unless I addressed peace as it applied to me, working with the principle that starting with the individual is not a bad approach to changing the world.
I was aware of my bruised, troubled friend two seats away, and wondered how her thoughts ran. Her words came to me again - Don't let me be hurt! Don't let me be hurt! - and it struck me how very much, recently, I have lived by them myself. How fear, not peace, has ruled my shaken heart.
The light around us shrank until there was only candlelight and a warm yellow from the streetlamps outside. Window shadows quivered on the walls.
Little by little the meeting gathered until we became our prevailing thoughts.
The Bim has got a thing about me again. I know this by a number of escalating, none-too-subtle signs.
First, I found myself the object of several longing, loving looks. Then he would come to find me in the kitchen (it's often the kitchen), put his once-welcome arms around me and give me a hug. Most alarmingly, he has even once or twice attempted to put a kiss somewhere on my face, as near to my mouth as he can get it before I turn away.
I am beginning to understand that the Bim thinks that if only I were to soften, and we had one of those conversations you see in the movies - romantic comedies, mainly, usually towards the end, after a rather nice night-time montage of the man and the woman alone in their separate houses, pacing the floors and pining at windows to a lovely saxophony soundtrack - if only we were to have our own little epiphany, we could live happily ever after.
He has dropped unmistakeable, unwieldy hints to this effect. I think that he thinks that if I made a huge effort and just decided to give it a go, all would be well. He has done his penance, he has done his time in his nice flat in a horrible place in Kent Town, and a year and a half is about long enough to have dimmed the edges of all our memories about how very, very badly we were getting along by the time the woman said 'Livvy' to me one Friday night in February and handed methe letter which would change all our lives, and it would all just make so much sense for him to move back in.
[I apologise: I always link to that bit, that bit about the woman, and the letter, and the day that changed our lives. I have a feeling that when I am able to write about it without linking it will mean that I have become extremely enlightened and qualified to write a self-help book and make inspirational podcasts].
The Bim's parents have just been over from Ireland, and I could tell that they think it would make more sense, too. They stayed at his flat, as they do now when they come (bringing a great, personal relief that I do not have to have the conversation with my mother-in-law about the best way to get my white sink white again - a discussion which never failed to make me feel woefully wanting in housekeeping prowess), but I was more involved in their visit than I have been of late. This meant that they saw much of me and the Bim in parent action; and the thought wafted clearly through the room more than once: if only he works hard enough at it, Livvy might change her mind.
The Bim understands, now, what he lost. And for understanding, I guess, he feels he deserves to have what he lost restored.
What he does not understand is that Livvy would never, ever have let him leave the family home had she not known that it was forever. She would never have put Anna-mouse through that desperate time unless she was sure. Livvy knew then the toll that the Bim's leaving would take - on Anna-mouse and on herself. Livvy did her thinking/angsting/chest-beating at the time, and in the agonising months before that, so that the woman-with-letter was merely the catalyst, not the cause, for what ensued.
But... for the record, and because I am asked the question alot, actually, by all sorts of people, as we are frequently seen together in our parenting capacity, and because we have to our credit managed to maintain an amicability which astonishes even me:
No, the Bim and I will not be 'getting back together'. Yes, I still ache to my core to know this and yes I pretend not to most of the time. No, there is no-one else in either of our lives. Yes, I know one day I'm going to have to revise the enormous distrust I have developed of the opposite sex. No, of course all men don't lie, I know that! Yes, it was as much about what I said, or did, or didn't say as it was about what the Bim said, or did, or didn't say. No, I don't like the sound of that either: it would be much easier to act the guiltless wronged than take some of the responsibility myself. Yes, I still love him. No, not like that anymore.
Yes, I'm going to have to say all this to the Bim.
She has a summer house at the end of her garden. It's where she meets her clients. It's where she meets me.
With this summer house thrown into the mix, there is no going back: this is it, this is the person I've been looking for, it is as simple as that. She and the summer house had me, so to speak, on 'hello'.
Inside the summer house happens to look and feel and even smell like my fantasy writing space. It is wooden, all wooden, and painted various neutral tones - but in shades which speak, somehow, of natural things: of grain, and oatmeal, and pebbles. There is a blanket thrown over a sofa arm, and a box of tissues placed casually on another. The ceiling rises to unpainted eaves and there is a tiny kitchen off the main, floorboarded room. The whole place smells of warm, dry wood.
