A LASTING FRIENDSHIP
It was more than thirty years ago when, desperate for company for both me and my first-born, and in the hope of perhaps some sane adult conversation, I joined our local Mother and Toddler group. It was a godsend - toddlers hurled themselves with abandon at various items of play equipment leaving their mums to exchange gossip and tips, compare notes and share problems. Lasting friendships were forged between Mums and toddlers alike. It was there that I first met Frances, large, jolly and full of fun with a small blond demon in tow, sometimes answering to the name of Ben.
In retrospect, it is difficult to say what mutual attraction first ignited the friendship – a shared sense of humour, a similar educational background or just that our two toddlers formed their own bond. Either way, it would prove to be a friendship that would quickly establish itself and also withstand the test of time.
Ben and Larissa were much the same age and as time went on, Frances gave birth to Ross at much the same time as I had Joseph and in less than two years we were both pregnant again, she with Luke and I with Dominic. Dominic was not an easy child and I called a halt at three but Frances wanted to have one more shot at getting a girl, and eventually produced Edward. Despite the inevitable traumas and havoc brought about by having young children, life was good to us; our families prospered and the children played together in moderate harmony. Frances was a tonic on those days when life just seemed to get on top of you; I never knew her to be down and she seemed to cope blithely with whatever life threw her way, despite living with four, it has to be said very lively boys, in a small Victorian terraced cottage that was fairly bursting at the seams.
After more than five years of shared trials and tribulations, our paths diverged as my own life took on a new course. Working for a large multinational, it became inevitable after the first few years that my husband’s job would take him away from the London hub and us away from our rural tranquillity. We were posted from our quiet Sussex village to a Company camp on the shores of Arabia. Of course it was not a tented camp, more of a company village with company commissary, company school, company cinema, company restaurant and housing allocated according to company status. We became highly paid ‘expats’. We were on call to be posted anywhere in the world at only a few weeks’ notice and our children as they grew older, would go away to expensive boarding schools along with the other company children - rightly or wrongly, we always felt that they were considered by the company to be a hindrance to our mobility.
In time, friends made would be lost on each new posting - some making an effort to keep in touch with occasionally paths crossing again and acquaintanceships renewed but mostly friendship became a transitory thing. We made sure that at least a part of each leave was spent in Sussex, and Frances and I would fall happily back into the old routine of children’s teas, trips to the park and days out, weather and school permitting. I envied Frances her stability. Perhaps she even envied me, my seemingly more glamorous jet-setting life style.
It was difficult to keep in touch by telephone in those days. International calls from Arabia were an infrequent luxury that had to be booked several days ahead and tended therefore to be reserved for important family events. Frances and I had to make do with long letters and the occasional postcard.
I missed the green fields and the rolling hills and downland of Sussex, the seasons and long, temperate summer days. On returning to England on leave, the children would pause to pluck grasses and plants, amazed at so much greenery. In Arabia, it was wonderful to be able to sit on the beach in the depths of winter but the searing heat and high humidity of summer sapped our strength. Dusk fell like a curtain at six o’clock but it did not bring with it any relief from the heat - the rocks surrounding us absorbed the daytime heat like storage radiators and released it back to us throughout the long summer nights. In times gone by an earlier generation of expatriates slept on the roofs of their houses, draped in wet towels, but we were the new generation and thankfully had central air-conditioning in our company villas and only had to live in dread of a power cut.
Eventually, we drifted further apart Frances and I. With the children’s attendance at boarding school in Dorset, it was more sensible that we should have a house there to stay in whilst on leave; a base for the children to come back to for half-terms and exeats. I returned less and less to Sussex and although we wrote and exchanged birthday and Christmas cards, this was in the days before e-mail made keeping in contact so much easier. Looking back at those times, I regret not making more of an effort to keep our relationship alive, but perhaps my transitory lifestyle had made me in turn become inured to the seemingly transitory nature of friendship. We did manage one leave together, when Frances and the boys came to stay at our small thatched cottage in Dorset. We renewed our ties of friendship, sitting gossiping in the sunshine whilst the children spent idyllic days floating around in an old rowing boat on the muddy pond at the end of our garden – playing Swallows and Amazons.
