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Stephen Scourfield Writing
 
'Just Six Friends'
 
His parents were elderly. They moved up from the country. They bought the house next door to his and he fixed it up a bit for them. They had become forgetful. They took more of his time.
His two daughters got to the Demanding Age (his wife continued to be at the Demanding Age). His workload increased and life just seemed to get harder.
He reassessed.
He wrote a list.
He picked up the phone.
“I just wanted to tell you that, what with my folks next door and the kids and work, I’ve had to think about what I can do – what I can look after. About how many friends I have time for. How many friendships I can maintain properly.”
He paused, not out of effect or embarrassment but more as if savouring the release coming.
“I’ve worked out that I can only manage six – and I’m afraid you didn’t make the cut.” It’s the sort of information ... the sort of phrase ... you never forget.
“I wanted you to know. I’m ringing round.” He wanted to tell us all ... all those who had known him perhaps a decade, perhaps longer, spent many hours with him in company and in confidence, but hadn’t edged onto the list. 
He wanted to do it clean.
He didn’t want any confusion.
He didn’t want any misunderstandings.
He didn’t want us to leave phone messages that he’d have to ignore, or emails he’d begrudgingly, sparingly answer or which would sit unanswered in his directory, judging him. He didn’t want Christmas cards or a birthday parcel left on the doorstep. He certainly didn’t want to catch up for coffee anymore.
I felt a single, overwhelming urge, and I did the only thing I could think to do. I apologised. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t make the list.” I was sorry that I, apparently, hadn’t been a good enough friend. Perhaps I should have tried harder. I haven’t heard from him since, but I think about him from time to time.
It has never occured to me to be angry or upset ... I think of him as an example of our time and technologies and values. I think what a funny species we are. (The sort of species that finds the green and yellow of budgerigar flocks in the desert and thinks: “I wonder if we could make them blue.” A species not content to be.)
I have thought a lot about my friend’s call and it has made me think a lot about my other friends. Who would make the list, I wondered, if I had to pick six?
I chose a big, bound book with blank, brown pages, and wrote the title on the front ... “My Friends”. I started writing a single name at the top of each page ...
Invaluable friends,
Friends for life,
Brothers and sisters by choice.
(Then I wondered whether real family could qualify, also, as friends, or whether blood unavoidably locked them into a separate category.)
Then, under the name, I wrote one paragraph, beginning: “Such-and-such is my friend because ...”
I like some of the paragraphs and have kept the book amongst my others not-to-be-published. Let me give you a less private sample ... “Lasetter is my friend because we know each other so well we can have conversations without words. I sleep with him, but not when he has fleas.” (Lasseter, quite obviously, is a friend of the least judgemental species.)
It was an interesting project, but it had uncomfortably dark undertones. All those thunderclouds of assessment. All those judgments about others. All that weighing up.
I quickly stopped trying to evaluate and rank those who care most about me, and who I care most about, and feel embarrassed that I tried.
I replaced that project with a better one ... the single most successful New Year’s resolution I have ever made, to look after my friends better (and to use the word Friend in the broadest, most charitable sense).
We are a noisy species. I wish I had thought to tell my friend that long-term friendships can stand silences.
But perhaps he wouldn’t have heard me, or had time to listen.

 

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