When I was young I was a happy, confident little girl. One who would happily chat away to my teacher but never really my fellow classmates – they were all boys and I couldn’t quite bond with them. But then one day the strangest thing happened: I got a friend.
I wasn’t known as the only girl any more, I was known as the girl that had that friend. I was happy, and we became inseparable. ‘Are you sisters?” other kids would ask us as we turned up in identical clothes. We’d smile, safe in the knowledge that we’d planned to look the same. What they didn’t know, what our own Mothers didn’t know, was that I was told what I must wear. I didn’t just want to be like ‘that friend’, she told me I must be. It was no coincidence or childhood game that I’d drag my mother round and round town, looking for that identical skirt or school bag, nor was it any coincidence that when her mum knitted her a jumper, I got one too – exactly the same. I was told I must wear the same, but that’s ok I thought, we’re friends, I was honoured. I was loved. If one was invited to a party, so was the other, how we laughed as she won musical bumps, every time. EVERY TIME, me knowing I should hesitate, sit down a little later than I should have done so as not to win. I don’t even remember when it started and I seemed to have mostly wiped out the precise moments from memory when I was told what to do. I just knew what I had to do and got on with it, from liking the same pop groups to becoming vegetarian.
They’re just kids, people must have thought, and yes, we were, that’s probably why the whole thing was never picked up, and had it stopped there it might have been ok, but it didn’t, for me at least, it got progressively worse. New ‘friends’ arrived, except, they weren’t really my friends. They were hers. I was not privy to whispered conversations. I was told I must stand at the other end of the playground because they wanted to talk privately. I only saw years later that in a way it was a form of bullying, yet there was nothing I felt I could tell anyone , as after all, what had she done? She was entitled to other friends and she hadn’t actually called me names or hit me. That was what bully’s did right? Somewhere along the line, the chatty, confident little girl disappeared and nobody seemed to notice. The pair of us became known as shy. My own Mother remembers the change but even she can’t pinpoint when or why it happened. She assumed it was just part of growing up.
Things got worse. It then progressed into our school work. I was a bright kid, brighter than that friend. For some reason I was felt guilty for being good and doing my work. Projects were done but not handed in as I had to wait for her. I’d sit in class delaying doing my maths so I wouldn’t progress to a different level than her. Ultimately delaying my own progress. The time came to go to ‘big school’, ‘that friend’ had now got three other best friends as well as me. Somehow, they doted on her too. We had to pick two ‘friends’ we wanted to go to ‘big school’ with. She didn’t want to be separated from her gang, so we sat and we thought we’d plotted a way by if we each gave specific names, the maths didn’t work out and they couldn’t separate any of us. To our horror it didn’t work. They separated us!
I know now that this would have been the best thing to have happened. I don’t have children of my own, but friends ask me for advice about similar situations about theirs, evidentially it still happens. “Split them up” I tell them. “Don’t even worry about it, they’ll get over it” because for me, things got worse. Knowing it was what was expected, I cried and screamed until our parents went into the school and they agreed not to separate us. We’d be together in our tutor groups they said, though we might be separated for different subjects if one was better at one than the other. That in mind, I knew I had to be downgraded on the test which we had to determine class groups. I deliberately gave wrong answers and made stupid mistakes. My Mum was called in, they thought I might have ‘a problem’, but it was still nothing to do with ‘that friend’ they thought I might have ‘special needs’ as it was called in those days. I’d gone too far. They let me re-sit the test. This time I did it properly, even at that age I knew there was a stigma attached to the ‘special needs’ kids. They were the ones with thick rimmed NHS specs, the ones who got free milk at break, the ones who had ‘special needs’ shouted at them as they walked through the playground. The ones who were BULLIED. I flew through the test this time and it was decided that I’d just had ‘a bad day’ and nothing more would be said. We went to big school together but we were separated in subject groups. Me in the higher group, her in the lower. It was the best thing that could have happened. I made new friends. Don’t get me wrong, we stayed friends but things changed. Years later, and with a child of her own, she apologised for what she’d done.
With my new ‘best friend’ I went to college. We had our first drink of alcohol together, went to our first nightclub, our first gig, met our first boyfriends. We spent hours watching stupid comedies, lounging around, studying together and basically being students. We wrote each other silly letters, and she also wrote me serious letters telling me how she would always be my friend forever.
After leaving college I got a job. She followed and got a job at the same place. I developed a huge crush on a lad at work. He told me he felt the same but he had a girlfriend. He would leave her when the time was right. We’d kiss secretly, until one day that friend came into work and told me she’d kissed him the night before! I was gutted but I let it go, after all, she was my best friend.It was only when I took a job at a holiday camp for a year that we slowly lost touch. I was finally free.
Fast forward to today and we are no longer in touch. I’ve had a tough year but I’ve got real friends now. Ones that ask how I am, that care about my feelings, and don’t expect me to do anything I don’t want. They treat me how I treat them. That’s what real friendship is all about.
There is a saying that ‘True friends are like stars, you can’t always see them, but they’re always there’ Time has taught me that you just have to open your eyes and take a good hard look for to them. They’re not always easy to spot. Some shine more brightly. But they are always there.