What really matters

sheffield reflection

It’s an odd feeling, seeing the name and picture of someone you love on the news. The name and the face match, but the person is flat, defined by what is being reported. Earlier this month, my best friend went missing, and wasn’t found for nine days. While she was missing I Googled her name several times a day, hoping for good news, fearing bad news, and every time I read an article I thought, that’s her, but not her. There is so much more than just this one thing they are reporting. I was so scared that she was gone, terrified that I would end up writing this to remember her. Instead there was good news, beyond good news. There was miraculous news, and she was found. She is alive and she is safe.

But there is still much more than was ever written in any news report, I suppose there always is, but until it happens to someone you love you don’t realise how one-dimensional the people in the news are.

M has been my best friend for twenty-five years. We met when we worked in a cheese shop in Sheffield. At the time, I had just graduated from university and was trying to figure out what to do next, and she was married and lived only a few miles away from me. I suppose we are unlikely best friends, having not so much in common when we first met. But something clicked and we have been friends ever since. I can’t remember ever having an argument, but I did offend her that first day by insulting her perfume (Giorgio, for the record).

We worked together for a year, while I juggled teaching English to a group of Chinese men working in Sheffield and, for a few weeks, as a translator for a delegation visiting from Sheffield’s twin town of Anshan. The owner of the shop often left us to our own devices. We became friends with the regular customers and some of the other people who worked in nearby shops. We named some customers after the cheeses they always bought; White Cheshire Woman, Roquefort Woman, Manchego Man and our favourite, Tomme de Savioe Man. His sister used to work in the Body Shop, and when we saw her we always told her to send him in to buy more cheese.

One day a local chef asked me out, and the owner of the shop told some regular customers all about it. Next time they were in they asked me about it, not realising that the chef (Rex, for the record) was standing right next to them. I did what any sensible person would do, and went head first into the chilled cabinet, whimpering. M stayed calm, patted my back and spun some ridiculous tale of some other chef. Rex stood by impassively while the customers listened to her talk on and on. Rex finally left, so did they, and we collapsed with relief. One of the customers reappeared sheepishly, bringing a peace offering of chocolate from Thorntons. ‘That was him, wasn’t it?’

After a year I left, and went to work in China. M sent care packages from the Body Shop and letters. I returned at the end of the year and a few months later I came to Japan for the first time. We kept in touch with occasional phone calls, and when I called her that first Christmas she told me she was pregnant. G was born the following August, but I didn’t meet him until I went back to the UK in March. I remember seeing her standing at the door, with a bundle in her arms. I spent the next year in the UK and watched him grow, and her marriage end.

The next few years were difficult, working and being a single parent. I don’t know how she made ends meet. As G grew he played football, tried playing a couple of instruments and joined the beaver scouts. She was always at his football matches, and on rainy days would transport her muddy goalkeeper son home sitting on a bin liner on the back seat, carry him through the house with instructions to keep his arms tucked in and not touch anything, put him in the bath and turn the shower on him to get all the mud off. I remember also that she found it ridiculous to have to address the adult in charge of the beaver scouts as ‘Rusty Beaver’. He wouldn’t answer to anything else.

I came back to Japan, and we kept in touch by phone, by mail, and when I was back in Sheffield we met up. She continued to work for the NHS, moved to Manchester, then moved back to Sheffield. Along the way G started acting and whenever I saw her we would watch the bits of dramas to catch a glimpse of him. She always knew exactly where to start the video. She bought an apartment, and met D. She and G came to Japan, and I finally got to show her the country I had been calling home for so many years.

By now we had e-mail, Skype and Facebook, but we have never been very good at keeping in touch regularly. We just catch up when I’m back in Sheffield. We usually meet in John Lewis (which we both still call Coles), near the make up counters, though I check the shoe department also because she is often there. We walk past the Clinique counter and remember a sales assistant who worked there in the early nineties and always wore way too much make up (Rose, for the record). From there it’s lunch or coffee or both. She is always immaculately made up, and I am not.

This strong, beautiful, amazing woman is a mother, daughter, sister, partner, colleague and friend. A mother first, I think, fiercely proud of G, always supportive. I knew she was tough, but I also knew she was stressed sometimes, that life was not easy. I never stopped to wonder if it could all get too much. Then one day it did, and she became a person in the news. She became name, age, occupation and a disappearance. Then she became a miracle when she was found.

At the cheese shop, she once worked through ‘flu. Just kept going, right through it all. We both loved the same peachy Charles of the Ritz lipstick, and even today we are still looking for a similar shade. She loves Shu Uemura eyelash curlers, which I have been tasked to get her on several occasions, since they are not sold in the UK. She has stubby eyelashes, so Japanese Fiberwig mascara was a hit, too. She doesn’t like nuts or blue cheese. She has watched Love, Actually more times than probably anyone can count, and every year loves listening to the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York at Christmas.

This is my best friend, the person I have known for quarter of a century, who knows me probably better than anyone else. I love you, M xxx

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