“It hasn’t changed – not one bit!” Her tone gives nothing away. I hold my breath. Is she referring to the tired décor? But no, she steps outside towards the two chairs, enthusing, “Your garden is still so beautiful!” I breathe out, making ripples on the mugs of tea as I follow her. But where do we start? With a flicker; a drip of sunlight on a leaf; a tentative sip of tea. In the twenty years since we met at the school gates, our friendship has been navigated smoothly through our offspring. But in recent times, we are, now and again, washed ashore, picking up the remnants of our relationship, a year or two later. Initially, I address her as a casual acquaintance, like a hairdresser, “So, where have you been on holiday?”
My friend leans forward on the tip of the rickety chair. Her hair has grown long and wavy, defiantly grey. I run my fingers through my trademark blonde bob, awaiting her reply. “The Scilly Isles - last month.” How refreshingly unpretentious and unusual! “We hopped by boat from island to island, walking, stopping for food in pubs. Sometimes we would get out our easels and paint.”
“You paint?” I pick up on this information. What more can I discover now that we have shrunk back to being ourselves; or are we, in fact, just adding a dimension, a new quality to friendship? “It was between art school and studying maths; I loved art but the maths won, that’s how I got into teaching,” she explains. I pass an imaginary thread through what I already knew and what I didn’t, adding creativity to her mathematical ability.
“Did you make the dress yourself?” my friend nods at my floral creation. Does she remember this interest of mine, or does my dress simply look homemade?
“I’ve a sewing room now – mum’s old bedroom.” In the home, as in my mind, I have stretched out, reclaiming space.
“I wish I could sew – I can barely thread a needle!”
But I expect you could if you wanted. I bet you could do anything you put your mind to. She sips the peppermint tea; purses her lips, “Why do we drink this stuff? What was wrong with coffee?”
“Some health thing, knowing us – the caffeine. But it seems back in favour.” “Shall we go back to coffee?”
“Coffee, it is.” I laugh; she laughs. We draw closer together.
She swivels her mug, nervously, as if building up to a confession, “I keep trying to write a novel but I can’t follow it through.”
“That’s the same with me,” I concur, as our interests collide. My vision fails me; the horizon comes too soon; I need more sea-space. “I lose direction, and give up,” I say, looking across the lawn at the intense durability of a flowering fuchsia.
“We should finish them. We’ll regret it if we don’t,” she concludes, mirroring my gaze, out towards the fuchsia, and the hills beyond.
“Your garden would make a really great photo.” I discover she has taken up photography; new talents emerging like a series of flower buds bursting. Conversations such as these can only make one feel happier; our egos plump as rhododendrons we nourish each other, hold on to our late bloom. Only the sun gathers momentum and causes us to draw breath, shuffle our chairs into the shade.
“What else have you been up to?” These words test me; I reach around frantically for whatever else fills up my life.
“I started doing jigsaw puzzles …. after my mother died,” I need an excuse for what suddenly seems childish, desperate even, to balance the fullness of our respective lives. She replies enthusiastically,
“I saw one framed in the back room. It looks lovely.”
A pause. It’s time to look outside ourselves again.
“So sad about poor Kath Simmons, she was only our age.”
Why am I saying this? I knew of Kath so very vaguely.
But my friend is quick to change the subject.
“Terrible,” she says, “By the way, Simon’s got himself engaged – they’ve only been together five minutes! Both my girls are having babies in the autumn. I’ll be busy!”
“I didn’t know,” the tone of my reply appears, irrationally, to demand an apology; it pulls us apart, familiarity wavers. Life is shunting again; patterns changing. The window of creative opportunity for my friend seems shrunk to a barcode – to fit in when others allow. “But you know about Simon already. His fiancée, Emily - your niece, Emily,” she spells it out for me.
“No, I didn’t know.” My voice trails off. She peers inside. The clock hands register the bold uprightness of noon - a signal for her departure. I wonder, as I always do, why we don’t see each other more often and that we should really try to, while knowing this is unlikely. She is walking through the hallway now. I reach out and reluctantly drag the front door ajar. As she slides past, she drops the lightest of touches on my bare arm. I look up at her, our eye contact is brief but significant. We remember. We both remember. The heat ambles in from the lawn and rises between us. Just for a moment we stand side by side in the doorway. Then a breeze picks up, dragging her focus outwards to the alluring busyness of everything in front of her. Our thoughts separate first; then she is gone in person.
I am sucked back into the dark hollow of the house, and a draught of loneliness. I walk through the kitchen pausing by the calendar on the wall. My eyes settle on the 24th – next Wednesday – and my hand instinctively skims over my left breast. Why didn’t I unburden myself to my friend, snuggle under the blanket of reassurance, because she would have offered reassurance, I am sure of that? But, of course, fear would have jutted through, like a prickly cactus, rendering any relief transitory.
I sit down on the chair by the patio doors and flip open my lap-top. Through the glass, the fuchsia blinks back, an unwavering abundance of red. Then I reconnect to her words, “we should finish them, we’ll regret it if we don’t.” Quickly I scroll down my documents until I reach it. My mind flickers into life and obligingly my fingers move over the keyboard like a competent pianist. I fight against the squiggly line of the future, which is, paradoxically, one of life’s gifts - the uncertainty.
I am no longer afraid.
I am still typing long after the sun has slipped behind the fir trees and cast its shadow into the room.