The frailty of friendship

When she sent me the email, I thought I could die. Her words so simple on the page were full of poison.

‘You were mistaken,’ she wrote, ‘to think I had not received your email. You were mistaken. I have simply chosen to ignore it.’

I sat at the keyboard frozen. I had tried to reach out across the gulf of oceans, across the gulf of skies, to make contact yet again, after two years of silence and all she wanted to say to me was ‘Go away’.

You’re not wanted in my life. You’re not welcome.

I had found the eggshell by the side of the road on the small strip of grass called the nature strip. Someone must have mowed it recently but they had not done a good enough job. Bits of grass sprouted at the edge by the gutter, like a badly cut hairdo. Long weeds stuck out from under the sprawling ti-tree in the middle. The ti-tree had grown in that straggly ungainly way of trees when they are close to the sea.

I found the shell on the grass between the ti-tree and the gutter. It was pale blue and speckled in green. Its edge was crusted with the egg yolk yellow of the embryo that once must have been tucked inside.

I do not know what made me pick it up. Some sense of its fragility, its beauty, its connection to the earth. Instinctively I took it to my nose. It smelt the way a stone smells when you breathe on it. It carried the smell of wind and rain, the grassy smell of a hot day after a heavy soak.

I stroked its smoothness. A tiny bit crumbled from the edge and fell to the ground. I would keep the shell, I decided then, as a souvenir of her.

A souvenir of the day I last saw her, the last time she held my hand.

‘You can’t just leave like that,’ I had said. ‘You can’t just go.’

‘I must,’ she said. ‘My mother is dying. But I’ll be back.’

That’s what she said then. She said it, I heard her words loud and clear. I heard her make the promise.

‘I’ll be back. Soon,’ she said. ‘I swear. Besides I have to be back for the next exhibition. I have too much at stake.’

At first she wrote me long loving letters, on purple notepaper in her fine spidery scrawl.

My mother is up and down, she wrote. She’s frail. Not long now.

I was understanding then.

What daughter could leave her mother to die alone? I was understanding then that I must be patient. I had cradled my eggshell in a piece of tissue paper in an old soapbox in the bottom of my study drawer.

From time to time I looked at it, as I look at it now. It was fading fast. The hard shell around the thin milky inner skin had come away. My half shell had become a quarter. Soon it would be fragments.

A year ago she sent a note and inside enclosed a card containing all the details of her mother’s life and death.

Her letters came fewer and further between, their content thinned to a list of her activities, those she had seen, what she had done.

No longer did she share with me the inner workings of her mind.

I thought of her often. Every time a new exhibition opened at the gallery, I wondered why she had not comeback to exhibit her work, why she had decided that Germany could offer so much more to her than here with me.

I looked up her name on the Internet, nestled in among the names of other print makers. I found her alongside the famous, Monique Gilbre, Antonia Boudin, and knew then I had lost her.

There was an email address at the foot of the page alongside her name and a copy of the details of her latest exhibition.

It would be easy to reach her.

Letters are slow, I thought.

Letters lose their passion, letters cannot convey the urgency of my need for her, but an email. A message now shot from the heart. A call that could cross the ether, that would bring her back to me, would bring a message back to me.

I waited a month, a month maybe two. But I did not hear.

What could this mean? It must be a wrong address, a changed address. The university where she worked had a website and again I found her name with a new address. I sent her another email, a last arrow into the darkness, my last call.

And then her reply.

I was mistaken to think she still cared.

Here now, I peel the eggshell from its tissue.

I crush it inside the hollow of my hand. I rub the powdered grit into the small of my hand, one hand on the other, rubbing and rubbing until all trace of the shell has gone, pulverised, like the image of my friend, then I press the delete button.

Life is plotless: Things Happen

Something in Truth and Lies’s latest posting, on Amos Oz’s Rhyming Life and Death has inspired me to include this short story here, to back up my view that life is plotless: I called it ‘Things Happen’. It was published in Island Magazine

Things Happen

My friend invited us to dinner. It was hot. She had left the side doors open to catch the breeze. One of her rabbits hopped through and skittered across the carpet.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘My rabbits are toilet-trained.’
My friend served wild duck soaked in red wine and garnished with slivers of prosciutto. She had stuffed it with pine nuts and raisins.
Once again she argued with my husband over the meaning of life.
‘How can you say something’s meant to be as if someone’s in charge? Life’s not like that. Things just happen.’ He was glaring at her across the table. Her cheeks were flushed from too much wine.
‘It’s presumptuous to assume it all stops and starts with us,’ she said, sticking the carving knife into the side of her duck and sawing furiously as though the meat were tough. It fell away like crumbling cheese.

That last time I saw my friend I was still bleeding. When I went to the toilet, and saw the pad soaked through to my dress, I realised I must have been dripping through onto her seat cushion. The cushion was coloured a dark burgundy like my dress and the room was lit with candles. I hoped she would not notice.
I had lost the baby three days earlier. The doctor called it the lottery of pregnancy.
‘Not to worry,’ he said. ‘You can try again’. He took me into his surgery to scrape out the left over bits but the bleeding went on.

