The Holly Tree by Gabby Colvin
It took me leaving the school I had attended, leaving the close group of friends I had maintained since around the age of fourteen, and moving to a different sixth form to realise that some people just don’t have good friends. They had instead, people to pose in pictures with, people to go to pres with and people to eat lunch with. I had no doubt, however, that if they made (heaven forbid) some fatal social faux-pas they’d be, in a best case scenario, held at distance for a while, and at worst, edged out in that cruel, pervasive, non-confrontational way teenagers somehow manage to wordlessly strategise and conceive. It was a strange and bizarre situation and I couldn’t help but wonder why certain people were willingly involving themselves in this charade; pretending to like people and pretending to be convinced of other people’s poorly managed acts. Things I thought were assumed in all ‘friendships’ suddenly weren’t anymore. Like if we’re at a festival and you’re not in a good way I won’t hesitate in looking after you. Like if your boyfriend’s flirting with me or anyone else, I won’t hesitate in telling you. Like if you’re passionate about something, I won’t take the piss out of you. Seemingly simple, inconsequential, common-sensical things. That’s not to say that I didn’t meet wonderful people there, people that I’m still friends with to this day and who have proved to be the beautiful exception to a clichèd rule, but, I’d be lying if I said we looked back on some of the characters and the situations we encountered there fondly or indeed, at all.
Then I left for uni, the Summer before-hand being filled with the cool relief of not having to deal with the falsity and pressure of it all anymore, not having to try and negotiate a newfound self-consciousness with different social boundaries and undisclosed shared histories.
In the weeks of that Summer, I realised that I had managed to accumulate a group of friends who really knew, trusted and supported me, despite not having seen some of them for months at a time ( I had been pre-occupied in a cycle of dedicating all my time to, and then crying over the same boy). A schoolgirl error which even the best of us have fallen foul to, Emily Bronte herself having astutely understood the miscalculation when she wrote;
Love is like the wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree—
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
And yes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also want some wild roses. Roses that are smart, funny, kind, and tallish (@gabs.colvin if you’re into short, soon-to-be-unemployed-arts-degree roses that care about their friends).
The sense of peace and comfort I felt around these people remained an emotional cornerstone for my years of university that have followed me since. One moment stands out in evoking this steady assurance . It’s a small, broadly unremarkable moment. A group of us sat on the woven Ikea rug of Sam’s floor, eating quorn chicken nuggets, Jana having flown back from Berlin to see us. Limbs flopped over each other in a sprawling disregard for social boundaries, flicking through phones, every now and then someone starting up conversation or falling asleep. It was a comfortable silence. Being around them was a purging of tension I didn’t realise I had been feeling; a small nagging hum that reminded me to sound impressive or be excited about flatmate’s La Haine/Submarine/Trainspotting (delete as needed) poster. Like when you leave a big social event for the toilet and end up just sitting or standing there for a moment, readying yourself in the backstage.
The memory is small but it’s a potent one for me nonetheless, one that evoked, as pretentious as it sounds, Raymond Carver’s words in What we Talk About When We Talk About Love.
‘I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.’, he writes.
And then, ‘even when the room went dark’, after watching The Wedding Date, the worst and best that noughties romantic comedy has to offer, did I realise
how lucky I was to have people in my life I felt this comfortable around.
What I’m trying to say then, is that the best friendships are the ones in which you can truly be yourself, truly relax. Good friendships are like Raymond Carver or Emily Bronte or like going to the toilet at a wedding and ending up sat on instagram for ten minutes. And, if this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that any friendship I can maintain whilst having absolutely nothing of note happen in my life asides from a bad case of glandular fever, is a friendship that will be there for me when the real stuff happens.
The things which slowly, over time, have entered our lives. Daunting, proper grown-up things that we feel like we’re too young to deal with. And then, the horrible, unimaginable things that we are definitely too young to deal with. I’ll proofread it for you. Don’t walk home in the dark on your own, I’ll call an uber for you. I’ll get your stuff from his for you. I’m waiting outside A&E for you. I’ll pick up your sertraline for you. I’ll drop your sister off for you. I’ll go to the funeral with you. Inexplicably momentous moments that feel too big, too dramatic, to comprehend.
So this Summer passed. And as we were forced to spend our time the same way we did when we were fifteen: Reading, fondly known as The Carpark of London to some, entreating us with its same meagre but charmingly singular form of entertainment (drinks by the river, swimming in the river, drinks to warm you up after swimming in the river), I looked around at the shadow-strewn faces of girls I had known since I was 12 and boys whose BBM pins Maisie had inevitably procured and distributed at the age of 14 and I knew, without a doubt, that I cared about these people more than I could articulate.
So yes, roses are beautiful . But at the end of the day - the care, the support, and ultimately, the love that has always picked me up and that will always be there for me? I met that love when I was fourteen.
I’m currently a student at Manchester University studying English and Drama. At university, before the pandemic, I worked directing and producing theatre productions as well as co-hosting and producing weekly radio shows at Fuse FM as part of the student radio station. The future beyond graduation is looking decidedly undecided for an arts student working predominantly in a sector which is barely limping along in the pandemic [that also might just be because I’m a libra] but I will always maintain my belief in the power of story telling, no matter the form and particularly when these stories are about the wonderful people in my life who inspire me, Ria very much included.