The children grew up as children inevitably do and went off to pursue their various careers at their chosen Institutions, leaving me to pursue my own studies with an overseas branch of the Open University. The ‘toddlers’ had grown into fine young people. I later learnt that Ben, the blond demon, had turned into a talented artist and enrolled at art school whilst Larissa was true to all those clichés - a golden child, first-born child of my heart, a child whose school reports glowed with such comments as “a delight to teach”. She loved music and young children in equal quantities so went off to Teacher Training College to study for a degree in Education with Music.
The Open University course was a joy - an outlet for the frustrated intellectualism of a mum of three who had married at the tender age of nineteen. The Company even agreed to pay my fees as part of a new policy brought out in the hope of stemming the tide of disaffected company wives. I studied Maths and Psychology and moved on to Music. Eventually the urge to do more than just study music precipitated a term-time move to England and a more practically-based university course. I entered into student life with relish, and was also able to enjoy visits to and from all three children at weekends.
The bombshell caught us unawares exploding into our quiet lives and causing maximum havoc.
We had moved yet again; this time to The Netherlands. I was at home in our house in The Hague on one of my regular weekend visits back from University, when I had a frantic ‘phone call from our youngest, Dominic, who was at College in the same town where Larissa had found a job teaching. I can remember very clearly standing gazing out of the window at our small back garden as he described how he had been staying with her in her tiny apartment and awoken in the morning to find her gone. A further telephone call soon followed from the town’s hospital where, half-delirious with pain, Larissa had admitted herself that night. It was the start of a seemingly endless nightmare; one which lingers on to this day and which I guess will always be with us.
Larissa’s pain was found to be caused by an ovarian cyst the size of a grapefruit. She was operated on as an emergency and after two weeks came home with us to recuperate for a further three months. Being young and determined, recovery was quick and she was soon back with her primary school class, leading them to victory in a local choir competition. That was not to be the end of it though, a follow-up showed the presence of pre-cancerous cells. Six months later a further routine check-up was due and another frantic ‘phone call reached us down in Provence where we were on holiday. A tumour had been detected and she was to be re-admitted to hospital in a few days for an immediate operation.
I shall never forget the look on the surgeon’s face when we were introduced to him as Larissa’s parents after the operation - it so clearly said “you poor devils” and belied his reassuring words, kindly bedside manner and jokes about wanting to be asked to her 30th birthday party in six year’s time. He had not been able to remove all the cancerous growth in the operation. It had already spread.
It was no comfort to be told that Ovarian cancer was so rare in a young woman of her age. We hoped that her youth would give her the resilience to fight it, but as it was to prove, her youth only caused her metabolism to accelerate the growth of the cancer and in nine short month’s she was lost to us.
I did not know at the time which was the harder to deal with, my own grief or that of her young siblings. As a mother you have an inbuilt biological urge to solve the problems and traumas to which your offspring are exposed - to soothe the wounds; to hug and make it better. It was very hard to be able to do neither.
Like many parents, we wanted to do something to perpetuate her memory and because she was a musician as well as a teacher, it seemed fitting to be able to do something that would help other young people with that same gift to gain perhaps a further foothold on the educational ladder. To that end we established a postgraduate musical scholarship at the University where I was studying and where Larissa had spent much of her convalescent months helping in the music dept. and singing with me in the choir.
Time passes and five years, a divorce and a move of country later, I caught a glimpse of someone being interviewed in the street on one of the television news programmes. She so reminded me of my old friend Frances that I felt compelled to search out her address and write to her. (BT online told me that she was still living at that little Victorian terraced cottage). A week later she sent me a reply with another letter enclosed which amazingly enough she had written to me, at a long since moved from address, several weeks previously. She had hoped it would be forwarded but it had just been returned to her on the day before my own letter arrived from France. It told of her compulsion to write to me, to tell me of how her youngest (the Edward who was not a girl) had just graduated from university and how at the graduation ceremony she had been so moved as she watched a young scholar receive Larissa’s memorial scholarship.
Since then we have taken up the reins of friendship once again. At first it was a tentative exploration – so much to catch up on. Would we have moved too far apart? But soon it was as if the intervening years had never existed and the old easy relationship re-established itself once again. Now, we keep regularly in touch, exchanging news and family photographs and are making plans to meet up again soon.
An expatriate lifestyle has meant that friends have all too often come and gone again with each new posting; the ones who stay the course are especially valued. For me, it has also been important to have contact with someone who knew and remembered Larissa - it helps to keep her memory alive.