This is me and my friend Kara. The picture was taken at a school reunion about ten years ago, a confusing evening where I was reunited with several of the boys who picked on me in high school.
For four years they called me fatty, thunderously stamped their feet on the ground when I walked by and performed a gruesome mime of my wobbly too-big boobs, successfully dismantling my self-esteem and sexuality until I left school believing myself to be a yeti, a gigantic beast-girl who should be grateful to be selected for attention only by middle-aged, married, fat men.
So it was confusing, on this reunion night, to hear these same boys, now middle-aged fat men themselves, each confess to having been secretly, wildly in love with me.
What shade of fucked-up masculinity is that? It marked the day I stopped reassuring my then nine-year old daughter that the boys who were horrible to her in school probably secretly liked her; stopped encouraging her to accept cruelty as a way of showing love.
I don’t remember anyone ever bullying Kara. She was so damn hot. She was so slim and sassy and untouchable. She rocked the mullet hairstyle like a pop star pin-up (it was the 80’s), her multi-coloured eyeshadow and shiny, glossed lips in constant contravention of school rules. And she was tough. Hard, as we called it back then, meaning she could fight. She made me feel a mixture of awe and deep, deep jealousy.
We first locked horns in the PE changing rooms, that perfect setting for hidden girlhood insecurities to bubble into confrontation, all of us paranoid about the range of bodies on display, from vests to starter-bras to DD’s. Kara was giving another girl an unfair ribbing about something I can’t remember now, her toughness misdirected at that age, yet to find its rightful target in the real world. I stepped in with my heightened sense of injustice, developed through years of bullying at primary school. We exchanged excellent insults. She was razor-sharp. And like a scene in a buddy movie, we recognised each other. Neither of us needed to win the battle. It ended with her saying ‘fuck off Anna Macgowan’ and me saying, ‘no, you fuck off Kara Deakin’. And that was it. Mates.
Years of discos, smoking, drinking, shoplifting and dicking around in class followed. We were always friends, but never best friends. Her crowd was tougher and rougher than mine. She was growing up in the town, I was closeted in a posh village. When my mum died, I turned things around and started studying for my GCSE’s. The same year, Kara got pregnant and had her first son.
Thirty years happened. We had Facebook. We met a couple of times. And then, a month ago I entered a smoke-filled room to find Kara sitting there, fag in hand, laughing and holding court with a group of friends, looking as stunning as ever and no older (I told myself Botox must be involved, PLEASE LET THAT BE SO) and as she stood to hug me, her wobbly, weak legs were the only sign that she is now dying.
The smoke-filled room is in a hospice, where dying wishes and small comforts are the only care package. If you need a brandy they will bring you a brandy. The time for healthy living has passed. It’s all about minute-to-minute relief and peace. And Kara, beautiful Kara, she was peaceful that night.
When I say peaceful, I mean she was honking like a fucking donkey and talking without taking a breath, telling stories of her family, her grandkids, her work and her life, introducing everyone to everyone, telling everyone how she was dying and had accepted it, making it easier for everyone around her to accept it too.
In the hour I spent with her, the room filled and emptied with a steady stream of friends and family and I got the strong feeling that her life has always been like this, that these people surround her always, every day, not just today, now that cancer has arrived and given her weeks to live. We all seemed so grotesquely healthy and alive by comparison. And yet for all our jokes and vibrance, the strongest personality in the room was still Kara. Always Kara.
Until Alan walked in.
And my God do I want to use all the light-based clichés to describe what happened. He lit up the room. She lit up at the sight of him. He beamed his bloody excellent self all over her. She shone in his presence. It was fireworks and spotlights and the HEAT – there was a sudden and glorious warmth.
Her husband. Her match.
They met eighteen months ago. Married within a year, six months before cancer came in to steal their future. He calls her his beautiful woman. On their wedding day he posted on Facebook, ‘Married my dream woman. Words aren’t enough’. He says she’s the best thing that ever happened to him, that she makes him a better man every day and has introduced him to better red wine. He’s a professional darts player and she goes on tour with him whenever she can, both of them photographed together, so proud and happy to have found each other, to have been able to make their complicated lives work around each other. They had no choice. They fell in love. That was it.
As I sat next to him at her bedside, him ruthlessly taking the piss out of her whilst gently stroking her leg and looking at her with a mixture of infatuation and devastation, I found myself overcome by a rush of the most cunty feelings.
I was jealous. I was jealous of a dying woman.
Not because I want to die, but because I don’t want to die without ever having someone look at me the way Alan looks at Kara, without ever having someone call me their ‘beautiful woman’. No cruelty. No confusion. Just love.
On our own outside, Alan told me how he’d never really been in love before he met Kara. Yet he wasn’t angry about her dying. He said that considering this was always going to happen to her, he was just happy they’d already met so he could help her and her kids through it. He also said he was through with love. There will never be another Kara. And that, of course, is true. Although I’m sure she’d agree that Alan’s capacity for love and fun deserves to find another match one day.
Two weeks after I saw Kara, the twat that is life struck me and sent me into hospital. The return of a lovely chronic bowel condition I hoped I’d seen off years ago. A week of surgery and pain and morphine (the one upside) and there’s more surgery and pain and morphine ahead. I’ve faced it not entirely alone. Many friends and family have held me, beautifully, through it. But in the dead of night, in the grip of pain, it’s just me. And I’ve thought of Kara and Alan constantly. He’s there with her through all the pain and darkness. She trusts him to be there. Because he’s shown she can trust him.
I know I am a lucky fucker. I will live through this illness. I will live to see this Christmas. Kara may not. And that breaks my heart. But she and Alan have given me a gift better than anything I could put on my Christmas list: a renewed belief that proper love exists. And it doesn’t take the form of cruelty, of being made to feel not good enough, insecure, unloveable. Kara and I have both had more than our share of that kind of ‘love’ in our lives.
No. If it comes, it seems it will feel warm and bright and right. I just need to be ready for it. And for my bowels to heal, ‘cos that shit won’t play too well on a first date.
And if it doesn’t ever come, I will be as warm and bright as I can be on my own. Because Kara and Alan have shown me that it’s better to be actually alone than with someone who makes you feel alone.
Kara, you will live forever in my memory, in that PE changing room in 1986, with your mullet and your eyeshadow, telling me to ‘fuck off, Anna Macgowan.’
Now you must fuck off, Kara Deakin. Oh, how we all will miss you, but never forget you, you magnificent, beautiful, bitch. ❤