Have you ever felt a connection so deeply strong to someone that you feel secure just knowing that it's there? You know, a real connection where you feel you are impregnable because the love this other person has for you and you have for them survives a distance of miles and a difference in time zones? I have been fortunate in my life to know people that I love dearly and who in return love me deeply too. I first became aware of long distance relationships and the kryptonite strength of the invisible umbilical cord that exists between people who are intrinsically linked, when I relocated to London from my home city of Glasgow to take up my career in Information Technology.
In my excitement at arriving in the capital I gave so little thought to what was left behind. My parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and great friends; One of those great friendships was made way back on that first terrifying day in junior school. A day when my bottom lip trembled as my mother turned around for the very last time that morning, tears in her eyes as she smiled forlornly then waved at my tear stained face and snotty nose before turning her back again and disappearing through the classroom door. I thought my heart would break and no matter how many times she tried to reassure me that I'd be coming home at the end of the school day, I wouldn't nor couldn't believe it. I will never forget the deep feeling of sadness on that first day, but neither will I forget Jenny Burns.......
……….. I sat on the tiny grey metal S framed chair at the tiny wooden desk and being so completely ego centric as all children are I hung my head and assumed I would never ever recover from being abandoned. As my own sobs began to subside, so did the sniffling and sobbing of the other abandonee next to me that until now I had only been vaguely aware of. Slowly I raised my head and turned to see a wee lassie, much the same size as myself but with a shock of curly ginger hair and red eyes with a red nose to match sitting on an identical chair, swinging her wee legs for like me she was too short to reach the floor.
"Hello.......errr, wiz that your mammy then?", she asked in a small nasally Glaswegian accent as she stared at me with her huge tear laden brown eyes framed by the longest lashes I'd ever seen.
"Aye it wiz,", I answered, before choking back another sob at being reminded she'd abandoned me only minutes before. I took a minute to blow my red nose on my by now very soggy hankie, "So……so where's your mammy then?", I asked with all the curiosity and naivety of a tiny wee five year old wondering how all these mammy's could abandon their weans and then leg it out of the place.
She's no here, she didnae come wae me", she said in a voice even smaller than before.
"No here? Whit dae ye mean she didnae come wae ye?" I asked, wide eyed with legs swinging away wildly on the chair as I stuck my thumb in my mouth for a suck whilst she answered this conundrum.
With her huge brown eyes fixed tightly upon mine, tears welled again and began to trickle down her rosy cheeks. "Ma mammy's deed", she spluttered out before letting out the loudest wail of utter heartbreak I had ever heard.
"Oh no, yer mammy's no really deed, is she?" I asked, getting all weepy because even though my mammy had dumped me there, at least I had one. The shock almost did for me for I knew nothing of death except that sometimes I would get scared that my wee mammy might die one day. So there it was, wee Jenny Burns didnae huv a mammy and I wiz heartbroken fur her. We sobbed our wee broken hearts out in unison until Mrs Murray, our lovely sweet teacher came over, put her arms around us both, calmed us with soothing words and dried our tears. Shortly after, down at the bottom of the school yard for playtime break we sat on the ground on our coats drinking our free milk through a straw and scoffing a digestive biscuit.
"Jenny?", I asked her in between slurps and chomps.
"Aye whit Annie?", she asked after swallowing the ice cold milk.
"Will ye be ma new best pal?"
"Aye, aye a wull", she said turning to look at me with the biggest smile I'd ever seen. Bless her, all of five years old and she had teeth like a bar chart thanks to her brother who 'encouraged' her to pull her wobbly milk teeth out so they could share the sixpence she'd get under her pillow from the tooth fairy.
"Great", I said delighted that at least one good thing had come out of the day, "and seein' as yer gonnae be ma best pal and seein' that you've no goat a mammy, ye can share ma mammy tae, that's IF she comes back fur me ye understand"........ The jury was still out on that one and I'd need a lot more convincing that the woman I knew as mammy and had dumped me here this morning would actually come back for me. Still, I reasoned, it was the least I could do for ma best pal who unquestionably had been bonded to me for life in our shared grief and loss that very same day.
Six years later after much tears and laughter; after sleepovers at each other's homes; after shared hours of playing 'kick the can' in summer until it got dark and we were dragged inside exhausted but still delirious with joy; after climbing trees and returning home with bumps the size of golf balls on our foreheads because we lost our footing and much to the merriment of our brothers, swan dived out of a tree hurtling head first towards earth; after having our hair doused in nit killer because yet again we let wee Gladys who lived next to the dump come and have a sleepover in our homemade tent in the back garden where we were infested within an inch of our lives; after rolling doon the hill outside ma hoose in summer on a homemade geggie, (go cart) - three pieces of wood knocked together like a big letter H with big auld wheels off a pram at the back with two smaller one's at the front, no brakes and a long piece of string attached to the front bit of wood for steering. There we were getting splinters in our arses as we ricocheted downhill at speed right into the path of the parish priest's new car; After sliding doon the hill outside ma hoose in winter wearing our plastic beach sandals that polished the compacted snow into an Olympic standard ski slope so dangerously slippy that we could get a fair bit of speed on before crash landing through auld Alfie's garden fence and into his allotment at the bottom of the road; after making faces with me at the grumpy old folk who moaned as they slid down the road on their arse and then swore at us and threatened to go straight to oor parents to tell them we should get a hiding for being so bloody cheeky; after laughing even harder at the ill-tempered old biddy's when they tried to chase us as their moaning reached epic proportions and not one of us getting anywhere because we were all running on the spot; after nearly melting the ice with hot yellow pee as we laughed ourselves stupid at the whole scenario; after promising to be best pals for ever and ever and ever and after her da, a skilled carpenter, a tired, skint single parent announced that they were off, off to the land of opportunity.........
