This is hard: on grief, love, and writing
Being English, I shy away from sharing personal stuff, but this is so big and so deep that it is at the heart of my life right now, so here's an emotional splurge for the universe.
When I was seven I moved from the Infants' school to the Juniors', which took its intake from two schools. I was excited about the taller desks that were arranged in pairs, and I had my best friend, Maria Evans, to sit next to.
So imagine my shock when it turned out that Maria Evans wasn't actually my best friend. Her best friend was, and always had been, Tracy Morgan. No amount of sleepovers and playdates with me had changed this ... and as a consequence Maria and Tracy sat together on a double desk. I headed towards my other best friend, Julie Williams, but she had already paired up with another girl. I sat alone, I think, or possibly even next to a boy - the humiliation! - and at breaktime the pairing continued, and I was left with no-one to play with. It was my first exposure to the intricacies of female friendship, and this pairing-up still happens at the start of Junior school, except nowadays we call it Year Three Girls, and roll our eyes. I am sure the ladies mentioned above are all delightful and no longer ostracise, but many adults don't move on from the playground.
I apologise, here, for using your real names, but the poetry of those Welsh surnames on this side of the border furnishes just the right amount of verisimilitude.
At lunchtime I mooched around alone. Let's conflate two childhood memories and have kids calling me 'Tansy Oxfam' for wearing a secondhand coat.
After a few days, a tall girl came up to me in the playground. She was in one of the other classes, and she'd been at the other school, so we'd never met. She, like me, had a weird name. Call me Leo, she said. Look, I've got these special medicines I take. Do you want one?
They look like Spangles to me, I said.
No, she said, the S stands for (and she made up something seemingly medical which I, in my gullibility, believed).
And so began a friendship that has spanned decades. Sometimes spiky - we rubbed each other up the wrong way often - she was often aggressive, and I was a follower not a leader in those days, and painfully shy. There was, to my deep and eternal regret, a period of at least a school term when I, responding to the envy of the other girls at our closeness, disowned Leo and gave her a horrible nickname (and the shame I feel when remembering that ... ). She was better at Maths, but I edged it on reading age. We were, I suspect, the brainiest kids in the school. Nowadays, they'd have labelled us as something, probably 'gifted and talented,' but there were no boxes in those days.
One time we pricked our fingers and shared the blood. We were sisters in our hearts already - bickering, connected. It was that sort of friendship, the kind you don't question, that doesn't quite work often, but that is essential. When we spent time together we normed into a person my parents didn't much like.
We visited each other constantly. Although I did have sleepovers with other girls, they became less frequent. Not only did Leo have loads of siblings and a stream of visiting adults and a house that stretched over four storeys and included a secluded garden for (in later years) unobserved topless sunbathing, but she loved stories.
Our families were alike (we each had one fat, seemingly dominant parent, and religion featured strongly). Unlike my family, Leo's had a television, and her father had fed her with a love of sci-fi, of which there was a lot in 1970s television programming.
Hardly anyone knew I wrote, at that time. I could hardly hide it from my parents and brother, but certainly I covered the page when anyone came into the room; it was not a thing I shared with anyone else. But I told Leo. I think the occasion came after we'd seen the half-finished 'Lord of the Rings' animation with John Hurt (my first crush, as the voice of Aragorn). I'd never read the books, and all I wanted to do at that point was to Finish The Story. To write it if I had to. Leo agreed that we would write it together.
In among all this, we played make-believe, stepping into fantasy worlds - exactly like the characters in 'Bridge To Terebithia', down to the weird names. Easier at my house, where the huge garden was full of rubble heaps which stood in for buildings or castles, but still do-able in her house, where the whole top storey was adult-free, as in the best children's books. Occasionally we would rope in my brother, but our imagination was enough. This was in the days before Lego came in kits and when dressing-up involved making your own costumes. Long weekends, creativity, the bitterness of going back to the real world after.
When I was eleven, my family entered the nomadic phase, eventually settling almost two hundred miles away from the place I thought of as my home town. Leo and I wrote, long letters on coloured paper. She was almost certainly undiagnosed dyslexic, so it was more of an effort for her. Every school holiday one of us would cross the country, from the Welsh Border to North Norfolk or vice versa, a two-hour and a six-hour bus journey (bearing in mind I had appalling travel sickness til I was well into my twenties). We would spend a week in the house of the other. And during this time, we began to do less acting-out of stories, and more writing-down. The stories were becoming coherent, hints of logic within the plots. One holiday, we took a geology book (her degree subject, later, was Oceanography & Soil Science - 'I like it wet, and dead thousands of years,' as she put it recently). We named the kingdoms of an imaginary land after precious stones. I took the plot away with me and wrote it up, and presented it to Leo: my first novel. She claimed to have shown it to some people on a bus who loved it and so (lack of self esteem much) I threw it on Rayburn.
The next holiday we tried to codify the stories we were working on, a teenage space opera in parts. The ambition always exceeded the delivery. And then Leo, INTJ to my ENTJ, suggested one New Years Eve that we should write another story. It would keep our friendship together, she said. Because we were apart a lot, and we did, occasionally, rub each other up the wrong way.
We continued to write letters, and visit three times a year. Leo had boyfriends, which doubtless got in the way of her commitment to writing; I was far less popular, and focused on the story. It took years. She provided plot advice, and finally when I was sixteen I completed the first draft, and thought it done.
We went to University at different places, and our lives diverged. We both had children young, and worked full-time, and were powerhouses (she somewhat more than I, a level of science well beyond my understanding). There was a point where we connected in our mid-thirties and realised exactly why we were both so driven, sharing things we had never talked about and with good reason. And then she messaged me out of the blue as I packed up the house at the end of a really long term relationship. All of a sudden we were both single, and parents, and we had both done enough growing up that we no longer annoyed each other. And Leo had become very, very wise.
And that novel I wrote before I was seventeen? It wasn't great, but the characters and relationships mutated into what will be my next novel.
Because this summer Leo messaged me to say she was in hospital and later in the day her daughter contacted me with the diagnosis. Valor morghulis, but some people have a more distinct timeline than others. It was like being shot in the heart; I literally reeled on the damp pavement, left my expensive brolly on the Intercity, wept incontrollably talking to my best friend about her and what it meant and how important she is to me.
Things have moved on, Leo. You were so healthy and fit that you fell into a small window where radical brain surgery was possible. It has bought you time, as does the radio and the chemo. Your bravery is the real thing: chin up, honest, focused. Does it help, to have God, to have the Church? It doesn't help everyone, but you have faith. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking to hear from you, to see you. I am aware that your humour is bleak sometimes. That you see the world in a way we cannot. That, even now, with more treatments ahead, you know what awaits.
All I can do is to feel what I feel, and be there for you. Anything you ask.
My friend, my sister. You don't know it yet, but you will get a book dedicated to you.