You can arrive early, push open the garden gate, walk past the side of the house up the little square stone path set into the grass, to the summer house door. She will not be there until your time, but you may step inside and make the space your own in the ten minutes until she comes. You can make tea, or coffee; take a chocolate-coated biscuit from the glass jar; settle yourself on the sofa opposite the long windows with the venetian blinds, and watch, as I did today, the rain through the slats, and take a breath, take stock of the day, ready for your conversation.
Especially at this time of year the garden is lush, and green, and giving. The summer house is complementary to its setting. It neither hinders nor disturbs, but draws from its surroundings what the people who come here need. Often 'high functioning' people like myself, as she commented the first time we talked, but people who need to make a sense of where they are in their lives in order to move forward.
Because it is a dull day, she has lit the lamps before I arrive. It is marvellous, to step for a moment from the confusion into this clear, open, ready space. I bless the day my search happed upon her website. I know that there is important work to be done in this room. There is rightness in my finding myself here, and though I could despair that yet again, in the second half of my forties, I find the need to find a stranger to talk to once again, I do not. How can I? I'm sitting in the space I want to create in my own life, for different purposes but no less life-changing.
I hear a click as she emerges from the side of the house. I watch her slim, serious form move across the garden towards me through the rain.
So I'm sitting in traffic, and the ceremony starts at six. It's twenty past now, and I'm about to throw in the towel.
I'm not going to win, for God's sake, and I'm tired, and Anna-mouse is at home being looked after by the Bim until I get back, and they don't allow guests so there's no-one to witness it even if I do win a prize, and it's been another long day being pulled this way and that, and I'm feeling as I have done for months, ever since the anniversary of the Bim moving out, really, all out of joint with myself.
Also, the ceremony is being held in the University Lecture Theatre, and for some unfathomable reason the way in to every Lecture Theatre I have ever entered is via a door at the bottom of the auditorium steps. Which means that those Award Hopefuls who, unlike myself, have managed to defy traffic and real life to be there on time will witness Actress Trying To Be A Writer enter, Stage Left, thirty minutes late. And it's a Monday (I mean I ask you), and it's hot, and I'm indignant with nervy rage about the whole damn thing.
But something in me says Go: you must go, no matter what time you get there. All those blog readers don't come back to your (unchanged) page time after time for nothing. They root for you. You must believe in your writing. You must go.
So I persevere with the traffic; and the insanely timed temporary traffic lights round Kent Town; and the incomprehensible parking system once on the University Campus, and arrive finally, half an hour late, to find that the door I am directed to by some very nice lady stewards is, indeed, at the bottom of the Lecture Theatre steps.
But only a handful of faces turn my way. Most of the audience are riveted on the Guest Judge, a diminutive man with wire-brush hair and spectacles, who is about to reveal the winner and runner-up in the section for the Under 18s. It turns out that the Guest Judge is a published local writer of rather strange crime-cum-sci-fi works of whom I have never heard. But he is reading the prize-winning entries well - straightforwardly, with respect, allowing the words to speak for themselves, so it doesn't matter that I have never heard of him, or that he looks more like a member of the Council than a real live writer.
He comes then to the Over 18s, the category most of the audience have been waiting for. By this time I have been hovering for some minutes at the back because I can't locate a seat I can slip in to without upsetting several other hopefuls. One of the nice lady stewards spots my plight and asks a large man a couple of rows down if he would move along. I sit down just before the shortlist is announced.
My name is the first of, I would guess, ten. I am filled with gladness. Not a wasted journey, I think, I can hold my head up high: I've been shortlisted! Just as soon as he has finished the shortlist, he launches into the two winners, and there it is again, my name and the title of my piece, sounding so formal I barely recognise them. I am runner-up to the winner, but there's no distinction as far as I am concerned: my one thousand words, my one thousand words, of more than two hundred other writers' one thousand words, spoke eloquently enough to be noticed. My eyes fill. I look into my lap. No-one knows it is me, yet, because the Guest Judge is reading an extract from my piece, so I have a few out-of-body moments where I sit among the audience unrecognised as they listen to the words I have written, and I listen to the words I have written, and there is both a familiarity and a strangeness to them, but they do ring true and, look, they are making people laugh, and breathe differently, and exhale a little more loudly than usual at the last sentence.
The Guest Judge is asking me to come down now, down the steep steps of the Lecture Theatre, to collect my prize. A warm woman with honey-coloured hair whom I guess to be the one woman on the judging panel shakes my hand warmly and leans closer to tell me that it was a very close run thing, they could barely choose between my memoir and the winning story. I think it is wonderful of her to tell me. I hug this small, not insignificant fact to me as tightly as the framed certificate she puts into my hand. But I understand enough of writing and of competitions to know that my gentle, deft piece about Gerda, our glorious mother's help and friend to all the family, would not be considered weighty enough to sweep the board - and really and truly I don't mind. The piece spoke, I tell myself, it spoke to strangers. It's a priceless nugget of encouragement.
