I leant backwards in my chair, the wooden frame knocking against the white wall behind me. Outside the rain fell, a steady stream sliding against the glass of the window. On her bedside table sat a small succulent, beside a vase of flowers: nothing bright, but all of them beautiful, coloured in hazy purples and linen whites. I stared at them idly, allowing my eyes to un-focus, remembering the feel of tall meadow grasses brushing against my bare legs as we’d walked through fields to reach the stretching trees and open hillsides.
Meg’s hands had always smelt like sap, when we were younger. I loved to run, and she loved to climb; her lithe body would disappear from sight for only a second before I’d hear her joyous cries from the topmost branches, and I’d look up to see her waving down at me, a bright smile on her face. I’d follow suit, hiking my skirt up around my thighs and clumsily figuring out a path up the tree.
As we started to get older, we took things with us when we left the house. We packed bags filled with bread and jam, notebooks and pens, and we’d go to a tree – more often than not our favourite tree, with its long arms extending almost to the ground, fanning green leaves spreading like feathers in the wind – and we’d settle for an afternoon, picking at our bread and creating stories based on what we saw. I’d draw elaborate sketches of the scenery, and write page-long stories about adventurers in foreign lands. She’d always chew her pen as she thought, and more often than not we’d return home covered in its ink – her from its initial explosion, and myself from trying to help her wipe it off.
Sometimes we’d lie in the grass, watching the tops of the trees wave in the wind high above us. Our mothers sent us out with jumpers tied round our waists, and we’d lay these on the ground rather than wear them, and fan out atop them to watch the clouds pass. We’d throw lazy guesses into the air as to what they looked like, but she’d end these conversations the same way every time: “It’s still a cloud, no matter what it shape it takes.”
Wild lavender grew in abundance in the fields we grew up in, and we’d pick its flowers and weave them into our hair; taking it in turns with careful fingers to tuck it into our plaits for one another. As we started to get older, we’d swipe purple eye shadow across our lids instead, muddling with the makeup our mothers kept in their bathroom cabinets. We imagined being older, getting ready to go on extravagant nights out in London, Paris, Rome. We strutted through the hallways of our houses, usually with one of us pretending the walk a red carpet while the other imitated the journalists and paparazzi, clamouring to speak to the dazzling young beauty wearing high-heels that were five sizes too big for her feet.
These pretentions began to be replaced by the real thing as we grew older. The red carpet events were usurped by dimly lit nightclubs, sticky and sweaty, but our high heels fit and we learnt to walk in them together.
It was also the first time boys had become part of our lives. She started dating one of the men we met, and sharing her was an uncomfortable experience for me. I was happy for her, but there was an undercurrent of jealousy lining my guts like an oil spill, dark and turbulent beneath the surface. It looped around my stomach, tying knots until I bit the bullet and found a boyfriend of my own.
We double dated, sitting across from one another in cosy booths, sipping at malt flavoured milkshakes and chatting. I’d started to wear red lipstick, and its imprint was wrapped around the end of the straw I’d been sipping from.
I looked up to see Meg kissing her boyfriend. I turned to mine, wanting to copy, but he eyed my lipstick and shook his head. I felt like she was inching away from me, moving ahead as she had all those years ago, climbing at the top of the trees as I scrambled up the lower branches.
Her first boyfriend quickly became her second, then her third. My first stayed just that – my first – but I didn’t find a second, let alone a third. I drew into myself, returning to the imagination we’d nurtured as children. I painted great expanses: hilltops covered in lavender under a purple sky, and wrote grand stories about sailors and explorers. I could feel the lives I wanted to live thrumming just beneath the surface of my skin, but none of them became reality.
Meg left the rural town we’d grown up in to go to university in the city. I thought about going, too, to study art, but for years I’d been called out for living in Meg’s shadow, so I decided it was finally time to go my own way.
At least once a month we wrote to each other, sending them with Polaroid photographs packed into the envelopes. Hers were often blurry, showcasing a variety of boys and large groups of girls. Mine were of the small flat I’d moved into, my paintings leant up against the walls and hung crookedly on every surface available. There were hanging plants dangling from my bookshelves, their leaves creeping down past well-thumbed copies of Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn.
