We all have them. Those friends who never knew you before your neuroses took root. Or when your skin was pillow plump. The ones who won’t ever understand your hometown or teenhood references or give a flying fuck anyway. Remember trying to be cool by accepting a smoke from Mickey Harte at the indie disco only to sledgehammer the Bogart and Bacall quality of the moment by leaving the filter end dangling for him to light? They don’t remember either. And they don’t care. You didn’t meet until well after the chief rites of passage were complete. Usually in your 30s when you’re on your way to somewhere you fear might share the same spelling with the place you intended to be by then.
Occasionally, you’ll have a relapse and beseech them to believe you when you say you weren’t always this fat/neurotic/cynical/fader/news junkie/judgemental etc. But for the most part there’s freedom to be had in not having to not be those anymore anyway. Besides, you were always a bit judgemental, you just mistook your own opinion as fact. I still do, but it has blended with all the other socially acceptable forms of behaviour along with sneering at parents who don’t wallop their children for having a mickey fit in Tesco, and sneering at parents who do wallop their children for having a mickey fit in Tesco.
Once in a while a woman comes along, and you can tell by her excessive use of “Ah lads” that your chances of hatching a friendship have been reduced by a worrying 72 per cent. Studies conducted by The Institute of Emigration from The Mother Land point to the inherent risks associated with two distinct groups of Irish people colliding abroad. Namely:
- Those who proceed with their lives as an immigrant pretty much as they did before
- Those who start off with a touch of the mild Flatleys with an odd begorrah here and there, before being one “Ah lads” away from tickling an imaginary pig under their arm and spontaneously jiving at every crossroads
I needn’t have worried. A case of mistaken identity. We went from circling each other with suspicion in a work meeting to an epic self-disclosure off quicker than you could say “top o’ the morning to ya”. I saw her mid-30s-and-single crisis (Munch’s scream) and raised her the feeling of being adrift. She matched my broken heart and went one higher with the prospect of remaining childless. She introduced me to good beer; I insisted she stayed for another. And so it was and ever shall be despite our later jiving at life’s crossroads swinging us in different directions. A friendship to give any of my Mickey Harte era mates a run for their money. But I swear – I did used to be thinner, and slightly less cynical. Maybe.
Last time I saw her she was once again boarding the emigrant train; this time by brute force than by choice. Half a lifetime spent overseas, then a courageous move home to a cold shoulder from the state forcing her to turn back again.
It’ll have been four years since we’ve seen each other when we meet this weekend. In that time she saw my growing semblance of impermanent contentment and raised me a philosophical acceptance with just the right faint hint of bitterness. She saw my ropey pregnancy and raised me a health scare. She saw our hope as word of the breast cancer diagnosis reached us and raised us an indefatigable optimism. I’m only saying indefatigable because it’s like something she would say. Along with ‘immense’. And converting an everyday action into an ‘intervention’. Like lunch, or a pint. And of course they would all be truly ‘epic’.
She writes that her hair is beginning to grow back. She has gone back to her hometown, to the sanctuary of her family for her period of treatment and recovery. She wanders the streets of her teenhood now in her (immense) collection of colourful headscarves. I don’t recognise them, and will never know them intimately. But I’ve known her long enough to only think of her as the flame-haired artist converting the mundane into something magical, the woman who can hold her own in any company, crossing her Ts with a dirty laugh and dotting her i’s with engaging questions of others. I expect we’ll circle each other momentarily before going from opening hug to the here and now in the space of a Flatley tap.