SUBWAYThe school bully came in an unlikely package. She was a bushy-haired pocket rocket with glasses and a briefcase who made my life miserable during a significant part of Year 8 when I was 12 years old. I met her the first day in our big, noisy comprehensive school. With all of my existing friends assigned to different forms, I was on high alert for someone to link me ASAP. With her lanky appearance, she seemed the ideal candidate and I approached her with the rather arrogant assumption that she would seize the opportunity of my friendship.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had misjudged the situation. His meek physical personality belied a serious rebellious streak and I struggled to keep up from the start. When she challenged me to join her in “the jungle,” a wooded area of the school grounds out of the reach of students, I shakily agreed. We eluded capture from the lunchtime supervisors patrolling its perimeters, but my time in the jungle brought me little joy or pleasure. Soon more trials and challenges followed, all proposed with a glint in their eyes that I came to fear.
I knew our dynamic was unhealthy, but I had no idea how to approach it. His reign lasted for several months until my older sister found out about the situation and alerted a teacher. Fortunately, the bullying stopped almost overnight, but the relief I felt was short-lived. He had friends, but no one in particular. To fill the void, I began to fantasize about a new girl joining the school and taking on the now vacant role of my best friend.
I would spend hours scripting our conversations, marveling at how much we had in common and how delighted we were to finally meet. My fantasies were so vivid that when our form tutor announced that we would be welcoming a new girl to our class the following Monday, I had no doubt that she had something to do with manifesting it.
The moment that I put on Eyes on Winnie, I knew deep down that she was the one. I didn’t even feel nervous when our form tutor made the mistake of assigning another girl to display instead of me. If Winnie was the girl I thought she was, she would soon realize that the other classmate was not her friend. As the week progressed, we took tentative steps toward each other. I complimented Winnie on her amazingly clean handwriting, while she admired my mane. By Friday, she had become my new desk buddy.
In sharp contrast to my previous friendship, Winnie and I were in sync from the beginning, uniting our shared love for American television, junk food, hair accessories, and movies. Winnie was smart, funny, and refreshingly straightforward.
There were no mind games and no need to step on eggshells. I didn’t have to question myself or try to be someone I wasn’t. All the traits I had been teased for, my innocence, my wariness, my dreams of becoming an actor one day despite my incredible shyness, Winnie seemed amused. In his company, I flourished. He was funnier, brighter, smarter. I was myself, but newer and brighter. As our classmates began to experiment with drugs and alcohol, Winnie and I were perfectly happy to analyze the latest episode of California Dreams or take turns singing Kim’s part in the song I Still Believe by Miss saigon. She was my soul mate, the yin to my yang, and I loved her dearly with an intensity that surpassed all my waking dreams.
Three years passed and we were about to take our GCSE exams when Winnie’s parents announced that they would be 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 don’t remember whose idea it was to ask my parents if he could come live with us, I just spent an entire weekend bothering them.
It was a long shot. My parents weren’t known for their flexibility and here I was trying to introduce them to the kind of setup that I had only ever seen in my life. Neighbours Y At home and away. I tried everything from emotional manipulation to outright begging until, at tea time on Sunday, to my complete and utter surprise, they gave up and agreed. It is still the best thing they have done for me.
Over the next several weeks, the details softened. In exchange for the princely sum of twenty-five pounds a week, Winnie would live in our house during the course for the next two years. I slept in my older sister’s bedroom during the week and shared with me on the weekends when my sister came home from nursing college. My parents even replaced my single bed with one that came with a removable guest bed so neither of us had to sleep on the floor. Despite their initial reservations, they became aware of Winnie’s presence in the house almost immediately. She was educated and domesticated. “Why can’t you be more like Winnie?” became the popular catchphrase on our domestic sitcom. I was not in the least offended. As long as Winnie could stay, they could make as many unflattering comparisons as they wanted. On the nights my sister was home and Winnie and I slept in the same room, we used to stay up until the early hours, talking until our voices became hoarse, never running out of topics to argue. We dedicate our weekends to quality television (dawson’s stream, Gladiators, Blind Date), yelling along with the Spice Girls and trips to the local Wimpy where we ate hamburgers and fries with a knife and fork. During the holidays, when Winnie could travel back to the Isle of Man to visit her family, we communicated through letters with embedded stickers.
After A levels, Winnie took a place at the University of Leeds to study Chinese and Japanese. With no family available, a couple of friends and I reached out to move it. Complete with a mandatory stop at the local Ikea, we feel incredibly grown up when we get Winnie safely to her residences. 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 we continued to write to each other more and more sporadically. After college, Winnie moved to Japan and worked as an English teacher while I stayed in London and tried to find work as an actor.
Years passed. Winnie invited me to visit her in Osaka. I turned it down, fearful that I would miss acting job if I committed myself 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 by letter and email, it was as if we had never parted.
A decade later Winnie is still one of my favorite people. In 2015, I was honored to be a bridesmaid at her wedding to Chris, and there is probably no more sound of joy than her three-year-old son asking me as his playmate. We continue to bond over food; almost all of our meetings revolve around a culinary experience of some kind. While we like to think that our tastes have evolved a bit since the fateful day in 1996 when Winnie introduced me to the wonders of KFC, we still have a soft spot for anything that contains large amounts of fat, salt, and sugar.
While other teenage friends 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 something I’m not, or rely on nostalgia to fuel our conversations. There is something delightfully liberating about spending time with someone who has watched you grow. And behind our responsible adult facades is the silent recognition that deep down, we’re still the same sweetly nerdy girls that we were all those years ago.
I have no doubt that my friendship with Winnie has served as a model for later relationships and that the love and trust we built together helped me form equally satisfying connections in adulthood. That first friendship in school taught me that teenage girls can be extraordinarily cruel. Winnie showed me that you can be capable of kindness that will last a lifetime.
Lisa Williamson’s First Day of My Life is published in paperback on July 1 (David Fickling Books, £ 7.99)
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism