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Seeing the old house always made her feel as if she had come home, except that it wasn't home and never would be.  How could this be?

'Just pull yourself together!  You're just visiting old friends!' she admonished herself.  All the same, it was hard not to feel sentimental as she approached the Lynch's house.  The memories just came flooding back.  Unchecked.  She stopped.  Took a deep breath.  And went on.  The door opened just as she reached it.  Her old friend Jackie Fitz, or rather Jacqueline Fitzpatrick, now Mrs. Lynch,  stood there, looking much the same as she had last time they'd met.  The same blonde hair, freckled skin and  slightly plump outline - a bit plumper now maybe.  The two young women looked at each other, and hugged.

"Caroline!  You're looking great!  Come in!" said Jackie, almost dragging her inside.

"Careful!  This is a chocolate cake!" laughed Caroline, indicating the box she was holding in an upright position.

"Bitch!  What are you doing bringing chocolate cake in here and me trying to lose a bit of weight?  I'll murder you!" laughed Jackie happily.  This was the kind of banter they used to toss back and forth in the old days.  It felt good to be together again.  No pressure, just the sheer enjoyment of seeing your best friend again, someone who had shared your early years and knew all about you.

Caroline didn't have to be shown into the drawing room.  She knew the way.  The Lynch's house had been the most unusual in the area, the only non-terraced house, standing in a plot of its own.  Caroline had known every inch of it.  She stared long and hard at Jackie's wedding picture, framed and hanging over the mantelpiece.   Tony looking thoughtful, solemn and Jackie looking nervous, standing on the threshold of a new life.  Caroline had not been a guest at the wedding.  But she knew more about the circumstances of it than most people would imagine.

There was a bit of work to do before the two young women could talk.  First there was the matter of meeting Jackie's two little daughters Amanda and Christina.  Two cute little angels, with more than a little of their father in them,  Caroline had silently noted.  Some time was taken up arranging tea and coffee, and putting the children to play somewhere where they could be safe and seen.  As Caroline had brought some toys and sweet for them, they were absorbed for a while and happy to sit in the playpen.  Caroline was shown the photograph of Tony Junior, still in school and to be brought home soon by his grandmother, Jackie's mother in law.  The two friends exchanged all the usual pleasanteries, and Caroline was genuinely fascinated by and delighted to see the children.

So once they were sitting down and drinking their tea and eating the chocolate cake which Caroline had thoughtfully brought (and Jackie was thanking God that Caroline had brought something nice as she had been to disorganised to 'get anything in') the converation took a more personal turn.  The subject was Caroline, and what she was doing in London.  Jackie wanted to know everything.  Caroline related the usual story of how she'd gone to London to do office work and ended up working as a medical secretary in a hospital organising clinics for specialists.  Jackie knew this part quite well.

"But what possessed you to actually take up nursing?"  she wanted to know.  "I don't remember you ever being interested in nursing.  You wanted to do journalism but you couldn't get into that course because the places were limited."  Jackie had said too much.  She had a big mouth at times.   Caroline bit back a bitter retort.  It was on the tip of her tongue to say to Jackie "Oh yes, and what happened to your big dreams to be an air hostess and travel the world?" but she held her peace.

"Well, there where only thirty places in that journalism course and the competition was tough.   But neither of us got into what we initially wanted, did we?  That's why we both ended  up in the secretarial course!" replied Caroline, quietly.  "As for nursing, well working in the hospital gave me a  lot of exposure to that profession and helped me to make up my mind.  Luckily, my school leaving results were  good enough, not to mention the fact that my age was well within the upper age limit.  When I've completed my MSc degree  I hope to, well eventually hope to  become a university lecturer in nursing studies.  It's a very worthwhile career!"

"Well good for you!" said Jackie, with a hint of bitterness.  "I had to leave the solicitors' office when Tony Junior was born because there was no way I could do it all.  I had to stay home with that child.   I  used to be up all night with him, and I was knackered.  And there was pressure here!  Tony used to be freaking out with the baby crying all night.  Tony Junior was a very colicky baby.    Thank God, the others weren't so bad!"

