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Rainbows

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By Margot Ogilvie

Miranda reached a timid hand toward Joanne’s welcoming one, hoping the woman wouldn’t feel it shaking. Extreme shyness since childhood had worked together with a speech impediment to leave Miranda socially bankrupt.

It was only at her husband’s insistence that she’d ventured out today. Edward was catching up with Christopher, an old school buddy. He and his wife were holidaying only an hour from where Miranda and Edward lived – too close not to see one another, considering they usually lived in different states.

As a rule, contentment filled Miranda’s life like the afternoon sun filled the deck on which they now sat, overlooking the glistening beach. Edward’s law practice supported them very well, and Miranda was grateful she didn’t have to go out to work. She went for days without seeing anyone except Edward, and didn’t mind at all.

Those were the days when her contentment peaked. She happily immersed herself in reading, writing and tending her garden, enjoying her own company. She expressed her myriad imaginings in short stories, poems, and musings in her journal, never confident to share them face-to-face, not even with Edward. He was too busy to notice her isolation, or enquire about her activities.

Contentment fled in any social setting, even on relaxed summer afternoons such as this, leaving Miranda tongue-tied and lost for words. She avoided office parties and client dinners, and Edward never pressed the issue.

The summer office closure meant Edward had been around a lot for several weeks over Christmas, bringing about a refreshment in their marriage. They had talked and laughed and loved more lately than they had in a long time. Miranda had even enjoyed summer outings with Edward. Picnics in the park, twilight walks on the beach, even shopping trips.

They’d done everything together for two weeks. Naturally, Edward assumed Miranda would be happy to come with him on this outing too. But those other excursions had been private. Even in a huge shopping centre, she only had to relate to Edward. This was altogether different in Miranda’s eyes.

This was face-to-face conversation. A vague smile and a nod here and there wouldn’t do today. After the initial ‘What would you like to drink?’ and ‘Did you have a nice Christmas?’ were out of the way, Miranda hoped the reunion of the old school mates would hold everyone’s attention. She and Joanne would sit quietly, shadows in the light of the men’s remembrances. She’d enjoy the stories of times gone by, and wouldn’t have to say a word.

It soon became apparent that Joanne and Christopher did things differently. Joanne was not the shadowy type, and Christopher wasn’t the sort to hog the limelight. They repeatedly drew Miranda into their conversation. She responded politely, but briefly. She loved their holiday house, admired the view of the ocean and shared their delight in the abundance of summer fruits.

Joanne seemed to have an opinion about everything. Not in a pushy, overbearing way. She certainly wasn’t one of the wives-should-be-seen-but-not-heard breed that Miranda’s mother had taught her to be. What’s more, Christopher seemed to encourage it, often deferring to Joanne to answer Edward’s enquiries.

A natural extension of this was to expect Miranda to be active in the conversation, to dive in and take ownership rather than splashing gingerly on the shoreline.

“So, Miranda, what do you enjoy doing?” This discussion-starter from Christopher caused all eyes to turn on her. They saw the blush rise to her hairline. They probably even saw her mouth open, close, then open again as she struggled to get the words to form and flow. They couldn’t see her heart racing, or the sweat pouring down her back in spite of the cooling breeze stroking the ocean and bearing its freshness over the coast.

She took a sip of lemonade, stalling, her mind groping for a sensible answer. She looked to Edward. Oblivious to her distress, with no sense as to her need of rescue, he merely nodded and smiled, leaving her to flounder alone in the spotlight.

“Gardening,” was what eventually came out.

That triggered quite a conversation, in which Miranda participated, hesitantly, but, to her surprise, equally. With Joanne an avid herb gardener and Christopher’s hobby of working with wood, the discussion grew like the deep purple Bougainvillea Miranda could see covering the fence of the holiday house. The topic twisted and turned like the vine. The general background of leafy chatter was punctuated by floral moments when Miranda’s passion for the subject overcame her inhibitions.

