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Friends of friends

Francis Bacon, who wrote many interesting things, including, some say, most of Shakespeare's plays, wrote: ''Friendship redoubleth joys, and cutteth griefs in halves,'' than which there is no truer aphorism. Fortunate are all who have friends, delightful people on whom we can rely for support, encouragement, and entertainment, with whom we can share problems and laughter, whose lives are woven into ours.

Friendship, however, like marriage, produces hazards, one of which, born of that inattention that seems to go hand in glove with affection, being the friends of friends. For it would appear that every friend in our intimate circle has at least six friends we have never met and who have become more or less mythical. However often their characters, virtues, and skills are described to us we somehow cannot come to grips with them; their outlines remain blurred, their modus vivendi muddled.

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Though listening for years (but with only half an ear) to news of them, we still cannot quite remember if it is Alice's husband who owned the paper in Australia or if Christopher's son is the boy who sailed somewhere or other in a catamaran. And is it the disembodied George who skates so beautifully, or the fabulous Wayne?

Trying to conceal our ignorance, making suitable exclamations, we hope something in the conversation will produce a clue as to Mary Ann's identity. We think she will turn out to be the one whose car ran backward over a cliff, but she just might be the grandmother of the girl who works in a bookshop in Vermont. It is because we should know, should have been listening, that we have to resort to subterfuge. Otherwise, of course, we could just ask. But even the best of friends become a mite tetchy if, after 20 years, one still cannot remember if their friends the Fletchers live in South Africa or Canada.

''Your friends are my friends'' is a charming cliche, but it is never entirely true. The visible friends of friends are easily corralled into the circle of affection; the invisible ones, that fruit salad of men, women, and children whom you are supposed to love by proxy, are not.

''I wish you could meet Priscilla,'' sighs Rose. ''I'm sure you'd love her.'' ''I'm sure I would,'' you say politely, hectically wondering if Priscilla is the Welsh friend who wears a wig or the American flutist based in Rome. Your whole being strains to catch a word that will jog your memory: Ah yes, now she's mentioned France you do remember Priscilla; she was the friend who dropped her passport into the ornamental waters at Versailles!

Wasn't she? Isn't she?

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