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.
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.