If there is frustration at trying to get back to where you left off, this can be solved by entering into the search box ‘January’ for the beginning, or Part Two, Part Three etc.
February, “the month of cleansing,” is derived from februa, the name of a Roman purification festival held on the 15th of this month. (www.farmersalmanac.com)
Oh no! Elle’s face didn’t come into my mind until 11.30am. It feels careless.
Last night we had a surprise Skype conversation with Elle’s cousin James, who was born the day before her. He is coping well and constructively with the loss of someone he loved deeply, despite all their heartfelt battles when they were little people. I don’t know why I was surprised to hear that a friend had given him Joan Didion’s ‘A Year of Living Magically’ to read. Today I feel like tasting some of my memories of the beautiful baby that was Elle.
Elle was a ‘huggie’ baby from the start. She would mould her baby body into yours. She was not fussy about who was holding her—there were hugs for everyone. She was also an easy ‘smiler’, and captured the hearts of all who came into her sphere. Kate loved her sister to the end of the world, and I often recall a particularly long night I spent walking the floor in search of a solution as to why my two-week-old baby was crying and couldn’t settle. I had one of those nights with Kate as well—most likely it is something to do with their digestive systems cranking up and baby having a big moan about the discomfort.
We were living in our stone house in Pasadena Glen, and Elle slept in her basinet in our room. With no room for a nursery, the multitude of necessities for a new baby were in with us too. We went to bed as usual but within an hour the crying started. No amount of feeding, winding and nappy changes made any difference. Eventually, Peter asked Kate to swop beds because he needed some sleep before work the next morning. Kate climbed into our bed, but there was no way she was going to get any sleep either. I can still visualise her sitting in bed, looking up at me with a worried look on her face. As the night wore on I could see it dawning on Kate that a baby was nothing like a dolly, and I sensed a deep understanding of what it meant to be a mother come over her. I loved her so much for that: my brown-eyed and deeply caring girl, who so often carried the weight of the world on her shoulders. But while Kate preferred the constant company of interesting individuals, Elle became a little person capable of enjoying her own company, particularly the drama of creating her own world. It was a while before we learnt that this could have had something to do with her not hearing clearly.
The next interesting development in Elle’s life started with her finding her feet. She developed a pattern of spying other toddlers of a similar age, fixing on them and moving quickly in their direction. She would then stand in front of them, put out her hand and push them over, and impassively watch the outcome. It was always more observational than aggressive. The most likely battlegrounds were public parks and supermarkets, and I would remain on hot alert to pre-empt any toddler battle before it could happen. More often than not, Elle and I would notice another toddler around the same time. When an expression of deep concentration crossed her face, I knew I needed to act before she reached the unsuspecting child. On those occasions when I failed, I had to draw on a vast range of apologies to extremely indignant mothers as they swept up their infants, and I would move away as quickly as possible. I am sure many expected me to get angry with Elle or even give her a smack, but it was not my style.
I thought a lot about this new problem and what lay behind it. Wrongly or rightly, I read it as a subconscious need to understand what power is, and how it balances out. Something akin to one-year-olds going through a phase of dropping things as a way of developing spatial awareness. I could see nothing malicious in her intent, which was why I didn’t want to bring anger into my response, and by the time she reached two-and-a-half years old this behaviour disappeared. It was interesting too that she only did this with strangers. I believe I was correct in seeing no malice, as she never showed any sign of it in her later stages of development.
There really was something powerful about Elle as a child, and it wasn’t just her voice. Right through to her teens she felt a need to test herself, and was probably doing it to others too. It was as if she was aware of the interplay between good and bad. While many children were attracted to her, a few felt shaken by her presence and ended up bullying her. Elle found her own special ways of dealing with bullying, and didn’t seem to become a victim to it, at least on the surface. She was also a leader of play with small children. This power I recognised in the young Elle was transformed into something much kinder and more reserved as she left her childhood and teenage years behind, and what emerged was her innate humility and grace. I am not saying she was all sweetness and light. There were inner battles happening, but she faced them head on. We, her close family, are probably amongst only a few people who knew about these battles. She worked so hard, throughout her life, to find a way to counterbalance darkness with light.
A man is selling seafood from his van outside our window, and blowing a traditional conch shell to let customers know he is around. A beautiful sight and sound!
Today is the birthday of my mother Peggy, who would have turned ninety-five today, so I have a little story to tell about her.
As a child, my mother slept in her parent’s bedroom until she was eight years old. Her mother decorated and redecorated her bedroom many times over hoping to persuade little Peggy that it might be fun to move into her own room, but Peggy was not having any of it until her little sister Stella arrived, and she had no choice. I am sure my mother was a very loved little girl, but she could never talk about the love between her parents without her eyes welling up with tears. From the many stories she told me of her early life I wondered whether she found it hard to see how she fitted in amongst their love for one other.
