My best friend at school moved in with us – and taught me to trust again

My school bully came in an unlikely package. She was a bushy-haired, bespectacled, briefcase-carrying pocket rocket who made my life miserable for a significant portion of Year 8 when I was 12 years old. I met her on the first day at our large and rowdy comprehensive school. With all my existing friends assigned to different forms, I was on high alert for someone to attach myself to as soon as possible. With her outwardly gawky appearance, she seemed like the ideal candidate and I approached her with the rather arrogant assumption that she would jump at the chance of my friendship.

It didn’t take me long to realise I’d severely misjudged the situation. Her meek physical persona belied a serious rebellious streak and I struggled to keep up from the start. When she dared me to join her in “the jungle” – a wooded area of the school grounds off limits to students, I shakily agreed. We eluded capture from the lunchtime supervisors who patrolled its perimeters, but my time in the jungle brought me little exhilaration or pleasure. More tests and challenges soon followed, all proposed with a glint in her eye that I came to dread.

I knew our dynamic was unhealthy, but I had no idea how to tackle it. Her reign lasted several months until my older sister got wind of the situation and alerted a teacher. Mercifully, the bullying stopped almost overnight, but the relief I felt was short-lived. I had friends, but no one special person. To fill the gap, I began to fantasise about a new girl joining the school and stepping into the now-vacant role of my best friend.

I’d spend hours scripting our conversations, marvelling at how much we had in common and how delighted we were to have finally found each other. My fantasies were so vivid that when our form tutor announced we’d be welcoming a new girl into our class the following Monday, I was in no doubt that I’d had some hand in manifesting it.

The moment I set eyes on Winnie, I knew in my gut that she was the one. I wasn’t even rattled when our form tutor made the error of assigning another girl to show her round instead of me. If Winnie was the girl I thought she was, she’d soon work out the other classmate wasn’t the friend for her. As the week edged by, we made tentative steps towards one another. I complimented Winnie on her astonishingly neat handwriting, while she admired my hair bobble. By Friday, she had become my new desk-mate.

We were in sync from the start, bonding over junk food and TV
In sharp contrast to my previous friendship, Winnie and I were in sync from the start, bonding over our shared love of American TV, junk food, hair accessories and cinema. Winnie was clever, funny and refreshingly direct.

There were no mind games or need to tread on eggshells. I didn’t have to second-guess myself or try to be someone I wasn’t. All the traits I had been mocked for – my innocence, my caution, my dreams of becoming an actor one day despite my incredible shyness – Winnie seemed to get a kick out of. In her company, I flourished. I was funnier, brighter, smarter. I was myself but newer and shinier. While our peers were beginning to experiment with drugs and alcohol, Winnie and I were perfectly content to dissect the latest episode of California Dreams or take it turns to sing Kim’s part in the song I Still Believe from Miss Saigon. She was my soulmate, the yin to my yang, and I loved her dearly with an intensity that superseded every one of my daydreams.

Three years passed and we were about to sit our GCSE exams when Winnie’s parents announced they were moving to the Isle of Man. Equally horrified at the prospect of being separated, Winnie and I frantically discussed what we could do to stop them. I can’t remember whose idea it was to ask my parents if she could come and live with us, only that I dedicated an entire weekend to pestering them.

It was a longshot. My parents were not known for their flexibility and here I was trying to pitch them the sort of set-up I’d only ever seen on Neighbours and Home and Away. I tried everything, from emotional manipulation to straight-up begging until, at teatime on Sunday, to my complete and utter surprise, they gave in and agreed. It remains the coolest thing they’ve ever done for me.

Over the coming weeks, the details were smoothed out. In return for the princely sum of £25 a week, Winnie would live at our house during termtime for the next two years. She would sleep in my older sister’s bedroom during the week and share with me on the weekends when my sister returned home from nursing college. My parents even replaced my single bed with one that came with a pullout guest bed so neither of us had to sleep on the floor. Despite their initial reservations, they took to Winnie’s presence in the household almost immediately. She was polite and domesticated. “Why can’t you be more like Winnie?” became the popular catchphrase in our domestic sitcom. I wasn’t remotely offended. Providing Winnie got to stay, they could make as many unflattering comparisons as they liked. On the nights my sister was home and Winnie and I slept in the same room, we’d regularly stay up until the early hours, talking until our voices were hoarse, never running out of topics to discuss. Our weekends were dedicated to quality television (Dawson’s Creek, Gladiators, Blind Date), hollering along to the Spice Girls and trips to the local Wimpy where we’d eat burgers and chips with a knife and fork. During the holidays when Winnie could travel back to the Isle of Man to visit her family, we’d communicate via sticker-encrusted letters.

After A-levels, Winnie took up a place at Leeds University to study Chinese and Japanese. With no family on hand, a couple of friends and I stepped up to move her in. Complete with an obligatory stop at the local Ikea, we felt unbelievably grown-up as we safely delivered Winnie to her halls of residence. The following year I moved to London to study performing arts at Middlesex University while Winnie studied abroad.

During this time, we forged new bonds and friendships, while continuing to write to one another on an increasingly sporadic basis. Post-university, Winnie moved to Japan and worked as an English teacher while I remained in London and attempted to find work as an actor.

I never feel the need to show off or pretend to be anything I am not
Years crept by. Winnie invited me to visit her in Osaka. I declined, fearful I’d miss out on acting work if I committed to the trip. In 2005, she returned to the UK, initially living and working on the Isle of Man before moving to London in 2010. The transition back to face-to-face friendship was effortless. After 12 years of communicating almost exclusively via letter and email, it was as if we’d never been apart.

A decade on, Winnie remains one of my absolute favourite people. In 2015, I was honoured to be a bridesmaid at her wedding to Chris, and there is probably no more cheering sound than her three-year-old son requesting me as his playmate. We continue to bond over food – almost all our meetings revolve around a culinary experience of some sort. Although we like to think our tastes have evolved somewhat since the fateful day in 1996 when Winnie introduced me to the wonders of KFC, we continue to have a soft spot for anything laced with copious amounts of fat, salt and sugar.

While other teenage friendships have fallen by the wayside, my bond with Winnie is as vital as ever. When I’m with her I never feel the need to show off, or score points, or pretend to be anything I’m not, or rely on nostalgia to fuel our conversations. There’s something deliciously freeing about spending time with someone who has watched you grow up. And behind our responsible adult facades, there’s the silent acknowledgment that deep-down, we’re still the same sweetly nerdy girls we were all those years ago.

I’m in no doubt that my friendship with Winnie has served as a blueprint for subsequent relationships and that the love and trust we built together helped me form similarly satisfying connections in adulthood. That first friendship at school taught me that teenage girls can be extraordinarily cruel. Winnie showed me that they can be capable of kindnesses that will last a lifetime.

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