photo: Gwenllian Riall

Last week I posted a blog about entering remission after treatment for cancer. For me this moment will forever be connected to the death on the same day of my friend Emily Riall.

I had been to the hospital to meet with my doctor in the late morning; in the early evening we received a phone call from a friend of a friend to say that Emily had taken her own life during that afternoon. She was 22.

What I loved about Emily was being in her company. She had one of the all-time great laughs, a high-pitched squeal of delight that was pure pleasure to hear. We had an open door policy with her -she had a key to our house- so that we would often come home from work to find her sitting at our kitchen table reading the novel she had on the go, or doing her homework. Emily would respond in a variety of ways to this intrusion: you could be met with silence, a volley of abuse for entering her space of concentration, or by the most charming of hostesses, offering you tea and one of the cakes she had just happened to bake.

On more than one occasion Emily would storm in, unannounced, put the kettle on and swear at top volume about (delete where appropriate) the government, the buses, teachers who were not as clever as her, or the ‘incredibly bad writing of Jane Austen’. 

There was something definitely feline about Emily, and I do not just mean the way that she would curl up on the sofa in the middle of a conversation and fall asleep. To come into Emily’s space was always on her terms, but you always left her feeling honoured that she had chosen to spend her precious time with you.

What you should also know about Emily was that she was a fine poet. Sadly she did not live to see her first book of poems, A Sinkful of Sky, published. (Following this link will take you to the Lulu.com website, where you can order a copy).

She had been working on the drafts of the poems in the book during the summer of 2006, and had been putting the final touches to the collection together right up until her death in October of the same year. It is one of the great privileges of my life that she allowed me to see and make comments on early drafts of the poems. I can tell you that I have worked with writers twice Emily’s age who did not have her professionalism and dedication to getting the poems right.

The poems in A Sinkful of Sky are spare, direct and honest, sometimes brutally so. They are true testament to Emily’s burgeoning talent. We miss her first and foremost as a person and as a friend. But I also cannot help wondering of what her writing might have become, had she lived.

I have thought long and hard about the deep irony of receiving the best and worst news of my life on the same day. I am still not sure what to make of it, if I am honest. As I move further away from the initial raw grief and shock at Emily’s death I am conscious that I am at the same time also moving more into life, towards health. While missing her fiercely I do not think of her every day, just as I do not think of my cancer every day. All I really know is that I need to honour her by living fully and with love, to the best of my ability, on each day that has been given to me. I am with Sharon Olds when she says: ‘I want to live.’

Emily Riall, 1983-2006.

With thanks to Gwenllian Riall and Harriet Mitchell-Riall