...........A land of opportunity where he could earn enough to buy them new shoes and clothes instead of second hand clobber from the jumble sales; where a working man was paid a decent wage without having to scrimp and scrape his way cap in hand through life just to feed the weans; where the sun shone so much that life would no longer be grey with arctic like winters for them to struggle through with nae money fur their heating. He'd found a beacon of hope and a step up from the near poverty that threatened to overwhelm him and his young family. Australia and the Ten Pound Pom emigration scheme was the answer to his prayers and he'd been planning it for a while but said nothing for fear it wouldn't work out and expectations were dashed or even thwarted by those who would make a fuss and not want to go. By the time Jenny had been told, it was a done deal and she came to tell me, stayed for a sleepover and reminiscent of that first day together at school, we both cried the night away in total grief. In two months she was gone but we never lost that connection, well not for a long time but as with all distance relationships, pre email and affordable telephone calls, contact by written hand that was fervent in the beginning became sporadic as the years went by and our adult lives moved on from those relatively carefree childhood days.
I will never forget her but life moves on and I have made other friendships that have had the same deep connection - some of these made after just one meeting which has been a delightful surprise over the years. Ella was a work colleague and a real Jolly Hockey sticks kinda gal. She had all the eccentricity of the very rich, which she was after her parents shuffled off their mortal coils leaving her a multi millionaire. You'd never know it though for what I loved about her was the way she lived modestly almost impoverished with a sofa that her four cats shredded on a daily basis. With huge lumps of sponge filling missing and other pieces hanging down onto the carpet, it was a work of art that Damien Hurst and the Tate gallery would have been proud of. We worked on different projects much of the time but we knew each other through the vast social scene that was inherent to our work life. She lived about five miles from me and when I heard that she had cancer I made a point of going to see her. Our friendship developed over the year during which she went into remission and returned to work with her no nonsense approach to take on the huge projects she was famed for managing. But her good fortune wasn't to last. Excruciating pain in her spine and a sudden inability to walk back from the coffee machine to her desk told her something was drastically wrong. In the midst of her colleagues carrying her to her chair, Ella's heart sunk lower than she had ever imagined it could.
The oncologists report identified secondary tumors in her spine and other major organs. I was naïve and positive and hopeful that she'd beat these monsters down yet again. "You'll do it again Els", I reassured her brightly. "You did it before, you can do it again and this time you know what you're up against, so half the battle's won okay", I flannelled on, hoping to inspire her. I didn't know then that her only hope was chemo and radio therapy to shrink the tumors, to slow their growth. I didn't know that when these didn't work anymore that her end was nigh and that palliative care was all that could be offered. I didn't know until I was finally taken aside and told by a wonderful MacMillan nurse that secondary tumors are terminal and that I should prepare myself for the loss of my friend.
I took my turn, along with closer friends that had known her much longer, in doing practical things she found difficult to undertake as time went on. Her husband, grateful of our help, support and friendship thanked us profusely but we didn't need thanks for you don't do you?; not when it's a pal. But, it wasn't at all miserable and certainly not all one sided. No matter how ill Ella became she kept her sharp dark wit and we would often roll around trying not to dampen the chairs in our great shared mirth.
I'd boss her around and remind her to take her medication. She'd grumble and tell me she was rattling away thanks to the overabundance of pills she had sunk so far that day; "What did forgetting to take a few more matter?", she'd ask crossly, annoyed that her life had been overtaken by schedules, pills, appointments, taking urine samples along with the indignity of being prodded and poked at by doctors and nurses and anyone else called a specialist. She'd tell me to get lost when I was of no more use to her and she needed a nap. She'd become argumentative as exhaustion and pain took over. I'd tell her to watch her manners or she could decompose without me. On one memorable outing, I took her to pick up her NHS freebie wigs that she much preferred over spending good money on privately made wigs that she said she certainly wasn't going to take into the next world with her. I nagged at her and called her mean because I said that a good wig made all the difference and anyway, I wanted them after she was gone because they'd come in handy for Halloween parties and such like. As usual she ignored my advice, tried on a plethora of cheapo wigs and solicited my opinion on which was best. She was none too pleased when I said she had all the allure of a blow up rubber doll.
