A Telephone Call that Made All the Difference

The camellia, Mum's favourite flower
The camellia, Mum’s favourite flower (Creative Commons licence)

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.

First Impressions: I liked her, right from the start

Looking back on the early days with Winifred Holtby, Vera Brittain would write in her memoir Testament of Friendship that ‘We did not, to begin with, like each other at all’. For my part at least, my first thoughts on Emma Claire couldn’t have been further from those words.

Em and I became friends when we were both working as English language teachers on the island of Shikoku, in rural Japan.

Travelling together in the Japan Alps in May 2002
Travelling together in the Japan Alps in May 2002

We’d gone there as participants on the JET Programme, a Japanese government initiative to place native English speakers in the nation’s schools, but we actually met at the pre-departure orientation in London in July 2001.

I vividly remember stepping outside in a break between sessions and spotting Emma Claire sitting on the grass. She was with a small group of new JETs, all of them swapping stories about the little they knew of the towns and villages to which they were headed.

Of all the people sitting on the lawn that day – most, like us, in their earlier twenties and lacking any previous teaching experience – my feeling was that Emma Claire was someone with whom I had something extra in common.

Why I should have thought this, and from the start, is a lot more difficult to understand.

These days, people take us to be so alike that we have sometimes been confused for sisters, but, other than the fact we were both short and from the north of England, I don’t think we can have appeared particularly similar back then.

We were dressed very differently from each other that day, and my hair, unlike Em’s that flowed freely down her back, was chopped and cut up with streaks of blonde – although this was largely the result of having been accosted in the street just weeks earlier by an enthusiastic trainee stylist from Vidal Sassoon.

OK, you might think, but what about our shared interests? Surely there we would have found common ground. But I don’t remember hitting on a mutual taste in music or films, and I’m not sure either of us thought to mention books or favourite authors. Certainly, we wouldn’t have said anything about wanting to be writers, since at that stage we hadn’t even properly admitted that secret to ourselves.

What I do recall is my sense of disappointment when I realised that, although we’d be living in the same prefecture, Emma Claire would be living a couple of hours away from my house.

Holtby and Brittain, thrown together in their Oxford college, must have had to go out of their way to avoid each other in that early period of distrust. In marked contrast, it was clear to me right away that if Em and I were going to become friends we’d each have to make a special effort.

That summer’s day all those years ago, now seems like such a key moment in our lives that it really is painful to imagine just what we’d have missed out on if one of us, or both of us, had decided that the effort wasn’t quite worth our while.

Two gifts: a ‘collection of books’ and a poem

If you are on Twitter, you might know that Emma Claire posted a photo last week, saying that she had just started her response to this month’s Something Rhymed activity.

Emma's February activity

Like you, I could see pens, notebooks, coloured paper, a cup of tea. And I had absolutely no idea what she had planned.

So I was delighted to receive a stack of ‘books’ this week, each of them decorated with my name and a make-believe title. Amongst these were One Honest Friend, Speaking Up and my personal favourite The Lost Art of Getting Lost.  Each book had a related back-cover blurb too, summing up something my friend admired about me.


Although I can’t help feeling that Emma Claire has been over-generous in her praise, I was really touched by what she said and the highly original way she found to say it.

This was the first time I’d received anything like this from her, and that encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and try my hand at something I rarely attempt.


I had already made a list of her many qualities at this stage. These included:

  • Her superior levels of insight as a writer and a reader
  • Her sensitivity towards other people – she’s amazingly good at predicting when someone may be feeling down and thinking of practical ways that she can help.
  • That she is more of a doer than a dreamer – I have never known anyone quite like Emma Claire for taking an idea and running with it.
  • The fact she’s very good at pulling a meal together, never ever getting flustered in the kitchen meals at Emma Claires are always served with warmth.

I wanted to do something text-based in response, and, although in no way do I consider myself a poet, I thought poetry might be a good form for what I wanted to say.

I’d also been thinking about the letters we wrote to each other as part of January’s activity, and how we’d both said there had been times when we’d regretted not meeting earlier in our lives. This element crept into the piece below too, which ended up suggesting something of the spirit of my list rather than being constructed of the original words I scribbled down.

You can read the poem by clicking on the title below:

Things we didn’t do

As always

We are very keen to hear your responses to this month’s challenge. And do keep those recommendations of female literary pairings coming in too. You can get in touch by using the ‘leave a reply’ button below. We really look forward to hearing from you.

Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman: competition and correspondence

When Kathryn Heyman read our profile of the rivalrous friendship between Kathryn Mansfield and Virginia Woolf, she told us about the role of envy in her long-distance friendship with fellow novelist, Jill Dawson. So we decided this week to feature a guest blog from them.

Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman
Jill Dawson and Kathryn Heyman

You either want to kill your competitors or become their friends. We chose friendship. But perhaps it’s slightly disingenuous to present it that way: when we feel that competitive spirit, it’s partly because we are attracted to the very qualities which we have – or aspire to have – ourselves.

Like Woolf, who wanted to be a better writer because she believed Mansfield had set a high standard, when one of us is successful it spurs the other on. We have allowed ourselves to be truthful about the role envy plays in our friendship because envy, after all, is a way of discovering what it is that we want.

Because we are in the same field, there are inevitably times of difficulty, of one achieving something the other wants. Award shortlists, film deals, new book deals, invitations to international events: we are, in some ways, competitors, at least if we chose to believe that there is not enough to go around. Both of us would say that we would prefer to be the one winning the Booker Prize in a given year, for instance – but if the other won it the same year, that would be a pretty neat next best thing.

