The Perfect Friend – Barbara Copperthwaite

From my first breath, I was destined to be a freak. The signs were there in my childhood, concerns as I grew up, narrowing down to a vanishing point of the here and now, where everyone in the room is staring, waiting for me to speak. An awkward cough here, the clearing of a throat there, a chair leg scraping over the wooden floor as someone shifts, all absorbed by the expectant silence of the small community hall. The circle of twenty or so plastic chairs cups me as I prepare to talk. Once, that would have made me too self-conscious to speak, but instead it comforts. I know the deepest, darkest secrets of all the people looking at me, leaning forward to catch every word. They know mine, too – or a sanitised version, anyway. This is a safe space created for confession. Still, I’m trying to decide how much truth to tell. This started as little white lies. Then the white turned to a black blight that blotted out everything, running out of control. My name is Alex Appleby. I’m 44. I’m a dressmaker… The words are so clichéd I can’t help silently sounding them in my head before I take the plunge. A deep preparatory breath assaults my nose with the smell of Pledge and Windolene.

I suppress a sneeze, then speak. ‘I’m a liar. Well, a recovering anorexic, and all I did during my illness was lie to cover my tracks and keep my addiction alive. ‘“I ate earlier, and I’m still stuffed.” ‘“I’m saving myself for my big meal tonight.” ‘“That was so tasty, I’ve scoffed the lot” – this one, incidentally, is the best: I always had the food hidden in a napkin, or my pockets, or my handbag. ‘It’s only just occurred to me, now I’m recovering, how many lies have been told to everyone who cares about me. I’m ashamed. I always thought of myself as an honest person. Of course, that could be a lie, too.

’ My laugh is self-deprecating, and my audience take their cue, faces breaking into smiles. The support group started out when the leader, Jackie, had been in a car accident and found it hard to cope. She’d wanted to talk to others who’d suffered a similar trauma but hadn’t been able to find a group locally. Being a bustling force-of-nature type who, once she makes up her mind about something, won’t let go of the idea, she started this one herself. Her second member had been Lainey, who had joined because she’d been mown down while on a pedestrian crossing and suffered flashbacks; but she was also grateful because as a result of the accident, doctors had diagnosed her pancreatic cancer early enough to save her life easily. Eventually, Lainey left, but not before recruiting first me – after we got chatting one day in the hospital café, over in Newcastle – and then Carrie, a fellow cancer sufferer, although hers was breast. There were other members, too, who had been through all sorts, from rape to bereavement to the shock of being burgled. Jackie didn’t mind that her group had morphed into support for people who had been through all manner of trauma, rather than only for accident victims. It was nice for all of us to share in the group, getting to know each other. Even though our experiences were so different, at the root of our issues were similar emotions: fear, anger, difficulty in coping, the urge to pretend to be strong as we fell apart.

Dealing with the change in the way people reacted to us. The sense that our lives were split into Before and After. In the circle, I seek out Carrie’s reaction to my words. She grins, gives me a double thumbs up of encouragement, still unaware that I, her new best friend, have other lies that involve her. There’s an ulterior motive in taking her under my wing. My words are for her more than anything, warning her I’m not all that I seem. ‘I haven’t just fibbed to others, I’ve failed to be honest with myself – some of the biggest lies people tell are to themselves,’ I add. ‘At my lowest, even my own body tricked me. My starving carcass released endorphins, chemicals designed to make me feel good, to mask the pain it was in and help keep me going. Giving up that rush is hard, and now I’m no longer in the grip of my eating disorder it’s a struggle without those endorphins.

I need to find something else that can fill that hole and make me feel good about myself, but what, and how? ‘At my worst, I hallucinated, my eyes literally deceiving me. After three days without food or sleep, I thought I was caged in a red and white circus tent, like something from a freak show, while an audience trailed past me, pointing and laughing. It felt so real. See how easily we can deceive ourselves into accepting an altered reality? The doctors told me it was most likely caused by an electrolyte disturbance, probably due to inadequate nutrition. Whatever it was, I was so delirious that two nurses had to hold me down. That was when I was at rock bottom.’ The memory makes me feel shame at how low I’d reached, but also pride at how far I’ve come. Everyone is silent, intent as priests at confession. Carrie nods at me. ‘At one point, my twins appeared at my bedside to say they could no longer cope with seeing me kill myself.

