Monday, July 22, 2019 10:44

Back To Black Wood

 

I suppose I need to start from the beginning really. My name is Anne King. Anne is short for Joanne. I truly hate the name Joanne. Don’t ask me why. I have a colleague called Joanne and she’s the nicest, coolest person you can imagine. Anyway, when I was little I started to call myself Jo but quickly got fed up with the same silliness day after day. Think about it for a moment; I really don’t need to explain it to you, do I? I fell out with my parents once for calling me Joanne: why couldn’t they call me Emmanuelle? I wanted to know. My best ever best friend’s name was Ellie and I’d somehow got it in my mind that it was short for Emmanuelle. I adored the name and used to lie in bed at night fantasizing over having the name Emmanuelle. I tried it for a while but my parents insisted it wasn’t nice. Not nice for a good Catholic girl they used to say. Then one day I found out my best friends name was really Ellis. Ellis Plunk. I’m not joking here; her name really was Ellis Plunk. I knew about the Plunk bit of course because I used to see it written on things in the classroom. But fancy naming your beautiful baby girl Ellis! To me, my friend Ellie was always an Emmanuelle, right until the day she died.

Ellie and I used to meet after school in the woods just to the north of the school gate. It wasn’t that we were doing anything wrong; just that we weren’t going straight home like we’d been told. In fact, Ellie had been the one who started it because she had this thing about flowers. There were wild primroses and bluebells in the woods and she used to go there and pick them for her mother. I stumbled across her in Blackwood Lane one day, her hands brimming over with flowers.

‘What you been up to?’ I shouted from behind a tree. It made her jump out of her skin because, like me, she’d been told by her mother never to go into the wood.

‘Why aren’t you at home already?’ she demanded, turning round and seeing me hiding.

I could see her face turning red at having been caught stealing flowers from the woods. Either that or she was dead scared I was going to tell her mum where she had been.

‘I got a detention,’ I said. ‘That weirdo science teacher, Mr Webb, kept me back for flicking paper clips at that new black girl.’

Ellie looked askance at me.

‘What?’ I demanded.

‘What do you mean, what?’

‘Well, you gave me that look.’ I said.

‘I never did give you a look,’ she insisted, then added: ‘And you know what I mean.’

‘Oh, you mean calling her black,’ I said, suddenly realising what she was getting at. ‘Well she is black.’

‘Shush! You mustn’t say things like that, Anne.’

‘Shit, Ellie,’ I demanded. ‘Is she black or is she not?’

Ellie turned to face me and just stared. I think at least ten seconds went by before finally her faced began to crease. I wasn’t sure if it was because I’d called a girl black or because I’d used the ‘S’ word.

Suddenly she burst out laughing: ‘Black as weirdo Webb’s car,’ she agreed.

I remember screaming something and running towards her and the two of us ending up in a great big hug. By the time we stopped laughing our faces were stained with tears and our eyes were rose petal red. I do believe it was at that very moment that Ellie became someone special in my life.

We went home that evening new best friends with a promise that we’d always walk to school together and never ever be apart – and she’d show me where the flowers were in the wood.

The following morning she came knocking for me and we went off arm in arm, happy as new best friends could ever be.

As the weeks went by and spring turned into summer the flowers disappeared and there was nothing left to pick, so we took to just sitting there in the silence of Black Wood, looking up at the leaves on the trees and listening to the birds singing. Ellie got a bird book for her birthday – she always was an outdoorsy sort of person – and together we became experts at identifying the different species. There were blackbirds and robins, willow warblers and even a nightingale. We loved the nightingale best of all. Ellie and I were so best friends that nothing else really seemed to matter except being together..

It seemed like a lot of years went by, though I guess it was only months, and we began to grow into young ladies. We started to dress in a more grown up way and use make-up. On school days we’d roll the waistband of our skirts up so they got shorter and shorter and boys began to take an interest. There were shops to explore after school or at weekends, and a new burger bar in town. Only once after that first year did we again set foot in Black Wood, and that was out of a reckless and morbid curiosity after the story went round that the black girl in our class got raped there. Who wanted wild primroses and bluebells anyway when the shops were full of clothes and shoes – and there was pocket money just waiting to be spent?

