The blouse in my hands is a fresh white. It’s simple, plain but for the flowers embroidered on the cuffs. It was strange to find it again, this shadow of my youth; it doesn’t fit me any more, which is hardly a surprise, but I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away.
I remember buying it, in town with Adelaide. She said it was one of the most beautiful shirts she’d ever seen as I stood, side-on, before the changing room mirror.
“If you like it so much, why don’t you buy it?”
“I don’t like it on me,” she said, “I like it on you.”
I liked it on me, too. I turned back to the mirror, examining it from another angle.
“I think you should get it. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to grow out of it,” Adelaide said, her grey eyes softly serious.
I remember I was wearing it when I went to visit her just after university started. We spent most of the first day wandering around the town, drunk on each other’s company; our only real direction of walking was where the other’s feet were pointing. It had been raining intermittently all day, so that the sky was a soft grey, the pillow of cloud so dense it seemed endless, endless and free. The rain was forgettable: we were distracted, lost in old memories and the feeling of home; and coat-less, umbrella-less, we wandered cheerfully though roads mapped out by conversation, until we found ourselves back at Adelaide’s flat. I tried to run my fingers through my hair but the wet, tangled locks snared them and trapped them; I caught Adelaide’s eye, as she stood wringing hers out onto the doormat, and a ripple of laughter burst out of our chests. I was trying to take my shoes off, but I kept falling over. Adelaide wasn’t even trying, bent double with her forearm pressed to the wall.
“Viola,” she said, pausing to recover her strangled voice, “Your shirt’s a bit see-through– ”
I threw a wet sock at her. “Well, stop looking at it, then!”
“Oh, but it’s the most beautiful shirt in the world!'' By the time my other shoe was off, my cheeks were starting to feel stiff and my head ached from the fits of laughter that only intensified at Adelaide’s ridiculous impression of some nineteenth-century gentlewoman. She continued it as she shuffled across the carpet, half-singing, “My clothes are all sticking to me and I’m so co-old,” before throwing herself face-down on the bed. As she shuffled into a kneeling position, I snuck up behind her, suppressing snorts and holding my breath. I made a drawn-out slurping noise just behind her ear; she jumped round, shrieked, batted me away. “You absolute weirdo!” I cackled, scrambling up beside her.
I think Adelaide took her top off first. In any case, I noticed she was looking at me, and suddenly it was like nothing was very funny any more. The rain had been getting heavier and heavier, but the sound of it beating against the windows was drowned out beneath the rush of blood in my ears, and I remember thinking, do you do this to a ten-year friendship? But the blouse was already on the floor, and Adelaide was looking at me with eyes like an October sky.
I was due to leave in the afternoon of the next day. We went out for breakfast, and we talked and talked, saying things that were deeper than anything we’d ever said at sleepovers, even after night has fallen so that everything feels magical, and secrets can slip out as easily as breath. Once my bag was packed, the radiator-dried blouse folded carefully, we walked to the train station and parted in a cloud of giggles, kisses, and solemn farewells. As I boarded the train, her eyes still floated in my mind, staring into mine with a fierce intensity: void of boundaries, full of hope. I thought back to her expression as I bought the blouse, and I realised they had that look then.
I remember wearing it, too, at Teddy’s seventh birthday meal. It was two days after she’d told me, and I was still reeling. We were in that lull between the main course and dessert, which for the adults meant relaxed conversation, but for the children meant a sudden surge in energy. I stirred the ice in my drink and listened to the flow of words and the patter of youthful footsteps. I wanted to say that it was a good job they hadn’t put us in the main room, but it was too much effort to open my lips. There was a brief scream, and then Teddy, panting, was scrambling onto my legs.
I realised how precious he was then, this little brother of mine, sat on my lap with his small, skin-on-bones frame. He had that little boy smell: fresh and warm and like shampoo and sweat — not unpleasant sweat, but little boy sweat, from running around. A moment later and he was off again, digging his heels into my shins, only an exposed space left where his warmth had been.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and then mum was sliding into the chair to my right. “How are you feeling?”
Sick. Tired. Empty. “Fine.”
I had felt dizzy when she’d told me. I’d known for a while by then that something was wrong, but knowing it in my head and knowing it out loud were two very different things. I’d been working up to the conversation, but the worst thing - the thing that tore me up more and more the longer I thought about it - was that, in the end, she was the one who had brought it up.
“I think we need to talk, Viola.”
Teddy was running around with the cousins, playing something with paper aeroplanes, which little Esme was in charge of making, while the rest were stockpiling them beneath empty tables in their opposing corners. I’d never got to play these sorts of games, born to a mother younger even than I was then. Teddy’s fancy shirt was dusty from scuffling about on the floor, and my gaze was fixated on it, while my fingers were running over the embroidery on my cuffs, where a thread seemed to be coming loose.
