Ahead of National Friendship Day on Sunday, Justine Brooks tells us why river deep, mountain high, separate continents be damned – some mates are forever. Wherever they are.
I was 11 and pretty shy but somehow in the playground I got talking to this girl. She was called Lella and she was new too, but not shy like me. She was from Melbourne and had an Australian accent, which I thought was cool, and this great big smile that was full of fun and mischief. She was smart and funny and she made me smile. So we just kept talking and over the next two years we did pretty much everything together.
Life with Lella was always exciting. For a start, she taught me how to swear.
“What’s the worst swearword you know?”
“You can do better than that!”
“Come on! Worse than that!”
“Yeah! Now say them all together!”
“Shitbuggerfuck shitbuggerfuck shitbuggerfuck!”
When I’m really stressed I still mutter “shitbuggerfuck” under my breath and it always makes me feel loads better. Thanks Lels.
“Partly because I’d moved schools so many times but mostly because she’s an absolute one-off, I’d never had a friend like her. Lella was like a lion: fearless and didn’t give a shit about anything.”
We went everywhere on rollerskates. Our houses were within rollerskating distance of each other so that’s how we got there. If Lella wasn’t at my house I was at hers. We’d spend hours playing Monopoly and The Game of Life, or laughing at my mum’s temperamental Siamese cat, Ming, while we listened to Duran Duran and deliberated which of the band was the most gorgeous.
At school we were enrolled into the ‘Gifted & Talented’ programme where we got to design our own boardgame; we joined the girl scouts and went on a mission to get every single badge in the girl-scout badge book (which we did – some of them legitimately).
We went on girl-scout camp, found a scorpion in our tent, got our camp raided by the military who told us to put our campfire out because we were too close to an oil refinery and then had all our food eaten by donkeys.
Once the rain was so heavy that all the streets in our town flooded and we swam in the streets and in the storm drains. Everything we did together was just awesome.
Partly because I’d moved schools so many times but mostly because she’s an absolute one-off, I’d never had a friend like her. Lella was like a lion: fearless and didn’t give a shit about anything. Because she was so smart she made it OK to be a bit nerdy and uncool and no one ever gave us any grief. She had an unflinching enthusiasm and zest for life and adventure that made everything seem amazing, even if we all we were doing was playing Monopoly.
And then our fathers’ contracts came to an end and all of a sudden we lived at opposite ends of the planet. It felt like losing an arm or a leg. The fun was over. Life returned to the way it had been before Lella: normal and pretty boring. To make things worse I didn’t go to school for the next year. I’d write to Lella every day, telling her every little dull thing that happened in my life, trying desperately not to let it stop, not to let it go, but eventually it did. And eventually we stopped writing to each other. And eventually we lost touch.
And then one evening about eight years ago I got an email from Lella. “Is it you?” she asked. I don’t remember what I replied. I only remember feeling so happy that she’d made the effort, after 25 years, to find me. It was only later that I discovered she’d spent three years looking.
This year, more than 30 years since we’d last seen each other, Lella came to visit me in Leeds with her husband Richard as part of their trip round Europe. We had 24 hours together. And there she was. My BFF. Just the same. Still funny, still fearless, still so much better at maths than me (She’s an engineer now and runs a gas plant; she needs to be good at maths).
We laughed and cried and reminisced (and I got out the old Game of Life and we actually played it) and time stood still for a little while. And then when she left I cried all day.
The thing is, I know that even though 30 years have passed, and even though we live at opposite ends of the earth, none of that matters at all. We’re still best mates and nothing’s ever going to change that.
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Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.