These three might seem unlikely bedfellows, but in Rebecca Wait's second novel, The Followers, there they are, all together. On the face of it, Rebecca's book is a story about cults and the manipulative powers of those that put themselves in charge. But more than that, it's also a book about the friendships that keep us afloat. Here, she talks about the relationship with one of her own friends which she drew on for the novel. 

Rebecca Waitby Rebecca Wait

When someone asks what The Followers is about and I want to give a short, attention-grabbing answer, I shout, ‘CULTS! VIOLENCE! MANIPULATION!’ (Depending on the context, I don’t always shout my answer.)

But the quieter response would be that though it is about those things, at its heart it’s really a novel about friendship. Whenever I was struggling during the writing of it – which was often – it would always help me to go back to basics, and remind myself that in essence what I was writing was a love story. The novel focuses on a cult and on the terrible things we can do under pressure from others, but it’s also about two children, Moses and Judith, who both exasperate and sustain each other.

The baseline for the relationship between Moses and Judith was my friendship with Helen, my best friend since secondary school. As with the characters in my novel, it has been an infuriating but enduring relationship.

And as with Moses and Judith, the path to our friendship wasn’t entirely smooth.

Helen only joined our school in Year 9, and it can’t have been easy being parachuted in once the cliques had already formed. She was in a different class to me, so for a while our paths barely crossed. I was aware of her existence, though. Everybody was, due to an event which became known as ‘The Tambourine Incident’. I wasn’t there, but news travels fast in a girls’ school. The new girl, so the story went, hadn’t picked up on the vibe of the room during a music lesson. The class was given the chance to try out various musical instruments, and, being cool customers, were not into it. But whilst the others were sullenly patting a bongo or half-heartedly trailing a stick up and down the xylophone, Helen grabbed a tambourine and danced joyously round the room beating it like a tribal warrior.

Not an auspicious start.

I like to think that in a cult situation Helen would come out on top

The first proper conversation I remember having with her was on World Book Day when we were in Year 10. On World Book Day you were allowed to come in dressed as a character from literature, but by the time we were teenagers, most of us didn’t go all out. I can’t remember what I’d come as that year, but it would have been something that involved minimal effort and wouldn’t draw too much attention to me. The rest of my year group had mostly taken a similar approach, and consequently I can’t remember anyone else’s costume either.

But I do remember Helen’s.

She had come as the Mad Hatter, resplendent in a tail-coat and huge green hat she’d made herself out of card. It was nearly a metre tall.

I vividly remember bumping into her in the corridor at lunchtime, and being mesmerised for a few moments by the sheer visual onslaught of her headgear. She’d been coming out of the loos when I arrived, and since her hat was too tall to fit through the door, she’d just pulled off a weird, limbo-style manoeuvre (a normal person, obviously, would simply have taken the hat off).

I said, ‘Nice hat.’

‘Thanks!’ she said. ‘You don’t reckon it’s a bit much?’

‘Nope.’ I was thinking, what an utter weirdo. But my horror was tinged with a kind of awe.

Then, before I knew it, we’d ended up in the same science set, and got paired up for experiments. We made a lot of mess. We got separated, forgiven by our teachers, separated again. Before I knew what was happening, I was friends with Weird Tambourine Girl. More than that – there was this dawning sense of recognition, this feeling that we fitted each other. She was the friend of my soul.

In our last year of school I was suddenly whacked with a horrible bout of depression. It was not pretty. Helen handled it with more empathy and grace than you would expect from most adults, let alone a teenager who spent her spare time crafting giant hats out of cardboard. And she made me laugh, even during the worst bits. She sent me odd things in the post. She gave my psychiatrist a hilarious nickname. Unlike most people, she didn’t seem afraid of what was happening to me, and that helped me not to be afraid.

In the years since, I haven’t managed to shake her off. We don’t live close by anymore, but we manage to see each other often. I hope that when we’re old, and have inevitably outlived our respective partners (we’re both very healthy), we’ll end up in a nursing home together. Helen will still be misjudging every social scenario, and we’ll still be crying with laughter at each other’s crap jokes.

A question I asked myself whilst writing The Followers was whether Moses’ and Judith’s relationship could endure in a similar way, even as everything around them came apart. I desperately wanted the answer to be yes, that there could be enough love and loyalty between them to give them hope for the future. In this uncertain world, it’s the bonds we form with others that so often keep us afloat. This is something that Nathaniel, the psychopathic cult leader in The Followers, could never really understand. In a sense, therefore, Moses and Judith have a power he lacks. With this in mind, I like to think that in a cult situation Helen would come out on top – even if only by baffling the leader with her tambourine-playing gusto. 


The Followers