Sometimes, my mouth moves in mysterious ways. And so it was this week when, walking in the cold March wind, I caught sight of my new friend. I say new – we’ve been friendly for half a decade, but this was our first time we’d taken our friendship to the next level. With chips.
Because after five years of saying we must, I was finally going out for lunch with my favourite librarian. My librarian girl, as Michael Jackson sort of sang.
When I spotted her loitering on the pavement, waiting for me, an unbidden, unprompted smile nearly split my face in two. It’s only when you smile like that you realise how fake most of your adult smiles are. It was so wide and joyous I felt as if my mouth might hinge open and all my teeth would pour out and do a joyful little jig on the pavement in front of us. And I wouldn’t have cared, I really wouldn’t.
“Is this our first date?” I blurted out, giddy with euphoria. She laughed. We looked at each other with complete delight. Woman to woman with no children around to distract us. It was just us, and her rather stylish grey coat. I couldn’t have been more delighted than if a passing bus had stopped and spat out Ryan Gosling holding a plate of home-made truffles.
I first met my friend when my daughter was a tiny month-old prawn-baby in a cardigan. Tired, lonely, isolated, I’d taken her to the Rhyme Time session at my local library in a bid to get away from the voices in my post-natal head. This librarian was running the sessions, and I liked her on sight. Since then, we’ve gone from singing nursery rhymes to swapping book recommendations before going on to conversations about my arduous path back to work, depression, her daughter’s divorce, one daughter’s mental illness, her son’s death. She’s told me about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s books and ‘The Children’s Act’ by Ian McEwan, I’ve raved about the Lego Movie and ‘Burial Rites.’ We’ve spoken bad French to each other and complimented each other’s shoes. She’s seen my daughter grow from prawn to baby to toddler to school girl, and always welcomed her with a massive smile. She gives her Playdoh on her birthday.
Finally, it was time to take our chats out of the library and onto the street. She suggested meeting at our local greasy spoon because it was close to the library. She called it grotty, apologetically. I thought it was awesome. I had an egg and sausage roll and a cup of tea. She got the ham and egg and let me eat her chips. We grabbed the ketchup, sat down, and got straight down to the business of Life. Libraries throughout our city are being restructured, closed down, and ‘revised.’ Hours are changing and staff are being asked to re-apply for their roles, often by impersonal emails. Panicked and undermined, she’d handed in her notice, convinced that she wouldn’t be successful with her re-application. “I’ve got a degree,” she marvelled. “I shouldn’t be feeling like this.” It’s not been an easy time for her, and to my surprise, she was asking me for advice about her work and what she should do.
“I’m going to be 59 in two days time,” she sighed. “You would have thought I would know what to do with my life by now.”
If she had been the mother of a pre-school or Reception child, like me, it would have been a completely different story. We would have talked about our children, or probably had them with us. We might have swapped tips about local cafes, talked about our plans for the forthcoming holidays, all the while keeping an ongoing dialogue with our kids, making sure they were okay, fed, and topped up with an endless supply of crayons, love, and attention. We would definitely never have met in a greasy spoon and been served by a man in a vest. It would have been flat whites, comfy gentrification, and cosy catch-ups all the way. Which I’ve got nothing against, by the way, but occasionally I do want more.
Over our fornica table I finally got the chance to tell her how brilliant she was with children, how, with no family nearby, the attention and affection she showed my daughter had meant the world to me, and how her sessions had been the highlight of my early motherhood, while I slowly pieced myself together again. We talked about how motherhood can interfere with your ambition, while at the same time you would never, ever, hand it back. At the end, we walked back to the library and blew each other kisses before she disappeared into the staffroom. She only had one more day left before leaving. Mother to mother, waving at each other across the decades. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I just wish it wasn’t the end of an important and essential job.