The whistle reminded Dottie what she was supposed to be doing.
“Oh the kettle,” Dottie smoothed her floral apron and grabbed an old, but clean checked tea-towel to pick up the kettle handle.
“Here we go then,” Dottie poured boiling water over the tea in the good teapot with the roses on it. Dottie put the kettle back on the stove and it started to whistle again.
“Oh, I forgot to turn the stove top off again,” Dottie said as she turned off the gas flame.
Okay, what was she up to?
“Milk and sugar,” Dottie reminded herself. Today she also had a special ingredient for the teapot.
Dottie put the tea on the table, laid out with her best linen cloth and a vase of sweet peas from the garden, then added a plate of biscuits. They were store bought biscuits, the ones Dottie made earlier had burned because she forgot to set the timer to remind her to take them out.
“Sit down Dottie, stop fussing,” Elsie said, “I’m not the bloody Queen.”
“Oh, I must have mistaken you,” Dottie laughed as she sat down, “because you act so high and might.”
Dottie poured the tea, and as she did she remembered the secret ingredient she had included, then asked Elsie, “Milk?”
Elsie smiled and said, “You’ve been making me a cup of tea every week for over fifty years Dotti, yes milk and sugar”.
“I remembered the sugar, I already added it.”
“No you didn’t, silly, you’ve just poured the tea and added milk,” Dottie looked affectionately at her forgetful friend. The soft creased features of Dottie’s pale face did not conceal the pretty twenty year old woman that became Elsie’s best friend, despite all odds.
Dottie reached over and gently placed her hand on Elsie’s, “How are you feeling now hun? Did the doctor find a better medication for you?”
That was Dottie, couldn’t remember what she had done yesterday, or even five minutes ago, but always remembered when Elsie had a doctor’s appointment and how the latest lot of medications were affecting her. There was no one else. No children, no family and although decades ago she knew everyone in the street, so many people seem to come and go now, she only had Dottie.
“The last lot made my stomach hurt so much, so I guess these ones aren’t as bad, they do make me terribly dizzy though,” Elsie said.
“Those doctors today don’t know what they’re talking about, they should be able to give you something for the pain without making you feel sicker.”
“Well at least I won’t be taking them for much longer,” Elsie said.
“Why’s that?” Dottie asked, “Oh… you’re terrible Elsie, you shouldn’t joke about that.” But secretly Dottie knew Elsie’s pain would be over soon, sooner than even Elsie’s doctor could predict.
They ate their biscuits and talked about the people who used to live in town, they talked about the new people taking over the town.
Dottie worried; there was something she should tell Elsie, but what?
“Have you heard from Maree?” Elsie asked.
“I spoke to Maree, um, when was that? Well, Jack called at Christmas, gosh he must be twenty by now,” Dottie said.
“Mmm,” Elsie agreed, although she already knew that Dottie’s grandson was thirty-five and now had a child of his own. Elsie had monitored Dottie’s family since day one. She remembered not only when little Maree was born, almost here in the house because Morris had been away and Dottie hadn’t wanted to ask for help. Dottie had later admitted she thought Elsie didn’t like her. There weren’t many other houses around back then. Elsie had driven Dottie to the hospital just in time for Maree’s entrance.
When Morris had come back Maree was already two months old. Elsie had also been eagerly awaiting his return, but just like the first time he returned from being away, she was left disappointed.
Elsie had been an unusually beauty as a young woman and she fancied she would become an actress. Travel, she would definitely travel. When Morris proposed, she hated hurting him, she did love him, but she wanted more than Binalong had to offer. Elsie took off and headed for the city.
The laugh of it all was that she only lasted a couple of months and headed straight home. Too late. Morris had married a girl from Gunning and now they lived in the house next to Elsie and her father. Elsie despised Morris’ wife Dottie, she found her sickly sweet. But now here she was, fifty years later, loving Dottie more than any friend had loved another.
“Do you want me to drive you into to town tomorrow?”
“You shouldn’t drive at your age Elsie,” Dottie said, “Why town?”
“Your appointment,” Elsie reminded her.
“I’ll pick you up in the morning?”
“For what?” Dottie asked.
“Your appointment!” Elsie insisted.
“What appointment?” Dottie asked.
“Oh Dottie, you’re a silly old thing, tomorrow is the first of the month, you always go to the doctors. Remember?” Elsie asked.
“Oh I’m not going anymore,” Dottie stated.
Elsie looked suspiciously at Dottie, her dementia wasn’t improving.
“Why don’t…” Elsie started.
“Oh I remember what I had to tell you!”
“I just want to get something first,” Dottie said as she heaved herself out of the chair and stretched her legs before trying to set off on those wobbly knees. After a couple of minutes Dottie came back with a photo album that Elsie instantly recognised.