One Sunday soon after, when she was roasting a chicken for lunch that by now she had no appetite for but wanted to prepare for her husband, she opened the oven rather too quickly. Whilst bending down to check on the contents an excruciatingly hot blast of air hit her full on the face and welded the nylon NHS wig to her forehead. "Cheap is as cheap does", I said when I saw her still wearing it a few hours later. "Christ Ella", I continued as I stared at her. "You could take the fecking thing off, it looks like a rancid bit of old road kill on yer bonce". She registered my comment just as she was taking a drink and I heard her snort heavily before two streams of water and other gooey stuff trickled down her nose as we laughed our heads off at this vision of loveliness she had become.
No matter that when I returned the next day, I scolded her for still wearing this year's 'fascinator' as a hairdo. "I'm not", she said looking straight at me, waiting for reality to set in. "Now don't be so bloody cheeky", she said, as she watched my horrified reaction turn to deep sadness as I looked at the wisps of fine hair left after several bouts of chemo. She'd done well to keep the effects of the chemo under wraps with her wig until her disaster made her go commando as it were. She teased me relentlessly at her little joke for she knew perfectly well that her hair and wig were on a par and that I'd mistake her hair for the burnt wig. I played along and smiled but in my heart I was haemorrhaging emotion because her life was ebbing away in front of me.
Some months later I had to attend a software conference in Minneapolis, USA and it was a three line whip as far as my job was concerned. She understood and scolded me for considering not going and insisted she was much more interested in hearing all the fun tales and gossip from our shenanigans abroad. I knew she missed the vibrancy of work and promised a warts and all report upon my return. To my shame, I felt relieved and quite a bit selfish because her deterioration was rapidly causing her more and more distress and I wondered if I would be strong enough to hold out for her at the end. I was grateful for my friends permission to go and I relished the conference and the chance to socialize with colleagues and friends as we worked hard but also partook of a great deal of alcohol. I had so much to tell her when I returned that would have her heaving with laughter and looked forward to hearing her fantastically wicked laugh. We were in the thick of it all and jolly merry when I was suddenly stopped in my tracks, as though a Tom and Jerry frying-pan-in-the-face kind of moment had happened. I stood still and felt a wave of emotion so strong that I was overwhelmed with the need to cry. I took a moment to register my astonishment at such a depth of feeling.
"Oh God, it's Ella", I blurted out to my drinking buddies as tears welled in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks. "She's gone, I'm sure of it. Oh Christ", I wailed, "and here I am enjoying myself when God knows how she must have been". The guilt of laughter was hanging heavily upon me.
"No she hasn't, she can't have, how on earth would you know?", they asked whilst looking at me as though it was time to cart me off to bed after ten drinks too many.
"She has, I know she has, I just know okay?", I said tetchily for I was filled with a deep sadness and confused at my inability to explain what I was certain of.
When I returned to the UK some three days later, I returned her husband's voice mail message. "What time did she pass away ?", I asked him as he gave me details of her last hours with him."Oh, at six am", he said. "I know because we were in bed together, and for some strange reason the alarm on the clock, which hasn't been set since Ella came home from the hospice, came on to wake me. Shortly after that she let out her last breath. It's incredibly strange but I'm just so grateful that it woke me in time", he said, as he went quiet, reflecting upon those last few painful moments together.
My blood ran cold for a moment for the time that I had felt and known that Ella had gone was 1200am in the USA. - six hours behind 6am in the UK. Sometime after the funeral and when we were able to talk with an amount of acceptance and peace within us I told him what had happened. He felt comforted by my story and I was glad that I had shared it with him.
Although I believe in God, or at least a higher being, I am not inclined to believe in spirits and such like and with a science background tend to be pragmatic about what happens after death but this 'visit' from Ella I cannot explain. I felt the strong disconnection from her after that visit in Minneapolis. I believe in my heart that she came to say goodbye but my head disputes this. I knew she had died and I couldn't be moved on that conclusion even though I couldn't explain it. And now I feel the same overwhelming disconnection from Jenny. Just recently I felt a wave of loss so deep that it threw me. It made me think of Ella but it was Jenny that flooded my mind and stayed with me for days after. Perhaps, it was a goodbye. I don't want to know. I'm too sad to think of her passing, but if it was that I hope she's content and happy and that she's caught up with that mammy of hers after all this time. You see, I am a dichotomy, a person of conflicting views and beliefs as my certainty on things crumble as life teaches me otherwise. As I get older, the more I learn the less I know and the more inclined I am to open up my mind to new orders and possibilities.
I hope she relished her wonderful new life as a Ten Pound Pom; she and her family certainly deserved a better future and God, there are worse places to grow up than paradise. But I hope too she never suffered the hopelessness of the tyranny of distance, of the dislocation of family and of homesickness and knew that somewhere back in the UK, her wee pal held her as dear to her heart as she had always done for even though the memories faded, the friendship and love never did. And finally, I just hope she didn't call any of her kids Kylie or Jason.....