|‘What did he say?’ she asked.
She is Valerie, and she is talking to her best friend whom she has always known. Together they have forged their passage from childhood, through the difficult years of adolescence, to burgeoning womanhood and the threshold of yet another chapter in their lives. They have shared their joys and trials, their hopes and their fears. Michelle has become Valerie’s other self, closer even than any sister could be. And now she stands trembling, waiting for Michelle to reply.
Michelle closes her eyes tight shut, she stops breathing, her head shakes slowly from side to side, she squeezes her lips together and she fights it, fights it, fights it until her mouth springs open and she takes a deep, shuddering breath and exhales with a cry that seems to come from a far distant place, and tears flow and Valerie opens her arms and draws Michelle to her and holds her as tightly as she dares, as though she were trying to make her part of herself, and their faces press together cheek to cheek and she can feel Michelle’s tears trying to find a path between them, and her own tears now adding to the flood, and she can feel Michelle’s body pressing against her own, she can feel it convulsing, but still she tries to hold her tighter and tighter, fusing their bodies together, feeling her breathing and her sobbing and echoing it as if they two were one, indivisible organism.
The doctor had given Michelle four months, possibly six, no more than eight. She described that moment to Valerie later, once she’d regained her composure, as feeling like time had suddenly stopped and there was a deep, dull silence all around her. She could see the doctor’s lips moving but she couldn’t hear what he was saying. Instead, it felt as though everything was flying away from her as if repelled by the sickness the doctor had just revealed. She had never experienced such a cataclysmic feeling of loneliness, of being alone, of being abandoned. She had been told that she was diseased, she was condemned to die and it was as if the world around her was fleeing for fear of being contaminated. But she was the one who was going to die. And whilst everyone else was going to die too, one day, she knew when death was coming for her whereas everyone else could pretend to be immortal right until the end.
Valerie stayed with her for the rest of the day and they walked, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence. Valerie’s emotions ebbed and flowed, unsure where to settle. At one moment, she would be filled with a selfish sadness at the thought of losing a companion who had become so intrinsic to her life, as vital and indispensable as any part of her own being. And moments later she would be consumed by unselfish anger at the injustice that someone as young as Michelle, with so much to give and so much yet to experience should be denied all but a fraction of what is reasonable to expect from life. She could think of nothing but Michelle; of all that they had shared and all they had expected to share in the years ahead which, for Michelle, were now no longer ahead. Michelle dominated her thoughts. Only she was in focus. And the streets through which they walked passed totally unnoticed.
But for Michelle, the streets were all she saw; those streets she loved yet often took for granted because they were so old and seemed timeless. But now, time was of the essence and she wanted to see them all, to savour them all, to imbibe them in their broadest aspect and their most minute detail. And gradually, as they walked with arms linked as they always did, through the mordent alleys of the old town, into the broad sunny boulevards of the new, along the banks of the river where the waters flowed indefatigably towards the ocean and through the gardens which had just begun to bloom and whose colours would not fade before she did, Michelle began to realise that she had four months left, possibly six, maybe even eight; and she began to imagine what they could accomplish in that time, she and Valerie. And Valerie, who recognised this change of perspective for what it was – a coping mechanism – entered into the spirit of it, telling her that it would be the best time, a whole lifetime compressed, a carnival of experiences, of colour and movement and sound, and they would do everything and see everything and experience unimaginable happiness, although even as she made these promises, her throat ached with the sadness, the anguish she was fighting to repress.