In a new book, Colette McBeth explores the power play in female relationships and draws on her own lifelong friendship.
I’m standing in front of a class, all eyes trained on me. I’m eight, wearing a scratchy new uniform and speaking with a Scottish accent that will soon have everyone referring to me as “the jock”. It’s my first day at school in England and I’d rather be anywhere but here.
My new teacher, Mrs Topping, doesn’t help matters. “Who would like to sit next to Colette?” she asks. Hands fly up, “Me, Miss, here, here!” I’m being auctioned off to the person with the loudest voice.
It turns out that person is a girl called Helen. I say “Helen” because that’s the way you pronounce her name but it is spelt Helene. After 30 years of friendship I still haven’t worked out why.
Helene takes me under her wing, feeds me crisps at break time and keeps a tally of the exact number I owe her (“three beef Monster Munch from Tuesday break time, two prawn cocktails from Thursday lunch”). She also notes with glee that I am six months ahead of the rest of the class in maths and spies an opportunity. At her request I hand over my old textbooks, she sits with them on her lap in class and copies my answers.
Quickly I learn things from Helene, like how to pretend to be ill to get out of lessons. She goes first, telling Mrs Topping she feels sick and I follow five minutes later. The corridor smells of damp coats and packed lunches but we’re happy sitting there, just the two of us marvelling at our own ingenuity. Then one day we’re sent to the nurse and the nurse tells us we have a temperature of 101 and sends us home. We’re off school with tonsillitis for a week. Pretending doesn’t seem so much fun after that.
My first English summer comes around and our victory in the three-legged race – by a considerable margin – cements our friendship. It’s almost as if we’re running as one person, moving at the same rhythm.
Many years later in his speech at Helene’s wedding her dad recounted how we did everything together. He didn’t know the half of it. There was a whole series of firsts that punctuated our teenage life and we shared most of them. Like the day we dared each other to wear a bra to school for the first time even though I most certainly didn’t need one. Or the school skiing trip when we were caught scaling the balconies to get in to the boys’ room. Later we’d go to our first rave together, telling our parents the same story that we were going to see a band. We took our first foreign holiday together without parents, in Greece with three other friends. We smoked so many cigarettes we had lost our voices by the second week. We were 17, and one of us got there on a free child’s place.
Looking back at these memories it’s easy to think our relationship was always harmonious. It wasn’t. Female friendships are complex and at times unfathomable. Boys might fight but girls engage in more subtle forms of torment. In adolescence when everyone is a riot of hormones and insecurities a group of close girlfriends is fertile breeding ground for resentments, unspoken competition, simmering jealousies. Your best friend can send your spirits soaring one moment and crush you with a word or gesture the next. She can do this in a way no one else can because she knows what buttons to press and boy does she push them. Like an itch you can’t scratch she has a way of getting under your skin.
Helene has irritated me more times than I care to remember, she’s made me cry, scream in frustration and anger and I know I have done the same to her. For much of our school years we were engaged in subtle, unspoken battle with each other; for popularity, to win the 100 metres, to come top in French, to be the most popular with boys.
Helene reminded me recently of one of our more comical run-ins. We were 15, on holiday with our parents for the third year in a row. Even though we were given the same amount of spending money she always ended up with more left over than me. On this occasion we were playing pool when she revealed how much she had left. I was broke. I swiped my arm across the table and potted every ball with my hand before storming off.
At other times she would call my home phone and if it was busy she’d phone our other friend’s number. If that was engaged too she’d know we were talking to each other, a conversation which she wasn’t party to. When you’re 15 you don’t like to be left out. Back at school on Monday I’d be made to pay the price without understanding what I had done wrong. She would make jokes at my expense, try to get the third girl in our trio on her side. She wanted to wind me up. She almost always succeeded.
Another irritation was fashion. I was desperate to find my own style only to find her dressed in the same clothes. No wonder people often mistook us for twins.
What I realise now in hindsight is that there is a natural ebb and flow to friendships. There are times you think there’s nothing left between you, that you’ve hit the bottom, but the special ones survive, find ways of restoring themselves.
Towards the end of school Helene and I drifted apart and started hanging out with different people. But come summer we went on holiday with our parents and there we were again, sneaking out late to go to clubs, drinking tequilas when we promised our parents it was strictly lemonade.
When I landed my job as a trainee reporter she was starting out in PR and had a great eye for a story. Just as we shared the maths textbooks at primary school, she gave me stories which I would pass off as the fruits of my own newsgathering.
We were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings. Upon delivery of the flowers at mine I remarked they weren’t quite what I had in mind.
“They look like cabbages,” she said with typical honesty. An usher was duly despatched to change them.
These days our lives are full to bursting. We have three children each – all roughly the same age – she runs a successful PR company in the North East, I live in London, my first novel is published next week and I am now writing my second. She’s an organiser, insanely tidy while I wade through chaos. I wish I could be more like her. Sometimes we go for months without speaking to each other, longer without seeing each other but it doesn’t seem to matter. We just pick up where we left off.
Lately though, one thing has been bugging her. My novel Precious Thing is about a close female friendship that turns into an obsession. I borrowed “our” classroom scene so my characters meet in the same way as Helene and I did on our first day at school. She’s less than happy when people say the novel is based on our friendship. If you read it you’ll understand why.
“Everyone will think I’m a nutter,” she says. “It’s fiction,” I reassure her. The truth falls somewhere in between. When you have had a close female friendship you understand that at their worst they can drive you to the edge of sanity.
We’ve peered over the precipice a few times, thankfully we’ve always stepped back.
This article first appeared on The Telegraph website on 29 July 2013.