There will probably come a time in your life when your friends start to spread apart like Rice Krispies in a bowl full of milk.
The reasons for this may be dramatic or entirely prosaic; it may be a house in Petersfield; or a new boyfriend called Pablo. It may be a pandemic: as we speak, millions of people across the UK, Europe and the world are living in silos, separated by quarantine, staying at home, using isolation and social distancing to fight coronavirus. The secret to looking after each other has become, for the first time in my lifetime, staying away from one another. But whatever it may be, at some point, life will come between you.
We talk a lot in this country about long-distance relationships — the people who have whispered phone sex across hundreds of miles of night sky; the fraying trust when your partner hasn’t replied to a message for six hours even though they said they were staying in; the passionate reunions on train platforms and on overlooked doorsteps; the longing and heartache when the one person you want to sleep beside is awake and on the other side of the world — but we talk very little about long distance friendships; we barely have a name for it.
Yet, towards the end of our twenties, as people start to get big jobs, big relationships, big bellies and big dreams, most friendships are long-distance friendships. As a child, I could see my best friend’s roof from my bedroom. As a student, about 75% of my friends lived on a single road (Chestnut Avenue, you will always have a corner of my heart). But today, my friends are thrown about the UK like the contents of a handbag as you search for your keys. Of course I probably could ‘pop in’ unannounced on the really good friends – or at least, I could before we all became miniature agents of germ warfare. But in some cases, doing so would involve three trains, a Eurostar and a short trip on the U-Bahn, let alone a trip down the M40 at rush hour. In our sense of humour, cultural references, use of language and political outlook we may all feel closer than close. But physically? Financially? In terms of family? We’re often miles apart.
Because we don’t often talk about long-distance friendships, we are also fairly bad at reacting when things start to change. Nobody told me at 18 that it was probably the last time that I’d be able to cycle to almost every one of my friends’ homes in a day. Nobody told me that at 22 I would have more friends than I’d ever have again. Nobody told me that at 30, organising a trip to the pub might take 17 days to arrange and three different modes of transport. It can feel like a personal failure, like rejection, like betrayal when your friends start to talk about people you’ve never heard of, buy food in shops you’ve never been to, rent homes in cities you’ve never seen. But, of course, it has nothing to do with you. And the good friends will be good friends wherever they are, and whatever they’re doing.
You may grieve losing the cluttered intimacy of house shares, walks to school, swapped jumpers, hangover sofa club, pub lunches and getting ready for nights out in each other’s bedrooms. On the other hand, you may relish the chance to run away to a new town, rent a tiny flat overlooking a supermarket car park, dye your hair, start sleeping with people of a different gender to all your previous partners, change your accent, get a new job and not have to justify any of that to your old friends.
Even though you love them, they formed you, their hobbies and recipes are now your own, you may not see your friends very often. You may be staying at home for 20 hours a day with a toddler and have no time to talk. You may spend your weekends having sex with a new partner, surrounded by toast crumbs. You may have moved to New York to get a better job and be five hours out from your old gang. You are now hopefully keeping two metres away from anyone you don’t directly live with and only leaving the house when absolutely necessary.
But you will reach a time – standing in your bedroom changing your duvet cover, or sitting on the hallway carpet trying to adjust the length of your shoelaces – when you will realise that you haven’t seen your friends for days. Weeks. And when I say ‘seen your friends’ I mean really seen them: seen the unplucked eyebrows and the frayed toothbrushes, the hangnails and the plates of toast for dinner. The realisation that you haven’t breathed the same air as your best friend for weeks will stop you short. Duvet corner in hand, shoelace caught between your fingers, you will just sit. You will stare at the wall. You will miss them.
The romantic, electric relationships of your teens and twenties do not stay that way forever. That is because, even without a global pandemic throwing your social life into a woodchipper, nothing can stay the same forever. However, good friendships can outlive your panic years. The ones where you can listen to your friend spit venom about a toddler that will not go to bed even though you’ve never wanted children yourself; where you remember to check in with the friend struggling to find work before complaining about your job; the ones who know precisely who you mean and how to react when you say that your Great Aunt Molly has moved into a care home; the ones who laugh when you tell them that you’ve found a grey pube; the ones who pretend not to notice the mess.
You cannot smell someone’s hair over Zoom. You cannot rub their back or cook them dinner. You cannot hold their baby or drink their tea. But you can still be friends – you’re just doing the long-distance thing.