I ring up the Beloved Cousin.
‘Oh,’ she exclaims. ‘I miss you.’
‘I miss you too,’ I shout.
‘I was only thinking, just the other day,’ she said, ‘that I miss you. It was something that made me laugh, that I knew would make you laugh too.’
The Beloved Cousin and I are quite distant cousins. Our great-grandfathers were brothers. Our grandmothers knew each other quite well, and our fathers met as boys, but then went in radically different directions, one into racing, one into politics. So, in the end, we met quite by chance, when we were in the same university town at the age of eighteen. It took a while. She was very glamorous and went to London a lot. I was a bit of a swot and spent most of my time discovering new libraries. (The day I found the Codrington was the day I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.) I did go dancing in the evening, because it was the eighties and we really did go disco dancing, but for quite a long time I was more of a History Faculty sort of gal. And then our worlds, which had always slightly overlapped, came together, and suddenly, almost from one day to the next, we were friends, and that was that.
Thirty years, give or take. Imagine that. We’ve driven across Ireland together, and flirted with poets and piano players and a famous old politico, who appeared out of nowhere rather to everyone’s surprise. We were together on the Worst Holiday in the World, when a group of twelve of us crammed into what was advertised as a Spanish villa, and turned out to be a house the size of a postage stamp, situated opposite a 24-hour petrol station. The fallings out started within half an hour and by the end no-one was speaking to anyone, except for the cousin and I.
We’ve bitten our lips as we watched each other fall in and out of love with entirely unsuitable gentlemen. I would drive down to Brighton to see her in rep, in her acting days, and she would be by my side at each book launch. We’ve stayed up till dawn and watched the sun rise, and now, in our middle-age, we put on our slippers and have a glass of the good claret and take grateful old lady early nights.
We’ve spent Christmases and Easters and New Years together. We’ve shouted them past the post at Ascot and roared them up the hill at Cheltenham. Our eyes have met in speaking understanding across dinner tables filled with crashing bores (and crashing boors). I saw the very first smile of her second daughter, at three weeks old, and to this day, we all say, in unison: ‘It was not wind.’ On the night of my father’s funeral, it was she who took me in. Three weeks later, I drove her the two hundred miles home from her brother’s funeral.
In those thirty years, I think we’ve had one falling out. It lasted for about two hours, and once we talked over the misunderstanding and almost wept with relief, we never did it again.
Our lives are stupidly busy, and our schedules are quite different, and we spend a lot of time thinking we should ring and then not ringing because it’s not the right moment, so when we spoke this morning we had not heard each other’s voices for a few weeks. Within four minutes, we were laughing so much we could not breathe or talk. We were laughing at two memories, ranging back over many years, because we’ve got so much history together, so many stories, so many disasters and heartbreaks and muddles and absurdities. The amazing thing is that even the heartbreaks make us laugh now.
When I was very young, I suspected that someone, somewhere, had made a bit of a category error. Into the category of indispensible things, of defining fulfilments, that someone had put romantic love. It also went very much into the Woman category. That was the thing that the ladies could not do without. Men, the swaggery adventurers that they were, could probably live quite well without a love of their life, but the tender-hearted females would be lost without it. I remember getting really quite cross about this. I thought the love that mattered, the love that endured, the love that one could not survive without was friend love. In all my early novels, the true love is that of friendship.
Thirty years on, I think that I was right. I was wrong about pretty much everything in my youth, except possibly my views on the Repeal of the Corn Laws. I had that arrogance of too much education, and could not yet tell the difference between book learning and life learning. But I think I got that part right. Apart, obviously, from having a red mare, the greatest joy in life is a true friend.
I smile as I write this. I think: why is she such a good friend? Why do I love her so? Let me count the ways. She is funny, and clever, and kind, and wise, and literal, and unexpected. She knows a lot about a lot of things, and she is very modest about it, hiding her light under a bushel. She’s stoical; she damn well gets on with it. I admire her, because she’s made one of the best and happiest and most interesting families I’ve ever seen. Her house is a happy house.
She’s an enthusiast. She does not make a three act opera of everything and she knows very well that not everything is about her. She is a good listener. She’s an incredible amount of fun to be around, but she also has something earthed in her, steady and rooted. She always makes me feel better than I am. She gets every single thing I say, so I never have to explain myself. She is generous and thoughtful. In thirty years, she has never bored me for a single second.
All that is true, and yet that is not all of it. She’s got that indefinable extra thing, that little sprinkle of stardust, that something special, that cannot go into easy words or blithe adjectives.
British people tend not to tell their friends how absolutely bloody marvellous they are. We Britons are brought up to read between the lines, rely entirely on understatement, take refuge in irony. It’s quite terrifyingly embarrassing to use a simple declarative sentence or make a direct expression of love. Even paying a compliment can feel alien and vulgar and must at once be followed by a joke. The real truth will generally only come out after copious amounts of strong liquor. (This may be why dear old Blighty is an island of drinkers.) But sometimes, I say to myself sternly, one must Say The Thing. If one has such a friend, it is worth more than rubies. From time to time, the thing must be marked. Respect is due. And gratitude, too.
I love this one of the BC, not just because of the idiosyncratic rock and roll sunglasses, but because you can see me reflected in the left hand lens. There we are, together, at the click of a shutter:
With her girls:
And a little random collection of pictures from the last few days: