Friends Forever

Ornate stylised tattoo-style illustration of a butterfly from purple to red

Special bonds formed in girlhood can never be truly broken…

“Are you all right, then, Mrs Edwards? Would you care for another biscuit and cuppa?”

In our store-front office, my friend Ellen helped Mrs Edwards regain her composure before sending her on her way. We didn’t want our clients stumbling into the street, eyes awash with tears. Even if they were tears of happiness.

Ellen was very good at this part of our little enterprise. Our counselling service sort-of – as Ellen called it – reconnecting clients with lost relatives and friends.

She was empathetic, solicitous and sincere – attributes she hadn’t realised she possessed, until recently.

She’d also been growing more confident and self-assured, more comfortable with people, and I’d begun to hope she’d soon realise she could manage on her own.

Ellen and I had been best friends since we were little girls.

Orphaned at an early age, Ellen had been taken in by an aunt who felt pressured to do her duty. Ellen’s slight stammer was not improved by living with her strict aunt.

I was cared for by my grandparents who, although they loved me, were out of sync with contemporary times.

They also assured me – and each other – that Mum would soon return and collect me, that my mother simply needed time on her own and had taken a holiday.

Perhaps Mum felt my life would be more stable in my grandparents’ care because she never did come home and claim me.

I’m sure it was because of our similar backgrounds that Ellen and I gravitated toward each other.

“I’m Maggie,” I said when the two of us found ourselves standing on our own yet again at the far end of the schoolyard. “Do you want to be friends?”

Since I was a year older, I assumed the protective role.

Our friendship was a great comfort and support for both of us. We shared good times – and there were many – as well as bad.

She and I became so connected over the years, going to school together, working in the local bakery and renting the flat above it, that it seemed at times we could read each other’s minds.

Three years ago, though, Ellen and I came close to being wrenched apart.

Ellen had suffered so many adversities, losing her parents, living with her aunt, and then that awful boyfriend – our low self-esteem did us no favours when it came to relationships with men.

Following the latest tragedy in her life, I couldn’t abandon her, could I?

It was Ellen, in view of our special circumstances, who’d set up this venture for us. Her aunt had turned her hand to it at one time and Ellen grasped the basics.

In the beginning it was trial and error, especially on my part, but we seemed to get the hang of things.

Mainly through word of mouth, our little enterprise flourished. Clients were grateful for our service, sessions sometimes ending in tears – tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of forgiveness. On a few rare occasions, tears of shame or tears of rage.

Above all, Ellen and I provided resolution, and we took comfort and pride in that.

Over time, though, I found my role taxing. I ached to leave, to move on, it had been long enough. But if I did, what would become of Ellen?

You’re very kind,” I heard Mrs Edwards say as Ellen opened the door for her. “I’m ever so grateful for all you’ve done for me.”

I’d hoped for a moment of respite, to collect myself before beginning again.

Almost immediately, though, the bell above the front door chimed with our next client coming in.

“I’m Chris Swan,” the voice in the outer office said. “I have an appointment.”

As soon as he spoke I sensed an atmospheric change, like the electric tingle of an approaching storm following months of dry. I became instantly alert.

“Please come this way,” Ellen said leading him into our room at back. She indicated the chair on the opposite side of the table.

Oh my, he was gorgeous! Blond, blue-eyed. I gave Ellen a mental nudge.

Not now! she projected in supposed shocked response. I caught the smile she tried to suppress, though, and the tremble of excitement in her hands.

He seemed shy and awkward, not quite achieving comfort, crossing and uncrossing his long legs while he sat and described the circumstances that had brought him here.

“I’m not sure you can help,” he said. “But a friend recommended you.”

He too had a speech impediment that he’d for the most part mastered, taking time to enunciate his words. He’d been a foster child for a time, he explained, before being adopted.

A kindred spirit, I thought, glancing at Ellen, and liking him even more.

Now he wanted to contact his mother whom he’d never known.

“If that’s at all possible,” he said – not entirely hopeful, unfamiliar perhaps with the service we provided. “There are questions I’d like to ask.”

We tried. How hard we tried for the sake of this seemingly decent person – and very attractive man.

I tried, as well, for Ellen’s sake. But we couldn’t find an inkling of a trace.

As soon as I’d given up, Ellen, to my surprise, visibly brightened.

“There may be a legitimate reason we’re experiencing difficulty,” she told our client. “You may have come to the wrong place.”

She wrote on her notepad the name and address of a different counselling agency. “You should try here,” she said with a smile of encouragement, while I chastised myself for not being as quick on the uptake. Good for Ellen.

“Do you think it’s possible?” he asked, his eyes alight with renewed hope, his fingers briefly covering Ellen’s as he accepted the note.

Ellen seemed almost heartbroken to see him go.

“That’s that,” she said with a sense of fatalism. “He’ll have no reason to return now.”

I, on the other hand, was optimistic. Don’t be too sure.

He did come back! Two weeks on, a knock on the door as we were closing shop. A familiar voice calling. “Hello, it’s me, Chris Swan.”

Ellen hastily combed her hair with her fingers, smoothed the wrinkles from the skirt of her dress. “Back here.”

He came bearing a bouquet of flowers, all smiles, the bouquet shaking slightly in his hands.

From nervous excitement, too? I wondered, delighted.

“I… I wanted to thank you,” he said.

“The agency you suggested did locate my mother, who is very much alive and residing in Cornwall. I’ve lived under the wrong impression all these years.

“My mum and I have e-mailed back and forth and we’ve arranged for a meet-up in a fortnight.”

“I’m so pleased for you,” Ellen said with that light-hearted laugh I hadn’t heard in ages. “But why thank me?”

“You set me on the right track,” he said. “You gave me hope.”

As he handed her his gift of flowers their hands met, light as a butterfly’s touch. A sense of intimacy filled the room.

Don’t let him leave, Ellen. He wants to stay! I tried to tell her wordlessly.

“Would… would you care for a cup of tea and a biscuit?” she offered and I silently cheered.

“I wonder if I might take you to dinner, if it’s not too early?”

“If you’ll give me a moment to change?”

“You look perfectly wonderful just the way you are,” he said, his smile lighting the room.

It was time, then, I knew. Ellen had the confidence to try her hand at any enterprise. She would also find in Chris a man who’d love and support her through the years.

Goodbye, dear Ellen.

She turned, startled. Then she, too, realised the time had come – and was perhaps past due. I caught her thoughts.

Thank you for staying with me for so long. I’ll remember and love you always. My dearest Maggie, goodbye.

So then I, Ellen’s best friend in life – and, following my death in a traffic accident three years ago, her spirit guide in our little séance enterprise – with great joy and contentment, at last turned towards the light…

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