She was waiting for me, sitting at a picnic table in the dappled shade of a silver birch, its leaves delicately coloured the new green of spring that we’d both come to value and love. Gravel crackled and scrunched beneath the soles of my shoes as I walked the final few yards along the path to meet her and I could feel the first real warmth of a May sun seeping through my jacket and deep into my back. It was a fine day to have a birthday. Hers and mine. It was the last one that we would spend together.
I gave her a hug, feeling the genuine affection of friendship reciprocated in her embrace and then we sat down together in the sunshine to have our lunch. She produced hers from her handbag. A packet of macro-biotic soup as unappetizing as the cup of boiling water she added it to. I ordered, and ate, the house special.
We exchanged gifts, laughing because we had inadvertently bought one another the same thing – a single photo frame holding a picture of us at some charity event. And after the laughter, we talked. We talked of forbidden things. Cancer. Death. And about how we’d like people to remember us after we died.
‘Plant a forest flame for me,’ she said, her voice shaky and unsure with the finality of it. So I promised I would – it was easy then to agree to the ridiculous.
She drank her soup. It smelled of dying teabags hung to dry and I chided her for such self-sacrifice. In the still air of the garden we shared our birthday as we had in years gone by and we also shared our disease. Children played innocently in a nearby park, their laughter bouncing off the trees like little leaves of truth finally falling at our feet. Souvenirs of life. Reminders of our own mortality. And as the gathering clouds collected to occlude the sun, we rose to leave.
‘Same time next year then,’ she said, collecting together her things and giving me one last embrace. Her eyes were suddenly blazing in defiance as she spoke but I saw beneath the bravado her vulnerability and her fear and I could no longer look her in the eye.
I stood and watched as she drove off, the tyres of her car screeching on the tarmac as she went, her voice through the open window shouting words that were sucked up and obliterated by the breeze. I waited until she was out of sight before returning to the table. A waiter had already come to clear away the things and there was little evidence of our having been for lunch at all, yet somehow it seemed right to feel her presence there for one last time.
I thought of other birthdays still to come, when the forest flame in my garden would open up its fiery blossoms to the spring sunshine.
May the second. As good a day as any I suppose, to celebrate somebody’s birthday.
Lynda Tavakoli’s poetry and prose are widely published.