After many months of helping her mother nurse her dad, he died. My mom told me the story of their last moments with him. He kept saying, “Lyla, put on the light.” This confused them because the light was on. Just before his last breath, he said, “Ah, that is better.” Maybe my mother had heard something similar when doing her nursing training in Pretoria General Hospital. She never discussed further what she understood by this, but the story stayed in my mind, and some years later I encountered stories told by patients who had died, and then been resuscitated. Almost everyone talked about travelling through a tunnel and then encountering a beautiful bright light as they emerged from it.
(If you are interested to read more about this I recommend Dr Raymond A. Moody, a philosopher, psychologist, physician and author, who is widely known for his books about life after death and near-death experiences (NDE), a term he coined in 1975 in his best-selling book, Life After Life. Another scientist who is in no doubt that consciousness can exist outside of brain function is Dr Peter Fenwick. I don’t think there is a scientist in the world today who denies the existence of universal and personal consciousness, but they divide into two opposing camps, scientists who describes themselves as physicalists and scientists whose life experiences have brought them to believe that consciousness exists beyond the brain which is merely a brilliant organ, or perhaps even an antenna for universal consciousness. I do find it interesting that materialists and physicalists in the scientific world who say that everything comes down to matter in the end, are resting their case on just 12-15% of all that exists, because the rest of the equation is ‘dark matter’ and while there are more and more theories as to what this is other than the assumed vacuum theory of the past, we still don’t have any clear idea yet of what it consists of or contributes towards.)
But back to Knysna and Peggy and her mother who needed to make a living if they were going to hold onto their home. Wesley Benn, her father, was a schools inspector and being a government employee the monthly income was not great, so she and her mother thought that it would play to their strengths to open a tearoom. Neither of them had business experience, and they struggled to make a go of the tearoom. Lyla didn’t like to charge friends and family, and after generations in a small town, most customers were either friends or family. Lyla would always say, ‘No, Peggy, they don’t pay.’ Finally the Aga stove fell through the floor into the basement one Sunday as Peggy cooked a roast, and that was the end of that.
A few years later Peggy married my dad, Stan, and when I was about six months old, she asked her mother to come and join them in Cape Town. I can imagine the pain on hearing her mom say, ‘Peggy, I love you very much, but I don’t want to live without daddy.’ Lyla died a short while later at the age of fifty-six, and the doctor said it was from a broken heart.
When I remember my mom’s words, I know I must not let my broken heart keep me from Kate and her young son. Another memory has made its way up through the decades into my playback. Peter’s close friend Peter Campbell from preschool age had a sister who contracted leukaemia in her teens; just before her five-year ‘all clear’ she suffered a relapse and died in her early twenties. Years later, after our return from South Africa with a two-year-old Kate, we met up with PC in London. His parents had visited us in Hong Kong the year after their daughter died, during a world cruise to help them come to terms with their grief. PC told us he felt a little guilty for being the child that survived, and sometimes felt excluded by his parents who seemed to have turned inward in their grieving. I don’t think I could have remembered this conversation without having lost Elle, and his words have been crucial in keeping me facing the right way for Kate. This is why I always take note whenever I go into playback mode.
Peter and I are determined not to let this happen to us, though it’s hard to stop the flow of grief—its powerful momentum draws you down every time it strikes. The loss is so surreal and difficult to fathom, the shock so great, that all you can think about is your missing child and your pain. I love both my girls ‘to infinity and back’, but the loss of one makes it impossible sometimes to see over the event horizon of this black hole, in which the rest of my life and love seems to have settled. Sometimes it feels there is no escape. The black veil of grief makes perfect sense. Everything feels Elle-related, and trying to understand the ‘why did it happen’ gives me something to work on—a much-needed tool to try to dig myself out of this black hole. Peter and I work daily to keep the blessings we have in the forefront of our minds and hearts. Elle would never forgive us if we were to lock Kate and those blessings out of our lives.
This morning I awoke with a heavy heart and a wish that can never be fulfilled, and some regrets. The twenty-ninth day blues seem to overcome me every month. But quickly my mind turned to Angels & Elephants and ideas for its future.
I received a message in one of my group WhatsApp conversations called ‘Here for Elle’, which is made up of Rachel and Leah (two of Elle’s closest friends), Kate, Peter, me and Elle’s first love Graeme. They all came to the island for the celebration of Elle’s life, and we have been providing support to each other ever since. With them and a few other group ‘conversations’ I feel we can keep the light of Elle’s life shining brightly.
And perhaps Elle herself has provided us with the perfect vehicle. She had a conversation with Kate and Kate’s sister-in-law Evie while making lunch for them during her last visit to London to meet her new nephew Isaac. She had told me she wanted to cook for her sister while visiting her, though I’m not sure why I remember this. I realise lately how little she told me during her last few years of life, so I feel that whatever she did choose to tell me is probably more important than I thought at the time. The conversation about her future on the island took place just three weeks before she died, and I believe it is no coincidence that she shared it with Kate and Evie then.
