My friend Julia and I talked on Skype last night. We don’t do it often enough. She lives in London, I am in Perth. We’d locked the time in for 6.30 and I warned the family – “I’m Skyping Julia”. They knew I would be a while.
The connection wasn’t good initially, we’d hear each other but couldn’t see, the line broke up, we tried again. Still no visual, but ‘at least we can hear each other’, I said. ‘No’, she said,’ I really want to see you, I get so much out of seeing you, it’s as if you are there in the room with me, I’ll try again.’ A few tries later and there we were, two old friends beaming at each other, so close and yet so very far. Time stands still for an hour or so. We cut through all the crap as we always have, no time for small talk, we get straight down to what’s important.
I first met Julia when we both worked for a publishing company in London in the heady 80s of Thatcher’s Britain, all yuppies, get rich quick bankers, Golf Gtis and those enormous brick like car phones. We both worked for a publishing company in Islington, where, despite both being more creative right-brain types, we sold advertising to the European market – we both spoke several languages – zipping around London and Europe in our company cars, creatively manipulating our seemingly limitless expense accounts. When in the office we giggled a lot and had a fondness for kit kats dipped into steaming mugs of tea, sucking the chocolate greedily before it dripped all over our less than tidy desks. We had a lot of fun and didn’t work particularly hard – Julia was more conscientious than me – but we met our targets and kept the managers happy with our girlish charms and willingness to indulge in the rather risqué banter that was a feature of office life before political correctness kicked in. Neither of us thought we would be there forever, and before too long Julia was off to study journalism, while I entered the teaching profession. Neither of us has looked back or had any regrets but I still think fondly of our London years.
Beyond the world of work we bonded over our fairly colourful love lives, a shared passion for reading, cinema and theatre and all things creative. During the uncommonly hot and humid summer of 1990 we enjoyed picnics on the banks of the Thames in our flowing Laura Ashley dresses and floppy hats, walks in the many London parks, nights talking nonsense and drinking far too much Marks and Spencer’s Lambrusco Bianco. We didn’t take ourselves too seriously but were very serious about the things that really mattered to us. That summer was our last hoorah before we followed the new directions we craved and found our vocations.
As Julia’s career in journalism began to take shape, she moved out of the capital to work on regional papers while teaching led me to a leafy English village in the north Essex countryside. After a blissful four years there I moved northwards to County Durham with my new Australian husband, before we made the long trip southwards with our first born to set up home in the land girt by sea. That was 1999, the year that Julia won an Amnesty International UK Media Award and became a feature writer for The Independent.
We kept in touch but saw each other rarely. Julia combined a visit to her sister in Melbourne with a trip to Perth shortly after we had emigrated. It was almost painful to see her. I was still adjusting to life down under, newly pregnant with my second child, permanently nauseous and missing the mother land. It took me about 18 months until I was able to embrace life in the most isolated capital in the world, a life filled with sun and sea, with new work, a growing family, new responsibilities. Sensing a story, as is her wont, Julia included my experiences in a feature article she wrote about the challenges faced by immigrants and ex-pats in far off lands. Strangely enough, expressing my homesickness really helped me to get over it.
Years passed by but she was always there, my friend Julia, always in my heart and often in my head. Her writing was going well. She travelled the world, interviewed Bob Geldof about many others, wrote feature articles on all manner of subjects from female castration and S & M to life on death row in Texas. A glittering life. There was, though, an itch she needed to scratch, so she took time out to bury herself in the French countryside, emerging after 6 months with the draft of what was to be her first novel. Her sparkling debut has been followed by three more novels, the second of which became a New York Times bestseller and one of the books chosen by the Obamas for their summer vacation that year. I am immensely proud of her.
