My Fabulous Friend
by Norah Casey
I loved him of course. He was the only boy in town that wasn’t related to me so he was most definitely going to be mine. But she had other ideas. Foolish me for insisting she came along for our annual trip to my mother’s homeland every summer. There we were all glammed up for a night of pool playing and street corners. She with her Dublin glitz out to dazzle the Leitrim boys. Far too pretty to be a best friend. I should have known I was destined to live in her shade. Liam didn’t stand a chance. When she turned those big blues on full beam he was mesmerised like all the others. I sulked. For days on end that summer I seethed and simmered plotting my revenge. She never noticed. She stayed infuriatingly frivolous while I grew ugly with bitterness. Then one sunny day as we walked the lanes of Leitrim she linked my arm and squeezed – “let’s be friends for ever”. And so we were mended. She was impossible not to love. Who the hell was Liam anyway?
When you’re young you get notions about best friends. I went through six or seven before I decided that Ruby was my ‘bestest friend ever’. I was only five at the time though and friends were fickle. But Ruby was the one constant. We played dolls, shared pretend tea parties, beheaded my brother’s Action Man and dressed up in flouncy dresses on rainy days. As we entered the twilight zone of those early teen years I can hardly remember the tantrums (my mother said they were spectacular) because Ruby and I were united against the common enemy. We had the worst parents in the world. Every other girl in the school had more understanding and forgiving parents than ours and we constantly reminded them of the hardship we endured at their hands. Not only were they totally uncool, they were seriously lacking in the wealth stakes. In other words they refused to indulge our every whim (mostly designer jeans and shoes to die for!).
I can’t recall exactly when it happened – probably around our 14th year. We were moping around after school bemoaning our lot in life and the tragedy of homework. A couple of my brother’s friends were skulking outside the newsagent. Red faced, lanky, smelly boys who suddenly seemed strangely attractive. In the weeks previous we had taken to giggling loudly and throwing our heads back to show off our flowing locks. Ruby would shriek melodramatically at the slightest provocation – a passing dog, a missed step or just for the hell of it. And O’ My God I discovered something that day. She was so bloody good at all this attention grabbing stuff I didn’t stand a chance. We had been equals up until now – at least I thought we were at the same level in life. It was a revelation. Suddenly I was no longer linking arms with my best friend, I was walking with the enemy. Who was this blond beauty next to me who laughed longer and louder than I did? From then on the competition between us was ferocious but there was never any contest – she always won. The boys whistled and catcalled but they only had eyes for her.
The Leaving Cert, now that was almost our undoing. I slogged into the night, she partied on the town. She still beat me by two honours. The devil was on my shoulder that day I can tell you. As the nuns bustled in the hallways and the girls crowded around the notice board I stood shock still wondering at the cruelty of a God who matched me with a friend who was destined to always shine brighter. And then Ruby turned and laughed and grabbed my hand and we were running down the street shrieking and leaping – we were free, we were together and life was just beginning.
Leitrim wasn’t big enough for our gallivanting that summer. In truth it was big enough for me but she had notions of France. Where I would have flustered and over-explained she persuaded and cajoled our respective parents to let us off the leash for a few weeks.
Wild, wonderful weeks where we threw off our American Tan tights and grew brown and beautiful on the Côte d’Azur. We survived on her smiles, disarming the French boys who filled our glasses with wine and fed us romantic dinners. We were inseparable, always two with two. She with the Adonis and I with the plainer friend.
We returned to Dublin more women than girls and spent endless late summer evenings filling out application forms for the paltry jobs on offer. The year was 1986 and most of our classmates were heading for New York or London where the prospects were better – for both jobs and men. University was out of the question – neither of us had the money or the motivation to continue our studies. Ruby of course progressed to interviews and soon had her pick of the best. I filed the reject letters and worried silently about what the future might hold. She started in the bank – ‘a permanent, pensionable job’, my father said as he hid his disappointment at my own lack of progress in the employment stakes. I was envious and cross. When she celebrated her first pay check with a night on the town I pretended to be sick. In truth I was sick – sick of her talents, her beauty and her unrelenting sunny disposition. Of course I eventually persuaded some mediocre company to give me a start and I too was in gainful employment. Our friendship healed and my other, and much better half, was back in my life making me whole again.
Life was ours for the taking. Nights were filled with fun and hapless boys desperate to woo my fabulous friend. And I of course followed in her wake content by now to be the also ran. It was inevitable Ruby would be snared first. The gorgeous Greg won her heart and promised to mind her for evermore. I was heartbroken, bereft of my friend. My weeks were long and lonely. There was no longer us – there was them and me, the single friend with nowhere to go on Saturday night. And then I found Stephen – my lovely Stephen. Uncomplicated Stephen. For the first time I had a great friend who was my equal.
