Our Old School Chums

Today, this blog is in “Hala mania” hangover mode. If you missed the party, it was not something that happens here very often. Thanks to my interviewing Lebanese journalist Hala Feghaly on Monday, through yesterday I’d been inundated with new visitors, mostly from Lebanon.

Yes, yes, yes, I know they came by for her, so I presume most won’t be back longer-term. Although, you never know; one can but hope a few stick around. In any event, let’s return here today to what passes for “normal.”

Dawn breaking over our back garden in Wiltshire. [Photo by me, about 5:30 am this morning.]
Dawn breaking over our back garden in Wiltshire. [Photo by me, about 5:30 am this morning.]

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The Difference Between “Friends” And, Uh, “Friends”

I stumbled on two thoughtful recent Guardian pieces on internet friendships. They seemed worth sharing for a Saturday post. The first: “How do you tell who’s a real friend and who’s just a ‘Friend’ on the internet?”:

….Being eliminated from a friend’s life used to mean ignored phone calls and mutual, public recriminations to third parties; today, it’s as easy as untagging yourself from an ussie and clicking unfollow on Twitter. On the other side, you’re at even more of a loss when you click on the profile of a Twitter friend with whom you’d had a long and fruitful online discussion the day before and see a blank space where it used to say “FOLLOWS YOU”. Every time you log-in, wherever it may be, you could find yourself invisible to someone you thought was your friend, and found out was only a fair-weather follower.

We live on the internet now. That whole idea about how we have to look up from our phones and digital devices to have real lives and experiences is over. There isn’t always a difference between emotion and emoticon. Our challenge now is to integrate our humanity into our online lives….

Then there was this one from early February on Internet “loss”: “How do you grieve when you lose an internet friend?” – and the author is not talking here about merely being “unfollowed”:

….In an age where the internet acts as a force-multiplier for sociability (if only for those who are native to it), it is now possible to develop friendships with people we’ve never met at all. Twitter is more than just a conversation; it is a schoolyard, a lunchroom, a water cooler. “Internet friends” are still friends – at least as much as “friends” on Facebook who we haven’t seen in years.

I found out that my friend had died late at night, and reflexively direct-messaged her boyfriend on Twitter. The next morning, I wasn’t sure if I’d made a mistake: I was a stranger to them, really….

It is fascinating what has evolved in only a decade or two. Once upon a time my (internalized) general rule was a “friend” was someone I knew in person and could call on the phone and he/she would NOT be stunned to hear from me. But if any of our mobiles rang right now and on the other end (without pre-planning of course) happened to be someone who “follows” us and whom we also “follow,” but whom we’ve also never met, let’s be honest most of us would probably think something was, umm, not quite right here. ;-)

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In Her Memory

Following on from yesterday, some “insider” info. If you’ve been stopping by since February, you may know. They were not idle words: I am going to do it. She will have her own page among the front matter:

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The cameo appearance has made it into the tale as well.

I’ve left everything I could on Frontiers’ pages. It’s not perfect, naturally, but hand on heart I feel I’ve given it my best effort. That’s all we can ever aim to do, isn’t it?

Free Stock Photo: Sunflowers in a field.
Free Stock Photo: Sunflowers in a field.

A thought, a dedication, a nod. Just something. In a two decades’ long friendship, she never let us down. I pray I haven’t let her down now.

Whew, I need a cup of coffee….

“How was your day, dear?” (I Wish I Could Tell You)

In an early post – when I had so few popping by, I suppose I was posting then mostly to myself ;-) – I had written that I did not really feel lonely or isolated while writing. In other jobs, I had long been used to working without close supervision. I had also often worked from home too, so the lack of an outside office and colleagues was not unusual for me.

What has become an issue in the last year is I’m realizing I spend a great deal of time alone in my head with my story in a way that no one – not even my wife – fully understands. I find that at the end of a day I can’t really offload about what I’ve done, or what’s proving a challenge. Others aren’t really all that interested (and that’s not unreasonable of them) in listening to me recount it.

