by Mary Murray
It’s strange to think that your friend has been dead for a decade. The living you’ve done is a betrayal. The pints and crisps in beer gardens, pretending not to be cold; the windy beach walks, wet sand and cold toes. The favourite things you used to share together. For ten years your life has grown upwards, outwards. You’ve taken up more space, so by comparison, the part you shared with her becomes smaller. Now, the time without her matches the time with. Ten years is the anniversary you’ve been dreading.
Yet her life wasn’t a little one. It’s still here, with you, and the grief of it too. Like a pebble in your pocket that you reach down to touch, smooth, cling onto. It can change shape, too, size and weight; sometimes a speck of sand, the grit under a nail, a minute itch that you barely notice as you run about your day. Other times it’s a boulder rolling towards you, a crushing ambush. Paralysing indecision sets in, including the things you were so sure about yesterday. Then there are the worst days, when solid ground feels too fragile for the weight on your mind. You drag yourself to bed. It’s less lonely there. Solitude is comforting when the cacophony of socialising only deepens her absence. In these times, grief becomes a chasm in your body. You can’t help but look inside, edge towards it and fall out of the moment, forgetting the person you’re meant to be listening to, the email you were writing. In those moments, you can no longer grasp onto the fullness of this beautiful life.
And what about her grief? If that were to exist. Who have we lost? There was so much of me I hated at twenty-three, but so much I loved. That has gone too. It went with age, or perhaps with her. The joy and the shamelessness we felt, bounding around our hometown streets during the Edinburgh Festival, dressing as pirates for the improvised comedy show which didn’t exist. We were still unsure about what kind of movies our lives would become. We put in all that groundwork, the tumultuous early twenties, and only I graduated to the thirties, to appreciate that magic of adulthood. Because that’s a thing too.
The day we met, she wore plastic spoons in her hair. It was 2002 and they were woven into her short crop sticking out at all angles, pinched from the cafeteria earlier that day. A statement of creativity and individuality, or perhaps a criticism of our disgustingly disposable world. She always was ahead of the trend. Her artistic expression went beyond her years and her time; her bedroom wasn’t decorated with the classic posters of topless Justin Timberlake, but with homemade collages of festival flyers and niche artwork of underground bands. She introduced me to incense sticks and the sacrificial altar of a Celebrations Twirl (only to be consumed once you’d got over the boy you were obsessed with but who wasn’t into you). We spent hours in the school music room, not so much devoted to finessing our guitar talents but debating the concept behind our album cover (later to be shot with a disposable camera on a school trip, our pre-planned outfits hidden under our uniform, the ruins of a medieval castle our ambient backdrop). It’s no surprise that the only song we ever “performed” was the Softies’ ‘Over,’ with its nice ‘n’ simple CGFE chord progression. Is it funny, or cruelly ironic, that the chorus sings “everything’s over,” that its verses contemplate endings; flowers wilting, the sun setting, the ocean tide withdrawing, and the singer watching the only thing I ever really wanted slip away.
We were honest and raw with each other, as old friends always are. Perhaps too much. I cringe now to think at how we indulged our teenage narcissism, clicking on each other’s Bebo pages so the “likes” went up. The Facebook page creation game even escalated to groups advertising each other, literally. When closing my social media for good, a message popped up asking whether I would assign admin rights to “**** Needs A Man.” I pressed cancel. I’d love to see what she could have done with TikTok.
We were yet to enter the world of instant mobile messaging, of Insta and all the others, yet we made Facebook profiles for each other’s pets, for the fish we spontaneously bought one slow Sunday afternoon, and for the kittens we shared from my cat’s litter. With our furry and slimy family, we officially become a sisterhood, our mini-matriarchy. Now, I’d like to think I’m a reasonable human being who just remembers those days, smiles for a moment, then gets back to the Whatsapp they were answering. But it’s not always that easy.
As well as an artist, she was an entrepreneur. There were various stages before her thriving superfoods cocktail line; her latest and last concept. Forerunning highlights might include, but are by no means limited to, brainstorming of witty Hotmail addresses, made and sold to our peers (the lesser creatives) for various edible currencies (Space Raiders, Freddos) and I think actual cash for FenderBabe69 (buyer shall remain anonymous). Then came the opening teabags to roll into cigarettes for school trips phase, our downfall arriving when a lesser naive kid called us out for selling “fucking woodchips.” Thankfully our pursuits became more plausible with maturity. It’s funny to think how insightful hers seem now. I imagine her pop-up superfood cocktail stand would have queues lining the block, from Dalston to New Cross.
