Jilted: Novelist Adele Parks cried for days after her close pal of 20 years declared their friendship over
When my oldest friend, Karen, turned 40 last May, I found myself wondering how she'd celebrate her landmark birthday; a fun party, a cosy dinner or an indulgent holiday?
I don't know. Nor do I know if she's married, lives in this country or even if she has children, because we haven't spoken to one another for nine years.
Karen and I became close friends age 11; I remember it as though it was yesterday. We were on a bus, heading to France, for a school trip.
I felt sick, it might have been excitement or the idea of being away from home for a week? -? either way, Karen assured me a mint would help.
I didn't have any mints, but she produced a tube of toothpaste from her bag, put a blob on my finger and instructed me to suck hard.
That quirky moment sums up Karen perfectly; thoughtful, resourceful and never without a big bag full of the most surprising things? -? rather like Mary Poppins.
Pretty, wise and witty, I loved Karen with an instinctive, instant intensity that only pre-teen girls can muster.
Years passed, we shared the obsession of inappropriate crushes, the joy, uncertainty and mortification of first kisses, first loves and first break-ups.
We giggled, GREw and dreamed together, deliberated our futures and crammed for our exams.
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I even briefly considered the idea of going to art school, rather than university, just because I didn't want to be separated from her (luckily, my parents intervened and I duly set off on the path that suited me, rather than the one that was most convenient to our friendship).
I graduated a year before Karen and 'killed time' by having a year out in Italy, waiting until we could move to London together, share a flat and look for work (her as a graphic designer, me in advertising? -? although she knew I secretly dreamed of being a novelist).
It would be nice to say that in London we picked up our pre-college intimacy and once again became inseparable, but it turned out we had less in common than we used to.
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Karen wanted to live south of the river, I preferred north, I secretly thought her new art-school friends were pretentious and she thought my new advertising friends were capitalist sell-outs.
We shared a flat for a year, but without much discussion we chose to live separately after that.
A decade flew by. We wrote to one another when I spent a couple of years in Botswana, I proudly watched Karen set up her own graphic design company and she was an integral part of my wedding day.
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The year following my marriage was a hard one as I suffered bereavements among family and friends. Desolate with grief, I confided in Karen that I was seeing a counsellor.
She encouraged me, never embarrassed or judgmental. The counselling led to my doing more writing and, ultimately, to a book deal for my debut novel Playing Away.
Death made me value the people I did have even more, so I suggested to Karen that I take her to Paris to celebrate her 30th birthday.
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It was a fantastic trip and I treasure the memory of it. While sight-seeing we giggled like schoolgirls, drank too much red wine and turned our hotel room into a makeshift spa.
So it was a devastating blow when, shortly after that trip, Karen wrote me a letter detailing why she didn't think we could be friends any more.
I shook as I read the letter, I felt as though someone had physically slapped me. I felt betrayed, hurt and? -? oddly? -? embarrassed.
?I confided in Karen that I was seeing a counsellor
It was a cruel letter. There were allegations of insensitivity, blame for miscommunication, charges of mean-spiritedness; a whole host of finger-pointing that always accompanies any break-up, some of which was totally absurd, some brutally accurate. It was the mix of truth and inaccuracy that destroyed me.
How was it possible that she had me so wrong and thought so badly of me, yet in other ways knew me so well? No one other than Karen could have wounded me as deeply; 20 years of loyalty and history were detonated.
Friendship is a form of mutual selflessness, an intricate and delicate exercise in give-and-take and trust-building through which people who are not related become honorary family.
We hope that shared experiences, secrets and expenses lead to the kind of unconditional acceptance, allegiance and support that is normally associated with family. I thought Karen was like a sister to me, but it wasn't the case.
My sister would never break my heart. Even if she wanted to, something or somebody would pull us back together, mend bridges between us, whether that be our common sense, our children or our parents.
