I am off down south to my home town tomorrow, for the funeral of a very dear friend.
She was the mother of a boyfriend of mine. We hit it off immediately and when my relationship ended, as these things do, she and I decided that we should remain friends. Over the course of 25 years, we have corresponded regularly (although not regularly enough on my part, I fear) and she has watched and helped as I went off to university, met my partner, had children and generally built a life for myself.
She was a small girl when war broke out and was evacuated to the West Country, an event which had a profound effect on the person she was to become. That early dislocation from home and family made her very attuned to people, one of the most genuinely empathetic people I have ever met. She was an inveterate "people-watcher" and a very astute judge of character. She wasn't nosy and didn't interfere in people's lives - she simply loved people and wanted them to be happy and fulfilled.
It was in no small measure due to her that I went to university at all. At 18 I had decided I didn't want to go. A former teacher herself, she recognised untapped potential and knew that I would benefit from the experience. When, post-break up, I announced that I was considering applying it was she who supported and advised me (making sure first that it wasn't simply a 'rebound' venture) and even influenced my choice of university - "Remember", she said, "Manchester has a life outside the university." She was, as ever, spot on and I am still here, very much in love with my adopted city.
She met my partner early in our relationship, at a time when he was still fairly ill at ease with my family and friends. She 'got' him immediately, and was always as concerned for his welfare as mine. She was delighted, as the years went by, to note how much more relaxed he was in her company.
When our elder daughter was born, and given a very discouraging medical prognosis, she was always there if I needed someone to talk to. Through the first few years, with multiple hospital appointments and the increasingly worrying behavioural problems, she was always the voice of calm and reason; never judging, always accepting. My daughter said the other day, "I'm sorry now that I spent so much time sitting out in the car on our last visit". Her tendency to do this, one of those regular little embarrassments one learns to live with where ASD is concerned, required no explanation. "She'll come in when she feels comfortable" was the verdict.
Packing for my journey tomorrow is a bitter-sweet experience. My washbag and jewellery case were both presents from her - "you'll need these on your travels" - and it has been her that I've stayed with on previous visits for other people's funerals. No matter how late I arrived, she would always collect me from the station, make sure I had something to eat when I arrived, and spoiled me with a leisurely breakfast the following day. It gave us a rare chance to catch up face to face and (she recognised) gave me a break from the demands of parenthood for a few hours.
It was an unusual friendship - not one forged in childhood, but I feel we knew each other that well. I will miss her friendly voice at the end of the phone, I will miss her wise counsel and her humour. She once recounted a function she had attended overseas with her husband, a senior manager in the long-since privatised public transport industry. They were treated as VIPs. "I sat there," she said, thinking, "is this the little girl from Dagenham?!"
I am proud to have been able to call her my friend and mentor. I am the person I am today because of her. I hope she realises the massive impact she made on my life. The little girl from Dagenham was a wonderful human being and the world is a poorer place for her passing.