The Good News
by Anne Goodwin
Anne Goodwin's stories have appeared in various publications, including most recently Cartaraville, Laura Hird Showcase, Still Crazy, Rose and Thorn, and Wanderings. Her web site is http://annegoodwin.weebly.com.
Brian watches me from behind the Sunday paper as I get my things together, but he's saying nothing. I drag my rucksack out of the cubbyhole. I fill a flask with coffee. I decide it's too much hassle to try to chip last summer's mud off my boots. And still he feigns absorption in the restaurant reviews. Only when I collect my car keys from their hook on the dresser does he admit he's noticed I'm going out for the day. Without him. "Where are you off? Don't you know my mother's expecting us for lunch?"
"Do you honestly expect me to wade through Delia Smith's Sunday roast while your mother drones on about what a good boy you are? I'm off for a walk on the Edges with Lorna."
"A walk? With loopy Lorna?"
I don't flatter him with a reply, just flash him a look fit to freeze his bollocks off and flounce out.
Driving out of town, I go over all the things I could have said, should have said:
You're in no position to dictate who I spend my time with. No need to spell out the whys and wherefores.
There's a lot more to Lorna than that happy-clappy Jesus stuff. Only you're too bigoted to see it.
A dose of positive thinking is exactly what I need right now. If it's got the power to scare off the big-C, who knows what it might do for a broken heart?
At least the woman has morals. Unlike some people I could mention.
Lorna's been there for me since primary school. Which gives her a good twenty years on my relationship with you.
And you've got bits of breakfast nesting in your beard.
My righteous rage stops the tears from clouding my view of the road, but it fixes my jaw in a way that makes it harder to relax into a smile when I finally turn into the car park and catch sight of Lorna's Mini Cooper with the fish logo next to the numberplate.
My friend is nearby, down on one knee. She might be praying, or just arranging the loops of her laces symmetrically on her well-polished boots.
I reverse into a space and rush across to give her a hug. Under her layers of protection against the winter chill, I feel the Amazonian strength of her bones. "So good to see you."
Lorna links my arm as we set off towards the path through the woods. "Don't you just love these bright winter days?"
I shiver. At this time of the year, the sun isn't high enough to penetrate the phalanx of pines. "Winter drags on too long for my liking. I suppose we need the cold to kill off the bugs, but I can't wait for summer. Nothing beats lounging in a hammock with a spritzer and a trashy novel!"
Lorna starts to sing, not quite in tune: Summertime, and the living is e-a-sy.
I pull away on the pretext of re-knotting my scarf. "If you don't mind, Lorna. I'm feeling a bit fragile."
"Oh, sorry, Penny. Actually, I'm a bit rough myself. Not sleeping so well."
Lorna looks as if she's never had a rough night in her life. Her face glows like an advert for fresh air and vegetables, and with that cropped style she's worn since her hair grew back she could be mistaken for her daughter. I think she gets younger each time we meet, like Dorian Gray, and I'm her wrinkly alter ego who should be hidden away in the attic.
"Tell me about it," I say. "Can't seem to get off to sleep at all these days without at least half a bottle of red wine inside me. Wake up with a stinking headache."
"It'll do you good to get out there on the Edges with the wind on your face," says Lorna. "Best hangover cure there is!"
The trouble with Lorna is that it's easier to feel close to her when we're apart. Face-to-face, there's something about her fresh-faced eagerness that makes me wonder what separates looking on the bright side from delusional naivety. "It's more than a hangover cure I need."
"Of course," says Lorna, as we navigate the stream. "I was about to ask. How are things?"
"Not good," I say, struggling as much to keep my voice from wobbling as to maintain my balance on the stepping stones. "We're fighting all the time. Over nothing. Like this morning I was on at him for half an hour for not putting the orange juice back in the fridge."
Lorna nods. "It always comes out in the little things, doesn't it?"
I can't imagine Lorna ever getting in that state with Greg, but I let it pass. "If ever he's late home from work I'm having kittens."
"You think it's still going on?"