She said she wanted to start a community centre on the island for all the children, helped by their families, with a focus on allowing children to learn things, using all their senses, which they don’t get an opportunity to learn in school. After Elle died, and while we were staying in a large rented villa, Evie and her baby, who is just two weeks younger than Isaac, spent a week with us. It meant so much to have Kate with us for six weeks after Elle died, and Evie came to give her some loving support.
As we were all sitting around one afternoon while the babes were napping, they began to tell us about this conversation. I think all of us felt that it was Elle telling us that we could still do this. It would be the perfect vehicle to keep her close to us. I had wanted the name Elle for my second little girl because every time I saw a baby elephant during my pregnancy my hand would fly involuntarily to my belly! Then Kate said, ‘Angels and Elephants’, and we all said, ‘That’s it!’
The process of setting up this foundation is underway, and ideas are beginning to flow. We have plans to print and sell her artwork to raise funds, and there is a small inheritance from her grandmother Tinker, which came through after Elle died, and will help to get the funding going. Many of our family and friends, old and new, have said they would like to help where they can. While I find it daunting, we shall have to learn as we go, and make something lasting of Elle’s foundation. I seem to have no natural talent in this field, and am hoping that when Kate feels she has her family and life running smoothly she and Alex may like to take this on. I know Peter and I would be good at supporting her in this.
We sold our house—the second home we built on the island—before setting off for Galicia at the beginning of July 2016, and hope to have planning permission to begin our new home soon, but everything takes longer than expected when dealing with the island’s planning department. The plans have already been in the council’s hands for two-and-a-half years. For the first time ever, Elle had shown interest in getting involved in the building of this house, as we had talked about it being a venue for future retreats she hoped to host. She told us that when we returned from Galicia, she wanted to see the land and discuss the plans and ideas for the house. I had waited a long time for her to show any enthusiasm for the restoration and building work I had done in the past. We were really looking forward to this project, and excited about its involvement in her future. Now we try to keep up our spirits and enthusiasm for the development by considering how Elle would like to see it evolve, and how we might accommodate Angels&Elephants in the future.
Five months already! The sun broke through today after months of rain. I was up on the roof terrace, drinking in the beauty of the pine-covered Ibizan hills, when Elle popped into my mind, and said, ‘That’s no way to start the day’. The unsolicited nature of such a thought helps me to know it is my girl talking. It could not have been a reference to the beautiful morning, but to my new morning routine. Since Trump won the presidential election I have been reaching for my laptop and checking Facebook for his latest extraordinary Executive Order, and more. It puts me in the wrong frame of mind at the start of each new day. No more! Back to a little gentle reading first thing in the morning.
I intend to write more about the young Elle, but it must wait for another day. Something came up last night. Within days of Elle dying I longed to hear her praises sung on high. While in my heightened state it seemed like I could do anything I wanted to do. I wrote to the man I admired more than any other artist, telling him all about our girl, hoping to inspire him to write a song! Definitely not something I would normally presume! I wasn’t handcuffed by shyness but desperately wanted to ‘hold hands’ with someone I considered holy, who must therefore have a direct line to the angels. If I could speak to him, perhaps I could even speak to Elle. The only people who knew about this at the time were Peter and my friend Christina. I don’t know what Peter thought of my newfound bravado, but he gently stood by me. The man was Leonard Cohen, and I managed, by cracking a riddle, to get into a closed fan site, and after a little pleading, the chairman of the site gave me the email address of the person closest to Leonard Cohen, Robert Kory.
I have reread my emails, which were also packed with photos, and they are too painful to recall as I wrestled with my broken heart. I was desperately trying to find answers as to how this had happened to us.
After email one and two, I got this message from Robert Kory:
Our condolences. Such a beautiful and blissful daughter; tragic loss. I have forwarded to Leonard. Let us know if there is anything that we can do.
(I did try to get permission to print his email but I got no response. I don’t think there is anything that could be considered sensitive, so hopefully I am not creating a legal issue.)
He agreed to pass my letter on to Leonard Cohen, and in one further email he commented that he hoped the correspondence was coming to an end as it was becoming quite overwhelming. It was said with a hint of humour, but I am afraid to say I did send one more.
My last email, after I had reverted to my usual small self, was sent after his death. Feeling that I had created an additional burden for someone who was in pain and so close to his own death, I said I sincerely hoped Leonard Cohen’s family had decided not to pass on my emails. As long as he was shielded, I have no regrets about having written.
My reason for telling you this is that I would still love to have a song written for Elle. She brought music back into my life, and I would love to honour her memory in this way. A friend, closer to home, is writing a song for her. I look forward to hearing it.
Last night was the second in a row in which I managed to still my mind and let sleep claim me without tablets. It is good to be in the peaceful arms of sleep again. I am careful never to take tablets for more than three nights in a row. I don’t want to become reliant on them.
