Cathy was my best friend and I knew her almost as well as I knew myself. She was a first class wimp. If there were an easy option to accomplish anything, Cathy would take it. If there were a difficult decision to be made, Cathy would avoid it like the proverbial plague.
She giggled her way through life on a wing and a prayer, and when prayers didn’t work she’d flutter her eyelashes provocatively and get a male to lend a hand. She was an outrageous flirt. She was amazing. To watch her in action was a revelation to the uninitiated. Cathy could never be one of the mainstays of the sexual revolution. The women’s liberation movement was as abhorrent to her as the clumpy booted shaven headed females that fronted it. She believed if a job was worth doing, it was worth getting a man to do it for you.
Cathy was the very essence of femininity. Her skirts were short and her legs were long. Her chest was ample but she enhanced it shamelessly with under-wires and low cut, sexy tops. Her baby blue eyes were always black lined and her cheeks were always rouged. Her pouting lips were slicked at regular intervals throughout the day from the second she stepped out of bed and her button nose was kept discretely powdered. Her skin was pure peaches and cream and her crowning glory was a riot of silky blonde waves.
Her wardrobe was full of silk, cashmere, lamb’s wool and lace. Tights were unforgivable and even stockings had to have lacy tops. She didn’t posses a pair of flat shoes. Cathy tottered through life on three-inch high spikes, especially with jeans, which she always wore tight. Even her slippers had heels to rival the Post Office Tower. Her nightwear was strictly of the Marilyn Monroe type, (perfume and very little else.)
Needless to say Cathy always left a trail of drooling men in her wake and as my social life revolved around hers I received her cast offs gratefully. Life was a riot as we made the most of our single years.
We were both encumbered with husbands and children by our mid-twenties. I remember the first time I watched Cathy changing a nappy. She donned pink rubber gloves to protect her pink lacquered talons and cringed delicately throughout the whole operation, wrinkling her nose with acute distaste.
She insisted on an epidural for both her births and refused to participate in any way that wasn’t absolutely necessary. How she survived the whole business of mothering was a mystery to me. Keith, her husband, was a rock. To say he adored her would be an understatement. He worshipped her and there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for her.
Cathy had a phobia of vomit and the sight of any bodily fluids had the power to send her into a dead faint. (How she managed to get pregnant in the first place is a miracle.) Keith took over whenever the children were ill, even taking time off from his business to nurse them. I don’t think Cathy appreciated everything he did for her. She took everything in her life for granted, including Keith. I never doubted her devotion to him, though.
We drifted apart in our thirties when I returned to my nursing career and she took over the office work in Keith’s business. We met occasionally and giggled about our shared past but to tell the truth we were virtual strangers at that time. We lost touch of each other’s daily lives and I missed the closeness we once shared. I suggested we try to see more of each other and that’s how we became regulars at the Dog and Duck on Friday nights. Our husbands tactfully stayed home to baby-sit while we had our girl’s night out.
Cathy was still the same flirtatious femme fatal that she had been in our youth. She took advantage of the freedom our Friday nights offered her. She made eyes at all the unattached men and never paid for a drink all night. She flirted outrageously and the men lapped it up.
She completely overshadowed me when men flocked to our table like moths to a naked flame. I was more than happy to take a back seat. I was happily married and had no intention of encouraging any of them. Not that they paid me the slightest attention. Cathy was center stage and I observed her in action on numerous Friday nights and giggled with her on the walk home about her latest conquests.
Innocently, or naively, I always believed her flirting was harmless. It was all innocent fun as far as I was concerned. I didn’t think for one minute that Cathy would take things further. I thought she left them all unfulfilled and panting. The only males that I knew of to benefit from our flirtatious moods were our husbands when we arrived home slightly tiddly and decidedly frisky.
I marked the day that Cathy appeared on the surgical ward where I worked as the beginning of the end. I was shocked when I saw the panic in her eyes as she approached me. Her elegant fingers trembled as she laid them on my arm to lead me to the day room.
She had kept the awful truth from me until she’d had the tests and knew for sure. Cathy had lung cancer and she was admitted for immediate emergency surgery.
Cathy wept copiously before the operation, and refused the offer of counseling. The last thing she wanted to do was talk about the cancer that was eating away inside her. She hid behind the wall of self-denial for as long as she could. The operation was not a success. It left her weak and very sore. The surgeons discovered the cancer had invaded further than the x-rays suggested and there was no hope of a cure. She had simply left it too long before admitting she was ill and seeking help.
Cathy lay in a fit of depression while the drips and drains were still attached to her body. Then when the tubes were removed and she began to regain a little strength, there was a change in her.
As soon as Cathy was physically able to lift her arms, she applied her make up carefully and styled her hair prettily. Even the doctors were taken in by the improvement in her looks. They attributed the healthy glow to a general improvement instead of seeing the rouge for what it was. Cathy was hiding from the truth behind her own choice of camouflage. She was running away as fast as she could to the secret place inside where she felt safe. She was running away from the cancer that had taken hold of her, by refusing to acknowledge its existence.
She had been told of course. Keith told the doctors to be honest with her, believing she would prefer to know the truth. If only he’d asked me first. I knew she wouldn’t be capable of facing up to the biggest problem she had ever been presented with. She avoided the subject of her illness, refusing to speak of it, refusing to accept her impending fate. Just as she had ignored the persistent cough with specks of blood until Keith began to suspect and made her go to see a doctor. Her irrational fear of illness prevented her from seeking help until it was too late and now she was faced with the worst possible scenario.
Within a short time Cathy was discharged from hospital into the care of her own doctor. There was nothing anyone could do for her. There were few treatments to offer at such an advanced stage of the disease and Cathy wouldn’t even consider them. I visited her at home as often as I could. She only lasted a few weeks and was a coward to the end. Others praised her bravery, seeing Cathy’s efforts to appear normal as nothing short of miraculous. Even in her last days when she was as weak as a newborn kitten, she made Keith wash her hair and apply the eye-shadow and lipstick for her.
I could see the fear hiding behind the mascara’d mask, but she changed the subject if I tried to speak to her of the end. Other patients in her position would have been planning their own funerals and sparing their family the trauma of facing the responsibility after the death. Cathy left it all to Keith. She was selfish to the end, ignoring the needs of her family while wrapping herself in illusions and delusions of a future she just didn’t have. She lay in bed surrounded by visitors and looked for all the world like a queen holding court. It was heartbreaking to watch, but I was like a mesmerised rabbit caught in the glare of her headlights.
Hours before her death the mask slipped. I was alone at her bedside. Cathy drifted in and out of her morphine induced sleep. Her eyelids flickered and she groped feebly for my hand.
‘Hey, friend, how are you?’ She smiled toothily at me from a skeletal face, already dead on the outside. ‘Listen, this will be a hoot. I’ve arranged a surprise for you.’ She squeezed my hand conspiratorially with the pressure of a butterfly’s wing.
‘When it happens…’ She still couldn’t mention death by name, even now when it was sharing her bed. ‘When you’re all there, singing my praises…’ her voice came in short rasping bursts. ‘Look on the back row.’ Her laugh was a silent gasp for air and she drifted into sleep again. Those were her last words to me.
Keith was strong when it happened. I never expected anything else. The funeral was held in the old church at the top of the hill. It broke my heart to see her children in the front row.
When the coffin was wheeled out, I followed behind with the rest of the congregation. Walking down the aisle my eyes lifted to the line of men dressed in black on the back row. I recognised one or two Friday night customers of the Dog and Duck. The others were strangers to me. The sly old devil! I smiled through my tears, realising I hadn’t really known Cathy at all.