ME­GAN NI­COL REED On friend­ship

On friend­ship

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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.

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