Free Stock Photo: Red F1 help key on a keyboard.
Free Stock Photo: Red F1 help key on a keyboard.

Example: I spent much of yesterday working quietly at my desk. I was satisfied with what I had achieved by the time I’d called it quits. Yet sharing that in any depth was simply not possible.

“How was your day, dear?”

“Fine. I got lots done. I think I’ll pour myself a Vodka and Coke.”

[What I’d give to sit down with that drink for a while and really tell you. I’d explain I wrote more of that strange love scene that’s been driving me bonkers. I also came up with what I believe is a telling (and in its way amusing) exchange at U.S. immigration, and then at baggage reclaim, at JFK. I’m thinking a Gulf princess could be involved too. Much tougher was I also got more written on characters’ reactions to an illness, which I’d drawn from the true death of a relative, and which is also why I found myself fighting back real tears as I wrote…. and which is also why I seemed a bit grouchy when you’d asked me something totally unrelated to that which I was immersed in at that very instant. I’m sorry. And, God, there’s always Kam. Straining to produce something worth unexpectedly dedicating to her memory is wearing me down emotionally. I get one shot at this. If I screw it up, I don’t get another chance.]

If you write, you have your own personal burdens and perhaps similar feelings. So I’m finding this blog useful. After all, I just told you that…. which I’d told to no one I see in person.

A finished product may eventually impress readers, but it can be difficult to share the in-progress ups and downs that are inevitable in actually getting there. I believe I would’ve benefited from having a site like this during the writing of the first book in 2013. For this year, for its sequel, I know it’s an invaluable outlet on which I can blow off some “How was your day, dear?” steam: no matter what, I can at least tell you.

Thanks for following and reading. :-)

A Small Tribute

While walking our dog a few days ago, I had a “brainstorm”: in the sequel, in London (some of it is taking place in Britain), I would give our deceased friend Kam a literary cameo. I don’t know yet if it will make the final book, but here’s part of the early draft (click to enlarge), and I hope you enjoy it:

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A few points. In that scene, I’ve fictionalized a reasonably well-known club where we had hung out with her a couple of times. My choosing to place her there was owing to the fact we met Kam frequently after work at clubs, pubs, or restaurants.

Rob and Helen are also real people. And guess who? Like certain über-famous directors “walking on” in their own films, I thought I’d slot myself in as myself: Kam always called me Rob, and my wife’s name is actually Helen.

What fiction allows us, eh? A couple of other bits. Early in our real marriage, we did live in Godmanchester. (I even met the former prime minister, John Major, in person once, when he was still the area’s MP. Ah, another life goal fulfilled. ;-) ) Kam was also almost 27 in late 1995 (although the time frame is fictional in this sense: we were not yet married in 1995). I thought I would also drop in a small “inside joke” about Kam resembling Valérie – which of course she does, given fictional Valérie is partly based on very real life Kam.

If I go with this, Kam will become the only outright real person portrayed in a speaking role in the books so far. It’s just something: words and memories are all we have left. Tomorrow (May 2), she will have been gone three months. May she rest in peace.

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Thanks for stopping by. Hope you’re having a good Thursday….

Women And Men As “Just Friends?”

In the car yesterday, my wife and I drifted again into reflecting on how we still find it impossible to believe Kam is gone. If you’re a regular visitor, you may know our friend had died suddenly back on February 2, and that her loss has gutted us. She had only turned 45 in November.

Sixteen years ago, Kam was the first girlfriend of my (future) wife’s I’d met. She behaved towards me initially rather like the sidekick in late 1990s Brit romance-comedy films: the no-nonsense pal who isn’t too sure about this American guy who’s clearly after her best friend. All these years later, I still remember the skeptical looks and careful questions. Fortunately, I passed muster.

