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Creative Nonfiction Friendship

‘Make sure you bring some paper and a pen’, said Lynne.

We were off to a fortune teller called Ada. I always thought fortune tellers were rubbish, but Lynne was convinced they could predict our future events. I was in my early 20s and a dedicated people pleaser, and if Lynne wanted to have her palm read - well, so be it!

‘Why do I need paper and pen?’ I asked, confused by this request.

It turns out I was supposed to listen carefully to Lynne’s reading and report precisely what the fortune teller had said. Lynne said that Ada was very thorough, and Lynne wanted the full details in writing, so we were to take notes for each other’s readings and then swap them. I thought the whole thing was daft, but surprisingly, I still have Lynne’s notes from my reading all these many years later. Only when I look back to that late afternoon, sitting in Ada's sitting room, do I realise what a self-obsessed and selfish person I was. I found Lynne’s palm reading really dull, whereas my reading was fascinating but frankly disappointing. 

Amongst the many things she forecasted, Ada told me: 

‘In your later life, you will meet a young foreign man who will come to mean a great deal to you.’ 

I had perked up at this point, as frankly, all I wanted from my palm reading was to hear I would meet a handsome, wealthy man who would fall madly in love with me. Ada’s words ‘later life’ were disappointing. In my mid-20s, my later life was of no interest to me. Older people were just dull, and to suggest that in later life, I would meet a young, foreign man who would come to mean a great deal to me seemed inconceivable. 

‘Is he handsome?’ I wanted to know.

 Ada, clearly wondering why I hadn’t noticed the age difference that had been mentioned, seemed to tut and replied: 

‘No, not that type of relationship. A deep friendship but not a romance.’

Frankly, I couldn’t comprehend what she was talking about. Ada's prophesy that I would meet a young foreign man who would mean a lot to me but not involve a romance struck me as bizarre.

As we left Ada’s and swapped notes, Lynne eulogised over the palm reading:

‘Well, that was £2 well spent. Isn’t she wonderful?’

But as we left clutching the handwritten notes from our palm readings, I saw the words ‘a deep meaningful friendship but not a romance’. I honestly felt I had wasted my £2.


I would occasionally think of Ada; amazingly, some of her prophesies from all those years ago had happened. The forecasts were not the kind of events I had hoped for and mainly included deaths or illnesses - but they were precisely as Ada had prescribed. As I began to age, the prophecy of the young man who would mean so much to me slowly faded.

I also remembered Ada's prophesy that I would travel. 

‘Well, that was a weak one, Ada. Everyone travels nowadays….. Boring…. come up with something interesting that will happen to me!’ I thought.

However, as one year rolled into another, it turned out that Ada was 100% spot-on with her travel forecast. Senior Gap Years suddenly materialised just as I hit my 50s, and my first significant travel adventure was to Malaysia, where I worked as a volunteer zoo keeper in the Ape Centre of Kuala Lumpur Zoo. I was enchanted with my orang-utan charges and, at the end of my year abroad, did not want to return to the UK. I tried a few other animal-related travels, such as sloths in Costa Rica and elephants in Indonesia, before finally admitting that the travel bug had a real grip on me. By my mid-50s, I left the UK for good and went to work in South-Central China at a state-run university. In those days, China’s economy was not that robust and lacked many goods and services taken for granted in the West. For instance, decent coffee, sweets, or deodorant didn’t exist. A complete lack of cleaning liquids and equipment caused the generally low level of hygiene. (Within a few years, all this changed as foreign goods flooded our University Campus.)

On top of everything else, most Western social media was banned. Google, Facebook, and YouTube were prohibited, and until Virtual Private Networks (VPN) became accessible in China, it was impossible to gain entry to the rest of the Western world. I couldn’t get an English-speaking TV network, radio was usually very unstable, and Skype rarely worked, so friendships were essential to me.

My sisters were shocked and tried to work out how I would survive in China without Western goods and services.

‘Surely you won’t stay? What would make things easier for you?’

‘I must get a friend, and then I think I’ll be OK’, I bravely replied.

I made great friends with Andrew and Marlena, and they introduced me to their friends. Despite being considerably older than my new friends, I had a great time. Andrew and Marlena shocked me at the end of the academic year by telling me they were leaving China and not returning.

