Thursday 14 December 2017

Cherished memories and a desire to make more


THE SUBJECT matter of the email said ' BAD NEWS' in bold block capitals. My friend Helen was never one to exaggerate.

She was writing to tell me that her cancer had come back for a third time.

The consultant said there was no need to operate.

The consultant said she had advanced cancer.

The consultant reamed off time frames, six months, 10 years, but most probably five years. The words swam in front of me. 'Dearest Jenny, I find it easier to write about this than to talk, the news is very raw, my emotions are all over the place.'

Last week I contacted Helen to see if she wanted to meet up at Easter in Tblisi, Georgia, where a mutual friend of ours, AJ, works for the United Nations. Her reply stung. 'I will be getting 18 courses of chemo over 18 weeks, so I won't make Georgia.'

A few years ago, both Helen and AJ came to visit me in the West. They landed in Galway late one evening during race week.

"It's like Disneyland for adults," I assured them as I ushered them down the town with a bottle of beer in hand. The girls, one British, one American, were a pair of exotic creatures.

Their accents attracted attention from all the boys. Revellers thronged the streets. Old acquaintances bumped into each other unexpectedly.

Strangers became friends, always finding at least one person they had in common.

This was the 'craic' that Ireland was famed for – the inimitable atmosphere of the Galway races carried us through the night.

The next day we embarked on our road trip to Sligo. We stayed in the Glasshouse, listened to a trad session in Shoot The Crows, and surfed in Strandhill.

Helen managed to put her wetsuit on the wrong way round. This warranted much laughter and some precious photos.

Helen loves photography. Her snapshots of Kiev's Orange Revolution hung in the walls of her Sarajevo flat.

As a BBC correspondent, she did a stint in Ukraine and Bosnia.

I visited her in both places and those trips were some of the best of my life.

We travelled to the rebuilt bridge in Mostar, where a simple stone reads 'Never Forget '93' and we went to Medjigore to pray.

"What shall we pray for?" Helen asked. "Husbands and world peace!" I joked.

There, on the top of the holy mount, we wrote our requests on bits of paper and placed them under rocks at the foot of the grotto.

Later in the remote village, a tiny framed nun who spoke no English insisted on bringing us to a chapel the size of a cupboard.

She unwrapped what was essentially a towel with a picture of Jesus.

Helen was sincere and most impressed and nodded enthusiastically.

Her expression left me fighting back the urge to laugh, and in the end I couldn't stop.

Again, this random adventure is documented in photos that mean the world to me.

In Kiev we had a mini-hen for our friend Katherine – the details of which I won't divulge. And once in Cornwall, we hired an old-style VW camper van.

Helen opted to drive until half way up a Cornish style steep hill the engine stalled.

I grabbed the handbrake and never let her near the steering wheel again.

I have so many memories of my wonderful, bright, kind and funny friend Helen, and I hope to have the time to make many more.

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