Just over a year ago, as I was preparing to celebrate my birthday, I became aware of the sombre news that Tessa Winship, a friend of mine for a quarter of a century, had died at the age of 47. This was bad enough, but I learned shortly afterwards that Tessa had taken her own life, something that saddened and shocked me even more.
Like everyone else who knew her, I’ve given a lot of thought to her over the course of the last twelve months or so and like everyone else, I suppose, I’ve experienced various degrees of confusion and dismay; even some degree of anger, on occasion, because it’s undeniable that what Tessa felt driven to do caused many others terrible anguish.
I’ve come to realise that it’s incredibly hard to write about someone who’s taken their own life, but if the reasons for this aren’t immediately obvious, I’ll spell them out. I’m a professional writer and Tessa was a long-standing personal friend, so I feel that if I didn’t write about her a year after she left us, it would be cowardly of me or else would imply that I’ve somehow forgotten about her, or that her memory is too difficult to sustain.
As well as that, I don’t want to risk adding to the burden of sorrow of her other friends and family by reminiscing about her, but I suspect that not doing so would also be painful for anyone searching the internet as this mournful anniversary approaches. I cannot in any way condone or even empathise what Tessa did because of the grief it caused, but at the same time, I am not going to sit in judgement upon her.
Everyone has their breaking point, something that’s a simple biological and psychological fact; I won’t let one bad decision, albeit a momentous one, mean that Tessa can’t be remembered fondly and with admiration, so what follows is my own heartfelt contribution to the memory of this warm, beautiful and vibrant young woman.
So, a little while after I’d learned of Tessa’s passing last year, I sat down and composed one of my most outstanding memories of her, one that I felt did justice to just how amusing and generous she could be. She had many attributes, but for my part, I was always impressed by her cheerfulness, by her wicked sense of humour and by what a warm, social and engaging lady she was. Last week, during a chance conversation with another friend of mine, I was inadvertently reminded of another such episode, but rather than deliver a convoluted explanation of how this came to me, I’ll just go straight ahead with another ‘Tessa’ story from my personal archives, which took place in either 1989, 1990 or 1991.
I’m afraid I can’t be any more exact than that, because it was a very long time ago and copious amounts of alcohol played a significant part in the evening’s proceedings, but it was definitely in one of these three years. This was the period when I worked for Tessa’s father Geoff on the touring unit of the mediaeval jousting tournament that he ran, as opposed to 1988 and 1992 when we confined our performances to the home base at Breamore, just outside Salisbury, and to gala events around the UK.
Before the touring unit left Breamore for continental Europe, Scandinavia or Russia, we all celebrated in advance by spending the evening at an Italian restaurant in Salisbury, so I’d guess that this involved a party of roughly twenty or more knights and armourers as well as a jester and myself, the Earl Marshall. Due to the size of this gathering, we sat at a few different tables, although there was just enough room in the restaurant for one other table seating five or six very heavily-built male guests who were strangers to us, people I’ll come to again shortly.
I found myself sat next to Tessa and opposite her father Geoff, a man with whom it’s fair to say I had a fairly fractious relationship over the years I worked for him. Be that as it may, the evening was an extremely lively one from the moment we entered the restaurant, on account of our high spirits that were fuelled with seemingly endless bottles of wine and beer, while I seem to remember that the food was excellent as well.
For my main course, I’d opted to eat a whole rainbow trout, a piscatorean decision that was loudly derided by Tessa’s father, an avowed meat eater who went for an outsize T-bone steak that night, although this was pretty much his staple fare. On watching me effortlessly separate the flesh from the bones on my trout, he decided to lecture me on my many personal and professional shortcomings that he felt certain could be explained by my effete lifestyle choices, so I did my level best to appear intrigued, enlightened and chastened by all this in equal measure until the tirade eventually drew to a close and someone else or some other subject proved worthy of his attention.
During this lull, I conferred quietly with Tessa and with one of the knights sitting beside me, taking care to separate the head of the large trout from the rest of the bones on the plate before me as I did so. There quickly came a point when someone sitting on the table behind Geoff engaged him in conversation about some trifling matter, so while he was turning in his chair and looking behind him, I lobbed the fish head high into the air and long before it had completed its trajectory across the restaurant, Tessa had silently slid her father’s plate across the table to a place in front of me, while my plate was now squarely in front of him, as if it had been there all evening.
The trout’s head landed with a loud splash in a bowl from which one of the outsize strangers was eating, so after he’d let out an inarticulate bellow that caused the restaurant to fall silent and all eyes to turn in his direction, he wiped the steaming minestrone soup from his eyes and bristling moustache, then glared furiously across the nearby tables, obviously very keen indeed to learn which low-life had had the ill-manners to interrupt his meal in such an uncouth way. Tessa and I convincingly affected expressions of outrage on his behalf, then helpfully pointed towards the plate in front of her father bearing the remains of a fish minus its head, which was now bobbing merrily in the depleted bowl of discarded minestrone.
The huge man scraped back his chair, then marched slowly across until he was towering over Tessa’s father like a storm cloud passing over the sun. “I see you enjoy fish”, he snarled, causing Geoff to glance down at the plate in front of him in horror, then the knight to my left loudly addressed the still-dripping man, telling him that Geoff also enjoyed arm-wrestling to the extent that he was the current champion of the south of England in this sport. He added with a smirk that Geoff would pay fifty pounds to anyone who could beat him at this, a complete and utter lie that provoked hysterical laughter and loud, football hooligan chanting from everyone else in the room.
It had already been an uproarious evening, but the whole thing rapidly descended into chaos after this, so it wasn’t long before we were all unceremoniously turfed out of the restaurant and into the street. I can’t remember how it came about, but for the start of the journey home, I ended up standing on the roof of the packed car that Tessa was driving, as she reached up and held onto my right ankle with one hand while one of the knights sat in the open window on the passenger side clutching my left ankle.
We then drove around the centre of Salisbury as I lustily regaled the pedestrians we passed with what I’d euphemistically describe as a bawdy parody of a well-know operatic aria, expressing my soaring emotions with one hand while the other held onto a bottle of wine, to help lubricate my vocal chords. The journey home and the rest of the night’s celebrations are all a bit of a blur at this far remove, but it was a memorable and enjoyable evening, while without Tessa, it wouldn’t have contained the highlights it did.
Just about every photo I have of Tessa shows her laughing, smiling, messing around or otherwise having a good time. She enjoyed her chocolate, her champagne, her holidays, her parties, her meals, her music, her clothes, her family and her friends, as well as dancing and walking her dog Lulu. It was in her nature to do all this and more, while I have to say that I see nothing shallow about it – indeed, if I had the choice, I’d be doing very much the same thing right now, but as things stand, it seems unlikely.
The tragedy is that for some reason, Tessa clearly came to believe that she could no longer enjoy her life as she had done, while it seems that she felt unable to speak to anyone about this. From what I’ve seen, most people confide in family or friends about their various fears, worries and misgivings, as readily as they share whatever good news they might have on any given day.
However, there are times when some awful spectre looms in our consciousness and we feel unable to articulate the intolerable dread it brings in its wake, or else we choose not to for fear that others won’t understand and will prove unable or even unwilling to help, thereby threatening to increase our despair still further.
All these are matters beyond my power to control, so rather than dwell on what might have been, I consider myself very lucky to have known Tessa and to able to fondly remember all the fun times we had together over the years, while others were fortunate enough to have known her better and to have spent far more time with her than I did.
So, thank you once more for all the laughter and happiness you brought with you, Tessa, and God bless you.