JUNE ISSUE: Friends

A Friend Cuts The Author's Hair
A Friend Cuts The Author’s Hair

Welcome to the fourth issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book. This month’s theme over on Substack concerns friends: subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt:  How did they begin – our great friendships? What words or gestures were risked – and rewarded?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

Louise Stead

June extract

My father’s closed door, the unrest of my childhood home, all the house moves, the nerve-fray: this had made me an outcast. But like so many who feel tender and unsure, I’d pretended arrogance until it became me: scales on my eyes and a hard shell around self made from layer after layer of refused opportunities.

Graduations, birthdays, christenings, weddings: these official threshold events have photographs that help us celebrate and remember. Our small, private steps from fear into courage are rarely recorded this way, so it is easy to forget their importance. How life can be transformed by taking a breath and walking through a door on an ordinary day. 

There is no photo that shows me pushing through the stiff entrance to a converted church one spring morning, come with my son to its playgroup. Finding a space among the toys spread out. Laying my baby on one of the mats, heart hammering, before making shy upward glances at others who had come alone. 

A few familiar faces. Women I’d seen in clinics? At the supermarket? And over there – stranger with a cloud of dark hair who spoke to her boy in a calm, quiet voice I admired. 

If she was on the radio, I’d listen all day

I thought this and smiled. 

She smiled back. 

These simple exchanges that change everything.

Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp. 127-128). Orion. Kindle Edition.

Reader responses

A decade of sibling silence…

…always hopeful. Me unknowing how, if ever, we might restore our torn apart relationship. Our mother’s accident during lockdown and the reality that she may not survive.

It was a message sent to my sister by me that would be the start of our new connection, initially all about possible arrangements for our mother. Such difficult, fragile circumstances and all to be done through messages. Choosing our language and our words carefully was mentally exhausting; emotional, draining.

Yet through all of this challenging period we remained constant, expressing care and support for each other. With this strength we stepped forward and arranged for me to visit her home first then she to mine.

These first steps for mending our relationship. Our mother’s situation our unknown gift.

Just us now: me, my sister. Friends making new memories together.

We made it.

Julie Benham

I wear you down with gifts of chocolate…

…that we eat side by side at the counter while watching the shoppers quietly rotate their heads from side to side to read the book titles that stand to waiting attention on the shelves of this, my favourite book shop.

I am so happy in your company. A friendly warmth of being radiates from you and finds a home within me as I stand beside you, decades apart in age, and you from Hong Kong, me from this town-now-city in Essex (the one of my schooling and now home for me and my family). You tell me of your Mauritian friend who has passed and this seals the deal for me in an instant; I know I want to keep you in my orbit somehow.

I sense you would have been liked so much by my dad, I sense you would have been friends who shared time and laughter together.

The jokes you make with the customers that sometimes backfire let me know this could only be true and it feels like I get to be in Dad’s company again once more; it’s just a connection made in my head and that is more than enough for me.

The comfort I feel.

I’m so happy I found you. We first met in this same shop: I as a customer always browsing here, in a shop that always provided me with the book I needed to read.

I call it the magic bookshop and it is now even more so with this connection I have made.

As I pay for my book, you talk of a joy for singing you have long since enjoyed and so I seize the opportunity to ask you to take me along to your club of singers.

Months later I show up beside you to give a helping hand on the shop-floor.

I carry gifts of chocolate that I have squirrelled away in my pocket for the shift ahead because you say you love it so. We eat sneakily between customers and this somehow has me make the grade to be invited along with you!

A week later, presenting me to the group as your friend, we are here together on Thursday nights from now on, entering the hall to sing with others just like us…

…who are simply finding friendship in song.

monique kennedy

I grieved when our friendship came to an end.

I mourned for the previous fourteen years in which I’d had her dominant force in my life.

She saw me – quite literally stopping me in my tracks as I shuffled along the street, eyes down, heavy with sadness and heading towards someone’s sofa (what I was calling home for now).

She was twice my age and said she had lost a great love, and that she too had been thrown into the deep sadness. I was too broken to mutter the words that were in my head: I’m lost. I don’t have a home and they don’t love me.

I was 18 years old and homeless for the second time in just over a year. This time felt different though. I no longer felt cute, the drugs and alcohol weren’t working, I was hungry and friends looked at me with that look. I didn’t fit anymore. I never really had – I’d just pretended.

Over the years, she offered me a place to sleep on her floor and create a 21st birthday party for me with a Barbie cake; she helped move me to yet another dirty shared house; she encouraged me to split with a guy I liked because I was too mentally ill to have a relationship; she insisted that I have an abortion and I did.

I did everything she told me to do.

Our strange friendship ended over 11 years ago now, which is nearly as long as the time it lasted.

Today I am a teacher, an aunt and on a programme where I’m now learning how to communicate my feelings and how to have relationships.

