Goodbye, Best Friend

Elizabeth Timms and I met in the mid-Eighties, shortly after I moved to London in 1984.

I was in the infancy of my journalism career, writing for the New Statesman and Evening Standard (London’s local paper), and was in Chalk and Cheese restaurant in Camden’s Chalk Farm. I had written about the place for the Standard (I was writing restaurant reviews for the newly launched weekend section), and its owners, Liz and Ray, became friends. Liz still is and, although divorced from Ray, has now been with another of my close friends, Oliver, who I met in the very first National Youth Theatre of Wales in 1976. I played matchmaker to them and it is certainly my most successful pairing.

On the day I met Elizabeth, she was sitting opposite, wearing a hat and sitting with a very handsome man. I thought she looked very Bohemian and, eventually, we got talking and I invited the couple back to my apartment.

Frank (the man) kept groping Elizabeth and he was also very boring. When he went to the bathroom, I pointed out that not only was his behavior inappropriate, every word that came out of his mouth was a quote from someone else. I also asked Elizabeth why she wore hats indoors.

I can’t remember which she ditched first, Frank or the hats, but I recall that they were in quick succession; and so, a best friend was born.

Elizabeth was in broadcasting PR, and when I landed the job of TV critic at the Standard in 1988, we had lots to talk about – especially over very long lunches.

Our favorite was Steph’s, in Dean Street, run by the very flamboyant Steph. I was also a member of the Groucho Club, a few doors down, and we would retire there for early evening drinks when we had exhausted all conversation with whomever we descended upon at Steph’s (we once enjoyed a very jolly five-hour lunch with Tony Blackburn).

There followed years and years of laughter – and I mean side-splitting, hysterical laughter that releases every atom of tension in your body. She once did the publicity for a BBC show about the East End – I believe it was The Lane in 1990. She hired a local bar there, and I was the only journalist who turned up. Nevertheless, the place was packed with every undesirable the area had to offer. I can see Elizabeth’s wide-eyed expression of raised forehead horror, looking over to me as, one, by one, locals came through the door, thrilled that the BBC had so kindly decided to fund their drinking for the day.

She was hilarious about my dubious choices in men. In 1999, I was talking up my latest acquisition and brought Elizabeth along to suss him out. The moment his back was turned, she looked at me, aghast, and said: “But come on, he’s not the one! The way you talked about him, I was expecting Nathaniel Parker, a huge twirling mustache and brandishing a sword.” She was right. The guy was a shriveled dried apricot (yes, ginger hair), and with the personality to match.

Along with Keith Waterhouse, Elizabeth was a member of my team at the annual Boules tournament in Bath, the most memorable year being the one when I literally had to impale her by her coat on the railings in Queen Square because she couldn’t stand up (Keith always thought that we would play better if we started drinking champagne at 9am. We didn’t).

Elizabeth, who was was adopted as a baby, was brought up in Lytham St Annes. She often talked of tracking down her lumberjack father and the many siblings she knew she had, but she didn’t want to do it while her adoptive mother was alive. When her mother died, she thought the moment had passed and wondered what purpose it would serve, anyway.

Married and quickly divorced early in life, she was so good to her mother, who became her life. She turned down the chance to work in Washington and moved her mother into her Wendover cottage when she discovered she was being badly treated in the nursing home she had been forced to go into, owing to her frailty.

This brought Elizabeth immense financial hardship, and I will never forgive the Trust that owned the row of cottages where she lived for trying to get her out after her mother died. She had to sell so many of her belongings, including the gold bangle I had given her for her 50th, just to keep up with rental payments. Years of stress, I am convinced, contributed to her first heart attack. She managed to hold on to her home, and her golden retriever was her greatest companion. When the dog died, Elizabeth became a dog sitter through Wagging Tails, and she loved it.

I last saw her at my 60th birthday party in London in 2018. Although she was walking with a stick, she was the same old Elizabeth, and we met up for a few hours beforehand to reminisce about old times. I spoke to her in January when she hit 70, and then we texted at the beginning of February when Christopher Plummer died.

She had once met him in a hotel where she was staying for a TV event. He invited her to meet him in the bar later for a drink, but she fell asleep and, when she woke at midnight, couldn’t be bothered. We often laughed about the different path her life might have taken had she turned up.

I texted her: “Sad to hear your boyfriend has died.” She texted back: “Devastated.” That was our last communication.

News of her death reached me via her neighbor and friend, Simon, who runs Wagging Tails and had been looking in on Elizabeth as she became weaker in recent weeks. She told me she was recovering from two bouts of Covid, although Simon said she had had a heart attack in December that hadn’t been diagnosed.

I read his private message on Facebook (the place where we hear about most deaths these days), and the shock was immeasurable as I sobbed uncontrollably. I was on my way to an appointment for an eye problem I’ve been having, and here were those eyes doing what they were not supposed to be doing on the beautiful train journey down the Hudson river on a sunny March morning.

I have lost many people in my life: my parents, colleagues, three years ago my best friend from school, Shelley. Every death is different, as is every grieving response. Elizabeth was such a huge part of my life for so many years, I am in a kind of breathless free fall: a sudden emptying out of experience, words, laughter, memories, falling so quickly that I am panicked about not being able to catch them all before they start to fade.

When I saw her last, I reminded her that she had given me the best advice of my life. Seeing me fleeting around various men at the Cambridge TV Festival, behaving outrageously as I was wont to do, she said: “You think that your currency is your sexuality. It’s not; it’s your brain.”

That’s something that has stuck with me a long time, amongst so much else – too much to mention in one piece.

It grieves me that she didn’t have the life she imagined and wanted; the sacrifice she made for her mother was immense.

She wasn’t always treated well by her employers, but I know from the people who have been in touch this week that she was a good, much-loved boss and colleague.

I was blessed to have her in my life for so long, but today that time feels all too short.