It is only a friend like this one who can know exactly what you need

LOUISE O'NEILL: It is only a friend like this one who can know exactly what you need

I didn’t hear her at the door; she must have left herself in. 

Most people only have a handful of friends who can do this, who can walk into your house as if it is their own. 

There is no standing on ceremony, no need for text messages to announce their arrival. 

There is no necessity for scheduling and looking at diaries and trying to make them fit, like you’re looking for a missing jigsaw piece which will make the overall picture make sense.

I only have one friend like that. 

A next-door neighbour, but one who is more like a sister. 

We moved into our home in Clonakilty when I was four years of age and as luck would have it, the family next door had two girls as well. 

One two months older than my sister, the other six weeks younger than me. Instant best friends, the four of us (and a younger brother that we adopted as our own). 

If you open our back door, you see a narrow strip of concrete leading to the garden. 

A wall, with three tiny steps made out of cracked stone, barely big enough to accommodate a child’s foot. 

My sister and I would haul ourselves up onto the wall, brushing dirt from the palms of our hands, then climb those steps, pushing our way through the thicket of trees and brambles and stinging nettles until we were at the bottom of their garden.

We did not ring their doorbell nor knock on the door; sliding the patio door open, calling the neighbour girls’ names aloud. 

Sometimes we would run down the lane to another neighbour’s farm, an older couple who had no children of their own and who doted on us, preparing sugar-laden bowls of porridge on demand, allowing us to fashion a treehouse out of an old, broken down tractor. 

We got along famously until we didn’t, running home crying with tales of wrong doing, tales our mothers duly ignored, telling us to work it out amongst ourselves. 

When I look through photos from my childhood, this friend is always by my side, our features sharpening out of baby flesh year by year, blowing out an increasing number of candles on birthday cakes. 

Children to teenagers to twenty-first birthdays. A wedding day. Christenings.

When did we get old, I ask her? She doesn’t seem to know the answer either.

I am watching Love Island in the sunroom that evening when she appears behind me. 

Hey, she says. Get your togs and a towel. I want to go to the beach for a swim. 

I’m tempted to argue — it’s the summer, yes, but it’s also Ireland and it’s ten o clock at night time — but I know her well enough to recognise a certain tone in her voice, one that tells me she won’t be argued with, not tonight. 

Down in Inchydoney, the dusk has settled and I shiver in the cool air. 

I complain about my poor circulation, my Raynaud’s. I can’t believe she’s making me do this. 

She ignores me, something she has plenty of practice with.

She has swum at least four evenings a week since April she tells me, only weeks after her youngest baby was born. 

She goes to a beach near her house in Galway. Sometimes alone, sometimes with other women she knows from the area. 

This seems to be a trend, I tell her, perhaps inspired by Ruth Fitzmaurice’s book, I Found my Tribe. 

It is only a friend like this one who can know exactly what you need

She doesn’t know about that, she says. 

All she knows is that when she swims, she forgets about anything else but the shock of cold water against her skin, the gooseflesh, the sharp intake of breath in lungs.

We strip off our light cotton dresses, leave them in a heaped pile with worn-out beach towels and flipflops. Her legs are tanned, mine ghost-white. 

Come on, she says, grabbing my hand and pulling me towards the ebbing tide. Don’t think too much about it. 

Inching our way out, a slight hiss at the initial sting of waves against toes. 

We walk for what feels like miles, the water still only ankle deep, then licking at calves and knees.

I am surprised by how tepid the sea is, as if it is striving to hold onto the warmth of the midday sun. 

It is like a bath that has been left too long, the heat leaching away slowly. 

It is only a friend like this one who can know exactly what you need

When the water rises to meet our waists, I take a deep breath and sink to the seabed, submerging myself in its shadows. 

I give a roar when I break the surface again; laughing at how good it feels, at how silly I was to be afraid to do this, at how, sometimes, it is only a friend like this one who can know exactly what you need. 

I float on the bobbing waves, tasting salt on my tongue. 

It is a full moon, that night, but it is hidden behind the clouds. 

You can’t see it and yet you know that it is there.

Remember, she says. Remember when we were children. We swam every day. 

We thought we were sea creatures. We thought we were mermaids.

Yes, I say, reaching my hand out to hold hers. I remember now.

[h2]Louise says{/h2]

READ: Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion by Jia Tolentino.

Tolentino is a staff writer for the New Yorker and, at only thirty years of age, has been compared to Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit.

Trick Mirror is her debut book and contains nine original essays on the internet, feminism,

politics, and the idea of personal truth in a ‘post-truth’ world.

This is electrifying, vital writing.

It is only a friend like this one who can know exactly what you need

GO: The Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival is running from August

30 to September 1, with some of the world’s best story tellers descending upon the island for the weekend.

I went with a friend last year and it was such a special experience.

www.capeclearstorytelling.com

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