There were about 12 of us, like apostles, gathered round Ilya and Esther's table in London laden with Jewish Ashkenazi food.  Memories of my Liverpool childhood with an appropriate Rachmaninov piano concerto playing in the background. Music I knew so well as my mother always played it performed by Emil Gilels but only on Sunday mornings before my father's arrival back from Woolton golf club.

The large extended table groaned under the weight of dishes of chopped chicken livers, rollmops herrings, smoked salmon slices, Latkes, coleslaw, pickled gherkins and dill cucumbers, chopped egg and onion and the inevitable bagels. All followed by brisket falling off the bone accompanied by crisp roast potatoes and red cabbage. Washed down by shots of vodka befitting a Russian Queen.

I only knew my hosts and lovely therapist Carla originally from Cape Town. All the other guests I had heard about over the 25 years I had known my dear friend Esther Gravett-Pollicino-Lurje.

We had all been invited to celebrate Esther's life as she had passed away almost a year earlier to the day in March 2012, the same week as my ex husband's funeral.  It was too much emotionally after his funeral, to go from Brighton to London for the 'Celebration of her life' with readings of her poetry. There would be accolades and speeches from the multitude of her friends but Ilya, her cousin from Riga, Latvia had kindly sent me the programme.  Such a lovely programme to cherish with a black and white portrait of Esther as she was in those days in the 1950s. A beauty who could have been a film star.

I originally met Esther the only time I stalled out at the windy Monday Covent Garden flea market in London. I was a full time antique collectables dealer between London and Paris. I think it was 1980 and I had just moved back to my flat in West Hampstead seeing if I could possibly live in the UK again after a few years of living in Paris. Esther used to do the rounds of the flea markets but was hopeless as a dealer, never making a profit. She either gave the object away as a gift or sold it at cost because she was too soft thus people took advantage of her generosity.

Esther and I clicked because we had both lived in Rome in the 1960s however I had been teaching English for 1,000 lira an hour and getting into hot water through my innocence while she had been working in Cine Citta as a script girl and knew famous film stars and directors leading a sophisticated lifestyle.

Esther would talk about her life as if it had happened the other day. Her memory was as clear as a bell. And those affairs! Rossano Brazzi and Peter Finch to name a couple plus her life long friendship with Robert Aldrich the film director. She told me how she consoled Anita Ekberg on her wedding night to Anthony Steele who left her to go out drinking. Mamma Mia! Her stories of the rich and famous. The glitterati of Rome.

But how had Esther got into the movie world? A young Jewish girl originally from Moscow who emigrated with her parents to South Africa just before the holocaust in war torn Europe.  Later she would marry an artist and sculptor called Bill Gravett and be a non conventional housewife until they moved first to Paris and then to the South of France. La vie boheme. They mixed with the intellectual crowd and Esther began to write her poems.

One day, as they were close to the Italian border and San Remo was the IN place to be for the movie stars, producers and directors, an Italian girlfriend had an emergency needing an English speaking script girl. Esther was invited along and her life changed forever.

She met the love of her life. Fausto. I forget what he did in the movie world but he lived in Rome, the centre of the glamorous film industry in the 1960s. It was La Dolce Vita and life was Fellini-esque! That was it. She followed her heart and left her husband following Fausto to Rome. The rest is unclear. Something happened between them. Fausto abandoned her but she loved him so much that she spent the next 25 years or so living in Rome just to be near him. That was one scenario she would not discuss. The affairs and her countless abortions were no problem. She just said she told him something she should never have told him. She destroyed their passionate relationship with words. She even knew when he had died after a long illness and showed me the newspaper obituary she had been sent by a lifelong friend in Rome where she kept an Italian bank account. She lived frugally on very little but I recall one of her dear friends left her a small inheritance. 

How, why and when she came to London in the 1970s is also unclear. She had married an Italian homosexual acquaintance to obtain an Italian passport that would give her the right to stay in Common Market England.  Once there, she integrated into the Jewish South African ex patriot community most having left because of Apartheid. Her closest friend was Red O'Shaunessy who she knew from her university days in Cape Town. They met weekly and she would always add the adjective wonderful as she did to all her friends when speaking about them.

I met Esther before I met my future husband, Martin Breese. He and Esther got along like a house on fire because Martin, although a gentile was Jewish 'by adoption'. He had grown up in Cape Town where his best friend Brian Rakow, had been Jewish. Martin knew the community well and loved Jewish humour having also gone through the weekly Friday night ritual. Esther had an amazing repertoire of jokes and every week would phone me to tell me the latest ones. What a memory she had.

We would meet most Fridays after she had been 'under the bridge' at Portobello Road hunting for everything and nothing. It was her routine week in and out. After she would turn up at my house on Kensington Park Road for her Russian tea served, bien sur, in a glass accompanied with biscuits or cake.

Esther was une femme sans d'age. In a word ageless. I gave up asking how old she was because she refused to say. She would always talk about her wonderful friends. Percy the architect was one name I recall and many others, mainly writers and artists but somehow I never met them. I seemed to be in a special friendship compartment from the others.

She had the secret ingredient for her delicious hamisher borscht soup. Ginger! Served with rye bread at her long table in her flat.  It was a treat to be invited to her interesting gemutliche studio flat in Primrose Hill, London which had been featured on the cover of a Conran architectural design book. There was a wood construction of a study, linking the desk and  a ladder to reach the bed on the top of the construction! The design had won an award in the 1970s. Her Tuscan colour walls were adorned with memorabilia from her past. A multitude of ethnic hanging necklaces were on display but the prominent feature was a large framed sepia photograph of her Russian parents gazing out at her visitors frozen in time. 

And so the years passed. She once asked me to have a baby because she could never have one due to her countless abortions! I think she must have been in her fifties or sixties when we first met but I will never know. Age is just a number so they say. She mentioned her cousin from Riga who worked at the Westminster College recruiting students to come to London having sold the concept in Russia and Latvia but we never met.  Of course they spoke Russian together. Esther never forgot her mother tongue and sometimes did translations for her friends.

One day I received a formal invitation for Esther's 80th birthday party. Of course I went and finally met Ilya, her cousin and his wife Esther. My Esther proudly went around announcing she had reached the grand old age of 80. Her secret was out!

A friendship developed with Ilya and Esther over the years but then Martin and I moved to Brighton. A new life for us far from noisy polluted Notting Hill which had become very expensive and trendy with film stars and politicians.

I only ever saw Esther once after we moved. Ilya and Esther brought her to our house warming party. I used to give successful large buffets catering up to 50 people. After that the phone calls stopped. I tried to tell her years later that Martin and I were no longer together but she wasn't listening. Esther was no longer the friend I had known for 25 years or so. That Esther had long gone. I never knew that she had declined and gone into a nursing home paid for by her dear close friends in London and her poetry published by a South African poetry publisher.

Her memory still lingers on as I keep the cherished memorial programme on my mantelpiece along with other ephemera and memorabilia from my life in my Brighton flat.

Esther is still with me in spirit and I think of her fondly. She cannot be replaced. There was only one Esther.

And so we all sat around the table toasting Esther's good health with glasses of vodka looking up to the ceiling. I finally met Percy, Red and the other familiar names. Everyone knew who I was. Then Ilya asked each of us to recall an 'Esther' story. Mine was that I remembered how she had enthused over all her dear friends calling them all wonderful. Had she, by chance, said I was wonderful too? Yes, everyone chorused. She had!

Written on the Easyjet flight somewhere between Madrid and Gatwick. Writing this brought tears to my eyes thinking of my wonderful friend Esther. RIP. September 2016.