“Why aren’t we enough for you to live for?” my son, Edward, asked. God, he looked so hurt and angry. How could I find the words to explain that he was enough for me to live for? That when he’d left, I’d lost my reason to live. That by trying to find my own identity again I stumbled down this rabbit hole and fell into some kind of weird other world where the only thing that mattered to me was food. I had something I could control again. Something that no one else could mess with. ‘There is good news, though: I’m finally starting to climb out of this hole and see that there is more to life. I’m seeing the damage done and trying to repair it. I’m determined to get better. This week I put on another two pounds, and am feeling really proud.

’ A ripple of clapping spreads and grows as I sit down. After several beats, Jackie speaks, her Belfast accent softened after years of living here in Tynemouth. ‘Members, thank you so much for taking part tonight. Some of us have had a tough week.’ She nods at Pat, who is dreading her birthday in a fortnight, the first since her husband, James, died. ‘Others have had a more positive one. Some have spoken, some have had the strength only to listen. Together, we support and celebrate every step. Long may it continue. Have a good week, everyone.

’ With murmured thanks, people stand, break into groups, drift away. Outgoing and chatty, Carrie normally stays behind after the meeting has finished. Actually, she usually persuades us all to go to the pub for a ‘liquid debrief’, despite it being a Monday night. She’s the type of person who, at a party, dances on tables, whooping and doing shots. I’m the type who sits in the corner, watching and worrying someone will fall off the furniture and hurt themselves. Tonight, though, Carrie’s slim body slips quickly through the crowd of fellow confessors, and through the door that says ‘emergency exit only’ but is permanently propped open. I see her expression reflected in the glass before she passes through the opening into the car park. She is biting her lip, frowning. I’m sure she catches my eye for a moment and sees me behind her, but doesn’t slow, even as I hurry to catch up. ‘Carrie, fancy some company?’ She stops, turns, but as I approach it’s clear to see her shoulders have risen, even if she doesn’t realise it.

She doesn’t want to stop, but can’t think of a polite way of ignoring me, obviously. I’m pushing myself in where I’ve no place, I know, and consider making my excuses and leaving her alone, as she so obviously wants. But I also know from bitter experience that sometimes it’s when we need people that we’re most likely to isolate ourselves. It can be dangerous for someone like me, an anorexic, who hides everything all the time. So many skeletons in my closet. Carrie isn’t a recovering anorexic, though, I remind myself. Still, I can’t help sticking my nose in and hoping it won’t get bitten off. Just in case she needs me. My skeletons won’t let me do anything else. TWO Now I’ve caught up with Carrie, she’s had time to plaster a smile on her face.

It’s not enough to remove the small line between her barely-there eyebrows that peeps below her green and white bobble hat. An arctic easterly breeze swirls round us, coming off the North Sea that is a few streets away, as we look at each other, awkward. ‘You don’t mind, do you? I’m going your way, so… ’ I trail off. She laughs to fill the silence. ‘No, that’d be lovely.’ She’s a good liar, almost pulls it off. Only a professional such as myself can hear the tinkle of dishonesty. Hands deep in pockets, bent against the nose-tingling cold, we walk swiftly in the direction of her house, exchanging chit-chat about the meeting. Although we might seem like a strange pair – she’s only twenty-four – our friendship works, not least because we’ve unconsciously fallen into a mother-daughter role. Right now, my mother’s instinct is on full alert.

While I rack my brains about how to raise the subject, we leave behind us the jagged, 2,000-year-old ruin of Tynemouth Castle and Priory, which watches proudly over the east coast and town alike. To my right, and far below, the crashing sea urges me to hurry. We bullet past Percy Gardens, and I’m no closer to a solution, only half an ear on the conversation. ‘Poor Pat, so I thought I’d organise something. What do you think?’ Carrie asks. ‘Great idea!’ My enthusiasm disguises the fact that I’ve no idea what she’s organised. ‘Anniversaries can be tough, I’m sure,’ I add, keeping my comment vague. Five minutes later, having spent the entire time discussing Pat, we reach Longsands beach and take a left away from it. I’m running out of time. It’s only as we are about to part ways, and stand beside her garden gate, that I find the courage to be candid.

