A Sad Anniversary

The 21 minute train journey from Cardiff Central to Bridgend on 7th September is a slow ache: the remembrance of decades past, as I travel to the funeral of my oldest friend of 45 years, Shelley Thomas. 

The taxi takes me past Hope Baptist Church, where we acted in plays, went to the youth club, attended After Church Fellowship, and where we were both baptised as adults by the Reverend Euros Miles. 

The place where I first heard her sing and where we bonded over our dislike of a bullying fellow soprano; where she was married to the man who, after 21 years, would unexpectedly walk out one day and stun her heart; where we laughed, cried and shared gossip over the scandals that took place between those hallowed walls.  

Then there is Nolton Street, but the shop where we bought Strongbow cider and Breaker lager to drink behind Brynteg School bike sheds before discos is no longer there – the school where, in commemoration of Remembrance Day, we broke into convulsive laughter when the names of the dead were read out as we waited for “Harold Hare”. 

Neither is the Welcome to Town, where we had our first legal drinks – and, at a couple of months short of our 18th birthdays, the first illegal ones (three halves of Kronenberg: we thought we were the Devil’s work).

I remember the Three Horseshoes, which is still there: our regular Friday night haunt and where Shelley met Des and I met Adrian from Cefn Cribwr Rugby Club; the Embassy Cinema, where we had our first jobs long gone now, as is Drones Night Club, where we waited outside for our dads to pick us up at 11.30pm. The rugby club is still at the Brewery Field, our main focus of social activity and where we sat one freezing January afternoon holding our ears, having decided to get them pierced on a whim.

I arrive at Coychurch Crematorium still in a state of disbelief, sobbing that on 31st August my friend passed peacefully away following a battle with cancer. The queue to get in is huge, and standing out are the jackets of Cowbridge Male Voice Choir, for which she was Musical Director for 32 years. There are ex-pupils from Brynteg and we try to forget why we are there by reminiscing about the old days. When we finally make it through the doors, the sound of the choir surges and I can’t control my sobbing. It’s a recording with music chosen by Shelley and she hadn’t wanted her “boys” to sing in person, as she knew they would fall apart. Many of them do, wiping their eyes and putting their arms around each other. There is standing room only. 

The Reverend Euros Miles is doing the service, and it is comforting. On the way out, I pass the covered coffin and say goodbye. It is one of the worst moments of my life. 

I first met Shelley in 1969 when we were both 10 years old. My family had just moved to Bridgend and, as it had been in Newport, where we had lived for seven years, the church became the focal point of considerable family activity. At 13, we joined the After Church Fellowship, largely to gain greater access to said boys. One night, we both struck lucky and “snogged” our respective loves. Shelley had better luck than I did, as the mother of my chosen delight went hysterical; not only did he have glandular fever, she had been “saving” him for the organist’s daughter. That turned out well. She landed the married minister. Karma, eh?

Shelley and I were both pupils at Bridgend Girls’ Grammar in 1970 – the last year before schools turned comprehensive. She was a better all-rounder than I was and, at Brynteg Comprehensive, got put into the ‘B’ stream; I was in ‘C’, which meant I didn’t get to do Latin (which I really wanted to do – yes, really) and was mixed in with the secondary modern set who, resentful that having been top dogs under the old system, were suddenly relegated to ‘D’. It was a miserable time, but when we started our ‘O’ Level courses in 1975, Shelley and I shared several classes – most notably, Music and Welsh. She played the cello; I played the clarinet. We travelled to Swansea to see Andre Previn conduct and met him afterwards; we saw David Essex in concert in Cardiff’s Capitol Theatre.

We liked Welsh, but didn’t love it. One of the few times I was told off during my whole school career was sitting next to Shelley and trying to pass sweets under the desk. Mr James, the teacher, and mid-way through regaling yet another Welsh tale, was furious with us and looked as if he would burst a blood vessel. “Right! That’s the last time I tell you any tales about the Mabinogion!” Mission accomplished, thought Shelley and I, secretly holding up our thumbs in delight.

By today’s standards, we were veritable angels, but back then we considered ourselves quite naughty. We knew that some of our teachers played badminton on Tuesday nights and drove to the school when they were playing. Armed with ready threaded needles and cotton, we snuck into the changing room and sewed up the sleeves and trouser legs of their clothes. We were so easily entertained. One Valentine’s Day, we made a recording – a mix of narrative and music clips – saying what we thought of all the teachers (all very favourable – we weren’t that daft).

We were both made librarians and, to this day, ex-pupils remember our authoritarian regime. I in particular loved shouting “Please keep the noise down in the library!” and, during break and lunchtime, we would share the office with the 6th Form boys who were allowed free use of it.

