My friend was smart, sweet, off-kilter. Now we’ll never get the chance to make up | Hadley Freeman

A friend of mine died recently – still only in his 30s. People keep telling me how sorry they are, and of course I’m sad. He was such a presence that I feel almost haunted by his absence. But it’s also more complicated than that.

I met N at university, where he was two years below me. We started hanging out the summer after I graduated and he was taking some time out – his choice or the university’s, I can’t even remember now. Along with my boyfriend at the time, the three of us created a triangle of faux domesticity: we were the 21-year-old parents constantly breaking up and making up, and he was our slightly hopeless 19-year-old son, following us up and down the Portobello Road because he had nothing else to do.

The boyfriend didn’t last, but N did. People who had known him longer warned me against him. “He’s a nightmare,” they’d say. But he didn’t seem like a nightmare to me. He was so smart, and sweet, and I liked how he never bothered with small talk but always insisted on discussing the big things: politics, philosophy, history. Sure, he was a bit odd at social gatherings, and he had a tendency to hero-worship people who did not deserve his adulation, but he didn’t seem difficult. Merely slightly off-kilter. I always had a weakness for people like that.

I knew he had a hedonistic side, but our times together were ludicrously wholesome: we’d go swimming in the ponds in the summer, or have tea in cafes. If he flirted for a time with the cliche of the bohemian poet, he also had enough awareness to salt the stereotype with self-mockery. And my God, he was beautiful – ludicrously so, with hair that fell in his eyes like a teen pin-up. Not that he seemed to care; nor did he notice the men and women glancing at him as we walked through the park.

Once he finally finished university, N tried to be a foreign correspondent, the career that attracts lost souls the way black holes suck up stars. But things never quite worked out: the publication folded, or he fell out with the boss, or he broke up with a girlfriend. After a while, I stopped keeping up with the specifics. The chaos of his life unnerved me and I preferred to see him as the 19-year-old who used to walk through London with me. I liked the simpler version.

We both grew older and even though he had a son – my godson – he could never quite get a foothold on life. I went to New York for a few years and when I came back, he proudly told me how he’d really got himself together, by which he meant his entire life now revolved around AA meetings. The next time I saw him he was living in a squat and wearing makeup.

He occasionally talked about what method he’d use to kill himself, but something in me chose to believe he was being dramatic. Then, a few years ago, when he did try, I told myself it was “just a cry for help”, even though he never said that. As if a cry for help is ever a “just”.

Do other people see their friends clearly? I never do. To me, they’re always fixed in the time when I met them, like figures in a photo, so it’s easy to miss the cracks that appear.

And aren’t we all busy? So busy! The time for leisurely three-hour strolls with a friend on a Tuesday afternoon, talking of everything and nothing, is long gone. Now, at most, I’ll send a quick “Thinking of you” text while sitting exhausted on the sofa, in the air pocket between work and kids and bed.

N saw his son on the weekends, and for a while I’d join them – going to the playground, the cinema – but increasingly I was irritable with him. He would tease me about my rigidities, AKA having to work, and had no understanding that most 38-year-olds don’t want to be running around at 10pm on a Sunday night. When my sons were born, he wanted to come around and make me sushi, which was odd, but kind. Yet I said no. What else could I do? The last time he came over for dinner, he stayed for a week and left heroin in my bathroom. God, I’d say to friends: what a nightmare.

Last year, we had a big fight. He’d fallen out with most of our friends by then, but I was one of the last ones standing, until I wasn’t. I called him the next day and told him how angry I was. He sent me pleading texts over the next few months, which I barely responded to. I knew we’d make up again, but I also felt relieved at having a break. Then one morning this month I got the call I should have expected, but didn’t.

I’m sad but also mad – at him a bit, but mainly me, for not understanding that the self-destructiveness I often dismissed as performative had long ago become serious. I don’t blame myself for having boundaries, but I should have understood that whatever internal scaffolding he’d once possessed had long since collapsed.

He wasn’t a nightmare, he was my friend. And in the end, I let him down.

In the UK and Irish Republic, contact Samaritans on 116 123 or email In the US the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. International suicide helplines can be found at


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