After the ceremony the winners are asked to stay behind for a moment. Our pictures are taken for the local newspaper who have hosted the competition in conjunction with the University. It all feels gloriously amateur. I try to strike up a conversation with little writer man who, to be fair, read my words well, but it turns out any articulacy he might have is saved for the page: I can't get him to string more than two words together, and they are charmless at that.
After the photos I grab a couple of stale crisps and an apple juice and text Fi, my dressing-room companion throughout those winter London performances who is the person more than any other in recent times who has championed my every written word. Then I telephone my father, the writer, and my mother Esme, the actress, and then I go home and tell Anna-mouse and the Bim.
So I am a runner-up. Yes, these days, I certainly am. I run up escalators, and mountainsides, and other people's opinions, and other people's lack of opinion; I run up against my demons, yes again, yet again, to hold on to me and who I am, and the stories I have waiting, and the life-long, undiminished writing dream.
I don't mind being a runner up as long as, one day, I actually arrive.
All day it niggles away at me. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with me? I ask. My heart is heavy, my thoughts are sad. And then, blinking back tears at traffic lights on my way to pick up Anna-mouse from school, I remember.
The Bim sends me a text: 8 yr ago 2day. If I knew then what I know now, I'd still go 2 that bus stop.
Would I still go? I ask myself.
I listen to his good-humoured ramblings as he stays for a cup of tea while Anna-mouse and I eat supper. Later, after he has gone, I gather her pyjama-ed body up to mine for a last cuddle before bed. Would I?
I start writing a couple of hours before my self-imposed deadline of midnight expires. I close my eyes, let my fingers type, weighing the longing to sleep with my desire to set the night in stone.
I'm freewheeling now, eyelids drooping, energies low but happily so, because this sleepiness is due (apart from the champagne and the cointreaus and last night's late night so late the foxes had begun to howl) to a most glorious evening in celebration of friendship. Six friendships, to be exact. No, eight - because one of us couldn't be there, and one of us, the one in whose name we were meeting, is dead.
Deb's dinner, this was, this reunion of souls, conceived on the long journey home from that glassy northern city on the day of her funeral. We thought we would meet in her name, that 'circle' of girls of long ago and it turned out to be a splendid thought.
Nerves were high, we arrived alone or with another and all more or less within minutes of each other.
Cafe Koha is an old, wood-panelled place in St Martin's Court. I've always loved this alley, it's an actor's dream, with its two stage doors lit by a line of white light bulbs, such as so recently framed my dressing room mirror, lighting the way for tourists and Londoners alike. And at the far end stands J. Sheekey's, inscrutable behind frosted glass. It must be one of the few restaurants in London into whose interior it is impossible to peer and is beloved by me for being the first restaurant my mother Esme was ever taken to when she first arrived in London, bobby socks and all.
We had a window table nestling in the very crook of this alley's arm. The alley lights cast flattering, slatted shadows through the wooden blinds. Cafe Koha, too, is not English, never has been in my memory (it used to be called Solanges) and our waitress was a bright young Estonian who understood early on in our five, glorious hours together that this was a special gathering, and needed to be treated as such.
We meet with screams and hugs of relief and gratitude for our being there, together by choice in the wake of our friend's death, to reconsider, renew, and reconvene the circle formed so very many years ago, not so many miles away, at our proper, independent day school for girls.
After the thrill of first gathering, we sit back and can't help but congratulate ourselves on how astonishingly good we all look.
I have to say, I posture proudly, we look bloody good for our age.
Age. An odd thing entirely. Because not only do none of us look our age (even though, when not together we all singularly, sometimes, feel it), none of us can quite encompass quite how many years have passed since we spent our days staring at the same black board.
There is something else going on too, I think. Certainly I acknowledge what I can only describe as a relief in myself to be there, whereas even ten years ago I don't think I would have contemplated such a reunion with half the gusto I did this one. But then, ten years ago all sorts of hopes were still high, all sorts of people were still alive, and we were nowhere near four score years and ten.
Last night, heightened because one of our number is no longer with us, there was a palpable awareness that we are still here, still alive, and a realisation that if we've each coped with our assorted challenges thus far, we're hardly going to fall at the next fence. It is a bolstering thought.
