We That Were Friends

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic


This story is from the point of view of Mel, a woman who escaped a small fishing village in Fife when she was in her teens, and made a successful career in London as a travel writer. Divorced, with
a nearly-adult child, she comes back to St Monan's to pack up her grandmother's house, and meets a friend she has not seen for years. There is a question implicit in the story - it is better to
travel or to stay where you have roots? Where is home?

Submitted: August 26, 2018

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Submitted: August 26, 2018

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We That Were Friends

"We that were friends to-night have found

A sudden fear, a secret flame…"

(James Elroy Flecker, 1911)

 

 

Holding her cup up to the sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window Mel tilts it and squints, looking for the watery outline of a geisha in the base. She calls to her daughter.

“Alice, come and look. Granny used to show me this when I was a little girl. See?”

“It’s a teacup, mum,” says Alice, not looking up from her phone.

“Yes, but it’s special. You can see a woman at the bottom.”

“Wow,” says Alice rudely.

Well, I used to love it, thinks Mel. She remembers one sweltering afternoon in August being allowed to have a tiny sip of tea to get rid of the dry scratchy crumbs of seed cake lodged in her throat which had caused a coughing fit. She had been holding the delicate cup very carefully, willing herself not to drop it, but it was too hot and her pudgy slippy fingers recoiled and the cup fell, fortunately landing intact on the thick Indian carpet where the contents spilled in a muddle of tea and leaves. Granny hadn’t minded though. She had bent down and wiped up the puddle, then picked up the cup, saying

“That rug’s seen plenty worse. A few tea leaves are good for a carpet. Come here pet,” she beckoned to Mel and angling the cup up to the light she showed her how the lady appeared, gazing wistfully, her hair in a topknot adorned with a flower.

“My brother, your great-uncle Billy, brought these back from Japan, after the war,” said Granny. “We never used them, mind. Billy had such a terrible time in the camps, he would be sad every time he saw them so we just kept them hidden away in a box in the sideboard. But I think they’re lovely and they remind me of Billy. What do you think Camellia?”

Granny was full of stories, and she mostly used Camellia’s full name, sometimes Mel, but never Mellie (or Smellie Camellie, as Fiona McGregor and her friends sometimes whispered, behind the teacher’s back), or “Ca-meel-ia” the way most people did, which made Mel think of the mealy worms Grandad used for fishing. Those were some of the things Mel had loved about Granny along with her baking and her general air of being right about things. It was in Granny’s kitchen in a squat little whitewashed house with a bright blue door on the sea front in St Monan’s that Mel had learned to make shortbread, griddle scones and the infamous seed cake. None of these had been particularly useful skills in later life, Mel reflects, rinsing the final cup and putting it with its five sisters on the draining board.

“Shall we make a seed cake, Ali?”

“For the birds you mean?” Alice mumbles. Then “Hang on, I just need to talk to Megan,” and she disappears out of the kitchen door.

Does anyone make seed cake anymore, ponders Mel. She packs the cups and their saucers, wrapped in torn pages of the Fife Courier, into a shoe box and puts the box in the spare bedroom on the faded pink candlewick bedspread next to a pile of junk: an old Times Atlas of the World, a handful of Readers Digest back copies and a Crawford’s shortbread tin filled with needles and cotton reels and mismatched buttons. On the pillow a bright pink post-it note proclaims ‘CHARITY SHOP’ in black marker pen. After a few minutes Mel comes back to the room and moves the shoebox to a smaller pile in the corner labelled ‘KEEP ME’.

A month later, the little house is up for sale and Mel braves the East Coast mainline train again.

“Very desirable property,” the estate agent says when Mel shows him round. “Grand for a holiday let; maybe a wee bit small for a modern family but lots of original features. I think we’ll get a good price.”

The original features include heavy sash windows which face directly out on to the harbour front. Mel recalls rainy summer evenings kneeling on the chintz-cushioned window seat, the net curtains draped down her back like a Spanish mantilla and her nose squished up against the glass, watching the boats being made ready to put to sea and lay their nets. In the early mornings she would sometimes go out with Grandad to inspect the catch as the boats came in, Grandad’s little Jack Russell Rory poking his curious nose into the trays of squirming crayfish and risking a nip from the claws like pliers, then a brisk stroll towards Elie along the beach, fighting the wind, Rory dancing in and out of the waves and Mel picking up tiny pink cowrie shells like baby fingernails and shiny pebbles for Grandad’s garden; then back to the cottage for breakfast: strong tea in the brown betty pot for Grandad, milk for Mel and Granny’s tattie scones for them both.

Mel walks along the harbour in the gathering dusk now, for one last look at the bobbing boats, nosing like greedy piglets at the kelp-strewn harbour wall. A minibus is collecting Heriot-Watt students after a day’s kayaking and scuba-diving; further out, on the rocks, a few hardy folk are getting ready for night-fishing in the clear Atlantic waters.

