Tuesday, 12 March 2019

I've come to know the friends around you / are all you'll always have

C, a friend from university, sends me Ella Risbridger’s article about friends who are more than friends, friends who are family. And it sums up so perfectly how I have felt about the vast net of friends that pushed and pulled and cajoled me through the second half of 2018, that my eyes well up with tears reading it on the number 36 bus.

I should say, from the outset, this: that the three others in my small quartet of a family were invaluable. S, who as the first person I called, that terrible, terrible May evening, said I’m coming over, I am leaving right now and who (metaphorically at least) has not left my side since. My mother, who messaged me without fail every single morning, with a simple hi or an emoji wave, to let me know she was awake, so I could then call her, wail down the phone for ten minutes before I was able to shower, dress, begin the day ahead. My father who on random week nights when I found myself alone but not wanting to be accompanied me to the cinema, or took me for pizza, told me tales of his own past heartbreak, and how we do all eventually wade through it. So, those family three were there, in a bottomless, unconditional way, and I do not take that for granted, because not everyone is as lucky to have family like that (and in the flip reverse of friends who are more than friends, that are family, I am truly grateful that I also have family who I also count as friends).

But now to the friends. They are a wide ranging bunch. The few remaining school friends who knew me when I wore a bottle green blazer, nose buried in a Harry Potter book. The glorious, tumbling pack that is the uni crowd, years of nights out and library studying and housewarmings and weddings providing layer upon layer of shared experience and in-jokes. The Kinshasa alumni who, in as much as we all wind each other up and know exactly how to push one another’s buttons and lived in each other’s pockets throughout our expat time, are genuinely like an extended mass of siblings and cousins. And all the others in between – the incredible women I’ve held onto from the Shoreditch Sister days, the London work colleagues (non-Kinshasa) who have turned to friends, the adopted friends of friends who have become standalone friends in their own right. I think of all of these friends, and everything they did, whilst reading the Risbridger article, and think yes, yes.

They incorporated a shell-shocked husk of me into their family holiday in Greece. Gave me a bed and a room and fed me incredible home cooked dishes with peppers and courgettes from the garden, salty local feta. Let me doze for hours on a sun lounger above the warm sand, rousing myself only to immerse myself in the water. Let me read to their children and float with them on giant inflatable dinosaurs in a calm salty sea. They took me in again, a slightly less broken me, to an autumnal Washington. Bought me maple cupcakes, walked with me through Halloween decorated streets, pumpkins on porches and skeletons in flowerbeds.

One of them flew from Miami to Washington, for two nights, just to see me. Surprised me at a reunion dinner, so that when I realised she was there I squealed, and cried, hugged her hard. Spent the following day wandering the museums and monuments together, walking, talking. That same holiday, another took time off work to explore New York with me, her now home. Cooked me dinner with some of her friends in her Brooklyn apartment, invited me to her running club’s marathon watching party. Bundled me up into her life and city, so that I didn’t feel the absence of my usual holiday partner, or didn’t feel it so much.
Another undertook a summer long tour with me of North London’s ice cream parlours. Icy sweetness as a respite from the pavements that throbbed with heat, the sticky London underground, my too-warm flat. Mango and durian sorbet in Kentish Town, cookies and cream from Marine Ices, cherry frozen yoghurt two steps from the traffic of the Finchley Road, tubs of blood orange sorbet from Loft Coffee eaten in the garden of the Camden Arts Centre.

Another introduced me to the mind-numbing but addictive diversion of Love Island. We pinged WhatsApps across London to each other commenting on the contestants' outfits and attitudes, as we simultaneously got our daily fix on those hot summer nights where I sat on the sofa eating only bowls of cereal for dinner because with the heat and the heartache I could manage nothing else. She provided me with advice that seemed wise beyond her 24 years, and which I repeated to myself all summer, a mantra: It’s like Going On A Bear Hunt. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you just have to go through it.

They made me dinners and lunches and breakfasts. They sent me flowers and lent me books. Nora Ephron’s Heartburn which made me smile wryly on the Jubilee line, think about who I would throw key lime pie at, whether that would make me feel any better. Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, pressed into my hands with the comment: Read this, it will transport you (and don’t worry if you drop it in the bath, it is my lending copy).

They filled spots at gigs and comedy nights and theatre performances – the dozen events in the diary that we had signed up to together, which stretched out through the summer and into the autumn, starting with a Courtney Barnett gig at the Roundhouse in early June, ending with an October performance of Hamilton. Everyone said: How lucky, at least you didn’t have children together, or jointly own property, or a own dog. But a busy social calendar and a freezer full of leftovers in portions for two and a wine rack of wine purchased together on holiday is still a pair of lives fused together, which must be wrenched apart. And when the stepping stones of our joint social life petered out (and even before it did, in the gaps) they stepped into the void, populated a new social calendar, filled it with Estonian Bluegrass bands, picnics on Primrose Hill, Maggie Rogers at Koko, gigs in greenhouses, drinks in North London pubs, dinners in local Italians, trips to The Globe.

They swam with me. In the height of summer in the green of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, watching as baby moorhens ran across lily pads, or the blue of London Fields Lido. In the early days of winter and a very different looking Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, this one with cold black water, brown reeds, bare trees above. They ran with me, around the Olympic Park, along the canals, canoed with me, filling otherwise empty, stretching Sundays with water and sunlight and aching arms.

They came over for dinner, and helped with the food prep, stuck around to clear up afterwards. Made me realise that in my many years of hosting people, I had been doing it all wrong. I didn’t need to have an entire meal plus welcome cocktail ready for when the first guest arrived. I could ask for someone to bring dessert and they would, I could ask for a couple of people to come early to squeeze limes, and yet another to move the extra table from the kitchen to the living room, and they would do that too, willingly.

They spoke soft words to me that I wanted to hear, tales of friends who had split and reunited, and hard words that I didn’t want to, but which were good for me anyway. They gave me advice by the bucketload, that was often contradictory, depending on who I was talking to, and that I didn’t always listen to, because I didn’t always agree with it, but which I valued anyway, because it came from a place of love. I learnt who to talk to on the days I was feeling resolute and Amazonian, and who to talk to on the days I felt lost and untethered. They also listened. Endlessly. And those that couldn't speak or listen in person WhatsApped me from their scattered geographic locations – Abuja, Bogota, Baghdad, Islamabad, Miami, New York, Rome, Washington – checking in with me intermittently, taking late night calls from their different time zones.

They helped me in all these ways and a myriad more, providing consolation and indignation and advice and distraction in equal measure. And like my family, their support was also bottomless, and unconditional, although it didn’t have to be. They filled that whole messy, grief filled summer and autumn with their presence, and in doing so turned it into not just a story of heartbreak and loss, but also a story of the power of friendship and non-romantic love.  

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