It is a Sunday in March 2012. I have had only a few hours’ sleep. My mother died in the early hours of the morning, and now I am sitting on the bamboo frame sofa in her old conservatory with a paper list divided into two before me, the cordless phone in my lap.
My sister and I have been through Mum’s address book and written down the numbers of everyone to call. Some names are familiar to us, those of people we’ve often seen at her house in the years since she fell ill. Others are now-misted figures from our childhoods, who, nevertheless, we think we ought to let know.
I have added Emma Claire to my half of the list. She is the first person I call.
By the time I end the last of those conversations, perhaps an hour-and-a-half later, I will feel as if part of me has been sapped away through the earpiece of the phone. I’ll have heard everyone say how sorry they are. Some will have cried, with such emotion in a few cases that I’ve found myself saying things I don’t mean, trying to show them a supposed bright side to what’s really just a sad, sad situation.
Talking with Em is nothing like that. She’s sincere but brief in her condolences, sensing without me having to tell her that I can’t linger over this call. She tells me that we will talk again later, and that she will help in any way she can.
Emma Claire is not the only person who makes this kind offer. Over the next few days, many people will tell my sister and me that they want to help. But the thing is, usually they can’t. No one else can make the arrangements for our mother’s funeral, organise her death certificate, deal with the coroner or the hospital. No one else can decide at which hotel she’d have wanted us to arrange her funeral tea, or the words to be carved on her grave.
Of course, Em can’t help with any of this either. Where she swoops in and makes all the difference is with my work. In my grief-muddled state on that first Sunday, I am convinced I only need three days off in order to get on with arrangements. I plan to go back to London to teach a university class on the Thursday before returning to my mother’s home again.
The next time we speak, Em tells me at once that I am being ridiculous. She will teach this class for me. She knows the subject matter already. No, she doesn’t need a detailed lesson plan, thank you; this is not what I should be concentrating on right now.
For several years, we have laughed at the similarity of our CVs – how we’ve ended up teaching at the same institutions – but now everything falls into place. Emma Claire works out all the details with the university management. I barely have to get involved. She ends up covering for me the next week too when she discovers that, once again, I’m planning to rush down to London and back, this time the day before the funeral.
And although she’s insistent that I mustn’t do this, she makes the same journey in reverse the day afterwards. I spot her at the ceremony when I stand up to give my reading, sitting beside another close writer friend of mine in a row just off to the left.
And as so often is the way, the very presence of Emma Claire brings me reassurance.