More about Elle’s years as a toddler. When she was just six weeks old, I had the unsettling feeling that there was something wrong with her hearing. My doctor quickly settled my fear by making a sound behind her back and reassuring me that she had heard it. So for a long time I thought no more about it. But when her language skills and first words started developing it became apparent that she had a speech impediment. She was struggling with certain sounds, the most obvious being her ‘ss’ sound, which had an explosive quality about it. We all found her lisp rather cute, and assumed it would disappear with time. But as she approached four years old the lisp and other speech problems became more pronounced. Again I suspected hearing problems. But every time the doctor made a sound behind her back in his silent surgery, she passed the test. I also noticed changes in her behaviour. She would play happily with one or two other children, but if there were more, she would move away and play on her own. She would also panic if I was out of her line of sight, and often screech until I came into sight again. She also had her own versions of words, again cute, but not reassuring for us.
It all came to a head at her combined fourth birthday party with her cousin James. It was heart-breaking to watch as James played on the climbing frame with all the other children while Elle amused herself on her own amongst the flowers. A parent at the party asked whether she had been checked for glue ear. I had never heard of this. She told me that glue ear is a condition where fluid fills one or both of the middle ears, and babies can be born with it. It is easily corrected by inserting a grommet into the eardrum to drain the fluid. Elle was going to start school in a few months, so I wasted no time in going back to the doctor.
This time, thank goodness, he sent us to a specialist, who now had the assistance of a computer to check her hearing. The technician had no sooner started the process than she called me over to show me the flattening of the graph for both ears. Elle was struggling to hear. She told me that the way Elle heard was as if all sounds went through a tub of water first. Her development despite this was a testimony to her determination and intelligence.
Finally something was going to be done, and I was excited to go to the hospital with her to have the grommets fitted, and her enlarged adenoids were to be removed as well. This also explained her snoring and apnoea, which had been a worry since she was a baby. And it wasn’t just me who was excited. It appealed to Elle’s growing love of drama. She showed great bravery from very early in life, and we both rather enjoyed ourselves. She recovered very quickly after the operation to make full use of regular offerings of ice cream. The only follow-up information we were given was that she would probably take a while to catch up on any development she had missed out on. I hope nowadays it is recognised that one needs more guidance and support during the first year at least.
The sudden onslaught of sound information must have been quite profound as she tried to make sense of a very different world from the highly subjective understanding she had gained prior to the operation. I have also recently learnt that most psychologists now believe that the primary time for brain development, including emotional development, takes place between two and four years of age. I can’t help wondering how much what she missed during these years had to do with her inner difficulties that started to manifest around the time of puberty and again around the age of twenty-one. When Elle was about fourteen, I came across a video I had made of her first school nativity play. We were already becoming aware that life with Elle could resemble a rollercoaster ride. The video showed this adorable little girl who, unlike all her classmates, was unable to sit still and participate in the singing. She fiddled with her clothes, started crawling around the feet of her friends, played with their hair and clothes, and occasionally, realising that the rest of the children were singing, she would try a few lines herself before becoming distracted again. With the help of the video and more life experience I could see what the problem was. She had not been developmentally ready for school and equally, she was unable to connect with her classmates. She remained trapped in her own little world.
One of my big regrets is that I didn’t hold her back from school for a year. She was certainly not ready for the big reach that all the other four-and-a-half-year olds were expected to make. She needed time to backpedal and reset some of the development that wasn’t well suited to her new understanding of the world. I have no doubt that with time and proper support her whole school experience could have been completely different, and may even have given her a smoother transition into adulthood. But perhaps all was as it was meant to be.
A couple of days after Elle’s operation we experienced an exciting moment together. Above our garden, normally known as our very own chalk cliff, was a little cottage at the edge of a forest. Elle and I were going up through the woods to have a cup of tea with the elderly couple who had always lived there, when she asked, ‘Mom, what is that hoo, hoo?’ I thought for a moment, and then realised it was the call of a common dove. She had probably never heard it before because it’s a muffled sound, unlike the shrill calls of other birds.
The next item on the agenda was speech therapy. Around this time I met a middle-aged woman with the same lisp as Elle, and knew straightaway that we needed to help Elle to lose hers. And so began the saga of Sammy the Snake. I think it took about a year, and I don’t remember at what point the explosive lisp was gone, but Elle was left with no audible speech impediment. Considering the bullying she went through later, thank goodness this was not a further cause for singling her out. Another regret I have is that we couldn’t find a Rudolf Steiner school near where we lived, at least for her early years. I think this would have made a massive difference to her general and emotional development, as it did for Kate. It is a nurturing and creative education that looks to secure emotional development in the early years, with a greater emphasis on the academic side from fourteen years old. Children only graduate to reading and writing around the age their milk teeth fall out. That doesn’t mean they don’t gain a lot of other skills in the kindergarten stages. The verb ‘to educate’ comes from the Latin educere, which means to bring forth, to bring about the development of attitudes and skills rather than to inculcate with knowledge. I think the education system is long overdue for a major overhaul.
