My friend Stella Margaret Heath doesn’t suffer fools gladly – it’s what she’s known for, and she won’t mind my saying so. When I first met her, in the 80s, we were new undergraduates. I picked her to pair with for a philosophy assignment because she looked easy-going and enlightened (perm, jeans, thin white belt); it turned out she was neither. I discovered straight away that she’d read none of the summer reading list (and therefore cogito, ergo sum meant nothing to her) and only wanted to talk about timetabling restrictions at the polytechnic. We became good friends, best friends – me not minding her cynicism and untidiness; her ignoring my joie de vivre and shoplifting.
Over the years, I’ve watched her become a brilliant, principled human being, and less and less tolerant of other human beings. I noticed just how much one rainy Christmas in the 2000s when, trapped at my house, with husbands and babies, my mother-in-law approached her with a paper wallet. “Would you like to see my holiday snaps, dear?” she said. “No, thank you,” said Stella, firmly, without looking up from her Anthony Trollope.
I was astonished. Were you allowed to decline an old lady’s shots of baby dragonflies and a donkey sanctuary? My mother-in-law clearly thought not, and after the children were down for the night, she made a second attempt. “Did I show you these photographs?” she said, emphatically. Again, Stella refused to look, and so I had a third viewing to deflect any awkwardness.
Later, I asked Stella: “Couldn’t you have just flicked through them, for my sake?”
“No,” she said. “I hate other people’s pictures.”
It has long seemed to me that the concept of female friendship has come to mean some kind of unerring, endlessly supportive kinship; or, if not, one of the friends will turn out to be some kind of psychopath. This has not been my experience, and it isn’t for the two main characters in my new novel – Susan and Norma. Sure, the friendship gets a bit rocky in parts, but I have always found it odd that, in fiction, siblings, romantic partners, parents, even neighbours are allowed to behave monstrously, but old girlfriends always have to be on their best behaviour.
It’s been interesting to see the reaction to my depiction of the two friends – the competitiveness, letdowns and the brutal honesty, as well as the laughs and the boosting. Take my sister who, while reading the manuscript, texted me: “Norma is horrible!” and when I replied, “Viva Ferrante!” she texted back: “Poor Susan.”
My grasp of the true meaning of friendship began at the age of eight when my first comrade suddenly went to America for the entire summer holidays, without warning, and came back overconfident. Appearing at our door in the September, in a baseball cap, she told my mother a joke – like some kind of man. I had two other significant childhood friends; one whose parents wouldn’t allow her to come round because of my parents’ divorce, and had a spiteful twin, and another who called me Stib of the Dump even though I’d asked her not to after the first time (which I admitted was funny). I was already a big reader, and it struck me hard that friends in real life never quite equalled the benign, dependable types encountered in books, like the saintly Ann, Jill’s best friend from Jill’s Gymkhana, who was forever defending Jill against the posh kids with flashy horse equipment. Are these fictional friends unrealistic, I wondered, or were my real ones a particularly poor lot? Then, as a teenager, I read The Country Girls and, thank God, here was a fun-loving pal who was also a selfish bitch. It felt good to have my rotten friends validated by Edna O’Brien. I have since enjoyed EF Benson and Elena Ferrante, whose female friends are pleasingly disagreeable and cut-throat.
Recently, in spite of O’Brien and co, I’ve been questioning myself. Am I right to have hung on to the listless individuals I happened to sit near at college or work, in the 80s and 90s, who seemed like they might be useful if/when I needed someone to co-present a Descartes seminar, or to walk out to lunch with? Making friends was tricky, pre-internet; one couldn’t check out who else already liked them before committing. We had very little to go on; mainly their footwear, and willingness to make tea – it was a huge gamble. And so, as I say, I have this little gang that I’ve known almost all my adult life; though, to be frank, they don’t mix well, even among themselves, and if we met for the first time today, I’m not sure we’d bond. My correspondence habit and the fact that I can’t face great change is, I think, why I have doggedly clung on, however grim and untenable they have become.
Maybe I should invite them to the friendship counselling my American pen pal recently mentioned, a sort of couples therapy but for jaded old buddies who keep “misreading” intentions and “bitching out on each other” (her words). “Our therapist showed us where the rifts were,” my friend told me, “and gave us the tools we need to keep the friendship nice.”
