“And then, pale and defeated, he suddenly looked up and swept his gaze over the congregation. Through the waves of shock, he found me – the calm in his storm. Our eyes locked and then his lit up with recognition and renewed determination.”
Sitting in our favourite lunch venue, I take a sip of my bitterly strong cappuccino and melt further into my comfortable seat. This is no ordinary restaurant - it is the backdrop of the theatre of my life and has always been a reliable source of comfort and solace - even on my darkest days.
This was also my mom’s favourite coffee shop and one she visited often. The décor has never changed since those years which must be why the sudden appearance of the gaudily ornate mirror on the wall is making me feel slightly off-balance.
I try to keep my face neutral as Emma continues, but the slightest cock of an eyebrow gives me away.
“Louisa, you don’t understand! I knew you wouldn’t get it! I don’t know why I’m even telling you. Do you even care about my future? My happiness?”
Shoulders lifting slightly as I sigh inwardly, I smooth my brow and neutralise my expression. My eyes widen with feigned innocence and renewed focus, whilst I consider my next words carefully. Contrary to her exasperation with me, I’m Emma’s closest friend and have her best interests at heart.
I just don’t have patience (or a poker face) when it comes to him. Or at least, another him. Emma means everything to me, and so I consider my next move cautiously.
“Sorry Em, please carry on. You know I only want what’s best for you. You know I love you and that your happiness is more important to me than anything else.”
Mollified she continues with her story. However, it’s not only my expression that is now blank, but also my mind. I cannot listen to one more of Emma’s stories about the latest ‘man of her dreams’ letting her down in some heart-wrenching way.
I have experienced them all, wiping away her tears and holding her as sobs have shuddered through her ravaged heart. It always ends the same way.
The him that went scuttling back to his estranged wife when said wife finally chose him over her new lover. Dumping Emma after he had unashamedly used her as his support and emotional crutch throughout his wife’s decision-making process.
The him that left her behind as he departed on an extended ‘finding myself and my purpose’ overseas travel excursion, after promising her a romantic island holiday where she had naively hoped he would propose.
Yet another him ultimately choosing to stay with his ‘boring and only-interested-in-the-children’ wife rather than riding off into the proverbial ‘forever-in-love sunset’ with Emma. I cringe inwardly as I remember this particularly unpleasant story.
They never end differently.
My personal favourite of them all though was him - the doting dad - who ended their relationship, when his daughter insisted that he choose between Emma and her. Here I pictured a scowling, stomping, spoilt pre-teen used to getting her own way – proven by his cowardly text message with a feebly worded apology: “I wish things could be different Emma, but my daughter’s needs come first. Maybe in a few years when she leaves for college…”
For real! Even the dot, dot, dot.
Yes, I thought I’d heard them all - lived through them all. But clearly, I haven’t.
This time I feel like Emma has hit rock bottom. I thought that Doting Dad was the all-time winner of the absolute worst boyfriend (and breakup) ever, but Father Frank has now taken over this dubious title. Father by profession, not family orientation, this time. She met him at the Catholic Church she joined a few months ago, just down the road from our old primary school.
The same primary school where Emma suddenly appeared some years ago all blonde curls and dimples. Looking back, I can’t even remember a time when she was not around.
She arrived shortly after my mother vanished, never to be seen or heard from again. The mystery of her ominous disappearance dominated the headlines in our community for a long time and was all anyone could talk about for years. Even now, after that black period has faded into the mists of history, I sometimes still catch a lingering look or a curiously raised eyebrow as I walk past. Long ago I came to realise that I will always be the ‘sad little girl whose mother left her behind'.
Realised. But never understood. Never accepted.
Whilst the legacy of ‘The Vanishing’ is a source of constant controversy and even cruel excitement in our dreary little town, it was the end of my safe and happy world. With each passing day as the search intensified and more false leads and clues emerged, another piece of my heart would shatter.
Eventually, the deep ache in my chest and hollowness in my stomach became part of me - a darkness lurking in my depths that I became accustomed to.
In the end, the self-appointed judges and juries decided that my bubbly blonde mother was a classic case of ‘an unhappy and unfulfilled wife that ran off with her lover’.