Most evenings I’d write or draw, sat in an undisturbed corner in my second-hand armchair under the light of a single lamp. During the days I worked in a small coffee shop, which was how I got my first commission.
An older lady came into the shop most days, and our small talk evolved to her asking gentling probing questions about my life. She asked to see some of my artwork, so a few days later I brought in my sketchpad. A hundred landscapes were detailed in there, as well as portraits of young girls with lavender tucked behind their ears or sat atop trees. She asked who’d inspired such beautiful artwork, and I responded with just one word: “Meg.”
She asked me to paint something pretty to sit in her living room. I sat cross-legged on the floor that night, sketching out a number of possibilities. I ended up pressing the bristles into red and blue, and found a patchwork field of flowers and trees coming to life.
After that, word of mouth about my artwork spread. The benefit of living in a small town was, I suppose, that we lived in a tight-knit community where everybody knew everyone else. Her friends asked for my details, and I found myself being able to take less shifts at the coffee shop as demand for my paintings grew.
It was a few months before Meg finished university that Julian came into the coffee shop. He asked for non-dairy milk – something that was much rarer, back then – and blushed shyly, dipping his gaze. He sat at the bar, which stretched down from the main counter, and I smiled at him as I wiped down the surfaces.
He came in the next day, too, and the day after that, each time sitting at the bar. By the fifth day I made his coffee ready as I saw him waiting in line, and his surprised smile caught me off guard. It made something in my heart clutch, and I let my hand linger for a second longer as he took the cup.
“I’d like to see your paintings,” he said, one quiet Tuesday afternoon. The shop was almost empty, and I was leant against the countertop chatting to him amicably.
“I suppose you could, if you wanted,” I said, feeling a new knot fix itself inside me – this time around my heart, rather than the jealous tie around my stomach. A few days later he came to my flat, and he stared in awe at the great landscapes, tracing his fingers gently down the edge of a canvas, following the dip and swell of the dried paint, the crevices between brushstrokes. He paused for the longest at a circular canvas, inside which were two young girls, hands clasped and encompassed by lavender, which blended from the plant and into both of their hair.
I made him tea after that, and we sat in contented silence on my worn sofa together. I left the light on, and it cast the room in a warm glow. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I remember the heat of his lips against mine, the delicate brush of his lower lip scraping against my jaw.
Meg returned home not long after, and she screeched with excitement when I told her about Julian. She seemed older: she’d had her nose pierced at some point, and it sparkled in the morning sunlight, and her hair was highlighted, but for the first time it had been done properly, rather than by me with some lemon juice and a summer’s worth of sunshine. Still, we fit back together as though she’d never left, and she took to sitting in the coffee shop with Julian while I worked. He’d often pop in around his own shifts, but Meg didn’t have a job – and she didn’t seem to be looking for one, either. When I probed her about it she’d change the subject, so I decided to leave it be for a while.
We’d sit cross-legged on the rug in my flat most evenings, usually when Julian was working nights at the pub. She told me grand stories about her time at university, and that old, jealous rope nudged at my insides. I stared in awe at her as she span me tales about meeting with her lecturers for wine, and discussing poetry at length. When she told me she’d slept with her dissertation tutor I wasn’t disgusted, as I perhaps should have been; instead, I was enthralled, following the golden carpet she led me down as she spoke. She seemed so much more worldly than I could ever be, making coffees and painting landscapes recalled from my childhood imagination.
One day, she turned up at the coffee shop with a bag packed. She looked prepared for something, but I knew not what for. I passed an older gentleman his coffee with a smile before I turned to speak to her.
She didn’t let me. “I’m going to join the protest in London. You’re coming with me, right?”
“I – I can’t,” I stammered. “My shift doesn’t finish ‘til seven.”
She scoffed. “Your shift? Who cares! You could make a real difference – we’re talking about nuclear war, here – and you’re worried about working in a coffee shop?”
“How long are you going for?”
“Why do you always need a plan?” She groaned. “Come on, grab my hand – remember when we used to run through those fields together, and we’d drag each other this way and that, and we’d never ask where we were going, we just trusted ourselves? Let’s do that again.”
“But I have commitments now, I have bills to pay, I have Julian-“
“Fine,” said Meg, tight-lipped. “Abandon me, for your stable job and your stable relationship. But all those stories you used to love – none of them came from stability.” With that, she turned on her heel and strutted out of the door.
