By Margaret McCaffrey, 73. Melbourne, VIC
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Each year my girlfriends and I have a reunion together. Once we were six. Now we are five.
At Jane’s funeral, Lynne rose to deliver the eulogy. She surprised the Melbourne congregation by rotating in the pulpit in her baggy old school pinafore, salvaged from our last day of school in 1966. The pinafore was graffitied all over in white paint, and lovingly treasured all these years as a memento of the friendships she’d made, like the one we were commemorating now. The churchgoers relaxed in their pews as they realised the joke. We all laughed as Jane would have laughed — heartily — like church bells ringing out on this her day of days. Lynne told us she would visit Jane on Sunday when she was allowed out of boarding school. She’d prattle on about the unfairness of nuns, while Jane sat at the sewing machine with a wad of material, which in the blink of the story she’d fashioned into bedroom curtains.
We girls, once banded by the fact of our blue school uniforms, were later bonded by travel. In the early ’70s, five of us went to London. Barbie went west to Kalgoorlie.
From England, four of us squeezed into Lynne’s rental mini for a tour of Germany. Johanna later joked that we might have prolonged the Cold War by refusing to get out of the car at Checkpoint Charlie.
“It’s freezing,” Lynne told the East German guards checking for contraband goods. Unimpressed, they nudged us out of the car with the sharp end of their machine guns.
Back in London, Jane reigned as queen of the jumble sale. She once marvelled at a woman vying with her for a vintage cardigan. “Why was she wearing two pairs of glasses on her head,” she wondered, “one on top of the other?’ It took us another thirty years to fully grasp the need for high-density eyewear.
Jane worked in London’s first vegetarian restaurant. Each Monday, she rose early to colour the café’s fluffy white rice into a more healthy-looking, wholesome brown, with the help of Worcestershire Sauce. She laughed that her years in Art College were being put to good use.
I had invited her and her boyfriend, R., to share my two-bedroom. Soon afterwards, her mother came to stay. Myra kicked R. — her future son-in-law — out of the bed and relegated him to the couch upstairs. Each night, she surreptitiously marked the ‘spirit’ level on her bottle of scotch, leaving it on the bookshelves. R., for his part, put his efforts into extracting as much alcohol from the bottle as possible while ensuring its dilution went undetected.
Though her grandchildren had not met Jane, they would know something of her by her daughter’s raucous laugh and her son’s effortless crafting of beautiful buildings. They’re the embodiment of the tree she has grown.
Then, Myra and R. would join forces for outings to the pub. Myra squirrelled away a bottle of gin in her handbag, while making R. order tonic only. “If I get like either of them,” Jane would say, “just shoot me, will you?”
Since then, our lives have been sticky-taped together by children, marriage, divorce, and Jane’s illness and eventual death.
In Australia, Mary bought a rambling, old boarding house, which she intended to renovate ‘for the family’. Really though, she confided, it was for us girls to live in when we were old and no one was game to shoot us. Given that our giggles have turned to snorts, our glasses have coke-bottle lenses and the memory spans short, we may have crossed that line already.
Twenty years after Jane’s death, her husband, Chris, wrote us a letter. The memorial service he’d planned had been cancelled due to the pandemic. But the T-tree we’d planted at her grave was well and truly alive, and wending its way towards heaven. Not a day went by, he said, that he did not think of her. Their years together were the happiest of his life. Though her grandchildren had not met Jane, they would know something of her by her daughter’s raucous laugh and her son’s effortless crafting of beautiful buildings. They’re the embodiment of the tree she has grown.
It’s late on Sunday afternoon when I read Chris’ letter, and realise I have not properly mourned my friend or marked her leaving. Near death herself from leukaemia, we all sensed she was waiting out her dying mother. I’d promised to drive her to see Myra one Friday, but due to illness I had to cancel. Myra died soon after, leaving Jane just a few more months.
As the dimming light streams onto the page of Chris’ letter, I look back through my bedroom window and see clouds parting in the sky to reveal earth’s brightest star. It’s as if a curtain has been opened to unveil a path or celestial tunnel to Jane. For a brief moment, I glimpse the bits of me that are connected to the eternalness of her; to the effervescence of her laugh. Beyond the sun’s horizon, I feel her presence. Fleetingly and out of physical reach, but she’s present just the same.
It was a reunion of sorts. A reunion of six.