Sunday, 24 November 2013
The 'C' Word, Part 4: Burning Bridges
I can't remember exactly when Hilary* and I first became friends. I do remember that a group of us began hanging out together on the school playing field at lunchtime during the summer term when I was about 13 or 14. At some time during that period, Hilary and I paired off and became 'best friends'. We shared an off the wall, goofy sense of humour, had long, intense discussions about everything from the state of the world to boys we liked and generally helped each other negotiate the stormy seas of adolescence.
In many ways we were strikingly different. I always had my nose stuck in a book whilst Hilary was extremely artistic. I was an easy going, shy Cancerian, and Hilary was a forceful, outgoing Arien. I came from a close, loving family, Hilary's family were starchy and Victorian, especially her cold, overbearing father. I'm not sure if the friendship flourished due to or in spite of these differences - certainly we were different enough never to fancy the same boys or compete over anything important.
I think Hilary to a certain extent fell in love with my family. My home life was everything hers wasn't - warm, chaotic, full of laughter, affection and silliness. At Hilary's house, meals were eaten in stiff, formal silence, the only sound a ticking clock. At my house, mealtimes were shared with plenty of chatter and laughter. I remember the look of amazement on Hilary's face at the raucous giggles as my Dad read aloud from a book of silly stories one of the first times she ate with us, and we all - Dad included - ended up crying with laughter.
The friendship continued after we left school - Hilary started working as a secretary up in London and I became a children's nanny in Hertfordshire. We continued to share in the ups and downs of growing up, learning to drive and getting our first cars, falling in love for the first time, holding each others hand through the scary bits and broken hearts. At one point, Hilary's Dad threw her out for standing up to him and she moved in with my family for a few weeks, until the drama had passed.
When we were 21 I inherited some money, and for a variety of reasons (including having just had my heart badly broken, and the general sense of bravado and curiosity one has at that age) decided to spend it on travelling around the world. I visited Hong Kong, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and the USA and had an amazing and wonderful time. When I returned, it was a big surprise to me to find that everything had changed. Living at home with my parents for the first time felt constricting. My job (by now I was working in an office) seemed old-hat and boring. I split up with my boyfriend who had become unbearably possessive. There was a distance between Hilary and I. In hindsight of course, nothing had changed except for me. Going away for an extended period and broadening my horizons had made me more confident, more certain of who I was and what I wanted.
Over the next couple of years the gulf between Hilary and I widened. She developed anorexia, and seemed to find me incredibly irritating. I started avoiding her, feeling like perhaps I was making her illness worse. I met T, and after a few months moved in with him. Hilary and T disliked each other. She continued to visit my family but soon she and I had virtually no contact with each other.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Hilary and I began to - tentatively at first - resume contact. Hilary's anorexia had reached a crisis point, when she, weighing less than 6 stone had collapsed and had a near-death experience. This had shocked her into seeking help, aided by her mother who was a wonderful source of support to her during this period. By the time we began seeing each other again, Hilary was on the road to recovery. I felt really guilty that I hadn't been with her for this part of her journey, but she didn't seem to bear any grudge. Gradually we slipped back into the old friendship, although she and T grew no more fond of each other. Eventually, she met and married a lovely, easy-going, sweet man, Tom, and they seemed blissfully happy together.
Hilary and Tom moved to West Sussex, and the four of us took it in turns to visit each other for weekends. This worked well, as Hilary and T were never together long enough to seriously fall out. The holiday we took together in France was less successful - being cooped up together in a gite for over a week turned out not to be our best idea. It soon became apparent - via oblique remarks and comments made to my family that made their way back to me - that Hilary blamed T for me not being the same person I had been at school. That is to say, whenever I didn't behave in the way Hilary wanted me to, she interpreted it as T suppressing me in some way. At the time, I found it rather funny that Hilary was unable to imagine I may have grown up and changed over the years. And T cared so little for her opinion that it was more a source of amusement to me than any kind of issue.
Later on, when T and I were living in Australia for 18 months (due to his job) and Hilary visited, it began to irritate me. I found it odd that she still insisted on using nicknames we'd had at school, even though they were hardly used at all by anyone else. And I noticed that almost every sentence she spoke to me began with the words, 'The trouble with you, Wallis (my old nickname) is...', or was undermining to me in some other way. For example we were walking by the waterfront in Sydney when an enormously fat woman clad in shorts and a vest waddled past. Hilary said, 'Next time you're worried about how fat you are, just remember you're not that bad!' It was undoubtedly meant as a compliment, no matter how back-handed, but as I hadn't said anything about worrying about my weight it felt like a slap in the face. By the time her two week visit was up, I was ready to cheer when she got back on the plane to go home.
When we moved to Wales it got worse. I was on the receiving end of comments like 'I don't know why anyone would want to move to Wales! Horrible place!'. Since I moved to Wales in 2000, Hilary only visited twice, for an afternoon on my 40th birthday, and for a weekend when she and my sister stayed with my Mum.
She brightened briefly when T and I divorced, declaring joyfully, 'I have my old Wallis back!', but that didn't last long as she took an immediate, strong dislike to IB when she met him for the first time at a barbecue at my sister's house. IB took the place of T as the focus of her disapproval. None of which mattered too much, as we were seeing very little of each other by then.