I find myself doing a quick mental tally. Our joint life experience is staggering - as I suspect it would be between any six friends of a certain age.
Our homes are Switzerland, Swiss Cottage, Hackney, Madrid, Kentish Town and Kent. Some of us have partners, some of us are alone. We've lived with people; lived without people; near rivers, up mountains, and close by funny little tavernas at the end of the road. In our drawers we have death certificates, and marriage certificates and medical certificates saying no, it's not too late. We have children, and don't have children and sport physical scars. We've known breast cancer and bowel cancer and suspected this-and-that disease; migraine and menopause and tumours of the brain. We've watched parents die, slip into dementia, fall over, get better, and fall over again. We like drinking, and dancing; we have sex still or abstain.
And we have, all of us, finally come into our own. Yes, there was a metaphorical heavyweight nature to our joyous conversations last night. We always did have opinions, but at last we're not afraid to speak our minds and claim them as our own. We still apologise too much, worry what people think, and fret about our weight, our hair colour, or the liver spots appearing on the backs of one or two hands, but when the chips are down, by God - by God! - I'd want one of those girls - any one of those amazing women - to be there, holding my hand.
I used to hate Valentine's Day. I used to dread it. I remember eyeing women carrying excessive bouquets, or teddy bears, or both, going home on the London tube during my trying-to-be-an-actress-temping days, and hating the vulgarity of the celebration at the same time as wishing the vulgarities could be heaped upon me. I remember walking up and down Camberwell Grove one particularly dark Valentine's Day night, the vast, leafless plane trees dripping rain, just to get out, because the street was better than being inside with the howling loneliness that assailed me.
I have never passed a comfortable Valentine's Day. Never, that is, until now. And this was surprising, given the unlikelihood of its being a cheery day, being so very near to the first anniversary of the Bim moving out. And given that, in all the years I have known the Bim, this was the first year he did not send me a card.
But this was a mark of great progress! A card would have been inappropriate. A card was inappropriate on each of those Valentine Days he proclaimed his love for me and as it turned out was placing his real feelings elsewhere. Nearer to some woman whose name began with 'S'. (They all began with 'S', indeed two of them shared the same name. I like this little, meaningless detail. It amuses me, in a not very amusing kind of way).
Even last year, only eight days after the last woman whose name begins with 'S' handed me the letter outside my house which would change my life forever (God, I sound like the soap opera I felt myself to be in at the time), even then, the Bim gave me a card. It was red and gold and not very nice (he never did get the kind of cards I liked) but it was written from the heart, full of contrition come too late. I kept it. It's in my wardrobe. Not because I felt romantic about it but because it was the closest he came in those early days to an apology and that meant something to me.
So I wondered what would happen this year. I was aware that something was going to happen, stage-managed by the Bim over several school nights in elaborate stage-whispers between himself and Anna-Mouse. I feigned nonchalant unawareness as a present was smuggled from the Bim to her one evening, and prayed that whatever it was would be given as if entirely from her. When it turned out to be so I breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and I didn't even have to wait until Valentine's Day itself to find that out, because after a heroic effort to keep her mouth shut, Anna-Mouse begged me to let her show me the present stashed underneath her bed, at the same time as swearing the said showing to secrecy from Daddy.
Therefore on the day itself I received for the second time a milk chocolate heart engraved with the words I love you Mummy xxxx and a wonderful, hand-made card (featured) wishing me a Happy Valooms Time. And, as I say, nothing from the Bim. Only I knew what self-control and not a little growing-up it took for him not to write me a card. I knew that it meant he had come really quite a long way. I knew that he understood that, however much he wanted to send me a card, no doubt repeating his sentiments of last year, it would pain me far more than please.
And this year's Valooms Time, this day of symbols, for me too marked a change. It showed me to myself in a new light. I examined my heart and found that it was not wanting. Literally not wanting. I am often sad at the turn life took this time last year, often so sad I have to weep, but I seem to be emerging intact. I did not spend February 14th longing for a man to complete me, as I have longed so often in the past.
If I am honest I know that too much of my heart is still bound up with my past promises to the Bim, and so I am waiting, simply waiting, for time and my own best thoughts to extricate those parts of myself from those potent vows. Because we have the wondrous Anna-Mouse in our lives, I know that many of them will exist as a contract between myself and the Bim forever - but in a contract between loving parents, now, not lovers.
Someone said to me soon after the Bim went Isn't it exciting, you have yet to meet your life partner! I was astonished: then, as now, I can't quite encompass that thought. I thought the Bim was my life partner. I thought that that was it. As it turns out, he is my life-friend.
