Ineradicable memories

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There were four of us, young women from Ilkley, Dewsbury, Northallerton (via the RAF) and Newcastle, who met on our first day at Somerville College, Oxford, on an October day in 1988. We were nervous and excited but mostly nervous. Me and Nathalie were the brunettes, Lou and Charlotte the blondes. Charlotte remembers Lou coming down the stairs in Vaughan, with her long slim legs and long blonde hair, looking as Lou always looked, always: immaculate, elegant, beautiful. We became friends, though we were studying mostly different topics: history, zoology, French and Italian (me) and French and German (Lou), and in our second year moved in together at 87 Marlborough Road. Nat had the downstairs room for her bedroom, I had the best room, Lou had the worst wallpaper, Charlotte had the coolest boyfriend with the most aerodynamic hair.

What we all had was a wonderful, memorable year that cemented our friendship for 25 years, in a way that meant we didn’t have to always be in touch, but when we were everything clicked again immediately. It was a friendship that was like old friendships could be: switched off to low heat, then so easily reignited, as if it had never been any different.

Back in 1989, in that little damp terrace house in south Oxford, we found we had some neighbours: a houseful of American lads, visiting students at Blackfriars college. Brian, Matt, Dan, Ted. There followed a year of Anglo-American ententes and misunderstandings and adventures that were unforgettable enough to surface still over the last few years and months when we all got together regularly to see Lou. Here are some: Louise’s control of the household budget during our weekly shop, and me trying desperately to sneak in some extra unaffordables. Lou’s marvellous veggie bakes and her teaching Charlotte how to cook a white sauce, ensuring decades of successful lasagne. Brian teaching us what gnocchi were although he pronounced them n-ow-ki. Us finding any excuse possible to go next door because they had something called “central heating.” Richard, Lou’s brother, visiting like a whirlwind, seeming so wild and glamorous, even after he put his backside through our glass kitchen door, and Lou was mortified, and Jez fixed it and she was so grateful, and 25 years on the story still made us all laugh when we got together this past January, with such affection. Some of Lou’s memories from that year: “punting down the river and playing opera and thinking we were so cool,” or “me standing in the street outside Blackfriars calling at Brian in the library so we could be posh and go to Browns. One time I spent ages calling and he didn’t move and then I realised it was a girl with a pony-tail.” People thought Louise was calm and serene and she was, but as Nat says, “she had a joie de vivre that infected those around her. Give her a bit of blue sky and a spot of sunshine and she’d be declaring it was just the day for a picnic. Lou was big on picnics. That was the thing about Lou, she was happy anywhere, just as long as she was experiencing life. But mooching was Lou’s favourite way of passing time. She loved a good mooch. “Let’s mooch around the shops and then have a nice cup of tea,” she’d say. Tea and cocktails or gin and tonic. When Brian left for the US, she gave him a coupon for free Yorkshire pudding, with onion gravy of course.”

After Oxford, we went our different ways, into living abroad, marriages, children, success. Sometimes we visited each other in Paris, San Francisco or Ilkley. When Lou’s tumour was still thought benign, we had a girls’ weekend in Scunthorpe of all places, and began to meet more regularly, right up until January, when Brian & Jen flew over from San Francisco and we all met in Edinburgh, and although Lou was getting so tired by then, she stayed up until midnight and was laughing even though we know she must have been in pain. But that was Lou: she was the protective one, from making sure we could afford to live decently in Oxford to making sure we were protected from the magnitude of what she was enduring. As Charlotte says, the last six months have been the worst but also the best, mostly because Louise made sure they were.

We thought January would be our last meeting, although it wasn’t, so she gave us beautiful presents that she had thought about so carefully: a handbag for Charlotte, who is a handbag kind of woman, a more capacious leather bag for me, who is not. She wrote cards that fit each of us perfectly, too. And all along the last few years, through each operation, she made sure that our friendship with Al got stronger and deeper, particularly after the terminal diagnosis at Christmas, because she wanted him to be protected as best she could manage, she wanted us to become friends. And because Louise was Louise, because our weekly supermarket shop always came in under budget, and our presents and cards matched each of us perfectly although we are all so different, because, as Nat says, her underwear drawer, perfectly organised with matching everything, “was the most awe-inspiring thing I’ve ever seen,” because we all loved her and will miss her so profoundly, we will carry on this friendship with Lou’s beloved husband, and hopefully find some comfort together in our rich, colourful, wonderful, ineradicable memories of the lovely, beloved Lou.

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