Clearing old receipts out of my purse, I once again came across a photo and remembered…
Stiletto heels, long black gloves, glitzy jewels … I was making a very special effort for him that night. The gown looked amazing. I’d never worn it before except to stand in front of the mirror. It was one of those glorious hand-me-downs that come your way if you are very lucky… a sleek, silky sheath of black satin with a superb cut and a label that would have placed it way out of my price range. It fit perfectly. I draped the white fur wrap around my shoulders. Synthetic of course, but no less decadent for that.
The elegant if funereal black was entirely appropriate. It was his birthday. There was mischief afoot.
“… and what are we going to do about it?” I had asked a few weeks before. My best friend had grinned with that wicked, childlike sparkle.
“Dinner,” he had replied. The twinkle was there… his eyes danced. “ At MacDonald’s…” I knew better than to imagine this was a mere burger and fries that he had in mind. I waited. “…in full evening dress.”
Typical of him, of course. Our eyes met and we shared a mischievous grin. This was going to be fun.
You might think we were teenagers, but no. Far from it. We were both in our mid-forties, but had found in our friendship the kind of gleeful kindred spirit that defies age. We occasionally met for coffee at MacDonald’s as it was the only place this end of town. We would talk for hours and set the world to rights… or spend a few minutes gulping the scalding liquid from plastic cups if we hadn’t seen each other for a while. By some coincidence or habit, we always sat at the same table.
This table. Where in full evening dress, I now sat eating a cheeseburger… with the sparkling silverware and pristine napkin that had been extracted from the glitter of a jewelled purse.
The other diners eyed me askance. The staff had exchanged glances when I placed my order. Eyebrows were raised… sanity doubtless questioned. I couldn’t blame them. For a gala evening at the opera, my attire might have been appropriate. For a fast-food joint in a provincial town it was, perhaps, just a tad ostentatious. I could see my friend’s eyes dancing with unholy relish. Very clearly.
I finished my ‘meal’ and lingered over coffee. For an hour.
The cleaning lady diffidently asked me if I was waiting for someone.
I nearly lost it then.
I smiled and reassured her.
No, I was dining alone.
Then, just as I was getting ready to leave one friend did arrive. Not one of his, but one of mine who knew what I was planning on doing and had come as a one-man version of the cavalry. Suit, tie, polished shoes… in silence he bowed slightly.
Resting one velvet-gloved hand lightly on the proffered arm, I made it to the car before the tears came.
I had asked. It had seemed fitting, and many at his funeral had said they would come and join me in celebrating his birthday. But no-one came.
It is a long time ago now. His photo from a newspaper clipping fell out of my purse earlier… an awful picture that shows nothing of his sparkle, but the only one I have. Not that I need one… his face is as clear in my mind as it ever was. His story was a tragic one. He had probably suspected we would not share that dinner, just as he had known, that last evening as he hugged me goodbye for a final time and watched me drive away, that we would never make it to Ashridge woods together… a long-standing private joke that had engendered some humorous exchanges by text when our respective jobs had reduced the time we could share.
Nevertheless, and because he was him, I… a staid, unconfident housewife and mother… had dressed up and taken myself out for that birthday dinner. It mattered not at all if I looked like a lunatic or was thought a fool. It didn’t matter if no one else joined me. Promises made in the throes of emotion are not always kept. It mattered only that I was there, and in so many ways.
He had taught me a good deal in the couple of years we knew each other, setting the unregenerate heart of me free of the constraints caused by the fear of disapprobation. That ‘birthday dinner’ was, whether we realised it or not at the time, to be the final gift that free-spirit gave me.
I would never have done something like that alone. It wasn’t possible. I would have been too afraid/embarrassed/self-conscious… call it what you will; it comes down to fear in the end. But I did it, becoming something of an urban legend for a while in that quiet backwater… and instead of hanging my head in shame at the whispers as I would have done in the past; I held it high in his honour.
It took a while before I realised what he had given me with that final gift of friendship… the freedom to be myself; the confidence to believe in myself. There is a tragic irony in that. Sometimes it only takes one shock to the system to snap the chains we wrap ourselves in. Nine times out of ten we won’t voluntarily make that leap of faith unless we do it for someone else… for love; and friendship is love by another name.