“Mel? Mel Johnstone!” Mel turns, nearly slips on the stones and looks to see one of the anglers waving; she thinks he is shouting, “See you later?” although his words are picked up in the breeze and lost in the black-backed gulls’ cries.

Could that be Donny? Mel wonders. Wee Donny, as Granny, and everyone, continued to call him long after he topped six foot, (since his father was, naturally, Big Donny) lived three doors up from her grandparents and he and Mel had been inseparable for twelve summers. From four to sixteen, from building sand forts through shrimping in rock pools to sharing sneaked tipped singles and confidences, from the very first time a shy little boy with hair the colour of Irn Bru had knocked on Granny’s kitchen door and asked if Mel could come out to play, Mel and Donny had been best friends. Locals were accustomed to seeing the two of them fishing off the end of the harbour, biking along the road to the sands or arguing fiercely in the bus shelter waiting for the bus to Edinburgh. Donny told Mel of his dreams, things his friends would have laughed at: sailing the seven seas, exploration and travel, of voyaging to America and China. Mel told Donny things she had never shared with anyone else: how it felt to lose both parents at the age of 4 - in a car crash on the road from Kelty to Burntisland, from which she herself had emerged unscathed and clutching her toy dog, Nipper - so that she hardly remembered either of them, but was furious with them and yearned for them at the same time. How life at Granny’s felt stifling sometimes and how much Mel longed for freedom.

“I’m out of here, as soon as I’m seventeen,” Mel had told Donny and together they planned her escape, saving money from paper rounds and helping land the catch (Donny), baby-sitting and waitressing (Mel), and stashing it for years in a tin hidden in Grandad’s shed. Not very well-concealed, though for a while neither Mel nor Donny realised that the pile of notes and coins was growing faster thanks to Grandad’s occasional donations.

Mel walks back to Granny’s house, (as she must stop calling it), thinking about the freezing morning she crept out of the little cottage hours before dawn, the indigo sky streaking into paler blue at the horizon way out to sea, and met Donny at the phone box next to harbour. Trusty Donny, carrying the khaki army duffel bag she had left at his house so that Granny wouldn’t catch on, and giving her a wee kiss on the cheek as she climbed into the passenger seat of the fish lorry which was heading for Newcastle, then waving at her ages after she took off on the long road south so that her last sight of St Monans was Donny’s ginger hair shining like a beacon under the lamp-post. The driver was taciturn, for which Mel had been thankful. Neither of them had said a word, listening to weather reports and inane prattle on Radio Forth until the lorry dropped Mel at a National petrol station on the outskirts of the city and pulled away with a hiss of air brakes and without a backward glance. Mel, left alone and cold on the forecourt, had suddenly thought of Granny coming downstairs wrapped in Grandad’s tartan dressing gown, to light the stove and make the tea, calling to Mel and getting no answer, going slowly up the steeply-angled stone staircase to find the little single bed empty and Mel’s clothes gone, a note on the pillow telling her not to worry and that Mel would be in touch. No address because after all, Mel had had no real idea where she was going. Still, Mel had been confident she had enough for the bus fare from Newcastle to London, and for the first few weeks in a hostel and then she would be sure to get a job and after that, who knew? As she had waited impatiently to board the National Express coach the sun was warm, the day promised fair and Mel had felt at that moment as though her new life was out there, waiting to be discovered.

Arriving at Kings Cross coach station, Mel had panicked at the sheer numbers of people - all, it seemed, talking in strange accents, shouting and laughing and hurrying somewhere, even shopping, at what, in St Monan’s, would be nearing time for putting the cat out and a cocoa before bed. Mel was scared and tired, longing for home and familiar faces, sounds and smells, as well as the inevitable row. She had searched and found the timetable for the coach back to Edinburgh – there was one at 9 so she would simply have to find a bench and wait. After a while, a girl had appeared, sat down next to her and started rolling a cigarette. Mel had recognised her from the coach, indeed it would have been hard not to notice her: spiky blonde hair, gelled and teased into porcupine quills stained turquoise and pink, safety pins through her trousers and black nail varnish. Mel had felt silly and childish when she saw her, as well as slightly fearful. Now though there was no avoiding her.

“You got somewhere to go?” the girl had asked.

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” said Mel, primly. She had pulled her feet up onto the bench and tugged her sloppy joe down over her knees. “I’m just waiting for the bus home.”

“You going back north then?”

“Uh-huh.” Mel had sunk her face further into her jumper and wished herself back in St Monan’s. “Well, the bus isn’t till the morning. If you haven’t got anywhere to stay tonight you can come back with me.”

Mel had sat up and looked at the girl. “Morning?” she’d repeated, stupidly.

“Yep. 9am. I used to catch it a lot, to get back to uni. There’s nowhere round here to sleep, and there’s a lot of bad people, you probably don’t want to kip on the bench to be honest. You can come to mine, it’s fine, there’s loads of room, and it’s not far. And I can bring you back here in the morning to get the bus. If you still want to.”

