Today while out running between rain showers I caught a whiff of privet hedge in bloom. It’s a heady clean scent, that I always associate with cities after rain. It always seems to penetrate more than other flowers, and it took me back to when I was 4 years old, playing in the street with my friends Janice and Julie.
I loved to hang around with Julie, who was a grown up five. Janice, a year younger than me, came as part of the package, but I always thought of her as a younger sister rather than a friend.
We used to play together, popping tar bubbles at the road’s edge in summer. Hiding in tents made from old blankets pegged to the fence and held in place with stones. Making mud pies, or later, perfume from the rose bushes and peonies in our garden. After the revolting peony perfume we lost interest, otherwise I’m sure we’d have experimented with lilac and privet.
I was jealous of Julie because she had boyfriends when I was much to young for any boy to be interested in me, and of Janice because she could do handstands and I never could do anything that coordinated.
We were friends all through primary school years, even though we were of different religions and went to separate schools. Though there were often fights between the schools, we never allowed anything so trivial to come between us.
But by the time I was eleven they refused to speak to me. We went to different schools again, though this time it wasn’t about religion, but the fact that I’d got into a grammar school. I was officially clever, and our friendship couldn’t survive that.
Julie was in a gang – the harmless kind that used to hang around on street corners and smoke cigarettes. They used to yell out “snob” at me as I walked past, but I soon got used to it. Then at thirteen we moved away from the area.
I met Janice once or twice when I was sixteen. She was friendly enough, but things had changed – we’d never be friends again. But they’d done something for me back when I was four that I’ll never forget.
They’d overheard their parents talking about mine. We were sitting on the grass outside my house, and Julie said: “I’ve got something to tell you but you must promise you won’t go in in and cry on your bed.” I knew it was bad, but at four, I had no experience to prepare me for what came next. My parents had split up – my father had left home, and if Julie was right, he was never coming back.
“It’s not true,” I said. “He’s away on business.” I didn’t know then that he’d been coming back and forth for the last 6 months, and my mother hadn’t said until she knew for sure how things would turn out. I kept my promise – I went inside and cried on my mother’s lap instead. Though it’s not the kind of news any child wants to hear, I’m not sure how long I would have waited if Julie hadn’t told me. It couldn’t have been easy for her, and I’m still amazed that she dealt with it in such a sensitive, grown up way.
Now when I think about Janice and Julie I find myself wondering how did they learn to be so kind at four, and though I know it’s in the nature of teenagers, how did they manage to forget it by the time they reached their teens?