friendship fades

Building and maintaining friendships is one of the many areas of life in which I have never excelled. I wonder if lots of people feel this, or if are there people with loads of friends, contented that they have aced that side of things.

Throughout pretty much all my twenties I considered myself quite a loner, I lived alone and did stuff alone, holiday, travel, meals, sex, endless cinema trips.

Friends come with success, I suppose. If you are enjoying a heap of it and you have followers and alliances by the bucketload, you are magnetic. You are never stuck for a drinking partner.

I have never considered myself successful. You might try to spin it nicely for me if you are my mum or my wife or someone who likes me, but the truth is I have never been all that successful in anything. In fact, my current bank balances indicate I have never been less successful than right now.

So, in large part due to having few friends, in some part due to feeling like a big fat loser (although I am not overweight, yet; there is at least that) I felt a little burned recently. Yes, poor me. Poor little hypersensitive me. Out with your mini violins, if you will. Thank you.

Friends and people come into and go out of your life over a lifetime. They fade in and out, intersect and drop away like an elaborate red arrows display, from nursery school to the retirement home. You might feel entirely secure that a friendship is made for life, but things can always change: circumstances, priorities, people themselves. Or a more dramatic thing might occur, a falling out. Either way, if you have even one that sticks for the duration, you have done well.

Even then though, that one will probably fade in and out of your life. There might be a spell when you might not see them for a year or two or three; perhaps longer, and you miss them from time to time. You wonder if they miss you, if you crop up on their friend landscape.

Social media today gives us an indication of whether we do crop up or not. If you see them regularly Liking your stuff, it’s like a friendly nod so you think you do. And that’s enough. If you don’t, you suspect you are not on their radar or they do not give a hoot.

It feels juvenile and silly, being aggrieved that someone you thought was once a firm friend does not Like or engage with any of your stuff, ever, over months and years, someone you know who follows you – although you are aware they follow hundreds or thousands of other people too, but they regularly likes all the inane shit your mutual friend posts. But they never like YOUR shit and frankly this feels unfair and you want to cry to the teacher about it.

Pathetically, this is a specific case for me. He originally reached out to me on social media several years ago when I was in a very different place in my life, largely alone and miserable in London. We met for pints with his work colleagues in Soho. It was kind of unorthodox so I was initially nervous but that quickly smoothed out with the beer. I was touched and sincerely grateful someone gave a shit about me. On top of which, this guy was electric company: witty and smart and unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He introduced me to other witty and smart people, some of whom I still have a connection with. I moved away from London but kept meeting him and his friends (he was almost always with other friends and colleagues) on business trips back, until those trips became less frequent and fizzled out completely.

We had a sort of double date in my city a few years ago, while he was with someone local to my area. I had great fun and think my now wife was appropriately charmed too.  Then I questionably attended one of his joint birthday parties in London, but it ultimately felt slightly weird of me to have made such effort.

I hadn’t seen him for around two years until last weekend. In the intervening time we’d both got married in similarly small scale functions. This was despite him and another friend trying to dissuade me from marrying the last time we’d met – due to a ranty post here about how much she was annoying me. (This place is an outlet for many frustrations, not all of them rational. I deleted that post). We hadn’t been to each other’s weddings and that was totally cool. We had drifted and in no way could you say we were close friends.

But I still genuinely valued the connection and really liked the guy. I wanted him to acknowledge me and like my stuff. So when I saw he was coming to my city for a mass cycling event I suggested we meet up. After a while I prepared for the idea he would not reply, that he could not really be bothered, I did not figure on his busy friendship radar, maybe I would get some excuse in a few days.

Before too long though, I did get a reply and we met in a pub. My wife dropped me off and I walked down to the pub, not knowing if he was going to be with a large group of beer-guzzling young things in their mid-20s. He has a decent Twitter following and strong seeming engagement. It didn’t seem wildly unlikely. Thankfully he was only with one other, a nice, comparatively mellow sort of guy I’d met once or twice in Soho.

This meeting was fine but with an inescapable whisp of awkward. I felt that I had imposed this meeting when he couldn’t really be bothered on a hot day after a long bike ride, and perhaps he couldn’t really be bothered regardless. Not having that social energy was totally understandable.  There was also the fact that I knew much more of his life than he knew (or maybe cared) of mine.
“When are you moving?!” he asked / demanded in his characteristically urgent manner, keen to show an interest, as he always is.
“Erm, I moved about a year ago and I’m a bit upset you clearly pay so little attention to my life,” I said, half joking but not really joking.

