“It was as if I had never existed”: when friends break up

Overnight, we went from the closest of pals to less than casual acquaintances. 

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We were five, and then we were four.

I was late for school that morning, and tried to slide into registration without attracting attention, but M hadn’t saved me a seat so I got into even more trouble than usual. She was my friend, one of my four best friends, one fifth of the group that was the whole of my 14-year-old world, and now she was paying no attention while the teacher told me off. She didn’t even bother to avoid looking at me. It was as if she couldn’t see me at all, as if – for her – I had never existed at all.

Overnight, we went from the closest of pals to less than casual acquaintances. There had been no falling-out or other inciting incident. She said goodbye to me at the station on Monday afternoon like always, and then on Tuesday morning it was as if we had never held hands in the corridor or hidden from the PE teacher together in the bushes. We had been the axis of our five-strong friendship group, the two who had brought the gang together. Now it was all falling apart. That first afternoon, we didn’t even move the benches in the science lab like normal so the five of us could squeeze into a space meant for four. If our teacher noticed, he didn’t comment.

Over the course of that first day, I asked everybody – including M herself, repeatedly – why she wasn’t talking to me. I got a look of polite blankness from her, the kind of bland incomprehension that said “but we were never friends”, before she turned away. Everyone else could rouse only vague incomprehension or pity. Nobody could say what I had done to warrant this sudden denial of my very existence. After a couple of days, I stopped asking. My entire social history had been rewritten without my participation. For a teenage girl, there are few things that cut so deep.

Four years went by. M and I still shared almost all of our classes. I still spent hours in the same room as her every day, and not once did she crack and give any sign that she was aware of my existence. The same intensity that can make teenage friendships between girls so vital and long-lasting worked in the opposite direction for us. After a while, I forgot what it was like to feel close to her.

It became an established fact of our world, one that even had to be explained to newcomers to the school like keycodes and toilet locations. “The locker room is where we hang out even though it smells, we don’t use the loo at the end because it blocks really easily, and M doesn’t talk to Caroline – nobody knows why.”

We did our A levels. Years ago, we had chattered and whispered about this moment, when we would sit at the ancient plywood desks in the school’s vast hall and smile our good luck wishes at each other from across the serried rows of pupils. Halfway through a paper about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I looked up and tried to catch M’s eye. Her gaze never shifted from the page in front of her.

In that strange no man’s land between finishing exams and the end of your final term, when you are neither a schoolgirl nor an adult but something else altogether, I finally found myself alone in a room with M for the first time in five years. She was sat on the floor of the common room, carefully cutting around people’s heads in photographs and sticking them onto the giant collage we were making for our leavers’ ball. I knelt down next to her and picked up some scissors.

We didn’t speak for at least half an hour, both of us concentrating furiously on our cutting. We passed the glue and the stack of photos without comment – our old synchronicity and co-operation still there, even after all this time. Eventually, I asked her, promising it really would be the last time. “Why did you stop talking to me?”

She didn’t reply for what felt like a long time. The process of leaving school felt fatalistic enough, with all its attendant promises to “stay in touch!” that everyone knew would remain unfulfilled, yet to me this was the moment that really mattered. I would finally understand what it was I had done, all the way back in year nine. Perhaps there was still time to fix it.

M looked at me. Properly, for the first time in half a decade. I saw how her face had changed and sharpened, how she had cheekbones where before there had been teenage chubbiness. She was wearing the kind of dramatic eye make-up we had always made fun of, and her hair was a mid-length we had once vowed we would never try. I had been so obsessed with the idea of her as she had been the last time we had spoken that I had barely noticed she was someone else now.

“I can’t remember why,” she said quietly. “I really can’t.”

***

The last glimpse I had of M was right before I shut down my Facebook account several years ago. As it would happen, she posted a photo that showed up at the top of my news feed just before I hit the “yes, I really do want to delete everything” button. It showed her hand being held in the hand of somebody I will never meet, a ring on her finger. I clicked, and it was like she was never there.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.