‘Will you look after "O"?’ Marlena asked.

"O" was a good-looking, very youthful-looking, immature boy prone to being incredibly sensitive about most things. "O" came from Kyiv and had lived in China for about three years. He was 26, and I was 55, and I couldn’t imagine how we could get along as we seemed entirely different people. In the past, even when there was a massive age gap between myself and my friends, I had never noticed or worried about it. But with "O", I did. His immaturity really showed, and I felt our relationship could only be that of a mother and son or a teacher and pupil rather than a friendship. As I had never wanted children to suddenly have a sensitive 26-year-old who couldn’t even speak my language foisted upon me, really didn’t appeal. The Chinese shopkeepers frequently asked "O" if I was his mother, and being convinced that I was an attractive, youthful-looking woman, I would be furious and take such questions as an insult. This boy and I were never destined to be friends! His mama! How dare they! 

I quickly indicated to "O" that he was expected to improve his English if he wanted to be my friend. I failed to add one single word of Ukrainian or Russian to my repertoire, whereas "O" rapidly became fluent in English.

So, how did our friendship develop into a strong platonic relationship lasting nearly 15 years? One word sums it up - trust. "O" and I, like many people, had our secrets. In contrast, in the past, I had shared my deepest, darkest secrets with carefully chosen people, "O" had ferociously clung to his and had determined that no one would ever know his secrets. 

As time passed, I found, to my surprise, that I needed "O". One of my greatest fears was loneliness, particularly living in China, and I knew that if I didn’t get "O" to trust me, our acquaintanceship would be unlikely to last long. "O"’s shy, quiet personality hid a great sense of humour, resulting in hours of laughter and joy. He seemed happy to spend time with me and would take me to Chinese cafes that, left to my own devices, I would never have gone to. The massive City we lived in was almost devoid of Western foreigners, so shops or services had rarely been exposed to the English language. It was enough of a shock that I had blonde hair and wore lipstick, let alone deal with the amazement that the rest of the world was not fluent in Mandarin. It was impossible to get a Taxi as I could not request a location in perfect Mandarin or, even better, the local dialect. I found it too hard to pronounce anything. If I knew the actual word, I would mangle it completely. Excluding students, not one local person would spend time or effort on a foreigner swirling their tongues aimlessly around their Western mouths, innocently reinventing Mandarin. Without “O” able to show off his very competent Chinese, I doubt I would have stayed longer than a year. As it was with “O” by my side, I stayed eight years. I explored most of Nanchang's enormous, meandering environs, which were prone to changing dramatically every four months or so - different roads, road layouts, and buildings would change our city drastically.

“O” claimed he was a Loner but later confessed he yearned for a friend. It was obvious that I needed "O" to trust me implicitly. I knew I required him to fully display his precious hoard of secrets or accept that our friendship could never be anything more than a superficial acquaintance. At some stage in our relationship, I had decided he was remarkably easy to hang around with, and I didn’t want to be dumped.

It took many months to feel relaxed enough to share my hidden past of illness and addiction problems. "O" took this in his stride as his father had experienced significant alcohol problems. By my mid-50s, I was amazed that immature "O" had become my ‘turn-to’ person whenever my teaching caused me to suffer anxiety or emotional tensions. After many months of coaxing and slowly sharing my most profound and often dark secrets, "O" finally told me that despite being a virgin and having never had any relationships, he knew he was gay. I had always been aware of "O"’s sexuality and his fear of anyone finding out without him explaining this to me, but I was thrilled when he finally decided to share his big secret with me. Being a Brit, I couldn’t initially understand that homosexuality was a huge problem in Russia, Ukraine and China. "O" and I spent many hours discussing our hidden selves and were thrilled to have found in each other someone who would never judge us. Sharing our secrets had effectively sealed us into a lifelong friendship.

During my time in China, as our friendship developed, we travelled to many Asian countries that either shared borders with China or were close by. To my utter amazement, I found that our travels brought us ever closer and closer. We shared similar likes and dislikes; we enjoyed the same food, cafes, entertainment and areas to visit, and our holidays were great fun. We both truly adored expensive shopping malls without intentions of buying anything. Living in an area of China where luxury goods were exceedingly limited, we got a real kick out of looking through shop windows and visiting the lobbies of 5-star hotels.

