Sunday, 24 November 2013

Turning down an empty glass for Breda

It’s such a cliché, someone discovering that you live in London, or Belfast, or New York, and asking ‘I have a friend who lives there. Do you know him?’

So, back in 1983, I reacted with derisive scepticism to an Australian friend who told Danielle, my wife, ‘I met a great couple of Irish doctors in Grenada. They’re moving to England. You must meet them.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I thought. England’s smaller than Australia but that doesn’t mean we all get our bread from the same bakery.

Still, my incredulity was a bit dented when I heard soon after that they were moving to Witney, a market town in West Oxfordshire. We were moving there too. We moved and discovered they were living three minutes walk away from us.

I’d been right that England was larger than our friend thought. But the world’s a lot smaller.

That was the start of a friendship with Ronnie and Breda that’s lasted thirty years.

Breda with her hallmark smile
After mushroom picking with Danielle
It started with watching each others children grow up. Danielle even took the notion of babysitting to unusual heights: because their pregnancies were almost synchronised, she was able to breastfeed Bredas elder son while she was looking after him; Breda had to admit she found that slightly shocking, though with her head she realised it made perfect sense if the child was crying. 

Breda sets the pace
for one of our sons and a daughter-out-law
For me too the shared kids experience wasn’t always easy

Breda was one of the world’s warmest and most generous people, her hallmark smile always available and full of affection, in good times as much as in moments of adversity, of which she had more than her share. However, she was also gifted with exceptional intelligence that could make her gentle wit as mordant as it was insightful: at a time when I was travelling a great deal for work and leaving the children with Danielle more than I should have, she remarked to me ‘you’re a bit of a bachelor father, aren't you?’ 

The best reproaches are those delivered with humour, and that one is forever engraved on my mind.

Even after both they and we left Witney, we continued to visit each other, and also, as often as we could, visit other places together.

On one occasion we had a magnificent camping holiday, with all the children, at Royan in Western France. It
’s unforgettable for the number of times Ronnie and I went chasing their teenage adopted daughters through the night-time dunes – chasing the girls back to camp, the circling boys away.

But Royan was also the site of a memorable hunt by Danielle and Breda for the best local Pineau des Charentes. For anyone who doesn’t know this excellent drink, it’s made of one-third cognac, two-thirds grape juice, giving it a deliciously healthy and innocuous fruit flavour, that covers one heck of a kick.

There are two schools of thought on how to approach tastings. There are those who spit out. Danielle and Breda belonged to the other school. The striking image of the Royan holiday was therefore their return to camp, rolling back unsteadily on their bikes, heavily laden with bottles, and fully loaded with Pineau.

There would be many more trips down the years. We went round Copenhagen by boat. We shivered at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. We gazed in slightly dizzy wonder at the whirling dervishes in Istanbul. We listened to Smetana on the Charles bridge in Prague.

Breda (left) and Danielle share a moment of culture
Over cocktails in an Istanbul bar
In Prague, it was Danielle who organised the accommodation and, in a spirit of economy, booked us into a backpackers’ hostel. It reminded Breda, she told us with distaste, of dormitories in the convent where she’d been educated. 
But all her reservations dissolved when she met the barman, a cheerful Czech who could make any tropical drink you might like, and many other cocktails besides.

‘Excellent choice of place to stay,’ she assured Danielle, smiling over the brim of a brimming glass.

Ronnie and Breda in Christiania, Copenhagen
With your humble narrator becomingly in the background
It was only in January that we had our last trip together, to Lanzarote in the Canaries. The setting was glorious and Breda’s irresistible joy in conversation on any topic, was a boon to us all. And yet she didn’t contribute as much as she wanted to, or as she had on other trips: she was suffering from a terribly debilitating digestive condition that left her in terrible pain. 

Even so, the visit to Lanzarote was a great success, though that was in part because it wasn’t until her return that we realised that she wasn’t suffering from any banal digestive problem. What she had was cancer at an advanced stage. With her oncologists’ encouragement, she put up a brave fight, but a few weeks ago it became clear it was a losing one. She was admitted to hospital and hope faded that she would ever go home.

On Thursday evening, 14 November, the thought came to me that I was quietly relaxing in front of an enjoyable TV programme while my friend was lying in hospital, drugged and facing death. But only a few minutes later, a phone call from Ronnie revealed that I was wrong and the truth far worse: at the time I’d thought of Breda’s declining life, it was already over.

Yesterday, Saturday 22 November, we said our farewells to her. My eulogy, saying much the same as I’ve written her, was just one of three. It was followed by a local doctor who had worked with her and told us about a woman who consulted him because she was having trouble conceiving. When he saw her again a few months later, she was already pregnant. 

Apparently, in the meantime Breda had seen her and told her ‘relax. Make love, not babies.’ It worked a dream.

Breda was a great doctor, above all because she was so fundamentally human. That’s why her place is still set among us, though it remains empty, her glass untasted, and I can think of no more fitting tribute for an excellent friend than the last quatrain of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

    And when Thyself with shining Foot shall pass
    Among the Guests Star-scatter'd on the Grass,
    And in thy joyous Errand reach the Spot
    Where I made one – turn down an empty Glass!

I’ll be turning down many an empty glass for Breda. But first Ill raise it, full, to her memory.


Penny Mead said...

Very moving tribute to an obviously well loved lady who sounds like she lived life to the full, full of love and hope for those who knew her.

David Beeson said...

Many thanks. She was certainly much loved - and deserved to be.

Anonymous said...

A loving and eloquent tribute.

Anonymous said...

A loving and eloquent tribute.


David Beeson said...

Thanks, San. No less than she deserved, I feel.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful piece in honour of a beautiful lady. We'll be raising a glass, or should I say many a glass, to Breda.

Much love,

David Beeson said...

I look forward to joining you in emptying some of those glasses, Davide.