I don’t have many photos of Debbie. That’s cos she filled my world in a period before we captured every single moment of our lives via smartphones; and that fact – that timing – breaks my fucking heart.
I’d love a billion pointless duplications of Debbie on dropbox, grinning and gurning and waiting for some application to identify them as unnecessary and delete them.
I’d love fifty irritating likes on every one of my holiday album postings on Facebook, each of them coming from Debbie, each of them making my phone ping at three o’ clock in the morning.
I’d be so very happy to have her sending me the same meme a billion and a half people sent each other six months ago, and for her to be so excited at the discovery that she interrupted a doctor’s appointment to DM me the stupid thing.
But I don’t have them; she isn’t posting them; she isn’t liking them.
Because Debbie is dead.
And that fact is one of the hardest things I ever had to come to terms with.
I met Debbie Payne shortly after I moved to London in 1986. I got a job at TSB, and Debbie turned up.
And here’s where I miss smartphones, dropbox and the minute recording of our personal interactions. I don’t remember when I met her. I don’t remember how I met her. I just remember her being there. Being Debs.
She was loud and loving and could reduce me to laughter so hard I couldn’t breathe, and she had a spirit that defied any attempt to make it behave as it should, and for someone like me who’d never really had many friends, she was both scary in her intensity and absolutely brilliant in her joie de vivre (though I suspect Debbie would dismiss that phrase and say, simply “I don’t have joie de vivre; I just don’t give a fuck.”)
Debbie came from Greenford in Middlesex, but she spoke to me with an attempt at an Irish accent. Where Debbie acquired that accent, I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: Debbie never, in any single moment I spent with her, made me feel anything less than valued. She was my world and – for a time – I was hers.
The popular kids would balk at her joy in pop music, pop culture, nonsense; life. She wasn’t eighties cool. She wasn’t bothered. I had spent many of my eighteen years in Dublin learning how to be invisible; how to not draw attention to the fact I was neither cool nor desirable, and here was this force of nature who drove a powder-blue Ford Escort – longer, seemingly, than a Soviet submarine, and with less turning power – who was obsessed with Luther Vandross, but had no CD player in her car and so made me sit in the passenger seat holding a Ghettoblaster that weighed almost as much as I did, and who taught me the head-and-hand-eography to “Stop To Love” as we drove from wherever to whocares.
And here was this force of nature liking me.
And here was me wanting to be part of the cool gang. But loving Debbie in all her gauche, comedically brilliant honesty.
And then one day I woke up and realised she was the best friend I’d ever had. She didn’t care if I loved Kylie and fancied spending a day at The British Museum. She didn’t care if I was cool or not. She cared only that I was happy.
She waved like a grand duchess when I said I was going to a Museum to look at Mummies, as if to say: “Well it’s not my thing, but I look forward to cocktails on Sunday when you can tell me all about it before I launch into a frame-by-frame critique of the new Madonna video.” She celebrated me. She let me love what I love. She assumed I loved her back, because why wouldn’t I?
She introduced me to Champagne. I know! I fucking know. You’d think I was born to it. But I wasn’t, and the first person I remember having Champagne with – each of us looking at each other with a face full of cool-as-fuck, but eyes full of oh-my-fucking-god – was Deborah Payne. And it was wonderful.
And then she proved how much of a genuine friend she was.
I lived in a room in a house in Putney. I had a landlord. I was raped. By the man who should have been taking care of me. I thought that was what happened to people like me who were weird and lost and definitely absolutely positively not gay, but who deserved to be lost and alone.
And the second Debbie realised what had happened, she moved me out. She didn’t ask what I was. She didn’t ask what happened. She didn’t – as I had been terrified she might – ask whether I’d led him on; whether I’d made this happen; whether I deserved it. She simply saw a friend who was in need and in pain. And she acted.
Though, being Debbie, she did it in her way.
“You’re fucking leaving,” she said.
“I can’t,” I replied. “I have a contract. I need to give him a month’s notice and pay him money.”