God, how I’d love to watch her therapist’s Zoom face as I reminisce about Stella yelling at her son, in front of my new Cornish mum friends in the cafe at the Eden Project, “Just chew it, for God’s sake.” She was keen to stroll in the Mediterranean biome; he had accidentally chosen a lamb dish and suddenly understood the connection between the baby animal and the bloody bone on his plate. He was four.
I’d also bring up the time she went to a pottery painting event with a different friend and made matching Mary, Queen of Scots mugs; and the heartbreak over her move from London to Southport, when she chose yet another friend (and the friend’s husband) to drive the rental van. And the time she karate-kicked my seven-year-old in the throat – albeit a kneejerk reaction to his tapping her on the head with a cat toy. And the day when, waiting in the car while I bought pasties in Greggs, she told my children (and hers) the facts of life (because one of them mentioned sex).
It’s not just Stella – there’s also a friend I’ll call Julie, who used to allow her child to open a brand new bottle of ketchup at virtually every mealtime, because he “needed to” and, for the same reason, let him dunk chips into my son’s fried egg, and had nuggets and chips delivered to year 3 camp when all the others had baked beans.
I’ve stuck with these friends despite it all. The source of my steadfastness can be found, I think, in early childhood and my instinct, in any given situation, to always do the exact opposite of my mother, who’d ditch her friends at the drop of a hat. I’ve a detailed memory of her dumping her friends, en masse, without even knowing she was doing it. She was freshly divorced and throwing a party to prove she’d survived. I remember, on the day, she read the guest list out loud: lifelong friends, cousins, girls with whom she’d shared a dorm at school, women with whom she’d simultaneously been boxed up for marriage, then pregnant, and pregnant again. With whom she’d had trips to the seaside, spent Christmas, Easter and Bonfire Night. Women whose mothers just wanted them to be happily married with children, and slim. This was her entire regiment.
“Oh, God,” she said. “I literally can’t fucking stand any of them.” And because she said it just to us, her daughters, both under 10 and already in our party dresses, I knew she wasn’t joking. It was too late to cancel, and soon the caterer arrived – a woman called Madeline from up the road – and set to work on a huge poached salmon with its head still on, and assorted slaws. My mother was squeamish about the eyes and gills, so Madeline played them down with curly parsley – these were the days before the flat-leaf variety – and in so doing, gave it a look of Gilbert O’Sullivan, the 70s singer-songwriter.
The party got going and the music went on early, and loud. My mother swallowed a pint of punch, wiped her mouth with her hand and then, thumbs in belt loops, she danced. Guests watched, between bites of Russian salad, as she jabbed at the smoky air with her elbows and sang slightly the wrong words. The dance was as profound as it was eloquent. “I’m not the person you used to know,” it said. “I’m no longer interested in picnics by streams, days out in Chapel St Leonards, or vinaigrettes. I want to take drugs with new friends, rebels like me, single, or with a game husband.”
Madeline the caterer nodded her head to the beat as she hurriedly put the finishing touches to the puddings (gutted pineapples with brandy, cream and some kind of kibbled nut); then, pulling off her hairnet, she joined my mother and they really went for it. Many of the party guests rang the next day to say what a lovely time they’d had, but my mother couldn’t come to the phone, and wasn’t available ever again, except for funerals. A man friend did manage to get through to my mother, but only to complain about the caterer coming at him with a pitchfork for parking on her grass.
“How do you know it was the caterer?” she asked.
“She had a bunch of parsley in her hand,” he said.
“Did she indeed?” said my mother.
Madeline masqueraded as single but we discovered later that she had a husband who stayed upstairs. She also had triplets who had to share two pedal cars between the three of them. To be blunt, Madeline wasn’t that good a friend: she was self-centred, according to my mother, and when they chatted on the phone there’d be the sound of one child crying while the other two thundered about in their cars. One day, when she couldn’t stand it any more, my mother said, “I can’t believe you took that parsley home.”
“Parsley?” said Madeline.
“After catering my party?” said my mother. “I’d paid for that.”
