Happy Birthday to the one that got away

That phrase, “the one the got away” is usually in reference to a romantic or sexual partner. The one person who you nearly had, you nearly managed to keep in your life but slipped through your fingers like water, too fluid to capture, too free to restrain or tame. In this instance the person in question is neither a romantic nor a sexual partner, but one of my best friends – or at least one of the women I thought was one of my best friends.

Today is her 31st birthday and coincidentally, my “anniversary” of meeting Tom. There does seem a subtle irony there – I lose one person who I have shared so much with and gained the man I want to spend the rest of my life with. If I was more “spiritual” I would say it was a plan for me, but I’m not, so it is just coincidence.

Louise (I’ll not reveal the name I know her by, for that would not be fair) and I met in pre-prep school, as tiny little girls with big eyes and childish dreams. We played and ate together and had tea at my house and had a perfectly childish friendship until I was 6 and left that school.  I went to a different school for the next 5 years until it was time to enter secondary school, a time full of worry and strife and a time where I was a very small fish in a seemingly enormous pond. We never saw or spoke to or even thought of each other during those 5 years.

Coincidence came into play on a blustery September day when I was stood (alone as always) in the lunch line and ended up behind a girl I recognised without a shadow of a doubt. A few days previously I had seen her picture up on the wall in one of the classrooms and had to do a double take. It was Louise, clear as day and I couldn’t wait to tell Mum. Back to the lunch line, I tapped her on the shoulder and when she turned around it was like being swept back in time and we were suddenly 6 years old again. Squealing with joy that we had found an old friend; lunch was abandoned, cold and congealing on plates as we filled in the gaps of the last 5 years in a way 11 year olds can.  We parted when the bell rang, promising to walk the short distance to the station that afternoon so we could catch up with more trivial gossip and history.

That evening I remember regaling my mother about my new-found and long-lost friend. I felt, for the first time since entering the scary world of secondary school, that I would be OK – I had someone who knew me, who I could count on and who could count on me, We would spend hours on the phone to each other even though we had only said goodbye a few hours previously. Letters would be written when homework should have been completed to exchange in the morning on the way into classes, lunches snatched together as often as we could.

We spent whole weekends together at the others house, reveling in what we didn’t have at our own homes. In hers it was calm, quiet, with no small children, no Lego/duplo blocks, no Thomas the Tank engine on the video player on a constant loop. At my house, she got the siblings she never had, a big, noisy family who had to shout over each over to be heard, where small boys loved the extra attention and would shower her with cuddles and kisses, and as they got older, blushes and cups of tea, diligently made and carefully carried over. Summer holidays meant extra time with each other, going shopping , seeing films, spending hours painting toenails only to take it off  and start again…simply because we could.

We never considered that we wouldn’t be in each others lives – and then disaster struck. We turned 16 and thoughts turned to where we would be for 6th form. I was staying put, in the school I knew and loved. She however, was branching out, going to a 6th form in the next town, to meet new friends. I was heartbroken. Tears flowed from both sides and we didn’t know how we would cope without each other – my best friend, my confidant, my other “sister”. As it turns out, we coped. We would meet once a week for pizza and Pepsi Max while my sister was at gymnastics. We would still spend hours on the phone to each other and still have the weekends we had before.

When Louise learnt to drive, it was an epiphany – we had freedom! Feeling for all the world like grown ups, we would go to the pub, sitting with our diet Cokes and gossiping until it got dark and we had to go home. Our friendship seemed to grow and strengthen with the years and we came up with teenaged plans to open a shop together called “Mushroom and Naughty” on the basis that we loved those words and had watched enough teenage films to think we could make it work (Romi and Michelle’s High School Reunion was our business plan – it would have been a hit).  We shared everything, talked about everything. First kisses, first loves, first heartbreaks and first sexual experiences were discussed with the only person we could talk to about such things.

I went to university when I was 18 and Louise stayed behind, she wanted to work and we accepted the next phase in our relationship. It was the same, just long distance. Letters, cards, gifts in the mail, phone calls and drunken text messages. The advent of the mobile phone was a godsend to us.  We saw each other when I came home, she came to see me in halls and still our friendship was strong. When I came out to her, I was terrified I would lose her as my best mate but after the initial “Are you sure” and “Is this for real and forever” questions, we returned to the cocktails we were drinking and it all carried on.

She met my then girlfriend and step daughter – Little Legs charmed the pants off her toddling round her flat and devouring the biscuits. I shared the woes of the relationship and eventually the sobbing, hysterical phone call at midnight when it was all over.  She counseled me as friends do but something had shifted and I was hoping it was just the shock of my apparent happy ever after being a never ever again that was making things a little strained.

I had come home when I had just started seeing Caroline but had not yet moved to Leeds and couldn’t wait to tell her that I had found someone new, that I was happy again. We arranged a long weekend at her flat – her newest bonkers flat mate was out so we could have the weekend to dissect my new relationship at leisure and eat in our pyjamas undisturbed. We always shared her double bed, joking we were Eric and Ernie, each in our jamas, each happy with the arrangement knowing it was a platonic and sisterly as it was possible to be. One morning the first major crack appeared. She said I would have to sleep in the living room on the spare bed that next night, because she couldn’t cope with me sharing her bed anymore…no other reason. I went to get more milk and phoned Caroline. What should I do? This was new territory for me…my best friend was slipping away.

I then called mum. I needed time away too it seemed. I felt rejected and unwanted and when I got back made the excuse that mum had phoned me while I was out and said we had a crisis with the boys at home I was needed back to help out. She seemed relieved that I was cutting the weekend short – I felt sick. Mum picked me up and this time there was no jokey “I love you’s”, no hanging out the window with last-minute banter and laughs. It was as if we had split up.

And then, it started to unravel. The phone calls were less frequent, the messages unanswered, the now ubiquitous Facebook posts and messages ignored. The final clunk was when I discovered I stopped getting updates on Facebook and (as you are all now saying) I was unfriended. That modern snub, the digital crossing of the road and retracing steps so as not to be seen. I don’t know what happened, or why or if I did anything wrong that night when our relationship started to falter. Did I roll over and think she was Caroline and snuggle in too close? Did I shout out something in my sleep (we always said it was like sleeping with the radio on a talk show when I was asleep) and upset her? Did I fart in my sleep, gas the poor girl and she didn’t know how to tell me? I’m hoping it was something serious…and not the farting thing.

Whatever it was, I gave a valiant effort to stay in touch. I would send texts, leave voicemails, I wrote cards and letters, sent a birthday card to her parents, even started talking to mutual friends on Facebook in an attempt to get in touch – the mention of Louise would result in the conversations being terminated. I came to the conclusion she had spoken to them and they were equally appalled by whatever I have done…to which I am still clueless.

And so, as I said at the beginning, it is her 31st birthday. I hope she is happy, that she is spending it with those she loves and will make memories for the future. I sometimes look out to see if she is married or with someone through mutual friends. I hope she is loved. Because I loved her. She was my other sister, my confidant, my beautiful polished, poised, funny best friend and I was the scruffy, homely, down to earth partner in crime. We were chalk and cheese, black and white but we worked.

She would have loved my love story with Tom, would have laughed at how we met and how we have spent the first year of our relationship. She would have loved my attempt at running hundreds of miles last year and getting into triathlon this year. Mostly though, I would have loved sharing that with her.

So, happy birthday chica. May you be happy and healthy and loved. I do still miss you – and if you want to get in touch, you know how to find me.

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