I need a drink. But I can’t go to the bar, because three of my friends are staring at me. They are willing me to agree to a plan which, in hindsight, should have sent me running—but which I am about to go along with.
It’s my first year of university and, having lived cheek-by-jowl with 600 other students for little more than a few weeks in halls, we are suddenly being asked to subdivide into clusters of future housemates. After several painful female friendship heartbreaks at school—with the “best friends” on whom we pin every hope and dream turning out to not be forever after all—my confidence has taken a nose-dive and I’m convinced that I will be rejected. The pity pick. Someone has to live with her… you do it… no, you.
What this feeling means is that I am desperate to make friends with anyone who will have me. So instead of taking my time and seeing whom I might connect with, or joining societies, I latch on to the nearest set of girls with whom I have little in common but a corridor.
The four of us are sitting on my lumpy single bed when it happens.
“Claire, do you want to live with us next year?” says Naomi, in a sing-song voice.
My heart almost bursts out of my chest.
“It’ll be so fun,” cries Leonie. “We can go out all the time and everything.”
What “everything” means, I’m not sure, but I want to find out. Perhaps this is my entry to the secret club of BFFs at last. Maybe I am finally finding my “tribe”.
The reality turns out to be far more complicated. It’s no secret that many of us struggle with friendship at university – living away from home for the first time, with all the expectation of forming close bonds for life and few responsibilities other than making that happen. It’s a high-pressure environment that is bound to boil over for some.
Until now, I had buried a lot of what went on during my second year. Dredging it up has been pretty upsetting. At times, I’ve had to confront my own less-than-ideal behaviour, and I’ve been forced to understand that my former friends may not even recognise themselves in this story. They will no doubt have their own perspectives on everything I’m about to tell you. But by sharing mine, I hope that anyone experiencing a similar situation might begin to recognise toxic traits in a friendship and step away, saving themselves heartbreak down the line.
If I’d been able to, I might never have taken part in the Great Bedroom Swindle.
The plan is this: we are picking numbers to decide who will sleep where in our new five-bedroom house. Naomi is the self- appointed leader: pretty, quick-witted and self-deprecating—but not without taking you down with her: “You’ve got such lovely eyebrows, even though they meet in the middle.”
Leonie and Poppy are her numbers two and three. Crucially, all three already know each other and have mutual friends. Looking back now, that should have been a red flag: university is not where you go to meet a girl clique and try to insert yourself into it. But at the time, it seemed to me like the pinnacle of female friendship.
Malia, the last housemate, is another girl from our halls—someone who doesn’t seem to have a ready-made squad either and seems happy to fill the space.
Our new house-to-be has a master bedroom with a king-sized bed, two comfy medium-sized rooms, along with one much smaller rabbit hutch that can barely hold a single bed, and one bedroom downstairs, with a window that faces the street, at which the clientele of the nearby chippy enjoy hurling their empty cartons.
The three girls now staring at me want to make sure none of them is lumped with the hutch. What they are suggesting is that we pre-pick the numbers one to four at random, choose which bedrooms we want (one being the first to select), then when Malia arrives at the pub, we go again, pretending that we haven’t already done so. This time all the pieces of paper in the draw will have the number five written on them to guarantee that she is the resident rabbit.
“I’ve got number one!” the victor will exclaim, having already swiped the king-sized room and swiftly hiding her slip with the number five on it.
Carefully, I weigh up my options: