Saying Goodbye to Glenda

Submitted by Deborah Mercer to Contest #6 in response to: Write a story about friends taking a road trip they've been planning for years.... view prompt

SAYING GOODBYE TO GLENDA

We set off far earlier than we needed to, especially as we had agreed to spread the journey over a couple of days. I’m not sure why. Perhaps you just do. Perhaps journeys like that don’t have their proper significance and go through their proper rituals unless they are started at a time when most people aren’t awake (though probably far more are than you imagined). 

    We rose and drank mugs of coffee while they were far too hot with no real need for such haste while we half-watched the ritual of the streetlights, extinguished at midnight, briefly coming on again at 6 in the morning, illuminating the pools of rain that had fallen overnight, before going off again as dawn broke. There was a tantalising hint of it being one of those glorious September days, but the pink and tangerine glowing in the residue of the rain between the roof-gables of the house opposite soon darkened and lightened to leaden grey. Maybe it was more appropriate.

    Ginny and I had been friends for decades, but had also lived apart (sometimes hundreds of miles apart) for years. We had never planned to end up house-sharing, and though we got on well, it was only meant to be a temporary arrangement, that had so far lasted almost a year. We knew it would end soon, and amicably.  Ginny was moving in with her “significant other” Paul. But Paul wasn’t coming with us. We didn’t ask him, and he wouldn’t have thanked us if we had.

    It sounds odd to use the word “glad” when talking about someone’s death, but we were glad it worked out that we were still living together when we learnt that Glenda Godwin had died. We also knew that we had to go to her funeral, although we hadn’t seen her for years, and for someone who wrote so beautifully she had never been a great letter-writer, who had become computer-literate late in life but regarded emails, for the most part, as bothersome.

    We said the things you are supposed to say on hearing such news, that either she had had a good innings or it was such a shock, she seemed immortal. The former was true, I suppose. She was in her nineties. But we had already been warned by Molly, another former lecturer we were in touch with (and now in her seventies herself) that Glenda’s health was fading. She’d never have wanted to make 100 just for the sake of it. 

    Somehow we had always known we would be taking this journey together, sooner or later. We hardly ever spoke of it, but we knew. We might have hesitated to say we had planned for it, but we were ready.

    We had decided to use my car, as it was slightly bigger, though it was older. I am incapable of making any journey of more than an afternoon’s duration without acting as if preparing for the siege of Leningrad, and Ginny, who was one of life’s light travellers, went through the old routines of teasing. She had teased me the first time she saw my room in the hall of residence where we both resided in our first year at university. “Could you fit anything else in here if you tried?” she asked. “I take that as a challenge,” I informed her, and we both laughed, and our quirky, enduring friendship was formed.

    We knew about Glenda (whom we still thought of deferentially  as Dr Godwin) then, of course, but it wasn’t until our second year that we became members of the Glenda Gang – a term which she abhorred but endured with one of her “it really doesn’t matter that much” dismissive half-grimaces. She was quite an ordinary looking woman – below average height, a little dumpy, with grey hair she never attempted to colour, and an attachment to sensible shoes. She wasn’t quite mannish, but nobody would ever have described her as feminine. Those who were already “in the gang” warned those who aspired to be that she didn’t suffer fools gladly, called a spade a bloody shovel, and could spot a grammatical error at a hundred yards with one eye closed. She had also, more or less single-handedly, kept the Medieval Studies department open and managed to convince the powers that be that it was an essential part of a modern campus university’s Humanities programme. 

    “I’d never have thought I was into that kind of stuff,” Ginny said, as we set off from the seaside town at the southern edge of Suffolk, heading on our long journey northwards and westwards to where Glenda had made her home in Scotland. 

    “I don’t think any of us did, not really.” I had read some Marion Zimmer Bradley and historical novels about medieval monarchs and the like, but it had never struck me as an academic discipline that especially fascinated me.

    “And if we did, she soon knocked the woollier notions out of our heads!” 

    It wasn’t that Glenda had any especial objections on principle to such things – and indeed, she had her own attachment to the Asterisk saga, complete with a ceramic model of Obelisk on the bookshelf in her studyBut she was also insistent that we all, and rapidly, achieved a degree of fluency and grammatical competence in Norman French or Anglo-Saxon, or preferably both. If someone did their best and was genuinely struggling, she had unexpected wells of patience, but woe betide the sloppy or apathetic. She could sniff out both like a bloodhound no matter how many rapt expressions were affected or notes were scribbled. But even then, she opened our eyes and ears and hearts to wonders. “Remember storytime?” I asked, as we headed through farmland and past stone churches, sometimes stuck behind tractors for ages, and realising why an early start perhaps wasn’t just a symbolic gesture. “Grammar books down, ladies,” she said (and in our year, and it wasn’t to her own liking, the group was entirely female) “It’s storytime.”