More memories of my little ‘golden girl’ are coming to mind, and now seems as good a time as any to write them down. She was a feisty, confident and engaging little girl who enjoyed speaking her mind and had an effect on all who came into her sphere. People, including children, were generally intrigued by her and wanted to be her friend, but her sister saw that she needed a little correction from time to time. We have often remembered one occasion with amusement when Elle was not yet five, one that still makes my stomach queasy. Kate sometimes saw her role in Elle’s life as that of a mini parent, and would even berate her pa and me for not taking a strong enough role in disciplining her. Anyway, on this occasion, unbeknown to me, Elle was trying out swear words on her sister, and eventually Kate decided to take her to the bathroom and put soap in her mouth. Never a child to tell tales, Elle did not complain about her sister’s actions. Apparently, Elle waited months to take out a good-humoured revenge on her sister. One day while watching TV together, Kate asked Elle to get her some orange juice. They were probably watching ‘Charmed’, and Kate, deeply engaged in what was happening on screen, reached for the glass without noticing that the juice was less orange than usual. It had a healthy squirt of washing up liquid in it! We only heard about this from Kate more than twenty years later. She said the memory still had the power to make her gag.
Around this same time we took the girls and my mother on a holiday to Provence, and stayed in an enchanting village beneath high castle walls, Entrecasteaux. Our stay coincided with the town’s summer festival, and every evening there was live music and dancing in the square. On one evening, Elle chose to wear her sister’s red T-shirt, which on Elle was more like a three-quarter sleeved mini-dress, and with her long, golden hair and her love of drama she made quite an impression. We never encouraged provocative dressing, but on this occasion, Elle was expressing herself in the most innocent of ways. As she danced into the night, not giving the rest of us a chance with her father, I remember being struck by the thought that I would have quite a challenge on my hands in the not too distant future. I was not wrong. Elle the teenager was quite a journey, but thank goodness she never strayed far enough from us all that she couldn’t find a safe path back.
(I can accurately determine when incidents in our life happened according to which house it happened in, and we moved from that house about three months before Elle turned five.)
The first time I became aware of Elle experiencing bullying was at our local school in Swanmore, Hampshire. She would have been around seven years old. I got a call asking me to meet the headmistress after school. She explained that Elle had bitten a child—luckily through his coat, so although the teeth marks were visible, no blood was drawn. She said she was concerned that Elle had been taunted, and was being bullied by a couple of girls. Elle had never done anything like this before, nor ever complained about bullying, and didn’t seem fazed by it either. She went through the process of saying sorry to the little boy, then they both went out to play again, and I discussed with the headmistress what we should do. Although we wanted to stay within the government system, it seemed more important to find a small private school with fewer children in the classroom, being aware that she still needed some extra help. We found just the right one, Meoncross, which also provided bus transport from our area. Only one problem—the school uniform.
We set off to buy her new uniform, and what a lot there was. I think the skirt was tartan and the blazer blue, but when the shop assistant added the bow around her neck and the hat on her head, she took one look at herself in the mirror and burst into tears. It was everything she didn’t want to be—a standout person! But we persevered and soon she settled in, and really seemed to be happy at school. She was still struggling with the necessary developmental catch up, and the quality of her work started to show signs of how she meant to go on—great swings between passes and failures. Each day I would ask her if she had homework, and usually she said no or that she had done it. I was a hands-off mother when it came to homework. They both knew that they could ask me anything but the big difference between the girls was that Kate wanted to do her homework and Elle saw no point to it. My intention was that the girls should learn to take responsibility for their homework themselves, and this ability would serve them well as they moved up through the classes. I should have done better for Elle, but it was never easy to cajole her into doing things she didn’t want to do. As I said, she was a powerful and determined child.
Report cards were always a combination of top of the class here and down at the bottom there. There was no consistency. It would be one subject this time and a total switch the next. We discussed endlessly with all her teachers the issues created by the late treatment of her hearing problem, and as she was generally popular with the teachers, they usually showed both understanding and frustration. It was apparent that Elle was not unintelligent.
It has been a busy day and I am finding it hard to concentrate.
I just got a lovely note from Jade, one of Elle’s closest childhood friends. Elle had saved her life when she was around eight or nine. They were playing together in Kate’s attic bedroom and thought it would be fun to throw Maltesers into each other’s mouths. One lodged in her friend’s windpipe and she was struggling to breathe, so Elle apparently slapped her hard on the back, and the offending ball shot right across the room. We heard about this only a few years before Elle died. Jade obviously remembered it well and reminded us that Elle had saved her life. Elle and Jade spent a lot of time riding together before we moved to Winchester. The move caused a hiatus in their relationship, but with the help of Facebook they managed to stay in contact.
Elle’s next school was a disaster. Our move to Winchester sadly meant leaving Meoncross after just one year—another regret. The new private school was close to where we were living, but it focussed far too much on results and not enough on the emotional needs of the children. Again, Elle never reported on most of what went on, and gradually over the years we learnt more about this year and wished it had never happened. As they attempted to stamp their will on her, often through humiliation, she developed a confrontational strategy of standing up to them. She had already discovered that she could use humour, cunning and bravado to get her classmates onside after being humiliated for her lack of academic achievement. She also became known as the one who could extract cookies from the kitchen without getting caught. Around this time she also developed a strategy of putting herself down before others did. Then at least it was on her terms, and she got her say in first. I finally came into conflict with her teacher (who couldn’t wait to retire) and the headmistress, and it was time to move on. She finished her junior years at a much more wholesome school called Stroud, where she made many good friends and began her love of the dramatic arts, a wholesome outlet for her newfound cockiness.