We weren’t the kinds of girls who cheated at anything, but stressed at our mock ‘A’ Levels coming up, we saw one morning the Head of History taking our exam papers to the library. At lunchtime, we went to collect the keys to open up as usual and made a note of which years’ past papers our class would be taking. Then we looked them up and prepared in advance. Shelley did worse than she had when she revised; I fainted on the morning of the exam and had to sit for it at a different time, dreading that I would be given a different paper. I wasn’t. But the stress of cheating just wasn’t worth it.

Shelley had much better luck with boys than I did. She was very attractive and had a stunning figure. She was wearing substantially filled bras while I still looked as if I was carrying around contact lenses. I was crazy about a boy called Jeff in the Sixth Form. One weekend, Shelley came to stay at my parents’ house and, on the Monday morning in school, said: ‘Jac, I’ve got something to tell you and I’m dreading it’s going to spoil our friendship. I’m going out with Jeff.’ I felt sick but just said ‘Okay’. At that point we passed Jeff and Shelley gave him the thumbs-up sign. I didn’t feel angry, just defeated, as I did with the opposite sex throughout my entire young life.

All the boys really did love Shelley. I was small, a bit spotty, and carried myself with the lack of confidence I undoubtedly had, physically. Shelley did gymnastics, rode horses, and was taller than me by four inches. Several boys asked her to the Sixth Form dance (I was told by the organiser that even if I got a ticket, I wouldn’t be allowed in because I looked too young) and she was probably the most popular girl in the school. When she sang I Don’t Know How to Love Him at the annual concert, the Sixth Form boys whooped with joy when she got to ‘I’ve had so many men before.’ When I became involved with a predatory teacher, Shelley was my confidante, and many secrets of that time have gone with her.

It’s in that I feel an emotional limb has been cut off. I visited her in hospital two weeks before she died and, as we had often done, we talked a great deal about our later teenage years. I told her I had been looking through my old diaries when I moved house and she told me she had burned all hers. Her secrets are not mine to tell, but when you have shared events and emotions with someone during your most formative years and then they are gone, it’s as if there is an afterlife of secrets: a sort of third person in the relationship that will forever remain untouchable.

We learned about sex. It mystified us. Coming from our strong church backgrounds, neither of us had any grounding in such matters. The school didn’t help. They one day sat us down in the hall and showed us the movie Don’t Look Now that featured steamy sex scenes between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. We came away with nothing other than a feeling that Venice might be a nice place to visit.

Shelley went to Aberystwyth University and read Music; I went to Cardiff to read English. We stayed in touch throughout and, after doing a post-graduate teaching course, we began our careers at the same time: Shelley in Maesteg Comprehensive, me in Wantage. I gave up teaching after two years, returned to university in Lancaster to do a Master’s and then moved to London. Shelley stayed in Maesteg until she retired two years ago.

We always stayed in touch and she supported me throughout my seemingly bizarre decisions to live in many different places. We met up from time to time and the advent of Facebook made it easier to stay in touch. When we spoke on the phone, the years always rolled away: we had a language embedded in our history that needed no translator.

Shelley found teaching increasingly stressful and when her husband walked out, she endured many more years of stress such as a divorce invariably brings. She was completely blindsided by the break-up and, in hospital, she said that she felt that the stress of that and teaching had contributed to her cancer.

When we both hit 50, I encouraged her to change direction. I had just decided to move to Los Angeles, but she said she had decided to ‘sit it out until I’m 60.’ I queried why she would want to endure another 10 years of unhappiness, but she was adamant that she wanted to wait for her full pension and then enjoy retirement. 

She held out until she was 56 and then decided to forego the full pension. Within a short time of leaving the job she had been in for 34 years, two years ago she was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Soon, it went to her liver and, when I last saw her she said it had reached her lungs. No chemo was touching any of it. The only time she mentioned death was when she spoke of worry for her mother ‘if anything happens to me.’ Three years previous, Shelley’s younger sister had died, and her father was also unwell and on the same ward. 

Shelley’s friend of 38 years, Hilary – her “bestie” – is, of course, devastated. I did not have Shelley as much in adult life, and I am glad she had the closeness of someone with whom she enjoyed many happy times as, indeed, she did with the choir, whom she adored as much as they did her. Despite the passing years and our changed lives, I always called her my best friend, and to the computer security question ‘What is the name of your best friend?’ I have always written “Shelley”. 

She bore her illness with the same fortitude and resilience as she did everything. Despite being a conductor, she was a very private person and, unless pushed, would not outwardly want to delve too deeply. ‘Ah, well, there we are then,’ she would say, when I went into major self-analysis mode. But she did think deeply and she was always intuitive, understanding and sympathetic to me. I hope I was to her, too. 

When I saw her in the hospital, we shed many tears at the start of two hours. At the end, I could see she was both tired and starting to get emotional. I hugged her and decided not to turn around one last time as I left. 

Despite the shock and sadness, I am blessed in having had a best friend who knew me better than anyone and whose love will never die. 

Forty-five years is a long time in friendship, but already this feels like an eternity in grief.

Goodbye, my friend.