It has been a long time since I have written those words, over a decade, and this will possibly be the last time I write to you, but for many years I wrote those two words several times a week and enjoyed the benefit of your friendship.
I remember when I first met you. I had arrived in school for my first day feeling completely lost and as I walked through the courtyard saw a young girl crying her eyes out in misery and confusion at her first day at secondary school. She was a good crier too. She had a plain face, bottle end glasses and her cheeks were pink and wet as she tried without success to stem the howls and sobs. A male teacher approached her and asked her name, then calmly explained to her he would find out where she needed to be and get her looked after.
I felt just like that girl. The difference was I was to begin teaching that day.
Never in my life have I felt so totally unprepared to start a job as I did walking in to that school that day. I had done a post graduate year to qualify as a teacher and knew nothing, only that I had been assured I would never be offered a job because I did not want to do ‘country service’, which meant living in the bush for three years. Fine by me. Two weeks into the new school year and the phone rang, could I start on Monday? Er… Yes, I suppose so.
I think, Dorothy, you were one of the first people I met in the tiny office for the English staff. Little did I know that you had been hoping a friend of yours would get the job and had come to see the young upstart that had been offered the role (the reason being that I had ‘fluent in French’ on my CV and the job required teaching two classes of French a week too). I had absolutely no idea what to do, and said as much to you – at which point you gave me a simple but brilliant piece of advice: start with something you know well and enjoy.
I flicked through the text books and found some Roald Dahl and a Hemmigway short story, and they remained my opening texts for each new class I took at the beginning of the year. The Hemmingway story was called Indian Camp and contained a particularly gruesome account of a woman giving birth. I used to read that to the Year Ten girls as a cautionary tale.
You had a particular habit of breaking off towards the end of a sentence, and smiling unexpectedly to reveal huge teeth, as if assuming the person to whom you were talking was intelligent enough to finish the thought for you. My other abiding memory of you, having the literature classes, is one forever bent under the weight of a bag that you permanently carried slung over your back, stuffed with marking to do. You always marked with great care and probably took longer over the marking of your students’ work than they did writing it. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in one of your classes. I bet you did that stopping and smiling thing when expanding on a metaphor in poetry, leaving your class gasping at whatever mystery you were alluding to remaining locked. But that is the point really, isn’t it? As they needed to work out their own responses to the writing.
When I left the school to return to the UK, you gave me a bottle of wine, with a label you had drawn yourself of a figure with a pack pack, traveling off. You had named the wine, ‘The Packer’s Tipple’ and I still have the bottle. You gave me your address and I promised to write, as you did too. I did not think too much of it, many people had done the same and you and I had not socialized much, if at all outside of school.
Newly arrived in London, I kept my promise and wrote a letter – what I hoped was a humourous story of my disastrous trip over (so frightened am I of flying that I nearly killed myself overdosing with tranquilizers and alcohol). Around a week later a letter came back from you and then another, and another. You wrote and wrote and wrote and I wrote back just as much. In the end, although sometimes letters would be direct answers to letters, other times it was just because one of us had read a brilliant book, or in my case as I was living in London at the time, seen some great theatre and could not wait to discuss it. We would write at least once a week but sometimes twice or three times. But there was a lot more going on than reading and news from my old workplace. The conflict you felt between staying in the ‘safe’ job, with the ever tempting carrot of long service leave dangling, or throwing it all to the heavens and risking it to pursue writing full-time. Who knows? Maybe if you had spent less time writing to me, you could have completed a novel. I kept all your letters and you assured me that mine were safe and sound in WA (as if they were going to become something of worth!).
Your letters were as rich and entertaining as the flurry of them had been totally surprising and I am forever grateful to have had the privilege of that experience.
You came over to the UK a couple of times while I was there and it was so good to catch up with you. We went to Stratford for Shakespeare – to see the RSC and see the tomb. I bought a print of a brass rubbing of Shakespeare’s tombstone and it is currently hanging in my hall, but you also came to Brighton and we ate mushrooms with loads of garlic and drank red wine and staggered back up the hill arguing about words.
It was great to catch up with you when I got back to Australia, but of course then there was no need to write and so, ironically, as I moved back to the same side of the world, our contact grew less and less frequent. We finally did make the time to catch up and when we did, I was amazed at the new ‘slim you’.
‘It is my teeth!’ You exclaimed, ‘I have had so many problems with them and I sort of stopped eating, because they were in such bad shape.’
But a couple of months later over a late night phone call, you confessed that you thought something else was wrong. You had been worried for a while. There had been…things happening that reminded you of your mother when she got sick, but you did not dare go to the doctor.
‘Dorothy, you simply must,’ I urged, ‘Remember Silvia Plaths’s father!’
(Silvia Plath’s father had been convinced his whole life he would die of cancer and when he became unwell refused to see a doctor. When he became so ill the matter was taken out of his hands and one was called, it was discovered he actually had diabetes and could have been treated after all, but they had left it too late and his organs were already failing. He died shortly after.)
Well it wasn’t diabetes, and the weight loss had been nothing to do with your teeth. It was cancer and it was advanced.
One massive operation later and some follow up treatment and you looked, ironically, better than I have ever seen you. Possibly because you were not teaching anymore and had no more marking. I did not want to get in the way, your husband had been finding things tough and as a result had cut off ties with a number of friends.
I think the last time I saw you was when we went to see Macbeth with another teacher from the old school. It was such fun to catch up and hear you make a declaration of thoughts on the role of the witches in that production, which typically you left hanging for us to finish.
I had told you to ring me as often as you wanted but that I did not want to call and impose, to make it harder work for you at home than it already was. That was a mistake, I should have found a way to stay in touch. I should have written some letters.
But I did not write, Dorothy and I regret that. You were a great friend to me, a staunch supporter, amazing and fun company and the best correspondent I have ever known. I let you down in your last months by not calling when I should have, husband or not. I didn’t even hear of your death till a month after it happened, and I never got to say what a wonderful friend you were, and how important your friendship was to me.
So I have written this one last letter to you, Dorothy, to thank you for being a great colleague and a wise and wonderful friend. This letter does not do you justice, and neither, I am afraid did I. For that, I am sorry.
Vale, my friend.