Occasionally, when all is quiet, when midnight has passed and we have entered the twilight hours, I allow myself to try on the idea of a new partner for size. Unsurprisingly, I find the idea doesn't fit, that I fidget at the seams and pull at the neck for breathing space, like a child. I find, then, that I am content with waiting. To grow into the idea, or by-pass it altogether, who knows.
Do I feel lonely? No. Do I feel alone? Yes. Sometimes I feel very alone. But they are not the same things. And now that I understand that I am not ready to share myself with anyone again, possibly for a long time, I am beginning to like this waiting time. It's a clear, honest, almost translucent thing, waiting to be wholly Liv again.
I think about her all the time, my dead friend. She accompanies my days. I've been lucky: I haven't had to lose many people to wherever it is they go; not close people, not old friends like Deb. I'm told that it starts from around now. Obviously, I suppose, as I tread lightly towards my half century, others will begin to disappear.
But the line is very thin, isn't it, between the two places, between here and there? I think so. And all to be truly found out afterwards, after our passing. 'Passing' - what's that about? What an odd phrase. 'Passed away'. Away where? when Deb is sometimes so palpable I can see her, hear her crescendo laugh. It is wonderful to me, and an affirmation of life, that a person's impact crystallizes and strengthens in death. No, this may be personal to me - I fully acknowledge - but something has happened to me in losing my old friend. Something powerful and good.
For starters, I have held the life she found so sharp-edged that she had to drink to numb its edges - I have observed myself holding that life to me like a child who has gone momentarily missing and then reappears alive and well, wondering what all the fuss was about. I find I have so much yet to do, and Deb's dying has reminded me. The irony that the difference between our attitudes has turned out to be so monochrome in contrast gives me a wry laugh now and again. But thank God I actually want to be here, I have found myself muttering in a myriad of recent situations of varying difficulty, Thank God I want to be alive. Deb's story is at its saddest in that image of the mental health team seeking permission to break down her door, enter with the police, and finding her there, after who knows how many days, alone.
Wanting to be alive, versus not. There's not much hope of improvement, is there, if this most basic premise can't be met. It hurts my heart that Deb, of all of us the girl with perhaps the most energy in those early years, grew to want to die more than she wanted to live. They didn't mince words, the last time she came out of hospital. She knew that if she carried on drinking she would die. She told me that the urbane consultant, the one who recognised how intelligent she was and told her things straight, had told her so.
So, there has been a change in me. It is a positive happening; an opening; a relaxation; an acceptance of the highest order. It is causing me to reassess and re-group, and I am not the only one: the circle of friends so close in those crucial teenage years, to which Deb most centrally belonged, is back in touch again. The air waves are humming with emails, texts, phone calls and new laughter. It is as if we have sloughed off our previous, too-busy, too-preoccupied selves, paused to wonder at what we all lost in losing each other, and have each in our separate ways (and in some cases separate countries) emerged ready to meet each other again, on equal ground. A dinner in Deb's honour is planned.
Anna-mouse has just stirred: her usual, midnight rising to the surface.
Muuummmy!she calls out impatiently. What are you doing?
I slip from where I type across the landing to her room. She is already heavy with sleep again.
A Wednesday evening, ten days ago. On leaving the theatre after the show, my mobile showed one new message, so I called the voicemail and listened, standing there in the wet.
When I heard Deb's sister's voice I knew that I was about to be told something very bad.
My better self told me to go back to the theatre. Don't hear the news here, it told me, with London roaring and no-one to care. So I hurried back there, so fast my fellow actors were where I'd left them, drinking in the bar; smoking and chatting in the street.
I think I'm about to get some bad news, I said to the chatters outside, one of whom was the dear young woman with whom I share a dressing-room, Fi.
I'm here, Fi said, if you need me.
I went into the foyer and steadied myself at a high, stool-less table. I looked up into the canopy of fairy lights strung across the skylight ceiling.
Please let her be in hospital, I whispered. Please don't let her be dead.
Deb and I met at school, more than thirty years ago: a traditional, independent girls’ day school in the heart of London. For a few years she was my best friend.
We were bright, excitable, intelligent girls full of giggles and hope. Life was exciting and romantic and there for our taking. We shared a tremendous camaraderie and had nigh on impossible dreams. Our energy must have been marvellous.
