Julia Helen Grey and I first met each other at 2 years old in the local playgroup – essentially pre-pre-school that provided us heady days of poster paints, soggy biscuits and dusty fluffy toys in the local village hall in Halewood, Liverpool. Our eyes met from across the room and we scoped each other out. Me, jealous of her beautiful dark, glossy bob haircut; her, mesmerised by my complete lack of anything in that department (“You did have hair!”, my Mum cries, “it was just really fair!”. Sure. I wonder how many times people complimented her on her beautiful baby boy whilst pushing me around the supermarket?). But as we are often told, opposites attract, and it wasn’t long before we became mates.
At 3 years old, we were cruelly pulled apart and sent to different nurseries. I still had access to the poster paints, soggy biscuits and dusty fluffy toys, but it wasn’t quite the same without my buddy around. In my time without Joowa (as ‘Julia’ would come out as from a baby scouse mouth), I was to experience toilet paper that you could literally use (and I did) as tracing paper, ‘outdoor play’ where every child would fight for the Little Tikes car (and I was upturned on more than one occasion by one particular horrible boy), ‘indoor play’ where every child would fight over the rocking horse before fighting over the sandpit, and a particularly imposing Father Christmas who scared me and made me cry for what felt like a week. They were challenging times.
However, little did I know that at 4 years old we were to be reunited. It turned out that both of our families were practicing Christians (with my Dad being the vicar of St. Nicholas’ Church, or just “Saint Nick’s”), and so we were both to spend the next six years of our lives at Halewood Church of England Primary School. We would choose each other to be our partner for group work (she was killer at maths and I did, and still, suck at it, so it was the obvious choice), we would hang out together at break times (she was the most serious collector of football swap stickers, whilst I was more of a Pog kinda girl), and we would play at each other’s houses after school as we lived across the road from each other (we both reached ‘proficient’ level at Hungry, Hungry Hippos). We both fancied the same boys in our class (which is still an exceedingly awkward predicament even at 8 years old), we would both die laughing of embarrassment every time my Dad took the morning assembly and brought out his clarinet to play, and we would both be picked out by teachers for ‘important’ tasks (yes, we were the goody two-shoes kids). We absolutely loved our time at that school, and were both devastated when we hit 11 years old and were to go our different ways once more.
“Big school” beckoned at the age of 11. I went to Liverpool College while Julia went to a high school in the local town of Widnes, and so we moved from seeing each other every day to just at weekends. Now we were older, we swapped making dens in the local park for cinema trips, and swapped playing with dolls to playing on my Nintendo 64. Somewhere, I have a brilliant picture of us towards the end of the 90’s with the obligatory sports brand t-shirts and addidas tracksuit trousers. Cool to the end, Jules and I.
Despite having new friendship groups and separate social lives, the events that always stood firm for us were (and are!) going for a curry when both home at The Raj in Woolton Village (where we spend 3 hours chowing down and chin-wagging), our birthdays and Christmas Eve. As we realised that we perhaps didn’t spend as much time together as we should in order to be extra-super-connected, we made a pact: our presents to each other would reflect our childhood fun – the more random, the better. So cue giving each other bubble guns, ‘grow-your-own spaghetti plant’ seeds, animal balloon modelling kits, sherbet fountains, edible playdough… I think my mum enjoys me opening my presents from Julia even more than I do!
So school days end, and University beckons. She heads off to study music at the University of Manchester (where I did my Ph.D), and I stay closer to home at the University of Liverpool. Older and wiser, we start to talk about more mature things such as plans for the future and how our studies are going, alongside other topics such as last night’s episode of ‘Neighbours’ and whether Toadie was an idiot for trying to go through with a fake marriage to Steph to cover up the fact she is pregnant with her best friend’s husband’s baby (he was). You know, the stuff that life generally revolves around. After University, I go on to my postgraduate studies and she begins her new life as a music teacher. At the end of my first year, I was offered the position of Student Support Astronomer for the Isaac Newton Telescope on La Palma and so jetted off to warmer climes for a year. Not forgotten, she came to visit me for a brilliant week of sunshine, volcanoes and ‘papas locas’.
I remember the day that she first told me about this new Spanish member of her church, on one evening out at The Raj during one of my Christmas trips home from Chile. Having come to rainy Liverpool from sunny Seville (I still ask myself “why?” to this day), she told me about her private Spanish lessons she had started to take with Pablo and was wondering at what point they were going to stop calling it ‘lessons’ and start calling it ‘dating”. It wasn’t long before they officially became a couple, and seemed solid from day one. Pablo is a fantastic guy, and I couldn’t be happier for my oldest friend to have found such a traditional romantic. Plus, we all know Spanish-speaking boyfriends are the best 😉
I love to know that I am still thought of by the people most important to me. After the Christmas celebrations, we had a Skype call together – a rare event as we both HATE talking on the phone with people! She catches up with all of my current events, and then starts off with her story. “So I was supposed to be meeting Pablo to go to a concert at the cathedral, etc.”, culminating in how she was handed a box, and inside was another box… and down it went like a group of Russian nesting dolls until she reached one last, small one. A beautiful diamond ring glinted back at her, at which point in the tale I start squealing at my laptop as she does the big reveal of her left hand. She’s engaged, brilliant! “And so we were wondering,” she continues, “if you would be one of our bridesmaids.” Cue more squealing, and immediate acceptance of this great honour. I may be on the other side of the world, but I would be at that wedding come hell or high water. Luckily for me, or perhaps through some divine intervention, she chose her wedding date – 19th July 2014 – to be just 3 days after my PhD graduation ceremony at Manchester, meaning I was already going to be in the country. It’s always useful to save on an extortionate airfare!
The wedding itself was beautiful, and I am still gutted that I wasn’t around to help with the preparations and carry out my bridesmaid duties. It took place in St Nick’s, our childhood church in our home village mentioned at the start of this piece, which I hadn’t set foot in since my Dad left as the vicar there in 1995, and they were married by the vicar of my Mum’s current church. So lots of familiarity surrounded me on this day. A brilliant, relaxed service had me in tears as they exchanged their vows in both English and Spanish for the benefit of both families, Pablo never once taking his eyes off her. The whole wedding party surrounded them as they signed the marriage register as husband and wife, relief flooding through Julia’s body as months of planning finally paid off. We celebrated through the rest of the night with a 3-course dinner, touching speeches with translations in the relevant language (with Oscar and I getting a special mention and a round of applause for having traveled the furthest to attend!) and Ceilidh dancing with a live band, before the new couple drove off to prepare for their Italian honeymoon the next day.
All I can say to you, Julia Helen Renjifo Reina, is thank you for being such an awesome, reliable, eternal friend. You are the founding member of what I refer to as my “home team” – the friend who is always still there when I go home no matter how long it has been or how far away I was, and the friendship is just as though I never left. Here’s to another 26 years of curry feasts at The Raj 🙂
Hasta la proxima,