A British-born Sikh, Kam had boyfriends at various times. There were some English guys. I remember an Irish rugby player. There was even an Italian. Her parents had also “introduced” her to various “marriageable” men in the Sikh community, including one from Canada.

On that latter, Londoner and European that she was, I recall her moaning softly, “He’s okay. But I don’t want to live in Ontario.” Obviously she had never found the guy she apparently wanted to marry (or one who had wanted to marry her also). She had told us she was free to marry anyone she wanted, Sikh or not. In arranging “meetings,” she said, her parents were only trying to help; what mattered was only what she wanted.

While we drove, as we finished our latest reminiscences about her, my wife abruptly revealed this to me:

“I never told you this. Kam and I agreed years ago that if I died, she would’ve married you.”

I was so stunned, I laughed. But then I realized my wife wasn’t kidding. I had been party sorta to an “arranged second marriage” someday, although no one had ever bothered to tell me.

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It was tremendously flattering. It was also jaw-dropping to discover that she had been that fond of me. I had always believed Kam and I had gotten on well, yet her usually somewhat formal, unemotional and subtle manner had always also left me feeling a bit unable to gauge what was really going on inside her head.

Several weeks after Kam died, her sister told us that in her last hours in hospital Kam had instructed her to tell us goodbye and that she had loved us. When I heard that, it took everything I had to hold myself together. I almost fell apart on the spot.

I had never before fully appreciated how as a married man the death of an unmarried woman friend can seem so difficult to characterize properly and awkward to mourn. As time has moved on, I have realized Kam’s death has upset me more than the loss of anyone I have ever known. The only ones that might have “rivaled” it to date were perhaps (when I was much younger) those of my grandparents; but the loss of grandparents is of a vastly different life order than the death of a close contemporary of course.

Men and women as just friends? Is it really possible? Kam’s death has led to that theme increasingly slipping into the writing of the sequel. Does there always have to be an unsaid undercurrent of something more than friendship?

You may know by now one of my characters is partly based on Kam. Her personality, style and attitudes, help underpin Valérie. Indeed I’m having to temper my writing: since February, missing Kam, I’m finding Valérie’s role just keeps getting bigger and bigger….

It’s A Nightmare

Yesterday morning we were told our girlfriend’s ashes will be scattered on March 10. Busy with other things in recent weeks, I had forced her death (mostly) to one side, trying not to think about it. Suddenly, it had all come rushing back.

So, virtually out of the gate, I was depressed and in a foul mood.

Then there are those times you wish you could smash your head down on the PC desk in front of you repeatedly. I came that close later on. It was after I had finished spending part of the day in another type of nightmare.

I am working on a chapter in the sequel involving one. It contains references to certain happenings in the current book, sexual symbolism (it has to have that, doesn’t it?), etc., and so on and so forth. I do think it has potential.

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Yet I just don’t know. I’ll leave it for now and move on to more “conventional” storytelling. I have to ponder it some more.

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I know yesterday was just a “first go” at it, and you are never supposed to throw in the towel at the first attempt. Maybe in the near future I’ll have a few glasses of something strong, re-read it afresh and re-tackle it. Being a bit “tipsy” might help. ;-)

A Chapter Is Born

By several months ago, I had pretty much framed the plot-line for the sequel to Passports. There had been some tinkering too since then, of course. Overall, though, I had been gradually “filling in” that frame, and working towards that final target.

The death February 2 of our lovely friend, Kam, stopped me in my creative tracks. If you drop by here regularly, you may know the “Valérie” character is partly inspired by Kam. In the days after Kam’s untimely death, I reopened Passports a couple of times, and thumbed through parts that had included “Valérie.”

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Given “Valérie’s” sourcings, a little of Kam will forever smile out at me from “Valérie.” But that is an intensely personal association for me and probably matters not at all to you. Ultimately, “Valérie” is now our “Valérie” and nobody else.

