When I was a teenager, one of my best friends, Julie, lived in a rambling, slightly dishevelled house on the edge of the heath, hidden by trees. It could be a scary walk in the dark, tripping over roots and bushes and stumbling along the half mile or so of pot-holed, muddy track to the house. Julie had an older sister and parents, and a dog. Both parents have recently died, and I've been thinking about them as Christmas approaches. Christmas makes us think about families, but children need more people supporting them than just their families. They need people who supply what families don't, or can't, give.
The best, most secure moments of my teenage years were spent in a cigarette-fogged kitchen, warmed by an Aga-type stove - not in the uber-middle-class, Joanna-Trollope way, but because cutting wood from the garden and sticking it in the ancient stove was the way to keep the house warm and get the food cooked. We had long sessions of debate or emotional-outpouring fuelled by endless black coffee and an unstintingly generous supply of advice, sympathy or just listening from Anne Hughes who sat, cigarette in hand, presiding over our traumas.
She was an artist. Her fingers were often stained with paint or ink, and when they weren't, they were stained with dirt and leaf-green from the garden, and nicotine. She was slim and beautiful, with dark hair and dark eyes, and reminded me rather of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate. She never, ever belittled any teen problem brought to that kitchen. She never complained about smoking, drinking, immoderate sexual behaviour or even some of the downright stupid things we did and then suffered for. There was never a suggestion that we had brought our miseries on ourselves - or at least, not until we after we were suitably recovered.
It wasn't just a place for miseries. We talked about poetry and books and art. We planned trips to the Tate, we cooked (probably horrid) meals and 'treats', and we even dabbled in witchcraft. (I remember one spell to bring a desired boy to one at midnight. Curiously, it worked. The boy was found by my dad wandering around our garden, three miles from his home, unable to say why he was there. That put us off witching.) People pierced each other's ears, dyed their hair, painted each other/themselves with henna and made various kinds of music, usually involving a number of guitars and anything else that was lying around. We wrote maudlin poems and sweet songs. The door was always open, no one was ever turned away, the biscuit tin was never empty and the coffee flowed like 2012-floodwater. Mrs Hughes frequently entertained both partners in a floundering romance, and her discretion was beyond doubt so that was fine.
My own parents preferred a clean, tidy house, not cluttered with teens who didn't belong there and hadn't been specifically invited. They didn't like music, they didn't drink or smoke or do any drugs, or tolerate any of those things. They had little in the way of aesthetic sense and very little inclination for emotional intimacy with anyone else (except the next-door neighbour). There were, in fact, quite good reasons for all this, but I didn't know them at the time, so they didn't count. In effect, Anne and Tom Hughes were the parents I would have had if I could have chosen my own. But it would have been the wrong choice. They were brilliant, and an essential part of my young life precisely because they weren't my own parents. Because they had no investment in my existential angst or silly mistakes, their kindness was freely given; it was not part of the parenting bargain and it could not be clouded later by resentment or reproof. They gave me kindness I was not 'entitled' to - and so gave me an even more valuable gift: acceptance, which every teen needs.
And, beyond that, a model of the best way to be. I haven't lived up to Anne Hughes' standard. But I have tried to be like her to my daughters' friends. I am the go-to person for pregnancy tests, for looking after those too drunk to go home, for advice about embarrassing medical issues or drug problems, or lifts to A&E, or a large glass of wine and a pile of tissues. And I think many of us who passed through her kitchen have done the same - taken a tiny bit of what she was and tried to live it. Inadequately, perhaps, but it's better than nothing. That's how she lives on. Thank you, Anne Hughes, for everything. Rest in peace.