“The garnishes are never included,” spat Madeline.
And just like that, Madeline was dropped.
A short period of loneliness and heavy drinking followed, until she befriended married couple Liza and Peter Grosvenor, leading figures in the Shakespeare Drama Club, whom Madeline had introduced her to, and soon my mother was playing Viola in Twelfth Night, and never stopped boasting about her action creating all the play’s momentum. The Grosvenors sometimes invited us to dinner at their home and we saw for ourselves just how sophisticated they were. I can’t tell you what Liza looked like because she wore her hair in a long fringe that hid her eyes, but Peter looked like a cross between Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee and political reformer William Cobbett, with a puff of grey-white hair, calico shirt and cravat.
Dinner was always some kind of meat and potatoes, with salad to follow, served on rudimentary wooden platters that they’d brought home from Crete, and we had to be reminded not to saw into them too deeply with our knives.
“These plates are very modern!” commented my sister one evening.
“Modern?” said Liza. “Wooden plates are very ancient.”
I’d noticed on a previous occasion that the plates weren’t to go in the washing-up water with everything else but were wiped over, gently, with an oily cloth, and though that was surely a clue as to their place in history, my sister must have missed it, and now she looked a complete idiot.
One evening over a carafe of California wine, my mother asked Liza how she knew Madeline the caterer, and discovered Madeline had seen an advertisement for their secondhand baby equipment and had ended up taking the lot for her triplets, and from that, had inveigled her way into the drama club. “Even though she’d never heard of Shakespeare,” said Liza, scandalised.
“Never heard of Shakespeare?” said my mother.
“She’s a dropout,” explained Liza.
“She must have dropped out very young,” said my mother.
“Apparently so,” said an eavesdropping Peter. “It’s so refreshing.”
Later Liza drunkenly confided to my mother that she and Peter were in a menage-a-trois with Madeline, and whispered details that I couldn’t hear.
We stopped going round so much when my mother started a fling of her own with Peter and preferred to see him at our house, where she’d ply him with drink and goad him about Shakespeare’s modest Stratford origins, and raise doubts as to his authorship of certain works, citing the Earl of Oxford and Christopher Marlowe as more likely candidates, all of which seemed to arouse him. In truth, though, Peter was nothing without his enchanting family and wooden plates. Liza was affronted by the affair, even though she still had Madeline to fool about with, and we didn’t see her for some time, until she appeared one day, distraught. Peter had left her ... for Madeline.
“For Madeline!” my mother yelped.
“I know,” said Liza, staggering into the house. “It’s awful.”
“How could he?” my mother was desperate to know.
“I don’t know,” said Liza.
With Peter out the way, they’d spend evenings playing Scrabble, which was fine until Liza began researching little-known two- and three-letter words, and was soon beating my mother in that strategic way, and gloating. “It’s not about the winning,” my mother said, “it’s about using up the hours until we die.”
Liza apologised that she was exhausted; she’d been having counselling to help her come to terms with the Peter situation. My mother was dismissive, and reminded her that Peter had abandoned her, too.
“How unkind of you to mention that,” said Liza.
“You are calling me unkind,” said my mother, “when you humiliated a 10-year-old over those stupid plates?”
“I suppose you’d be happy to let her waltz through life ignorant?” said unrepentant Liza.
“You should ask for a refund on that therapy,” said my mother. “You’re more nuts than ever.” And that was that.
Unlike my mother, I am not a ditcher of friends. I did it only once, and then only after the friend had broken the speed limit near a school and threatened to knit me a shawl, and though I’ve no regrets, it was painful at the time. I was ditched myself, too, around 1990, by a most wonderful pal. I’d joked about her, playfully, to a toxic telltale who wanted me out of the picture. (Sandra, you bitch, I’ll never forgive you.)
I do, occasionally, imagine finding some new, improved friends who might share my views on the big questions of the day, tolerate my other pals, family and in-laws, put up with lumpy pillows, love the cinema, worship David Sedaris, endure my aimless chitchat and be prepared to lie to my husband about the price of a coat. But, on balance, I think I’m happy with my old ones. We know where we stand.
• One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe is published by Penguin Books at £14.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.