My friend Shirley Rubinstein died this week. I keep staring at that sentence, pressing on the words, seeing if there’s any give in them, but there isn’t. Still, if her death is the jolt and the reason to want to talk to you about her, the friendship part also jolts me and also makes me want to talk.
I am like this with everyone. I think the odds of getting to know anyone in the slightest are impossibly low and becoming close with them are about as low again.
But I’ve known Shirley since the mid-1980s when – no, hang on a second. Let me back up a moment.
I loathe describing or identifying someone by naming their husband or wife. If you ever tell me about a partner or an ex or kids, well, I’m hardly going to be disinterested – but I will not have asked you unprompted. I’m interested in you, specifically you, and what you’re doing.
Yet in this one very particular case, I think naming Shirley’s partner is genuinely akin to naming her: she was married to the late Alan Plater. If you knew one, you knew the other. They were as close to being one person as I’ve known.
It would be simplistic but not entirely wrong to say that Alan Plater and Shirley Rubinstein were the Trevor Chaplin and Jill Swinburne of his Beiderbecke drama series. Actually, Alan was both Trevor and Jill together: their characters were both him. Yet when describing The Beiderbecke Affair and its descendants, Shirley would say they were all about “Alan and Shirley having adventures”.
That’s when I’ve known her from, from when I first interviewed him about The Beiderbecke Affair. And I have a strong, visual memory of being on their couch with their very heavy dog, The Duke, sitting on my feet, when Shirley brought Alan and I some tea. I remember it that clearly because she was surprised we’d got down to the interview so quickly and I thought, oooh, real interviewers must take longer. I have taken longer ever since.
The last time I saw Alan we got on to the topic of his book and TV drama Misterioso. The last time I saw Shirley I was rushing by her house returning a DVD she’d loaned me – of Misterioso.
It was a fast hug and run and it means that I will now also forever have a strong visual memory of her at her doorway.
That first time I met her, she trusted me with a pile of Christmas cards to pop in the post on my way home. The last-but-one time I met her, she trusted me with a book project she wanted done.
She was right to know I’d find a post box. I hope she’s right that I’ll do this well too.