Two people meet in the centre of Belfast. The venue is a bookshop café. They hug. It’s a long, savoured hug because they haven’t had a chance to catch up properly in ages. She’s rarely in Northern Ireland now and when she is naturally, she spends her time in Derry with her beautiful wife, Sara. The two chums finally release and scrape two chairs into position. One friend, Lyra, is a renowned author. The other, William, not so much.
“Sara sends her love.” He is told.
“Oh, I’ve already returned it,” comes the reply, phone raised in emphasis. The friendship, even in middle-age is one of fun, loyalty and silliness. He insists on pinching her glasses and putting them on to perform an improv’ reading of the news, it always makes her burst into her wee giggle. Lyra insists on ordering a hot chocolate with marshmallows and it arrives in a cup which is larger than her head. She needs both hands to manoeuvre the cup to her lips, William has to fight back laughter at this cuteness.
“What?” She demands with a puzzled smile.
The first interruption arrives. When this happens she always apologises to her friend, but she shouldn’t. It thrills him more than her. A mother and daughter, both having recognised Lyra from the TV where she often challenges detached politicians on their failure to help young people have just bought two of Lyra’s books. The huge cup of chocolate is set down. Best wishes from Lyra McKee are penned beautifully upon the inside cover of each of the books, the eyewear, just retrieved from William, must be discarded for a moment as Lyra doesn’t refuse any reader of hers a selfie.
Their friendship is at a stage where nostalgia is great fun. They recall the night the news broke that same-sex marriage would finally become a reality in Northern Ireland. William had phoned Lyra, who put the call on speaker phone so that Sara too could join in the tears and the joy, discussing the huge equal marriage rallies they had attended in Belfast in 2015,17, 19, and 20, before the victory was won a year later. Now, in December 2030, Lyra still looked like a teenager. Whereas most would kill for such luck, Lyra always became embarrassed by this.
They recalled how they met. In 2013, when they had challenged each other’s politics on social media and agreed to take the debate further in person. It would be the start of their affair of coffee dates, and the start of what was for William a life-making friendship.
That night in Neros, their discussion was quickly swept aside as an elderly woman at an adjacent table fell ill with breathing difficulties and their team effort to calm the poor lady and fetch her a glass of water became more important than whatever they had disagreed upon two minutes earlier. Friendship at first sight. Yeah. To hell with any cliché klaxon, that’s what it was.
As they drained their cups, William took Lyra’s hand and reminded her of how beautiful both she and Sara looked on their wedding day, and how proud he was to have been part of it. That fantastic night in Donegal he had seized the ten-minute conversation he wanted at a discrete table whilst the other hundred danced, drank, laughed, and rocked the boat. He reminded her of the first rally in 2015. Of how she had succumbed to her emotions and told him how proud she was that such a protest was taking place, on such a scale, and that he hugged her close and promised that as she would dance at his wedding, he would dance at hers, because even Northern Ireland couldn’t stay locked behind the times like this forever. “Who would have me?” She’d replied in self-doubt. William had just tutted his annoyance at his friend’s lack of confidence and later regretted not saying aloud what he had thought inward, someone both lucky and wonderful. William then made clear to Lyra that whilst he loved his own sister to bits he was selfishly saddened that she had made her life in Scotland, leaving Lyra (who was two years older than his biological sis’) as the wee skin and blister whose company he would need, and love, and whose glasses he would steal for silly skits, and whose blushes he would ignite when he would insist on approaching potential dates on her mortified behalf.
They stood from the table and as no fewer than three young people apprehended Lyra clutching books and bearing smiles William said goodbye with a wink. As Lyra took hold of the first book she broke from her admirer’s compliments and winked back. Best to leave this Irish treasure to it.
There was stuff they didn’t talk about on that coffee-date. The time Lyra had posed as William’s girlfriend to secure him a doctor’s appointment when she was (correctly) concerned for her friend’s mental health knowing he wouldn’t make one for himself. They didn’t discuss the time William and his wife were living apart and, realising what a broken state he was in insisted on speaking to him on the phone through the night until he could sleep because she never wanted him to feel alone.
They didn’t talk about the time William had said something stupid on social media. Something about which he felt awful. Lyra and Sara once again spoke with William through the night assuring him of their understanding and helping him realise above all else, probably for the first time, what real, loving, friendship looked like. Understanding, non-judgemental, just being there.
As he left the shop he stopped at the large table upon which an impressive pyramid of his friend’s latest offering had been built. Upon the wall behind the display was mounted a large portrait of the author.
William smiled. “And rightly bloody so.” He said aloud.
Someone. Some young person, filled with hatred that need not have been, holding a gun which need not have been held, under the false impression that this was somehow good for Ireland, did something horrible. It didn’t rob me of the friendship I had already had with Lyra, I will always have that. It robbed me of the lifetime of friendship I was looking forward to having with her. The celebrations we were going to mark together. The oceans of loyalty and silliness which were still to be enjoyed. If you have a friend whose friendship you cherish so much that you are already looking forward to its future chapters then don’t wait until tomorrow. Call them now. Give them some stick. Ask them how they are. Laugh about the first time you met. Make silly plans for the coming weekend. Tell them how sure you are that their problems will not beat them. Insist that they give their other friends a big hug from you. Ask after their parents. Compliment them on what they’re good at. Thank them for the support they continually give you, especially if there have been times when it was perhaps more than you deserved. Let them know your phone will always be switched on. Thank them for never switching theirs off. Real friendship is the greatest, warmest thing in the world.
Thank you, Lyra. Thank you for the fun, thank you for the loyalty, and thank you for the silliness.
Love you mate.
Progressive Unionist, worker, Ervinian Loyalist, BA (Hons).