My friend wrote poetry: long tortured pieces about the mad people she met through her work. She was a doctor, but I could not tell her about the baby or the bleeding that night. I was still picking over my grief.

One evening, months before my miscarriage, my friend came home and found two of her rabbits gone. She lived close to the city but her house was opposite parkland that ran all the way down to the Yarra River. Foxes lived by its banks in a maze of dens hidden among the ti-tree and gums.
My friend offered two of the surviving rabbits to me. She wanted them to breed. They would be safer in our house, away from the river and the park. But we never loved them enough. Not like my friend. We left them outside in the backyard in tight wire cages and their toenails grew long from never being able to dig or run free.

‘The pregnancy took but for some reason the egg and the sperm did not fit properly,’ the doctor had said, pointing to the empty sac on the ultrasound screen. ‘It’s just one of those things.’
I did not tell him how I had named the baby Horatio, after the Roman general who held the bridge. I did not tell him he was a boy. You’re not supposed to know those things, not at ten weeks. But I knew.

The rabbits mated. My friend showed me how to cordon off a section of the cage. When the mother rabbit was about ready to deliver her babies, my friend told me, I would notice her rip out lumps of fur from her body which she would use to line the cage.
‘Then you separate the male from the female. Male rabbits are likely to damage their young.’
There were five babies curled up together like pinky mice, their eyes covered with a thin shield of skin. My friend warned me not to touch the babies for several days, otherwise the mother might refuse to feed them.

Weeks before I miscarried, my friend came to our house for dinner. With each glass of wine her voice grew louder. She loved to argue, especially with men. We joked about the dangers of sitting beside her. She made her point by grabbing the nearest person at the table in a headlock and shaking him till he begged for release. She was strong, my friend, with long pointy fingers weighed down by silver rings.

My friend was born a twin but only she survived the birth. Her brother was born and died thirty minutes later. He became her shadow. She liked to think he was there with her all the time. At work meetings, as a laugh, she would insist on occupying two seats, one for herself, one for her twin.

My friend never had children of her own. She had wanted them, she told me, but they never happened.

In her fiftieth year, five years earlier, my friend had bought a red sports car, sleek, contoured and close to the ground. She drove it with the sun -roof down, her green scarf streaking behind in the wind. An Isadora Duncan scarf. My friend laughed when I told her how, in the 1920s at the height of her dancing career, the scarf on Isadora’s swan-like neck got caught up in the spokes of her car’s wheel and strangled her.

My friend wore glasses, with lenses thick like the bottom of milk bottles.
‘I couldn’t bear to go blind,’ she said, lifting her glasses to rub at her eyes. ‘I’d rather die first.’
At night she sat close to the computer screen composing letters of complaint to the editor, her last surviving rabbit, a barren female, hopping under her feet.
‘Silence is a crime,’ my friend said.

My friend bought tickets for a jazz concert the week after our dinner. ‘You’re sick. Go to bed,’ her husband said.
‘I’m not wasting my money.’ She closed her eyes, threw back her head and soaked in the music.

A bug crawled inside my friend and took over. It traveled along her blood stream letting off a poisonous gas. Within hours of the concert she went into a coma.
‘We need to make an oxygen chamber,’ the doctors said. ‘This bacteria hates oxygen.’ They hacked away at her dead flesh. Peeled off her right shoulder, part of her leg and stomach. My friend’s body swelled like a balloon as it struggled to defend her. The doctors spared her the pain by anesthetic and split her skin from shoulder to wrist to stop the constriction in her fingers and gangrene. Through it all she slept.
‘This hateful bug,’ her husband said, wiping my friend’s face with the back of his hand. ‘We must beat it.’

My bleeding stopped while my friend slept. I found a get-well card in a bookshop, a ‘bug’ card, depicting a green bug sitting up in bed, ill. But I did not buy it. It was too raw. I wrote her a letter instead: ‘What talks we’ll have when all this is over.’

The nurse came and washed my friend’s hair. Only her family could visit. Her husband was certain she enjoyed the water’s warmth, the touch. But the doctors insisted she was now brain dead and could feel nothing.
Without the machine, she breathed only three times a minute. She needed fourteen. She could not speak. She could not eat or shit. She was lonely and in despair, her husband said, but the doctors were certain she could feel nothing.

My friend died in the afternoon when the temperature in Melbourne reached 40.3, the hottest November day for 86 years. They turned off her life support. She did not tell me she was leaving. I did not hear a whisper.

We buried her and held a memorial. Tea and cucumber sandwiches. She would have preferred a glass of red.

Last night I saw my friend in a dream, sitting at her kitchen table, laughing, full bellied roars. She was wearing her green scarf, loosely draped around her neck. She sat, legs akimbo, as always, arms flying to right and left, as she remonstrated with us about the meaning of life, then grabbed hold of the nearest person at the table and pulled him to the ground.
‘Submit,’ she said. ‘On the count of five, I win.’