I have this silly habit of turning to the end of a novel to read the acknowledgements before I’ve even started reading the first chapter. Don’t know why I do it; I think perhaps it humanises the author for me, places them in the context of their family and friends. I wonder how a friend makes it into the back page, what have they done to make the cut? Donal Ryan has a long list of names in the book of his I’m currently reading, and slipped into the middle of his list – lodged between Brian Treacy and Ethel Hartnett – he thanks “all my neglected friends”. Neglected, one imagines, because he has been so busy writing a book, which is no better or worse an excuse than having been busy living one’s life. Life is occupying, it is hard to keep up with everyone in a full life. Here we are at the end of the summer, and I’ll bet you’ve had a name or two you were planning to see before time ran away with you. But if those neglected friends are good friends, they’ll probably not feel the slightest bit neglected, they know you’ll catch up with them one of these days, they might even think they’ve neglected you!
The friendship thing is complex, it has taken me fifty years to fully understand it—some things you need to live a good chunk of life before you can understand them. What’s the magic in some friendships? What happens to some that time apart adds depth, and makes others drift? Why, after a gap, can some friends pick up where they left off, whist others stare across the pint glass at someone to whom they have nothing to say? I don’t know. My thoughts on it all are still bedding in. I’m working it out as I type. How friendships age, that’s what I’m pondering, and how much better friendships can be – if there is any quality to them at all that is – with age. Whiskey, leather, wine: mostly they get better with age (if they are decent to begin with), and friends are the same; good to begin with and, with the years, they expand into something fulsome than can withstand a little benign neglect.
There is something about the ease of old friendships, the preciousness of having known each other when you were young, the appreciation of what each has been through (not that you recall the stories at every meeting), the history, even the forgotten parts, that infuse a friendship like whiskey from a sherry cask. Years add weight, by which I do not mean encumbrance, I mean ballast. The wrinkles, the pot bellies, the grey roots, they might be evident for an instant upon meeting anew, but quickly the imperfections of age dissolve as the strong old rope of connection pulls tight. For years, the rope might be so slack you’d forgotten anyone was tethered to it at all, then the phone rings, or the knock comes to the door, or a last-minute plan is cobbled together by text, and everything falls together. The teeth of the cowheel that fitted so neatly all those years ago slot back into place: click, click, click, turn, turn, turn.
Years ago, I knew someone who told me she’d reached peak-friend. She said she had enough to last out her days and to add to that number would be too many to keep up with (I wonder what her number was?). I knew she was wrong, but I didn’t know why, and I almost bought into her idea that friends – like a car or a house or a pitted road after a hard winter – need maintaining. To an extent I know they do, but the best ones can withstand a dose of mutual neglect, after all, doesn’t a fallow field grow more fertile from being left untended a year or two? The older I get, the more I know there is no harm in a passage of time when the lines fall silent; the empty space puts no pressure on the relationship, if anything, it gives people time to live unreported lives and bounce back in the future, everyone extra happy to see each other.
Over the summer, I met up with plenty of old friends and I neglected plenty more. Some of the meetups were planned, some were moments of fortuitous serendipity, all of them made my summer better. For those of you whom I’ve neglected, I am sorry the sun has set on the summer without us seeing each other. Let’s meet up soon. Are you up for it? I’m up for it.