Hilary Fannin: My mother sees ‘the girls’ now only in her dreams

The friendship of the four of them, their gang, their cabal, spanned the decades

I recently sat with a woman who was just months short of her 90th birthday. She is an elegant, busy woman who plays competitive bowls, drives a car, maintains a spotless home and recently acquired a devoted, if suspicious, cat.

She was showing me a photograph of her American pen pal, a woman also flirting with 90, with whom my friend has been corresponding for 79 years. Seventy- nine years ago that began with an exchange of letters between two Girl Guide troops, one in Dublin, the other in Rochester, New York. Seventy-nine years of writing that progressed from slip knots and mountain hikes to beaus and fiances and weddings and (between them) nine bouncing babies. Seventy-nine years of a long-distance friendship that included reciprocal visits, which, for my friend, back in the 1960s, translated to a nine-hour coach ride from Manhattan, rewarded by a bushel of peaches and a picnic on Lake Ontario.

I read somewhere about scientific evidence proving that friendship among women (based on what the research calls a “tend and befriend” impulse) acts as a counterbalance to stress, a fact that is blindingly obvious to any of us who are looking forward to seeing our mates. Female friendship, they say, may even explain why women outlive men: it reduces our risk of disease and lowers blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol.

I have witnessed the longevity of female friendship; watched, over decades, how my mother’s friends enriched and enhanced her life.


They usually gathered on a Friday night, “the girls” (a phrase that made my teeth curl), meeting every couple of weeks, the four of them, the venue revolving, like their conversations.

Guacamole nights

On a girls’ night, the tablecloth would get dragged out from the bottom of the ironing box, four wine glasses would be polished with a skirt hem, an avocado mashed and a bottle of Tabasco unearthed from the back of the cupboard.

“Guacamole. Guacamole,” my mother would say, frowning at the recipe. “Guacamole. What am I missing?”

“A Guac?” my father would suggest, on his way out the door.

We would disperse on those nights, too, me and the dog, leaving “the girls” the hearth and the candlelight; leaving them to their private language, to whispers and shrieks and tears, and laughter that billowed out from under the door and vaporised before it hit the ceiling.

There were four “girls”, including my mother’s oldest friend, whom she had met when they were curious children, by the hedge that divided their two back gardens.

Her friend had been sent from London to stay with her aunt, because bombs were falling on her street. The little girls surveyed each other through the foliage, through the feathery ammunition of a dandelion clock. Her friend never did return to London, and soon their friendship far outstripped the privet hedge.

Beautiful and stoic

And there was my mother’s other childhood friend, who lived around the corner with a ferocious matriarch. This beautiful and stoic friend’s difficult early years were compensated for, briefly, by a wonderfully happy marriage that ended in widowhood when her youngest son was still an infant.

And finally there was the artist, elegant and intense, a neighbour, a blow-in, who must have been in her 20s, infants on her hip, when she met and captivated the other three.

The friendship of the four of them, their gang, their cabal, spanned the decades, spanned fondue sets and pavlovas and beef stroganoffs. It spanned births and deaths, disappointments and achievements. It outlasted a ghost husband, a philandering husband, a bitter husband and a humdrum husband. Maybe with different marriages, their friendship might not have run so deep. Or maybe it would, who knows?

Her oldest friend was the first to die, in her 70s, suddenly, unexpectedly, in the middle of making plans for a girls’ holiday. My mother imbibed the news, stared at her hands, looked away with incomprehension. Gone.

Then the stoic widow fell ill, and deteriorated steadily, implacably. She spent months in a hospital bed, in clothes she did not recognise, with photographs on her locker of people she no longer knew.

And then the artist died, after a life that had tossed her around on the waves, not always kindly.

My mother remains. She sees them now in her dreams, from her own hospital bed, her old friends. They walk towards her in bell-bottoms and flares, in dirndl skirts and summer sandals; they beckon her. In her dreams she sees them as they were on those candlelit nights, around each other’s fireplaces, drinking warm wine, half-smoking minty cigarettes, licking chocolate-stained teaspoons, and telling and telling their great, intricate, everlasting stories.