Beli invites me to a weekend at her old country house, where we used to celebrate her birthday almost forty years ago during long weekends of never-ending fun. As we approach the entrance I’m no longer in her boyfriend’s Mercedes but in a white Mini, one of three or four cars heading towards adventure; back then it was an old farm road, winding and narrow, all ups and downs, and we had to drive carefully so as not to damage the tyres. Finally, we arrived at the parking space, and saw the old house on our right, its whitewashed walls seemingly buried in the ground, as it was built on a lower level from that of the road.
Today I pass the tree with the luxuriant shocking-pink flowers and go into the main hall and see the mysterious wooden statue of a monkey that I remember so well. All dressed up like a person, a hat on his head and an outstretched hand as if begging for money. It used to scare us; now I salute it as a long-time friend who was already there when we were living the best days of our lives.
I move around the ground floor, recognising this room and that one. “Beli, do you remember that time when I felt so ill after drinking too much of your father’s white wine, and passed out? And missed all the fun?” Beli’s blue eyes , the colour of the sea, have a mischievous look that I understand only too well. We both know exactly what I mean by missing the fun – we don’t need to put it in words. We shared so many adventures during our university years… and being in that house brings it all back.
Shortly after arriving Beli had already distributed all the bedrooms and we had unpacked. Now Ana and I had decided to go upstairs to the terrace and get some sun while the rest of the group stayed below. After some time, we heard such boisterous laughter that we decided we didn’t want to miss all the fun and came down, only to find our friends taking good account of a number of bottles of white wine, produced by Beli’s father. Now I had always enjoyed white wine so in no time I had a glass on my hand, and we were all drinking, and laughing, and singing, and making merry.
In the group there was someone very special and from time to time our eyes met and his look held such promise of new adventures that I felt a delicious shiver run through my body, like an electrical shock of some sort; only this one was pleasurable, nor frightening at all. I could only look forward to what the night would bring.
And so, we drank, and then we sat down for dinner, and again we talked and laughed. How happy we were, young, full of life, our never-ending lives ahead of us – we felt immortal.
But we were not. We were as fragile as any mortal being.
Shortly after dinner I began to feel nauseous. Shit, I thought. I shouldn’t have drunk that much! I suppose many people come to the same conclusion, when it is already too late… by now we were all sitting around the fireplace; some of us were playing games and a few others were too drowsy to do anything but watch. Then one of our friends began singing the fado, our traditional song, and we all joined in.
As much as I wanted to stay, I realised I could not. I had to lie down urgently, or I would throw up, the last thing I wanted! I excused myself briefly and went to lie on my bed, completely still. If I stay here for a while, I’ll get better, and I’ll join them later and not miss all the fun, was my last thought as I passed out, falling into a deep slumber.
And so that much waited for night, one that had held such promise, came to nothing. Everyone ended up in bed, either alone, like me, or too sick to think of anything but sleep. I woke up in the morning only to realise all opportunity for adventure had been lost, and the dark circles and wan look of that very special person over breakfast told me he had also forgotten about me and passed out. In the end it was so funny, seeing us all in such a terrible state, that we ended up laughing at ourselves and our own stupidity. Solemnly promising we would never, never drink like that again – only to do exactly the same thing the following year, when we came back for yet another of Beli’s birthdays.
Beli is recalling her father’s disapproving look as, the following day, when he and her mother arrived for her birthday lunch, he saw the empty bottles in the kitchen. Later on, during lunch, he must not have been surprised when offering to pour us some wine, we all politely declined. I look at the pantry by the kitchen and picture the row of empty bottles and look at Beli and we both laugh, the memories of those days inside us as strong as if they had taken place months ago instead of almost forty years – a lifetime.
A lifetime during which almost everything has changed, but one thing – this strong bond between us, a bond forged during afternoons of study, nights at the disco and endless whispers in the back row of the classrooms. A bond that nothing has been able to weaken – neither marriage nor children, nor divorce – if any, it has been strengthened over the years. This friendship will last for as long as we live, and beyond.
The weekend has come to an end. We have to say goodbye from a distance, but I hug you in my heart. How good it was to catch up for hours as we used to, to be in this house that has so many happy memories shared with you, to feel the warm breeze on my face and hair and hear the cicadas at night. Ah, my friend, if only other things in life were as strong, and true, as our friendship, no heartache would touch us. But since one can never have it all, let’s be grateful to life for bestowing on us the huge privileged of a friendship such as ours.
I am so, so happy to have you in my life. And to call you a friend. I remember what you told be on the day we met, after the hazing at university. You simply looked at me and said, “I’m Isabel, but my friends call me Beli”.