"No, I'm pretty sure it's over, but I just can't forget it."
"It's not easy to put a thing like that behind you."
"I just can't understand why he did it."
"Have you asked yourself if there's anything you might have done?"
Lorna draws back. "Just a thought."
"Brian expects me to just forgive and forget. Get over it and look to the future."
"Why can't you?"
Why can't I? To anyone but Lorna, with a husband so attentive he still sends her a dozen red roses on Valentine's Day, it would be obvious. She's in no position to appreciate my humiliation when her Greg still finds her irresistible after thirty years of marriage, even with a mastectomy.
The path takes us uphill. We're too busy breathing to talk. Then we go through a kissing gate and out onto the gritstone Edges, the open moor on our left and steep rocks descending into the valley to our right. You can see for miles.
A young family approaches: a man and woman holding hands and two bouncy girls in lilac fleeces and red wellingtons. I lower my voice in deference to the little darlings, but I can't hide my venom, don't want to. "Because he had it off with that floozy, didn't he?" We stand to one side, trampling on the heather, to let them pass.
"Would you like to take one of these tracts to read when you get home?"
I spin around, startled, just in time to see the mother, looking bemused, accept a leaflet from my friend. Like a dog escaped from its leash, Lorna has transformed herself from Walking Companion to Militant Evangelist in less than the time that it takes Clark Kent to change into his Superman outfit. Tract? Did she say Tract?
We walk on, not speaking. It's a good path, but muddy in places, so you have to watch your step. I walk a little faster. I can hear Lorna panting. For all her piety and clean living I can still outpace her.
"Are you sure you want to stay with him?" Lorna asks eventually.
"Yes, no, how the hell do I know? I don't know what's right any more."
"You're bound to be upset. But you can't change what's happened. Sooner or later you're going to have to find a way to accept it. Or you'll make yourself ill."
If she dares to say anything about finding comfort in the Lord, I will have to throttle her. But she doesn't. She looks at me with such concern that my eyes fill with tears.
"I know," I say. "But I don't know how to."
A runner passes us, her skinny arms and legs poking out of her vest and shorts like the picked-over bones of a chicken. When she meets a group of ramblers, hogging the full width of the path, she has to break her rhythm and wind her way around them.
As we near the ramblers, I sense Lorna fumbling in her pockets. I tell myself it's just for a morale-boosting muesli bar. "It's making me so miserable," I say. "I can't feel comfortable in my own home any more . . ."
We move apart to make way for the group, all chatter and serious waterproofs. "Would you like to take one of these tracts . . ."
I snatch the paper from Lorna's hand before the man with a goatee beard has the chance to register what he is being offered. The Good News, it says, with a clip art picture of Christ on the cross. How the brutal execution of a political activist all of two thousand years ago is supposed to be either good or news, I'll never understand.
"What?" says Lorna, as the walking party ambles past, a rainbow of Gore-Tex.
"Do you have to? I was talking."
I march on, Lorna almost running to keep up. "I was listening. I can do both. Our new pastor says we should take every opportunity to spread the word."
"But here? Can't it wait till you're at work or shopping or something? Can't you be a bit more sensitive to my feelings?"
"I'm sorry," says Lorna, "but I don't have the time."
She should try working a forty-hour week with compulsory overtime. Then she would know about not having time. "What's the big hurry?"
Lorna puts her hand on my shoulder, bringing me to a halt. "I've got something to tell you." She blinks hard. "The cancer's come back."
Once, when we were out walking, Lorna stepped into a peat bog right up past her knees. I laughed, of course, but for an awful moment I thought it was going to suck her in, like quicksand. It feels like that now, only I haven't quite needled out the comic element. "It can't have. They gave you the all clear."
"Christ, Lorna, why didn't you say something earlier?"
"I'm sorry, Penny, I wanted to tell you, but you had enough going on with Brian and everything. I didn't want to upset you."
"Oh, sod Brian and his midlife crisis!"