Ellie and I were the same age, all except one month, so we left school together. She was cleverer than me and got better qualifications – though she was completely lacking in nous. She wanted to be a personal trainer in a gym; I wanted to be a secretary. Not just any old secretary you understand; it was going to have to be something to do with medicine or the law. I had no intention of spending my working life juggling bits of paper in a wooden hut on a building site and getting humped behind the filing cabinet by some randy plumber. And so it was that the two of us settled into the growing up process; having and losing boyfriends, loving guinea pigs and seeing them die, and going through the trauma of job interviews. We both got jobs at our first interviews and incredible as it may seem, both lost those jobs within twelve months of each other. But through all of those hard times we were always there for one another; always ready to share the bad times as well as the good. It was only as we embarked upon the process of finding husbands that the course of our lives found different paths: Ellie’s path was a bit like a freshly laid highway whilst mine resembled a rutted cart track. Ellie found a wonderful man whose name was Martin Ireland. She became Ellis Ireland – no, not Ellis Island where all those years ago people arrived to make their fortunes in the New World: It was spelt differently. Ellie, by now a sophisticated and beautiful woman of twenty-two, and well on the way to becoming a sports centre manager, refused to see the name joke and made it obvious that any play on names was not welcome. I do believe it was the one and only time the two of us fell out. Love does that to you. But the falling out didn’t last.

I found out about Martin late one summer evening. I’d not long said goodbye to Laurence – one of the many men who seemed to fill my life like dust clouds wafting across the cart track I mentioned earlier – when the phone rang. Why, I wondered, would anyone be calling at this time of night? It must have been on its tenth ring when the nicer side of my character kicked in and I became suddenly aware that it might be Larry – please, don’t say anything; he really likes being called Larry – and I had this vision of him lying injured in a gutter somewhere. Better still, I got this fleeting fancy all of a sudden that he might have changed his mind and had decided to come back and spend the night with me. I snatched the phone off its cradle like a bear swiping salmon from a river. ‘Hello’ I said, trying like mad to conceal my desperation.

The voice on the other end was plainly not Larry. I’m not even sure it sounded human. It sounded like someone had their head in a barrel full of mating cicadas. ‘Who is it?’ I demanded.

‘It’s me Anne. Who do you think it is?’ It was Ellie.

‘Oh, hello Ellie,’ I said through the cicadas. Ellie always had an aversion to ending phone conversations and I suddenly felt very tired.

‘Hey, Anne, there’s me calling with the news of the century and you sounding like you’ve been told the Dalai Lama wants you to have his babies.’

‘Well, you sound like you’re phoning from the moon,’ I said.

‘I think I am on the moon, Annie.’

I can remember the first time Ellie called me Annie; I think it was a few minutes after she’d had sex for the first time. It might have been full intercourse, but she was so out of control that I never did get to the truth. Anyway, this was only the second time she’s called me Annie and it made wonder if she really could be on the moon.

‘Isn’t it cold up there this time of night? I enquired just a little tongue in cheek.

‘Oh, Annie, for God’s sake grow up will you. I was speaking metaphorically.’

‘Ellie,’ I demanded wearily. ‘It’s exactly midnight and I’m in need of some beauty sleep. Why are you calling me at midnight?’

‘It’s not midnight,’ she stated with a simplicity that underlined her sloppy attention to detail.

I asked her where she was and what time it was there.

‘I’m in New York and it’s seven in the evening…’

‘Okay Ellie, just stop there for a moment,’ I interrupted. ‘Let me guess. You did your sums and discovered it was two o’clock in the afternoon here. Am I right?’

‘Well … yees’ By now I had detected a hint of uncertainty in her voice.

‘Ellie, which way does the world turn?’ I demanded. I’m always good with sarcasm when I’m tired.

‘It goes from left to right,’ she said with confidence. ‘Like as if you were travelling anti-clockwise round the M25.’

I had a bit of a problem with this analogy but decided it was not a good time to start explaining the nuances of planetary motion.

‘Yes dear,’ I offered, trying hard to keep the condescension out of my voice. ‘It spins from west to east, which means that here in London I’ve already lived through your seven o’clock.’ I paused to let that sink in.

‘Oh shit! I got it the wrong way round didn’t I?’

‘Yes dear, you did.’

‘Oh shit! Sorry Anne.’