As any good gardener knows, Bougainvillea can be thorny, and Miranda stalled periodically, prickled by self-consciousness. In those moments, she would sit back quietly and let the conversation move on without her, until Joanne or Christopher drew her in once again.

As afternoon became evening, they were invited to stay for dinner. To her surprise, Miranda was happy when Edward accepted.

Over dinner, the men remembered their school days.

Over coffee afterwards, Christopher turned to her once again.

“So, apart from gardening, what are you passionate about, Miranda?”

Her mind was empty, but after hearing about the full lives these two led, she could hardly admit to her own boring, sheltered one.

“I enjoy writing,” she said, feeling exposed, like a possum caught in a spotlight.

They were enthralled, wanting to know more, wanting to know everything. Far more than she really wanted to tell them. She suddenly understood how witnesses felt while being cross-examined by the best of Edward’s staff in court. What did she write? What were her poems and stories about? Where did she get her ideas? What did she do with her writing?

She kept up well enough, retelling some of her stories in brief and quoting a few lines from one of her favourite poems, until that last question. What did she do with her writing?

“Well, nothing.” At least she felt comfortable giving an honest answer, even if it did sound pathetically lame.
When Christopher got up to turn on the bug zappers, Miranda knew it was getting late. Had she talked all night? She grew quiet as shyness rose within her again, but the goodbye hug she gave Joanne a few minutes later was sincere. When Joanne passed her a slip of paper with her email address on it, and asked Miranda to send her some stories, Miranda agreed.

She’d had a very pleasant evening. And that surprised her.

* * * * *

It wasn’t long before Edward returned to work. Any social progress Miranda had made over the summer soon slipped away, and she returned to her garden, her reading and her writing. It was weeks later that Edward told her about an email from Joanne via his office, requesting some of Miranda’s stories. She used losing the slip of paper as her excuse. It was months before Edward got around to forwarding the emails from Joanne to her at home.

Eventually, though, Miranda sent three of her best stories off, along with two poems, hardly expecting the response that came within the hour.

“These are incredible,” Joanne wrote.

She also wrote about her success at writing copy for a marketing firm, Edward’s passionate interest in renewable energy, and their recent trip to Brisbane to attend a wind-power conference. Such a vibrant couple with such a hectic life.

A pattern formed over the months that followed. Joanne exuded light and life, whilst taking time to rave about Miranda’s writing, reviewing it in detail, requesting more to read, and urging Miranda to submit it somewhere.
Miranda responded, reflecting her life – far less colourful, and less interesting than Joanne’s.

Until . . .

It was almost summer again when a strange email appeared in Miranda’s inbox, congratulating her on her prize winning story. Miranda concluded it was spam and was about to trash it when the name of one of her stories in bold text caught her eye. Light dawned when she read further and found that a story by that name had been submitted to the competition under the pseudonym Joanne Collins, but with Miranda’s name and email listed under the author details.

And it won first prize.

The organisers wrote of their delight in receiving a record number of entries, over six hundred. Judges’ comments were attached and they asked for a postal address to mail the cheque.

Dumbfounded, Miranda read the email again. And again.

She read the judges’ comments. These professional writers spoke highly of her work. She sat a little taller as she typed an email to Joanne. She shared the exciting news, then scolded her friend for being devious, underhanded and sneaky.

Joanne’s reply was instant, numerous emoji expressing her delight. It was also brief, perhaps, Miranda presumed, as an expression of her remorse. But attached was a listing of short story and poetry competitions.

* * * * *

Over the years that followed, Miranda kept writing, and kept submitting. Her stories and poems won prizes, were included in anthologies, and were published in various online and in print magazines. She even had a publisher interested in a longer work if she cared to write one.

And over the years, Miranda and Joanne kept in touch, starting out as electronic pen pals, and progressing to long, chatty phone conversations about Joanne’s grandchildren, Edward’s heart surgery, Christopher’s latest scheme to live independent of government resources, and anything else that came up.

When their husbands retired, the foursome cruised together.

And looked forward to doing it again.

Then, one early spring morning, the phone call came.

