My friend, the girl out of tune with her time

She came of age among tribes of girls wearing furry boots that cost more than a well in a desert, but she came from a different world


A young friend of mine is about to have her first baby. We had breakfast together recently in her calm, sunny home. Her wedding photographs were on the wall above the table where we ate. She married in Italy; her groom arrived at the ceremony on a Vespa, she wore white. She is dark and lovely. In the photographs she looks so happy she lights up the Tuscan night. There were photographs of her bridesmaids, brightly wrapped, leaning against a drystone wall, laughing, their beautiful brown legs coltish in their delicate towering shoes.

My friend took me upstairs to see the nursery: a sturdy cot, a rocking chair and, on the floor, a soft rug decorated with coloured buttons. I brought her tiny yellow wellingtons that her baby can one day wear to splash in puddles. They sit on a shelf, expectantly.

I got married because my brother offered to babysit our children for the weekend. We signed on the dotted line at 3pm one day in an Edinburgh registry office, drank a bottle of champagne with a handful of mates in a bar next door at half-past.

But my young friend grew up in a different era. She grew up in the din of the economic boom, when some folk flew to New York City to buy their winter coats. She came of age among tribes of young girls wearing furry boots and baggy sweatpants that cost more than a well in a desert; girls who sucked on the ends of their two-tone locks, shrugged their spray-tanned shoulders and got bored easily in their mothers’ bull-barred 4x4s.

Not so privileged
My friend was not so privileged. Her childhood did not include professional mummy and jogging daddy and brother in a scrum and sister in a strop and purring car and barking dog and twice-yearly flights to a turquoise swimming pool.

She grew up with her mother in a damp and funky old flat on a Dublin square with a bicycle parked in the driveway. She had a flat-nosed cat that sneezed into its food, and on birthdays and Halloween and Valentine’s Day she would decorate the strange old flat with balloons and paper hearts and plastic skeletons and acres of tea lights and ribbons and bows; on those festive occasions the dark house would glow from the inside out.

I lived upstairs on the second floor with my flatmate and his cat, a nervy moggie who used to pee in other people’s bags; not the most alluring prospect for our occasional gentleman callers. We were an unlikely family in that cold old house: the two of us upstairs with the urinating cat and our big ambitions and our sporadic work; my friend and her hardworking waitressing mother downstairs in the firelight.

We shared our lives, the four of us and the sparring cats. If one of us had luck and a few extra quid, we all benefited; if one of us had a broken heart or a new bicycle pump, that went into the mix too. We didn’t have cars or central heating; we were left wanting in the white-goods department. I don’t know about the others, but I thought about money when it completely dried up, and then the two flats pooled the contents of our larders and we got by.

Someone once abandoned a broken Triumph car outside our gate, and my young friend used to sit in it after school and turn the wheel and sing songs out the window and pretend to drive. And when I babysat for her and her cloth bunny, while her mother worked a late shift, she would tell me that when she grew up she would drive a shiny car and live in a sunny house and have a lovely job and wear pink shoes and see the world and fall in love and have a sweet baby.

She was a sweet baby herself; loved. The future she talked about was unimaginably far away. But she did all of those things she had planned, shrugging off the cowl of arty hippiedom that we shrouded her in, to navigate a sharper, tougher world.

I wonder if our resistance to the world that was mushrooming up around us during our years in that house spurred my young friend on; it is the job of the young, after all, to oppose what went before. That she managed later to survive the crash of boom-time assumptions and remain as optimistic and lovely as she ever was fills me with hope.

She waits now in her light-filled home for another future. The wheel turns. Fingers are crossed.

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