It was years before I saw her again. The heartache ran deep, and I avoided it by taking on extra commissions of things I’d never usually paint, of bleak Victorian houses, horses, dogs and cats, and, once, even someone’s children. They paid well, and I eventually moved into a small house with Julian.
The heartache could be avoided, but it could not be patched up, and every day it seemed to crack open a little more. I was happy, though, with my life and with Julian – we made a home for ourselves, filled with my paintings and plants, but the kitchen was his, as he loved to cook. I’d come home most days to the smell of dinner, and at the weekends he’d bake with the ripe fruits abundant in the bushes on the outskirts of the village.
I was sat on the countertop watching him chop vegetables one afternoon when I heard a sharp rap on the window. Stood there was Meg, clasping a large handful of lavender and smiling ruefully. I leapt down and ran to open the door, and she wrapped her arms around me. I could feel the tops of the lavender brushing against the back of my head, catching in my hair. We stood like that for an eternity, and then she followed me inside.
Julian put the lavender in a mug filled with water, and then went back into the kitchen to let us talk. Her face had changed again, and I supposed mine must have, too. Her skin was beginning to crease around her forehead and eyes, and she had deep smile lines cut into her cheeks. Her hair was still long, and had darkened since I’d last seen her, but it was still brushed behind her shoulders and held in a thick ponytail.
She explained how she’d caught a train to London, and joined in the marches there. She’d gone on to live on a peace camp, caught up in the movement and determined to make a difference. I swallowed heavily. She’d been dreaming big, of changing the world, and I’d been here, just dreaming.
She’d stayed at the peace camp for five years, she said, pulling the end of her ponytail forward and picking at her split ends, as she’d always used to. It was reassuring to see such a familiar habit. She’d gone on to squat in a house with a smaller group from the camp, where they’d discussed politics and staged protests, but had lived on nothing.
“I wanted to write you, I really did, but I couldn’t remember your address,” she confided. I laughed, and it felt wonderful; years of pain released in an exalted exhalation of breath.
She stayed the night, and fell asleep on our sofa, mouth agape. She looked innocent, like a child again, and that night I sketched a drawing of us, as adults, sat cross-legged on the floor of my living room, the mug of lavender on the floor in front of our clasped fingers. Julian squeezed my shoulder when he saw it, and pressed a kiss to my forehead.
Meg didn’t leave again after that. She found a job working in an office, and moaned about it almost every day, but she wrote poetry, too, and read it aloud to dizzied audiences in cafes and pubs.
I was, after many years, able to quit my job in the coffee shop. I turned a small room in our house into a studio, and spent my days painting. The lady who had first commissioned me contacted me, saying she’d recently become a grandmother and would love something beautiful to hang in their nursery. Two children, entwined by leaves, lay upon my canvas. Our time apart had encouraged me to explore, and I’d found that the combination of portraits and landscapes mesmerised me, the blending of nature and human into one.
Julian proposed to me, one quiet afternoon in January. It was frosty outside, but crisp and clear, and we were out walking when he became all shy and said he felt overcome with feeling. It reminded me of when we’d first met, and I said yes without hesitation.
Meg was, of course, my maid of honour, and she was the perfect choice. I walked down the aisle to The Beatles, and I felt the sun beating down, could hear the buzz of wasps and bees hopping from flower to flower which decked every seat and the wooden framing above our heads.
And, when Meg moved in with Mitch, a boy she’d met years prior at the peace camp, I helped her carry the boxes and unpack. They’d lost contact for a while after she’d left London, but as she’d proved with me, Meg was not a person one could easily forget.
Her friendship took many forms over our lifetimes. But, as I sat, gazing at her still form in the hospital bed, the back of my chair scraping the white wall, the flowers in her vase still fresh, I remembered what she’d said to me, all those years ago, as children with scraped knees and stinging nettle bumps covering our arms and legs.
The lined, translucent skin of my hand reached forward for hers. It felt cold, and looked pallid, but I gave it a gentle squeeze nonetheless. A tear tracked down my creased cheek, but I took a deep breath.
“You’re still my best friend. You always have been, and you always will be. You’re my Meg, no matter what shape you take. It’s in your soul, and I can feel you still.”