“I want to look at our pictures,” Dottie insisted as she carefully lowered her creaking bones back into her chair.
“Okay Dottie, lets look at the memories.”
They pulled their chairs together, the way they did when they were young women and they wanted to share a secret giggle. Dottie had a secret to share now, but not yet.
Many of the first pictures showed sepia image of a wild haired beauty and a pretty but timid woman, both with their arms flung happily around each other. Many other photos showed Dottie and baby Maree, some showed Elsie holding Maree, just as tenderly, just as lovingly as her mother did. The pictures of Morris. Morris standing between the two women holding Maree in his arms, he used to joke about being outnumbered by women. Morris, with his cheeky grin and strong arms. Dottie’s Morris in the pictures. But he had been Elsie’s.
When Elsie returned to find Morris married she had been determined to win him back. After all, he’d loved her first and he’d loved her best, she knew he did. Elsie went out of her way to make Dottie feel unwelcome and to make Morris want to get back into her arms. And she’d won. Temporarily.
The last time Morris left her sheets he promised he would send Dottie back to her parents and be Elsie’s again forever. Timing was not on their side. At dinner that night Dottie told Morris that she believed she might be pregnant. Morris didn’t know what to do. It was one thing to discard a wife, there would be enough backlash about that, but a child? He promised Elsie he would find a way to sort it out, he would go away for a while, there were jobs going up north cutting cane, and when he got back he would send Dottie away. Baby or no baby.
But while Morris was away in a sunnier state, Dottie would beg Elsie to keep her company, often inviting Elsie and her father over for dinner. Then Elsie’s father died. She felt so abandoned, so alone. Elsie’s misery went so deep she lay in bed and cried and cried. Dottie had been there, making cups of tea, wiping her eyes and even laying down beside her, holding her when she needed to be held.
When Elsie was feeling better she decided to pay Dottie a visit, to thank her for her kindness. If you’re going to steal someone’s husband it doesn’t mean you can’t be polite. It was not until after Dottie had made Elsie a cup of tea that Elsie noticed something was wrong. Dottie was in obvious pain. Finally she admitted her waters had broken, but she didn’t want to cause a fuss. That was Dottie. Elsie had run for her father’s truck and driven Dottie into the town hospital. She stayed and held Dottie’s hand even though the matron had wanted her to leave.
And there was Maree, little beautiful Maree. How could something so perfect come from such a horrific bloody ordeal? Elsie wasn’t the only one to fall in love with Maree, of course once Morris saw his little girl’s face he would never leave again.
Now Maree, her husband and children all lived in America and Morris had left them all one more time, he’d been gone twenty years and although Dottie often forgot her own birthday, she always remembered his and Elsie would give her a lift to the cemetery to visit him.
They closed the album. Both women had tears they were trying to deny on their cheeks.
“We were something weren’t we Dottie?”
“We sure were Elsie, no better friends existed,” Dottie replied.
“I know I won’t be around a lot longer Dottie and I’ll be sorry to leave you,” Elsie confessed, “but I have to admit I’m selfish. I’m glad I’m going before you Dottie, because I just couldn’t go through this whole dying thing without you.” There was no point pretending now, they were tears.
“I know Elsie. That’s what has worried me the most,” Dottie said, “everything’s leaving me Elsie, I forget where I am, what I’m doing. Sometime’s I forget Morris is gone, and then I remember and it hurts, it really hurts.”
“I need to tell you this Elsie. I’m scared. Scared there will be nothing left of me, no one for me to forget or remember. I thought about this Elsie, I know I won’t be there for you when you need it if I wait. I … I won’t know you, when you need me most.” Dottie was now sharing her tears.
“Dottie, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“No it’s okay, I want to be there for you, and I want you there for me. That’s why I did it Elsie, I sorted it so that we can be together,” now Dottie was smiling through the tears.
“Dottie what do you mean? What did you do?”
“Poison?” Elsie asked, now a little alarmed.
“It won’t be long now Elsie, I put it in our tea. We can go together and neither of us will be alone.” Dottie reached out and held Elsie’s hand.
“Dottie? What have you done?” Elsie pulled her hand away, “We’ve got to get to the hospital, how could you? You’ve finally gone crazy!” Elsie got up and headed for the door, she needed to get to her car.
Dottie stayed in her seat, head bowed, “I love you Elsie,” she said quietly as she heard the front door open and close.
Moments later Elsie was back and sat down silently next to Dottie. Maybe she was right. What was the point? They had lived almost their whole lives together, how could either of them go and leave the other. This was right. Elsie reached out and held Dottie’s hand, “I love you too, you silly old bag.”
Quite some time later, Elsie spoke up, “Dottie?”
“You forgot to put the poison in didn’t you?”
Elsie smiled at Dottie, “Well, do you want another cuppa darl?”