I met her on the swings. “That man’s hair’s going grey!” I shrieked gleefully pointing at her Dad. My own, embarrassed, apologised profusely, which of course meant they were chatting, which of course meant we could also chat, which of course meant that we were now friends. As the youngest in my family, I’d dreamed of a friend who was younger than me. Finally, here she was: two years old to my three. I remember proudly testing her new shoes, squashing the toe like a professional, declaring in a confident voice, “Yes, they do fit.” Once we’d established that our birthdays were on the same day, it was fixed: we were now best friends for life.
We met up most weekends, spending hours on the climbing frame with parents watching casually on from the side. Once we managed to persuade our parents that we no longer needed supervision, we’d sit on the swings eating penny sweets bought with the coppers I’d stolen from the money jar in my kitchen. We’d run through the estate (where we weren’t technically allowed to go but she was sure her Mum wouldn’t mind, and I was sure mine would never find out), and enter Jays Off Licence where a morbidly obese man balanced on a tiny stool next to his snarling Alsatian behind the counter, while we picked out our winnings. We spent days in Topshop Oxford Circus, tasting every flavour of the new, free Innocent Smoothie tasters and trying on outrageously colourful outfits in the changing rooms. We passed hours in Camden, wearing sarongs and vintage vest tops and sat by the lock thinking we were just about the coolest in the world.
That friendship persevered through the time she came to my nursery and I didn’t play with her because I already had friends; through my huge birthday parties that she hated on account of her intense shyness; through her coming to my school and hating it, only to leave weeks later; through her being significantly better than me at swimming; through my trying to convert her first to Christianity then to environmentalism; through her entering puberty before me and becoming both bigger than me and more self-conscious.
When she was 16, she stopped eating and started wearing all black. She stopped meeting up with me, telling me she was stressed about school work. At 17, we went to Glastonbury together, but after fifteen cups of coffee and zero mouthfuls of food, she woke me in the night hysterical and telling me the tent was being burnt down. We left a day early.
When she was 18, I only saw her once. She told me she’d been drinking; that she easily downed two bottles of wine in a night, and that this happened a couple of times a week. At 21, she told me her parents had divorced and she no longer called them Mum and Dad, she called them by their first names. It was cold, like they were strangers to her now. Her new hobby was clubbing in Berlin by herself, she told me.
After years apart, she arrived at my 30th birthday party, still all in black, thin and with skin as pale as marble despite being part Nigerian. What freaked me out most was that she had a different nose. Long, pointed, unnatural. She seemed so fragile underneath the cool, socially easy exterior. It was as if she had tried to erase all vestiges of her former self from her body. The full figure she’d started out with. Her broad, flat nose. Her tanned skin. I felt scared; repulsed even, by the transformation. As she stood on the step, I barely recognised her. I’m ashamed to say that after that, I didn’t reply to her messages.
“One of the realities we’re all called to go through is to move from repulsion to compassion and from compassion to wonderment.” (Mother Teresa)