It was 2.06pm on a Tuesday afternoon and she walked – late – into our First Year English lecture. I looked up as she smiled at me and slid into the seat next to mine, and what I saw was the kind of girl this world may have conditioned me to dislike. Blonde with long legs and big blue eyes, curvy in all the right places and almost unfeasibly pretty. She wore a brightly patterned sundress and had the kind of face that made people jealous of her before she even had a chance to open her mouth.
Unembarrassed that the eyes of many were on her thanks to her late arrival, she unpacked her bag and put on the desk in front of her an array of luminously coloured pens, with which she proceeded to make notes in bold, swishy letters. I tried my best to keep my eyes to the front but couldn’t help being fascinated.
At the end of the lecture I, shy, ordinary, and indisposed to make small talk with strangers, gathered my papers and my copy of Jane Eyre and made to slip past her on my way to the exit. But before I could pass she turned her high-voltage smile on me and said, “Do you remember me?” I almost looked over my shoulder to check if she was talking to the person behind me, but her eyes were steady on my face, shining as though she knew a secret. Surely we didn’t know each other? “We took dance classes together at the Viv Pullen School,” she said.
Suddenly, although no less confused, I placed her. She had been in a different dance group to mine but several years earlier we had briefly combined and rehearsed together for a show. She’d been amongst a gaggle of the popular girls and we had never spoken. I hadn’t given her much thought and it seemed unlikely our paths would have reason to cross again. I certainly wouldn’t have expected her to notice me in a completely different setting years later, and even less so to approach me to say hello. And yet, here she was, looking at me expectantly for my answer.
This was one of my early life lessons in things not being as they seem: my automated assumption, based on my own perception of her being too pretty to notice me, was that she would have no need of a new friend, much less an ordinary one, one indisposed to make small talk with strangers. How wrong I was. At the next lecture she arrived on time and made a point of searching me out to sit with me. And at the next and the next. Before I knew it, she’d made me her friend.
Nineteen years later – the age we were when we sat in that first English lecture together – that pretty girl is still one of my favourite humans, and she celebrates her birthday today. I think about the lifetime we’ve both lived in the years since that day, and about things not always being as they seem, and then I think about what I’ll tell my daughters about making friends.
I’ll tell them about the girl who sought me out in a big, crowded, lonely lecture hall as I struggled to find my balance on my own away from home, and who made me her friend, unknowingly giving me a sense of belonging in the process.
And then I’ll tell them about the things she’s taught me in all the years since.
I’ll tell them about taking the first step, making the first move, giving the first smile, and how good it makes the person on the other side feel. I’ll tell them about wearing your heart on your sleeve for the whole world to see, even if it means it’s more likely to be poked at, misunderstood, taken advantage of, broken.
I’ll tell them that heartbreak happens no matter how good we are, and that when it does we shouldn’t shy away from it but face up to it believing we’re a worthy adversary. Better yet, we should invite it in for tea and ask it what plans it has for our lives, because from heartbreak, always, always, will come the unimaginable – even if it’s impossible to see while it’s sitting at our table drinking tea.
I’ll tell them to write down their wildest, most impossible dreams on a post-it note and believe they will come true or better.
I’ll tell them about bright colours and how happiness is infectious if you’re willing to share it, and attainable if you’re willing to relentlessly pursue it. I’ll tell them that when life doesn’t go your way there is always a ray of light to be found, even if it’s only inside your wardrobe or your heart or the flower you pin into your hair.
I’ll tell them about beauty being something that shines from the inside out and that sometimes all it takes is seeing it in other people for it to reflect right back on you. I’ll tell them that gentleness is one of the true markers of beauty and that their mama is still trying to learn that trait in any place she can find it.
I’ll tell them that kindness takes confidence. That to put yourself out there, to look someone in the eye and make them feel seen, make them feel remembered, even when they don’t seem to see or remember you back, takes the kind of confidence that I hope and wish for them all their lives. I’ll tell them that the prettiest girl in the room can feel as lonely as anyone else and that sometimes when someone seems too good to be true they really are.
I’ll tell them that there’s immeasurable value in the whimsical. That to dream is just as important as any other thing we can do and that to dream out loud is as inspiring as it is brave.
I’ll tell them that raw talent will not lie down, no matter how much we feel we may have abandoned it, and that when you have a talent for something you should let it use you, use you up and shine out for all to see.
I’ll tell them that making things more beautiful than they were when you found them is one of the truest gifts we can give in our lifetime, and that writing in luminously coloured pens makes you more likely to go back and learn from your lecture notes (although not to be on time for class).
I’ll tell them about my friend who taught me all of these things, and who deserves to be showered with love on her birthday – as do we all.
Happiest birthday, my belle. Je t’adore!