"I guess I'll, er, see you... when I see you?" I say and we hug each other under the bright fluorescent lights of the night train as it pulls into my station. We are on our way home from a farewell that she'd planned, my farewell, which involved the two of us scoffing cheese fondue and red wine at an underground restaurant in Sydney - the kind with exposed brick walls and waiters with dubious French accents.
We'd spent the night reminiscing on some of our favourite escapades. Like the time I moved house and she came over to help re-construct my IKEA bed (without instructions, might I add) and we couldn't stop laughing because we had no idea what to do. Or when she frantically called everyone that she knew with a dog ahead of my birthday to arrange a surprise canine visit (we juuust missed out on a sausage dog puppy, I'm told, but it definitely wasn't for lack of trying).
The train stops, doors open and I stand up, clutching the balloons she bought for the occasion - a rose gold heart and another which reads 'you're the best'. This is it, the moment we'd been dreading for months, and I can't bring myself to look back at her.
As the doors close behind me and my feet touch the platform, instead of bolting up the stairs to the main road, as was habit, I just stand there, peering up at the window where she was still sitting. She looks back, tears in her eyes, and all I can do is wave. Seconds later, the train starts to pull away and then she's gone. I'm moving to the other side of the world and I have no idea when I'm going to see my best friend again.
That was two years ago. Of course, a lot has happened since.
We first met at university. It was the beginning of a new semester and our cohort was congesting the corridor outside the lecture theatre in the way only first-year students do. And there Katie was, this girl with long blonde hair who'd just moved to Australia from the UK. She was warm, magnetic, had a contagious laugh and used endearing slang like 'faff' to describe the on-campus book shop. I instantly wanted to be her friend.
Years passed and we went through uni together, seeing each other in the odd class and occasionally crossing paths at parties. But it wasn't until we both started working at Cosmopolitan Australia that we became close. Within weeks, my uni mate had turned into my work wife and my best friend. She's the kind of person who would slide into your inbox at 3pm to ask if you wanted a cup of tea in the kitchen. She knew all the office scoop, because she's the kind of person that people just want to confide in.
She was the first person I told about a job I'd seen in London, and the one who squealed with excitement down the phone when I found out I'd actually got it. As thrilled as I was for the opportunity, I was also worried about what would happen to us. Everyone knows long-distance relationships are hard, but how about long-distance friendships? Were we naive to think we'd stay as close when we were going to be so far apart?
We resolved to Facetime every week to ensure we stayed up to date on each other's lives, and we'd visit each other as often as possible. But being 17,000kms away, and 11 hours in time difference apart presents some serious logistical obstacles. She'd wake up at 6am Sydney time for our calls, and I'd stay on the phone until it was 2am London time, exchanging life updates, gossip and funny stories. I'd wake up to photos she'd sent of cute dogs she'd seen on her walks. We'd arrange for champagne and flowers for birthdays and special occasions - we remained each other's cheerleaders.
Then coronavirus hit. While I was fortunate enough to stay in full-time work, her employer put its staff on part-time furlough. Her upcoming work trip to London was suddenly cancelled. Flights to Australia were backed up with ex-pats trying to move home while they still could. And, as if that wasn't enough for her to juggle, a few weeks later she was diagnosed with skin cancer.
When a loved one's going through grief and turmoil, there not much you can say that will make it better. All you can really do is listen and be there for them. But when you can't actually 'be there', popping over to bring them meals or sitting alongside them on the couch as they unload, there's a new kind of distance that can form.
I wanted to support her, but I didn't know how without overwhelming her with messages and calls. She needed me, but I couldn't be what, or more specifically where, she needed. So I'd send texts every few days, checking in just to say I was thinking of her, and I was always here to talk. I sent chocolates from her favourite shop and cards 'just because'. While I'm not entirely sure how much any of this did, it seemed to lift her mood a little, and that's all I could hope for.
One of the things about Katie, though, is that she's one tough cookie. When she called to tell me about her upcoming operation, she was clearly unsure about what the scarring would look like. But she joked, "well there goes my chance of being a Victoria's Secret model". Rather than dwelling on how she would struggle to make ends meet having her pay cut in half indefinitely, she set up her own side-hustle with a co-worker - a cool branding and content studio called Studio Wednesday - to keep herself busy. She just kept going. She is the most resilient person I know, and also the most compassionate. Those months were hard for her, and I also experienced loss on this end, but we kept trying to pick each other up.
Thankfully, the procedure was a success and Katie is now back to working full time again, with her (hella successful) studio kicking its own goals. We continue to catch up every few weeks, and we always lose track of time - just like before.
Life comes in ebbs and flows but the most important thing has been going the extra mile to show we're thinking of each other and committing to making it work. Of course, our long-distance friendship has had the extra curveball of us still not knowing when we'll be able to hug again, but we're nothing if not logistical pros now. We might be in different jobs, different relationships and, quite literally, a world apart - but ever since I've known her she's taught me what friendship really is. Timezones and distance are just numbers.
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