The bond between besties can be intense, but it doesn't have to become competitive

Date

Kate Mildenhall

Best friends forever...when not competing with each other.

Best friends forever...when not competing with each other. Photo: Stocksy

It's 1969. Mum is 16. Her best friend, Maree, is a year younger. They meet in the afternoon to plan their outfits for a party that night: granny-print dresses to mid-calf, hair out and flowing.

At the party, Mum sits fiddling with the hem of her dress at her shin, buzzing with anticipation, waiting for Maree to arrive. And arrive she does. She appears in the doorway, tosses back her hair dyed with Magic Silver White and everyone turns to stare at the bold slash of her hem against her white-stockinged upper thighs. She has cut off her dress. Her eyes gleam with triumph.

Perhaps I inherited the bruise of that memory through Mum's DNA. My taste for competition might have its roots in such a moment. Or perhaps the flip side of friendship is always competition. It's this spark, this frisson, that allows us to love our friends with our entire selves, to love them and, at the same time, to want to outdo them.

My best friend and I met in year 7. It was quick and astonishing. She blonde, me dark. Two loud-mouths. Two drama queens. Both with a deep desire to be the best. To be the best at school, at creative pursuits, but mostly - and we did this with a passion - to be the best at showing our love for each other.

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It began with small gifts. A green glass bottle and a coloured candle that dripped wax in its '90s faux-gothic way. I adored it. I felt I could not compete. In year 8, she sent roses to the office at school over a minor heartbreak of mine. I walked back through the corridors holding them to my chest, my heart blooming - and sinking, for I would never have thought to do something so declarative. How could I ever match such a gesture?

By the time we were 15, I'd got my act together. I had a family friend build a wooden chest and I covered it with photographs, things we loved (Leo and Claire as Romeo and Juliet), notes and poems. I used words, because words were my currency. I lacquered the beast of a thing and insisted it be filled with the memorabilia of our friendship. It has, like us, stood the test of time.

For my 18th, she asked a boy I had loved from afar to write and record a song. I cannot think of it without tears. She arranged a photo shoot of all the people I loved - and it was bitter-sweet to see the book that was produced, for me to witness an occasion where they celebrated me but I was not there.

That year I matched her. I sewed her a huge quilt. I distributed patches, sequins and strict instructions to her friends and family and roped in friends' mothers to sew the unwieldy thing together.

Then came my 21st. What would my best friend do? A surprise on a hilltop where she gathered my friends and 100 helium-filled balloons, each inserted with a memory of me. They were released into the sky as we drank champagne, and inside I trembled with the enormity of the three short months until her coming of age, and how I would match this.

I couldn't.

She loved me still, of course. More, perhaps, when she bested me.

I knew that because I felt it, too. The thrill of out-gifting her. It was not only her reaction I was after, but the look on the faces of everyone else. My mum's best friend's legs would not have looked so long, her choice of dress so sophisticated, had she been one of two in such an outfit. Just as those balloons drifting over the hills would have been excessive and ridiculous had it only been my best friend and me watching them go.

We equated great love with great extravagance, but that could only be measured against the crowd. And we did this before it became commonplace to post filtered images of such events for the whole world to see, tagging them #ilovemybestfriendmorethanshelovesme. Thank heavens we came to our senses.

We laugh about it now, as Mum and her friend did. We finish each other's sentences as we recollect those years of one-upfriendship, happy to take the piss.

And we quietly acknowledge that burning coal of better and best was once a fire that could have consumed us. A flame that may have scorched, but ultimately forged us. •

Kate Mildenhall is the author of Skylarking (Black Inc., $25), out now.