Tomorrow I'm going to spend the day with Jo. Geography, jobs and family life mean we don't see each other so often.
But when we do meet she often gives me a present that she has made herself.
She is a lawyer and a historian with a sharp mind and impressive qualifications. She also loves to make things, and once told me about her new City law job and her experimentation with eighteenth century marmalade recipes in the same conversation. She is awesome.
Last time we met she pulled a present out of her bag for me, and I unwrapped a beautifully frilled scarf in autumn colours, layer after tumbling layer. It took me a few minutes to realise she hadn’t picked it out in a shop. It was complex and must have demanded considerable skill and time - and she had made it for me.
Over the years of our friendship she has also made a framed cross-stitch of my initials, a soft patchwork blanket for my daughter, and the most elegant green gloves (my favourite colour, she checked).
As for me, my children have had to brave some humiliating moments in the nativity outfits I’ve ‘made’ for them. I’ve occasionally semi-successfully sewn up a hole in a jumper but I can't knit, crochet, sew or stitch.
So I thought about what I could give her.
And I decided to write her a present, and you are reading it.
We met on the day we arrived at university for interview as seventeen year-olds, sick with nerves. Shown into a common room where we would spend the next two days waiting with hundreds of other candidates, we turned to each other and struck up conversation.
Talking quickly and without really stopping, we managed to make each other laugh, even though I felt I was drowning in the depths of teenaged self-consciousness, surrounded by people who seemed effortlessly impressive, articulate and confident.
Some returned from their interviews full of the effusive feedback they’d received. We went off, hearts beating, mouths dry, palms sweating and returned to each other, limpet-like, with an unspoken knowledge that we had, in each other, found someone to trust.
At the end of the two days we said goodbye, not really expecting to see each other again. I left for home feeling drained and hollow, not wanting to return, much less thinking I would.
The next time we saw each other was in a press of human flesh in the Horse and Jockey pub on the first day of freshers’ week. Disorientated and friend-free, I was pushing my way through the crowd of new arrivals. So fresh in my memory it seems it will never fade is the image of a hand reaching out to touch my arm as I passed. It was Jo, and I stopped and we didn’t leave each other’s side for the night. Or for many days to come.
That first year is now a blur of fragmented images and sounds. Dancing in Jo’s room as we got ready for the nightly trip to the bar, ploughing through texts in the library, plates of pasta in the middle of the night, painfully early starts for rowing on the river, emotional upheaval as love lives flourished and waned, the drips of sweat that condensed and fell from the ceiling of the college dining hall during dance nights. Essay crises, love-life crises, confidence crises, hormone-driven angst, exhaustion, elation and belly laughs.
We shared a house in the second year, and boyfriends and new friends took us in directions away from each other but we always returned to each other’s company for laughter, for reassurance, for support.
I had to leave college in my third year to live in France and work as a language assistante. The tearing I felt as I left was almost physical, and when I returned Jo was gone, living hundreds of miles away, studying law. I was still at college, one of a small number of fourth years left after the tide of our peers had moved on.
She studied law in York and then practised it in London. I volunteered at a charity in Oxford and started working in fundraising. She bought a flat in the city; I became a mother in a little Cotswolds town. Our lives were different in pace, in shape, in style, but she came to cuddle my baby in the sunshine and I went to her wonderful wedding as she married her delicious husband, and they knocked us dead on the dance-floor.
So my present is a song of friendship that builds over years, of the unspoken trust and bone-deep understanding that comes from knowing and being known, from the shy 17 year-olds we once were to the women we now are.
I am so proud of Jo. She bursts with life; she is generous and outrageous and thoughtful; she is feisty and funny and loyal.
Last year we met for lunch and drank and ate and walked and talked of jobs and family and travels and dreams. We talked about things that are very hard, and things that are very good. Children we’re proud of, husbands we love, roles we play, workloads we manage, homes which frustrate us. She sent me an email afterwards, which I have kept in my inbox, its subject line simply: ‘Wonderful day!’
So this is my song for an old friend. I sing it so that she knows she’s known. And enjoyed.