It has been a quiet funeral, even though that’s not compulsory anymore. Well, that’s not entirely true. There has been soaring music, and readings, and the bells have rung, because Louisa left a specific request that they should, even though she wasn’t an especially religious woman. But it has been the kind of funeral that even a stranger would know was for someone important, someone significant, someone who has left her mark on life. But it wasn’t a huge gathering. Family and close friends only, though there’s talk that there will be some kind of memorial service in a few months, something bigger, more showy, more for the public. After all, Louisa was a famous writer. She wrote the kind of books nobody could quite place – usually traditional family sagas on the surface, though unlike some writers of that genre, she never believed that books were sold by weight, and they were rarely more than 300 pages long, though it’s true she’d written a couple of trilogies. But there were those little quirks. The heroine who chose the decent quiet man over the lovable rogue, and realised she had made entirely the right decision. The young girl who positively hated her large and boisterous family and much preferred her friend’s peaceful house and parents who did not laugh all the time and say everyone was welcome. The self-made man who had no wish whatsoever to return to his home town.
There was no funeral reception as such, but by general agreement, the guests made their way to the pub opposite the quiet churchyard. Nobody actually said it, but it was as if there was an unspoken and yet clearly audible ripple of who’s SHE?
She must have been invited. The vicar seemed to know her, or at least know of her, and made a point of having a word with her. But nobody else did.
Everyone was dressed in smart, subtly sombre clothes. Not all black, that wouldn’t have been Louisa’s wish, but it wasn’t one of those funerals where you were expected to come dressed in pink, either. Well, that was everyone except the strange woman. And with quite a few people there writers, and all of them lovers of writing, the double meaning of strange wasn’t lost on them. She was unknown to them, and there was something odd about her.
Yet it was hard to put your finger on exactly why. And you couldn’t say her clothes were scruffy or showing any disrespect. She was wearing trousers, but so were quite a few of the other women, after all, that was okay now, as long as they weren’t ripped jeans or anything like that. But though they were perfectly clean (though it would have been bad manners to look too closely, and it was a dull day) they were, well, shabby. Thinning at the knee and baggy at the backside, plainly far from new, and probably off the peg at Primark or George at Asda. Or even at a charity shop. Not that there was anything wrong with charity shops, and Louisa had been known to frequent them herself, but it was almost a duty to buy a new pair of black trousers or a new black skirt for a funeral. It was the same with her dark blue coat. It was clean, it wasn’t threadbare, but, well, it wasn’t like the coats the other women present were wearing. The shoes were the worst giveaway. You can’t disguise it when shoes are, well, down at heel.
Elizabeth herself felt bad about the shoes. She hadn’t realised quite how shabby the shoes she considered her “best” shoes were until it was too late. Oh, she knew Louisa wouldn’t have minded in the least. There were things Louisa did mind, and she believed in letting you know, but shabby shoes weren’t one of them. She could feel the eyes on her, and though everyone had been perfectly polite, and she supposed that right now they would feel compelled to ask her to come over to the Huntsman’s Arms with her, that didn’t alter things. And the invitation would be as much out of nosiness as out of concern.
She didn’t know whether to accept. After all she had time to kill. She didn’t flinch to use the expression to herself. Louisa wouldn’t have minded. But the coach that would take her home, or nearly home, didn’t stop by the village for another two hours.
The solicitor who’d contacted her, and who seemed bemused by the whole situation, but was kind hearted enough, or at least didn’t act all superior as her mother would have said, had told her that he was authorised to pay her taxi fare, if she preferred, but she had turned it down, and not just because she thought it was extravagant. Louisa herself would have said she could afford it. But she’d certainly also have understood that the idea of taking such a journey more or less compelled to make small talk with a cab driver would have made her uncomfortable, and she would feel better in the anonymity of National Express.
She’d always been like that, thought Elizabeth. Some folk said that Louisa was stand-offish, or that she didn’t say what she was “supposed” to say, and it wasn’t untrue, but she also didn’t believe in trying to force others to be otherwise.
