Even though I have worked from home for years, Monday mornings still bring a particular energy with them. I like to sit down and plan out my goals for the day and then week, to get my mind back to the working places they were in before the weekend and the parenting that features more heavily then.
That’s why I find myself here on Monday morning even thinking about work when it seems like the most absurd thing I could conceive of. Kate Harding, my dearest friend – for whom there needs to be a more adequate word – died on October 2nd 2014. The days since then have just been… hell.
You know, as much as I hate Facebook, I have never needed it so much than in the last few days. The community that shared Kate’s life have come together in a way we haven’t since university days and I’ve seen glimpses of the many different spheres that Kate moved in. It’s so clear that she touched so many lives, so deeply. So many people are hurting now and I’ve been crying for them as much as for Kate and my own personal loss.
I have been envious of my friends who have been able to remember the specific occasion they met her. I can’t and no matter how much I beat the inside of my brain there is nothing. I remember so much, but not in any kind of useful narrative. In fact, it’s as if my memories of Kate refuse to be confined by such a logical framework. The closest I can get to that is dividing it all into phases; my life before I knew her, the deepening of our friendship and running around in a special group of people doing crazy things, the last four years or so when we were the closest we’d ever been and now the last phase, the one I find myself starting now, weeping and unwilling.
Even as I write this, I still can’t believe she’s gone.
Before I got the news of her death I had planned to work on the Split Worlds this week. It seems impossible now. I need to tell you why and I need to write about a day we spent together in Oxford and Oxenford, so I can press that memory between pages like a flower. It will fade and never be so brilliant as when it was happening, but perhaps I can preserve something more than if I don’t try.
Kate loved the Split Worlds. It got to the point when I was writing the novels as much for her as for me, because she loved me to read them to her as I wrote them. I would either go to her flat for a weekend or she would come down to us and we would sit together for hours, she sewing, me reading.
You see, story was so important to Kate. There was a bit of her that just lit up at even the hint of being whisked off into another world, be it through roleplaying or me reading to her. Apart from my husband, she was the only person I would read unpublished work to. The Split Worlds novels were hers long before they were anyone else’s.
I would read until I was going hoarse; she could listen for hours. It would get so late and her eyes would be too tired to sew anymore and then she would either snuggle up in my duvet to listen more, or if we were at her flat she would come and rest her head in my lap, positioning me until she was comfortable. “We should probably go to bed,” I would say and she would smile and have this glint in her eye and say “just one chapter more” and it would of course be three.
I was staying at her flat the night I met Lee Harris at Adam Christopher’s book launch and went back to her, all fizzing, saying that the editor of my favourite publisher might read Between Two Thorns! (I was planning to self-publish it all at the time). She was so excited, so happy for me. “He’ll want to buy it,” she said. I denied it. She shook her head. “The Split Worlds are really special, Em,” she said. “I believe in them.” She said that many times. Not only did she believe in them, she believed in me. When I never could. Oh Kate! I need you to believe in me now!
I cannot describe the joy at hearing her gasp when something happened or shout “OH, WILL! NO!” at several points. I loved how Rupert made her laugh, the gargoyle too. There’s a passage in Any Other Name, I think, that made her tearful. I stopped and asked if she was okay and she was shocked that I paused the story to ask. She said something about it being beautiful and important. How privileged am I to have had these moments with her. How strange to be filled with such happiness and gratitude at the same time as this crushing grief.
When the time came to write the third book, All Is Fair, I knew I wanted it to be partly set in Oxford and told Kate about it. Research revealed that Lincoln College would fit well into the background history of the Great Families and I couldn’t resist making it one of the primary locations because it was Kate’s college and I wanted to make it even more magical for her. She was delighted and arranged a research trip for us.
We met in the street outside Lincoln College. It was cold and she swept up the street in that long dark coat of hers that I’ve always loved, backpack on back, little wheelie case pulled behind her, jeans frayed at the heels. I hugged her, enjoying the usual elation at seeing her and holding her again. We were both so excited to be back in Oxford together again and after settling in at the room, we tromped around the streets of our student years, both then and in the nineties again. She’d discovered a place in the Covered Market sold these warm cheesy gluten-free snacks so we went and found it just as it was closing and bought the last ones. We stood there, making happy noises, marvelling at how good they were. We went back to the stall the next day and ate so many we couldn’t manage a proper meal. They will be forever “Cheesy puffs!” as called by Kate in her Cartman voice.
She’d arranged for someone at the college to give us a tour and little details about the room a couple of scenes in All Is Fair came from that. We laughed about how we asked bizarre questions. Kate pointed out things I never would have seen. They went in the book.
That evening we went to Pizza Hut of all places and sat in a booth and chattered excitedly about the live games we wanted to run together, some in the Split Worlds, some outside of it. We ran one at the first Nine Worlds convention and there were plans to do more. So many plans. We thought we’d have time.
I remember the waiter being far too over the top, calling us beautiful and doing all the things that make me retreat into my introvert shell. But Kate was gentle and kind with him, graceful in a way so natural for her. We walked around Oxford again, that time by streetlight and it was like being in RPGsoc again. I told her stories about places there and how they fit into the Split Worlds and she delighted in all the tiny details. I felt so happy, so…. useful, being able to weave another magical world for her from one with enough of its own magic for the both of us.
The next day we went on a tour of the Bodleian and went into places we never saw as students. I was filled with excitement about the location and details, there were more cheesy puffs afterwards and a trip to the bookshop-cum-strange-stationers opposite Lincoln where we spent so long cooing over beautiful things we couldn’t afford.
I dedicated All Is Fair to “the one who sews as she listens” and now you know who she was. I said on Facebook yesterday that I didn’t think I could write about her, as it would be like trying to capture the ocean in a cup. This post is far too long yet only captures one drop. I said I would write about her for the rest of my life and I will. I didn’t think I would be able to do it today, but here I am, writing about her.
I also decided yesterday that she will be in all the books I write from now on, a way to keep her roleplaying. I won’t tell anyone which character she is playing in each one. She would have loved that. Not that I feel I can ever write a word of fiction again, let alone the Split Worlds.
There was one evening, in the penultimate flat she lived in, when I had to go home. I’d been reading to her lots that weekend and it was always such a wrench to leave. We both hated the real world creeping back in at the edges. She hugged me so tight and said “You know you can’t die, don’t you? Not until you’ve finished the Split Worlds.” I was appalled at the very thought of death coming between us. “Of course not, don’t say things like that!” I said, or something to that effect.
And now I have to write the last two books of the series without her and the thought is simply unbearable. But I have to, somehow, otherwise she would be so outraged and like every single thing she ever did, she did outrage perfectly.
Forgive my selfish indulgence. I love you, Kate.