She and I drifted apart, babies arrived, and houses were bought. Then one day I was walking down Grafton Street with my little Harry and there she was right in front of me with two children in tow. We hugged. A lukewarm embrace. Neither of us knew what to say. We used the children as a go between insisting on polite introductions. ‘Say hello Lily, say hello Thomas’. ‘This is Harry’. She’s living in Castleknock, I’m in Stillorgan – miles away from each other. She’s given up work and Greg is now a partner in the law firm. Her Dad has died and so has mine. We’re stilted and unsure, no bonds to tie us now.
Ruby is drawn and pale. God forgive me I feel a touch of .triumph that I have improved with age while she looks ten years older. We say goodbye and as I walk away she calls back. “Could we have a coffee – do you have time?” she asks hesitatingly. I have to be somewhere but something, and I hope to God it isn’t just idle curiosity, makes me say yes. We find a corner table and the kids chatter happily. We’re half way through our large skinny cappuccinos when I sneak a proper look at her. She’s distracted by Lily’s spilt orange juice so I get to do a full-on assessment.
I could tell there was something troubling my former friend. It wasn’t hard. She had all the telltale signs of a troubled soul. Her beautiful blonde hair hung lank and unwashed, there were dark shadows beneath her eyes, and her whole body seemed to sag. My Ruby was vibrant. This Ruby was bowed by some ailment. I had a moment where I contemplated sticking with the banal and getting as far away from this troubled Ruby as I possibly could. And just as I was about to launch into a long diatribe about the weather I caught a look in her eyes, the slightest hint of my old friend hiding there behind the hollows. “I know I look dreadful so please don’t tell me how fantastic I look or how I never changed” she challenged. I felt the red brought-on-by-nerves blotches rising on my neck because dammit how did she know that was just what I was going to do. “ I wouldn’t say dreadful…” I faltered. “ You’re right you look ….I don’t know…. maybe a little tired”. I squirmed and winced wishing I could find some words to bridge this awkwardness. She laughed – not quite the old Ruby throw-your-head-back laugh but a full on throaty laugh that reached the eyes. I started for a moment and found myself smirking and then grinning and before long laughing out load and clutching my stomach and crossing my legs and doing all of the things us nearly middle aged women have to do to keep from wetting our knickers. After an unseemly few minutes of guffawing I stopped long enough to notice that her eyes were brimming over with big fat tears. The final cackle lodged in my throat. “What’s wrong Ruby, tell me, you’re upset…what ‘s the matter”, I was babbling, concern replacing my previous reserve. “I have breast cancer, “ she says quietly. I am too shocked by this admission, this appallingly news to do much but stare. Ruby laughs, a weary sad laugh; “at least I did have breast cancer and now it appears I have it in other places. They took both my breasts last year and I thought…I hoped…God I prayed ..that it was gone away and never to return”.
The years fall away along with our unease and I reach over for her hand. There’s a lump in my throat choking the words that are struggling for air. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry…’ I grip her hand tighter and look into those lovely blue eyes and search in their depths for my beautiful, fabulous, frivolous friend. Words tumble out, inadequate useless words which constrain rather than explain the true depth of my sorrow and heartbreak. She’s stoic and calm. ‘Its too late’, she says, ‘much too late’. The cancer came back just two short weeks ago and is unrelentingly invading her body. There is an anger building inside me at this terrible injustice. But like always I follow her lead. We don’t talk about the C word anymore. She talks about the past, recreating scenes and events in vivid detail. We remember together, each filling in bits the other has forgotten. And we laugh – loudly. Our children stare at their two mad mothers every now and then but quickly lose interest in our antics. I don’t know how it happened that we moved from laughter to crying but when our tears were spent we held each other tight and promised not to lose one other again.
I kept my promise but Ruby of course did not keep hers. It was not a long goodbye. Two months, eight weeks, 56 days – not long enough to say everything that had to be said. I wanted to say how much I loved her – my amazing, fabulous, wonderful friend. I wanted to be honest with her and admit all of the crazy jealousy and pettiness of my youth. But as those precious days passed I got to know Ruby in a way that I never had before.
I said goodbye to Ruby on a damp autumn day with the wind whipped trees shedding their dying leaves. And yet again I found myself doing her bidding. This time I was content to follow her lead. “A party” she declared, “not one maudlin moment please, this is my day and I want everyone to remember me as I was. Speak for me and make me come alive for just that day”. And so I did. It was no hardship to remember my beautiful Ruby the way she really was – a kind and generous friend who laughed loud and long and lived her brief live to the full. And in remembering I realised that she really was the best friend I had ever had.