It was more or less compulsory, or so some thought, for you to remember exactly when a long friendship began, to be able to quote it chapter and verse, exactly where it was, what everyone was wearing, every last word and tone of voice, even how the weather was and, if appropriate, what you’d learnt at school that day. There was often the element of one child coming to another’s defence, or a fight that ended with them becoming bosom buddies. But it wasn’t like that with Louisa and Elizabeth. They had been at different primary schools, though their paths had almost certainly crossed at some point, as the town where they both lived was relatively small. But they were both at the same comprehensive school. Louisa often wondered if Elizabeth’s parents regretted that the area had abandoned the 11-plus, though they’d never have said it. Sending their daughter to a grammar school would have been just about acceptable, but sending her to a private school would not. That wasn’t the case with Elizabeth’s family. Her parents had odd double standards. Acting all superior was one thing. But getting one over the neighbours by their daughter Elizabeth, who was acknowledged as the bright one going to a school with the posh girls would have been another. Elizabeth’s father was a plumber, and her mother a housewife, which with five children was a full-time job. Louisa’s father was a solicitor and her mother was a doctor. Elizabeth wasn’t quite sure if she heard anyone use the phrase “champagne socialist”, but it would probably have bee appropriate, even if they never drank a drop of champagne. Neither of the girls were among those who immediately stood out. Both were good at their lessons (Louisa excelled at English and Elizabeth’s favourite subject was geography) but not considered to be among the swats, and were good enough at games to never risk being teased, but not likely to be the ones chosen first or to get into the first teams ludicrously early. Elizabeth just managed to avoid (for the most part) being called a snob, and Louisa managed to avoid (for the most part) being called common.
Come to think of it, mused Louisa, sitting nursing a glass of white wine on a corner table in the Huntsman’s Arms, she did remember their first real conversation. They’d both been excused games, Louisa because it was her time of the month and what was euphemistically referred to as a “heavy one”, though as she admitted herself, it wasn’t particularly painful, and Elizabeth because she’d sprained her ankle. Normally two first year girls wouldn’t have been allowed to sit out unsupervised, but several of the staff were off with a bug, and the sixth formers, or most of them, away at an exhibition they were visiting. They were generally acknowledged to be sensible girls, so it was permitted. “Well, off they trot to their jolly hockey sticks,” said Louisa. “And it’s a vile day, they’ll get soaked. Thank God for hormones!” At times she said that grown up kind of thing, and you were also reminded that she was a doctor’s daughter.
“I thought you liked games,” said Elizabeth.
“I don’t exactly hate them,” Louisa pondered, “And I’m glad I don’t make a fool of myself. But do you really think anyone halfway normal actually enjoys getting soaked and sweaty?”
“Some seem to,” said Elizabeth.
“I’ll grant you that. But I’m not one of them. Oh, tennis is another matter. I like tennis, and roll on summer.” She didn’t mean anything mean or show-offy by that, but it was obvious that she was used to playing tennis. Well, she would be. Her parents might not approve of private school, but they’d have no issues with the tennis club. That was how things were.
“I’ve never played it,” Elizabeth admitted. “Well, not really, just the – bat and ball onto a wall stuff.”
“I think you’d be quite good at it,” said Louisa, making a steeple of her hands. “You have quite good balance and coordination.”
“Except when I fall over my own feet on the stairs!” pointed out Elizabeth, indicating her bandaged ankle. Both girls laughed. There’s something special about the first shared laugh of a friendship. Oh, it’s no guarantee that it will be deep or lasting, but it certainly does no harm.
Louisa had a packet of peppermints with her, and offered Louisa one. They sucked them in companionable silence for a few minutes, then Louisa asked, “Does this whole – school thing ever get you down sometimes?” The question surprised Elizabeth, and her friend went on herself, using the same phrase she had about games, “Oh, I don’t hate it. Some of it’s fine. But the way some folk say it’s the best days of your life – I don’t know. If that’s so, I don’t know if I look forward to the rest of my life!”
It was a strange thing for a girl her age to say, thought Elizabeth, taking a drink of her wine that was nearer to a swig than a sip. But she hadn’t said it either in a downhearted or a studiedly rebellious way, it was just matter of fact. And she hadn’t disagreed with her then, and she didn’t disagree with her now. That was something that united them, right from that day when they sat sucking peppermints when the rest of their class was playing hockey. They didn’t hate school. They didn’t fear it or live for the holidays, but they didn’t make a big deal of it either. It wasn’t at all like the school stories, and perhaps that was as well.
A few years after that, there was a big reunion at the school. Well, a relatively big one. It had only been open for ten years, and having one much before that would have been a bit bizarre, as some of the pupils concerned would still be at the school.
“I don’t think I’ll ever go in for school reunions,” Louisa said. “I mean – keeping up with your friends, that’s fine. But you just know that half of them are thinking who and half of them are thinking hasn’t she got fat.”