He’s a difficult to pin down enigma with an infuriating email technique of only ever asking questions, never answering them, when he does actually reply. He discloses little about himself, to me at least, although there’s clearly a lot to him, a lot to know.  He builds an impenetrable wall of charming bravado and hides behind it.

After two leisurely pints with them, they wheeled their bikes through the pub and out onto the street. There was apparently no question of meeting up again later in the evening, after they had returned to their digs and freshened up. Me and him hugged and waved half-hearted see-yous, I warmly shook the other guy’s hand. We turned in opposite directions and I wasn’t sure we’d see ever each other again. What he really thought of me and our friendship was impossible to tell.

Our meeting left me saddened and contemplative of friendships and friendship as a thing; how firm they can seem in isolated moments or a series of isolated moments, how those shared experiences can bind you, how it can all easily unstick and unravel, how there are always two different sides and they can be extremely different, how transient and ephemeral they all are in the long run.

Of dolphins and decapitation

“Come and look!” I beckoned my friend.  “There has to be a dozen or more of them.”  We looked down from a lofty flat in what felt like an otherwise empty building.  Swimming around in the rain-specked sea, at the base of the cliff were dolphins.  Their fins rose and fell, panicked and urgent as they circled, as if in warning of something.

“Strange.  They never usually come this close.”

No humans were nearby.  We were alone here.

I moved away from the window and back to the oven hobs.  Looking down at his cleanly dismembered head simmering in the large saucepan, I was unsure of myself, of what strength heat was correct.

For him to stand any chance of survival we needed to take him out of the freezer and slowly defrost his head at regular intervals, before returning him to the freezer again.  I didn’t understand the science.  It was horrible and I was painfully squeamish about the whole thing.  My stomach turned just to glance at him.

My two friends had done it already, I think, and appeared far more stoic about the process.  One had shown me how, the gay one who was closer to him but not like that.  He was unflappable and had put it all very simply, what we had to do.  We all had to do it.

It was a struggle to look at his face.  I’d never really liked him but you wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

“You put him on a low heat at first, didn’t you?” my gay friend asked.

I hadn’t.  I’d put him on full heat straightaway.  I felt guilty and lied.

“Yeah.”

I turned the heat down three notches.

(a dream).

Three, it’s a tragic number

It’s annoying how friendships get exponentially harder the older you get.  When you’re a kid and you want to round to play at your friend’s house tomorrow after school, even if that friend’s house is a good drive away, it can be sorted.  Mums can fix that sort of thing, no problem.

When you get older, even a fair distance into your twenties, you can easily enough arrange to go for a few beers pretty impulsively, on a whim.

Past that point, when relationships get more secure, when weddings start happening, when the iron grip of partners and employment rule ever more firm, then it gets harder.  Arranging to meet up with a mate can mean planning two months in advance.

Two fucking months?!  I think, acting cool and reasonable.  Yeah, I have, like, other things going on between too so that’s.. uhm.  Yeah, that’s fine.

(I’ll give you “around the middle of November,” you look-how-busy-and-important-I-am PRICK!  All I wanted was a bloody drink).

Nah mate.  Yeah, that’s cool.  Look forward to it.

It’s increasingly standard though.  I’ve always counted myself as a time-rich person, never having had any huge commitments or time-demands, and being lazy.  Time is something I’ve simply always had enough of.  Way more than enough of.  Alright, frankly, far too much of.

Being self-employed, like doing a fairly simple English Literature degree, if you’re organised to a decent level, it’s not all that difficult.  Just get done what you need to get done.  There might be heavier pressures now and again, but you can usually wing it ok and get away without putting yourself under any undue stress.

Because when you do challenge yourself and put yourself under undue stress, the net result isn’t usually worth it anyway.  Best case: a person of supposed authority pats you on the back.  You are recognised.

Woopdefuckingdoo.


Three is a tragic number

Added to this is frustration at the awkward social dynamic of ‘three’ – the tragic number.

It’s much harder for a single person to be good friends with a couple, than it is for a couple to be good friends with a couple.  The single person will, by definition, forever be the other.  You’ll possibly also project your own notions of being pitied if they do deign to spend time with you as a pair, but more often they don’t go out of their way because they have everything they need.  So the onus falls on you, particularly when you’re bored and navelgazy and think you should make some effort to stoke the friendship fire.