But friendship is voluntary. You're not bound by law or relationships and you are unlikely to meet at family weddings or funerals? -? if you want to go your separate ways, it's entirely possible.
I called Karen as soon as I read the letter and asked why she couldn't have said these things to me. I'm a plain speaker and prefer things to be out in the open.
?I cried for days, grieving for her, for the loss of all the jokes and memories that only we shared
I was certain any problems between us could have been nipped in the bud if discussed; logged in a letter, they seemed distinctly permanent.
I cried during that call, through shock or hurt. Karen said she'd wanted to be clear and careful; she'd spent five hours drafting the letter.
Her biggest complaint (repeated in a number of ways) was that I'd 'changed'. I spent another hour explaining some of the miscommunications (I hadn't got drunk with her last time we were out because I was four weeks' pregnant, too early to tell a soul? -? even her, not because I was becoming boring). 'Oh,' she said sorrowfully.
I don't know what she thought of my news, more evidence of my changing, I suppose.
Suddenly, I realised that there was no point in taking each accusation and addressing it, nor was there any point in hurling my own grievances at her (and there were some). I realised that we were breaking up; irrevocably, irretrievably.
I cried for days, grieving for her, for the loss of all the jokes and memories that only we shared. I thought about calling her and saying the whole episode was silly, suggesting we put it behind us, but I couldn't bring myself to do so.
After what had happened, I just couldn't see a future for us.
It took me a long time to accept that while Karen's break-up was brutal, it was honest; we'd grown up, we'd grown apart. She was right, I was changing. I was becoming the person I'd always wanted to be (wife and mother) and doing the things I'd always wanted to do (write for a living).
I'd hoped and expected she'd be thrilled for me as I was for her as she realised her dreams. But from the letter it was clear I irritated her, inconvenienced her and at times embarrassed her.
My grief counsellor had helped me accept that there's a time to be angry, to grieve and then to let go of the people who leave you through death.
I applied the same reasoning to my relationship with Karen, even though it was particularly sickening accepting that we'd left one another's lives through choice.
Initially I couldn't think about her. It was too painful. I threw the letter away; re-reading it was an act of masochism. I kept busy with my pregnancy and new career.
When my son was born I played with the idea of sending her a birth announcement card, as an olive branch, but I couldn't do it.
What if she didn't respond? Then I'd feel my son had been rejected, which would be a million times worse than just me being rejected. Or, what if she felt guilttripped into kick-starting the relationship even though she didn't want to?
I felt a huge wave of sadness as I realised there was a real possibility they'd never meet.
For a time, my broken friendship made me wary of completely trusting. It was just like the first time you're dumped as a teenager and you swear you're through with boys for life.
I was cautious about how much I confided in other friends, how often I saw them and how much I revealed of myself.
Subsequently, I went through my divorce and then I realised I had a bunch of fabulous friends huddled closely around me.
One of those friends I've known almost as long as I've known Karen. This is comforting because it shows some friendships can do the distance. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that an enduring, truthful, forgiving relationship is the model of genuine friendship.
The friends who supported me through the bad times were women who related to my experiences as a wife, mother, divorcee; they were never jealous, uninterested or gloating, but eternally sympathetic and compassionate.
I'm incredibly grateful to every last one of them.
By the time I finally fell in love again and remarried, I'd begun to have a much deeper understanding that there's a time and place for everything, including friendships, and even marriages. I've learnt that even though some things are not eternal, they can still be astoundingly important.
My relationship with Karen is a bit like a first love: bittersweet. When I think of her, I smile at the silly, youthful stuff we did. Yet, there's a shard of grief, a fragment of reGREt that we couldn't manage to grow up and old together.
Not many people stay with their first love nowadays? -? we're more likely to enjoy a number of relationships before we settle down, and friendship is like that, too. I'm lucky that I've had much deeper, stronger, more enduring friendships since.
Adele's novel, love Lies, is published by Penguin at ?6.99.