"Little Tony had colic?" said Caroline.  "That's terrible.  Did you.......feed the babies yourself or give the bottle?'  Jackie laughed out loud.

"Breastfeed!  Me!  Are you joking?"   She made a disgusted face.  "You wouldn't catch me doing anything like that!"

"Seriously?  But why?" replied Caroline.  Jackie pulled another face.

"It's .....just disgusting, that's all!  Women who do that have no shame......"

"Well if that's how you feel....but it might interest you to know that it is nature's way to feed the baby.  Breastfed babies have less colic, less illness and less sleep disturbance than bottle fed babies.  On average.  Of course , it is not possible to breastfeed every baby but still......"  Caroline's voice trailed off...then she added "I've attended some courses on this.  Where  I work, we really promote breastfeeding."

"Well rather you than me!  I'll stay the way I am, thanks!  Anyway, Tony has said categorically that there will be no more babies.  So that's that!"  Caroline remained silent when Jackie referred to her husband.

"How's Bernie?  I mean, Mrs. Lynch, your mother-in-law?" she asked.  She had been very fond of Bernie Lynch.   Jackie rolled her eyes.

"You don't want to know!  Less said the better!"  They two obviously didn't get along.

"Are they living here or have they moved?" asked Caroline, curiously, referring to Tony's parents.

"Round the back.  Separate flat.  Separate entrances!"  came the reply.

"Adjoining door?  Locked!" added Jackie, for good measure.  Caroline was thoughtful.  She remembered Mrs. Lynch telling her "When you and Tony get married, we'll give you this two lovebirds this house!  We'll take the flat around the back."  She had never said goodbye to Mrs. Lynch when she took off to England all those years ago.  It was probably not a good idea to drop in on Mrs. Lynch.  It might make Jackie resentful.

"Well what about you?  How's the love life?  Any men on the scene?"  asked Jackie.  Caroline smiled shyly.

"Yeah, there's someone special now.  He's really nice and I'm very happy."

"Well, tell the news, then!  Can't you see I'm dying to know?" Jackie wheedled, in between keeping an eye on the two babies who were starting to get restless.

"His name is Rahul.  He is Indian.  He's a pathologist and he was born in Calcutta in India.  Well, they call it Kolkata now."

"Are you getting married or what?"  Caroline smiled again.  "We're talking about it right now," she said. Jackie looked a bit troubled.  "Won't that be very problematic, marrying a foreigner?"  Caroline shrugged.

"Well, he's foreign for me and I'm foreign for him.  If the relationship actually gets as far as marriage, we'll probably work something out.  Anyway, we'll be living in London, so it's not like I'll have to go and live in India."

"Then it's okay!  I know a girl who went out to live in Malaysia to get married but she comes home every year.  Seems happy enough!"

"Good for her!" said Caroline.  "Well, I'd better be off.  One of my aunts is coming over and...."

"You're not going!" Jackie was dismayed.  "You have to see little Tony!  And Tony wants to see you!  He'll be dropping in on his lunch hour shortly!  Tony!  Under any circumstances, Caroline did not want to meet Tony.  Not now and not ever!  There are certain things you can forgive in a best friend.  But an ex-boyfriend?  No.

"I'm going!" said Caroline, picking up her bag.

"Caroline!" pleaded Jackie.  "Please, don't go yet!  I know for a fact that Tony wants to meet you.......if you leave now, he'll blame it on me, I swear.  Take it out on me as well!"  Jackie had tears in her eyes.  "We've never been happy, not ever.  There's too much guilt over what we did to you!"

"Well, the pair of you ought to get over it!  You're a married couple with three kids.  I'm fine, there's not a bother on me!  I've a life I love and a great future!  And no regrets.  So forget all about me and just be happy.  Okay?  Now if you'll excuse me....." Caroline grabbed her handbag and tried to move towards the door.  Jackie grabbed her arm.