“I don’t think it works out quite that mathematically, Lou,” said Elizabeth. Any awe she may have had of her friend had long since evaporated. But it was a fact they had never yet visited each others’ houses. They supposed one day they might, but neither was in any great hurry. It was a little thing, but she was the only one who was “allowed” to call her Lou, just as Louisa was the only one who was “allowed” to call her Lizzie. They didn’t do it all the time, and the truth was, they both preferred their full handles, but it was one of those things that proved you were friends.
“Pedant,” grinned Louisa. “Anyway I might write a story about it!”
“Well, if you do, you’d best not show it to Miss Bessimer,” she referred to their English teacher, “You know she’s obsessed with this whole reunion business.”
Louisa did, indeed, write her story. And she often referred to it has her first proper story. Oh, of course there had been school compositions, and, as she later put it to Elizabeth, the muscle memory stories, the kind many children (and quite a few adults) write; the wish-fulfilment, the fan fiction. But Reunion (the absence of the article was a matter of some importance and perhaps some small act of rebellion) was another matter. Louisa never did find out if she showed it to Miss Bessimer, but it was certainly, reworked, but still with the quirky and unsentimental child’s eye view, in her first collection of published short stories.
Sometimes, Elizabeth was quite relieved that she didn’t share her friend’s way with words and compulsion to write. She didn’t think her family would exactly be cruel or heavy handed about it, but they’d make it quite plain that it wasn’t a way to earn a living and she could get that out of her head. She read geography at university (at least they were okay about her going to university, though she was expected to have a part time job in term time and a full time one in the holidays) and it was seen as more or less a given that she’d be a teacher. Louisa read English Literature and Drama, went on to do an MA in Creative Writing, and her parents were fine about her taking a year out to travel and work on her first full length novel. Credit where it’s due, she didn’t take advantage and just spend her time lounging around and sight seeing and writing a few token pages. She did, indeed, finish the draft of her first novel, which was to be the first part of one of her family trilogies and called The Missed Turning. Of course, though she wasn’t a huge reader of fiction, preferring travel writing, Elizabeth read it and she could see why Louisa had been that rarity, a first time success. Oh, it wasn’t a galloping success, or an overnight sensation, and though some homes, including Louisa’s own, had a home computer, it was decades before things went viral. But it was the kind of book that bridged a gap and that even those who didn’t go wild about it couldn’t honestly bring themselves to dislike, even if the characters sometimes let them down and the expected ending didn’t come.
But in her own way, Elizabeth did quite well, too. She got a decent post at a local school, though not her own old one, and was the kind of teacher who is neither popular nor unpopular. She knew she wasn’t especially charismatic and didn’t aspire to me, but she could keep order without being too authoritarian, and her pupils’ results, if not record-breaking, were perfectly satisfactory.
She and Louisa did keep in touch, but not obsessively. They made other friends in their different spheres, and oddly, for an author, Louisa wasn’t a great letter writer. But whenever they did meet up, they got out the peppermints. It was a ritual they never abandoned.
Things began to go wrong for them at about the same time. The school where Elizabeth taught was merged with another, and though it wasn’t put quite that frankly, it was quite clear that younger and more “dynamic” teachers were favoured, and of course they appreciated her long years of service, but …..! She couldn’t help being bitter, but tried to get perspectives on things, and reminded herself how much worse it was for Louisa, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. All I discovered, thought Elizabeth, was that good references don’t necessarily help, and small savings son run out. Lou discovered that the best doctors (and her own mother, retired now, but still following all the new developments, abandoned her views about private medicine without a second thought, if it could help her daughter) couldn’t always make things right.
For the last few months, Elizabeth, no longer able to keep up her payments on her bungalow, had moved into a housing association flat, and Louisa was in a hospice. I should have visited her, thought Elizabeth. Even though she said she preferred me to remember her how she was. And now it was too late, and she was sitting in a corner of a posh village pub with a glass of wine that suddenly tasted like dust in her mouth.
“Excuse me, my dear,” she saw that someone had broken away from the main group – a tall woman, with immaculately coloured and layered hair, whose simple dark green coat and black A-line skirt had probably cost more than Elizabeth’s whole wardrobe. “No need to chat if you don’t feel like it – to be honest, it was starting to drain me a bit. But we’d all forgotten our manners. I’m Helen Fowler – I worked at the hospice. And I recognise you. You’re Elizabeth. She often spoke of you, and I know she missed you – she called you her oldest friend, and one of the few people who really understood you. But she wanted you to remember her how she was. And she asked me to bring you these!” She took a packet of peppermints out of her handbag, and suddenly Elizabeth laughed, and so did Helen, and it was as if they both heard Louisa laughing too and saying “Well, you don’t want your breath to smell of booze on the coach!”