Despite the tyranny of distance we manage to get together every few years. In 2005 Julia hopped on the Eurostar to meet me in Paris where I was accompanying a group of very excited West Australian schoolgirls on an educational trip to France. Julia was happy to tag along, a few precious stolen hours in the Tuileries gardens, while the girls tackled the Louvre, an unexpected bonus. On my next school trip to Paris she came again, this time finding a little hotel so we could see each other for longer. Then too many years passed where we relied on Skype and email until I found myself back in the UK to visit my aging parents at the end of their lives, unaware just how close to death my father was. In the intervening years Julia had lived an expat life for a while, in Egypt and Bahrain, but now was back in London.
England in the middle of winter is not the most uplifting of places, despite the sparkling Christmas lights.. Somewhat selfishly perhaps, I escaped the call of family duty to meet Julia in London for a day. The years melted away. There we were again, two wide eyed girls filled with hope and wonder and no small amount of mischief. We frolicked around the Christmas fairyland that is Fortnam and Mason in December, and wandered along Regent Street, stopping to ooh and ahh at the colourful wonders on offer in Liberty. I dragged her into a bookshop to find her books and took great delight in telling all in the vicintiy that this was my friend and she had written these books and they should buy them. We laughed and we cried a bit, well it was mostly me who cried – I have always been the more outwardly emotional one – and we feasted on mulled wine and mince pies to escape the cold and we talked, and talked some more, and all too soon the day came to an end and I reluctantly made my way back to Paddington station.
Two years later I was back in England to for my mother’s funeral. She died while I was flying somewhere over the Middle East, on my way to see her one last time. I arrived at Heathrow to be told the dreadful news by my sister. I was too late. I was distraught, barely able to function amongst my UK family in an environment so different from the life I’d made for myself in the lucky country. Then Julia came to my rescue. She hopped on a train to Bristol, another dear friend drove over from Hampshire, and they whisked me off for a long girly boozy lunch which restored my spirits as much as was possible under the sad sad circumstances.
Now it’s two years on, Julia’s mother has since passed away after a struggle with Alzheimer’s, such a deep sadness, and there she was again last night, my dear dear friend. What is it that keeps people together while so many friendships flounder and fall by the wayside? It’s like a love affair, the strength of emotion I feel for Julia. I love her to the moon and back and all around the stars a zillion times. I don’t know when I will see her again, but I do know that I am richer for knowing her and I hope that she will always be in my life. Although she knew I’d written a few articles and had one published – she’d very kindly read and edited one for me (and approved) – last night I opened up about how I’d finally discovered the healing power of words, found the courage to give those words expression and begun to believe that I really might have something to say. I remember years ago asking her how she was able to write her novels. I was in awe of her talent. She told me that if she could do it, I could do it. All I had to do was sit down at my computer and write. It seemed too facile, it couldn’t be, I thought. But it was always there in the back of my mind, my love of words, a soupçon of an idea that I might one day try to put my thoughts on paper. She was right. One day I did just sit down at my computer and the words came. As I talked last night, Julie listened and encouraged and listened some more and praised and told me that if I could just rid myself, even for some of the time, of the demons of self-doubt, fear and worthlessness that plague me and that are the enemy of creativity, everything would change. I know she’s right. I’ve felt tiny nanoseconds of that lack of fear and it’s intoxicating. I will keep writing. I could never hope to emulate her –– she’s a NYT best seller for goodness sake – her novels are amazing; funny, quirky, literary, deeply moving and laugh out loud funny. She writes because she wants to, she loves to tell a story and wants to find out how it ends. I write because I need to express on the page what I have never been able fully to express with my spoken voice, except to a very few people.
Julie and I don’t Skype often enough. Last night we realised it had been nearly a year since we last spoke. An hour wasn’t long enough. I paused for dinner and then resumed for a further hour. There is so much to say, so much to share. This year, we are going to talk once a month. That’s twelve toasty (that used to be our favourite adjective) warm, enveloppiing, uplifting conversations. Lucky lucky me. I might just celebrate with a cup of tea and a kit-kat.
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