The late, great Douglas Adams noted that the answer to life, the universe and everything was 42.
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy also pointed out that to understand the answer, you must first know what the question is. What question could you ask, that would answer the meaning of such metaphysical conundrums that would result in the answer 42?
I found out recently, just as the year tipped over into 2016.
The question is Jemma Cottier. She was 42.
To her three young sons, she was and always will be life, the universe and everything. To her husband, step daughters, mother and siblings, she will always be that too.
To those whose life she touched indelibly with the paintbrush of her beautiful soul, she helped them find their own life, universe and everything.
Jemma Cottier died age 42, a few days ago. A beautiful, perfect and kind girl, she taught English at a High School in Southport, Merseyside.
To know her, was to love her and to love her was to know her. Because, despite the cliché, she was love. She was vibrancy and life and joy. She was as boundless as space and just as beautiful.
She studied at Edge Hill University, having transferred there after starting her degree elsewhere but moved back closer to home when her father died.
She was never particularly pleased with Edge Hill, in that when she moved there, she was left with what she described as the rubbish modules no-one else wanted to do.
Not long after the completion of teacher training, the young Jemma Barnes took on a teaching post at Rainford High School in St Helens in the English department.
In September 1999, she met a 16 year old me.
She was one of those people, that when you saw them, you just stared at in awe. She was beautiful. She shone from the fibre of her soul outwards, filling any room with light.
She was intransient, perfect and had a personality that wanted to be strict with the whole teacher thing, but failed and instead became fluid and amiable.
A friend of mine had something of a crush on her. When one day she sat on a desk at the other side of the room and her trousers rode down, exposing her thong to the other side of the class, my friend nearly passed out. Jemma on the other hand, did the early 00’s version of a facepalm at herself and cracked on with teaching. That was Jemma!
She would stop occasionally in English Language A Level teaching and just chat to us. One conversation dealt with her addiction to Diet Coke. There were at least three cans on her desk at any one time and I could never fathom how she got through it all, she was very dedicated to the cause.
Another conversation she had with us en masse was when we spoke about tattoos. She said she would only get one done (at the time) and it would take the form of something on her foot to represent her siblings. Stars, she suggested, to represent them and her parents.
She was the teacher that dealt with the literature that challenged. She wouldn’t stick to a classic if the alternative would be a modern tale that challenged your way of thinking. She would look at her group of motley 18 year olds in English Literature and demand nothing short of excellence from each of us, in the most nurturing and kind way possible. She was determined on our behalf and dedicated to her vocation.
Miss Barnes wrote us all certificates for when we left Rainford; the award I proudly received from her was ‘Most Eccentric Member of the Class’. I had that on my wall at University.
She wrote in my leaver’s book that she had never taught someone who was dressed as a girl guide, with a dog chain on. She was always impressed with my commitment to being an odd duck, the outsider, the one that didn’t fit in, the non-sheep.
When I left to do my own English degree at Edge Hill, inspired by her, I never lost touch with her. I remained friends all through the years. At first, it was via MSN Messenger. We would have the most bizarre and slightly mad conversations about life in general. Usually I would have a tale of woe and usually she was pregnant. Either way, much sympathy, surprise and laughter ensued.
I remember when she became pregnant with her youngest son, which made three. I said something like “crikey, are you starting a football team!?” she said, “all I have to do these days is pass him on the stairs and I’m pregnant!”
That turn of phrase was one of the most hilarious I’ve ever come across in my life and have used it myself on countless occasions, owing to how many children I myself would end up having.
One thing to bear in mind if you knew Jemma: she was a bloody comedy legend.
I’ve watched and listened and spoken to her over the years, just a little voice in the background.
I noticed a small downturn in her usual outgoing character a few years ago, which I knew of course, why. I worried that she would lose that shine and that the thing that made her lose her sparkle would keep going until it go the best of her.
Then along came Rich Cottier.
I’ve never met Rich, but I never needed to: the shine, the glitter, the sparkle and the joy he drew out from within my friend was obvious and moving. She was smiling. She was grinning. She was gorgeous and happy and elated.
I spoke to her a few months ago and we talked about our mutual pursuit in finding our princes after kissing toads. She was so happy, so grateful, so gleeful to have found Rich. It was that moment when a weary soul could remove a heavy burden and at last, at long last, breathe that sigh of relief they had wanted to exhale for so long.
You just need to look at their shenanigans on Facebook to see how mad about each other (and in general) they were. You just have to see Jemma in that stunning wedding dress, beaming into the eyes of her shiny new husband. You just had to know the before and after Jemma. You had to have seen the joy she had, the happiness.
Like so many people whose lives she touched through her teaching, friendship or both, you would never walk away and not feel like a better person.
It was like she was always dancing through life, in an epic pair of shoes and fluttery dress: if she brushed you with the hem of that dress, you were blessed. You were blessed to have witnessed her dance and to have been in some way part of it.
I was part of it, a small part of it. I was probably clapping out of time and egging her on, handing her tequila.
Then her dance ended. Cruelly. Out of the blue, one insignificant Saturday morning before Christmas – her first Christmas as a Rich’s wife.
Along came fate, looking for a happy, joyful young woman to rob and chose her.
I cried for days. I cry whenever I think about her. I know she wouldn’t want tears, but as someone who is well schooled in grief, I disagree. She is worth every sodding tear in your head. Cry for her, over and over. Never hold back anything you feel – would she have done that? Not if it was okay.
My heart aches for her boys. Those three boys that were her world. She would do anything for them and she worshipped them. It did not matter how much you knew Jemma – if you knew nothing else, you knew of her love for her sons. That was stitched, woven and carved into her very being. They were her and she was them.
I loved that crazy, beautiful woman. I loved the love of literature she gave me. I even loved it when she described my poetry once as ‘trite’ and ‘a bit naff’!
I feel like the world got darker. A lot darker. She affected people in the rightest and bestest of ways. She encouraged countless masses of children to think and to be better people. She inspired. She made a real difference to so many people in a real, measurable way.
She wasn’t some pop star or actor. She wasn’t off the telly or in the news. She was the beautiful ordinary that we take for granted. She was a teacher, a mother, step-mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend.
Jemma, Miss Barnes, my heart hurts with your passing. Thank you for being my friend for nigh on 17 years. Thank you for having a heart the size of Norway, a sense of humour so effervescent it needed trade marking and a mind so clever you could brush your teeth with it.
I will never, ever forget you. Thank you for letting me see that dance of yours and I am at a loss as to why it had to end now. Why, why, why?
Good night, God bless.
To Quote one of Jemma’s favourite poems:
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
- Maya Angelou