But then Hilary and Tom attended my 50th Birthday Party, and this summer being the summer of Closure, things inevitably came to a head...
Hilary and Tom were two of the guests at the Surprise Birthday Party my Mum had organised. I was amazed and happy to see them there, but unfortunately things were awkward from the get-go. Hilary gave me a warm embrace when we arrived, but totally snubbed IB, turning away from him as he tried to say hello (I only found out about that later, as there was a lot going on at the time). Then Hilary handed me my gifts - one of which was a beautifully constructed collage of old photos of me and my loved ones. I was deeply touched that she had spent so much time making my gift, but later noticed that she hadn't included any photos of IB at all. In fact, one of the photos she'd used was a group photo that had included IB - though Hilary had carefully cropped him out of it. She also began talking about how much she'd always liked T, how much she missed him. Hmmm.
The next day - the day of my 'official' party, Hilary and Tom were among the first arrivals. Once again IB was ignored. Now I have to say at this point, that IB didn't really help himself because his reaction to all this (added to the stressful time leading up to the party with all the work he'd put in to get things ready, and helping with my injured shoulder) was to drink a bit too much, which was his way of withdrawing. But as I wasn't bothered by him getting drunk (unlike T, who tended to get verbally aggressive, he is easy going when he gets drunk) it didn't occur to me anyone else would have an issue with it. The night before he hadn't had a drink as he was driving, so it wasn't as if anyone could think he always drank too much.
At the end of the party, Hilary threw her arms around my neck and declared how much she loved me. She then whispered, 'It doesn't have to be like this... you're worth so much more... you deserve better.' My immediate reaction was to think she'd drunk too much herself (which she had) and to privately laugh at the remark. But after everyone had left it started to rankle. I felt judged, I felt yet again she was looking down on me, my home, my choices, my relationship and my life. I started to wonder if everyone else at the party had been pitying me (yes, I'd had a few drinks myself by then!), and I ended the evening in tears, comforted by the ever-loving and loyal IB.
After the party, with a few days to put things in perspective, I decided I would write Hilary a letter explaining my feelings and hopefully setting her straight. I wanted to write it when I was calm, so I left it for a while to let my feelings settle. Unfortunately, before I could write it I received a fridge magnet with a sentimental message about friendship enclosed in a card from Hilary, again obliquely criticising IB. My irritation levels rose again and I waited for them to subside before writing my letter. Unsatisfied by my lack of response, Hilary contacted me on Facebook with an angry inbox message: "You know what Wallis, you may be in a great place or you may be in a bad place, but I've known you for a stupid length of time and value your friendship more than you probably know, but when you don't have the decency to spend some time talking to me (and to Tom and M and D) when we travelled specifically to Wales to see you and then choose to not to send a note of thanks for your pressie and then not to even acknowledge that I sent you a small token the other day - well quite frankly it's just rude and I have to question whether I've made a big mistake in being your friend as my values of friendship are clearly not yours now and haven't been since you've been with IB. Over to you. Love you more than you know. Hilary x x x"
I replied as politely as I could, expressing thanks for the gifts, pointing out that as hostess I hadn't been able to spend much time with any one person during the party - as that is the way of parties - and that I was in the process of writing her a letter.
I hate confrontation of any sort. Which is why it had taken this long - years really - to confront Hilary about her behaviour. For a long time, I had taken the easy way out and either laughed at or ignored the continuous barrage of slights and insults, often couched as 'friendly advice' or 'concerned friendship'. But I knew it was crunch time. I sat down and wrote my letter. Then I re-wrote it, aiming for 'polite yet assertive'. I firstly wrote about how much I had valued her friendship over the years, thanked her for her birthday gifts and all the work she'd put into them, praised her for her loyalty. Then I explained, clearly and gently why her remarks had hurt me, and why her assumptions about the state of my life were so wide of the mark. I wanted the letter to be assertive, but neither placatory nor aggressive; I wanted it to give us the chance to get our friendship back on track. To check how it came across, I ran it by several people who knew the situation and whose opinion I trusted. They all agreed it was a good letter, if anything a little too placatory. As I wanted to avoid conflict I decided it was better to err on the side of caution, so - still feeling apprehensive - I mailed it. It was the first time I had ever challenged Hilary in all our years as friends.
That was about three months ago. I have not heard back from her, except via third parties, to whom she has described the letter as 'a tirade'. I have been blocked on Facebook. I have not tried to contact her further. I won't try to contact her further. The ball is in her court.
I am saddened. But I am also left with a sense of relief. It seems this friendship has run its course. My self esteem has come up a notch. I realise that I am no longer content to tolerate dysfunctional relationships, which is what my relationship with Hilary had become. We have both changed over the years, yet it seems she is only willing to be my friend if I jump through the hoops she approves of, and continue to play the role of 'Wallis', which I have long outgrown.
In many ways this has been the hardest piece of Closure that I had to deal with this summer. Our friendship goes back such a long way, has such deep historical roots, is so entangled with other relationships, that it is hard to extricate myself from it. And yet in doing so I know I am doing the right thing. The relationship is no longer what it was, I cannot continue to be in this relationship unless Hilary is willing to hear what I have to say and accept that I have a right to my own feelings. I am sure that I will continue to be more selective with who I let into my life in future, and what behaviours I am prepared to tolerate.
I am worth more.
* Not her real name.