Write a goodbye
… the first between two people who only met for a single moment
… then one between people who have known each other all their lives
Mark was late, as usual. “I shouldn’t have picked up the phone as I was on my way out” he muttered to himself as he pushed through the crowds heading towards the tube stop. Finally, breaking through, he started to run. Arriving at the bar wet and panting, he spotted Caro in the far corner. She was wearing her new emerald green dress – and she was right, it did set her off her dark red hair perfectly. Smiling as he weaved his way through the tables, Mark suddenly realised she was talking to someone at her table. A man. A good-looking one at that.
As he approached, Caro spotted him and smiled. Mark dropped his soaking raincoat onto the stool and swooped her up in a massive hug before kissing her fiercely. Caro didn’t respond, but nor did she push him away, despite her loathing public displays of affection. Mark turned to the man, held out his hand and said: “Hi, I’m Mark, Caro’s boyfriend.” His hand was taken and shaken warmly, but the smile couldn’t hide the amusement being felt: “John, Caro’s new boss, good to meet you Mark.”
Realising he’d committed a faux paux and would be given a serious talking to later, Mark offered to buy both a drink. But Caro reminded him that they’d miss the first half if they didn’t get to the theatre on time. Mark, nodding his assent, helped Caro on with her coat and shook John’s hand once more saying: “Hope to be less rushed the next time.” He stood aside to let Caro make her farewell and steeled himself for the ticking off that would start as soon as they left the bar.
Mark, amazingly, was bang on time. He pulled in to Jen and Richard’s and carefully parked to one side, knowing more would be following him into the already crowded driveway. Jen’s mother opened the door with a wan smile and kissed his cheek. “How’re you doing Mrs P?” he asked as always and she replied in kind: “I’ve been better young Mark, c’mon in.”
Mark walked through the hallway filled with the usual detritus of family life – wellies, coats, school bags, dog’s lead – and went through into the kitchen. As he greeted those already there, he reflected when they’d all last been together – someone’s wedding probably. This time, the occasion was going to be less easy.
Mark and Jen had lived next door to each other since birth. Their mothers had attended the same mother and baby group, had been in hospital at the same time and used to push their prams down into the village to do their shopping together. When it came time for playgroup, they’d started together and gone on to the same primary school, all as natural as night following day. It had never occurred to either family that their being best friends was unusual due to the differing genders, they just got on and that was that.
As they started secondary school and puberty started to hit, Jen sought out the girls more while Mark found himself playing football with the lads and they slowly drifted apart. The families remained close though, as did their friendship, only now it was on a slightly different footing. They were like brother and sister, independent, but fiercely protective of one another. The friendship continued until both went to Universities at opposite ends of the country. They saw each other – briefly – at Christmases when the families got together, but each was now busy following their own passions the rest of the time.
Just after his finals, Mark broke his leg. A stupid accident, it made living in a second floor flat a bit of a trial. So when his parents persuaded him to come home until he could have the cast removed, he accepted with alacrity. Jen was home too, working hard to save up for a trip to the Far East and they fell back into their easy friendship, as if there’d been no gap. When Mark’s parents went away for a weekend, Jen stepped in to make sure he was well looked after. But Mark had invited his flat-mate Richard to visit for the self-same purpose. He spent the weekend watching as his two best mates seem to have been struck by the same thunderbolt. One from Cupid.
They’d stayed in touch as Jen travelled, with Richard running up an enormous phone bill. Clearly it was worth it as, only a few months after she returned, Richard told Mark he planned to propose and was hoping that Jen would move in with him in the build-up to the wedding. Happy-go-lucky Mark easily found another flat-share and had given a hilarious but heartfelt speech as best man at their wedding.
But about six years ago, after the birth of their youngest, Jen had discovered a lump. It turned out to be cancer. Everyone rallied around whilst Jen had the full treatment. After a long, hard 18 months, Jen started to show signs of being her old self. She seemed to recover her physical strength and certainly recovered her sense of fun. Yes, she was eating a careful diet, drank very rarely and exercised regularly, but she was still the funniest woman Mark knew and he began to believe – with huge relief – that she’d cracked it.
Then two years ago, he realised she’d not rung for a few weeks. She’d always found time to check in on him – OK, to give him a hard time about his love life. She was ever on at him to find someone, to settle down, so he could be as happy as she and Richard were. When another week passed without a piss-taking phone call, he drove round … and that’s when he and Mrs P had started their fateful doorstep exchange.
Now the cancer had spread and Jen had a terminal diagnosis. A short one at that. So she’d called for her friends to come round for one last gathering before she became too ill to enjoy their company. And to say goodbye.
The time passed quickly, what with Jen being on great form and having asked everyone to be happy and light, there was much talk and laughter. Naturally, there were a few tears when it came to saying goodbye, but everyone did their best to blink them back. Richard had asked Mark to stay behind and it was, finally, just the three of them. Mr & Mrs P had taken the children off to bed and the house was quiet. Richard kissed Jen on the cheek and left them alone.
Mark started to speak but Jen hushed him: “Will you take care of him for me? Will you look after Richard? Mum and Dad will help him with the children, but will you look after him?” “Oh babe, of course, I will, but …” “That’s good” interrupted Jen, “he’ll need someone to get him out of himself. To make sure that once he’s grieved, he gets on with living. I don’t want to be forgotten, but I do want my kids to have two parents again … and I really don’t want him feeling guilty about that. Mum & Dad will find that hard, so you’ll have to help them with that too. Will you do that for me Markie?” “I will Jennie, I promise you that.” “Then kiss me, give me one of your special big hugs and go, I don’t want us to bawl all over each other.” Mark did as he was asked, his tears pouring down, as were hers. “Bye babe” he said with a final kiss. “Don’t come back till he calls you” were Jen’s parting words.
Richard was waiting at the door. They hugged – something they’d never done before. “I’ll call you” said Richard and they turned away from each other, wiping away tears. Mark had to sit in the driveway for a full ten minutes before he was able to drive away. Six weeks later, Richard rang.
© 2016 Debra Carey