You Are My Best Friend

In the autumn of 1987, I made the decision to take six months sabbatical off my postgraduate programme. I had no money to pay my rent, hardly enough for food, stationeries, transportation, etc. To make matters worse, my childhood friend, Ronke, in Boston, Mass, needed a loan of $2,000 from me, to add to what she has saved, for an urgent life-changing operation.
The call came through at 5:00am British time, about 11:00pm American time. I came out of a very scary dream to hear the phone ringing. I struggled to pick the receiver, still under my duvet. I had turned off the central heating before going to bed so it was chilly in the room.
‘Good evening, oh, I mean, good morning Sade, it’s me Ronke.’ She was always in the habit of getting her greetings wrong because of the time difference.
‘Good morning accepted, how are you? Are you ok?’ I hated getting calls very early in the morning. It scared me stiff that I was about to get bad news.
‘I’m fine, but I need your help. Remember the operation I told you about? Well, I have to look for a balance of $2,000 to complete total medical bill. You know how urgent and important it is.’
‘Yes, I know. But you’re aware things are tough here, too. Don’t worry I will see what I can do. Let me think about it and call you back, okay?’
We said goodbye. Of course, I couldn’t go back to sleep. 
God Almighty, what am I going to do? I’m already overdrawn at Barclays by £100. Who do I turn to for help now? Different thoughts were raging in my head. I decided to try my luck with the bank manager, Alan, who seemed to have a crush on me, hoping he would approve a £1000 loan. I was aware of the usual question banks ask, ‘How are you going to repay?’  I saw my chances of getting a loan as rather dim. A student with no job, already overdrawn, but hang on, if I could get a part time job…
That was when the thought of going to Aberdeen hit me. I could go back to Aberdeen and get a job for six months. I should be able to save enough money to pay back the £1000 for Ronke’s operation, and still have enough left to take care of other personal needs. I got excited, not because of going to Scotland, a very cold place, but because I could see a way out of my money problems.
I put a call through to my good old friend, Andrew, the manager of a private golf club.
‘Hi Andrew, it’s me, Sade.’
‘Hey, how are you? Quite a long time. How’s London?’
‘Good. But I need a place to work for six months. Can you give me my old summer job back?’
‘No problem, Sade. We miss you. You’re welcome back here anytime. When are you coming?’
‘Should be there next week.’
‘Okay, we’ll be expecting you.’
‘Is Annie still with you?’ I asked
“Yes, she’ll be thrilled to hear you’re coming to Aberdeen.’
Annie, a 55-year-old Scottish lady, came from Strathclyde. She worked as a bar manager at the golf club. I met her years back as an undergraduate when I took my first summer job as a barmaid. We hit it off straight away because she once fell in love with an Afro-American man, and they both wanted to marry. But somehow it did not turn out that way, and she had remained single since. Perhaps my being an African was a reminder of her old lost love. I guessed she kind of shifted the love, for her Afro-American, to me. Annie took great delight in taking care of me, watching my back all the time.
I made another call to Annie to tell her I was on my way to Aberdeen, and asked if I could stay with her. She was elated, and said she could do with my company.  In any case, it would reduce her weekly bills, since I would be sharing expenses – accommodation rent, electricity, gas, and food. She lived in the city, about 10 miles from the countryside golf club. Another benefit of staying with Annie was the reduction in my transport fare since I would be able to get a ride in Annie’s red Morris minor, except when we had different shifts.
Having worked out a clearer solution to my money problem, I went to see Alan for a loan. Apart from the fact that he was a young white English man, about 30 years, attracted to me, he admired my quiet student life, while we both enjoyed jogging. He was an ardent jogger, and sometimes we went hiking several miles. Alan eventually approved the £1,000 loan, when I told him it was for my friend’s operation, and agreed I would repay a weekly sum of £50 pounds. I was relieved and advised the bank to transfer the money speedily to Ronke in Boston.
This having been done, I packed my bags for Aberdeen to work off the loan. The night coach was the cheapest means of getting there. It was about twelve hours’ journey with a one hour stop-over at one of the motorways restaurant for a leg stretch, meals, and relief.  The coach arrived in the early morning and I made my way to Annie’s flat. She lived in one of the council flats in the city, not too far from Kings College, Aberdeen.  
Annie was pleased to see me. We exchange pleasantries, asked about each other’s family, talked about exciting things in our lives and so on. Since her flat was a one-bedroom apartment, she gave up her bedroom, while she opted to sleep on the sofa bed in the living room. Initially I insisted she shouldn’t give up her bedroom for me, as I did not mind the living room one bit. But she disagreed.
‘Oh, no, Sade. You have the bed. In any case, I love sleeping on the living room sofa while I watch my favourite soap operas—Emmerdale Farm and Coronation Street.’
