Life can get in the way of keeping up with friends and sometimes no matter how close they once were the connections you had with them slip and slide away.
Sadly this has been true with one particular friend who I first struck up a friendship with over 30 years ago. This is despite the fact that she only lives 5 minutes walk away and that we have many other interlinked connections and relationships.
It was through Carol that we bought our very first VW camper from her friends, Colin and Mary. They had called the van Bessie and had had many adventures with her throughout Europe before parting with her. We continued this tradition and have maintained a love of camping and travelling ever since, albeit through a series of camper vans. After many adventures, Bessie has been long gone, mainly due to her temperamental nature and the difficulties around securing parts for constant repairs!
I had first met Carol about 32 years ago. I was teaching in a school attached to a children’s care home with some of the most disturbed and distressed young people I have ever met. Carol was a new teacher and my first encounter with her was memorable. I was in the corridor outside the room she was teaching in when the door burst open. Carol flew out of the room a vibrant bundle of energy and started banging her head on the wall all the while shouting repeatedly “I am not a tomato!”
After a few repetitions of this announcement she quietly returned to her class and shut the door.
The children we were working with had all suffered trauma from the emotional and physical abuse they had encountered. In the classroom the outward symptoms of their emotional turmoil could take many forms…..and they loved to test out the patience and understanding of new members of staff . As far as her English class was concerned, Carol was “fresh meat”. Which was why I was casually positioned in the corridor outside her room in case things inside her room became “tasty”. Carol’s outburst was in fact a clever, considered response to the complete silent treatment and refusal to engage that the pupils inside the room had been set upon following. Her tactic worked, the ice was broken and the stunned class began to respond and become involved in their lesson.
We soon became good friends and along with other like minded female teaching colleagues from the school formed a close friendship group. In an ironic salute to the characters from the comic Viz we referred to ourselves as ” The Fat Slags”. I can recall several occasions in local curry houses, the astounded faces of other diners when Carol bellowed to me across the room…” Oi! You Fat Slag!” upon randomly encountering me there.
In times gone past we had almost always attended Carol’s annual Christmas party, held the last Saturday before Christmas Day. A boozy, exuberant evening of Christmas Carols and other festive songs. But this too had slipped away.
In the weeks before Christmas, as I passed the end of her street, weighed down with Christmas shopping, I did wonder if she would be hosting one this year. All the while acknowledging that it was unlikely I would go…..I was far too busy following the life path that had diverged from the one that led to her house. But, heigh ho that’s the way it goes.
Then just before Christmas Eve I bumped into one of the many connections we have with Carol. It was at a Mik Artistik gig at the Brudenell. This connection was in the form of Angela, one of Carol’s stepdaughters.
Although, Carol had split from their father decades before, she had remained on very close terms with all her stepchildren. Angela with her husband, Alun, had also worked with my husband, Gary at a challenging, Leeds secondary school. A great and lasting camaraderie among the staff there had been created by the difficulties they had faced together and whenever we bumped into Angela and Alun we always enjoyed a catch up.
As I said our links with Carol are complex and our lives in Leeds are closely intertwined even if we have somehow let our friendship slip aside.
Carol, Angela told me, was seriously ill in hospital. So ill that she wasn’t expected to recover. She and all the rest of her family had been keeping bedside vigils in the hope that Carol would recover from the pneumonia and other illnesses that had struck her down in November.
Her illness was a huge shock to everyone in her very wide circle of friends, family and work colleagues She was much younger than me, a larger than life character full of wit, joy and laughter. She had once laughingly referred to herself as the female version of my equally lively and sociable Gary.
Instantly I was torn. I wanted to rush off to the hospital to see Carol and support and help her. But, what use could I be? Also, I still remember how bitter I felt towards the couple who came to see my mum when she was very ill with liver cancer. I felt they stole the last of her precious energy. So I knew I mustn’t butt in on this vital time with her close family.
As it was, I waited until a few days after Christmas. Then other Carol connections kicked in. I found out through another mutual friend, one of the original, Fat Slags, that Carol had fought back against all the odds. Despite the fears of the medical staff her condition had improved and she was getting better.
Although she looked emaciated and exhausted and her skin had a papery, yellow tinge she looked much better than I could possibly have hoped for when I visited her in hospital that week.
She was still the same engaging, generous and thoughtful friend she had always been and we chatted easily about her illness, medical treatments, our families and mutual friends.There were some changes though. Her wonderful, wild tangle of hair which had been such a glorious feature had somehow finally been tamed and become impossibly thin and straight. She had always been a voracious reader, gobbling up books by the bucket load, reading at least a dozen or so every week. But the measure of her exhaustion was clearly highlighted by the fact she hadn’t had the inclination to even touch a book, newspaper or magazine for over 8 weeks.
A few weeks later when I visited her and Adrian at their home I took Carol a little crocheted, cat bookmark I had made and a copy of the book I had so enjoyed reading that Christmas, The Soul of an Octopus. This was all in the hope that she had rediscovered her joy of literature . It was a great relief to find that she had indeed taken up reading again.
Ever the English teacher, she even engaged in a lively discourse about the failings of D H Lawrence as a writer explaining that she felt he was over rated and that although she had loved his work when she was in her twenties she had “grown out” of him. Not quite sure about my own thoughts there….I will have to reread his major works to check that consideration out.
As we re established our acquaintance, recounted past memories and caught up on each others lives in the intervening years I discovered Carol had developed a new talent.
She had begun to write poetry. Not only that, but she had had one published in the Morning Star. It was her own personal reflection, as a devout Scouser, to the long awaited justice for the victims of the Hillsborough disaster. With the final Hillsborough memorial service for the 96 people who died due to take place at Anfield on April 15th this year her poem is a poignant reflection of the horrors of that day and the ” fake news ” stories that surrounded it 31 years ago. Here is the link if you would like to read her tribute. https://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-b6a4-carol-ann-dunn-theyll-never-walk-alone
So, I was very lucky. Carol is still slowly recovering from her illness and our friendship and connection have been securely re-booted.