After a year or two, we eventually moved next door to each other and would pop in and out of our respective flats many times a day. I cooked our main meal each evening, and he cleaned and tidied up. After dinner, we watched a programme on our laptops or sat and chatted endlessly. 

As I was nearly thirty years older than "O", the day came when I was informed that my retirement was fast approaching and I must leave China. I was heartbroken to be saying goodbye to "O", and he was distressed by the thought of my going. Most foreigners who had come to live in China always assured us that they would keep in touch but have yet to do so. I wondered how long "O" and my friendship would last once I left China.

Our friendship, however, continued despite us living in different Asian countries. We spent Chinese New Year (January or February) holidaying together in different countries yearly. We would have at least one video call every weekend and often dropped the odd short text to each other during the week.

In January 2020, "O" and I set off for our annual holiday and chose Jakarta, Indonesia, as our location. Just before flying out, someone had spoken to me about COVID-19, which had apparently emanated from China, particularly Wuhan, close to where "O" still lived. It seemed to be nothing to be concerned about at all, and off we set, excited to see each other after our year apart. Towards the end of the holiday, his university rang to say that he had to return to China urgently or he would lose his job. He needed to know that he would go straight into quarantine (at the time, this was still very unusual). We thought China was nuts. Jakarta was jumping with excitement and buzz, and there didn’t seem to be any apparent illness. We packed and set off to our respective countries, assuring each other we would see each other next year.

"O" remained in China, but most other foreigners had returned to their home countries and immediately lost their Chinese jobs. No friends or acquaintances were left once "O" came out of quarantine. The Campus, which usually had a population of about 90,000 wandering around, now had fewer than a thousand, none of whom "O" knew. In Thailand, where I lived, there was little to moan about. I still had friends; cafes were open, and the virus was under control, although the streets were noticeably much quieter than the usual boisterous noisiness of Chiangmai. None of us seemed to experience poor mental health, and we were all determined to make the most of a bad situation.


I doubled my efforts to keep in touch with "O" at weekends while he experienced the dystopia of a closed-down country. We had yet to learn that almost four years would pass without being able to see each other or go on holiday. During the four-year hiatus, there were many changes to endure, and the importance of our weekly calls became paramount to ensure our positivity in life whilst facing ongoing global situations.

In 2023, China opened its borders, and Thailand was awash with Chinese visitors. “O," and I busily made plans to meet up. Still wary of anything going wrong between China and the borders, we decided to meet in Hong Kong so he could quickly return to mainland China should anything go wrong.

In August 2023, I sat anxiously waiting for him in the Reception of our Sheung Wan Hotel in Hong Kong. As I sat staring out the Hotel’s Reception window, searching for my friend, I thought of Ada’s words: 

‘In your later life, you will meet a young foreign man who will come to mean a great deal ……a deep friendship but not a romance’.’

I still remember sneering at the time: ‘What, no romance? What’s the point in her telling me about this potential young foreign man who will offer me friendship? Who’s interested? - not me!’. 

“O” and I have been close friends for over 14 years. Perhaps Ada wasn’t quite so daft after all. Wonder what was supposed to happen to Lynne - and did any of it happen?

Looking up the road, I suddenly saw my buddy in the oppressive humidity of Hong Kong in August, dragging his suitcase behind him, and it took all my inner strength to control my surging emotions. Despite being 42 and 71, we were determined to celebrate the important birthdays of 40 and 70, our joint celebrations that had been missed due to Covid. 

I began to hop from one foot to the other as I watched the lift ascend to the 2nd floor, still trying to comprehend the strength of this friendship. The doors finally opened and revealed an emotional "O"! Dropping his suitcase, he rushed to my open arms and squeezed tight.

‘My son, my son, I'm so glad to see you’, I murmured into his sweaty neck.

Laughing and joining in the agreed greeting, he said: ’Oh Mama, Mama, I can’t believe it’s been so long’, and plopped a big wet kiss on my cheek.

September 01, 2023 08:16

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1 comment

Mary Bendickson
19:48 Sep 01, 2023

Devoted story. Lovely.


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