‘Look, Ellie, I’m not as tired as I was thirty seconds ago. I’ve just been told my best friend is the first woman on the moon and that planet Earth spends its day travelling round London. Now, whilst I’m excited at the prospect of the first part qualifying me for a spot on Jonathan Ross, I really would like you to get to the point. Could we get to the point, do you think?’

‘Anne,’ Ellie replied, ‘I’m not sure I want to tell you my news any more. You’re being horrible.’

I felt like telling her about horrible. That the very essence of horribleness was being phoned at midnight by a scatty brunette who’d found a payphone on the moon. Instead, I made some sort of placatory noise in the hope that my best friend would get to the point before the sun came up. I drew up a chair and poured myself another glass of wine. Something told me this was not going to be an easy conversation.

‘I’m here Ellie,’ I sighed, ‘Tell me all about it.’

After a short pause which gave me the opportunity to listen to the cicadas again, she said: ‘He asked the question.’

Her excitement suggested that maybe someone had offered her the equivalent of Ecuador’s gross national product. ‘Ellie, it’s plainly something you’re excited about so I hope you said yes.’

‘Well, it’s like yes and no.’

‘Jesus, Ellie.’ I replied forcefully. ‘How can it be yes and no? If someone offers you money you take it!’

There was a silence during which I wondered if I’d insulted her in some way. ‘Look, Ellie, this might not be the best time of day for me …’

‘We’ve been best friends for nearly twenty years,’ she interrupted, ‘and you’re treating me like I’m some silly little girl who doesn’t know about things.’

There were times when I was convinced Ellie knew nothing about anything. I hope she couldn’t see me nodding my head.

‘Ellie, darling, you know I love you like a sister, and I really do want to share your good news. So please calm down and tell me who asked you something, and what it was he asked.’

‘We went to Ellis Island,’ she said.

It was like she’d started on an entirely different subject. I hoped my grunt of despair had been lost amongst the cicadas.

‘Who is “we”?’ I asked, realising my question could be about to open a floodgate.

‘Me and Martin…’

This wasn’t a good time correct grammar. ‘Do I know this Martin, Ellie?’

‘Don’t think so, Annie,’ she laughed like an adolescent.

There were times with Ellie when you had to be hard to be kind; times when she needed to be kept on track. Hence what I said earlier on about still being here at sunrise.

‘In that case you haven’t started at the beginning, have you dear? Now take a deep breath and tell me who Martin is’

‘He’s me fiancé,’

‘Fiancé? I stammered. ‘You don’t have a fiancé.’

‘I do now,’ she enthused.

I’m sure I could hear her heart beating. Either that or it was the cicadas waggling their antennae, or whatever cicadas do after sex.

There’s a great deal more to this story and I don’t want to bore you with the finer details; suffice to say that Ellie had gone for a short break to New York and met this guy – Martin Ireland – and had fallen sufficiently in love with him for her to accept his proposal of marriage. The man obviously had his wits about him because he’d managed to suss out that if/when they got married, his wife’s name would be Ellis Ireland. And so he had taken her on a trip to Ellis Island in order to propose.

I found myself wondering if Larry might be romantic like that one day; maybe take me to the Gulf of St. Laurence and ask me to be his wife. But then knowing my luck his surname would turn out to be Morecombe and I’d end up being proposed to in Bolton le Sands.

 

Ellie and Martin set a date the following year for a spring wedding and I was asked to be head bridesmaid. We did all the wonderful things that girls do as a wedding approaches; showers in more homes than Ellie had friends, and a hen weekend in Brighton.

Ellie and Martin went on to become the most wonderfully happy couple and parents of two sons and two daughters. I was Godmother to their first son, Barry. Barry was a dead ringer for his dad; eyes duck-egg blue and hair as black as Rhonda coal. The bonniest child I’d ever seen. Neither of his parents seemed the least bit concerned that their first born would bear the name of a Welsh seaside resort. I tried to make them reconsider, but to no avail. Barry grew up far too intelligent for his own good, got a degree in modern languages and ended up working for one of the big Spanish banks. Simon came next. He did a variety of jobs and provided Ellie and Martin with six grandchildren before taking early retirement from a job in local government. Samantha, their third-born, inherited her mother’s beauty, married a big shot from the city and immigrated to Australia.

