I was out when I heard, in a cinema full of yelling children, and hardly able to absorb the news. But later, when I returned home, wherever I looked, I seemed to see Alli. Here in the kitchen was the set of glasses she gave me as a house-warming gift when I first moved to London. Here on the bookshelf, the beautiful vintage editions of “Orlando the Marmalade Cat” books she pressed on me for my four-year-old son, the very last time I saw her. And there were other, more ephemeral gifts – the book title she came up with. The scurrilous and funny stories she told me about her cancer treatment that informed much of the plot of another novel.
But of all the gifts that Alli gave me over a friendship that spanned two countries and twenty years,
two really stand out. Here are the stories behind them.
We met for coffee in London one day, maybe ten years ago. I was broke, doing menial work to get by, struggling to find a job in my field, my confidence hopelessly battered, my energy waning. Against my will, Alli persuaded me into Liberty the department store, and we wandered around breathing expensive perfume and looking at dresses that cost more than I would earn in the next six months. We found ourselves in the accessory department looking at a glass case full of gloves. “Look at those,” I said, pointing to a pair of gold and fawn gloves. “They’re so classy… not leopard print. What would you say? Maybe jaguar print?” We admired the gloves and moved on, but Alli nipped back without my seeing, and later handed me the beautiful Liberty box, with the gloves wrapped in fine tissue paper. There was no card, no fuss, just the unspoken understanding that sometimes, when you’re on the bones of your arse and your pride is dented and your purse empty, there’s nothing in the world you need more than a pair of jaguar-print gloves from Liberty. They won’t pay the gas bill, but my word they’ll help you hold your head up high.
The story of the second gift goes back many more years, to 1995, when we were newly friends. My marriage had suddenly and nastily imploded, and after some ugly wrangling, my then-husband had moved out and I was alone with my two-year-old son. I was just barely keeping it together. It’s never the big things that break you though, is it? It’s the tiny things. And for me, it was a trip to the supermarket. We had nothing in the house, so I took little Matt and went shopping. Somewhere in the fruit and veg aisle, it struck me that I was shopping for two, not three, and that I had no idea how to do that. This realisation brought on the first panic attack of my life. I abandoned the trolley and somehow got Matt and I back home. Of all my friends, I don’t know why it was Alli I rang, but it was. Sobbing, I explained what had happened, and that we were now at home, with nothing to eat. She asked no questions. She simply put down the phone, and arrived an hour later with bags full of groceries. She cooked for us, stocked my fridge, helped me put Matt to bed and let me cry myself to sleep. She slept the night on our sofa, letting herself out quietly the next morning. I think that may be one of the kindest things anyone ever did for me, and I will never forget it.
I cannot begin to repay the value of those two gifts, nor all the others, nor the unaccountable joy of Alli’s company over the years, nor the humbling lessons she taught us all as she battled cancer. She was the personification of wit and dignity and grace, balanced with a kind of earthy honesty that gave all around her courage. I remember when she came to visit me shortly after my second child was born. The contrast between our lives was marked, and I was worried how that would alter our interaction. I had a new husband and a new baby, she had had a mastectomy and was facing many more years of painful and invasive treatment. I had no idea what to say or do. She plonked herself down on my sofa, grinned wickedly and said, “Do you want to feel my tit?” then reached into her bra and hoiked out her prosthesis which she dropped into my hand. “Heavy, isn't it?” It’s hard to feel awkward in the face of that.
She gave an enormous amount and expected very little in return, and now she is gone, I cannot repay her for the abundant gifts she heaped on me. However before she died, I told her that I would be running the Brighton Half Marathon in February, and that I would be running to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.
“They've done a lot for me,” she said.
“I know," I said, “That’s why I chose them.”
“Well, hurry up and get a page set up so I can donate something,” she said.
This page was set up too late for Alli to donate, and in all honesty, I didn't want her to. She gave more than enough. But I am asking you to support this wonderful charity, which gives help both practical and compassionate to those who need it most. Much as my beautiful friend did.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.