Annie’s room was very small, but comfortable and tidy. I was actually pleased to take the bedroom since I could then snuggle under the duvet. I found it a bit drafty in the living room anyway, as we had to cut down on the heating to save cost. For you to remain warm, you had to be fully clothed with your thick socks on, and a hot water bottle.
For about four months, things went on smoothly for me; my routine the same everyday and hitch free. I worked shifts, six days a week with one day off, helping out in the golf club administrative office as a secretary between 9:00am-3:00pm, thereafter I resumed duty in the bar from 6:00pm-11:00pm.  During the hours of 3:00pm-6:00pm, I would take out my electric typewriter and work on my draft doctorate thesis. I was communicating with Peter, my thesis supervisor, from Aberdeen. He was not aware of my job though. He believed I just wanted six months to work on my thesis, which I was doing in any case. By the end of the four months I had a complete draft of the seven chapters, which I bound and mailed to him for assessment.
While waiting for Peter to respond to my draft, a terrible accident happened. Annie slipped on the icy snow, landed on her left hip and broke it. She was rushed to the hospital, and for the next few days she went through the most excruciating pain. She was in tears all the time. She looked so pale and fragile, my heart went to her. The doctors operated, put steel pins to hold her hip together. Annie had to remain in the hospital for five weeks after the operation, because her healing pace was slow. Friends and family visited bringing flowers, food, gifts and anything that would cheer her spirits.  When she was finally discharged from the hospital, she still had to use crutches, which she found difficult because of the pain. She lost so much weight and I became a nurse overnight, fending for her hand and foot. She was totally dependent on me to take her to the bathroom, to help her bathe, to lead her to the living room, do her laundry and cook. Sitting on the loo was painful, sitting down on the couch was painful, and standing up was painful. It was pain, pain, pain, tears and more tears.
We shifted her back into the bedroom for warmth, while I moved to the living room. Taking care of Annie was not an easy task, but I learnt two things: perseverance and compassion. I stopped being self-centred for once and forced myself to put Annie first in the scheme of things. There were days I got tired from consoling, tidying after her, cleaning her vomit (she just vomited uncontrollably when in too much pain), but then I remembered her unselfishness: giving up her warm bed, giving me shelter and love, and I felt guilty at my selfishness.
Before I knew it, six months was done. My draft had a good review. I had paid my loan to the bank, and had enough money saved to take care of my needs in London. Annie was getting better: at least the bad pain was gone, and she had become quite dexterous with the crutches, but was still unable to get back to work. When I told her of my intention to return to London, she broke down and slipped back into mild depression.  My promise to keep in touch from London did not help. She was used to having me around and could not bear being alone again. I decided to stay extra two weeks to allow her get her spirits back. More so, I could not leave her at Christmas. She was over the moon. 
That was when the thought to give Annie a surprise party at the golf club hit me. She loved to be loved and was at her best when surrounded by loved ones. I decided to organise with few of her friends, some nieces and nephews and staff; who all thought the idea of a party was good. I really cannot tell you precisely why I wanted a party for Annie at the time. It was just an intuition, I think.  I know Annie was very emotional about Christmas and was one of her best times, so what better way to say ‘thank you’ to my friend than being part of a group of people planning a memorable Christmas for her.
I got to work, called people that were close to Annie. We decided to contribute £10 each into a fund pool. At the end of the day we collected a total of £300 towards the party, from which we bought Christmas gifts for everybody and a special one for Annie. Andrew chipped in by giving us the restaurant free to hold the party, while the chefs volunteered to make mince pies, Christmas cake, pudding, and prepare other traditional Christmas delights: stuffed turkey, roast potatoes, cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts, glazed carrots, sweet red cabbage and pudding. There was still enough money left to buy decorations, juices, wine, Stella Artois, Heineken, shandy (beer and lemonade), and of course, Scottish whisky. I managed to keep all the arrangements away from Annie. She did not suspect a thing, all the while, except when I reminded her about our usual Christmas Eve party. 
‘Annie, don’t forget our party on Christmas Eve. We need to get you a cool number (cute dress) for it.’
‘Oh, aye. I hope I can walk in without these damn crutches.’
‘Don’t worry about the crutches, we will wrap them in green, gold and red Christmas paper, so you will look like an ageing, but rich, rock star.’
‘Yes, with all my millions stashed in the Royal Bank of Scotland,’ she laughed.
It was nice to see Annie laugh and joke with me again. The months I spent nursing Annie had been challenging for both of us. You never know what to expect from Annie each day. One day she was happy, next day she was weepy, another she remained mute.
The morning of Christmas Eve was freezing, as we had snow the day before. I struggled up from my sitting room sofa, robbed my hands together to keep them warm, and rushed to the bathroom for a hot shower. I dressed quickly, with thick socks and my knee length boots, pulled on my thick woolly coat and neck scarf, gave Annie a quick peck on the cheeks.
‘Annie, I will be back at six in the evening to take you to the golf club.’
I dashed out to make sure things went smoothly.