"Say that you forgive me!" she said.  Caroline looked at her.

"I forgive you Jackie.  I was angry for a while and it took me a long time to recover.   But I moved on.  I know you weren't trying to hurt me.  I'm okay.  Tell that to your husband if you like."

"It's true that I used to envy you being Tony's girlfriend and engaged and everything.  You were always the one who had everything.  Top marks in the class, then a great job, a handsome boyfriend with his own house!  I was always the plump little friend in your shadow.  But I swear, I didn't set out to take Tony away from you!"  sobbed Jackie, clinging to her friend's arm.

"Well, thanks for the compliment, but there's no need for all this!" said Caroline, wondering how was she ever going to extricate herself from this highly emotional situation.  She was feeling completely removed from it all.  Jackie seemed hell bent on confessing whatever guilt she was still carrying.

"You were off in the States with your parents for that family get-together, gone for three whole weeks.  I met Tony on a Friday evening when I was down in the "Cottage" for a couple of drinks after work with a crowd from the office.  He happened to mention some CDs I had that he liked and I said I'd bring them around on Sunday afternoon.  I thought I'd only hand them in at the door.  He asked me in.  His parents were out, I hadn't realised that immediately.  We were listening to those CDs and one thing led to another!"  Jackie's voice trailed away, and another round of sobbing took place.  She sat down on the sofa, when it became apparent that Caroline was not going to run away.  Caroline waited patiently until Jackie recovered her composure. When she had calmed down she added some more.

"Afterwards he said he was very sorry and made me swear I'd never tell you.   How did you find out?" 

"When you get back from a holiday and find your boyfriend all introverted and secretive and unable to look you in the eye, then find out your best friend, who has no boyfriend is pregnant and won't tell  you who the father is, what would you think?" replied Caroline.  "The only thing to do was get off the scene.  Give the two of you the chance to get together." 

"Tony came to me after you went away, and we decided to do the right thing for the baby, but he never really loved me!  It's been good sometimes, I suppose.  But he's never got over you, Caroline, not really!"Caroline thought for a minute.

"Well, would it help if I told you a little secret?"

"Secret?  What secret?" 

"Okay!  No matter what you think, Tony always secretly fancied you, Jackie.  Oh, he was good to me, no doubt!  Very good.  And at the height of our relationship, we were probably as much in love as any couple could be.  But there were problems.  You see, Tony is a very intense person, and I'm very, you can say.  That used to drive him mad sometimes.  Sooner or later, that would have caused serious problems in our relationship.  When I was away in America that time, I actually had a big rethink about the engagement."  Caroline felt great relief after saying this.

"Are you serious?"

"Absolutely" came the reply.  "I always felt he had an eye for you.  You were such fun to be around and always very friendly.  When I realised you'd got together, I wasn't at all surprised.  What happened, happened.  No need for any regrets on your part.  Or on Tony's.  At least not now and not  as far as I'm concerned.  So stop feeling guilty and enjoy your life together and those lovely kids of  yours.  And now, I have to go...."

The doorbell rang.  It was Mrs. Lynch, Jackie's not- so- beloved mother-in-law, delivering her grandson home.  She had been extremely fond of Caroline and was delighted to have caught up with her.   She made it a point of giving Caroline her telephone number, and asked her to call sometime.  Caroline thanked her for giving the number, but made no commitment to call, out of deference to Jackie's feelings.  Actually, she wouldn't have minded calling up Mrs. Lynch sometime, but the circumstances were a little unusual so.........

Caroline had a good look at Tony Junior, pronounced him "gorgeous", fussed over the kids one more time and took her leave again and this time she left, leaving a sentimental Mrs. Lynch, a confused and relieved Jackie and three happy kids in her wake.

She smiled to herself as she walked down the road!

This post originally appeared on Write Away on WordPress on 26/10/2009

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