Slowly my life with dad settled into a dreary shadow of our former existence and with the passing of time, newer stories and headlines eventually replaced her memory in the town.
All I have left of her now is the fleeting warmth of her comforting arms wound tightly around me in her final hug and the whiff of her distinctively sweet perfume that lingered a little before it followed her out of the door. I still smell it sometimes because it’s Emma’s favourite perfume too.
Even now, all these years later, if I close my eyes tightly and empty my mind, I can still feel the softness of her favourite pink-like-candyfloss angora jersey as her arms squeezed a little tighter around me. That softness prickled fleetingly in my little mind that day as she’d only ever worn that pretty angora to church on Sundays. Even now the colour pink reminds me of her blushing dimpled cheeks and moist lips as she sat entranced by Father Fred’s sermons each week.
Whatever happened to Father Fred, I suddenly wonder?
Had she hugged me extra long that last day? Was her perfume different? What were those final words that she murmured under her breath as her lips pressed against my auburn plaits?
I don’t try and remember anymore.
Emma had been my saving grace when she unexpectedly arrived in my life. Rescuing me in so many ways, she’s been a constant source of distraction, comfort, and escape through the confusing and lonely years that followed.
Ironically though, I’m the stronger one, and as adults, I that have saved Emma from herself many times.
The familiar soundtrack of her words shatters my thoughts of the past and I brace myself for the same script. Yet another sad story with no hope of a happy ending. As usual, I will offer my shoulder, and the solution to extricate herself from Father Frank’s grim grip over her heart, head, and - in this instance – even her soul! She really has outdone herself this time.
My chest rises secretly on another quiet sigh, and I force my attention back to more comfortable territory, as my mind starts formulating a solution. I land back in the present and into my familiar role with a jolt of relief.
“So, as I was saying, his eyes found mine in the crowd, and of course the recognition and his joy were obvious. I was just hoping that nobody else saw it. You know how church people can be Lou! They never understand true love. And don’t even get me started on soulmates – as if they even care about people’s hearts and happiness. Who decided that Catholic Priests aren’t allowed to fall in love?! Why does Frank have to choose between the two loves of his life? Why can’t he have both? Why is the Church so harsh and heartless?!”
She drones on about how much Frank loves her and how they really tried hard not to let their feelings develop and distract them from a platonic and simpler friendship – the path of least resistance. But how, in the end, there was no denying their connection – not to mention their electric chemistry.
Emma knows as well as I do that Catholic priests are married to their Church and are forbidden from indulging in earthly romantic relationships. This is why Frank is now going to be the next in a long line of Mr Wrong's to break Emma’s heart. I can see the script playing out as clearly as if I wrote it myself. It’s almost comical how these relationships all follow the same path – and end in the same way. A well-rehearsed script with different actors each time, but the same reliable storyline.
I resist the urge to let out another long sigh and keep my face sympathetic, yet slightly curious – inviting her to continue with her sad tale. Although I know how this story will end, I still need to prepare myself for my starring role of comforter, best friend - and soul mate.
Emma needs me, just as I have always needed her.
This time, however, Emma doesn’t seem to be following the usual script. In fact, now that I’m focusing on her again and not lost in the past remembering years and breakups gone by, she seems to be fizzing with strangely positive energy.
Eyes shining, she continues, “Lou, you will not believe what happened next! When Frank saw me sitting in the congregation, it was as if he was a puppet whose Master pulled his strings tighter, making him stand up tall and straight. A beam of - I can only describe it as radiance - moved across his face dissipating the shadow of nerves and meekness. He smiled and lifted his head higher, looking directly at me and I could literally feel the intensity as his eyes found mine. I think everyone else could feel it too because they turned to look at me. But Lou, you will be so proud to know that I didn’t worry about what anybody else was thinking this time! Seeing the love reflected in his eyes made everyone else disappear in that moment.”
This is not going according to the typical script at all! My carefully arranged sympathetic, yet slightly bored expression has been slowly replaced by utter bewilderment. Where are her tears and confusion?
Where is the usual “I should have listened to you” and “‘when am I ever going to learn”?