When you get round to meeting there’s the common assumption that you always want ‘boys time’ to talk about ‘boys things.’  Sure, he was my friend first but I like you well enough too.  You’ve been together a good number of years, you’re smart and good conversation, we get on ok.  Can’t we just all be friends?  Or do you think I’m a nob?

It leads on to the assumption that you’ll always want to go to the pub and drink beer with your male friend.  Any other activity or pastime is eschewed with a single person, whereas couples can meet up with other couples and actually do things outside of going to the pub.  You’ll see pictures online of a jolly looking day out at the beach.  Single people aren’t usually invited to these things because, well, it’s a bit awkward.

*Big maudlin, self-regarding SIGH..

best wishes

It’s the wedding of one of my best friends tomorrow.  I say ‘one of my best friends’ as a kind of defence mechanism, because he probably is my best friend, although I’m not his.  Which is fine, really.  I’m a backbencher with no formal role at the wedding.  He’s a popular guy with more friends than me.

On switching secondary school in the middle of my teens, I was led to a classroom which would contain several boys who I still count as friends today.  A good handful of them will be there tomorrow.

He was one of them; the cool kid on the cool kids’ table in class.  I never quite attained that status and flailed at the fringes, often being forgotten for parties and gatherings, either by virtue of living a couple of villages too far away, or generally being a forgettable kid.  He claims his popularity waned in the sixth form, when I went elsewhere to study my A Levels, but we came back together in our University town: a place he’s never left.

During University and for a few years afterwards, we were as close as girlfriends would allow – his more than mine, frequently meeting for beery evenings.

Two or three days before I was finally due to leave the town for something approaching a permanent job, we went out drinking.  Much of our friendship has revolved around drinking.  He can’t have just one drink.  It will usually spiral, though this has been tapered in recent times.

But that night, two or three days before I left, it did predictably spiral.  He remembers it better than I – with good reason because it was the night he met a young woman he’ll stand with at the front of a nice middle England Church tomorrow.  He recounted it last week when we met for beers which didn’t spiral.

He had another friend out in town, a friend and colleague who was leaving his office.  This guy was encouraging him to go to a dark and dingey indie club mostly frequented by pierced, scary teens wearing dark T-shirts and sullen looks.  I wasn’t at all keen but was lured close.  A five pound entry fee confirmed my view but my friend was set, he was going in.  We shook hands, said see you later, and he went in and was introduced to his bride-to-be, who is the least likely character to be found in such a venue.  She shines with a toothy, well-heeled veneer.

The following night we both had dates.  He’d moved quickly.  Mine was with an eccentric French woman with a cannabis dependency and strange teeth.  His was with a 19 year-old, beautiful perfect girl.  19?!  Bastard..  We exchanged text messages during our dates.  He’d said he thought he was out of his league.  Of course he wasn’t.  His way is to be self-deprecating to a fault.  It usually makes him seem charming and cute.

I, on the other hand, had stopped trying to make my date laugh or even smile because it did something alarming to her face, which was quite reasonable when relaxed.

Then I moved away for a few years, to a couple of different places.  Although generally slack and without much initiative, he was one of my only friends from home who visited.  I say this as a defence mechanism too.  He was the only friend who visited me; once in both towns.

I returned to our University town just under a year ago.  I knew I could have more of a social life here than I had in London, a more real network.  And it was cheaper so I could afford more nice things: a bigger flat and a better car.  Knowing he’d be around for a beer now and then, when his relationship allowed: that was no disincentive.

She’s excellent, his betrothed.  Several years our junior, which is idyllic in several ways: a younger bride with no biological clock screaming and a frankly indulgent amount of time to get used to the idea of fatherhood.  But I do like her too, though he accurately skewered my early misgivings – which perhaps she shared about me.  I felt the need to prove myself.  She has one of those gushing, gleaming manners which can immediately strike you as artificial even if it’s not, especially when delivered by tall, attractive, smart females, as she is; and received by bitter, cynical blokes like me.  But this is just her.  It isn’t a front; it’s genuine.  I’ve grown to recognise this.

God knows what emotional cocktail will gurgle in my gut when I see them up there tomorrow – notwithstanding disasters or drama.  Probably one or two will be morbidly self-regarding.

