Sunday, January 24, 2010

Old Friend

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. 

It comforts me.


Shiny said...

What a sad story. But beautiful in an unexpected way and an inexpicable one. I guess it's the way you write. From someone you don't know at all, who passed through here, I send love to you. To her too, wherever she is now.

Shiny x

Debbie said...

Oh Livvy, I am so sorry for your loss. What else can I say? I am just so sorry. I hope you continue to find comfort in her smile and the memories you made together.

Shiny said...

I only realised that after I'd commented and carried on reading. Serendipitous I think to have stumbled in as you returned to writing x

Anonymous said...

Exactly the same thing happened to a girl I was at school with. All potential and opportunity, but mental illness, family confusion and (in her case) a combination of drink and drugs has left her dead at 30. She too died alone and wasn't found for a few days. Incredibly sad. But how lucky Debs was to have you in her life.

nuttycow said...

Livvy -

I'm very sorry to hear of Debs' death. It must be difficult for you that you couldn't be with her at the end as you wanted.

Keep those good-time memories at the forefront of your mind.

rachel whetzel said...

Oh, Liv. I'm so sorry for your loss. I wish I could say so in person. It's clear you and she had a special bond. Even in her death.

Ladybird World Mother said...

Here from Mud's blog... so sorry for the loss of your friend. I lost a friend last autumn... he went the same sort of way as Deb. At the funeral another friend passed around to all of us friends some wonderful pictures of Pete... and I have them on my kitchen cupboard. Silly pictures of him on the beach in some totally silly clothes. Cheers me.
So glad you got to her funeral. And well done for speaking, even through your tears. What a mate you are. x