I was 12 years old, sitting in the car with my Dad after my year seven parents’ evening. I’d just been given a massive bollocking for persistently talking in my French class, and I was waiting for the onslaught of parental punishment.
“The thing is, Dad,” I said. “I’m not just chatting. I’m helping the girl next to me because she’s not very good at languages.” He then very quietly took out his wallet and handed me £20. “The most important thing in life is that you always look out for your mates,” he said. And nothing more was said on the matter.
That memory has stuck with me for my whole life since. It’s a noble notion, and one I’ve always striven to honour, but it’s caused me no end of grief as a result. Several months after that incident, the girl in question turned on me for no reason whatsoever – as teenage girls are wont to do – spearheading a hate campaign against me that resulted in me having a something of a nervous breakdown aged 15. And then she slept with my boyfriend.
It was a great time to be young.
Still, that kind of catty school-girl shit was something I tolerated because I knew that those years – formative and crucial as they were – were not going to form the backbone of my entire life, and that once I’d recovered from my meltdown I would be free to meet people that identified with the same values as me. Namely, don’t be a dick, and don’t shit on the people that care about you.
Fast forward and I’m at university, having all the ill-advised adventures one does when they finally fly the nest. I’m surrounded by ‘cool’ people, and – on Dad’s advice – I make a concerted effort to listen to their tedious back stories and lend them washing powder and pick them up off the floor after they’ve vomited entire bottles of vodka down their fronts. They’d do the same for me, I reason, and everything is grand.
Until one night. I’d stayed in to study, and at about 2am everyone came home screaming and shouting – and not in a way that would suggest they’d had a good night. It emerged that one of the girls had accused one of the blokes of raping her, and had then tried to slit her wrists. He’d been carted off to the police station, and she’d been taken to A&E.
Trying to make sense of their garbled nonsense, it became clear that their consensus was ‘she was lying’ and ‘poor him’. This conversation spread out over the coming days until I eventually suggested that, regardless of the true events that had transpired (of which we were none the wiser), they were both likely to be unhappy right now, and that we should support them both until we figured out what was going on.
Well fuck me if that wasn’t like throwing a piece of meat into a room full of hyenas. I might as well have suggested that Hitler was actually an ‘okay guy’ for the reaction that statement received. It wasn’t acceptable to be neutral on this, it seemed. We had to pick sides, and if I wasn’t willing to choose his then I was just as much a pariah as her. And so the remaining university term was lived out in ostracisation and the kind of shitty behaviour I thought I’d left at school. (Meanwhile, her life was made so unbearably difficult she left university altogether – after another suicide attempt).
So I was pretty glum. Not only because I felt unfairly condemned for trying to be a good friend to all concerned, but also because I was shocked and quite saddened by the way the group had turned on this girl like a pack of wolves when she was clearly going through some serious stuff. Rape allegations aside, slitting your wrists is usually a strong indicator that something’s not right.
But, like the high-school debacle, I took comfort in the fact that university wasn’t a fair representation of life overall, and I was confident that the coming years would bring a new batch of people that would hopefully be the friends, instead of the ‘starter friends’ making transient and (often, it seemed) unpleasant appearances in my life.
And so here I am in my late 20s. This is life now, unless I radically alter it myself – there’s no obvious stepping stone to a new phase, as there is with school and university. I’m surrounded by people I’ve known for years, many of whom I’ve also picked up off the floor after they’ve vomited bottles of vodka down themselves and many of which – heeding Pa’s wisdom – I like to think I’ve come through for when it’s gone to shit for them in one way or another.
The problem is, after years and years spent in heightened states of paranoia and anxiety, you become very tuned in to subtext, and aware of others’ behaviour – particularly in times when you actually need someone to come through for you. From conversations stopping abruptly as you walk in to a room and catching glimpses of exchanged looks not meant for you, to that exquisite formula of playground cliqueyness and piecing together parts of different stories and realising that you’re being fibbed to. All stuff many people would overlook, but not the people that have always tried to do right by their mates, and have been let down.
So thanks for the advice, Dad, but right now, as I consider ways to LVL UP to some new phase, I find myself wishing I’d been more of an unruly teen and ignored it.