Not sure how to finish this now.  I wish them the best.

a new friend

The transition from team-mate to friend is probably not much different to any brokered friendship.  You start with a common ground of going to one place over a sustained period: a class, a group, a pub or a club; you do your thing while you’re there; you separate and come back together and do it again.  You can sense things about them from what they say and how they behave, and you gravitate towards certain people and not others as a result.

You’re presented with a choice – whether it’s made consciously or not: keep your acquaintance within those known parameters or go an extra inch.  There’s seldom any harm or risk in it: seeing if they’re ok outside the environment in which you know them best.  Particularly if they’re the same gender.

It was clear after just a few chats that he and I shared a few things.  Most importantly perhaps was our self-confessed status as loners.  At 36 he’s much further embedded than I.  I don’t know if he’s more comfortable or if he just seems to care less, although he doesn’t appear to care very much about anything.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t put effort in on the park.  A nifty-footed midfielder still with a decent turn of pace, he’s clearly played a few levels higher and you can see why some call him “Messi’s Dad.”  The truth is he’s actually the older cousin of a star Premiership player with commendably strong family values.  I won’t say I haven’t thought about selfishly developing the friendship as a route to tickets.  I’m not sure if this is a realistic prospect, but I can dream.

Beers on club socials have been followed by beers on a smaller club gathering last Saturday, and beers during the football on Wednesday.  He’s also an avid cinemagoer, on a par if not exceeding my regularity.  He travels long distances to attend film festivals and thinks nothing of killing whole days watching back-to-back movies.  It was this added to football which cemented a familiar kinship of some kind.  We’d tumbled from an early evening screening at around the same time and stopped to chat.  “So, you’re the kind of bloke who doesn’t like to admit how often he actually goes to the cinema too, aren’t you?”

We’ve spoken about being single, living alone, travelling alone and general independence.  As a former army man who spend a good amount of time in Northern Ireland, he’s on a different level of self-sufficiency to me.  He confessed with a modicum of embarrassment (“I don’t tell many people this”) about spending two weeks entirely alone in a rural Tasmania when travelling, thanks to experience picked up in the field, in various places.  I instinctively knew what to ask about, and what I couldn’t.  Or shouldn’t.  He has weathered narrow eyes which look like they’ve seen, you know, pretty bad shit.

There is something not entirely normal about him, I admit.  Not the sort of guy who’d spontaneously flip, but so calm and able it might be difficult to communicate with him at times.  If he decided to shut down on you, there would be no way back in.  In a way we’re both typical potential psychopath murderer types.  People might say of both of us, like they say of psychopaths, that we’re quiet men without many friends who live alone.  I’d really like a rampaging gunman to be a nice Dad and Husband of flawless repute.  Just once.  It’s always the single lonely guy who’s subjected to suspicion and bad press.

We’ve spoken about implicit rejection from other social groups as you get older and remain single.  First couples split off with each other and, after a period, they friend-up with other couples.  Then couples with kids friend-up with other couples with kids – potentially marginalising those without, and singles with kids do with other single parents.  We appear to seek symmetry in our friendship groups at each stage of our lives, and it can seem nonsensical.  Perhaps more so to the marginalised, to whom it feels more pronounced, less like a natural thing, more like a lazy thing.  Should a single person really rock the core balance of a couples’ dinner party?  Perhaps it’s unnecessary over-empathy, fear of awkwardness, a culturally British thing.

We’ve spoken about how friends, older, best known ones, can be shit.  How they can let you down and how you need to get out and do it yourself if you want to travel.  How you can’t sit and moan and wait for them all the time.  Perhaps there’s been a degree of smugness in those chats as we’ve virtually slapped each other on the back over our pints of Guinness.

Sitting in coffee shop reading a book during a slow mid-February afternoon, not at the peak of spirits, my mobile wobbled with a text.  He was going to see two films: he knew I’d seen the first (already discussed) but if I fancied Paul, the second?  I was also heading to an early evening screening but wasn’t fussed about the second and told him as much.  We bumped into each other by the escalators, where he was waiting for another friend who was running late, or might not show up.

