Tuesday, 16 October 2018

My Friend Mo

Dear Mo,

Looking back, I didn’t really have a "happy childhood." Hard to say why, there was no specific reason. Just an overwhelming sense that by school-age, I didn't really fit in. I liked books, words, and writing. I liked losing myself in an imaginary world somewhere between pen and paper, somewhere far away from mundane reality. You were the first person who shared that world with me.

You were not the most "popular" teacher in primary school. Your teaching methods were somewhat old-fashioned; you were strict and, by modern-standards, unconventional. But you saw something in me that others didn't. And I saw you in return. You were not just my teacher, you were my friend when I felt I had so few of them.

Our friendship transcended a gap of several decades. My favourite memory of you is the time I reduced you to tears, and somewhat-undignified snorts of laughter (I'm sorry to tell you that your snorting was much mocked by other pupils), over a slightly ridiculous English exercise from a set-text book. The chapter related to the postal service, and the specific task was "draw what you think a 'Dead Letterbox' looks like"... Even at the age of nine or ten, I questioned the educational value of the task, and mockingly took the instructions literally. I drew a faded letterbox on its side, at a 90 degree angle, with cracking paint, cobwebs, and a birds-nest balanced on top (and with pretentious attention to detail I knew only you would appreciate, the initials ‘VR’ for Victoria Royal): I will never forget queuing up with the other pupils, patiently awaiting my turn to have my work checked, knowing that the ludicrousness of the drawing would appeal to your sense of humour. Sure enough, you cackled and snorted for several minutes, while the other children stopped their chatter and sat in silence, staring at you. (I think it was quite a shock to them, that even teachers have a sense of humour).

The year after I left your class, during my final year of primary school, you made Christmas cards with your class. You’d made your own, by way of example, and I remember how special I felt, when you presented me with the card you'd made. It said, "I was trying to think of someone special to give this card to. It had to be you"... And so began the tradition of our annual Christmas cards to each other... although I wasn't to know, aged ten, that the tradition would continue for almost thirty years.

You retired from Ridgeway Primary School, just as I graduated up to secondary school, and our friendship could have ended there. Secondary school was a disappointment to me, and by December, aged 11, I was already struggling with a sense of isolation, and the feeling that nobody understood me. That year, you sent me another Christmas card, delivered to my home address. Again, I've never forgotten your words, they have stayed with me all these years. You wrote, in your familiar spidery handwriting, "I miss our conversations, your acute observations, of people and of life." And you stopped signing yourself "Mrs Burdett." You signed yourself, "Mo." And I knew then that you were no longer just my old teacher.  You were also my friend.

Every year (admittedly, with the occasional late exception), I wrote back to you; sometimes at length, and sometimes just a few words. Meanwhile, your Christmas cards became more elaborate. Homemade cross-stitching, in festive patterns. I kept them all, too precious to part with - most years, I still display them. And I'd sometimes drop in to visit you when passing through Ridgeway, with a bunch of flowers or a belated update. Sometimes years would pass, but friends always pick up where they left off, and you would always pop the kettle on, with an amusing anecdote. Even after your beloved Hal passed away, you retained your sense of humour.

You always said I “had a way with words," and you encouraged me to use them. You told me more than once that there was a space saved on your (burgeoning) book shelf for my first novel. I took your confidence in me to heart. You taught me the importance of words, and the weight they carry. Whenever I write a piece I'm proud of, or read a favourite phrase, I always think of you, and will continue to do so.

In recent years, you had become physically frail, but your mind was as sharp as ever. Your Christmas cards were no longer hand-stitched, and some years they didn't arrive at all, but I always knew the kettle would be on if I called in to visit. The last time I saw you (only a few weeks ago), I was overjoyed to finally meet Rachel, your daughter, who I had heard so much about, after living all those years in Japan. Somehow our paths had never managed to cross, but I felt I knew her. So much of your wisdom is in her, and I felt I'd found an instant friend. It can't be coincidence I met her when I did, and I hope in years to come, I can pick up my friendship with her where my friendship with you left off.
My only regret is that I am writing these words to you now. Now that you can't read them. The last time I saw you, I felt compelled to write you this letter, and most of it was already mentally penned... I only wish I had not delayed sending it.

Life has taught me, there is no point telling people how you feel at funerals. Tell them now, while they can still appreciate the sentiment. Nobody knows better than myself, that you cannot know what tomorrow will bring. Don't put off until tomorrow what you can put in words today.

I wanted you to know that although it is many years since you first encouraged me to write, there is still a novel in me. I don't know the exact content yet, but I do know that you have to live before you can write. For that reason, I have taken my time, but one day, Mo, there will be a novel on your shelf (or maybe Rachel's), and it will have your name on the opening page, dedicated to you, because you were the first person to believe in me, when I desperately needed someone to.

I wish I had told you all this when I last saw you, and I felt the compulsion... Premonition, even. I should have trusted my instincts. But still... Words speak volumes, but actions speak louder still, and so, I hope you knew. I hope that you knew how much you meant, because you will not be forgotten.

So I can only echo your own words back to you, today. The words you wrote to me, aged 11, in a Christmas card. "I miss our conversations, your acute observations, of people and of life."

I will miss you, Mo. A good teacher is never forgotten, but a good friend, even less so.

With all my love to Rachel and David,


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