It’s the long hot summer of 1976. June. Finals are over, at last.
I wave a temporary farewell to my friend Ros. She’s looking forward to the autumn, a postgraduate course in Cambridge. To holidaying in France with her brother. And to her 21st birthday party.
We swap a couple of things before she goes. I hand over my posters of the châteaux of the Loire, she lends me a pattern for a long cotton skirt, just right for this weather.
As Ros heads for home, I start learning to type, a condition of the job I’ve landed (despite the rubbish degree that’s my imminent destiny) in an Oxford college library.
For three weeks I spend each weekday morning pounding the keys and hitting the carriage return, every afternoon splashing in the open air pool. By the time the party comes around I’m tanned, fit and – clad in a home-made cotton skirt – trek north to join a gaggle of friends descending on Preston.
Ros and I have lots in common. We were born in the same nursing home (in Preston). We both arrived at uni with long party skirts we’d made from the same tartan fabric.
And we’re both Catholics.
We’ve shared the angst of wondering if we should become nuns.
She’s given me cheering little gifts as I agonise over the conscience choices that come with freedom – and men.
I’m with one of them at her party. But I dance with Ros’s cousin, who takes a fancy to me, and flirt shamelessly.
Ros and I share a room that night. She has the airbed on the floor, I her bed. She wears pale pink bedsocks. Has cold feet. I never knew that.
Her home is large, the garden beautiful. There’s a rosemary walk and a tennis court, but I’m not at all envious because, well – she’s a true friend. She deserves the best.
A few days pass.
I’m sitting in my boyfriend’s parents’ garden, in another northern town. A tiny square of grass. A small pond full of large Koi carp.
I’m saying how lovely I think Ros is, how I wrote to her and told her so, how I hope she gets my letter before she goes away. Boyfriend’s not really interested. I gather together my things and catch the train home to my parents’ little cottage.
I won’t remember the journey.
My mother and my father are there to meet me.
My father doesn’t drive. My mother would usually be alone.
‘Rachel’s mother phoned,’ says my father. ‘Ros has had an accident.’
He doesn’t know the details. But it’s not good.
I sit in the back, praying. Dear God, please don’t let her be blinded.
Why blinded? I don’t know.
The cottage is cool inside.
Rachel’s mother says there was an accident, on the M6 motorway. On their way to France. Their car hit a lorry on the hard shoulder. Her brother died instantly, Ros died later, in hospital.
My parents treat me like I might cry at any moment.
I spend my days lying in the sun. Rarely speaking, except to contact other friends and let them know about the funeral. So many of them are away.
I’m abstracted for days.
I don’t cry.
The sun still beats upon the parched English countryside as I drive – up the motorway – to that lovely house, that rosemary path. To the church. And the cemetery.
The open grave is a shock. A box with her in it, down there, in the earth.
Throwing a handful of soil onto the coffin’s a shock. I’ve never done that before.
We waft around afterwards, in the full gorgeousness of the day, as if at a garden party. How will her parents, her two remaining brothers, be able to live with that rosemary walk, I wonder, now their Rosemary is gone?
Two friends come back with me, ask if I mind if they sit in the back. We’re all scared.
We’re nearing our motorway exit when a car behind me flashes his lights. I drive onto the hard shoulder, sweating through my Laura Ashley frock. Brown, sprigged with white. Not black.
The man pulls off, too. A sack is snagged on the exhaust pipe, he worried it might catch fire. The kind man crawls under the car and pulls it off.
In my numbed state I probably don’t tell him how grateful we are.
Back in Oxford flu sets in. I have hallucinations. I finally grieve. In the thrall of delirium I write to my friend’s younger brother.
My housemates call the doctor. Kind and attentive, there’s one thing I wish they hadn’t done – posted the letter. My outpouring of grief, at last, but at what cost?
And so, life has changed forever.
The future’s no longer the path before us, it’s a will-o-the-wisp – there one minute, gone the next.
Rachel called her first daughter Rosemary. And I’m sure there’s not a week goes by when one or other of us, the old girls, does not think of Ros.
For me, music brings her back.
Cat Stevens, whose Lisa joined us sadly for our late-night, hot blackcurrant drinks. Carol King who assured us we’re as beautiful as we feel.
And the wedding music.
Ros said she wanted it played at her wedding.
I’m no longer able to listen to the whole Mass. Although it conjures up my joy in her life it also revives my sorrow at her passing.
But today, in order to write this post, I listened to ‘In Paradisum’.
Organ notes like the beating of a substantive angel’s wings as it hovers between earth and heaven. Ethereal but firm – how can that be?
I cannot think of a piece of music that summons up more spiritually our beloved, long-gone, never forgotten friend.
Requiescat in pace.
[Written in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge which inspired me, at long last, to air all this, for which, thank you]