Lunch With The Girls


(The Myth of Happily Ever After)
Louise was between husbands.
Jason, with his beautiful body, was at the beginning of his career with women.  He tried luring Louise back to bed, where he lay wearing only total confidence. His glorious vanity was fetching and she was tempted, wondering if there was a small future at least. A month, three? She considered it, then he said,
“Come back to bed! Lunch with the girls can’t compete. They’ll understand you prefer me.”
“But I don’t,” she said, and he saw it to be the truth.
“You’ll be gone soon, Trish and Penny will be my friends forever.”
                                                            –           –           –
Penny finished planting the Indian bean tree, specially imported from Italy. The three year old, partially grown ones were so hard to find. Mulched, watered. She stood back, peering up the top of the straight, bare stem to the unpromising clump at the top. It was April, yet by August, fabulously showy, huge leaves would adorn it, even in its first real season.
Since the tiny lump had been diagnosed malignant – was it only four days ago? – she’d had a passion to set the garden to rights. The house was the usual mess, but it was as though a spirit hand had smoothed through the skimmia, the rhododendrons and roses, arranging them into wild perfection. She tied back the thin, new strands of Boston ivy, straggling at right angles from the side of the shed, interweaving them amongst the heavier vines. They’d have to tell Anna, the eldest of the three girls, tonight. Sophie and Katherine, the twins, were 11 and would have to find out later.  It wasn’t going to be easy but Penny knew she could get through it with Mike’s help if she remained practical. She stood stock still as a thought, perfectly formed, dropped into her mind.
“None of the girls can use the pill, because statistically two of them are in line for it as well.”
She wondered, as she hauled the clippings to the compost heap, if her nursing training had ever been a blessing. The trouble was, you could never fool yourself.
She looked at her watch, cursed, then rushed for the shower. She’d be late.
                                                            –           –           –
Trish was arguing with Ross about dinner. His secretary had phoned askingTrish to stay
on the line – the countless times this had happened! She’d hung on ten minutes already by the time he got off the phone to Montreal and had stewed enough to hardly bother being civil to him.
“Why can’t you eat out? You know I’ve got lunch with Louise and Penny, we hardly ever see each other. I’m not cooking.”
Ross was adamant.
 “They’re Americans, they eat out the whole time, they love home cooking. Just get a salmon, the good Chablis out of the cellar. Do a Beef Wellington, say, with Beaujolais and some cheese. What could be simpler?”
Trish’s temper leapt skywards, she’d had enough.
“Simpler is taking them out. I’m not doing it, Ross. Six publishers, all men, talking shop? I’m not being the waitress at a boys’ night out. I’ve got a life as well and real friends.”
She hung up, hearing the warning sound “Patricia!” as the phone hit the receiver. Even then she was planning to stay out very late to avoid the consequences.
                                                            –           –           –
The restaurant was packed, exactly as they liked it.
“Champagne, the driest you’ve got,” Penny cornered the wine waiter, folding a crumpled tenner into his shirt pocket before they even sat down.
In the flat, all those years ago, she’d taken over naturally. Louise in particular had resented it at first, but she and Trish had soon come to rely on Penny’s sense of timing, her foresight and subtle bossiness. She was the solid one who kept them in line, paid the bills, thought up the best lies for boyfriends and mothers, forced them into a rota for toilet cleaning and kitchen duty. Without her, they’d have lasted a month instead of a glorious three years.
Two glasses each of champagne had been downed, the food ordered, when Penny said
“Listen, before we start I’ve something to say.”
Two pairs of eyes swivelled towards her, alarmed at something in her tone. She had to raise her voice over the babble around them
“The cancer’s back, probably in the lymph nodes this time. I’m going for a lumpectomy next week, it’s serious.”
Louise applied all the pressure she could muster to Trish’s foot under the table. Trish’s eyes had filled up, she’d actually gasped, yet Louise knew if she cried, they’d all be lost.
“The thing is, I feel so well. The lump was a calcification and didn’t even show up on the mammogram. They said I was clear and now….” Her voice trailed off.
“More champagne please!”
 Louise caught the waiter’s eye and in doing so, broke the mood that was threatening to drown them. Trish rallied, as again Penny found her voice.
