The scene is a beautiful hotel in the wilds of the Somerset Levels. It is a warm, late summer evening and the sun is setting over the hazy landscape. It is the occasion of my friend, Jess’s hen night and it is a quiet and small affair of perhaps nine of her closest friends. Relaxed and informal we have been sitting, talking and drinking in the lounge overlooking the hotel’s garden and across the fields beyond. I found myself alone with Jess.
She thanked me for organising the party and I told her it was a pleasure. We discussed the plans for the remaining time at the hotel and I told her there were surprises yet to come. We smiled at each other and we knew that the love we have felt for each other since first we met in a student production of The Mousetrap would survive her marriage. It was the love of sisters, the deep, affectionate friendship that endures. She put her hands on my shoulders and then her words hit me like a blow in the stomach.
‘You know, I have always wondered…..’
I don’t know how anger affects you. I’m not even sure it was anger but before she could breath another word, I stood back and a torrent of words came out of me, unbidden, unthought, unwise.
‘Don’t you bloody dare do this to me, not tonight. Don’t you know how often when we have kissed I have wanted to turn my face an inch and taste your lips? Don’t you know that when we have sat in a car or on a sofa or in the cinema or In the pub with our knees touching how much I have wanted to press against you? Do you think that every waking moment with you I haven’t wanted to tell you? Did you not see the want in me when we undressed together for swimming, or for the play? When I did up your dress, could you not feel my eyes burning into the back of your head, my hands hot on your skin? How could you say this now?’
Tears came and I stormed away out into the garden, down a path until I found a seat and slumped down into it and closed my eyes and let the tears fall and the sobs come and wane.
I looked up and there stood, Tippi, another of the party, another old friend from way back.
‘Give me a cigarette.’
‘You don’t smoke.’
‘Just give me a fucking cigarette.’
Tippi sat beside me and offered me her pack, I took one and she lit it. I didn’t cough, just inhaled like I used to all those years ago. She put the pack on the seat beside me and left her lighter there between us.
‘Your mascara has run.’ I said nothing. ‘Want to tell me?’ I remained silent. Tippi stood, patted my hand and said, ‘Come back inside when you’re feeling better.’ I knew I’d never feel better. She turned to go then stopped, turned again and sat back down.
‘This is about Jess, isn’t it?’
I nodded. There was a rustling behind us and she looked over her shoulder but I was unmoving, unable to move. I sensed Tippi stand and walk away. I knew who had arrived.
‘What do you want?’
Jess moved to stand in front of me. ‘Of course I knew. I wasn’t going to say that I wondered if we might have been lovers, we both knew that was never going to happen. I was going to say…’ she hesitated.
I looked up with tear filled eyes. I saw the truth in her beautiful green eyes, her sweet face framed by perfect, almost black short hair that shone in the late evening sun.
‘I was going to say that I wondered if me getting married would change things between us. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’
How could she be sorry for doing nothing? I sobbed again, one of those sobs that rack you like a child’s sobs do with dry eyes. My head fell forward and then tears fell onto the pale blue of my dress. Why does water show so clearly on pale blue? I half pulled myself together and took another cigarette from Tippi’s pack and lit it. I waited for her to tell me off for smoking – I only stopped because she’d told me to, had begged me to. She didn’t. Instead she sat beside me and looked out over the view but I knew she wasn’t seeing it any more than I was.
Her voice was low and calm. ‘Of course I knew. If I had ever, ever had a woman lover it would have been you. I even thought about it, like you think about things that you know you simply can't do. I knew you wanted me. But you never made a move because you knew too that I couldn’t and that it would have hurt us both too much.’ She was right. ‘I knew you’d always be my closest friend because you love me and I love you. But we both knew it could never be physical. We never needed to say it, we knew.’ I nodded slowly.
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘You don’t need to be.’ She stood up. ‘Have another cigarette and come back when you’re ready, OK?’ She leaned down to look closely into my eyes and I nodded again. ‘Silly cow.’ I smiled a wan smile to myself as she walked away.
I had never had a lover since University. I had always hoped, always half expected that Jess would claim me. I knew at the same time that she never would but nobody came close, nobody else mattered in that way. Oh, of course I had had people to share my bed, to fuck, but that’s all it was. They always disappointed, always fell short. Only Jess would do.
I smoked another cigarette then, feeling extremely silly and embarrassed walked slowly back towards the hotel. Tippi was standing on the path, the sun behind her and through the soft white cotton of her long skirt her legs were shadows. I couldn’t see her face.
‘I feel such a twat.’
She slipped her arm through mine and we walked like that towards the house.
‘We all knew how you felt about her. We always knew.’ I nodded, was that all I was capable of doing?
Tippi stopped, restraining me with her gentle grip on my arm and turned me to face her. ‘You cant help how you feel. Nothing hurts like unrequited love but yours wasn’t unrequited, just unrealistic. She’s straight and always will be.’ She wiped a tear from my face with her finger and then hugged me. ‘I know exactly how you have felt.’
I leant back and looked into her eyes and could see the truth there. ‘Who?’
‘It doesn’t matter. Let’s rejoin them.’ I disengaged my arm from hers and we walked in single file up the path, over the patio and into the large lounge. The girls, now reassembled, all stopped talking as I walked in.
‘I’m sorry.’ It was all I could say. Friends are all that matter. They didn’t berate me, didn’t criticise me, just started talking again, enveloped me in their warmth and love. The moment that had so neatly ruined the party passed and the laughter and jokes and catty remarks about absent acquaintances came and went, seeming to pass through the void in my heart. I drank, I smoked on the patio and I joined in and slowly felt myself recover some semblance of my normal control.
Later, God alone knows what the time was, I was standing alone on the patio, smoking again and looking up at the full moon and feeling the warmth of the day ebbing. Without warning two hands rested lightly on my shoulders and a face touched against mine. Tippi whispered, ‘You.’
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