I met Ruth Rendell in 1986. She was living in a large house in Polstead, Suffolk with her husband, Don. I was living in a room in Kentish Town, London. Ruth had been a successful writer for 22 years and published 25 novels. I had published my first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit the year before.
Ruth and Don were due to depart for Australia for six weeks. They needed someone to look after their four cats and to keep an eye on things. I needed to get away from my drunken upstairs neighbour who played one tune on his piano day and night. Ruth’s agent, Pat Kavanagh, was my agent, too, and suggested a match.
I went to Suffolk to meet Ruth and Don and the cats. After lunch Ruth took me for a walk in her woods. I was a little bit frightened of her; she had just published A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first Barbara Vine novel. Set during the second world war, it’s a slow-moving creepy classic of repression and revenge, obsessive in its detail, forensic in its examination of resentment, unforgiving in its exposure of the hypocrisies of family life. Who was this woman, I wondered: slim, contained, perfectly dressed and made up, looking straight ahead as she talked? She told me she liked Oranges. I explained that it wasn’t autobiography – but I had used myself as a fiction as well as a fact. Or that I wanted to be a fact in my own fiction. Or a fiction in my own fact. Ruth took this well, given that postmodernism wasn’t her favourite thing.
Then she made a strange observation; like me, she was also working on her second novel, because the Barbara Vines were not the Ruth Rendells. I said that sounded pretty postmodern to me. She laughed and asked me what my novel was about. “Napoleon,” I said. “I don’t know what happens yet but I know the last line: ‘I’m telling you stories. Trust me.’” And she did.
Twenty-seven years later she said of me, on stage at the Harrogate crime writing festival, that she knew “at once” that I “was absolutely trustworthy, honourable and honest”. I was moved by this, because I hadn’t known it myself, but I did know, over the 29 years of our friendship, that Ruth believed in me to get it right – by which I mean to steady the ship on high seas that was my life. She did worry that I would shipwreck. I was reckless, wild, outspoken, lost, at odds with my past – I hated being adopted. I wanted to belong but not at the price of conformity. Ruth understood my contradictions – she didn’t believe you could be a good writer without contradictions. She never judged me though she was capable of telling me off.
She stood by me, and later, as I grew up and she grew older, I realised I was standing by her. I am 55 now – the age Ruth was when we met.
Ruth was a supporter of gay rights long before such support went mainstream. She believed that love should be honoured, and from her books we know that she had a pessimistic view of “normal” family life. Much of her work questions states of legitimacy and illegitimacy – lovers, children, secrets, inheritance, false identity. The Child’s Child, her 2013 Barbara Vine, pivots around homosexual longing and an unwanted baby. “Did you write this because of me?” I asked her. “No,” she said, characteristically forthright and unforthcoming all at once.
Ruth was an unsettling mixture of the conventional and the strange. Both her names – Barbara and Ruth, mean “stranger”. She became a bestselling author worldwide and a peer of the realm, but she remained on the side of life’s outsiders.
In the four months between her first stroke on 7 January and her death, I sat with her often. We had had a lovely day together on Boxing Day – a tradition for us – when we went for one of her walks around London and, later, she did the cooking. We talked about dying because Ruth was still feeling the shock of the loss of her friend PD James. When I spoke to her again on New Year’s Day, and we arranged to meet, there was no sense that it would be a week later in hospital.
Ruth never recovered her speech and nobody knew the state of her consciousness – though she could and did laugh, especially if you told her stories about the bad behaviour of her beloved cat Archie, a kind of animal alter ego for Ruth’s roaming inquisitiveness – trespass even. He was always destroying some neighbour’s venetian blinds – “He likes to climb them you see,” she’d say, settling the bills with more than a whisker of glee.
One day, in March, at the hospital, I decided to tell her everything I felt about her leaving me, because I knew she would. About the recurring dream I had of standing on a cliff in a storm and being blown off. She couldn’t answer me.
I was sitting on the high metal bed with her, perched up, holding her hand. I was crying. She withdrew her hand. In slow-motion, with precision so like her, but now with a lot of effort, she wiped my tears.
There is no recognised place in society’s small lexicon of relationships for what I knew of Ruth and what Ruth knew of me. That is hard. Today I looked at the book she dedicated to me – The Rottweiler – that was a joke between us. The page says, “To Jeanette Winterson with love”, and underneath, in her fine handwriting, “And here in my own hand all the love there is. Ruth x x”