Dear Helen,

I am writing to thank you, with all my heart, for the guidance, unswerving friendship, endless laughs and crazy disco-dancing to Kool and the Gang, spanning 40 years.

We first met when I, a stroppy, 16-year-old wiseass, tried to psych out you, a callow, 25-year-old teacher, on your first day as my sixth-form tutor. I was impressed that you did not flinch under my well-honed barrage of sarcastic put-downs, but instead made me laugh out loud. I was entranced.

snapshot of the two on stairs laughing

‘We used to cry with laughter’ … Arabella (right) with Helen

No teacher had been a match for the troubled challenge I was back then. You were chic, offbeat-trendy, supercool and incredibly enthusiastic about my capabilities (unlike me). You suggested we have our weekly tutor group meetings at your house. Not once did that seem weird and it never was. Those Friday nights were the beginning of an enduring friendship without which I would not have dared to do most of the things I have done. When I failed to get an acting job or got chucked by a boyfriend (frequent events), you were always there with laughter and total confidence that next time I would succeed. When I reluctantly became a single mother, you convinced me I would manage. I flourished because you believed in me in a way no one before ever had. I never believed in myself like you believed in me.

We used to cry with laughter, even when you were dying – you tediously insisting your oncologist looked like Tom Stoppard, when, really, he was more Barry Manilow. Every time he came into the room we would exchange looks, I would mouth “her name was Lola” and we’d burst out laughing … right until the end. Mopping up your vomit and shit was one way I had to show you how much I loved you, you joking, as I toiled, that there was no way you would do that for me.

There isn’t a day I don’t miss you. Whose white leather slingbacks can I take the piss out of now?

We spoke every day, often more than once. We got each other, sharing a belief that neither of us was good enough at anything; not talented, bright, pretty, successful, hardworking, deserving enough. Blimey, you were so wrong. You were the finest, most inspiring, joy-filled person I’ve ever known. You might have believed it if you had been at your funeral. Oh boy, you would have loved it. The place was packed – lots of rich, powerful people (and some famous ones), all there to honour the remarkable, generous-hearted, endlessly enquiring, energetic person you were. We both know the “who’s who” shouldn’t matter but, fuck it, we’d have had the time of our lives going through the list and deciding X or Y was only there because they had nothing better to do that day.

Get down it – you’ll know what that means. Life without you is really tough, but you made me who I am and I now think that is actually good enough.


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