An­other Nice Mess

En­joy this touch­ing story about the deep­est bonds of friend­ship

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Short Story By Teresa Ashby - Fic­tion Edi­tor, Gaynor

Well, here’s an­other nice mess you’ve got­ten me into,” Vanessa says, but I can’t laugh. There’s noth­ing funny about our sit­u­a­tion. She’s right, though. I’m the one re­spon­si­ble. It’s al­ways me.

I used to re­spond by push­ing back an imag­i­nary hat, ruf­fling my hair and whim­per­ing. No mat­ter how much trou­ble we were in, we could al­ways make each other laugh.

It was Vanessa’s gran­dad who in­tro­duced us to Lau­rel & Hardy, a very long time ago. We were about eight at the time and we both thought it was the fun­ni­est thing we’d ever seen.

“Se­ri­ously, Mel,” she says. “You’d bet­ter think of some­thing fast. I think the tide is com­ing in.”

“You think?” I say, look­ing down at the wa­ter lap­ping round my an­kles, but I can’t see a way out. The tide has come in all around us and the way back to the coastal foot­path is cov­ered in wa­ter. It’s so high that the waves are crash­ing against the sea de­fences.

I didn’t even re­alise the tide had crept in un­til it splashed up the back of my legs as I squat­ted, look­ing in a rock pool.

“Don’t panic,” I say, fum­bling for my phone in my pocket. It seems to jump and I flap my hands try­ing to catch it, but it som­er­saults through the air grace­fully and lands with a plop.

“Ten-sec­ond rule,” I say, as I rum­mage for it un­der the wa­ter.

“That’s food,” Vanessa says. “Food, not phones. You need a bag of rice and an air­ing cup­board and –” she looks round – “I can’t see ei­ther.

What are we go­ing to do, Mel?”

I’m glad she said ‘we’, but it’s like that with us. We stick to­gether and, no mat­ter how many messes I’ve got us into, Vanessa has al­ways dug us out.

I’d booked the car­a­van at the coast for us ages ago. It was a short walk to the beach and the en­ter­tain­ment looked good.

The In­dian sum­mer was an un­ex­pected bonus. We’d ex­pected brac­ing walks along the seafront, but not this. Not balmy walks on a beau­ti­ful, re­mote beach with bare feet.

We were pleased to find this un­ex­pect­edly quiet place, with its pris­tine flat sand, end­less shells and noisy seaweed.

“Lis­ten,” I had said when we ar­rived. “Can you hear that odd crack­ling sound? I think it’s com­ing from the seaweed.”

“It’s called life,” Vanessa said. “It’s life you can hear, go­ing on all around you, but out of sight.”

“That’s a bit deep, even for you,” I said.

We were a long way from the car­a­van park; a long way from ev­ery­thing. We’d fol­lowed a grassy foot­path along the dykes that took us ever closer to the dis­tant beach and away from the one closer to the car­a­van park. On one side of us stretched a sprawl of fields ploughed into dead­straight fur­rows. On the other side, marshes cut through with creeks led to the sea.

Vanessa pointed out a few times that we might get out of our depth, fig­u­ra­tively speak­ing, but I didn’t want to stop. I felt sure the path must lead some­where.

And I was glad when it led us here. The dyke turned into a more solid sea de­fence and we climbed down a sandy path at one end of it to the beach. It jus­ti­fied the long walk, the sting­ing net­tles and the odd-look­ing in­sects that formed lit­tle clouds around us.

“Isn’t it won­der­ful?” I said, spin­ning round like Maria in The Sound Of Mu­sic.

We kicked off our shoes and ran through the sand, then picked our way over the stones to the mud and sparkling rock pools. Be­hind us, sea de­fences cov­ered in con­crete blocks pro­tected the fields be­hind from the rav­ages of the sea.

We stopped for a while and sat on the sand, arms wrapped round our knees, look­ing out to sea. It was such a long way away, a shim­mer­ing sil­very rib­bon at the far edge of the rip­pled mud, where wad­ing birds formed dots of dark­ness against the daz­zling bright­ness be­yond.

“This is the life,” I said, then I squeezed my eyes the way you do when you’ve said some­thing wrong.

Vanessa didn’t seem to no­tice. She sat be­side me, the wind ruf­fling her fair curls as she stared at the hori­zon.

This time last year, we stayed in a hol­i­day apart­ment in Tener­ife. Nei­ther of us could af­ford it and I some­times think I’ll have the debt on my credit card for­ever, but it was worth it.

Vanessa’s blonde curls had all been gone back then and she’d grown a cov­er­ing of soft fluff on her head, like baby hair. The hair growth, she said, was sym­bolic of the fact that she’d beaten cancer.

It was a won­der­ful hol­i­day. Nei­ther of us had ever been abroad be­fore, so it was some­thing of an ad­ven­ture, from ar­riv­ing at the air­port, to get­ting home af­ter­wards and feel­ing ex­cited when we could see the lights of London be­neath us, wel­com­ing us home.

The tide has come in all around us and the way back is cov­ered with wa­ter

We didn’t think we could af­ford a hol­i­day this year, but I got a good price on the car­a­van off-sea­son and Vanessa had been look­ing for­ward to it since Christ­mas.

“I’m sorry it’s not Tener­ife,” I had said.

“Don’t be soft,” she replied. “A week away will be bril­liant, wher­ever it is.”

It would have to be a week, to for­get about hos­pi­tal ap­point­ments and tests and all the other rub­bish life hurls in your face.

