New unblemished snow fell silently, on the frozen ground and on leafless old birch trees outside, making everything appear magical and deceptively peaceful in the late afternoon dusk. As if one of the Christmas fairytales her mother used to read to her had suddenly come to life in this most unlikely of places. At the memory of her mother, Megan”s heart filled with sadness and longing. Longing for her childhood that seemed so long ago and her home that was so far away. Closing the curtains, she folded her white nurse”s uniform neatly on the bedside table and crawled into bed. Exhausted after the double shift at the hospital, she savoured a rare moment of peace and quiet.
But peace and quiet didn”t last.
Her best friend Tina burst into the room and lights flickered back on. Megan felt herself being shaken and reluctantly opened her eyes.
“Wake up! Are you awake?” Tina gave Megan a pinch and jumped on the bed, not bothering to take off her woolly hat or her snow covered boots. Her small frame seemed to quiver with excitement.
“Ouch,” muttered Megan, turning away from Tina and pretending to go back to sleep. But Tina shook her again. “You have to wake up right now! I have the most amazing news!”
“What happened?” Megan stretched and sat up, rubbing her eyes. She smiled at her friend who was the tomboy of the two and always seemed to get into trouble. Sometimes Megan wished she was as brave. She still wasnt sure how Tina managed to convince her to join the Red Cross and follow her all the way to the Soviet Union that was torn by war, hunger and devastation.
“Brian asked me to marry him!” Not able to contain herself any longer, Tina jumped up and down on the bed and almost fell off.
Suddenly struggling for breath, Megan looked away, trying to hide her revealing eyes. “I’m very happy for you, Tina. For both of you.”
“I’m getting married! Can you imagine?”
“I can imagine. It’s great news!”
“We’ll get married as soon as we get home. In that little church in San Diego opposite our school, remember? You’ll be my bridesmaid, like we always wanted. Will you be my bridesmaid?” She giggled and tickled Megan through the blanket and her thermals and the old jumper that she wore to bed, through all the layers that hid her from the cold outside world.
Watching her friend’s face light up with joy, Megan wished she could be happier for her. She wished she could pretend better, hide her feelings better. She turned to the wall. “Of course, Tina. I’m very excited for you! I can’t keep my eyes open right now but we’ll talk about it tomorrow, I promise.” She covered her head with a pillow, blinking away the sudden tears, drowning out her friend’s excited voice and wishing she could just as easily drown out the thoughts that were running through her head.
In the morning, Megan was up before dawn. The long sleepless night left deep purple shadows under her eyes and she felt slightly dizzy and disoriented. She didn’t care. The only thing she cared about as she made her way through fresh snow to the grey hospital building where she worked was talking to him.
The door to Brian’s office was open, and he was already there, his back to her, a half- smoked cigarette in his hand, his collar tucked inside his shirt, as if he didn’t have a chance to look in the mirror that morning. Seeing him standing there made her smile. Seeing him always made her smile, despite the war and the freezing cold and the exploding bombs outside, despite her own exploding heartbreak.
She stepped into the room.
“Megan! You made me jump. I didn’t hear you come in.” Brian smiled at her warmly.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” Suddenly shy, she looked at her hands, at the floor and, finally, at him.
“Are you ok? You look as if you haven’t slept for weeks.”
“Who has time for sleep?”
He nodded, his eyes twinkling with understanding. “I know what you mean. Want a cup of tea? A cigarette?”
“Yes and yes. Thank you.” They sat down on an old moth-eaten couch.
“I just wanted to congratulate you. Tina told me about the engagement. I’m very happy for you.” She tried to keep her voice even and failed.
“Thank you. It means a lot.”
She turned to him and her knee touched his knee, sending an electric shock through her trembling body. He lit another cigarette, pulling away slightly. Noticing a diamond pendant on a golden chain around her neck, he blinked in surprise. “Are you still wearing that?”
Her fingers touched the familiar metal curves and she felt herself blush. “I never take it off. Remember when you gave it to me? We were so happy then.” She was silent for a moment, struggling for breath. Her heart pounded. “It brings me luck. It’s my lucky charm.”
Their eyes locked and she held his gaze for longer than was appropriate, longer than she could bear. I need to get up and leave, she thought. But she couldn’t move and she couldn’t take her eyes off him. “Are you sure you are doing the right thing? Marriage is a big step,” she whispered.
“Of course I am. We both are.” He put his cup down on the dusty, paper-strewn table and looked at her questioningly.
“I still love you, Brian. I always have.” She took his hand in hers.