But by now the pattern of oscillating results and unwillingness to read started to alert us to a further problem. We had many talks with her teachers about this, and they did various tests to identify where the problem lay. Eventually her teacher said they had identified a problem, but not its cause. Elle also used to tire about halfway through the term, which coincided with her class behaviour becoming erratic and disruptive. One day, sensing her deep frustration and fatigue, I let her stay home from school and took her to the Natural History Museum in London instead. We headed for her preferred section on Egypt and the pharaohs where we spent hours wandering amongst the artefacts, and I noticed that she wasn’t reading the descriptions of the exhibits even though the writing was easy to read. She said that the letters kept dancing around. It may seem strange that I wasn’t aware of this but like her father she rarely shared her inner world.
Within a few days I found a specialist who did various tests, one of which involved a long pointer. He asked Elle to focus on the tip of the stick as he moved it around. Without warning he popped in a simple question for her to answer. Her need to concentrate to prevent the point of the stick dancing around meant she never heard the question. It was an ‘aha’ moment for us all, and also a moment of great relief—at last we were getting somewhere. The condition was referred to as a visual processing disorder—there was nothing wrong with her ability to read words or spell but she struggled to access the print and make sense of the language. Handwriting was also difficult for her as it too moved around on the page, and perhaps explains her unusual handwriting. Now she was allowed to use her laptop for written work and given extra time during exams. Elle told me it had always been hard to get to the end of a passage or question and remember what she had read. The problem was in the comprehension of the reading. By now she was around eleven years old and thank goodness she had some sympathetic teachers who got behind her and encouraged her to push forward with her work. She also decided to join Stagecoach on Saturday mornings to further her interest in dancing and acting. This was great for her self-confidence but only those who knew her well realised just how much her self-esteem had taken a bashing.
Her schooling until A-level College continued much the same, inconsistency being the name of the game. With the help of her next school, Embley Park, we came to understand that she was highly skilled intellectually but she wasn’t motivated to achieve for the sake of it. At times she made a big effort to prove her potential now and again, and I think mainly for herself, but these bursts were short lived. Kate had always enjoyed her schoolwork and had a clear vision of where she was headed and sometimes this unnerved Elle. There is no doubt that Kate was a hard act to follow but not for her dad or me—we loved Elle just as she was. She always felt that love from us all, but it doesn’t change how you feel about yourself. It probably just throws up another mirror in which you see and judge yourself. We knew there couldn’t be much wrong with Elle’s brain because of her love of pushing in on our bridge games. By the age of nine she was pretty good, and our friends, Barbara and John, would allow her to sit in on the odd hand. Very soon she was capable of making a contract—not easy in the early stages of learning the game. She had no fear of the game and this indicates to me that she saw the play clearly in her head. This love of bridge and the quiet competitiveness it brought out in her continued throughout her life. We have wonderful memories of family games. Elle and her ‘twin’ cousin James were particularly competitive, and this never changed. As a tot James used to get frustrated when playing card games with Elle—he was sure he should be able to beat her but never could. I would watch in amusement. I could tell what was going round in this little man’s head: if he was cleverer than his cousin, how was it possible to never beat her at cards? Peter and I had great games of bridge with the two of them as they grew older, and watched as a strong mutual respect and deep love developed between them, but their quiet competitiveness never left them. Because they understood each other so well they preferred to partner up and slaughter us oldies!
Elle was often in trouble at school for all the usual teenage things but she usually had the support of at least one teacher who had her back. Many times, when collecting her from school at the end of the day, I would find her and a few boys messing around in the carpark. Either she, her schoolbag, or sometimes both, would end up in the waste bin, and everybody seemed to be having great fun. Many years later Elle let us know something of the bullying she experienced at the hands of one or two people at the school. She had honed a way of getting people to laugh with her, and by giving them permission to ‘rubbish’ her this gave her control over the level of hurt she experienced. She could deal with it because she had invited them into her game. And while it allowed her to maintain some dignity, and got the others thinking she was fun and wickedly cool, it had the ongoing effect of lowering her self-esteem, and therefore she deserved to be maltreated. Elle was never a typical victim of bullying but rather became a target as a result of a number of circumstances over the whole of her school life. Her therapist came to believe that she was suffering from a degree of post-traumatic stress disorder. Neither Kate nor we had any idea of the degree of bullying she had experienced. It is one of the reasons I later refer to Elle as one of the bravest people I have known.