Where is the desperate need for a hug from me? And why is she wearing that candyfloss-pink jersey? She knows I hate pink!
I shake my head slightly and dig deep to bring back the control.
“Emma don’t be delusional! I’m sure that Father Fred … I’m sorry, I mean Father Frank … has a special place for you in his heart. Any man would be lucky to have you in his life, as his partner, and even just as his friend. There is nobody as loyal and loving as you are. I know that. I am sure Father Frank (and here I emphasise the word Father) knows that too and will always be grateful for having met you. But you must be realistic and accept that although Frank does have some sort of feelings for you, he will have to let you go. But Em – I’m sure you can still be friends. Of course, you won’t want him in your life at all for a while – understandable under the circumstances - but the most important thing is that you remember that I’m here for you. I’m always here for you – just as you have always been here for me.”
Emma is looking at me strangely.
“Lou, I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. Frank, not Father Frank, just Frank has made his choice. That’s what he was telling his congregation today. That he’s fallen in love and chosen to leave the priesthood. I was standing at the back of the Church and, at first, I thought he wouldn’t be able to go through with it – he was so pale and looked so sad and defeated. But as he looked up and saw me, everything changed - and he did it! He told them! He loves his parish and his work, but he loves me more. That’s what he said, Lou! We are finally going to be together! No more sneaking around!”
No, no, no!
This can’t be true! Emma needs me. She doesn’t need another him. I will not allow this to happen or progress any further.
“Emma, please listen to me – Frank can never love you like I do. He will hurt you. He will break your heart. He will go back to his Church. Nobody ever stays Em. How many times do we need to go through this? How many times do we need to be left alone? How many more people are going to leave us behind and just disappear? There is only you and me Emma. Only you and me!”
I am shouting now. My head is spinning, and a familiar feeling of dark desolation and despair has descended over me – making it difficult to even see her sitting in front of me. She seems to be fading and I blink my eyes hard a few times to clear the tears and see her properly. The last of the candyfloss pink disappears as if it never existed at all.
Looking up I see myself reflected for the first time in that horrible new mirror opposite the table where I’m sitting. Alone. Always alone.
Where is Emma? Where has she gone? Why has she left me for Father Frank … or is it Fred? The confusion dulls my senses like thick cotton wool. Why is her distinctive perfume still tickling my nostrils and making my eyes water?
But there is only one cup of coffee in front of me. One place setting for lunch.
There is no Emma.
There never was an Emma.
With a jolting shock, I realise that Emma has never existed at all. All those lonely years when I needed someone to lean on and turn to when my darkness threatened to vanquish me. When I came home from school to an empty house that was once a safe and happy haven.
Dad tried his best for a while, but his own demons severed our bond, and a few years later his new wife didn’t care much for the competition of a scowling, stomping pre-teen. My dad, however, did not choose me … and our house still feels empty even though he and his new family are there wrapped in the warmth of their happiness whilst I skulk around the cold edges.
Emma emerged out of the pink-tinged darkness that still lingers on the edge of my mind. She pulled me back from the abyss as I was about to fall in, her familiar perfume filling my mind with its tantalising sweetness.
The tinkling of the bell above the Coffee Shoppe door pulls me back sharply from the edge of blackness.
I lift my head slowly to see a bubbly blonde walking through the door. She smiles brightly when she sees me looking at her and her cheeks dimple so prettily, that I can’t help smiling back.
“Do you mind if I join you? My boyfriend just messaged to say that he would rather stay in the pub for another beer than join me on our lunch date.”
Her smile wavers, but then lights up again as she extends her hand toward me.
“I’m Emily by the way. We both seem to need the company – and who knows, maybe we will be great friends!”
My face lifts in a slow smile as I feel the warmth of her sunshine eclipsing the shade of her candyfloss pink jersey. I order another cappuccino for my new friend and glance at the dreaded mirror again. The tears in my eyes have blurred Emily’s image away – but I quickly avert my gaze to focus on her brightness again.
The cappuccino arrives and my smile widens as she takes a sip. I taste the frothy richness and start to relax again. The lingering scent of her distinctively sweet perfume is lost in the strong aroma coming off the steaming coffee.
It’s going to be a beautiful lunch after all.