‘Do you remember when we were little and we thought dandelion clocks could tell the time?’ Claire wondered where this train of thought was heading, and looked sharply at her friend, waiting for the sting. Jo’s words these days were seldom thoughtless. Her friend said nothing more, but held her mug of coffee in both hands, lost in thought.
‘Yes, I remember.’
‘We were always scared we’d be told off if we were late home. We really believed in them, didn’t we?’
‘We were young.’
‘We were gullible. But we had a good childhood, didn’t we? Kids now would never understand the simple things we enjoyed. Shame.’
Jo wasn’t usually nostalgic. She had been the sensible one, reining Claire in when their outlandish games became unsettling or dangerous. Claire had made up wild stories, reinventing themselves as heroines in fairy stories or adventurous quests. Well, they had to make their own entertainment when there were only three channels on television, and nothing for young people during the day. Their energy, like their imagination, had seemed endless, especially during the long summer holidays. Their days were filled with fantasy and they were never prepared when the new school year threatened their freedom.
Claire saw that Jo’s mug was empty and knew she should offer her a refill, but she couldn’t be bothered to move. She had cocooned herself in one of the massive, overstuffed armchairs that had cost her a fortune but had lasted for years. It had moulded to her shape. Well, the shape she used to be. As her weight had fallen the chair had seemed to grow, so gaps were stuffed with cushions until she was comfortable as a chick in a moss filled nest. All she needed was at hand. The TV table next to the chair held the remote controls, her medicines and her magazines. She had been a voracious reader once but now could only manage something light and unchallenging.
‘I’ll help myself to a refill, shall I? It’s obvious you’re not going to move. Can I get one for you, your majesty, while I’m on my feet?’
‘No thanks, I’ve had enough.’
She hadn’t managed to drink all of her last cup of coffee, and was nauseated when she saw that a wrinkle of skin had formed on the surface of the discarded liquid. Disgusting. There was a comforting clatter as Jo dropped her mug onto the kitchen worktop and the teaspoon onto the cool tiles where it shivered for a moment before lying still. Jo swore and rinsed it under the tap. Claire smiled. Jo hadn’t changed at all since they had met in primary school. She was still sensible, blunt and clumsy. What three words would she use to describe herself? It was another of the games they used to play. Shrivelled, weak, pathetic. That’s how she thought of herself.
‘Hey Jo, remember that game we played? Describe people in three words? How would you describe yourself now?’
‘Bolshie, old, wrinkled.’
‘And what about me?’
Jo stood by the kitchen door, her flippancy lost as she surveyed Claire, swaddled in the chair. ‘Brave, survivor, stuck.’
‘What do you mean, stuck?’
‘You haven’t moved from that chair for days. I know you sleep there, so don’t pretend you don’t. And I don’t just mean physically stuck. Claire, you’re recovering but you don’t act like it.’ ‘I don’t feel like it. You don’t know what it’s like. And I’m not brave...’
‘You asked how I would describe you, not how you’d describe yourself. Come on, get up and get dressed. I’ve got a surprise for you.’
‘I’m too tired. You know I’m not well.’
Claire was conscious of the whine in her voice, but she was entitled to be miserable. She had been through something traumatic while Jo had stayed strong and healthy. It wasn’t fair. How could Jo ever understand how draining her illness had been? If she would just stop nagging...
Jo ignored her and carried her mug of coffee back through, settling herself on the sofa. She kicked off her shoes and pulled her feet up beneath her. That was how strong their friendship was – each was at home in the other’s house.
The steam spread and softened her features as she blew to cool her drink. ‘You need to get moving, Claire,’ she said. Her tone was gentle but Jo meant what she said. ‘But I’m not well enough...’
‘You’ve been through a horrible experience. It’s been horrible for me too, but I haven’t suffered the physical pain, I know that. But you’re in remission. You’re beating it. You have to stop using it as an excuse. Go and get dressed.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘I don’t care. Do as you’re told, it’s for your own good.’
Jo smiled to soften the words. Claire knew that arguing with her friend was as fruitless as trying to stop the sun from setting each night. She uncurled herself and stood slowly, reaching a hand out to steady herself against the wall as the blood rushed to her head.
‘Take your time. When you’re ready I’ll tell you about the surprise.’
During her illness Jo had helped Claire to transform the dining room into a bedroom and she was glad that she did not have to climb the steep stairs. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done so. Jo had been right though; despite the bedroom now being downstairs she
hadn’t bothered to use it, preferring to stay in her chair day and night, the TV her constant companion. That morning she had at least opened the curtains. She had not lingered by the window, but ducked as her uptight elderly neighbour, Mr Jenkins, stood for a moment by her gate. She did not want to note his disapproval as he glanced at her garden. It had been neglected of late and the wind was blowing the seeds from the dandelions over the fence onto his immaculate lawn. He wouldn’t like that.
At least her bathroom was downstairs. She didn’t have the energy to have a bath or even a shower, but stripped and ran a flannel across her body, standing with her back to the mirror so that she couldn’t see the changes the illness had wrought on her body. Closing her eyes she ran the flannel over her face, enjoying the warm caress. Would any man caress her again? Not if she looked as hideous as she felt.
