I’m not sure exactly what time of year it was in 1997 when I got the phone call that sent me sprinting into the back garden. When I look up the Wikipedia entry for the Hale-Bopp comet, it must have been January. Because I remember that it was really cold and I ran into the garden without a coat on, and yelled with delight when I spotted it.
On the other end of the line was my best friend in high school, Becky. When she called, all she said was “Hey! It’s out!” and I knew it was the comet she was talking about. That’s the kind of seamless friendship we had back then. We didn’t really need to explain anything to each other.
And there was the comet, hanging in an unusually crystal clear winter sky. A visitor from so far away. Who knows how many times it had streaked over these skies, oblivious to two teenage best friends jumping up and down in the frigid cold, hysterical with delight at having spotted it. The very memory of both of us will be long gone by the time that comet glows over these skies again.
When Becky started at my school in the September of 1996, the year I moved to the UK, I remember being so grateful that I wasn’t the new girl any more. I’d started school with barely six weeks left until the end of year 9, and it had been rough going.
A mega nerd, I’d made few friends since by then everyone had established their social circles. Geeky with glasses and frizzy hair I didn’t know how to tame, I was initially fascinating to my peers who interrogated me about whether I had lived in a shanty town and if I’d come to the UK on a boat.
But I didn’t know what the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was about. I’d turned up thinking that my thorough examinations of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers was all I’d need to get by in an English school. I was so clueless that I remember braiding my hair on the first day and thinking “Gosh, I hope some boy doesn’t dip the ends into an inkwell!”
At lightning speed, I fell further and further down the social ladder until I reached the very bottom. Here, in this social Mariana trench, friends were few and precious. So when Becky turned up, I remember thinking I would try my best to be nice to the new girl.
We hit it off instantly in the way that only two nerdy teenage girls obsessed with Japan and sci-fi can. Before long, we were inseparable, two manga-loving peas in a pod who turned our noses up at the other girls and their stupid obsession with boys. What did they know? They’d never watched Akira! Our language was so scattered with obscure references to Japanese culture and anime we might as well have been talking to each other in code.
Our idea of fun was pestering the librarian at our local library for more books on Japan, and when we discovered we’d read everything there was to read, we backtracked and started taking out the same books to re-read. There wasn’t enough Japan in the world, we would consume all of it, sitting in our boring little city in the West Midlands.
One day I looked up and said “Hey have you heard of a series called Robotech?” It had been my favourite cartoon series to watch just before we moved to the UK, beamed in on a wobbly satellite channel.
“Of course!” she said. I couldn’t believe my luck. When everyone in school reminisced about BagPuss, I had no idea what they were talking about. At last here was someone who was on my wavelength, who’d somehow grown up consuming the same material I had despite being on a whole other continent.
I’d found a best friend who was my perfect counterpart. We were exact copies of each other. Hours and hours were spent poking fun at boy bands and writing David Duchovny fake fan letters complete with his fake replies, or theorising about the plots of the X-Files series. We were MTV’s Daria and her best buddy Jane, but better. We were Kyoko Date fans before the internet was there to make our obscure fandom easy. Becky recorded a news bulletin off the TV onto a cassette tape and we tried to sing along to the virtual pop star’s hit, Love Communication.
Once during a free period, we took a sheet of paper and drew three big, balloon letters – K S O – the Japanese word for shit, and proceeded to fill it in with all the things we thought were stupid, like the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, makeup, the Spice Girls and more.
Becky seemed to have an endless capacity to surprise me. When she said she drew a little, and shrugged as she pulled out a few drawings, I was astonished. If you knew Becky, you know it’s not an exaggeration to say that her paintings were so lifelike they were like photographs.
Another time, she started belting out a Nazia Hassan song and my jaw dropped. She’d heard it and liked it, she said. So she’d listened to it until she knew it off by heart. Why was I even surprised. Here’s that song’s video clip which pays homage to – you guessed it – Japan:
Japan, we decided, was our dream destination. We even had a theory about why we were both so obsessed with the country, and decided that we had been two Japanese best friends who had died during an earthquake which made the cave we were in collapse on top of us. We never bothered to fill in the details about what our past-life versions were doing gallivanting in a cave. That wasn’t important. Things like that didn’t matter. It was just another pointless detail as far as we were concerned.