‘You know, I can tell there’s something wrong. Something you haven’t shared with the group. I hope you don’t mind me asking, but… is everything okay? You know you can trust me.’ Can she, though? Why should she, after everything I’ve done? I shudder at the thought. ‘You’re cold,’ she gasps. ‘Do you want to come in for a minute to warm up before you carry on home?’ I feel a little ashamed at being handed success by her pity, but I’ll take what I can get. Rubbing hands as if to warm them, I nod, and soon we’re inside and she’s offering to make me a cuppa. She doesn’t take her hat off. She says she hates feeling a draught on her bald head, even though it’s now covered in short, baby-blonde hair that looks like a stylish pixie crop. I didn’t know her when she was bald, but I’ve seen photos and she’s got such a delicate face that she still looked beautiful.

The first time I met her, she told me how she’d set fire to her NHS wig in an act of defiance against cancer. ‘God, it felt good seeing that thing melt into the flames. Like I was taking control of my body again, you know, and sticking two fingers up to cancer,’ she’d said, hazel eyes dancing at the memory. ‘’Course, I hadn’t realised how cold I’d be without a covering, so started wearing hats. I never thought I had a face for them until I went bald. Every cloud has a silver lining, eh?’ Then she’d given that infectious, machinegun-fire laugh. I lean against the kitchen counter, watching her take out the only two mugs she seems to own. Her two-bed maisonette is sparsely furnished, with no pictures on the walls, or even photographs on shelves. She seems to live on the breadline. There’s a big bunch of flowers in a vase, though.

Propped up beside it is a card that reads: Love you more than words can say, Mum and Dad xx ‘Sorry. About earlier. Putting you on the spot.’ I shrug my thin shoulders apologetically, a move I’m currently well built for. But I’m putting on weight. Slowly. Surely. I’ve no choice, if I’m ever going to get better and stand a chance of gaining my children’s forgiveness. ‘No, Alex, it’s fine. I just… I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it yet, is all.

’ She hangs her head, bites her lip again. She always does that when she’s trying to hide something; doesn’t seem to realise she’s doing it, but I’ve studied Carrie a lot. I couldn’t help myself, once I realised the terrible thing I’d done to her. Sometimes teetering on the edge of confession, standing on the precipice, but unable to make that final step forward that will send me free-falling towards the truth. I can’t face seeing Carrie’s expression once she knows. Or the judgement of others, the disgust of my children, even though I deserve it all. Instead, I do what I do best. Lie. ‘Carrie, please, you know you can trust me. It won’t go any further, if you don’t want it to, but surely sharing is better than carrying this burden alone.

’ She nods, teeth clamping down on her lip until the skin goes white. ‘You’re worrying me now,’ I add. ‘Oh, Alex, it’s the cancer. It’s back. And there’s nothing they can do this time.’ No. She doesn’t deserve to die. I do. The room seems to shift beneath my feet, bucking, trying to make me fall. My fingers cling to the counter edge, curling around it to steady myself.

‘Are—’ My voice sounds thick and scratchy. I clear it, try again. ‘Are they sure?’ ‘They told me first thing this morning, it was a real hammer blow. I’ve been in shock ever since. That’s why I didn’t tell you earlier – you’re the first person I’ve had to say the words to. Saying them… it’s like getting the news again. I’m dying. It wasn’t a bad dream.’ ‘What about a—’ ‘Second opinion? There’s no point, Alex. I’ve seen the scans for myself.

It’s everywhere. Everywhere.’ She shakes her head, gives a small sigh. No tears. Her teeth clamp down on her lip so hard in her determination to be brave that a pearl of blood blooms. Right there and then, I know what must be done. Whatever Carrie wants, Carrie gets. I will make her last days the best she will ever have. Whatever it takes to make her happy, I’ll do. We’ll write a bucket list together, and if I don’t have enough money myself to pay for everything she wants to do, I’ll start fundraising if needs be to make it come true.

It is the very, very least I can do. My penance seems minuscule in comparison to my crime.

.

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