I’ll chap her door. What else can I do? That woman must know something that I don’t.
Hettie died on Friday. The family didn’t hang around. No wake, no cake. Her son clearly adopting the less is less approach. ‘She wouldn’t have wanted a fuss’, he said on the phone, like he knew her. Trust me, she would have organized fireworks, a brass band, the whole shebang, or, at the very least, a fine smorgasbord of delicatessen, a gluttonous feast. Oh, I do enjoy those little nibbles. But no. Nothing. No mourners welcome, not even flowers, just get her into the ground, quick as you can. Goodbye.
I’m quite annoyed at her. She’d promised… Pinkie promised back then, in the school yard, three days into our first term at St Helen’s Primary. ‘Friends, forever.’
Forever. Life is littered with the stale leftover crumbs of ‘forevers’.
My friend Nell didn’t even make it to the end of kindergarten, had to run in front of a bus. What was she thinking? Carla, my high school bestie, was simply unfortunate. Her dad had all sorts of notions. Took flying lessons. We all know how that ended. Fliss and Rose, my college buddies, chose the cancer route. Statistically, only one of them should have done so.
What happened to progress? Costly research, experimental therapies, what good are they if after all the torture, you still die? Suddenly, in Fliss’s case, at least she had that. Rose, however, got the full monty. Hung, drawn and quartered by breast cancer, then a brief victory. They called it remission, but it wouldn’t last. Nothing ever lasts. Eventually, life seeped out of her, drop by drop. No rush. Left her hanging neither here nor there for months. The poor soul. Had Rose been a dog, they would have put an end to her suffering much, much sooner.
I’m 72. All my friends have died. Is that it now?
That old hag on the fifth floor, ninety four! Would you believe it! She was in the local newspaper with her knowing smile. Still fit as a fiddle and gets visits from friends every week. They’re quite the little club of ninety odds. Tiny wee ladies. Always laughing. Almost toothless. Eating cake. Cake! Double layer buttercream, gummed to death. I’ve seen them from my balcony, listened to their giggles, their pointless chat and chomp. Half a dozen of them, squeezing into far too small plastic chairs. It’s an accident waiting to happen. Some of them, substantial women! That purple rinse brigade, and their shameless display of happy longevity. I suppose decency goes out the window with old age.
Is it my touch? Come to think of it, I seem to be going through a rather unusual amount of friends, kettles and cookers. Anything that can break, will do so in my care. My husband’s heart didn’t last beyond year six of our marriage. I learned my lesson. Never made that mistake twice. Men cheat on you, one way or the other. Last month, my television set gave up the ghost. Only had it for two years. Mind you, it’s easy enough to replace appliances and I wasn’t too fussed about Richard. Everyone knows, men are the weakest link. When it comes to friends, televisions and kettles, though, I feel the need to replace what’s broken and gone, for comfort.
I thought I’d played it safe. I always look for quality. Only ever befriended the healthy ones. Wouldn’t even chat to Betsy, the nice girl who lived next door when I was ten and all she had was a squint. There are algorithms for safety. Insurance companies use this knowledge all the time to work out the cost of a premium. Numbers don’t lie, do they? All of my friends should have lived until their late eighties at the very least. My own personal goal goes well beyond that. A hundred sounds good to me. I may need a new friend and some pointers. So yes, I guess, I’ll have to chap her door, have a chat with that woman on the fifth floor. Ninety four! Still stuffing cake in her face.
You coming? Here goes.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Jenkins.’ I say. I’m making an effort. ‘Just here to see if you need anything. I’m off to the shops.’
She isn’t fooled. Her right eyebrow shoots up to an alarming angle. ‘Come in, dear’, she says eventually, softly, softly. She’s a witch. ‘I knew you’d come. One day.’ The cheek of her! She sounds and looks like a mix between a long in the tooth fortune teller and a deranged serial killer. I don’t have a choice. I need to know her secret. I’m going in. Her home, a cacophony of mismatched soft furnishings and conflicting colour schemes. Not even the cups match. Her tea, delicious, and I already hate her for that. Cream. She serves it with cream.
‘So, I read that you’ve just turned ninety four’, I begin. I’ve got no time to lose. ‘Congratulations. That’s quite an achievement’.
‘Is it?’, she replies, as she fiddles with the sugar tongues. She takes three. Three lumps. You couldn’t make this up. Has she never even heard about diabetes?
‘Well, I guess, you want to live to 100, don’t you?’ I want to be out of here. I’ll just gather the relevant information and then…
‘Why would you guess that?’, she asks, as though it’s a silly question.
‘Well, 100! That’s quite something.’ I insist and put my cup down. This is like pulling teeth.
‘Is it?’ She opens a packet of biscuits. Viennese whirls. All butter. ‘These are nice’, she says, ‘help yourself, dear.’
She’s not making this easy for me. I’m determined to give this one more go.
‘Are you not afraid?’ I try, for the very last time.
‘Of what, dear?’, she asks in mock surprise, ‘the biscuits?’
‘Of dying, of course.’ Blunt, I know. But in the face of cholesterol, sugar and sheer stubbornness, I don’t really know what else I could possibly do.
‘Dear, dear… what’s there to be afraid of?’ She leaves this hanging in the air as though it’s self-explanatory. Waits. Savours her moment. Scoffs an entire Viennese whirl with two confident bites. Then says: ‘Dying is just another word for returning.’
What? It takes me a while to realize I haven’t actually said anything out loud. I see her smile, crumbs of whirl stuck on her far too red lipstick. ‘Returning to where?’ I ask and I’m losing my patience here.
‘Wherever I was before I started living.’ She pauses. ‘Home, I guess.’ With this she lifts the teapot, refills her empty cup, and reaches for the sugar bowl. Three. Three lumps. And she’s not done. ‘Try one of these’, she says, pushing the packet of biscuits right in front of me. ‘It’ll help.’
I don’t like her. She invited me round for tea and cake on Friday to meet her friends. I might go. Out of idle curiosity. There’s two ways this new ‘friendship’ could develop. Either I’ll break her and the whole lot of the great granny mob, like everything and everyone else I touch. They might be dead by Christmas. Or, I’ll pick up a few tricks of the trade from these future centenarians. Could the secret to it all really lie in buttercream and biscuits?
Wish me luck.
Britta Benson is a happiness & poetry blogging, circus skills instructing & common butterfly following German, a writer, performer & linguist thriving in Scotland, her chosen habitat since the year 2000. Read more of Britta’s work at– Britta’s Blog – Letters from Scotland and Odds & Ends.
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