I met F because she and her husband M were the kind of people who would invite a stranger wrestling a poo-smeared infant over a bin to use their changing mat. That incident happened in the park that separated our flats and, as we chatted, we realised our sons were similar ages. We all ended up in that park often: to start with, we’d meet by accident, but it soon became deliberate and we hung out more regularly, spending anarchic evenings wrangling our four small boys over wine, snacks and neighbourhood gossip.
It was a friendship of shared circumstances, but a real friendship nonetheless. They were good company: F was calmer than the ebullient M; warm, funny and relaxed. I wasn’t in great shape: my mum had died while I was pregnant with our younger son 18 months previously, we’d moved to Paris (a disaster), I’d got pregnant again, had an abortion, then we’d moved back to London. I threw myself into a job that made unreasonable demands on my time, stopped eating and overspent; my partner and I were struggling. I was signed off work and started antidepressants and therapy. We never talked about any of that with F and M, though; I just enjoyed our time together. They were a small, sunnily uncomplicated part of my life when everything else felt hard.
A less stressful work opportunity came up about 18 months after we met and I seized the chance for a fresh start. My partner and I left the country (again) for a new life abroad (again), in Belgium this time. Without the glue of proximity, we didn’t keep in touch regularly – we were all busy – though we managed a few days’ holiday together early on; cups of tea and sandcastles on chilly beaches followed by over-ambitious barbecues. After that, we drifted.
Things got complicated our end again. My partner and I split up, I moved out, then lost my job. My life was sad, anxious and chaotic: the drugs and therapy had barely scratched the surface. That means my memories of what happened when are hazy, but the bare bones are these: my ex kept in touch with M now and then; he told me F had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying.
I was shocked and desperately sad. I thought about F and her boys and felt helpless and stricken. But then I pushed all those thoughts down somewhere very distant and inaccessible and did absolutely nothing. I didn’t go over, or pick up the phone, or even write a card. Months went by. I continued with my rickety, confusing life. She died. Still I did nothing.
This all sits in my head, ugly and unpalatable, years later. I don’t suppose it mattered hugely in the big scheme of what she – they – were facing. I hope it didn’t. F had many better friends than me; she was gregarious and loving. But having possibly left her to wonder why I hadn’t got in touch haunts me. What was I thinking? It’s tempting to find excuses: my mother’s death still loomed large; I was barely keeping it together. But there is no excuse, is there? It was cowardly and selfish.
M remarried and we went to the wedding – my ex and I were back together by that point. It was a joyful day: M, his new wife and the boys seemed so happy, and F was remembered with such love.
But it didn’t make me feel better about what I had done. My sense of myself as a decent human being was already shaken. Confronted with our friends’ pain, illness and grief, we can feel scared we’ll do or say the wrong thing, but nothing is wronger than ignoring it like I did.
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