Caller ID said it was Joanne’s phone, but it was Christopher’s distraught voice, with distinctly hospital-like noises in the background that said, “Miranda, it’s bad. Joanne needs you. Please come.”

She couldn’t get details from him, but knew something serious was threatening his soul-mate.

“I’ll grab the first flight out. What hospital?”

When he answered, she said she’d be there as soon as she could make arrangements. No hesitation, no stress over the social stretching it would involve. Joanne needed her and nothing else mattered.

Hours later, Miranda asked at the nurse’s station to see Joanne. She was directed to wash her hands and gown up, then taken into ICU, where she instantly spotted Christopher. He stood to greet her with a hug that desperately tried to borrow strength from her.

Together they turned to gaze at the pale figure in the bed. Joanne, who had always seemed so energetic, so healthy, so vital, was now struggling to breathe. Wires protruded from all over, various coloured fluids dripped into and out of her, and monitors blinked and beeped tirelessly.

Joanne had missed the signs, been too busy living to notice death creeping in, until it had a firm and fatal hold on her.

Her family had come, but the children bothered her with their noise and activity. She needed someone to quietly care for her in that special, personal way the nurses had no time for – to brush her hair, paint her nails, sponge her face. She needed Miranda.

“Why don’t you take a break, Christopher. Take a few hours off. Take a shower. Have a rest. I’ll stay with Joanne until you return.”

Christopher looked relieved. “You won’t leave her alone?”

“No, Chris. I’ll be here. Take as long as you need.”

Christopher bent over his wife, stroked her sallow cheek, kissed her gently, but lingered there, as if reluctant to leave, afraid this might be the last time he saw her.

“Go,” Joanne whispered. “I’ll see you after you’ve had a rest.”

Once he left, Miranda settled in the chair next to the bed. Dodging tubes and wires, she took Joanne’s hand, noticing the thinness, the bruises, the fragility.

The creep of death had stolen Joanne’s health and sapped her energy, but it had not yet extinguished the sparkle in her eyes. Heavy, black circles evidenced its efforts. The battle was fierce, but the light of life still defeated death’s darkness.

“Thank you,” Joanne murmured, and Miranda leaned forward to hear.

“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I just wish you’d told me sooner.”

“No, not thank you for coming, although that too, of course. Thank you for being such a rich part of my life.”

Miranda smiled back the tears and squeezed Joanne’s hand. There was so much to say. It wasn’t shyness that stopped her now. Nor was it the threat of a tied tongue. Her heart overflowed, emotion stealing her words.
For what seemed like forever, the two women remained like that, and it was enough. They knew each other well. They didn’t need words to understand what each meant to the other.

Miranda thought back to that summer afternoon so many years before. She had been a different person then. A prisoner of shyness. A dull shadow of the confident, award winning writer that she had become. It was Joanne’s light that had made her so, that had attracted her like the mosquitos on their first seaside night together.

“My life was dull like a misty winter’s day. Gloomy. Full of shadow,” Miranda muttered, not aware that she’d spoken aloud.

“Not so awfully. You were writing.”

A vivid picture filled Miranda’s mind. Sudden winter sunlight pouring from behind the clouds, turning mist into a million tiny rainbows.

Joanne had done that for her – shone on the gloom of her life, turning it into rainbows, full of colour, variety and wonder.

She tried to describe it to Joanne, to thank her for everything.

“Sshh,” Joanne replied. “If I made your life a rainbow, I was well rewarded.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, haven’t you heard about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That was my reward.”

“Huh?”

“If your life is a rainbow, then I am enjoying the pot of gold. Your friendship is like gold to me, Miranda. I’m forever grateful that you came into my life. I’ve enjoyed seeing you shine.”

They’d come full circle. Their roles were reversed. Dullness and gloom were smothering the light of Joanne’s life, but, thanks to Joanne, Miranda had enough light for them both. They were twin rainbows, sharing a pot of gold called friendship that was full of the strength, love, courage and faith they would need in the days ahead.

And the determination Miranda would need to go on alone.

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