‘The first time I saw you, do you know what I thought?’

Janet steels herself.

‘I thought, that woman looks like she ploughs her own furrow. You stood out from everyone else – no one else in our street strides around with their pockets clanking with tools. I couldn’t take my eyes off you! I wanted to get to know you. I didn’t really know how to go about it… It’s harder to make new friends outside work when you get older. Most of our neighbours are families with kids so they’re wrapped up in all that. But I thought, stop making excuses, Bev, give it a go.’

In The Invisible Women’s Club, we meet 72-year-old Janet Pimm, who loves her allotment plot but longs for companionship, and middle-aged Bev Bytheway, a Scottish midwife who is struggling with the perimenopause and fighting for women’s healthcare. Janet and Bev are a classic ‘odd couple’. In terms of physicality, personality and life experience they differ in every way; one is gay, one straight, one married, one single, one retired and one a busy midwife, one is lonely, one is dying to be left alone, one is a desperate optimist and the other is just desperate. This set-up makes for misunderstandings and upsets to abound, and at the same time enables two very different people to find connection and commonality. Ultimately it is upon the women’s differences that a firm friendship is built.

From the outsetI wanted to write about female friendship. Specifically, I wanted to write about new friendships that are forged later in life. I was curious – why is it that as we age, we tend to stay committed to the long-established friendships we have made over the years, but don’t necessarily feel like we have as many opportunities to make new friends? What keeps us back? Fear? Shyness? Time? What factors might stand in the way? Family? Work? Routines? For most of my life I have worked as a performer and am very familiar with stage fright, the sudden fear of not being able to go on stage or remember one’s lines. ‘Age fright’ shares similar feelings of anxiety. There is always a risk inherent in making a new friendship, yet later-in-life friendships can have the same charge and excitement as the ones we made in our twenties. And these friendships aren’t limited to people our own age. As well as wanting to explore what we can discover in a later-in-life friendship I also wanted to look at intergenerational friendships. Many of us have treasured friendships with people whose ages differ by decades to either side of our own, a factor which can enrich the ways in which we help and support each other. 

Humour is such an integral part of female friendships. There is nothing that cements a friendship more, at any stage of life, than those laugh-till-you-cry moments.”

Intergenerational friendships allow us to shapeshift and swap preconceived or expected roles and behaviours. As a woman in my 50s I value the wisdom of my friends in their sixties and seventies. I love how they model ageing, how they break the rules and make their own, what great advice they give based on their lived experiences. But I also love the moments when they are the ones who exhibit the vim and verve, who try new things, take risks, who are uninhibited and wild. Janet is old enough to be Bev’s mother, but it is Bev who takes on the more maternal role, and in doing so allows Janet to be both vulnerable and reckless. Both women enable each other’s sense of mischief, at different times each takes on the role of the ‘straight woman’ to allow the other to misbehave. ‘Acting one’s age’ can mean any variety of things!

Humour is such an integral part of female friendships. There is nothing that cements a friendship more, at any stage of life, than those laugh-till-you-cry moments. By the time Janet and Bev get theirs they have well and truly earned it, having, amongst other things, survived a night in the wild, shared secrets of grief and betrayal, and broken the law by covering the walls of Hastings Council with menopause-themed graffiti. I love the raucousness of female friendships and think there is something revolutionary about women’s laughter.

In thinking about long-term friendships, I remember those excited conversations in the early years, acting as fortune teller for one another, conjuring the lives each of you might go on to have. Now I am in that place, I am having that life. Some of the things my young friends and I imagined back in our 20s came true, some didn’t. But when we meet now, we laugh as uproariously as we did back then. Our conversations are just as intense, and just as vital. And they are also ordinary, everyday which is part of their beauty.

When Janet hears Bev speak of her as her friend she says,

‘My friend, there it is again, like a bee landing on a flower – so mundane and so exquisite.’

The Invisible Women’s Club celebrates brave, bold, tenacious women who fight for each other and for what they believe in. It lauds the wit and wisdom of older women, their friendships, their voices and the power of their laughter. I love the activism of older women, whether it’s celebrity octogenarians like Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin still marching, still protesting or the older lesbian visibility of Miriam Margolyes out and proud on the front of Vogue. I so admire the generation of women who are currently speaking out about gender-based ageism, about the lack of medical training and treatment options for menopause. If we’re north of 40 we have experienced those daily slights, being looked through, looked past or hidden away entirely, seated at the back of the restaurant by the toilets. Age renders women invisible but friendship can make us feel seen. Janet is almost immobilised with loneliness but her attempts to find friendship backfire and she feels unlovable. The irony is that the person who has seen her from the start is Bev. Bev sees Janet for the woman she is. She sees aspects of Janet that Janet herself has lost sight of. In some ways Bev the midwife delivers Janet back to herself. I think we often seek friendships that in some way complete us. By our friends we are truly seen. They remind us of who we were and have faith in who we can become.

Helen Paris worked in the performing arts for two decades, touring internationally with her London-based theatre company Curious. After several years living in San Francisco and working as a theatre professor at Stanford University, she returned to the UK to focus on writing fiction. Her debut novel Lost Property was published by Doubleday in 2021. The Invisible Women’s Club is published by Doubleday and Transworld Digital in hardback, eBook and audio download.
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Author photo by Leslie Hill