We live on opposite sides of the world now, which causes us some pain. But we talk to each other every week. Our conversations are about writing, gossip, lipstick, what to wear to events, children, husbands, our works-in-progress. We’ve been alongside each other for each of our novels – thirteen between us – and know the stages of writing. ‘I thought it was going so well,’ one of us will say, ‘but now it all seems so flat. I can’t hold it together, it’s going to collapse.’ ‘Yes,’ the other will say. ‘You always say that at precisely this stage, just before you discover something wonderful; remember the last book? And the one before that?’

We write to each other regularly too. Like Woolf and Mansfield, we discuss our novels-in-progress, money matters, the books we are reading, our mutual friends. At one point, the notion of the ideal reader cropped up in our correspondence, the person who we really write for, the one who is capable of understanding the depth and intelligence of our work. And we realised then that we’ve found in each other our ideal reader – the one writer in the world for whom we would value ourselves as a reader as much as a writer. We are extraordinarily blessed that the competitor we most fervently admire is also the friend who we adore.

Kathryn Heyman’s fifth novel, Floodline, was published by Allen and Unwin in 2013.

Jill Dawson’s eighth novel, The Tell-tale Heart, will be published by Sceptre in 2014.

This post is adapted from a longer article by Kathryn Heyman, originally published in Vogue in 2008.


We’d love to hear about the letters you’ve exchanged, or perhaps you would like to share some reflections on the role of envy in your friendship.

We’re still on the look out for famous female writer pals, so do keep them coming too.

Letter Writing in Modern Times

Emily's letter envelope
Addressed envelope all ready to go, with the origami windmill

When the letter from Emma Claire arrived last week, I brewed myself a pot of tea and sat down in an armchair to read it again.

I’d already sneaked a look at its contents on-line, when Emma Claire posted images of its eight pages here, but a postal delivery of this kind is such a rarity these days that I wanted to make more of an occasion of it, away from my computer screen.

What struck me as I sat there, the paper bending and rustling between my fingers, was how rewarding it can be to give your full attention to a letter. Time seems to slow as you focus only on your friend’s voice in your head. It’s a different sort of experience from opening an email on a busy day, when you find yourself painfully aware, even as you read, of the dozens of other messages building up in your inbox.

Prior to hearing from Emma Claire, I had already started jotting ideas in my notebook about things I wanted to discuss with her. These included:

  • Memories of our time in Japan, and how it kick-started our writing
  • Some things I admire about her prose style
  • Recurrent themes I’ve noticed in her work
  • Her influence on me as a writer
  • The Persephone Book of Short Stories, which I planned to recommend

Not all of these things made it into my reply. Influenced by the issues Emma Claire raised in her own letter, I found that I wanted to discuss some of them in more detail instead.

I ended up talking about the many ways in which I value her friendship, about memory itself, the similarities and differences in how each of our minds had preserved important recollections, and how I hoped we would correspond like this again. I also told Emma Claire about an earlier letter she once wrote to me, which I read again a few days ago, and the images of the past it immediately brought back.

I was inspired by the beauty of the stationery Emma Claire sourced, but was unable to find anything I liked as much myself. And so I took some plain sheets and decorated them with strips of coloured origami paper – something that seemed apt, considering how our time in Japan featured heavily in both of our letters

From one of the leftover scraps, I made a simple miniature windmill and added it to the envelope. If you are interested in having a go at this origami yourself, instructions can be found here.

As Emma Claire did in her last post, I’ve included pictures of the pages I wrote, which you can click and zoom in on below.

Emily's letter 1 Emily's letter 2Emily's letter 3Emily's letter 4

Emily's letter 5Emily's letter 6Emily's letter 7

Don’t forget

We’d love for you to join us in this activity by writing a letter of your own to a friend. Please use the ‘Leave a Reply’ facility below to let us know about the kinds of things you wrote in your letters.

Click here to find out about this month’s challenge in more detail.

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

Letter to Emily

Emily and I are lucky to live nearby these days – a luxury that, until recently, we hadn’t re-experienced since we first became friends back in 2001.

As we now get to see each other regularly, I tried to include in my letter some things that we might not discuss in person because of embarrassment, fear, or simply the deviations of conversation.

In a loose way, I was also influenced by the kinds of things Woolf wrote about in her letter to Mansfield: reflections on writing, reading, gender, friends.

Here are the ideas I jotted down to include in my letter to Emily:

  • Recommend The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnitt
  • Are there no societal rules for friendship?
  • Is friendship between women still somehow considered subversive?
  • Unexpectedly autobiographical roots to certain aspects of our novels
  • The themes we keep circling around
  • Getting lost

I’ve included pictures of the letter itself so you can click and zoom to see how I ended up exploring these ideas.

There was something comforting about using the fountain pen that Emily bought for me a few years back – the half-forgotten rub of the nib against paper, paper I bought in San Francisco when I visited one of our mutual friends.

The letter itself became a kind of meditation on the lost art of letter writing: the way in which the pen can explore ideas too difficult for the tongue; the eye can receive ideas too difficult for the ear.

Getting lost has itself become a lost art now that so many of us have satellite navigation systems in our cars and GPS on our phones. Through writing to Emily, I realised just how much I valued my many experiences of getting lost with her – most recently in Notting Hill on the way back from Book Slam; but also last year in Bayswater on the way to Porchester Spa; and once when we were stranded at a remote station in Cumbria with no idea of our hostel’s address.

In this letter, I reminisced about the times we first got lost together in rural Japan – joyful occasions when we began to realise just how much we shared – and, as I wrote, it occurred to me that the experience felt surprisingly like being found.

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Over to you:

Please use the ‘Leave a Reply’ facility below to let us know about the kinds of things you wrote in your letters. We can’t wait to hear.

Click here if you’d like to be reminded of this month’s challenge.