“Meg, stop. Don’t do this. You broke up with me, remember?” Gently, as if trying not to hurt her feelings, he took his hand away.
“And I’ve regretted it ever since. It was the biggest mistake of my life.”
“It’s too late now. I waited for you for months, almost a year. But I moved on. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry. What was I thinking, coming here and telling you this?” Slowly, she got up and walked out of the cramped office, softly closing the door behind her.
That day, and the next, and the one after that, she couldn’t meet Tina’s eyes. I am a terrible friend, she thought, for how could I wipe out twenty years of friendship in five short breathless minutes so easily, as if my friend’s feelings meant nothing? Through the rounds, through changing the bandages, washing the floors, tending to the living and comforting the dying, through every minute of every long, gruelling day, all she could think of was, what a terrible friend I am.
Thankfully, she was too busy to talk to anyone for too long, to think or fret for too long. She was constantly running late. As she was returning from lunch at the public canteen across the street, she knew that if she didn’t hurry she would be caught up in the shelling that, unlike her, was always on time.
The hospital was the only building in town that wasn’t damaged by bombs. It was also the only building that had a shelter. Hearing the deafening roar of planes overhead, she sped up. When the first bomb fell, she was already in the hospital gates. The irregular beat of machine gun fire made the snow dance around her feet and, petrified, she started to run, forgetting that the road had turned to treacherous ice. Her foot slipped and she fell, twisting her ankle. She knew she had to keep going but the excruciating pain made crawling, let alone walking, impossible. Yet, somehow, she managed to make it all the way to an old oak tree in the front yard and hide behind its thick, weather-beaten trunk.
“Megan! Hold on, I’m coming to get you.” Lifting her eyes, she saw Tina step outside, a determined expression on her panic-stricken face. Her eyes widening in horror, Megan screamed, “Tina, no, stay down!” But it was too late. As if in slow motion, she watched her friend stop suddenly, and then slide down onto the snow that was already coloured with her blood. Megan made herself get up. She didn’t know how but she made herself leap to Tina’s side, barely acknowledging the pain, or the enemy planes that were disappearing into the distance. She crouched in the snow and held Tina close, whispering for her to hold on.
Later that week, Megan’s foot got better and Tina got worse. She drifted in and out of consciousness, and Megan spent every minute at her friend’s side, ignoring her other patients, forgetting to eat and sometimes forgetting to sleep. She held Tina’s hand, talking non-stop. And when she ran out of things to say, she read aloud from one of Tina’s favourite books as if hoping that by talking about random things or reading about random things she wouldn’t have to face the one thing that she couldn’t stop thinking about.
But she was wrong.
“I know what you did. Brian told me,” Tina’s whisper was expressionless as if she was talking about the weather. She stared at Megan.
“Oh my God, Tina. I’m so sorry!” Megan wiped the tears off her face, her body shaking. “I am so sorry.”
Shadows played on Tina’s face, making her skin look grey. Her voice was weak. “After I’m gone, it will be easier for you. For both of you. I don’t think he’s ever gotten over you.”
“Don’t say that. You are not going anywhere. We’ll go back home. We’ll live next door from each other like we always wanted. You’ll get married in our little church. And you’ll have children, many children. And maybe I’ll meet someone, too. We’ll be happy.”
“Maybe you will. But not me.” She closed her eyes as if the effort of keeping them open was too much for her. As if looking at Megan’s grief-stricken face was too much for her. Only the shelling outside broke the silence in the room. “Meg, remember New Year”s Eve when we were seven? We climbed the tree in your garden and watched the fireworks. They sounded just like that.”
Megan looked out the window. She wished they were still seven. She wished they were home, and there were fireworks outside and not bombs. “I remember. I told you I was scared of the noise and you held my hand.”
“I am scared now, Meg.”
Megan took her hand and squeezed it, bringing it to her face and kissing it gently. “I can’t believe you knew what I did and you risked your life for me.” She stroked Tina”s head.
“That feels good. Peaceful.” Tina’s unblinking eyes watched her.
That night Megan slept curled up in a chair in Tina’s hospital room. When she woke up in the early hours of the morning, her friend was dead. For a long time Megan stayed by her side, unable to move, her heart swelling with guilt. Finally, when the northern sun was high in the sky, its icy glow reflected by the snow as far as the eye could see, she got up, and, slowly taking off her golden chain, fastened it around Tina’s neck. Her lucky diamond glittered in the brightly lit room, and, blinded by tears, she touched it one last time, shuddering as if it burnt her unsteady fingers.