‘I’ve bought you some new clothes – they’re in the bag on your bed. Wear those.’ Claire upended the bag. Out dropped new black underwear, several sizes smaller than that languishing in her drawer. Elegant black trousers and a scarlet jumper with a high neck. She dragged them on carelessly. She took a little more care with the cheerful scarf, twining it round her head like a fellow sufferer had taught her. The colour was too bright, highlighting her pallor. ‘Are you dressed? Is it okay to come in?’
‘If you want.’
‘Wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t want, would I? Wow, you’re looking good, girl.’ ‘Stop it, Jo. I know what I look like. I do have a mirror, you know.’
‘Yes, and when did you last look in it?’
‘You just need a bit of make-up. Let me do it.’
‘What’s the point?’
‘God, if it keeps you quiet, go on then.’
She sat on the dressing table stool, again facing away from the mirror, feeling like one of those plastic doll heads she had been given as a child; one that had hair you could pull through a hole in the head to restyle, and an array of make-up to apply. If she was honest, the disembodied head had always looked freakish and she ensured it was shut into a cupboard overnight, unable to sleep unless she knew that those blank eyes were not looking at her. Jo loved it. She hadn’t had many toys and Claire was more than happy to share.
An unwelcome thought struck. Had she become less of a friend to Jo, and more of a toy? A hobby? Something to while away the weekend hours until work claimed her on Monday morning. She pushed the distasteful thought away.
Jo was gentle, brushing the lightest coat of powder over Claire’s face, and a stroke of blusher under each cheekbone. There was no need to bother with mascara and there was no way she was going to let Jo draw her eyebrows on, even if it was fashionable these days. She closed her eyes as Jo applied a small amount of green shadow to her lids. She used a brush for lipstick too. Before this – before the illness – Claire had always carried lipstick with her and reapplied it regularly. Not now. There was no point now.
‘There, see what you think.’
When she didn’t turn, Jo picked up a hand-mirror and held it up.
‘Just a quick look. You still look amazing. You always did.’
The friends had always looked very different; Jo was plain and sporty, wearing her straight dark hair in long plaits which bounced on her shoulders as she ran, whereas Claire was tall and lanky with red curls which constantly escaped the bands with which she tried to tame them. She wished she had not worried so much about her hair when she was younger, spending hours dying it and trying to tame it into trendy styles which she knew even then did not suit her. Jo’s hairstyle had never changed though her plaits were currently hidden by a scarf and Claire’s own glorious curls were a thing of the past. Not fair. And not fair, almost mocking, of Jo to wear a scarf though Claire knew her friend would never be intentionally cruel.
She took the mirror and peered into it. Opening her mouth to complain, she couldn’t find the words. She looked … not bad. Her eyebrows had been so fair it was barely noticeable that they were missing. She looked a little pale, that’s all. Jo had a lighter touch now than she’d had with that plastic doll that ended up looking clownish every time.
‘Come on, let’s go out for a walk.’
‘You know I won't go out looking like this. If I go out wearing a scarf, it's advertising my condition, and if I go without I look like a dandelion clock!'
'Since when have dandelion seeds been red?'
‘You know what I mean.’
‘Short hair cuts are all the rage right now. Just as well really. If you think you look like a dandelion clock…’
Jo whipped her scarf off and twirled it as if performing an exotic dance. Claire stared in disbelief and began to laugh. It felt strange. It had been too long since she had last laughed. It felt good.
‘You idiot! What have you done?’
Jo sat on the bed and told her about her visit to her hairdresser the previous evening. Cherie had been cutting her hair for years, and had expressed her doubts when told of the drastic change. Jo had wound her hair into one long, dark plait to make it easy for Cherie to cut with one swish of her scissors. Both had held their breath as the cut was made and the plait was placed into her hands, heavy as a snake. Cherie had asked if she wanted to keep it as a memento. She took it but had no intention of keeping it. She had a much better use for it. When Cherie had finished restyling what was left, she stood back and surveyed her client critically.
‘It really suits you. I can't believe it actually makes you look younger!’
Jo grabbed Claire’s hands, pulled her to her feet and said, ‘If anyone looks like a dandelion clock it's me. You just look like you have a trendy short haircut. Mine’s shorter than yours now. I've been growing the roots out for weeks – I can’t believe you didn’t notice! This is my natural colour - pure white. Just think how many hours I’ll save – no dying or blow drying. Bliss. I’ve donated my hair to a company that makes wigs for children who have lost their hair. I thought you’d approve. And look what I've bought...’
Standing in front of the mirror she carefully applied a coat of the brightest red lipstick. ‘Well, does it suit me?’
It was a striking look, but yes, Claire had to admit that it did suit her.
‘Come on,' Jo said slyly. 'We’re both looking good. Let’s go out and live a little - I dare you.’ Claire had never been one to turn down a dare, and she reached up defiantly to remove her scarf, revealing the downy covering of fine red curls now coating her scalp. She tied the scarf around her neck and advised Jo to do the same.
‘You really notice the cold when your hair’s this short.’
As they stepped out of the door Claire waved to Mr Jenkins, who had let his dog out into the front garden.
‘It’s good to see you getting out again, Claire.’
‘It’s good to be out, Mr. Jenkins.’
Moments later the two women, their heads held high, strode down the road wearing sunglasses and bright lipstick, colourful scarves fluttering at their necks.