    Though she was demanding, she was also realistic, and started us off on the slightly easier fare. She had her copy of the story-poems of Marie de France open, but I think she knew them off by heart, like a conductor with a much-loved score. I could understand most of it, as I was a French-speaker, but even those who couldn’t necessarily follow every last word still sat rapt and transformed, in a world of castles and chivalry, yet a world that wasn’t airy-fairy and was very much like our own.

    “The thing was,” Ginny said, as we swopped seats over for her to take over the driving looking towards the local landmark of St Botolph’s church in Boston, Lincolnshire, its unusual soaring and yet rounded spire nicknamed the “Boston Stump” “She never did have that great a reading voice, looked at logically.”

    She didn’t. It wasn’t squeaky or toneless or anything like that, but though there was nothing at all wrong with her throat there was a certain gruffness that most definitely wasn’t alluring “huskiness”. She would become sardonic describing a romantic tryst, take on a softer, more pensive tone describing some trivial domestic detail. Or sometimes the other way round! Her delivery could be jerky, with pauses in what seemed to be the wrong places, interjecting, on occasion, her own pithy observation. But she had a room of (mainly) young women like children clustering round the feet of their kindergarten teacher.

    We turned inland then, and would be away from even distant prospects of the sea for the rest of the day, and, after an hour or so, off the country roads and onto the bland alleys of the motorway. We made our first stop earlier than we had planned. As is the way with an early start in a transitional season, the weather had played tricks with us, and though we could have done contortionist’s tricks with our sweaters in the car as the temperature rose, we decided we might as well stretch our legs and get some fresh air at the same time. And fill up the car, while we were at it. It should see out the rest of that day’s journey then. Legs stretched and sweaters shed, we couldn’t resist a brief trip to the little shop, and bought the things that you only buy at motorway service stations like little tins of boiled sweets and over-priced facial wipes even though we had some in our handbags. “She did love her sweets,” Ginny said, as we took a lemon drop each. “Remember how she used to hand them out to us, Pam?”

    “Yes, and then complain if she heard too much sucking or crunching – or scrunching as she always called it! Oh, and the Kendal mint cake!” 

    Glenda had a positive passion for that sickly-sweet confection, but was probably one of the few people who genuinely did eat it when she went walking in the Cumbrian fells. 

    She was a great walker. She never did learn to drive, though we didn’t for one minute doubt she’d have been perfectly capable, and she was never averse to cadging a lift. When someone referred to her “mountaineering” she said in no certain terms, “Don’t talk rot. It’s just walking. The trouble is, you children nowadays never walk!” She called us children as often as she called us ladies. She was almost a parody of a jolly hockey sticks teacher from a school story – and yet we all knew, without being quite sure how we knew, that it wasn’t as simple as that. Her father had been Algerian, and she had spent at least part of her childhood and youth in Spain. It was rumoured she had distinct sympathies with the Basque separatists, though she always insisted she abhorred terrorism, in whatever cause.

    “Do you want to go past the campus?” I asked a few hours later on, when I was at the wheel. “It wouldn’t be much of a detour, and we’re ahead of schedule.”

    “Not really,” she shook her head, “I mean, I don’t actively mind, and if you want to it’s fine, but I’d rather wait until we’re on the way back, if we do.”

    “So would I,” I said, relieved, though I’d felt obliged to ask. I think we both felt the same way. We wouldn’t have gone so far as to make a detour to avoid it, but weren’t really in the mood to look at the mini skyscraper residence hall called Bolton Tower, and at the silver birches that grew round the campus. We stayed on the motorway where we had booked rooms for the night at the motel on one of the service stations. Though we had known a twin room would have been cheaper, and we certainly wouldn’t have minded, we were good enough friends to admit that we wouldn’t be sorry to part company for the night. I liked a radio on during the night; she preferred absolute silence. She needed her 8 hours and I was a bit of an insomniac. We had a meal that was acceptable but bland, and decided on another “leg stretch”. “We’ll have elastic legs next,” Ginny joked. “That would have made Glenda groan,” I pointed out. “Yes, but she couldn’t have helped laughing, and she made enough corny jokes herself!” Truth to tell, we didn’t walk far – just to the edge of the car park, where there was a little strip of woodland, and beyond it, clearly visible, a “normal” road and the lights of a little town – an overgrown village, really. We were within easy walking distance of the town, and yet it seemed far away, too. 