“Time is a concept well known to man. Just for today, be a sunflower!” Becky would say to me repeatedly in a silly voice. She’d pinched that phrase from the TV show Frasier. What did time matter anyway?
It was the perfect friendship. Until I wrecked it by falling out with her. One of those stupid fights that teenage girls seem to be so good at having out of thin air. By this time, we’d been glued to each other’s sides for almost three years. Becky wasn’t a nerdy 14 year old any more. She was nearly 17, and she was blossoming into herself. She was trying out makeup and cut her insanely long hair off into a stylish bob. Meanwhile, I was still as nerdy as ever. Her braces came off as mine went on. Boys still made fun of what I looked like and my prickly personality, while she was mellowing and becoming an approachable swan to my grumpy ugly duckling.
Maybe I felt she was leaving me behind. We were both meant to be nerds forever, always believing that boys are idiots until infinity. Here she was growing up and becoming a girl who wanted more than fake fan letters to David Duchovny. So I made a stupid teenage decision and incinerated the best friendship I’d had, after which, I was too stubborn to go back on what I’d done, even though I missed her terribly.
Time passed and we lost touch when we went our separate ways after sixth form. As I entered my 20s, I thought about her often. But I had no idea how to start looking for her. I looked on Facebook – Becky Kirby, Rebecca Kirby, Beckie Kirby. But nothing. Even if I’d found her, what would I have said? I’d acted like such a jerk to her for no reason.
And then, she reached out to me after I’d already moved to Athens. A tentative little email that began like this:
Whilst watching TV this evening I remembered a song by Nazia Hassan of Young Tarang called Dum Dum Dee Dee which reminded me of you, that’s what made me think ”I wonder what Omaira is doing now?” and that’s why I’m mailing you now!”
She had found me, and I was handed a second chance to resurrect our friendship. We fired emails back and forth trying to catch up on each others news. And my mind was flooded with the memories of our endless, joyful days spent in each other’s bedrooms drawing. We couldn’t type fast enough, there was so much to learn about the years we’d missed in each other’s lives.
Time seems to have warped since yesterday. It goes too fast, then it goes too slow. I am trying desperately to remember everything I can about you. Why can’t I remember everything?
Rebecca Bennison, Becky Kirby to me, was only 36. She was kind, hardworking and dedicated. And oh my goodness, so talented as an artist that it made your heart hurt a little. She is basically every good memory I have from 14 to 16. She leaves behind her incredible husband Warren and two wonderful daughters.
Thanks, cancer. You have a real talent for taking the good ones.
So many things that we’d like to say, we just don’t know how. I see you at 15, standing on my doorstep on a gorgeous spring day and jokingly saying with a grin “Wanna come play out?”
I don’t really know why I’m writing this post. Actually, that’s a lie. I do. Tell the people you love that you love them. If someone is special to you, tell them that. I of all people should have learnt my lesson by now about how short life is, how we don’t get second chances. Don’t wait for a better time. Even if you don’t know how to say it.
It’s freezing cold in Athens and 22 years have passed since I looked up and saw a comet silently streak its way across a winter sky. The skies are cloudy here tonight.
You have been on my mind all the time since yesterday. Japan seems to be everywhere I look all of a sudden. You were supposed to beat me to going there. I went on Instagram to try and distract myself, and I saw a picture of a cosplayer dressed as Sailor Moon.
It made me cry all over again. We were both nuts about Sailor Moon. And you were lucky enough to have all that super long hair which you’d sometimes style into Sailor Moon buns. I pulled up your old emails but I can’t get myself to read them. I see the last message I sent you on Messenger. I knew you weren’t well. Why didn’t I say more?
I was coming home on the metro today and the soundtrack from Lost in Translation started playing on my playlist. I started crying in a carriage full of strangers. You were one month, one week and one day older than me. Now, I’ll be older than you for the first time.
I am so full of regret that I didn’t tell you how much I loved you as a friend when I still had the chance. And now you’re gone, and I will never get to say it to you.
Just for today, be a sunflower.
If only I could be a sunflower for a day.
Becky’s family pulled out all the stops while trying to save her life, and it has decimated their finances. A fundraiser has been set up here.
I hope you’ll donate. Trust me when I tell you that Becky would have done the same for you.