Thursday, 21 June 2012

The friendship cupboard

Recently someone I know, who shall remain nameless, had to put someone SHE knew into the friendship cupboard.  Me and the person I knew, who shall remain nameless, discussed it at length and decided that it wasn't to be a permanent banishment, just six months or so would probably do the trick. After that, the person in question could be released again and perhaps the friendship could resume. It's not a 'freezing out' situation, it's far more subtle than that, it's just a simple putting away and shutting the door for a while.

Female friendships can be tricky. We get close to each other, so we really know how to push each other's buttons. Or sometimes friendships just go out of fashion for a while. Someone you seemed to have so much in common with in high school can suddenly seem irrelevant if your lives take different paths.  But then ten years later, that same friend can come back into fashion when your lives converge again in some way.

 And instead of just 'dropping' an old friend never to be picked up again, the friendship cupboard can be a good way to give things a 'time out.'  Sometimes it's just a month or two. Sometimes it's years.  Sometimes it's a mutual understanding and no one's feelings get hurt. Sometimes not.

About ten years ago, I had to put someone in the friendship cupboard.  It pained me to do so.  She was an extremely warm and engaging person on a good day. But on a bad day, she could just be plain prickly. She had a sharp tongue: it was funny when it was aimed at other people, but no so funny when it came my way. 

We'd been friends since high school and had reconnected over the birth of children. She had her second child around the same time that I had my first.  She was a good sounding board for 'first baby' problems and gave me a lot of much-needed support as I flailed my way clumsily through the first months of becoming someone's mother.

She, let's call her Mabel, because that's not her name,  was funny and smart and we sort of reverted back to our old high school dynamic: she swayed wildly between idolising me one minute and finding me a complete disappointment the next.  Apart from that, I enjoyed her company and so I just kept my distance a bit from her.

One night Mabel invited me and my husband over for a dinner party at her house.  She invited another couple as well:  a girl from high school, someone I didn't know all that well, but was happy enough to catch up with. Let's call that girl Gertrude.
  "Gertrude has got the best singing voice!" Mabel said to me breathlessly over the phone. "She should be an opera singer, seriously, you won't believe it."
"Alright." I said, trying to cast my mind back to high school when I might have seen this nascent opera singing talent first appearing.

Looking back, Mabel may have been trying to put me in the friendship cupboard. Everything about the night seemed designed to repel me.

When we arrived, I was ushered into the piano room to hear Gertrude sing.  Mabel got on the piano and played some very thumpy, two-handed accompaniment while Gertrude showed off her opera quality pipes. 

I don't mind a bit of a sing around the piano, but there's got to be a time limit. I mean, you don't have to sing every verse and chorus of Don't Cry For Me Argentina, if people are standing around politely listening to you.  You give it a verse and a chorus then you finish up.

But Mabel was determined. They finished up on Evita and launched into some Porgy and Bess. All the while, I stood with, what I hoped was a politely interested and not at all put out that no one was asking me to sing, look on my face.

It's hard to put my finger on what it was about this whole exercise that got my back up.  I was two years into motherhood and feeling a bit invisible.  I had made a living out of singing in bands, then had a baby and had not sung professionally for three years. The first few years of motherhood can sort of suck you under.  You lose a part of yourself:  usually the part of yourself that is most tied up in ego and identity - your job, your talent, your special thing that you do that makes you, you.  It's necessary to put this part of yourself aside for a while, but disconcerting all the same.

So I was a bit touchy about the whole having once been a singer thing.

 And why was Mabel showcasing this other person. Wasn't I the singer?  I was very confused by the whole exercise until she said:

"Now you both sing together, see who's got the best voice."

And she pumped out a clunky version of Somewhere, my signature tune from the high school musical.

The most bizarre thing about this whole exercise was that Gertrude and I just complied and started singing against each other.  It was sort of a joke, but sort of not and it has to be said that Gertrude was really giving it some. She was determined to drown me out.

 Mabel was really enjoying it and I think in her head, we were two suitors vying for her friendship.

But the point where I decided to lock Mabel in the friendship cupboard for the better part of a decade was right at the end of the evening.

The night was winding down. People were starting to check their watches and cite babysitters.  Mabel, perhaps sensing we were all about to escape, announced that she had a special performance for us.  Her husband stared straight ahead as if he knew already what was coming but did not want to tip any of us off lest we escape and leave him to suffer it alone.

Mabel disappeared into the living room and all of a sudden Mariah Carey's Hero, blasted through the house at an illegal volume.  Then Mabel appeared in the doorway between the living room and the dining room, lip syncing dramatically.

She was very drunk and it was very funny... for about thirty seconds. Then it just went on and on. And it was very clear that our role as a group, was simply to pay attention to her. What else could we do? The conversation had dried up about half an hour before.

She swept out one set of patio doors and sang to the neighbours for a while, then came back in the other set of doors and sang at us again. At which point her husband got up quickly and locked the doors so she couldn't escape again.

She found another door and swept it open dramatically for the key change, she bowed out into the night again and her husband pushed her back inside. (It seemed a very real concern to him that someone would call the police and make a noise complaint.)

But Mabel was unstoppable. It sounds wild and quirky in the telling. But in the moment, it simply went on for longer than was funny or entertaining. And in truth, she wasn't so drunk that she wouldn't be expected to know better.

It occurred to me then that this was and would always be, my role in this friendship. To just be her audience. To let her do what she did and not question. I decided in that moment, when she went for the key change while we all sat there bored rigid, politely sipping our weak coffee (she made a dreadful cup of coffee, always) that it was time to put Mabel in the friendship cupboard.

It was a moment of pure clarity. I knew that night, as I said, 'bye thanks for a great evening' that I would not be seeing her again for a long time.

I even sent her a postcard a week later, as a final sign off. 

In she went. Into the friendship armoire. She's been in there for over a decade. I'd like to get her out one day, there is still something about her I find irresistible. But not just yet.

 Perhaps five years more for Mabel.


  1. Hi Miss Flanagan, how are you! I'm a fan of your ex band Club Hoy and is impossible found the song Oh Julian for download, can you help me please?

  2. Was it wrong that I laughed the whole way through this?
    Did you guys seriously drink coffee throughout the outrageous recital?
    She does sound a bit nasty but in a fun way- like the mother out of arrested developement?

    I totally get the whole friend cupboard thing though & may have to steal the term it claim it as my own ;)

  3. Was it wrong that I laughed the whole way through this?
    Did you guys seriously drink coffee throughout the outrageous recital?
    She does sound a bit nasty but in a fun way- like the mother out of arrested developement?

    I totally get the whole friend cupboard thing though & may have to steal the term it claim it as my own ;)

  4. Very accurate call on the Arrested Development reference. I have a real penchant for scary/funny people like that. And Yes, we just sat and drank our coffee, what else was there to do? Storm out and say, "I won't stand this nonsense for another moment!" It was just weird.