The same can be said for her spontaneity and curiosity. She was always keen to turn an opportunity into a moment of escapade and adventure: extending the cross-country run to include the perimeters of Inverleith Park and the Botanics, before caving into the shortbread on offer at the gift shop; our clandestine escape met an undignified end when a teacher drove by us as we limped back to school, crumb-covered. Or perhaps the most memorable is the regrettable decision to hire a tuk-tuk to take us all the way home to Stockbridge, after which we were fitted with a £35 late night bill (extortionate for 2006) and had to do a lot of dog walking to pay back her mum.
It’s that mischievousness I miss the most. In a decade I’ve met nobody who can match it. With her, you did the unexpected. In Yo! Sushi we used leftovers to design new recipes then put them onto the most expensive plates (purple?), adding them back to the conveyor belt to be consumed by the unassuming public; on a school trip in Barcelona, thrilled by the prospect of an elevator in a hotel and with an angry teacher waiting at the bottom of it, we created domestic scenes of potted plants and chairs which became more intricate with each iteration, soon including the lamps from our rooms and suggested teen-mag reading material. When the small scene pinged open in the foyer it did much for said teacher’s chagrin.
Those were the days of the house phone and the prank calls. We would perfect our Robin Williams impressions from Mrs. Doubtfire, or improvise role-plays of ordering a limousine for a cat, before giving up but not hanging up, instead holding the phone between ear and shoulder whilst going about our evenings, narrating our days. Which boys had emailed us on the school intranet, which CDs we wanted to buy on Cockburn Street, the next scheme to raise funds for an original version iPod (busking or home art gallery preferred to babysitting), or perhaps a discussion deconstructing the Mocha Frappuccino in comparison to its Caramel Cream rival. Would the new Mint Choc Chip be taking it too far? It was codependent friendship in the way it only can be when you’re a teenager, and in the way you’ll never have it again.
It was 2008 when she called me to say she got her place at Goldsmiths. Her voice was a whisper of disbelief. At art college, she explored and grew into her artist self. But with self-discovery came pain, perhaps underplayed, masked by the fun and laughs, or perhaps I just never looked closely enough. After university, I joined her in London and we celebrated with weeknights out in Camberwell, with dinners of salt and vinegar crisps (Squares, always the favourite) and reduced bakery products (breakfast for dinner, because we won’t conform to societal expectations). But we still didn’t really know who we were. We were dipping our toes into an adult identity, sometimes at a run, a leap, but at other times, it felt more like the slow lowering of oneself into cold water. Uncertainty stretched out ahead. Together we drank away those overwhelming feelings. And before we could discover any answers (indeed do we ever?), she was gone.
Since then, so much in this world has changed. We’ve crashed our economy (again) and dipped into austerity (again). And we left Europe because obviously it was the fault of the vulnerable, those people taking our jobs, not the privileged white guys who wanted more money to buy more stuff more conveniently at all hours (but what does that matter anyway, given that the world is burning to a crisp, having been shut down by a virus). I’d love to know what she would have made of it all. There was a Scottish referendum to decide our future, marches to put Britain First (gross) or to stay in the EU (let’s face it, Gerry Halliwell couldn’t make it solo either), and the same fully grown adult humans ran between parks and polling stations to chase Pokémon (myself included) and the elusive komodo dragon. Next, we dropped every legitimate ambition to rehearse viral Korean dances, obsess over cat videos and Kardashian baby names, and then become addicted to watching young lovers sparring it out on reality TV islands. Would she have joined the ranks of Extinction Rebellion, using her art to protest and raise her voice? Would my lovely friend have done something massive during the #MeToo movement? Back in 2003 she was plucky enough to pipe up to our gym teacher that we should be able to wear baggy shorts like the boys, not the standard uniform miniskirts. She was told to do another lap.
Every year, as life becomes richer, more complex, as there are more eureka moments, more self-discoveries, more languages, travels, careers, friends, more love and heartbreak — it can feel like a betrayal to leave her behind, back in 2013, static, waiting. Life was gifted to me and not her. And why? Over time I’ve realised that it’s not the right question to ask. There is no reason or explanation. It’s not about who is deserving. It’s just a random sequencing of atoms and hormones creating events that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can choose and even want.
The absence of her won’t go. There will always be a gap in the air. But ten years later, I’ve learnt that you might as well get to know it, walk around it, so you can see what there is beyond. Because there is so much. So much to grab for, to be inspired by, to marvel at. There’s so much to live for, even though I’ll always do it with a half-ironic half-glance into that empty space, hoping that, somewhere, she’s smiling too.
by Michael Thompson
Mary Murray is a writer, teacher, and adventurer from Scotland. Her debut novel was shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award 2022 and the London Library Scholarship. One of her short stories was longlisted for the Bridport Story Prize 2022. She lives in the hills outside Barcelona with her partner and border collie, Neu.
Michael Thompson is a Chicago-based artist who works in a variety of mediums including collage, fake postage stamps, assemblage, sculpture, kite-making and memory jugs. His work can be viewed at www.michaelthompsonart.com.