It’s like we were the same person: Colette McBeth on the power of female friendships

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by Colette McBeth

I met my best friend on my first day at a new school. We were eight years old. There was a spare seat next to a girl called Helene and my teacher instructed me to fill it. From that moment we slotted in next to each other, like two missing pieces of a jigsaw. Helene taught me things, like how to pretend to be ill to get out of lessons. She would go first, telling the teacher she felt sick. I followed five minutes later. The corridor smelt of damp coats and packed lunches but we were happy sitting there, just the two of us marvelling at our own ingenuity. Until one day we were sent to the nurse who told us we had a temperature of 101 and sent us home. We were off school with tonsillitis for a week. After that, pretending didn’t seem so much fun.

By summer, our victory in the three-legged race proved what we already knew: we were almost the same person, moving at the same rhythm.

There are a whole series of firsts that punctuate teenage life. We shared most of them. Like the day we dared each other to wear a bra to school for the first time even though I most certainly didn’t need one. Or the school skiing trip when we were caught scaling the balconies to get in to the boys’ room. Later we’d go to our first rave together, telling our parents the same story that we were going to see a band. We took our first foreign holiday together without parents, in Greece with three other friends. We smoked so many cigarettes we had lost our voices by the second week. We were seventeen, one of us got there on a free child’s place.

Looking back at these memories it’s easy to think our relationship was always harmonious. It wasn’t. Helene made me cry and scream in frustration and anger. We found inventive ways to torment each other. For much of our school years we were engaged in a subtle, unspoken battle against each other: for popularity, to win the 100 metres, to come top in French, to be the most popular with boys. The thing is, you want your friends to be happy and successful, but not so much that they totally eclipse you.

Recently, Helene admitted that if my home phone was busy when she called, she’d phone our other friend’s number. If that was engaged too she’d know we were talking to each other, a conversation to which she wasn’t party. When you’re 15, you don’t like to be left out. Back at school on Monday I’d be made to pay the price without understanding what I had done wrong. She’d make jokes at my expense, try to get the third girl in our trio on her side. She wanted to wind me up. She almost always succeeded.

Another bone of contention was fashion. I was desperate to find my own style yet as soon as I bought something new she’d go out and buy the same. I felt suffocated. We still argue about this. She says it was the other way around.

Once we didn’t speak for eight months, though if you ask me now I can’t remember why. Sometimes you realise that being around your best friend makes you feel small. You need time apart to breathe again and grow. In hindsight I can see there’s a natural ebb and flow to relationships there are times you think there’s nothing left between you, that you’ve hit the bottom, but the special ones survive, find ways of restoring themselves.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that I wrote my first novel about a close female friendship. I know first hand how those relationships can breed jealousy and resentment. In Precious Thing I took that to the extreme; it wasn’t difficult to see how, at the right time, in the wrong hands, the closeness could become something else entirely—a catalyst for obsession and revenge.

My own best friend isn’t impressed when people say the novel is based on our relationship. If you read it you’ll understand why. We’ve known each other thirty years now and those years have bought us a lot—laughs, wine and brutal honesty: “no you do not look good in that dress”—but she draws the line at being compared with the characters in my novel.

“It’s fiction,” I reassure her.

The truth falls somewhere in between. When you have had a close female friendship you understand that at their worst they can drive you to the edge of sanity. We’ve peered over the precipice a few times, thankfully we’ve always stepped back.

Precious Thing 200McBeth photo 200 Colette McBeth was a BBC TV Crime Reporter for 10 years. Publishers Weekly describes her debut novel, Precious Thing (St. Martin’s Minotaur, March), a “haunting first novel…McBeth imbues her characters with layers upon hidden layers, keeping readers guessing until the end,” while Kirkus calls it a “spellbinding thriller.” McBeth lives in London with her husband and children. 

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