North Melbourne. 1989
She was my bohemian gypsy girl. Wild untidy hair. Fingernails bitten down to the quick. Chinese happy shoes that slapped as her large feet trod past the Commission flats and Victorian terraces on our way to school.
She wore second hand clothes in a rockabilly fashion long before the word “vintage” was even a thing. Part of this was style choice, part economic necessity. She never had any money. We would go around begging the boys at school to borrow 5 cents here, 10 cents there so we could rush to the canteen for chips and potato cakes. She would bat her huge dark eyelashes and unleash all her charm and the boys could not resist. Although we always vowed to pay them back, I doubt we ever did. We just spent it on Summer Rolls and Almond Snickers.
She was musical and played the piano with no technique and all the bravado of someone who had true talent, not just lots of piano lessons. Her bedroom walls were plastered with postcards of The Beatles and it was here that I learnt about the Fab Four. In my house – where there were lots of piano lessons and much less talent – Tony Barber’s covers played (the Brashes discount sticker still proudly displayed on the cassette case). At her place we listened to A Day In The Life and watched the movie Help on the VCR.
We watched Help on repeat. Over and over we saw George walk into the bathroom to have his shirt sucked into the hand dryer and we howled with laughter. Great belly laughs, the kind that had us clutching our sides, abdominals aching, hyperventilating from lack of oxygen.
One of my strongest memories is the pure joy we got out of making each other laugh. Belly laughs that happened while you hung upside down on the monkey bars were even more hilarious. We chortled and snorted and honked and gasped until the tears came. Tears that leaked out of her huge brown eyes and (because she was upside down) rolled past her eyebrows and up across her forehead until they dripped on the tan bark. In that exquisite moment I thought I would die from happiness.
I loved her. She was my best friend. She was my sister. She was everything I wasn’t. And everything I wanted to be. She was perfection.
The Beatles were the soundtrack to those long lazy days. We were young teenage girls, mooning over boys, an earpiece each holding us together as we walked the streets listening to Paul and John crooning through my Walkman. We thought nothing of reading Sweet Dreams books alongside Antigone. We dreamt of the future where we were going to speak French and act on the stage. The whole world was ahead of us.
Time passed, we went to different schools and things moved on. Sometimes I would see her at the tram stop – both of us in vastly different uniforms. We were curious about each other but the chemistry was gone. No more big belly laughs – now polite conversation.
A few years later she had a child. I bumped into her at the pub with her beautiful, grubby, snotty nosed toddler crawling around the floor. The toddler had those same huge eyes, the same gorgeous lashes. She asked to borrow money. “Ah,” I thought to myself with a fond smile as I opened my wallet. “Still scabbing money for food.”
Twenty years have passed since that encounter at the pub. We hadn’t seen much of each other in between. She hated Facebook but her friends posted enough to tell me what I needed to know. Her musical talent did amount to something and she regularly performed the live gig scene. There was another child. A husband. A step son.
And then. Facebook – the social media confessional she so hated – told me she had taken her own life.
How to reconcile my laughing, happy shoe wearing, hopeful friend with someone in such despair she would leave behind two daughters and a husband? How could someone so full of hope, talent and joy be no longer of this world?
The selves we were at 12, 13 and 14 years old were so full of potential and promise. We were supposed to grow old together. We were supposed to continue to bump into each other at that same tram stop when we were old ladies. I would be more conservative in my cardigans, she would be more eccentric with a lavender beehive and fluorescent glasses. Anecdotes and photos of grandchildren would be swapped.
And afterwards I would go home and say, “Today I saw my old friend Matilda.”