The words she once spoke echo into my everyday life and seem to make more sense now than they ever did back then.

Charlotte Dawson

The first time we met we had Eton Mess for dessert…

She dolloped it onto my plate with repeated apologies for the state of it, and I remember thinking it an appropriately chaotic dish for someone so very flustered.

We were both foreigners back then, each of us moved to a Swiss village to be at home with small children while our husbands worked in global head offices in the city.

The first time we met was in the first week of her arrival. I left dinner with a silent commitment to a six-week attempt at friendship. After six weeks, I told myself, I would know if the fluster was the product of her recent move or if she generally operated within a sphere of neuroses that would simply be too much. I knew that no one who moves countries with children is a good version of themselves in the first six weeks.

I also knew that it’s best to avoid a woman who is too much. Too open. Too loud. Too worried. Too raw.

How glad I am that I was so very wrong.

Over the first month of knowing her, our days became increasingly shared. Within the chaos and mundanity of child-wrangling and meal-making and forest-walking, I learned that she was much more open, loud, worried and raw than I could have ever imagined. She made me uncomfortable. She made me laugh. She made my days brighter, fuller, more honest. I learned the mess and magic of her, and shared the mess and magic of myself in return.

Years later, now oceans apart, we still have the most wonderful friendship. One that has taught me – among many other things – the absurdity of the notion that a person can ever be too much.

Jess

I’m writing about a friendship that went wrong.

We met online when my friend supported me with a comment after someone else criticised me.

There followed regular whatsapp messages and a weekly hour for coffee and talk about life, love, work, play, relationships, politics, communication, local gossip and whatever issue of the week, (whether national, international or local) we wanted to analyse.

I have never yet found a friendship quite so wide-ranging as that one.

This continued as a warming and special part of my life until I did something I thought was quite innocuous, in all innocence, which unexpectedly upset my friend and damaged their trust in me. I still find it hard to fathom their reaction, but had no option but to accept it; my apologies did not help.

We did eventually get back in touch tentatively and always now say hi, how’s things when we encounter each other. They visited me in my garden during lockdown and we’ve exchanged caring messages about our respective health issues. But it will never be as it was again. Their life is seemingly too full and busy to find even a chink for time with me, but I’m always pleased to see they’re happy and doing well.

I’ve got other friends – longer lasting, more durable and more precious to me – but I still mourn the particular nature of that one.

sarah playforth

Last night I had a strange image of putting my head down onto Christy’s kitchen table and all of my body parts became segmented and fell off.

Shattering, but orderly, like all of a puppet’s strings untied, let loose, no longer a cohesive whole, a crash test dummy with no seat belt, no car, no blood. My parts were wooden and worn smooth, light like maple, a faint fiddleback grain, kiln dried, now just bits and bobs on the floor, at rest, no energy to roll away, kinetic defeat.

Christy’s mom told her that as a baby she would stare at her hands, perhaps wondering when they would start to create all that was held within her tiny soul. She is a potter, making good things from mud spinning in circles. A chunk of clay reimagined.

A friend offering her table as a good place to fall apart and return, reimagined.

sheila knell

Friends

Such an imposing kind of phrase now I think about it.

She’s my best friend.

But am I hers? Is anyone more important in her life than me? Why? Does she want to be somewhere else? Without me? Why am I not asked?

These are only questions that occurred to me much later in my life, so I guess that makes me lucky.

At Primary School, I always had one and into Secondary too. Emma, then Sarah and Rachel then Lisa and Jane. I was passionate about them and usually about their mum and dad and brothers and sisters too. Always intrigued by how others lived and what their bedroom was like. How kind their mum, how present their Dad, learning to love their pets and their routines.

With Emma it was all about teatime and weekday plays, with staying-over featuring too. It was about dolls and bedrooms and cats and living in each other’s lives every day. All encompassing and it felt safe and fun and as if it would never end.

Then she moved house.

It turned into letter writing as we grew from age 7 to 12, when we were able to have our first conversation for years. She’d moved back from America now and I was calling from our new house in the hall. Cool and with a glass partition away from the family, I chatted for hours with my legs hanging over the side of the chair.

But things had changed, there’d been another best friend for me in the meantime, and so now our shared interests were too hard to put into words. It wasn’t the same when you hadn’t both had that sausage sandwich her dad had made; when your skin didn’t match hers after a day in the sunshine and the stream.

Nowadays I can dwell for too long on reasons why I’m not her best friend. Why I’m not invited on that holiday or why she doesn’t send me a birthday card. I blame a new house and a new town, mid-life hormones and distance. Not wanting to think it could be about me, while believing that in dark, lonely moments.

And then I think about my closest friends now and the chats, the messages, the support, the coffees, the walks, the dogs, the weekends and I know I’m lucky. We share history and I wallow in the little comments made: you always….remember when….Lou’s doing her ….thanks…miss you….

Louise Stead
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