MEGAN NICOL REED On friendship
Wrestling to stuff my bag of soft plastics into the recycling bin so thoughtfully placed at my local Countdown’s entrance, while simultaneously trying to avoid eye contact with the young man collecting for Greenpeace, my phone beeped. “When you asked how I was the other day and I said, ‘Great’,” read her text, “you looked as though you’d lost an ally in the battle of life.” It was quite a long message and she went on to explain why she was feeling better and suggested we catch up soon, to talk, among other things, about why I wasn’t.
At least a week had passed since we’d seen one another, but I could recall in painful detail the conversation she was referring to. How stressed I had been juggling to get there on time that night, and how I had necked a glass of wine without even really tasting it. How, shamefully, I’d been almost crestfallen when she’d said how well she was, that, if truth be told, I had been looking forward to us luxuriating together in our shared joylessness. And so, standing there, wedged in between the unloved display of peace lilies and the higgledy-piggledy stack of shopping baskets, I wept, just a little. I was embarrassed; that I’d been so transparent, made my misery so clear she felt the need to apologise for overcoming hers. And I was relieved; she had seen me at my worst and still liked me, still sought my company. Mostly, though, I was moved. That she knew me so well. That she had neither begrudged nor judged me for my gratitude at her wretchedness. That I had been lucky enough to have such a wise partner in woe. Her text was, I decided, eyes welling up afresh, Greenpeace guy now trying to evade my wet gaze, quite the loveliest expression of friendship.
Some skills are instinctive: sucking, grasping, walking. Some are learned: driving, swimming, cooking. I thought friendship fell among the former, but, like kissing, it’s not until you’ve had a really good one that you realise some people are better at it than others. As a child I spent a lot of time lurking behind doors, casually hanging out under tables, eavesdropping on my mother and her friends, absorbing their liberal use of endearments, their generosity toward each other with their time, their kindness to each other’s offspring. I don’t remember ever being taught how to be a good friend at school though. Some would splutter that that’s how it bloody should be, too; but along with basic facts, phonics and writing blasts, my children have learned about friendship — and I’m glad. Partly because I think the world is a more complicated place, that while bitchiness and bullying have always existed, social media has extended their reach, rendered them more dangerous. (A friend told me recently her daughter had been involved in a group chat in which the participants had to make a list of things they didn’t like about each other. I can recall walking home from school with an older girl and suggesting she name the three most annoying things about me, then being devastated by her answer. But there were only two of us, not an entire online community.) And partly because why not? I know people who struggle to communicate their feelings at 50. So if, at 12, you have the means to address an issue with a friend when it arises, then surely so much the better.
Ferrying carloads of 10-year-old girls to and from afterschool activities, I have been disturbed to hear them talking about other girls in a cattier way than they would have a year ago. My friend had noticed it too. She said she remembers being that age and discovering the thrill and the pleasure of gossip. I remember discovering it, too. I also remember being quickly put off it when I realised if I was talking nastily behind someone’s back, chances are they were talking behind mine. My husband and I have tried to instill in our children that, if party to an unkind comment made about someone else, unless it is truly detrimental to the subject’s wellbeing, there is little other than hurt to be gained in passing it on. That many friends are healthier than one. That sometimes if a friendship isn’t working, if you can’t fix it, then it’s okay to walk away. But that when you find an ally in the battle of life, then hang on with all your might.
Like kissing, it’s not until you’ve had a really good friendship that you realise some people are better at it than others.