Deb was funny, very funny, with a loud and wonderful ascending laugh which made others laugh with her. She was popular, brimming with life and excelled at sport and accademia alike. In fact, there was little to which she could not turn her buzzing brain (although, like me, she was confounded by Mathematics). In many ways she was an idealist, for whom the world’s suffering was a source of great bewilderment and distress. She wanted to know why, and asked many questions. There was a fearlessness about her, too: she was unafraid to show her emotions, or to speak out on behalf of others.
But somehow this bright, bright brain tripped over itself in her twenties, and she never ever really recovered. Who knows why this may be so? You could drive yourself mad wondering 'why?', I've discovered. The disturbance led to strange behaviour, and the strange behaviour led her to come to London one day, with little idea of who she was or what she was doing, and this little idea led to her parents coming and getting her, and putting her into a mental hospital.
If ever there was a defining moment in a person's life, that was it. She never forgave them.
The doctors called her schizophrenic and she was given pills. She met a man in hospital who was charismatic and kind, and lived with him for a while when they came back into the world. But he, like her parents, tried to tell her what to do, and she was having none of it. The glass of wine she'd always used to steady her flighty nerves became a bottle, and the bottle became spirits, and the family despaired, as she despaired of them.
They set her up in a little house in the northern city where they had their home. They needed to 'stabilise' her, they said. The rest of the family thrived, her sister and brother married and had children. Deb felt herself become a black sheep of a particularly dark hue.
About ten years ago she got back in touch with me. I knew her history, and was wary. I'd been holding her at arm's length for years. And then one day something cleared for me in my head, and somehow my heart expanded a little, and I knew that I wanted this old, old friend to have a place in my life.
We began to speak regularly, or sent messages by text. She was a fantastically good, loyal and undemanding friend. She wanted simply to hear my voice, talk about the old days, rake over what had happened; feel connection; feel love. The simple things for which we all crave.
Her drinking worsened. I fell into the habit of answering my mobile, always, if 'DEB CALLING' came up on the screen. At my worst times with the Bim she was the one friend to whom I always tried to respond and lend support. I knew that she was not okay.
She began to go in and out of hospital. They had to drain her stomach of fluid. She compared herself to George Best: she drank in those proportions. She would sit in her little house, in her chair, with her litre of vodka and her carton of orange juice, and mull the days away. Sometimes, she told me, she would hibernate by day and drag herself up only when it became dark. Oh Deb, I would say, Oh Deb... remembering her strong calves, and how she used to run like the wind.
But even at her very darkest moments, she never lost her quintessential 'Deb-ness'. Her humour may have become black but it was there nonetheless, and very funny. She was self-deprecating and grim about the situation in which she found herself, but that didn’t stop us giggling about it. The laugh still rang.
A few months ago her beloved American grandmother died, and because of her state she was unable to go to the funeral. She rang me, distraught. You will come to my funeral, Liv, won't you? she said, over and over, You will come to my funeral? I promised her that I would.
A little while later, when I learned that she had been in hospital again, I asked a promise of her.
Ask your sister to 'phone me, I said, if you ever go in again. She understood that I was asking to see her one last time, if she thought she might not make it, and, a little to my surprise, she agreed.
That's how, when I heard her sister's voice, I knew the news must be bad.
I think you have some distressing news for me, I said.
I don't think Deb's sister had told anyone else, because she was struggling to form the phrase. She tried two or three times to sound the words.
Well, Deb died at home... she said at last.
Oh no... I said, as I began to cry. Can you tell me what happened?
She died at home. She died alone. It took possibly several days for anyone to find her.
I pause as I type. I seem to look up again into that fairy-lit canopy of stars, seem to be once again inside that single moment of knowing which has so keenly defined life for the last ten days.
I kept my promise. I went to Deb's funeral. It took some doing, with a show that night and the northern city many miles away, but I kept it. I even wrote a speech, and read it to the grieving, congregated souls. Someone said it was the best eulogy they had ever heard. I stumbled mid-way through, delivered a few lines in tears, then pulled myself together and got the end out clearly. There was no way I wasn't going to get to the end.
You will be at my funeral, Liv, won't you?.
They printed her picture in the Order of Service and I've put it by me in the dressing room. What is she, fourteen, fifteen? Blue, blue eyes. A gentle, lively, hopeful smile.
I married a Big Irish Man (the Bim) in 2003. Our most beautiful daughter (Anna-mouse) was born in 2004. The Bim moved out in March 2009. I write, I teach, I act. I have no idea who I'm going to be now.
Luckily, given the overwhelming number of reasons to go for something stronger in the last couple of years, blogging continues to be my drug of choice.