I had asked if there was someone else. She still wouldn’t meet my eyes, staring at nothing, as she answered tightly, concisely, “Yes.”
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say. I just sat back, and closed my eyelids.
Before Teddy went to sleep we huddled in mum’s double bed. Reading to him helped: it was rhythmic and continuous, and I could just float along the lines of the pages without seeming too different. “Did you have a nice time at the meal?” I asked him, and he answered a muffled, “Yes,” pressing his body into the curl of mine. So soft, so gentle, like a sleeping kitten: I wished I could have stayed there forever, but Teddy was worn out and he needed to go to bed. I changed into my pyjamas; the blouse felt tainted then, and I almost considered throwing it away. But, perhaps reluctantly, perhaps with relief, I dropped it into the washing basket and let my eyes drift shut.
I remember wearing it as I examined my reflection, stood side-on before the mirror, only cold, empty space beside me this time. It didn’t fit like it used to, but it was still wearable. Would she even care if I did wear it, though? She might not even remember it.
I hadn’t heard from Adelaide since Teddy was seven, so it was a shock to receive a text from her husband: I don’t know whether he was desperately going through her contacts list one last time, or whether she specifically asked for me. I’d decided to visit her the next day, and only a few hours after the blouse had been dug out from the loft, I was sat in a hospital waiting room, pulling at loose threads on the cuffs. I had met her husband outside; he smiled with just his cracked, pale lips. A young boy had been hung on his arm, kicking at the weeds that grew through the broken pavement.
“Are you Viola?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“You and Adelaide were friends when you were kids, weren’t you?”
“Yes. Yeah, good friends. Yeah.”
Once their son and I were introduced, the three of us went inside. The clock said we weren’t waiting long - though the blank walls and hollow faces said otherwise - before we were allowed up to her room. There, her husband pulled up a chair to her bedside as if to a dinner table; after hugging his mother briefly, the boy did the same, clumsily dragging another over. “Why aren’t I allowed on the bed any more,” he asked, but the words were lost to the choking quiet.
I sat at a further distance, and on the opposite side. Propped up in the bed, Adelaide looked thin, deflated. For most of the visit I merely watched and tried not to think, focusing instead on not breathing, or swallowing, or sniffing too loudly: Adelaide paid no attention to me while her family were there. It was when the son asked to go to the toilet that she turned to me and said, so softly that I might have missed it, “Viola?” The hand she reached out wavered and I shuffled forward to take it before it made me think too hard. What did she say? Small things; small, meaningless things, things so thin and pale that I’ve forgotten them now. I still remember her eyes: they had haunted me all those years - eyes like the sky; void of boundaries, full of hope - and yet there they were, more like empty rooms than open windows. But her hand, however weak, felt real in mine and I gripped it just as I ever would have done.
“The most beautiful… shirt… in the world,” she said, the corners of her lips twitching up into a half-smile. I wanted to tell her that I’d looked for it especially, that I hadn't even been sure it would fit, that I never really wore it any more, that it still made me think of her: all this, and I simply smiled back, and said, “Still?”
I left shortly after the others came back. They walked in to find Adelaide’s hand clasped in mine, which I assumed was why I got a text, a couple of weeks later, to say that that was it. And another after that, inviting me to the funeral.
She’d always been adamant that she didn’t want people wearing black, but that was a long time ago now, and there was nothing about it in her husband’s message. I was almost resigned, giving up what she might have wanted for what was normal, but the sight of it stopped me. She hadn’t forgotten the blouse; I thought back to her face when she saw it, and then the question seemed just to fall away. And sure enough, there they were as I arrived: the husband, the children, all clad in bright colours. It looked celebratory, with a strange sense of release, like non-uniform days at school when the playground ripples with a rainbow. It didn’t lift the mood of the service, though, as I sat in my head and watched time unravel. It was her birthday: we were out for lunch, at her house, in a soft play area. We were staying in a cottage on the coast and I didn’t know it was the last birthday I’d ever spend with her.
That day was long, and it was lonely: as her husband read on through breaking speech, I could not forget the years we’d spent in silence, and I cried for her as I hadn’t in fifteen years. Maybe I was expecting it to free some locked-away part of me, or to lighten the heaviness in my heart, but once it was over it seemed to have passed away quietly like a rain shower at night. I shook hands with her husband as I left, then stepped out into the drizzly darkness, pulling my coat around me.
Time doesn’t feel linear; it feels like a ball of thread, which right now is woven into the shape of this blouse. It is softly strong, hinting of soap and clean sweat, staring up at me with fierce intensity. I finger one of the loose threads on the cuffs: I should fix this, replace it with my own handiwork. I look at it one last time, the blouse in my hands, and then I put it in the washing machine.