A colourful, cut-and-paste-style illustration of three women from the shoulders up.

On love: the ‘life or death’ importance of female friendship

Northern Irish writer Tish Delaney, author of Before My Actual Heart Breaks, fondly remembers the friendship triad that gave joy and meaning to her young life – and lives on in her work.

Tish Delaney

It was always the three of us as far back as I can remember. We set up as a unit in 1970 without knowing what we were in for. Two were blonde, one was brunette. She took a lot of abuse about the hair also being curly. One of the other ones was jealous, she got a perm. It made her look like she was wearing a woolly hat. How we laughed! The sensible one left her perfectly good straight hair alone. She kept it long and parted on the left through the next five decades. We took to begging her to do something with it. Anything. She never broke, just waved us away with another waft of her cigarette smoke. Oh, and that smile.

One took a lovely tan, the other two of us blistered even in the weak Irish sun. None of us suited the terrible canary yellow blouses that formed part of the convent school uniform. We could all be shy. More often we were giddy in that sniggering, annoying, trying-to-be-invisible but not-really-wanting-to-be way of the teenage girl. We mourned the fact that the A-line school skirt could only be improved by hiking it above the knee with three folds of the elasticated waist band. This fashion statement went hand in hand with rolled down socks. We were strict about important life or death stuff like that.

We were giddy in that sniggering, annoying, trying-to-be-invisible but not-really-wanting-to-be way of the teenage girl

I liked going to one of their houses. She had a set of unusually young parents. They weren’t so bogged down in the tough rules and regulations of being ‘good’. There wasn’t a Sacred Heart in sight. We were allowed to drink orange Fanta and eat cheap biscuits and to commit both sins in the privacy of her bedroom. We could hardly believe that no one but Duran Duran was watching us from a Smash Hits poster as we ran through lists of boys. Who would we kiss and when would we kiss, but never how would we kiss because we’d not the first clue. One of us stated outright that it was never going to happen. Turns out, she was right – not boys, at least.

The three of us told each other lies and told each other truths. Sometimes we went behind each other’s backs and spilled secrets with pleas of not telling the other one what was done or said or promised. Mostly, we pulled off being loyal. One of them never had the grace to fancy me though I’ve asked her a hundred times why not. What’s wrong with me, I’d demand when enough vodka had been poured to make me sulky. She’s been known to have good taste in patches, it just didn’t stretch to brunettes.

When we got older, we covered each other to sneak away to dances in The Republic where nobody knew us or our families so we could try our luck at getting lucky. We thumbed lifts to get there, always sticking together, to be safe. Often, we walked miles in high heels to get home along lonely country roads. We filled the cold night air with chat about who we were going to be. We all nodded along to the amazing things we’d do when we escaped the small town where we were born.

All three of us got away in the end. We wrote to each other from the various universities we got into, one of us by the skin of her teeth. The letters told of days with other girls, which sounded grand but weren’t as good as days we’d have when we were back together. Those days never really came in big enough numbers. They were replaced with years that just flew in and flew out again, turning us into women who had changed somehow, bent out of shape by not-so-gentle men or ladies. Women who had jobs that shouldn’t have mattered, money that had to be earned even though it couldn’t buy us back the time we lost to be with each other. So, it was only really life that broke us up.

Two of us went back. A sick father, then a lonely mother. One of us stayed there and had six children. It was her that breast cancer came for two years ago. Her unusually young parents were still alive when it happened. They couldn’t understand, but God must have His reasons. We paid our respects by the side of her grave on a beautiful Spring morning. You three were always so devoted, said her Mammy, biting her lip hard enough to make it bleed.

I condensed the three of us screaming with laughter, drenched in too much Impulse and hope, bowling past green fields in the school bus into my characters Lizzie and Mary in Before My Actual Heart Breaks. It’s a small comfort that we exist somewhere, altered but together.

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Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

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