Do I want to be quite so settled in my solitariness as my new friend aged 36?  No.  Looking at him I see how it happens, that inexorable slide into caring less, giving up, taking what’s offered when it’s there.  How is it halted?  By good fortune or not at all?  You deal or don’t.

leer pressure

Her hesitation flew in the face of the bold wide eyes which slammed from across the dark bar.  Wide eyes which said ‘HEY! Look at me looking at you.  Are you going to do something?’

And I wasn’t all that fussed about doing anything.  She wasn’t unattractive but it was an unorthodox tactic, if it was a tactic, if it was something she was controlling.  Her eyes sort of freaked me out.  Perhaps that was just her way, that gaping, unknowable whiteness in her eyes; that spacey vacancy.

Still, I wasn’t drawn.

I should go and talk to her, my friends told me, make an effort, go over and buy her a drink.  Go on, the two men a handful of years older than me goaded.  I felt like a vicarious medium for them, both domesticated husbands and fathers, like I was their reality show.  Go on, they gurgled excitedly, like their infants, she keeps looking over.

Fucksake.  Partly because I was tired of them, I submitted and headed towards the bar, where Wide Eyes was.   As I did so an unmissable space at the bar opened up further along the bar and I gravitated in that direction instead, quickly ordering an unnecessary extra round of drinks.  I glanced in her direction and we connected eyes again, over a few heads.  Big, spacey, empty eyes.  There was no way out.  Don’t be harsh.  Don’t pre-judge.

I smiled, politely, obviously.  Was I doing whatever I was doing out of politeness?  Or out of a misguided obligation to be the spectacle?  Because she was looking over and saying I should, and because my friends were looking over and saying I should?

It was all excruciatingly loaded now.

But hell, she was female and not unattractive.  I was drunk and ever-single.  It was late Friday night in a bar where this sort of thing happens.  There was no shame.

Or was there?  Was feeling nothing (not even phwoar lust as with the German) yet still buckling limply under other people’s expectations, was that not just a tiny bit shameful?

Hrm.  Best not think too hard.

She weaved down the bar and we began to chat.  Our dialogue didn’t exactly fizz with anything, flirty banter or pace, but it was amiable enough.  She was here, quite drunk, I was quite drunk, also here.  Our friends were looking over; things were obvious.  It felt harrowingly like a school disco.  I was still just a little too sober, too aware.  Wish I’d been like this with the German.  Then I might have remembered at least one single detail.  Other than her being German, which wasn’t that much to go on.

Name, job, EYES, part of town, details, EYES, age (the same, although I’m not sure she believed me – weirdo), details, blah blah.  Vapid, impenetrable, uninteresting.   Or pissed?  Or a little simple?  Or all of the above?  How much did I care?  Anyway, yes, I’m here now, I supposed, my conversation on autopilot, her head bobbing uncertainly close to mine like it was detached from the rest of her body, a fisherman’s float.

There was that faltering hesitance about everything in her style.  Was she just teasing me?  Playing power games like she did with her confident wide eye contact?  I can do anything I want, me.  You’re just Some Bloke.

(Later though, I wondered if the hesitance was anything to do with the huge garlic-laden steak and garlic bread I’d had a couple of hours earlier.  A mate and I had eaten in a fabulous dark and dingey old steakhouse, served by an improbably old head waiter.  I hadn’t addressed the garlic with gum but surely that had been blanketed by booze?)

We re-joined our friends and came back together again.    Would she remember any of this?

A child.  She said she had a child?  Oh ok, right.. um, cool?  What’s his name?  Look at me all sensitive and interested.

The dark bar suddenly became less dark.  Lights!  Her ferocious looking girlfriend ordered that they leave.  Diminutive, a little older and violently Welsh, her friend looked like the kind of person who takes preposterous levels of pride in telling it like it is.

On the street outside my friends, who were near neighbours on the opposite side of town from me, hailed a taxi.  They tipped me a nod and a wink as they left, doubtless feeling like they’d done a good job.  My mobile vibrated with a text I’d read later.  ‘Smash it like Andy Gray.’  Nice boys.

Another cab quickly pulled up for Wide Eyes, Violent Welsh and her party (one other nondescript guy).   I gave her my card, all self-effacingly saying I know you won’t wanna.. but just take it..  The obligation to do that was all my own making, but seasoned with half-hearted Why Not? rather than anything stronger.  She accepted it and kissed me on the cheek – aw, I was just playing with you (?) – then got in the cab.

I shuffled away in the direction of my flat, a confused and drunken string puppet.