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.
‘May the angels lead you into paradise…’
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]
Very moving and poignant piece of writing, a beautiful tribute to Rosemary RIP. The life and death of each of us has an influence on others:
“Be mindful of our brother and sisters
who have fallen asleep in the peace of Christ,
and all the dead whose faith only you can know.
Lead them to the fullness of the resurrection
and gladden them with the light of your face.”
Tony, I thought I had replied to you earlier but it seems to have vanished. I am touched by this, thank you, I have realised since I wrote this how deeply I still feel this loss. It’s good to hear from you again, St Cuthbert’s too holds a very special place in my heart, Mary
Beautifully remembered & written, thankyou. I hope her parents found peace. I too remember the shock of losing a school friend at 16; it’s like the first real taste of ‘growing up’ somehow… Innocence forever lost.
Ah, thank you, Gabrielle. Yes, it changes your life forever, doesn’t it? I feel really drained now, having written this – one of the things that hangs over me is the not knowing how her family fared and feeling guilty about many things – not being a good enough friend, my self-indulgent letter to her younger brother – but I’m also really grateful that we had the years we had. Thanks again for reading, Mary
A beautiful tribute. Don’t think you were self-indulgent. Her younger brother most likely found solace in the fact that some-one loved his sister so much. I was surprised when in the relative position just how much these things meant and how much peace you got from reading them.
Thank you, Irene. I was surprised after writing this how deeply it all went still. One of the sad things was how many of our friends were unable to be there because they were away for their holiday – a funeral is at least one of those rites of passage that help you move on a degree. Thank you for reading and taking the trouble to comment,
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You are exactly the same age of me and you graduated in the same month. And also I learned to type after graduating. Very sad and beautifully written.
Hi Charlie, thanks for reading it. It’s odd to think of learning to type now, isn’t it? We all had that fear that we’d be cast in the secretarial mould if we could type – but it’s been a reall asset. This post affected me a lot – I had no idea it was still so deep in me, the grief. I’m glad you commented,
Beautiful writing. I loved every bit of it and isn’t it good that you got to express how you felt this far down the track? It made me think that I had two friends that agonised over whether to become nuns with me! The strange things is, I did … for two years anyway, but when I left and came home, my two friends had moved on with their lives and the FRIENDSHIPS died eventually. It made me realise that I had not grieved for the loss of those friendships. Thanks for sharing. Tess
Hello Tess. Gosh, what a surprise. It’s very hard for people who didn’t grow up immersed in Catholicism/Christianity as we (Ros and I and presumably you) did to understand that feeling – the possibility of being a nun is there – are you destined for it, should you? I’m interested that you actually took the plunge. Are you still a practising Christian? Friendship is undervalued isn’t it?
Thank you for this comment, it has been, in an odd way, reassuring,
Mary, I had a feeling that my sharing would be reassuring but I wasn’t sure why! Yes, I am a practicing Catholic but I think of myself as a Christian first and foremost. My spirituality still means a lot to me and my husband and grown children know this. Strange, but I sort of lost my way for a few years when I came out of the convent but eventually I found my niche in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal in a low key way but it renewed my faith and I couldn’t be happier with where I am now.
The best thing of all, I have a few really good girl friends who share the spiritual journey with me mostly over lunches and high teas!! We like a bit of fun with our spirituality!
But best of all, we care for each other just like you and your friend that you lost. Whilst no one can replace her, I hope you have found other friendships where you share the depth of yourself. Are you still a practicing Christian? Love Tess xx
Tess – I forgot to reply to this when I went to read the posts you mentioned in your other comment. My answer to the ‘are you still a practicing..’ is, sort of! My ‘Religious for a year’ posts go a bit of the way to explaining… Thanks again for reading and for your empathy, Mary x
Of course Mary, I did read your ‘religious for a year’ postings! I was fascinated at the time. I’ve just reread them and am in awe of what you and ‘atheist man’ are doing together. It’s almost Advent again … what now? Perhaps God is calling you back to him Mary? Oh, life is a journey isn’t it? One step at a time. My husband converted to Catholicism many years ago and we go to Mass most Sundays. It grounds us somehow, but I do try to live my commitment as best I can! I’ll wait for the next installment! Tess x
Hi Tess. I spoke to Atheist-Man about Advent yesterday and he is of a mind to carry on till Christmas now… We will see! I am taking one step forward two steps back – or is it the other way round? I don’t know. Life is fraught with rather practical issues at the moment – moving house here in the UK is a process that can drag on forever as people can (and did in our case) drop out of the purchase for no special reasons at four months in… but it’s all on again now with a different family and my head is too congested to think so, I’m just waiting and seeing. I’m aware it’s been a while since the last instalment – I know I’m holding it at arm’s length! Deep breath… Good to hear from you again, Mary x
Oh good. You can’t do Advent without going to Christmas Mary! Good luck with your shifting too. You are right, you have too much going on for big decisions and why not put it at arm’s length. I do believe in one day at a time. And do you know what? Sometimes in the spaces (when we’re taking that deep breath) we give room for the spirit of God to speak to us! Good luck. My prayers are with you during this time. Tess xx
Thanks Tess, Mx
Oh another thought, you might like to the two posts I wrote on the subject. The second link is on the bottom of the first.
hello, Mary… i share your pain and feel your loss. words are not enough to tell one’s grief upon losing a dear friend. she is your Ros, she touched and enriched your life – she will be missed… 🙂
thank you for your concern. my family and i are safe. thank you for your sympathy for the victims of the typhoon in the Philippines. thank your friends also for me, for their donation. hugs and regards…
Hugs back, San. M
I see you!Thanks for sparing the time to call in, thinking of you all, Mx
How are you doing? I see you are reading and hope that means things there are feeling better. x
ahaha, that’s cool. you, waving, i mean… yep, gotta catch up on my reading. and yours, is the first, hoho… 🙂 it’s almost two a.m. here, am bad. glad to see you…
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That almost had me in tears. I’m not sure I could find the words to write something like that.
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I heard Faure’s ‘Pie Jesu’ on the radio driving the other day and had to stop. It helped, that’s all I can say, but it was tough writing it. Thank you so much for reading it – and commenting.
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