“Okay,” Mel had said. She had been reduced to one word responses in the face of this girl’s confidence and forthright friendliness. In St Monan’s people weren’t usually this chatty until…no, actually they were never this chatty. The girl had jumped up and dusted her jeans down.

“Filthy bloody seats here.” She’d held out her hand to Mel. “I’m Ange.” “Mel,” said Mel. She remembered following the girl through the long and darkening evening streets of Camden, and just absorbing the strangeness: the pubs and the shops, the people pushing past or standing on corners, shouting and laughing, the cars beeping, the boy on a skateboard and the African woman with a baby strapped to her back, wrapped in a green and gold cloth, and the noise, just noise everywhere. Till they had arrived at a curve of beautiful tall houses on the grandly-named Prince of Wales Crescent, with music coming from the windows and a thick, sweet smell of incense in the air.

“Another plate for dinner, Gus,” Ange had shouted up to a boy sitting on the window sill two stories above the bright yellow front door.

That had been Mel’s introduction to London in the 1980s, and to Angus who, for all his many faults, had been a good father to Alice, Mel consoled herself. And some aspects of her new life had worked out well.

Of course Mel had returned, in the intervening years, to St Monan’s. Granny had forgiven her eventually, and delighted in telling everyone about her clever granddaughter, who was first a shop assistant in Daunt books in Marylebone High Street, then a publisher’s assistant at Bloomsbury and now an editor and co-founder of a publishing house which had, through dint of a great deal of hard work and some luck, been very successful. “Your Oyster” books had a small list focused on travel writing and exploring, for which there was a continued and growing readership, and Mel was proud of her work, which had taken her to Patagonia, Papua New Guinea and most of Europe.

 

Mel lets herself in to the dark cottage and lights a fire in the sitting room grate the way Grandad taught her when she was little: first twists of the Sunday Post into bendy spills, then kindling, then coal balanced on top. There is comfort in the ritual, and a connection with her grandparents who still feel very present in the house. As the flames catch, she goes to the kitchen and fills the old-fashioned whistling kettle at the sink, places it on a burner and takes a teabag from the packet on the counter, then decides that she would rather have a whisky. Is there an off licence in St Monan’s? She picks up her puffa jacket from the hook on the back of the kitchen door and decides to ring her daughter before she has a drink – somehow, Alice will know if she starts on the Glenmorangie and she can do without her daughter’s criticism this evening. Mel has to go to the end of the garden to get a signal to phone Alice, and after a brief and one-sided conversation with her daughter she chats with Angus who is struggling with Alice’s behaviour. Mel tries not to feel pleased, and fails.

“She refused to eat any of the lasagne Philippa made, sloped off to her room, she’s forever on Facebook or Instagram, and I’m sure she’s been smoking,” Angus complains. The unspoken sub-text is clear: you should discipline your daughter more effectively, and when are you coming to collect her?

“I might stay here for a while longer,” Mel surprises herself by saying. She can hear the whistling of the kettle, rising in pitch just like Angus’s voice as he takes in what she has said.

“We can’t keep her, Mel! I’m not getting any work done, and Philippa is at her wit’s end.”

“Just for a few days more, Angus. Sorry, the signal’s really bad here – I’ll call you back.” The kettle has stopped whistling, Mel realises, and before she can wonder why, a head pokes out of the kitchen door. “Mel? Kettle’s boiling.”

There are no cups and Mel is stumped until she remembers the ones in the shoebox. She smiles at the sight of the dainty teacups in Donny’s large hands and brushes off his apologies for visiting unannounced.

“It’s lovely to see you, Donny. It’s been a long time.” Mel shows Donny the lady at the bottom of the cup though the geisha is hard to see, in the firelight. “I showed it to you before, years ago. My great uncle brought these back from Japan,” she tells him. “He was a prisoner of war in Shanghai. Did you ever see Empire of the Sun?” Donny shakes his head. “And then I had another relative – great great great grandfather I think. There might be another great in there somewhere. And anyway, he went out to China to steal the secrets of how to make tea from the Chinese, with Robert Fortune who was a botanist and plant collector. Like the Hemulen. So that is why you’re able to enjoy your cuppa now,” says Mel.

She is talking nonsense, she knows, and feels strangely nervous in the presence of this big man, who she has known forever and realises she hardly knows at all.

“Is there an off licence in St Monan’s?” asks Mel eventually.

“Closed now, mind,” nods Donny. “If it’s cigarettes you’re after we could walk down to the pub.”

“A wee dram, actually,” says Mel in a silly, Stanley Baxter voice. “And,” more normally, “the pub would be fine, so long as there’s a fire.”

It is cold in the evening air and a full moon picks out a path along the sea beyond the harbour wall. They detour so that Donny can show off his boat. “Just a dinghy really, I bought her after the folks died, to go exploring.” Donny says, self-consciously, aware that his journeying has taken him no further than Leith to date. Still, a man can dream. They walk in companionable silence round the harbour together and towards the pub in the deepening dark. ;

 


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