I don’t blame the school for what happened, but it was between the ages of thirteen and fifteen that Elle experienced her most damaging bullying. In some cases it may happen as a result of the chemistry between two individuals. Thank goodness it is also a time when she made some of her strongest and lasting relationships with a group of girls. She also had a few staff members who believed in her. Just as well because she had a tendency to break school rules relatively frequently. But while the school may have sensed that there was something intrinsically good about her, it may have been this that drove a wedge between her and those prone to envy. I found one particular incident of bullying devastating when Elle finally shared it with me more than ten years later. As a fourteen-year-old there was no way she could process what had happened to her without adult guidance. Her way of viewing the events was to assume the very worst about herself, and the guilt lies firmly with the perpetrators. Soon as she told me I knew that after ten years it would not be easy to ‘unpack and rebox’ this memory.
Also around the age of thirteen Elle discovered that young people were meeting in the Winchester Cathedral grounds, known as the Cat Grounds. She and her new friend Leah, suitably attired in their favoured pyjamas and slippers, regularly met up at weekends with like-minded youngsters. They spent a lot of time laughing but I am sure some of their fun, had we been aware of it, would have made our general concerns pale into insignificance. We hoped it was a good sign when the two of them found a weekend job in a country pub, although they were only ever considered good enough for the kitchen! Memories of picking them up after their shifts make me smile. After a few tumultuous years it seemed like we had made it through safely to the time when Elle was ready for A-level college.
I still struggle to linger on photos of Elle. Her friends regularly send us photos of ordinary and special moments with her over the years. We love being able to share these memories, and wouldn’t want to be without them for a moment, but it also invites in so much pain.
Elle’s next school was Hurtwood House in Surrey. Although very happy at Embley Park, she wanted to explore her love of drama and the arts, and Hurtwood specialised in these areas. The dynamic young headmaster, Cosmo, also intrigued her—I think she saw in him someone who saw her, if you get my drift. Because of the distance involved it meant a big commitment from us because Elle needed to board weekly, and Friday and Sunday evening drives had to be factored into our weekends.
Within a few days of Elle dying, friends and family wrote to share their special memories of her with us. And this is one such memory that Rachel, a Hurtwood friend, shared with us. It gives an insight into who Elle was at this stage of her life and when she was with her peer group. Rachel is one of the Here for Elle WhatsApp friends.
Dear Jennie and Peter,
Words cannot express the immense grief and sadness overcoming me. Elle was and always will be one of my closest and dearest friends, and I wanted to write to share with you all of the magical and happy memories that Elle and I experienced together.
I remember the day we met so vividly, and it still puts a smile on my face, it must have been September 2005—eleven years ago, in Peaslake House when we started at Hurtwood together. All of the new students were gathered together, finding their way around the school and the grounds. I was sitting with a group of people in the kitchen and I asked if anyone knew where we could go to have a cigarette, everyone went quiet (I was obviously sat amongst the quiet non-smokers). Elle stuck her head through the door and said ‘I do!’ I went outside with her and we were inseparable for the next two years of college life.
We had so many wonderful times together at Hurtwood, staying up late talking through the night, moaning about schoolwork together (neither of us were very keen on ‘prep’ time or ‘quiet study time’) except for art, Elle is incredibly gifted, I remember us staying in the art rooms all day, painting and drinking tea most of the time. One lunch break we even snuck out of school and bought a tiny baby rabbit who then lived in the art rooms for two weeks because we were so worried about what my parents would say if I came home one weekend with a new pet (they were fine in the end). Elle and I called the rabbit ‘Beau’ which means handsome in French.
I remember I came to stay with you when you used to live in Winchester. We spent the weekend playing cards, eating ‘fab’ ice lollies and relaxing. We must have been going through our ‘rock’ phase, as Elle thought I would ‘look cool with black hair’. She dyed my hair black in your bathroom, and once it dried she flat out laughed at me for hours on end… ‘no, it’s not that bad… hahaha!’ I could only laugh along at how silly I looked with her, she told me to wear a hat and ‘problem solved’. Elle always looked at the bright side of situations.
We went to Reading Festival together for so many years, watching our favourite bands, singing along, getting lost in the campsites together (and having to call Graeme to come and find us). I still have a pair of wellies that Elle wrote the set times for the music we wanted to see on them so we wouldn’t forget.
After Hurtwood, Elle ended up living with some of my friends from home while she was at university. I’ve never felt prouder and happier to introduce someone like Elle to a group of my friends from when I was little, and she has left an impression on all of them as a friend, as someone who brings happiness wherever they go. Anyone who met Elle knew how thoughtful and soulful a person she was, how special.
We had some lovely holidays together, coming out to Ibiza to soak up the sun, explore, and sit and watch the sun setting over the sea. For Elle’s birthday one year (18th) we all went to Disney in Paris and reconnected with our ‘inner child’ again, although I think it’s safe to say that Elle and I have never really lost our inner child. I look back and smile at thoughts from this holiday—her ‘birthday cake’ was a French baguette with some candles stuck in the crust, Elle met Minnie Mouse, we got drunk with Disney characters in the evening, and we got to spend a day together in Paris at the end of the trip.