“I’ve got the same surgeon as last time. He tried to talk me into a radical mastectomy but I’m hanging on to the little I’ve got if it’s the last thing I do!”
Their nickname for her in the flat had been ‘’32A” in jokey reference to her small bust. The cruel irony of it…..
“I’ll come and keep the girls in order,” Louise said.
“I can’t ask you to, it’s too much, they’re older than they were last time, Mike will manage ok” Penny answered.
“I’m coming, no arguments.”
Louise took Penny’s hand and squeezed it. They’d always had this push/pull thing between them but Louise was in the driving seat this time, and Penny was glad.
Trish, small stabs of needles circling her heart, asked
 “How’s Mike taking it, Pen?”
“Oh you know Mike, everything remains a possibility until it happens. He told me not to die or he’ll actually WILL me to come back and haunt him, we’ve still got so much to do.”
   Penny suddenly flattened both hands on the table in a gesture of finalisation, a habit they knew so well.
“Now that’s over with, what are you lot up to? How’s Ross, Trish?”
Trish recounted their latest conversation, relishing it all over again.
“I loved hanging up on him, think I’ll do it more often. Aren’t I the bitch?”
“Bloody men,” Louise was getting stirred by the champagne.
Linking little fingers, Penny and Trish chanted in unison
“Who’s been sleeping in YOUR bed, Louise?”  laughing the line out together.
This was their ritual tease, which Louise hated as much as they loved to see her standing on her wobbly dignity.  From anyone else it would be unbearable. She’d had more men that both of them put together, yet they were still mad for every new detail.
“Well he’s 24….”
“Oedipus, schm-Oedipus,” Penny smirked.
“….great body but his conversation’s the pits,” finished Louise.
As an afterthought, she added,
“I’m getting old, I just want someone to bring me tea in the morning and massage my neck.”
“Not true,” Trish piped up. “You can’t sink into middle age the way we have! You’re the only one of us with hormones that can go where they want to. Don’t change, Louise.”
Lunch arrived, they ate and drank with gusto.
“Paul’s coming home from school on Friday, he’s been expelled for using marijuana,” Trish blurted out.
“Only marijuana?” Louise looked appalled.
“Yes, four of them were caught. All 6th formers. He admits they’ve been doing it for months but we’re begging them to keep him on. Exams start in a week…”
“Surely they have to let them do the exams?”
“They’re making an example of them, it’s looking bad. Ross has rallied the fathers and been pulling out all the stops, but it looks grim, I could really wring the kid’s neck.”
Trish’s voice rose over the babble, but her irritation with her son was not going to ruin this day. She relaxed, and shrugged her shoulders.
“Louise, how’s the art gallery doing with the credit crunch going on? Still selling impoverished students’ mastepieces for indecent prices?”
“I wish!,” sighed Louise,  slumping down in her chair.
“ It’s bad, two months ago they cut my week from 5 days to 3, so financially it’s really tight.  I’d leave for more money, but it’s the same everywhere – luxury market.”
“You love it still, finding the art of the future.”
“Yes, I can’t imagine doing anything else but the house needs a new roof I think, every time it rains I’ve got buckets all over the place, I have to pick my way between them….  I’m too scared to even ask someone to come and give me a quote.”
Penny reached into her bag, bringing out a diagram.
“I’ve redesigned the garden. This is my summer project…”
“You’re joking, Pen!” Trish laughed, “there’s not a square inch of unused space in your garden!”
“No, I’m filling in the pond, sick to bloody death of it, and look at the plan I’ve made.”
They gaped, it was beautifully detailed, coloured, scaled to size.
“Where do you get the time and energy to do these things?” Louise gasped.
“Well, Mike will do the heavy stuff, I just need to shove a few plants in and there you go…”
Trish and Louise laughed out loud. When HADN’T Penny’s fetish and quest for fabulous gardens been the uppermost thing on her mind?
The chat continued, as it always did, without reservation, expectation, condemnation, and goodly amounts of a nice Rioja.
They were the last to leave the restaurant, talked out, and almost as nicely dined as wined.
“When can we visit you in hospital, Pen?” Trish asked as they put on their coats.
“Ring Mike Friday, he’ll let you know when.”
