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Alice Douglas: Woe is me, but how wonderful is my horse; a survivor's guide to friends and family.

Byline: Alice Douglas

I RANG Sue, one of my old friends from London. I was in the midst of one of those 'woe is me' days and thought she'd cheer me up.

Far from perking up during the call, I felt even worse. She gabbled on breathlessly about her impending wedding and, a touch thoughtlessly, recited all the mutual friends she had given important roles to in the ceremony. I haven't even received a proper invite.

She went down the list; Poppy is maid of honour, Lucy's girls - so pretty, she reminded me - are the bridesmaids, Joe is giving a speech. and so it went on.

I don't seem to feature in her thoughts at all. I was a bit put out, as we have been close over the years. It was me she fled to when she suddenly lost her flat and was homeless. I sacrificed having a pounds 100-a-week lodger to let her stay for months rent-free. I then asked only half the going rate until she was back on her feet. She always says when we go out after a few drinks that I am the only person who has ever been there for her, but I guess being a dependable friend can sometimes be a thankless task.

I thought maybe I was being selfish and tried to escape the conversation, not wanting her to know how crushed I was. However her parting shot was that she'd email me the accommodation list and had included a cheaper 2-star hotel as she knows how much I struggle. I didn't want reminding.

I was trying to work out how she could be so insensitive when I realised that it must be extremely hard for her to arrange her wedding. After a traumatic childhood, she is now completely alienated from her family and has nobody to turn to for support. Her parents are both dead and she hadn't seen them for years before losing them. None of her siblings or extended family will be there on her big day.

Our group of mutual friends in London are all slightly connected to the acting world and every time I see them, a great length of time is spent criticising my weight, hair etc. I don't think they mean to be hurtful but they have become thoughtless. En masse, image can become ultra important to them and perhaps this big blob might make the pictures less chic. And let's face it, I am feeling frumpy.

Sue is strong but quite isolated and the world she moves in has a shallow side which probably helps her forget the more painful aspects of her past.

Nevertheless, I was beginning to mourn the end of our close relationship. I can't decide whether to go on a drastic two-month diet, to bankrupt myself on clothes and book into the five-star option just to spite them, or to write a polite note saying terribly sorry can't make it because I'll be in St Tropez or the Bahamas.

No doubt I'll do none of the above and just go, grit my teeth and get through it for Sue's sake. We all go back such a long way that I feel we are bound together, but perhaps I should have realised what being a friend really is when they turned up late to my first child's funeral in a flurry of Prada bags.

Afterwards, in my tiny cottage in Deiniolen, some of them spent an age in the loo snorting coke before disappearing with the first available lift. This drug has become so socially acceptable that it seems completely normal to take in some circles. Many people I know have dabbled with it for so long that it is become impossible for them to socialise without taking it. They are in the grip of something that has eroded many of the traits I cherished when we first knew each other.

I was reminded of another friend, not so close, who also got married a couple of years ago. She wanted the day covered in Hello! and I was dispatched to try as I had a friend working on the magazine. Unfortunately they decided they didn't want this particular wedding and not wanting to hurt her feelings with a blunt 'no', I said that they were simply inundated with nuptials that month. The next I heard was that it was going to be impossible to invite me. Apparently they were too short on space. At Babington House, home to the most glamorous celebrity weddings? I don't think so. Having failed to get a glossy spread, I was now surplus to requirements.

These memories were not lifting my spirits, so I went out to the horses.

Sometimes I just find it comforting pottering in their field. I resort back to being childlike and imagine myself a horse whisperer and blow gently on our big horse, Bliss's face. She is gorgeous, huge and genuinely loves people. I have hardly ridden this year, but there is nothing that makes me feel better than the freedom of cantering off towards the horizon.

The emotional and physical benefits of animals as companions is well researched and their presence definitely has a calming influence on me. I've noticed that Hero and Tybalt, if they have come out of school tetchy at the end of the day, improve if we pop up to the ponies. They relax by stroking and talking to them.

Hero had her first riding lesson on Friday. Half the pony group took the horses over to a fabulous house; a children's paradise with trampoline, massive tree house, rope ladders, stable yard and an outdoor menage. Debbie the instructor set simple, achievable goals and Hero's confidence on Bliss soared. She has asked if we can go for riding lessons every day of the holiday

CAPTION(S):

I had many reasons to feel down in the dumps, but spending time with my beloved Bliss always lifts my spirits
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 2, 2005
Words:993
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