    One of the cars had its doors open as the inhabitants unloaded their bags, and the car radio was on – we heard the music was Erik Satie, and smiled as we remembered that Glenda had never had much time for what she scathingly termed “Plinky plonky piano music,” though she conceded he did it better than most. “It’s just coincidence, Pam,” Ginny said.

    “Did I for one minute suggest it wasn’t?”

    With one of those perverse quirks, I slept longer than usual and Ginny had a restless night. Neither of us felt better for it. We weren’t exactly morose, but in a solemn, rather introspective mood as we headed northwards again. There was no longer a day between us and the funeral – it was tomorrow. I wasn’t remotely scared and was pretty sure she wasn’t either, but it was still a rather odd feeling. We had been to funerals, of course, but relatively few. It wasn’t as if she was a close relative, not even as if we had kept in touch that much all the time but oh, how we wished we were going to see a living Glenda, and hear her tell us stories and be as scathing as she liked. The only way I could put it, and when I said so aloud, Pam said quietly, “I see what you’re saying,” was it was like a book that you didn’t read every month, sometimes not even every year, but it was good to know it was there, and now a page had been torn from it and could never be replaced. We hadn’t made a cult of our student days the way some do, and had rarely even been to reunions, but it had still been a good, sweet time of our lives, and our mentor and – yes, friend – Glenda had been a huge part of it. 

    When we had first learnt, via Molly, that Glenda had relocated to Scotland, we were surprised, but not THAT surprised. I seemed to recall she had some Scottish relatives (mind you she seemed to have relatives everywhere!) and the Celtic connection would probably have appealed. And the scenery was similar to the Lakeland fells she loved, though there was something perverse (and so typical of Glenda!) about seeking higher hills as she grew older. Had she chosen some retreat among the craggy highlands, or, conversely, a residence in a cultural centre like Edinburgh or Glasgow it would have made sense. But she had chosen a little town where there were hills around, for sure, but nothing soaring or spectacular, and her home, rather than a croft or even a castle, was a neat modern bungalow – in fact, very much like the one she had lived in before. You could almost say that in choosing the conventional she was unconventional. 

    As we booked into our hotel in Ennisfield (a pub with pretensions, but comfortable enough) we couldn’t help a certain curiosity about the nature of Glenda’s funeral which – on that we had no doubt – she would have left definite instructions for! But what were those instructions? She was not, by any means, a conventionally religious woman and whilst respecting the beliefs of others, had a decided scorn for organised religion. But she also had a spiritual side – and a surprising (or not!) cleaving to certain traditions. 

    It was hardly that amazing that Molly was staying in the same hotel. It wasn’t the only one around, but one was hardly spoilt for choice.

    She greeted us with a hug as we met up for drinks in the bar – and we couldn’t help thinking that though we thought of her, too, as timeless, she had aged. “She always had a massive soft spot for you two, you know,” she said. “She used to say – there’s something about them that means it. They can be fractious children at times, but they have decent hearts and minds!” And you know she didn’t necessarily go in for compliments!”

    “I wonder how she’d feel about us not really making much use of what she taught us,” Ginny said, sadly.

    “I think she understood. She was a realist, in her way. And a fantasist, in her way. Both in the best sense, though I’m not going to pretend she couldn’t be bloody annoying!” 

    We laughed, and it was natural, relieving laughter.

    The service didn’t let us down in our expectations of contrariness. It was a conventional Requiem Mass – except it was interspersed with Arab music played in the haunting, lilting pentatonic scale and with the hypnotic rhythms of gamelan. She had even left strict instructions on what we were to wear – and chief among them was “Wear what you like!” Reading between the lines I guessed she was saying that she would not expect anyone to wear black, but would not impose the “new norm” of bright colours at a funeral on them if they didn’t feel easy with it. 

    There was no wake in the formal sense, but we gathered for drinks and to exchange memories in the nearest pub. Ginny and I were rather surprised when Glenda’s neighbour, Morag, after having ascertained we were “The couple of students she always talked about” (I felt tears pricking my eyes at that and could tell Ginny was similarly struggling!) asked a strange question – did either of us still have a cassette player?

    “Ms Borderline Hoarder here certainly does,” said Ginny, summoning a smile and pointing at me, “She even has one in the car!”

    Morag smiled, too. “Then you’ll be able to make use of these on the journey home!” She passed over a cardboard box with some cassette tapes in it.

    And the journey back, along the motorway and along the country roads, to the south and to the east, and towards the sea, was a journey back in time too – as we listened to Glenda telling us medieval tales in her gruff, compelling voice. It was storytime again!

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