“I’ll be there Thursday night,” Louise laid an arm on Penny’s shoulder and kissed her. They said goodbye with affection, a little more than usual if the truth be told.
–       –     –
Louise sat on a bench in Euston Station, unaware that tears were streaming down her face.
“Are you all right?” asked a balding, middle-aged man.
His concern was genuine but she was shocked that someone had spoken to her, completely disoriented.
“I’ve had some bad news, it’s so hard to take in.”
He said nothing, just looked steadily into her face, so that she continued.
 “….I feel as if I’ve been punched in the stomach.”
“Can I get you some tea?” he nodded in the direction of the restaurant but she stood, a little unsteadily, and jerkily checking her watch.
“No, I’ll miss my train but thanks.”
She offered her hand. He shook it and she felt strength in his grasp. They looked frankly at each other, then she was gone.
                                                            –           –           –
Louise sat on a garden stool on her tiny terrace. She lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply and thought how  unfair life was.  Penny had never smoked in her life.
The cigarette helped though, she smoked it down to the butt, then ground it savagely into the ground with her heel. The night, which earlier had promised real spring, suddenly plummeted. She shivered, folding her arms round her shoulders. Tomorrow she would run into the man she’d met on the station. They would marry seven months from this day. He was her mate, the one she’d long since given up hoping for, and would bring the greatest happiness of her life.
But tonight…she rose and went in, not shutting the door behind her in her haste to phone Jason.
“I’m on my way!”
He was thrilled to hear her. She was grateful that on this night above all others, she wouldn’t lie in a cold bed. She felt a rush of affection for Jason’s lack of guile, his clear cut intentions. He was alive and real. She must have warmth.
                                                            _          _          _
Mike held Penny’s hand. It had gone far easier than they’d hoped. Anna had asked with the brutal incomprehension of youth,
“So, you could die, then? But you could also NOT die as well…”
The way she said it, they both laughed. Laughed! When death was more a certainty than a possibility. It was too much to absorb at once and Anna had gone off to do homework, chewing gum and looking only slightly solemn.
After the operation, two months of radiotherapy would begin, followed by six more of chemotherapy. Yet now, as Mike wandered out to fix an old radio he’d found, Penny picked up her French book again, keen to finish the homework before class tomorrow. A calm spread comfortably through the house. In the midst of her terrible prospects, all of them were genuinely carrying on as usual. Penny said out loud, to the house, “Life goes on” and felt cheered. She’d built something which would survive her own self, if and when the crunch came.
                                                            –           –           –
Ross’ tyres screeched to an angry halt on the drive. The house was in darkness, though Trish’s car was parked in the usual place. He fumbled with his keys, swearing as he missed the keyhole and dropped them. He’d drunk too much but had felt obliged to push the boat out for the American team. He punched on the hall light, dumping his briefcase as he lurched towards the living room. He flicked the switch. There she was! His mouth opened as anger grabbed him again, but the sight of her – was she really that small? – sitting hunched in a corner of the sofa, sobs racking her body, stopped him in his tracks.
“Trish, what’s wrong?”
He sat down on the sofa, stretching a hand towards her, but she turned away.
“It doesn’t matter.”
He was referring to their row this morning.
“It doesn’t matter.”
He stroked her back, until a few minutes had gone by and words, strangled, fell out of her mouth.
“Penny. The cancer’s back.”
“Oh God!”
 He remembered vividly the last time, how even then he’d thanked whoever was up there it wasn’t Trish. He looked at her, so small, and took her freezing hands in his. What would he do without her? He knew he asked too much from her but he was so proud of her . Of her competence, her ease with people, her calm. He was afraid she didn’t need him as he needed her. It flashed through his mind that he tried to keep her busy to stop her from being happy without him.
“Do you need a friend?”
 His voice was more tender than it had been for years, softened by the wine, the shock, the realization that they were careless with each other. Her eyes filled up again, she leaned into his chest, and the long unfamiliar feel sparked memories far past. His heartbeat began to melt the sheet of ice down the back of her spine. She could feel it shifting, then after a time slowly give up and slide away.
He was demanding and temperamental, yes; but they were a match.
“We’re lucky, you know.”
He spoke her thought, she began to feel hope. They still had time, another chance to be kinder to each other.

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