Lucy's just e-mailed me to say Ellena's died. With more time at this end (ironically there are doctors and hospitals to visit) I could have done better. Should have done better. Here's my comment.
O hell's bells. That's hard to take. And perhaps that's a measure of what Ellena meant to me; that I should immediately behave so selfishly without a thought for you and the rest who have lost so much. But then I can't help it; I can't of course hear her voice but believe me her writing was a wonderful ambassador on her behalf.
Her aim was to be modest, to go beyond modesty almost to invisibility. And she failed as she - a subtly intelligent person if ever there was one - must have known she would. Often her talk was of the smallest domestic matters but shaped in a way that made them glitter. Her style of writing seemed artless but it was the best kind of art - serving the subject never herself.
She said it took ages to come up with comment. At first sight I thought this was an ingenious excuse but quite quickly I knew it was the truth. Sometimes she'd leave less than ten words with me but the indirect angle and the lack of a single unnecessary word were unmistakably her.
One thing I can be proud of: I wasn't about to let her extraordinary skills go uncelebrated. Over and over I told her I was on to her; that no one who wrote as well as she did it for any other reason than a love of language.
And finally - how I hate that word - she brought her style to bear on a very big subject, her masterpiece: "The geriatric care wing of a pavilion attached to a nearby hospital" in April last year. A deliberately cumbersome title for a series of visits she made to old people. Here's how the first visit ends:
I push the glass softly against his mouth and slip a straw between his lips. Glass empty..... his eyes still closed.
I feel triumphant.
As well she might.
Although I've done this before I feel I must do it it again. EB White's children's book, Charlotte's Web, ends with a tribute I cannot better:
It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte (and Ellena) was (were) both.