Twenty years ago tonight I met BestMate for the first time. There was no inkling that he was BestMate at the time, nor that he'd ever turn out to be, but that's the way things happened. It took a while, as these things do. But here we are twenty years later and the friendship's strong as ever. How surprised am I?
My life's not been big on friendships. I got through primary school with some good friends, though not really best. My first best friend at secondary school semi-faded away, while the next best friend turned out not to be. At university I fell in with a crowd of soulmates rather than a single wingman, all of whom I subsequently lost touch with. I spent the next ten years entirely without anyone you could describe as a close friend, getting on with life without the need to socialise much. When things got unexpectedly tough I found strong emotional support where I might not have expected it, so thanks for that. And then out of the blue, in April 2001, BestMate turned up.
Our friendship didn't ignite until I moved to London a few months later, our homes now considerably closer. Before long my evenings and weekends changed dramatically. Instead of me sitting at home on that new internet thing we'd go out and drink beer in a variety of interesting places around town. Rather than staying in and watching my telly I could go round and watch his. I had someone to talk to about stuff and he had someone to talk to about stuff too, either in person or via an online Messenger service. You probably think nothing of having a friend on call because normal people always have friends, but for me this was an inertia-busting transformation.
I saw a side of life I'd almost certainly have missed out on otherwise, not least because some things are so much better done in two-or-mores than ones. I wouldn't have dreamed of spending a week in New York by myself, or dining solo at a top London eaterie, or repeatedly staying out all night and rolling in at 4am, but friendship took me there. I look back through my 2002 diary now with a sense of dazzled opportunity. Records show that by February 2003 I was spending far more nights out than nights in, which is pretty much unheard of in my introverted world, but that's what ganging up with an extrovert does for you.
If some people collect friends like Panini stickers, BestMate has a complete albumful. He knows everyone and everyone knows him, so he can't have been lacking a posse of friends in his life. That's been useful for me because I was exposed to a broad cross-section of society whenever we went out, who otherwise I'd just have stood in the corner and observed. But I'm still not really good friends with any of his really good friends, because I simply don't connect like that. In normal times he's climbing the walls if he doesn't see any of his friends in a 48 hour period, whereas I can go for weeks with no ill effects. It makes it all the more surprising he's hung onto me ahead of all the rest.
Our friendship was sorely tested when he suddenly upped sticks and went to live on the west coast of America. Suddenly I couldn't pop round for a cup of tea, let alone hand deliver his birthday card, so things moved onto a different level. The internet allowed us to maintain conversation, helped by the fact that late evening over there was breakfastime over here and I was the only UK friend awake and online. Had this been ten years earlier, I don't think being long-distance penpals would have worked quite as well.
This transatlantic hiatus lasted four years, during which time I got to re-experience what not having a best friend in my physical environment was like. Quieter, simpler, and more opportunity to concentrate on blogging rather than socialising to fill my spare time. But we still picked up again afterwards where we'd left off, pretty much, and it was great to have that listening ear back around the corner. Our social whirl never quite returned to those early days but it never died down either, not until middle age hit us both and an evening in with wine started to beat a night out with beer. Even the pandemic hasn't broken us, fortuitously, thanks to living on the same side of town where a walk within my orbit is within his too.
When it comes to BestMate's OtherHalf, and there've been several, I got to be the objective one as the relationship began and the supportive one as it fell apart. I was honoured to be invited along on several holidays, usually long weekends, to such farflung spots as Amsterdam, Blackpool and Reykjavik. I fear that without BestMate I'd have maxxed out on day trips to the seaside and weekends touring the outskirts of Hillingdon rather than properly experiencing Berlin, Rome and Copenhagen. I'm still never going to compete with OtherHalf for his time and attention, but that doesn't stop us sharing an understanding or a bottle or a trio of cinema tickets or whatever.
It's great to have a sounding board, someone who's always there to bounce off when the need arises. He can advise on my finances and I can advise on his upstairs neighbours. I know which is his least favourite Yes Minister episode and he knows not to try and hide sweet potato on my plate. We have twenty years of common acquaintances and shared experiences to riff off so the conversation never runs dry. A lot of what we communicate simply goes unsaid, which is something you only get with years of experience.
He puts up with the fact I count things. He puts up with the fact that I go round to his far more often than I invite him round to mine. He puts up with all the things we don't have in common as well as all the things we do. He puts up with me never answering my mobile because it never normally rings so I'm not paying attention. He even puts up with me turning down his offer of a night out because I have a bus stop visit to write up. He understands, and, trust me, that's rare.
For our first anniversary we had an early morning bagel in Brick Lane. For our fifth we could only chat online from different continents. For our tenth we started the day in one pub and ended the night in another. For our fifteenth we splashed out and let Jamie Oliver's underlings serve us in Fifteen. And for our twentieth, well, circumstances may have conspired against us but we can still go out for a walk today, conveniently overlapping with that first meeting we enjoyed back in April 2001.
I'm still not quite sure how I ended up with a BestMate, nor do I believe I could ever recreate the situation where it might happen again. To be honest, the whole set-up only works because he's the one who says "why don't we?" and I say yes. But the last twenty years have been hugely enriched by me knowing him, so I simply wanted to express my amazement and appreciation. Thanks, and we'll save the beery celebratory night out for twenty-one.