We order tea, a pot of Earl Gray and one of Darjeeling, her favorite. Sally duly arrives, fashionably late. Thin, too thin, she looks fragile in her faux fur coat, not like the now plump Susan and portly Alan, who have settled robustly into smug middle-age with their families and careers. Me too, I suppose, though not quite with the same ease.
She had her first breakdown at college, I recall. A broken love affair she couldn’t get over. We were all Eng Lit majors, but Sally was the only one who wrote poetry. She lived it, while we were considering our options. These turned out to be post grad qualifications in accountancy for Susan, and law for Alan and myself.
Sally, quite a looker in those days, got snapped up by an older man, a barrister, and devoted herself to writing, having a few pieces published in the small presses here and there. But his affairs and the divorce crushed her again, followed by an abortive attempt at a journalist career. We had visited her in various institutions, going together because one-on-one was too much to bear. A year ago, at the Elmtree ‘rest home’, she was a zombie medicated on Thorazine. She recovered as she always did, for a time.
Over the years she had found God, men, booze, Buddha, yoga, mindfulness, you name it, but everything and everyone eventually deserted this tormented soul. Except for us.
Today she is ebullient.
“Hi, guys!” she exclaims using the American slang we would have eschewed back in the day, but now their soaps and Hollywood movies have infected us all.
“Sally!” we respond.
“How the hell are you?” says Susan, and Sally proceeds to dominate the conversation. Painting is her latest fad, and she’s writing a novel, about what exactly we are unable to ascertain.
‘Prozac,’ I think cynically. ‘It’s the Prozac talking.’
While Susan and Alan indulge her, perhaps thinking she is finally ‘alright’, I fall silent, seeing through the façade.
“Always the quiet one weren’t you, Ian?” she says to me as if sensing something.
I smile and blush, meeting her eyes, the windows of the soul. Yet hers are whirlpools and seem to have no centre. I quickly look away not knowing what on earth to say.
“Still waters run deep,” says Alan, saving the day.
Ha, ha, ha, we all laugh, and they settle down again to tea and small talk.
Ignoring their chatter, I study the porcelain vase on the mantelpiece, thinking how just one tremor, the smallest of knocks, could make it fall and shatter.