I did have a Grand Plan to work my way – over the next 100 years or so – through all 250 of William M Tanner’s Topics (1917). However, I have had to admit defeat – at 1. Most of the topics, on closer inspection, either make no sense or fail to spark anything, in the way of inspiration. I mean, what can you do with The Joys of a Country Cottager, The Heritage of the Youngest Child or On Riding Pegasus with Spurs? It’s just too much like an exam. And I must say it’s a relief not to even think of tackling Our Ragtime Age or Sponges.
I am rather a one for Grand Plans. At one point I was going to walk all round the coast of Britain and Ireland. At another, I was going to move to some remote Scottish island and join a commune. I was going to do something vaguely ‘home made’, I remember, like recycling charity shop clothing into patchwork quilts. Or possibly making dollies out of clothes pegs and selling them for… something.
So I’ve rummaged around the internet and found a few, slightly more up-to-date, lists of essay subjects – avoiding the stupid school ones, like All Teachers Should be Forced to Eat Rice Pudding and Wear School Uniform.
So, this one is How you and your best friend met. In fact I have two best friends, and I met them at the same time – or at any rate in the same building and through the same person. I shall call them Rose and Daisy. We are all much of an age – Rose is almost exactly six months younger than me; Daisy a year or two older. We were all secretaries in the same old-established legal firm. The Partners tended to move us about at intervals. Just as you had got used to one desk, one icy draught, one view, one quirky computer, one cranky gas fire (I remember having to light one, first thing in the morning, with a match sellotaped on to a steel letter-opener, whilst leaning as far backwards as possible to preserve my eyebrows) you were being redistributed.
This time I was recruited, on the sly, by the secretary currently sharing an office with Rose – I shall call her Gert. The idea was to fill a suddenly vacant desk – with me – before the Partners could fill it with someone even less desirable. I didn’t seem to have much choice in the matter. She was a forceful lady. She also drank a lot, smoked a lot and had a troubled – to say the least – domestic background.
On my first day in the office Gert marched me out for some kind of lunchtime bonding session. I had been planning to curl up in a corner somewhere with a sandwich and a book. We sat in a deafeningly noisy café down the High Street and she chain smoked for the next three quarters of an hour: I came back smelling like a kipper. I have weird hearing – a problem that only becomes evident in crowded places. She talked, over the clatter of dishes and the roar of the espresso machine; I have no idea what about. She blew more smoke at me.
Some time later, when she had decided I was not just a convenient body to fill an empty corner with, but her New Best Friend, she started calling me at home. She phoned me up at 7.30 one morning, from a hotel to tell me she had stabbed her husband through the hand. In any sort of emergency I’m about as much use as a chocolate teapot – entirely the wrong person to ring if you’ve just stabbed somebody.
Anyway, it was thanks to Gert that I got to know Rose – and thanks to Rose that I got to know her friend Daisy. And that’s it, really. We had work in common. Then I left, and one after another we retired – but we still had that particular eccentric legal firm in common, plus all the other times we had spent together – days out in the summer, in sunshine and – at least once, in the pouring rain; meals out to mark each of our birthdays, Christmas, New Year and anything else we could think of; trips to the cinema; the different-and-yet-similar problems in our own lives – practical matters; losses; illnesses; sadnesses and celebrations.
They accept me for what I am, no questions asked: we don’t ask a lot of each other, really. I’m always pleased to see them, and find myself chattering away to them over coffee – noisy background or not – “nineteen to the dozen” – which is a rare thing.
Usually I’m as silent as the grave…