I mentioned yesterday that I had awoken with a brand new (and I feel, excellent) “Valérie” sub-plot bouncing around in my head. I made quick use of being “snowed-in” to pull it together in some detail. It forces me to alter my “frame” somewhat, but I don’t care about that; and being “snowed in” yet again today is merely more encouragement to continue to fine tune those changes.

And with that, an unexpected, new chapter (maybe more than one, depending on how matters go as I write further), is born….

“Quite A Send Off”

I’d like to thank all of you who read the previous post about our friend Kam, and liked it.

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We heard yesterday evening post-funeral from her younger sister, in London. She wrote they had given Kam “quite a send off” (her exact words). She also noted she didn’t know half of the people among the horde who turned up.

She also wrote that three doves were released. I smiled at that, considering the flock of birds’ artwork I had chosen for that post purely by chance.

And life now goes on for all the rest of us, of course….

Some Farewell Thoughts

Today was Kam’s funeral, at 11am, in London. Since we couldn’t be there to say goodbye, I’m sure you’ll indulge me as I scrawl a few additional, utterly inadequate words about her on here…..

We knew Kam for almost 20 years. Suddenly, at just 45 years of age, she is gone. She died eight days ago.

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She never joined Facebook; she wasn’t keen on social media. Email aside, Kam’s singular concession to instant communications was her mobile phone that was never out of her reach, and the texts that came flying our way often unexpectedly. When I asked again about Facebook a year or two ago, I received a bemused look, a smile, and finally a drawn out, soft reply: “Well, you know, maybe I’ll…. think…. about it….”

I knew that was Kam’s genteel way of saying, “Uh, Rob, no.” To her, “social networking” meant lovely, handmade Christmas and birthday cards. It was letters on paper composed in a clear script. It was carefully wrapped gifts with perfect bows on top. It was sharing Champagne.

Indeed when you met Kam for lunch, it was likely in a cool cafe near, say, Harrow school. When it was for dinner, it was in one of London’s posher restaurants. In Manhattan, years ago, I was immensely relieved when my favorite French restaurant met with her approval. Friends, Kam insisted, were supposed to get together in quality places.

And if you needed help, she would be there – and in the “if you needed to be picked up at the airport in the middle of the night” sort of way too. Once, from London, we were unable to get my in-laws on the phone in Christchurch (130 miles away). Kam had then been living in the vicinity, so we rang her near midnight to see if she could drive over to the flat and make sure they were okay. She didn’t hesitate. (My father-in-law had at some point just put the handset on the main base sideways or something, so the phone was off the hook.)

There was nowhere she seemed not to have visited – from America, to China, to India, to you name it. Back from a trip to Rome years ago, we joked the designer shopping had undoubtedly been a big draw for her. She never looked anything less than well put together.

Unexpectedly, Sikh Kam said also that she had thought the Vatican had been so inspiring that she could almost have become a Catholic. We knew she didn’t really mean that of course. Anyone who knew her knew she never could have ceased to be Sikh.

A couple of weeks ago, while we were in the midst of helping organize a summer holiday to Florida with another family, we hoped hoped hoped Kam wanted to come along too. When we knew Kam was going to be involved in whatever was happening, we always looked extra-forward to it.

In recent years she had developed a serious health problem. Kam rarely said much about it, and always conveyed the impression all was somehow under control. She was still working, and commuting on the London Underground, a few days before her death.

She had given us a heads up that she wanted to come to Florida, but she wouldn’t know if she could travel until closer to the actual time – and that’s where matters had been left….

We know for sure now: she won’t be in Florida. There will be no more trips, no more text messages, no more cards and letters, no more bows, no more smiles, and no more Champagne.

Our lives – the lives of everyone who knew her – will be emptier and bleaker without Kam. She was the personification of grace, charm and caring. It was our inestimable privilege and honor that she had thought enough of us to have shared some of her too short life with us.

I suppose we’re all still trying to process the cruel reality that we’ll never see her again. It has been an incredibly depressing week. Yet I’m determined also to try to remember these words: “Death can destroy the body but not the soul.”