Firstly congratulations to Michael Simmons Roberts who has won the Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection with Drysalter, author of the poem I quoted yesterday (nothing terrible seems to have befallen me yet) and Drysalter the next in my poetry pile for reading. I had decided to make this a complete week of poetry until I remembered a special day that I wanted to mark. Like all poetry this is a story to be told, and though it might not rhyme or scan and be a trifle light on iambic pentameters, I hope you will understand that for reasons which will become apparent it had to be on here this week...
I'm not sure how her name came up, but Bookhound and I were talking about Gillian (Gill to her friends) on one of our car journeys the other day, me knitting, he driving (thankfully).
I didn't keep in close contact with many friends when I left school, maybe a handful, but Gill and I did keep in touch by letter, good old fashioned letters...remember those.
At this juncture I absolutely refuse to tell you where I am in this 1968 Nonsuch High School for Girls picture, nor will I 'out' Hilary who comments here, but Gill is fourth row down from the top and fourth in from the right... followed by Jenny, Janis, Viv, Melissa, Deborah, Kay, Lorraine, Alyss, Valerie, Sue, Lois... how is that you never forget the names and faces of everyone in your class at school??
Oh alright, let's get it over with... me I'm fifth row down, fourth from the left, June, Elaine, Claudia, Lynne...and had this been in colour you would have seen a sea of blue shirts cementing together a very strict uniform policy that brooked no deviation.
Four years on from this picture, and I had started nurse training at Great Ormond Street, Gill had gone to college in Exeter to train as an Occupational Therapist. Though we hadn't been 'best' friends at school, we had been friends enough to exhange addresses and write to each other, and once we started we carried on, realising we had much more in common than that school friendship had ever revealed. Pages and pages of hand-written news about this different and strange world we found ourselves in, the work, the emotions of it all, the day-to-day-ness of life. We'd share news of music and books; Gill was a Van Morrison devotee and persuaded me to buy Tupelo Honey, I probably convinced her to read Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home which was keeping us all wide awake on night duty. Great big thick chunky letters would weave back and forth between us every month or so for the next three years.
I was recounting to Bookhound the day that I gone to Gill's for tea, whilst we were still at school, hardly an exciting event, but her mum's chocolate cake was legendary, and I was there for a reason.
I had agreed to run in an 800 yard race, standing in for June (actually pretending to be her, it seemed easiest...first left in my row) who had been invited to be at this athletics event representing the London Borough of Sutton because she was really rather good. It was June's birthday which means it was June 11th (you never forget birthdays either) and she didn't want to go, so I said if she lent me her posh Adidas running shoes I would do it for her.
'Come for tea first...' said Gill, because the track was right next to her house.
In retrospect the words 'tea' and 'first' were early indicators of impending disaster.
Next was nursing any hope whatsoever that I would complete two laps of a track in the aftermath of Gill's mum's cake because I'll bet I had seconds, that would be me all over. I was a sprinter, even briefly holding the school record for the 150 yards, but a two lapper I was not, even on an empty stomach. Looking back I don't know what I was thinking. It obviously never occurred to me to train up at all, I'd just turn up and somehow my feet would find the necessary wings, it was only another 650 yards beyond what I was used to, how hard could that be.
My first inkling of what I had let myself in for came when I arrived trackside to find I was actually to run the final leg (because this friend was VERY good) in an 800 yard relay, and there were three other keen-as-mustard girls warming up. Borough honour was at stake and they were taking it veeeeery seriously indeed; warm up sprints that seemed faster than me on a good day, whilst bestowing on me, the imposter, an embarrasing amount of respect. I managed to get myself into the middle order with a false display of modesty about my speed and form which probably had them thinking 'Great she'll build us up a huge lead, we've got this one in the bag.'
I think you can probably write the end of this little debacle for yourselves...it wasn't my finest hour and it wasn't pretty.
I was at least half a lap behind maybe more when I handed over the baton, swiftly followed by the chocolate cake...it was two helpings, I remember now. The shame and the ignominy would have been dreadful had I not been feeling too ill to care. Gill somehow eventually got me onto the bus for home, heaven knows how, it's all a blur.
My nurse training was a year longer than Gill's three year Occupational Therapy course, but by letter had been shared all our highs and lows, my brother's illness and his death and in return had come huge understanding and sympathy. Then there had been the delight of Gill passing her finals and landing a wonderful job at an orthopaedic hospital in Oswestry, the flat, the new life, quickly followed by the thrill of acquiring her own transport, a moped. Gill's last letter to me (and how I wish I had kept them) recounted the joys of having her own means of transport at last, and how wonderful her new job was. It was happiness start to finish, the future beckoned
And then a week later came a letter from her flatmate... Gill had skidded on black ice into the path of a car on her way to work one morning and died on her way to hospital.
I remember being too stunned to stand up from my bed where I had sat to read this letter with a postmark I knew but with handwriting I didn't recognise. I had thought surprise party invite or something, and was doubly grief-stricken for this was only months after my brother's death, and I couldn't bring myself to go to her funeral, something I am very sad about now.
For years at school Gill and I had celebrated birthdays within a week of each other, so, like me this week, Gill would have been sixty, and even after all this time she will come unbidden into my thoughts so it seemed right to remember her properly on here today.
I wrote to Gill's parents afterwards, and then many years later, maybe around our 40th birthdays, to let them know that I often thought of her and that I felt sure, as I still feel, that we were friends in spirit and always would be, and had a lovely reply. Then I lost touch, I dont even know if they are still alive though I know she had a brother. Perhaps one day he'll google her name just to see, and arrive here to find it recorded for virtual posterity, Gillian Solaini, and know that I have never ever forgotten her, or our friendship.
I am sure I am not alone with an experience, or a friendship in spirit like this...