“Sometimes, I hated you”: two friends recount memories of their relationship

“You always could bring me out of the house and make me notice what was happening in the moment, even – or especially – when that didn’t seem possible.”

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1. For most of our school years, our capacity for excruciating self-consciousness about how we looked and behaved knew essentially no bounds. Despite this, I remember constantly making bizarrely thoughtless comments about your habits and appearance. I don’t know why – I think I always thought you were more resilient than you were, because you were that tiny bit more resilient than me. In art class, when we were about 14, I absent-mindedly told you your eyebrows made you look like your dad. You went totally ashen, spoke to no one for the rest of the day, and the next day came in with beautifully sculpted brows that I think your mum had taken you to have done professionally. I felt so bad that, for that second, I had represented Society – and Society had rejected your eyebrows. But also intensely jealous of your elegant new look.

2. Our school ran an art trip to New York for sixth-form art students. I felt like I’d been planning for it since forever. At the very last minute, you managed to get a place on the trip as well, despite not being an art student. It really irked me because you were so jammy, and I was never brave enough to try my luck with things the way you did. When we actually went it was a very intense week and things kept exploding between us. I felt overshadowed, not as sparkly or as confident as you, not as comfortable in the city. We had lots of little fights. One night, I remember us lying on ice-cold metal bunkbeds in the youth hostel in furious silence while snow drifted in and fell on us through the gap in the window cut around the air-conditioning vent. In comparison, I remember basically nothing about New York itself.

3. When you came back from interrailing round Europe in the year after school finished, we all went to the bus station to meet you. You sat on your bag in a regal manner, with a Diet Coke in hand, and recounted the highlights of Paris, Berlin, Budapest and Amsterdam. I felt so boring compared to new Continental you, and also a bit invisible while I sat amid all our friends. But then I went home and looked at my wall, and saw all the postcards you’d sent me from every place you’d been, on them carefully written all of the stories you’d just been telling, along with all the impressions you’d had of each city. I’d barely taken the time to appreciate them. I realised our friendship went beyond how we acted in a group. I also saw how good we were at being far apart – maybe because we have the most verbal relationship of all time.

4. Once, we were compelled to do a creative writing exercise for school. I wrote a weird twee tale about a man who owned a pyjama shop – until it burned down. That was literally the whole narrative. I was absolutely slated by our English teacher for not showing a satisfactory command over plot and for generally being frivolous. Meanwhile, you wrote a rich impressionist piece about diving, which was marked, like, A++++, but you were agonisingly ashamed of it and thought it was pretentious, and never let me, or anyone, read it. You considered my pyjama story some of the finest literature ever written, and are to this day passionately convinced of its merit, and indignant at what you saw as the teacher’s unforgivably flawed judgement in loving your work and reviling mine.

5. Later in our teenage years, during nights out, you developed this drunken habit of smashing beer bottles in the street. In my infinite prudery, I really took issue with this. One I night started screaming at you, “I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO YOU ARE ANYMORE, who is this person who smashes beer bottles?? WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU?” Looking back it’s hilarious that I reacted in that way, but we did have issues for years – with you experimenting with things, and me judging you and holding you back. It’s taken me a long time to catch up with you in being brave and accepting change. 

6. After my undergraduate degree, I stayed behind for a master’s and had a really quiet, lonely year. The course culminated in a dissertation, which I dutifully churned out, printed, treasury-tagged and put in a big brown envelope, generally feeling a bit desolate about it. When you heard I was planning to go and hand it in alone, you turned up on my doorstep and walked me there and made the whole rubbish day really magic, making sure I had a perfectly-staged photo to commemorate the occasion of the hand-in, and endless drinks afterwards. You always could bring me out of the house and make me notice what was happening in the moment, even – or especially – when that didn’t seem possible.

***

1. Throughout our friendship, I have felt a strange power in feeling that I know you better than anyone else. This often bubbles up when people chat to me about you. “Awhhh,” they say, “she’s so nice.” A mixture of frustration and gleeful pride starts brewing inside me. Sure, you’re nice. I guess. But niceness is a bland quality I have never been particularly interested in, and it is woefully ignorant of the raging fire that I so often think of as the heart of your personality. When you really love something (or someone), when you see injustice, when you’re angry or proud or joyful, a part of you switches on that “nice” doesn’t cover. Plus, people read your surface niceness and often use it to underestimate you.

2. One vivid memory I have is of you, aged about 12, being asked to open a window by our German teacher: a harsh blonde woman with pointed features and even more pointed criticisms. As you fumbled with the latch, deeply embarrassed by your public struggle, she yelled, “You can’t do German, you can’t open windows – what can you do?!” You sat down quietly in your seat. Hours later, you would march to her office, find her in the corridor and deliver a razor-sharp lecture about her failings as a teacher and her decision to use her position of power to target a teenage girl’s insecurities and shame her in front of her peers. I have never seen a woman look so chastened. 

3. School was often a difficult time for us because our academic lives were laced with competition. You were an extraordinary talented child with a dazzling flair for all the humanities, but at our competitive grammar school I was an average student who would fall back on cheating and plagiarism (often copying your work) to keep up. In our English mock exam, I was only halfway through an answer when “pens down” was called, and managed to scribble out half an essay between that moment and my paper being collected. As soon as we left the hall, I knew you were furious. No one else had done that, so why did I have the right? I screeched, “Well, maybe if you weren’t blinded by your total lack of respect for me, you would have seen other people writing!!!!” At that moment, my crush appeared: “Hey, did you know Tony Harrison is a poet as well as a Mighty Boosh character?” I screamed at him too, and you both left me weeping in the now empty corridor. I remember turning to see our socially awkward English teacher blinking on in shock from a nearby classroom.

4. When we were older, applying to university, we chose all the same courses at all the same universities. Every month or so you’d be forced to tell me you’d been accepted somewhere that I would inevitably be rejected from. Sometimes I hated you for your ability and dedication. But what I remember most about that time is sitting in an empty history classroom, crying over a rejection letter, while you rubbed my back and told me they were wrong, utterly stupid to have missed out on a student like me.

5. I stayed in our hometown, reapplying to university, when you went to Oxford. I was lonely, bored, violently jealous. When I went to visit you for the first time it was meant to be a grand reunion and a chance for me to marvel at your exciting new life. Of course, instead of supporting you at this formative time, I set out to destroy the entire affair. I got too drunk, and screamed at you outside a nightclub for fictional hideous betrayals. We both cried. When we got back to your room, I refused to get in your bed, and lay stubbornly on the floor, fully clothed, in the fetal position. You responded by climbing out of bed, lying down next to me, and hugging me all night.

6. Much of our teenage friendship was spent poring over mutual obsessions: we would introduce each other to actors or musicians or comedians and study their output for hours, learning it by heart. So many memories I have of us are of sitting on our coats waiting to see these different idols, the coldness of the pavement permeating our bones, our own nervous energy filling the air around us. We were so keen to prove our dedication to them: totting up hours spent queuing and scenes memorised, pitting ourselves against other, more frivolous fangirls. Looking back, I instead see our dedication to our own friendship: in so many ways, these various famous men were irrelevant, but we were determined to share these intense, euphoric experiences with each other.