“Fuck. That. You’re not paying that cunt a penny,” she said, as we sat in her tank of a car listening to Luther (who else) on the crotch-crusher sound system.
And so she came to my room and parceled everything I had into piles that could be snuck down the stairs, past the landlord at the end of the stairs and transported to safety in her car over several days before she transported the last package – me – away from my false start and on to my future.
I came out eventually, and Debbie had the good grace to act surprised before announcing she was, herself, in love.
With a man I instinctively hated. I rationalised it was because he’d taken Debbie from me. It wasn’t. It was because he was a horrible human being. I was frozen. I realised Debbie was entitled to love, and I decided her love was none of my business.
And I walked away. From one of the truest friends I have ever had.
I abandoned her to a man who broke her heart. Abused her trust. And tried to crush her spirit.
The last time I spoke to Debbie, she called me Deggsy, like she always did, in an affected – but a million miles from offensive – Irish accent. And we talked about music in the charts, and I served Hoummous and Babaghanoush in the flat I owned with my now husband, and we played Kylie Minogue (“Better The Devil You Know,” in case you’re interested) and danced, and laughed, and – despite the fact that life was not as good for her as it was becoming for me – we were (as we always were when Deggsy and Debs got together) Optimism and Joy.
And then she died.
She got sick. And she died. And I had no fucking idea until I got a phone call one evening in the spring of 2001.
I clearly remember my legs actually collapsing from under me. I sat on the floor in the hallway and cried like every bad thing that could ever happen to me had just happened, and it was fifteen minutes before I could explain to David what had happened, and yet immediately – despite having only met her a few times – he knew why this mattered. Cos he knew what a totem Debbie was to me.
She’d have been fifty today, this woman who was younger than me but older than me, shorter than me, but bigger than me, Gaucher than I but cooler than me; this woman who taught me about generosity, about popular music, about Champagne and the value of a decent happy-hour snacks deal.
And who was one of the best friends I ever had.
I miss her all the time.
And I miss how I felt with her: We were the universe.
I don’t have Debbie’s Instagram feed, but I have a headful of flashes:
Her and I in a suite in The Spider’s Web Watford. Me in my boxer shorts running through the labyrinthine corridors looking for a room where Debs had assured me “there’s limitless booze. Guaranteed.” <spoiler, dear reader: she LIED>
Me and Debs and Jackie in a snooty Italian restaurant in Covent Garden being told by the waiter that – with this pasta – one has either Parmesan or Black Pepper, but never both, and Debbie meeting his sneer with a: “Well, first time for everything: I’ll have both.”
Debbie driving me to Bournemouth on a bank holiday, I have no idea why, other than it was a beach, it was an August Bank holiday, mildly sunny, and it was a drive. “The Harder I Try” by Brother Beyond played on a loop in the lapcrusher all the way there and all the way back. All. The. Fucking. Way.
Both of us at the Earls Court Night of George Michael’s Faith tour (the best date I have EVER organised) moving our attention between our hero on the stage and a shiny black woman encased in a red patent leather catsuit sat behind us. It was many years later that I realised we’d had better seats than Sinitta.
Debbie and I laying on loungers in her parents’ garden in Greenford listening to Madonna “Express Yourself” on the radio and her telling me she’d met a boy she liked. And me feeling like the world was shifting, but trying to explain to myself that Debbie was allowed romance even if (at that time) I was floundering.
Those Mummies I used to go see in the British Museum – the ones Debs would wave me away to – they had an idea: As long as your name is spoken; as long as you are celebrated and missed, you will live.
I wish she could have lived forever. I want her – if that’s not possible – to at least be alive today. But, as much as every fibre of my being wishes I weren’t , I am a realist.
Debbie Payne is dead. But while she was alive, she had an impact on my life that very few people before or since have made, and I miss her every single day and especially when I hear a new song or see a really great Happy Hour offer and think: “Oh Debs would Fucking Love That.”
She’s lost, but she’s not gone.
She’s dead, but she’s not forgotten.
She mattered then, and she matters now.
Happy Birthday Debs. I love you.