Another Nice Mess
Enjoy this touching story about the deepest bonds of friendship
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