A couple of years ago, we did something incredible together, something I still talk about, think about, and something that will stay with me forever—one of our greatest achievements and proudest moment—we walked the cancer research night marathon together. With no training whatsoever it was a crazy idea, and when it came round to starting the walk we couldn’t believe what we had signed ourselves up for…! We survived the marathon on sweets, Lucozade, and each other’s good company. It is one of my happiest memories, the walk took us all night, but we just thought about how lucky we were to have ten hours together to talk, to reminisce about old times, and to create new memories together as we walked through the night side by side. I remember laughing so hard together that we had to stop walking because we couldn’t take a step without giggling.
[Elle told me that about two thirds of the way through the walk they were very close to where Kate lived, and they considered sliding out because they were exhausted and hungry, but they made the joint decision to continue. I also got the impression that they were amongst the last to make their way over the finishing line.]
The last hour of the walk was spent in silence, and afterwards we both admitted that we had been pretending to be Frodo from Lord of the Rings on ‘our way to Mordor to dispose of the ring’. Elle pushed me to carry on to the end, her positive attitude and wonderful perspective of life is what got me through the last 5 miles.
She always encouraged me to go for things in life, to reach for the stars, to chase my dreams, and I owe a lot to her for things in life I have accomplished by myself, and with Elle. She came to visit me recently and stayed with me in Rochester for a few days, we did some exploring together, went to the castle, and had a good catch up before she went back to Ibiza. I’ve never felt so at home as when I am with Elle, I can tell her anything, my hopes, my fears, my dreams, and she is there for me. Elle encouraged me to follow my dream of studying law, she said she knew I could do it and that I should follow my heart. I did, and a few months later I applied to university, and I got in. I have Elle to thank for giving me the courage and support to do this. I have Elle to thank for a lot of things, for encouraging me to believe in myself, for standing by my side during hard times, for putting a smile on my face when I needed a friend. In truth, Elle will always be that friend to me, she will still be with me in the future and encourage me, be by my side, and make me smile, because she taught me to be a better person, because she will always be with me wherever I go.
I am truly blessed and so lucky to have had a friend like Elle, and I will always love her.
Rachel shared another lovely story with us, and I think it is clear that neither Rachel nor Elle had any interest in developing their sporting prowess. They spent most of their time outside of school hours wandering around in their pyjamas, and on this occasion they were hanging out behind the art studio when the hockey coach approached them. If I remember correctly, at that time they had no sports fields and therefore no home matches. Rachel told me that their rugby and other teams were mostly considered ‘entertaining’ teams back then, and the reason for going out to play matches was that the students were taken to the pub afterwards for a beer. The coach asked if Elle and Rachel wanted to make up the hockey team, to which they replied that they had no togs. The coach said they could come as they were, so they hopped on the bus, coaxed along by the idea of dropping in at a pub on the way home. They played without togs or any knowledge of the game, lost the match, and I cannot imagine what the opposing team thought of this Hurtwood lot—St Trinian’s comes to mind! I also doubt there were ever any celebratory drinks involved.
Something came up last night that has shocked me deeply. We were watching a talk show we had recorded the previous evening. Amongst the interviewees was Harriet Harman, who has just published a book about her thirty years as a Labour politician. She has held high office over her political lifetime, including that of Deputy Leader of her party. She was questioned on how things have changed for women in parliament over the years, and what she thought of feminism and the women’s marches we have recently witnessed following Donald Trump taking office. She said that while much progress has been made, it is important to acknowledge that there is still much to be improved for women in all fields of life and work, and it is necessary to make sure that none of the advances are ever rolled back and we return to the 1950s. My instinctive thought was that this surely could never happen. Nobody could turn back this page, and who would ever want to? Our daughters grew up feeling there was nothing they couldn’t do if they put in the hard work or put their minds to it. Women will always face tremendously hard choices as soon as they grapple with the decision to have children or not. Nobody, I hope, would also dispute the difficult bag of emotions women feel, either when leaving their child to go out to full time work, never knowing whether they are doing the right thing, or feeling unappreciated and sometimes personally unfulfilled when staying home to look after children full time. There are so many difficulties whichever direction a woman chooses, not forgetting that some women don’t even have this choice. They have to work for financial reasons. These difficulties mean there can never be a level playing field, and therefore equal outcomes for women, both at home or in the workplace, without major changes in attitude and deed. I fear I also hear the complaints of a younger generation that is choosing not to have children and subsequently resenting the ‘perks’ given to those with families. Where could resentment like this lead? Only towards an ‘uglier’ and more selfish world. It does seem to me that gratitude and grace are states of being that lose out in our current societal paradigm.
I can’t help worrying about the direction the world is moving in. When I was in my altered state I felt psychically opened up, and had a strong sense that greater kindness was coming to earth. I hope I wasn’t just a delusional grieving mother because it doesn’t seem that way to me—perhaps we are required to move backwards in time towards kindness.