Her face, the right hand side of her face, was orange.
That struck me last week. Sitting eating, and talking, catching a reflection in a window, feeling transported twenty plus years sitting eating, and talking on the floor, or on low sofas where my knees were above my waist, or on beanbags, in various student flats. But usually sitting in front of three bar electric fires. And my friend, one side of her face reflecting the light from the fire – the three bars visible in her eye. I felt safe because during my first year at University those nights in front of the electric fire stopped me leaving.
Unable to get into halls of residence, hours from home, I was in lodgings a very long way from anywhere – staying with an elderly couple who had decided to take in students following the sudden death of their daughter. The atmosphere was tense. Most nights the couple would sit and drink. It was not uncommon to wake up with him in my room, drunk. Sleep was fitful. Eventually, I tried to go to sleep with suitcases filled with books behind the door to try to stop him coming in. And days were no less stressful. I was barred from cooking, but unable to afford regularly to eat out. So I didn’t eat every day, would sometimes miss two or three days. Not eating becomes easier. You exist in a heightened state – sensitive to every sound, experiencing life in a Powell and Pressburger pallet. Come November, the leaves of the trees that lined the street had fallen and were bold russet browns, and orange. Vivid orange. As if painted on. Not eating meant I could exert some control over at least one aspect of my life.
Meanwhile, the degree was going little better. The first person in my family to go to University, studying a subject I had fallen into because I had no idea what to do and degrees were to get jobs, for professions, I found the work relatively uninteresting. Geographically isolated, socially awkward, I did not make friends easily. And after the first week of frenzied activity where conversations followed the same line – what subjects did you do? What were your grades? What are you studying? What’s your favourite novel? Your favourite film? I would go back to the lodgings at night, and being so far out, and mindful it took so long to get back to the centre, I would spend evenings reading from my angst ridden teenage student library which ticked various boxes. There was the Plath (poetry, of course, and the fiction), Kundera, Marquez, a smattering of Alasdair Gray, some Kelman, MacCaig, and a much read copy of The Trick is to Keep Breathing. And I wrote. Oh, how I wrote. Those things I couldn’t talk about, wouldn’t talk about, for years. Laden with adjectives, stylistic experiments – attempts to get inside my head.
And I wanted to leave.
I wanted to go back home, to pack it all in.
But I knew how upset my parents would be, how upset my father – who despite protestations from his head teacher had to leave school at 14 to bring money into the home – would be.
So I stayed.
And I hated it.
I hated every aspect of being away, of the whole damned place.
Until I met her again.
I bumped into her outside the law school. She had been at my school, older than me, effortlessly elegant, short hair, long coat, clear sad eyes. At school in the spring after the Lockerbie disaster, the spring after my grandfather died, I had sat with her in a room, one sports day, while everyone else was outside running, or jumping, or watching, and we’d chatted and I’d cried remembering my grandfather – and she didn’t judge and didn’t hug, but listened, and shared. And one day during my first term as a student I bumped into her crossing the road next to the law school. We stopped and chatted, and she invited me to her flat a street away from the law library.
And so, later that night after we had eaten (she’d cooked. She’d insisted I eat. She was right) I was sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of a three bar electric fire, her face, the right hand side of her face, orange. The evening was pleasant. We talked. About books. And about films. And about the future. That night we planned to meet again, and weekly (sometimes more frequently) thereafter we did. And each week she made sure I ate, and each week we talked, and we talked, and we talked. And when the landlord drunkenly tried the door to my room, and when I felt increasingly semi-detached in the law school, there was one night each week I looked forward to, where I felt safe, and where one week months later she trusted me more than anyone ever had before.
And time passed, and the degree got better, and (eventually) life got better, and I moved into a flat, and throughout we continued to meet weekly, sharing tales of new books, or new films, or our new loves, or consoling each other after bereavements or break ups. And over time there were other friends, others I could sit easily with chatting about film and television and books, always books.
And those friends were important. A support in difficult times, and a joy in good.
But over time, as people transform – with new relationships, with new jobs, with new families – the circle of friends, of those you keep in touch with and meet regularly, grows smaller. And while you never lose those shared experiences with new commitments there are new priorities. Contact becomes less frequent. The dynamic changes.
And where like me your personality means that it took a long time to build that circle the lack of contact, through the consequences of love, and the growth of a family, or geography or a multitude of factors exacerbated by neglect, leaves you strengthened in some ways, but in some ways increasingly insular. And for a time that seems to be the pattern.
But last week catching a reflection of an orange light in a window, while sitting eating and talking about families, and relationships, and books, about writers you have loved for years and those you have recently encountered, and sharing a love of television, and scripts and scriptwriters and directors and performances, and remembering schooldays, and student days, good and bad, with new friends, a new social circle who only one year ago I’d barely met, transported me twenty plus years, transported me to bumping into her outside the law school and what in the weeks, months, years after I had gained from that. And I so appreciate this chance to have a second circle of people who matter to me, and with whom I feel comfortable, with whom I feel safe.