“We can’t just stand here,” she says, in­ter­rupt­ing my thoughts. “The tide is com­ing in fast, Mel. We’ll have to climb up the wall.”

I’ve al­ways been hope­less at climb­ing. We climbed on to the roof of a tower once. My idea. It had been easy go­ing up the rusty lad­der to the flat roof. But once there, all I could do was lie flat on my stom­ach while the world spun around me.

“I’ll never get home,” I wailed. “Well, here’s an­other nice mess you’ve got­ten me into,” Vanessa had said, but I was too scared and too flat to do my Stan Lau­rel im­pres­sion. “Come on. We’ll be late home for tea if we stay up here and if we’re here when it gets dark, you might roll off the edge.”

I don’t know how long I was there on my stom­ach, sob­bing, be­fore I felt a tug on my an­kle.

“Crawl back­wards,” Vanessa said. “I’ll help you get on to the lad­der.”

It took ages, but even­tu­ally she got me down. I still don’t know how and I still feel sick when I think of how dan­ger­ous it was. If our par­ents had ever found out…

Then there was the time I found a boat moored at the edge of the lake. It was a hot day and the wa­ter looked so tempt­ing.

“It’ll be all right,” I as­sured Vanessa. “The own­ers will never know any­way.”

But I dropped the oars in the wa­ter, then nearly cap­sized us when I stood up to wave for help. Vanessa was scared, but I have good lungs and I screamed and yelled un­til help ar­rived. It was only a small lake. It wasn’t even very deep. In fact, the guy who res­cued us sim­ply waded in and pushed us back to shore.

Once she was back on dry land, Vanessa said, “Well, here’s an­other nice ket­tle of fish you’ve pick­led me in.”

Our clothes were wet and muddy from where we’d had to climb out of the boat and our ears were ring­ing from the telling-off our res­cuer gave us.

“Mel!” Vanessa shouts now. “Move!”

The wa­ter is al­most up to my knees. Did I men­tion I can’t swim? I wade to­wards the con­crete wall. It isn’t smooth, but that time I climbed up the tower and got stuck cured me of any de­sire I might have to climb. “I can’t,” I say, as the waves

push at the back of my legs, threat­en­ing to top­ple me over. The sea is very cold.

“You can! You don’t have a prob­lem climb­ing up. It’s the com­ing down you can’t han­dle. You just have to go up, Mel.” “I can’t. I don’t want to.”

I look at my friend’s lovely face. She’s been more than a friend, more even than a sis­ter. We’ve been closer than close all our lives.

“Life is go­ing on all around you, Mel,” she says. “You can’t turn your back on that. I won’t for­give you if you do.”

“I miss you, Vanessa.”

“I know, love. But I’m al­ways with you, re­mem­ber that. Now get your back­side up there and go home to your fam­ily and for good­ness’ sake, just live your life, Mel. Live it for both of us. On­wards and up­wards, re­mem­ber?”

The wa­ter is over my knees as I start to climb. I graze my hands and scrape my knees and break a nail or four, but I reach the top and for a few min­utes, I stay on the wall, too ex­hausted to move.

It’s such a long walk back to the car­a­vans. I can’t even see them from here, but I set off through the net­tles and the swarm­ing in­sects.

A pair of trac­tors is work­ing on one of the fields and I watch them go­ing up and down with a cloud of seag­ulls fol­low­ing in their wake.

The way back seems so much longer and my feet are sore.

It was in the spring that Vanessa called round un­ex­pect­edly and I was de­lighted to see her, as al­ways. Her hair had grown back, curlier than ever, but she still didn’t look the pic­ture of health.

“It’s time to come clean,” she said. “I didn’t beat it.

The treat­ment didn’t work. I can’t lie to you any more,

Mel. I’ve only got a few weeks left, if that.”

I cried – a lot – and Vanessa held me.

“You knew when we were in Tener­ife?” I asked. She nod­ded.

I felt stupidly hurt that she’d told her hus­band but not me, though I un­der­stood why. He had to know. I didn’t.

I al­most for­got about the car­a­van by the coast un­til af­ter Vanessa’s fu­neral two weeks ago, when I heard some­one say how much Ness had been look­ing for­ward to her week at the coast.

I had no in­ten­tion of com­ing here with­out her, none at all, but I thought per­haps I would find her here, wait­ing for me. And she was sit­ting on the win­dow seat, smil­ing all over her face when I stum­bled in with my hastily packed bag.

“I knew you’d come,” she said. “We’re go­ing to have a blast.”

I’d told my hus­band I wanted a bit of alone time when I left home, but af­ter three days I’ve had enough. Vanessa’s right, life is go­ing on all around me and my life is part of that.

I see peo­ple ahead of me, stand­ing on the dyke, look­ing lost. Then I see the dog, a black-and-white speckly spaniel bound­ing to­wards me, bark­ing. I know that bark. I brace my­self as the furry mis­sile leaps into my arms and I bury my face in her soft fur. “Mum!”

I hold out my arms to the rest of my fam­ily as they hurry to­wards me and en­com­pass me with their love, a love I’ve shut out for the past few weeks.

I’ve lost my shoes, I’ve got cuts and bruises and I’m cov­ered in stings and bites, but my nice mess has turned into a new be­gin­ning.

And I haven’t re­ally said good­bye to Vanessa, be­cause she’ll al­ways be with me in my heart. I can live with that.

Once there, all I could do was lie flat while the world spun around me

THE END

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