Lorna kicks a pebble. It rolls about three paces along the footpath and settles in the mud. If I were to kick a stone it would go pitching over the the rocks right down into the valley, taking half the cragside in its wake. Instead, I give her a hug. She feels far too solid for a woman who is being eaten away from the inside.
"Let's keep walking," says Lorna. "It's chilly hanging around."
I stumble along, still stunned by the news. "When do you have to start the chemo?" I hate the idea of her having to go through all that again. "I could drive you to your appointments. I wouldn't mind taking the time off work, if it would help."
Lorna laughs, not her usual jolly Christian laugh. This laughter is more cynical, more like mine. "It's not going to be like the last time. There are secondaries right through my body. There's no treatment."
"There must be something. There's always hope."
Lorna shakes her head. "Not in this case. Well, they've said I could have a round of chemo, but it's not worth it just to add a couple more months to my life. I've just got to let it run its course."
I feel like I'm watching her being gobbled up by the quicksand. And she's not even fighting it. "You can't just do nothing! What has Greg got to say about that? And Tracey? And Jason?"
"Well, obviously, they'll support me in whatever I decide."
Her complacency makes me feel like screaming. I need to find a rope and get a team together to haul her out of that bog. "You can't be sure it's terminal." I'll go online the minute I get home. If she doesn't want conventional treatments, there are lots of alternatives. In fact, I could phone Brian and get him on to it right now. He'll only be watching football or sleeping off his lunch.
Lorna stops again and pushes me roughly on the shoulder. "Get real, Penny. I'm telling you, there's no cure."
The world looks fuzzy, as if the mist has come down on us suddenly and my friend, my oldest friend, seems to be fading away before my eyes. I want to scream, lie down on the path and kick my legs in the air like a toddler who doesn't want to walk any further. I want to pummel her chest with punches and cry for her not to leave me. There are fireworks exploding in my head, and it's not my hangover. "I suppose you're happy to die. So you can be with your God."
"Don't be so bloody stupid, Penny. If you could stop thinking of yourself for just one minute you'd realise I'm bloody furious about it. But that's not going to change anything, is it?"
I feel like I've been slapped. "Oh, Lorna," I say. "I'm so sorry."
Lorna puts her arm through mine and we start to walk again. "Come on," she says. "I can hear a Creamcake calling me from the teashop."
I try to match my pace to Lorna's. If I really screw up my eyes I can just about make out the café down in the valley. "How much time have you got?" I whisper.
"They said six months, but you can never know with these things." The way she puts it, it's like not being sure how long it's going to take to cook the Christmas turkey.
"What are you going to do with the time you've got left? You could visit all those places you've dreamed about." I can see myself scrolling through the travel websites: the pyramids of Egypt, the lost city of Machu Picchu, the giant stone heads of Easter Island.
Lorna goes all stern again. "I'm just going to carry on as normal. No big plans."
"Okay." My voice is tiny. I'm back in infant school and the teacher doesn't need me to clean the blackboard for her. I take a deep breath. "What do you want from me?"
"From you?" There's a long pause and I'm scared it's going to end with Lorna saying Nothing. Then she laughs and squeezes my arm. "I want you to just be yourself. I'm going to need your support, Penny, just as you are, my pain-in-the-arse, glass-half-empty, heretic-unbeliever, dear dear friend."
We are approaching another group: a young couple, he with a big backpack, she with a tiny baby in a sling, and an older couple, around our age, presumably the parents of one of them. Three generations. She looks so smug about being a grandmother. It isn't fair.
I wipe my eyes and insert my hand into Lorna's jacket pocket. I pick out a leaflet. I select my target, pace myself. At exactly the right moment, I look the elder woman straight in the eyes, holding out The Good News. "Would you like to take one of these tracts to read when you get home?" I say. The woman bristles at this intrusion into her family idyll. I stand my ground, a beatific smile on my face as I thrust the pamphlet on her.
"Thank you." She folds the paper carefully and puts it away in her pocket.
Arm in arm, Lorna and I continue our walk toward the teashop.
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