The sheltering tree

No one knows the exact moment when a friendship is formed, but it is this silent, forgotten moment that causes the pain when we must say good-bye.

July 31, 2019 14:41
The sheltering tree

THE DUO near Hyde Park’s Serpentine Lake, 1951 – ‘an exciting year to be young in London.’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Friendship is a sheltering tree,” the poet Coleridge told us nearly two centuries ago.

It is a beautiful analogy, the idea of it spreading its branches in shade and protection, a green leafy canopy through which one can glimpse blue sky during the day, and at night a sky strewn with stars like diamonds scattered on black velvet.
Having friends makes one richer than having material assets. We can lose our money or plots of land in unfortunate business deals or bad investments that are not our fault. But what we invest in friendship goes on paying dividends our whole lives.
I have had many good friends throughout my long life, and sadly, many of them have passed on. But I had one special friend for 65 years and it was like losing a part of myself when she died a few years ago.

MARIE AND I met at high school in our birthplace, Melbourne, Australia, in 1947. We were in different classes, so we were just acquaintances. But one day, three years later, I met her on Collins Street; I had just bought my ticket to London on the P&O liner RMS Strathaird. I was so excited I had to share my news. “That’s a coincidence,” she said. “I’m also going next month. I’ve got a job as a nanny to the children of an air force officer and his wife, so my trip is free. Maybe we could meet when I get there.”
The trip was amazing – six weeks of luxury until we docked at Tilbury. The cost was about £20, but I had saved for a year for my place in a 10-berth cabin in the bowels of the ship. We called at exciting ports on the way, and I’m sure that today such a cruise would cost thousands of dollars.
Out of necessity, I found a job a few days after landing, as a copywriter in an advertising agency in the West End.
When Marie arrived, we decided to share an apartment and found one in a house full of Australians – all young people who were there, like we were, for the culture and excitement of our first taste of independent living.
The landlord, Col. Bathgate, and his wife, for some strange reason liked Australians. He was a somewhat eccentric, occasionally grumpy, old man. Marie and I got the last apartment at the top of the house, probably erstwhile servants’ quarters, in the once-aristocratic, slightly down-at-heels terrace house at 18 Lancaster Gate, near Marble Arch.
We had a small room with two beds, a table and four chairs, a sagging sofa; a tiny bathroom but no kitchen. There was a two-burner hotplate to cook on; one shelf of a communal refrigerator downstairs, and a gas heater you had to feed with shillings in winter. If you craned out the windows, you could see the tops of the trees in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens across the road. We thought we’d found Paradise!
It was exciting to be young in London in 1951. We would queue up in Leicester Square at lunchtime to get tickets in the gods (the very top gallery) for all the West End shows for two shillings and sixpence. We saw South Pacific, The Winslow Boy, Private Lives. We went to the Proms at the Albert Hall; concerts at the Barbican; the opera; Sadler’s Wells Ballet. We felt life had nothing more to offer. And we were as close as sisters, sharing everything – letters, confidences, rent money. I have never had, before or since, such a warm, generous friend.
Marie worked as a librarian, and our social life revolved around the other Aussies in the house. We were really “the innocents abroad.” Amazingly, none of us drank – not even the guys – and if we went to our local pub The Devonshire Arms to play darts, we all shared a couple of bottles of apple cider. After working for a year, we had holidays and joined the Youth Hostels Association, which meant we could backpack our way around Europe, staying in amazing places for five shillings a night.
At 19, I was a year older than Marie and so made most of the decisions – usually impulsive, and luckily Marie’s common sense kept us out of trouble.
We traveled through France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Belgium, staying in châteaux and even on Île Sainte-Marguerite, an island off the coast of the French Riviera, in the castle where the Man in the Iron Mask was supposed to have been imprisoned.
At these hostels, we made friends with young people of every nationality. Because I’d studied French at school and Marie hadn’t, she trusted me implicitly in French-speaking countries. I could speak a basic, schoolgirl French, but usually had no idea what people were saying to me in their rapid-fire responses. Sometimes her faith in my understanding got us into very embarrassing situations. We weren’t just innocents abroad, we were very ignorant, but somehow our very innocence protected us.
We were together in London for three years – my golden years, as I remember them – before my father’s illness meant I had to return to Australia, which broke my heart. Marie stayed on longer and married Jim, one of the young architects in the house. But through letters and telephone calls (no emails back then) we continued to share our lives week after week, year after year.
When she was unexpectedly widowed very young and left with three children, I flew to Sydney to be with her. When I flew from Jerusalem to Perth to visit my sister, Marie joined me there and we had a week of “Do you remember when...?”
We didn’t see each other after that, but year after year – for 65 years – we sent letters and photos. Marie’s remarriage; my marriage; our children and their accomplishments; the books I wrote – everything important in our lives we told each other first. It was an affinity, almost a shared soul.
When she died a few years ago, part of me died with her. Her daughters and son asked me to write a eulogy to be read at her funeral – even though I didn’t manage to be there.

THE ESKIMOS are reputed to have more than 100 words for “snow.” English is not so innovative, but we have a few descriptions: close friend, best friend, intimate friend, trusted friend, loyal friend, beloved friend.
Friends are very special people. It’s an old joke that we can’t pick our family, but thank heaven we can choose our friends. For a mate, we choose just one single partner, but our friends can be as infinite and diverse as the adjectives we choose to describe them. In effect, our friends reflect the choices we make in life.
No one knows the exact moment when a friendship is formed, but it is this silent, forgotten moment that causes the pain when we must say good-bye.
I want to believe that somewhere in the world to come, Marie and I will meet again and resume the many times we said “Do you remember when....?”

The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah.

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