When I started primary school in my too-long uniform, ready to leave mum at the gates, the teacher suggested I hold the hand of a little girl who’d just arrived so we could walk up the path together. Over a decade later, when we left the sixth form, we passed through the gates, still holding hands. Our friendship formed the roots of our growth. Through learning, laughing and loving, it lasted the whole of our youth.
As I got older, a second special classmate shared my passion for ballet - I forgave her when she was cast as Cinderella and I was assigned Ugly Sister. I also had a chum who lived further afield, so we founded the Black Cat Club (it had a membership of two). Every week, we compiled a magazine to post to one another, with pictures, puzzles and more (perhaps that’s why I went into publishing and she took up graphic design).
At 18, we all went our separate ways, sending the odd card, attending a couple of weddings and latterly, parents’ funerals, but close ties, if not cut, were certainly dropped. And that was ok. Because friends enter and exit your life like characters in those Victorian toy theatres, sliding in and out of the drama. Sometimes, they’re around for the early scenes. Other times, they’re integral to the ongoing plot. But if they leave the stage, it doesn’t mean they weren’t a meaningful part of your story or that they won’t slide back in again when the time is right. Friendships are continually shaped and reshaped by careers, relationships, family responsibilities and new adventures. They are often a work in progress.
My best friends (you know who you are) have been essential to my sanity. They’ve picked me up from heartbreaks and divorce. Listened to me on a loop about crap jobs. Refused to give up on me during mental meltdowns. They’ve been cheerleaders and commiserators. Seen the funny me. The fearful me. All the snot and sadness as well as my sunny side.
So I’ve come to spot certain hallmarks of a true friend. To start with, you can always chat with ease, whether you spoke last week or last year. You can be yourself, not some Instagrammable version. They also know when to go softly softly and when to speak the unvarnished truth. You’re always there for each other, even when it’s inconvenient or an ungodly hour. And if you ever envy them (sadly, but humanly, I admit I sometimes do) it doesn’t diminish how much they mean to you.
Close connections can have a huge impact on your wellbeing. Research reveals strong friendships can reduce stress and have a positive effect on your blood pressure and heart health. As you age, studies also show those with such support are likely to live longer.
I’ve known one friend for nearly 40 years. We met at the first press event I ever attended, a cerebral affair that answered the burning question of the kind that raged in the 80s; ‘Who was Rear of the Year? It was Elaine Paige as you’re asking and in those days, the great British public saw nothing demeaning or sexist in such nonsense. As we sipped Champagne and pondered the merits of the Paige posterior, we just clicked. Since that day, she’s never seen the back of me.
At the other extreme, an intense friendship can last for a mere two weeks, when it fulfils a mutual need, perhaps two people side by side in a hospital bed, sympathising and strategising together. Or on an expedition where you need to trust the person holding the rope. I remember flying over the Okavanga Delta with a disparate group who’d become tightknit over the preceding days. One guy leaned over to me and said, you do realise once we’re back home, we’ll never see each other again. ‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. He was right.
Very rarely, I’ve fallen out with a friend. I’ve crunched the gears while navigating an unfortunate bend, stalling the ride, leaving us unable to get back on track. I felt bad at the time. Still do. Although generally, with friendships that I have simply outgrown, I let them retreat organically and glacially, gradually melting like a snowman in winter sun.
As for my inner circle, would they all get on so famously they’d want to be friends? Don’t think so. They’re very different – and I’m a variation of myself when I’m with them. Friendships tend to do that. They shine light on particular facets of our characters, in the same way light makes a diamond sparkle. Which is rather symbolic of turning 60, a major milestone that’s prompted me and my handholding schoolfriend to meet up once again. You could say she’s back in my life. The truth is, she never left.
Written by: Jan Masters