Then, the baby of the family, little blonde-haired Megan, was killed outside their home by a car. Dear, beautiful Megan didn’t quite make it to her teens and her death was an event that opened the door on adversity for Ellie and Martin and bestowed disaster where there had once been blessing. It became an event that was to bring me closer to Ellie and Martin than I’d thought possible.

 

Then, one Friday morning I was in my boss’s office when the strident ring of my mobile phone cut across our conversation. I was his PA, and he had a serious attitude when it came to private phone calls. He was one of the old school who believed that employees should sever all ties with the outside world whilst at work. He gave me a look which said to answer my phone but be quick about it. My boss could be grumpy in spades.

I had a shrewd idea who might be calling me and right up there amongst the favourites were my cleaning lady – who had promised to call me only if my apartment had been destroyed in a fire or if Sally, my pet salamander was dead – and Ellie. Besides, there were few other people in my contacts list anyway. I plunged a hand into my bag and felt around amongst tissues and lipsticks and nail files for a tiny object that seemed on the point of blowing a gasket. I found it buried under a can of hair spray and flipped it open. It was Ellie. I had once explained to Ellie that any call to me at work which wasn’t of the urgent nature would probably lead to me inflicting extreme pain on her and probably death. I think I knew in that brief moment that something bad had happened and that I was about to regret those words. I pressed the little green telephone icon. ‘Hello El,’ I said.

 

It had been just a week since the three of us had enjoyed dinner together, so when I saw Martin in his hospital bed I was shocked beyond belief. From the animated and engaging personality I had grown to love had emerged the sorry ghost of a man looking death in the face. I think I knew what needed to be said but it was as if the tears that waited to wash me of my despair had somehow frozen my tongue. To say I felt a sudden hopelessness is the understatement of my life. And to think a horrible thing called cancer could have done this to someone I loved like a brother just made me angry. As I sat at the bedside and reached out for Martin’s hand I succeeded in saying something. I can only hope the words, whatever they were, didn’t reflect the inadequacy and rage that filled my heart.

It is never much of a consolation to observe that the end was quick; that, thank God, he didn’t suffer for long. No widow wants to hear stuff like that.

Eight days later I went with Ellie to scatter Martin’s ashes in Black Wood. We sat together beneath the very same oak where we had once listened to nightingales. ‘If he’d died in the spring,’ she said, ‘I’d have picked some primroses and bluebells for his coffin.

Then she put her head on my shoulder and cried.

 

I believe that life cannot ever be the same when one of its players has been lost. A bit like King Lear without The Duke of Burgundy: It works, but nothing like as good as before. Ellie became a different person after Martin went; like he had been the keeper of the key to what made her Ellie. There were times when I found myself thinking she was a better person; no longer the gloriously scatty character I had grown to love but an equally nice and loving friend. Her phone calls were suddenly more to the point and no longer came at unsocial hours. It was almost as if her own suffering had in some way sensitized her to the needs of others.

She called me one day to say that she had taken up voluntary work as an assistant behind the counter of a charity shop. I took to calling in there on Saturday mornings to browse the second-hand books; sometimes I went out the back and helped sort through the stuff people had donated. In our middle age we were finding a new place for ourselves. Then one day, with a shop full of customers, she confided in me that she had lump on her left breast.

It was typical of Ellie, that matter-of-fact way she dealt with her own needs. Suddenly it was me calling her, wanting to know how she was; wanting to know the results of her latest visit to the doctor. It was only as the disease took a firmer grip on her body that I finally understood the effect Martin’s loss must have had on my friend. It was a sobering reminder of how swiftly life and its events can change us.

Finally, when the cancer had spread across much of her body and she had lost her hair and much of her will to live, I found myself visiting her daily. We talked about times gone by: the years we spent growing up together and the pact we had made that day in Blackwood Lane, that we would be friends for ever. We giggled about how juvenile we had been at eleven, and how level-headed and rational we had become in the half century since.
I was sitting at Ellie’s bedside late one night in March when she gave up and died. Barry and Simon were there; Samantha was on a plane somewhere between Brisbane and Heathrow. Ellie’s funeral took place two Tuesdays later, and very early that morning I went back to Black Wood and picked primroses and bluebells. I don’t know if her family knew the significance of the little earthy clump I put on her coffin as it entered the chapel, but for me it was the best way to say goodbye.

 

Copyright © J E Emberson 2009