It is easy when you are young. The biding ties of princesses and ponies are your stronghold against spelling and spiders, mud and slime, parents and siblings, and of course, the sticky icky boys in class. The girliness divided us and them. Or so it was when I was small.
The little girl love of pink was in its heyday, saturating us with shades of fuchsia, bombshell raspberry, metallic pearly blushes and beams of bubble-gum, all calibrated to send us into piglet-squeals as we picked out stationary to show off the next day. Notebooks with names in glitter. Pens topped with plumes of feather. Two bracelets, each with half a candy-coloured heart, fit them together to read the message: Best Friends.
I don’t remember my first best friend. I barely remember anyone from school, that era fast withdrawing into a mute and grainy past. When I peer back there, squinting over my shoulder, it’s hard to discern any shapes. I cannot see the people or even the places that once made up a vivid surrounding scene. Instead, the drafty corridors of my mind are littered with half-forgotten exercise books and fading doodles, the scratchy sound of a ballpoint pen on lined paper, a loud, bored yawn in the eternity of childhood. Somewhere, like a reel of botched old film, I see a girls’ bathroom with rows of almost-women pulling their ponytails tight. There’s endless scenes of dewy fields where athletic rubber-muscled teens face off the gum-snapping slackers (I probably only remember this particular adolescent indignity because of my deep loathing for PE). Little else has made it into my present.
I know that once there were friendships – allegiances fought for and broken – that meant life or death. Those ardent, secret-spilling, gut-wrenching friendships that were born on midnight at sleepovers and fanned to a passion at the edge of the field where we smoked stolen cigarettes. These friendships changed often; it was like trying to find footing on shifting sands.
I know it’s not a popular opinion these days, but one schoolgirl is much like another schoolgirl. They have begun to show the marks of who they might become, but they’re not there yet. No. It’s at university that many female friendships reach their zenith. You form eager allegiances, built on pints of snakebite and tales of parental divorce. You swap stories of first boyfriends, taking them out and polishing them carefully like rare gems bestowed upon those you most want to win favour with. You hang together in new cities, roam in a pack, grow bold by numbers. You make mistakes together, you fix them. You are unmoored, sent into an adult world… and there you find the friendships that anchor you.
Afterwards the usual follows. Graduation, years abroad, masters programmes, first jobs, the format of your life gently emerges. The curves and grooves and lines have been etched in by routines and inclinations. You’ve formed. The closest people to you, the ones who had front row seats, as well as your back, are those best friends. Your careers might take radically different turns, but they are still the ones who give long nights with red wine a certain sparkle. The ones you need to tell your jokes and sorrows. The friends who are your forever friends.
Except nothing is forever. As our twenties roll on, changes roll in. The girls who were your rock become a hard place. People turn away from each other, zero in on their jobs. Especially when they realise that mortgages and marriages are not built on sharing teary confessions in cabs or setting the world to rights in pub gardens. We don’t want dreams anymore, we want tangibles. We spin away into different orbits – separated by faraway postcodes and conflicting schedules – leaving only the lightest of fingerprints to show we were ever there for each other.
By the time you are in your late twenties and early thirties, the people you spend time with are colleagues, or increasingly, “contacts”. A new subset commands the social calendar: work friends, mentors, flat-mates, dates. The best friends you used to have might annoy you, bore you, seem underachieving or over-ambitious – or – still doubtless the most merciless killer of female friendships, have coupled off and multiplied.
Life in the city can be a severe place at the best of times. The drill starts with an early alarm and ends in some trendy hotspot, where you desperately try to be witty, compelling and reputable, despite shoes which have pinched all day and nothing but a Pret soup for lunch because actually the meal-deal is getting more expensive and anyway you’re not sure about the quality of the chicken. When you start trying to get yourself somewhere, other people fall by the wayside.
I miss my old best friends. Sometimes I find myself half-turning towards their shadow, about to tell them what happened today. I see their smiles on cashiers and passers-by and wonder how they are doing. An ashtray of overflowing cigarette stubs will always make me think of endless Sunday afternoons. It’s like meeting the outline of an old lover.
I’ve been thinking about how we make friends as adults. How do we move past that brisk slide of the business card? The precisely timed 1-hour lunch? Freelancers, creatives, influencers and activists: groups with unstuck work hours are more likely to meet new people. They have to, it’s their lifeblood. But after a while, talks at private members clubs and film screenings begin to feel like an uncanny echo chamber: we are acting out our Instagram feed. Besides, with all that networking we need to put in and the pressure of constantly being ‘available’, we don’t have those lazy summers to get to know anyone.
Yet even as I mourn my old best friends, I am caught off guard by sudden new best friends. Through changing circles I find people who sharing my specific passions and problems, which I may not share with old best friends. I stumble, astonished, across people aligned with my thinking, excited by that which excites me. They are different from the people I knew before. The truth is bittersweet: friends only last in the same place as long as you do. And that’s ok.