Thank God for good people, as I need not have bothered. The food looked delicious, turkey already in the oven, sauces, pies, cakes, and other Christmas goodies were ready, tables had been set and the decorations were up. I was so overcome with emotion I just started crying.
‘Eh, what is the matter Sade, have we done anything wrong?’ Someone asked.
‘To the contrary my dear friends, everything is right. Don’t mind me, I cry when I am overjoyed’.
There was even a country band set to play for Annie. I asked if we could afford the band. I was told not to worry; nothing was too much for Annie. Annie loved country music, especially ‘You’re My Best Friend’ by Don Williams.
After instructing the lead singer of the band to usher Annie in with that song, I went home to help her get dressed. She got a shock of her life when I brought out a dress she’d sighted at House of Frasers before her accident. At the time, she had kept going back to try the dress on, knowing she could not afford it and reluctant to use her credit card. It was a purple chiffon dress, trimmed with satin loaded with sequins at the neck and shoulder, with a price tag of £150. Annie kept hoping it would go on sale for half the price, but it never did. We arranged to pay for it. It was her first surprise.
Annie could not hold back the tears at the sight of the dress. She could not believe it. I helped her put it on.
‘Fits you like a glove. The dress was made with you in mind, Annie’, I said.
‘Thank you. Thank you, I can’t believe it’, she kept saying.
‘You deserve nothing less, Annie, and we love you very much.’
One of our friends had agreed to do Annie’s hair and make-up her face at home.  By the time Annie was ready, she looked like a star indeed. She refused the crutches for that night, so we helped her into the car and out. We arrived at the golf club right on time, and just took her to the restaurant. At the door, I asked her to close her eyes, led her gently inside the restaurant and told her to open them. We almost had a casualty on our hands, because Annie slumped, and I had to hold her up. I felt her miss another step and her voice started to shake when she opened her mouth to speak. She was completely amazed when about thirty people on their feet, raised their glasses and said, ‘Merry Christmas, Annie!’ The room sparkled with all the decorations, the buffet table was a delight to behold, and the band cranked out Annie’s favourite country song.
I had never seen Annie so happy. I took her to her special seat, gave her a mock salute and said, ‘Mi lady, what will please you Ma’am?’
‘Oh, give over, Sade,’ she raised her hand to brush my comment aside, and said lovingly ‘please give me scotch with soda and ice.’
‘Coming, Ma’am.’
Annie had a ball, and her cheeks were rosier than I had seen them in a long time.  She kept blushing with excitement. We all had a good time, with lots of good food and the best of wine. We shared gifts and the band was a thrill. The party went on till midnight. The roads were really icy, so we had to take a taxi home. Annie fell into bed straight away and snored so loudly, I could hear her in the living room.
I woke up Annie on Christmas morning with a breakfast of grilled bacon, Irish sausages, scrambled eggs and toasted potato cakes (her favourite) with fresh butter, homemade jam and a pot of hot coffee with cream and fresh orange juice. She ate ravenously. I got her out of bed for a shower and helped her dress up. It was a lovely Christmas morning, crispy fresh air, everywhere white with snow and really Christmas-ish. Annie and I then decided to continue the celebration by having our Christmas lunch outside, to share the joys of the yuletide with people rather than be on our own. We chose the Caledonian hotel, a popular hotel on Union Street, known for its sumptuous traditional Christmas lunch.
It was an emotional lunch, knowing I really had to go back to London after Boxing Day.  Both of us reminisced over old times: the good old funny nights, when we were very tired from working late but still had time to sit down, after all the customers were gone, for a drink and gossip with the other barmaids. By the time we left the Caledonian, it was late afternoon, we asked the taxi to drop us at the national park. We sat down near the river and took in the beautiful and peaceful surroundings. We fed the pigeons dried bread together, but felt it was time we went back when I noticed Annie looking pale and struggling with her breathing.
‘It is getting colder, so I think we should call it a day,’ I said
‘I feel strangely tired, and sickly. Yes, let’s go.’
I quickly flagged down a taxi that took us back to the flat. I tucked her into bed. I went back to the kitchen to fill a hot water bottle, and slipped it inside the sheets to keep her warm. I touched her cheeks, they were practically frozen. 
‘Annie, should I call the doctor? Can I make you hot Ovaltine?’
‘No, I am alright. All the excitement of the last two days got to me.’  I said goodnight to let her rest. I switched off the main light but left her bedside light on.
Maybe I should have stayed with her, because Annie never woke up the next morning. She died peacefully in her sleep. Strangely, I did not cry. I was happy because we gave her the time of her life and we were there when she needed us most. That is still the lesson for me. Do not postpone love till tomorrow or try to show, or say it, only when it is convenient for you.  Give love today when it matters most. Tomorrow may be too late.  Mother Teresa once said ‘Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin’…to show love.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons
Story Credit: Waving in the Wind by Bisi Abiola, 2014


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