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.
Some years ago, when I still lived in Johannesburg and had a real job, I had an enlightening encounter. Our company had proposed a partnership with a UK organisation working in a similar field. The MD of that company flew to Johannesburg from London, and we held a series of meetings and presentations. I was the lead creative, and the person with whom he would be required to work most closely.
That evening, we all went out for a formal, working dinner. Our main courses were delivered, and as I made a point about our methods to the English MD, I passed him a platter of vegetables. Unseen by the others at the table, he put his hand beneath mine and stroked the back of my hand suggestively. Surprised, I looked up and caught his eye. He stared at me blankly, but kept touching my hand. I smiled brightly, gave the plate a little shove in his direction and turned away to talk to someone else. I didn’t ask him what he was doing, nor did I draw anyone else’s attention to what had happened. I just let him get away with it.
It’s nothing, of course. It’s a nothing, insignificant, inappropriate incident, one of hundreds I have endured in my working life, and very, very far from the most serious and intrusive. And of course, I was right to say nothing, wasn’t I? That’s not sexual harassment, is it? Is *this* the sort of thing those “shrill” women are accusing Lord Rennard of doing? Touching someone’s leg “over their trousers”? What about all those girls, allegedly groped and touched by Rolf Harris, Bill Roache and Dave Lee Travis? Is this what we’ve come to? Is this political correctness gone mad?
Except, if you’re the person being touched, grabbed, stroked or propositioned, the wrongness of it has nothing to do with what the person did with their hands. The man who stroked my hand over dinner didn’t violate my body, but he made something perfectly clear in that momentary, fleeting interaction. While I was thinking about our future working relationship, he was thinking about sex. While I was working hard to present my well-researched thoughts as articulately as I could, he was hearing some words coming out about eight inches north of a pair of tits.
And yes, before the what-abouters jump up and say “but women do it too,” I agree. Sometimes they do. It doesn’t make it right. So if anyone, female, male, gay or straight or any combination of the above, is brave enough to stick his or her head above the parapet and say “I was sexually harassed”, we should listen. As long as we refuse to take complaints seriously, as long as we judge the gravity of an offence on when and where it was committed, or where or how the perpetrator allegedly touched someone, we will fail to deal with the problem.
Sexual harassment in the workplace has nothing to do with where or how you were touched, or what was said. It has everything to do with dehumanising someone, reducing them to the sum of their body parts and transgressing the boundaries of the working relationship. And when the perpetrator is in a position of influence over the victim’s career, it is a betrayal of trust and an abuse of power. Conspiracies of silence and collusion that protect abusers just make it worse. It takes immense courage to stand up to someone and say, “What you said and did was not all right.”
And every time we idly chat about a case, or read a media report which makes light of a sexual offence, or judge the victim for his or her part in it (“You mean after he raped her she went to his house again and he raped her a second time? Well, it isn’t rape then.”), we perpetuate the culture.
Shout loud. Shout often. It’s not “just a bit of fun”, it’s not “banter”. It’s just not okay.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.