Me and Marie

Lucy Bauer
Me and Marie
It was the first time I had exposed the new me in public and it was the comfort of strangers I was seeking. At the spa hotel where I was treating myself to a short winter break, nobody knew me, so nobody could compare the new me to the former me. The people here would take me at face value. I could practise being the Anne I had become without fear of judgement.
I settled on a lounger at the glass-fronted side of the pool facing out to tall pines, from whose heavily laden branches the breeze was whisking wisps of snow. In the window I could see my reflection superimposed on the backdrop of trees: a glittering blend of cream and white, I seemed to be floating and shimmering like some Christmas decoration. From my soft nest of towels, I studied the reflection. Even accounting for an inevitable degree of exaggeration on the part of the sales lady, I felt she was right: I looked fine in the sparkly cream swimsuit, one of the two I had purchased. I felt reassured.
And then Marie appeared. I hadn’t seen her in decades and yet she was instantly recognisable as she glided towards me along the poolside. After all this time, she was still shapely and beautiful in her well-cut, emerald green swimsuit. I could hardly believe it: honestly, what were the chances? Instinctively I closed my eyes, like some creature under threat from a predator. Here comes danger, play dead. There was a jingling of bangles as she fussed over the lounger beside me, adjusting it, spreading a towel, snapping open a spectacle case. I could picture the perfectly manicured nails fluttering as she did so. What were the chances of meeting Marie at a luxury spa halfway up a mountain? Well, the luxury part would increase the chances, of course. Lying there, I realised I was as trapped as any animal of prey. I might as well give myself up right away; delaying the moment would only increase the agony when she started to tear me apart.
I took a sly peek. How could it be that thirty years on the sight of Marie still made me feel inadequate, panicky? She sat daintily on the edge of the lounger, her back to me. Memories surfaced of class trips to the pool when we were teenagers, all of us desperate to gain Marie’s favour, all dreading her dismissive remarks about our unfashionable swimwear. Nowadays, I noticed, Marie’s came well up her back. For one reason or another, we all end up in a one-piece swimsuit, I reflected; even the gorgeous Marie.
“Hello,” I said. She swung round and stared. “Er, I’m sorry, I’m not sure…”
Trying to sound enthusiastic about this unnerving stroke of fate, I revealed my identity. Marie reacted in an unexpectedly amicable manner. For the first few minutes, as she arranged herself elegantly on her lounger, we exchanged the obligatory pleasantries: “Fancy meeting you here!” and “You haven’t changed a bit!” That last one was a joke: we most certainly had changed a bit. Truth to tell, though, I had always been jealous of Marie, her natural good looks, her effortless style, her privileged lifestyle. We had been friends of a sort at school but drifted apart when we got to university. She attached herself to the yachting crowd; I joined the “Oh-God-I’ve-got-an-essay-to-write-sod-it-let’s-go-for-a-drink-first” crowd.
There would be no escaping talk of old times. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. “So, did you and Alan make a go of it?” I asked.
“Alan Carnie?” I wondered if there had actually been more than one Alan in her life.
“Sadly, no. He went the way of all my boyfriends,” she said. I myself hadn’t had any relationships that had lasted long enough to even warrant the definition “boyfriend”. “Mummy didn’t approve of him. You know what Mummy was like.”
I did: thin, immaculately dressed, well-spoken, confident – everything my own mother wasn’t and I wished she was.
“Absolutely unbearable,” Marie murmured, closing her eyes with a sigh. Clearly there had been more to that Mummy I so admired than met the eye. Marie changed the subject smoothly. “So what do you do? Did you put that degree to good use?”
“Teacher,” I replied. “Tough at times, but fine on the whole. What about you?”
“Never graduated – seemed pointless at the time. My career was never up for discussion – the family business, you know - so it hardly seemed worth hanging on at university. Regretted it later, actually.” She lay motionless, eyes closed.
I remembered end-of-term boxes of fine confectionery, delivered in person by that glamorous mother, for classmates and teachers to gorge themselves on. Marie, slender and aloof, would hang back looking bored as everybody devoured the goodies.
“Merton’s Quality Chocolates,” Marie continued, as though reading my thoughts. “A great way to make a fortune, persuading people to spend their hard-earned money on something to make them fat and ill.” She turned to look at me. “You know, Anne, I always wished I could be more like you, talented and independent. You’ve done something meaningful with your life. I hope those kids you teach appreciate you.”
She was being serious: Marie Merton, peak of perfection, envied me. It was bewildering. Were we, this Marie, this me, the same people as those girls of yesteryear? Who were those girls? Why didn’t we know ourselves and each other better back then? And who were we now, really? There was something Marie was keeping quiet about and I was curious to see whether she was going to open up. I decided to throw her a line. “Actually, I’ve been off work for a while. Bit of an issue with my health, but back on track now.”
Did I discern a quick frown, the briefest clenching of the jaw? But she remarked lightly, “Oh dear! Old age comes to us all, doesn’t it?” She waved her rather stylish reading glasses gaily in the air. “We all need a little support eventually, eh?” Then she put the glasses on, leaned over and picked up my book. “What are the literati reading these days anyway? Anything you can recommend?”
At pool time the next afternoon I had a dilemma. I took out my other new swimsuit and held it up for appraisal: emerald green and improbably, against all the odds, exactly the same model as Marie’s. But would it look as good on me as it did on her? And would it be horribly embarrassing for her if we turned up at the pool wearing the same thing? Surely we could handle the situation as grown women? But that wasn’t all: the thing is, our swimsuit held a secret.
“The cream and the emerald green both look stunning on you,” the sales lady had assured me. “Nobody would ever know.”
I’d never paid anywhere near as much for a swimsuit in my life. But now the time had come for something out of the ordinary, something more exclusive, something not every second woman was wearing. There’s nothing like a malignant growth gnawing at a sensitive part of your anatomy as well as at your self-esteem to make you rethink your swimwear choices: one-piece from now on, and not just any old thing from the chain store. No, only a very special garment designed to conceal the damage done by the surgeon’s knife would do.
My mind was made up: Marie and I had something in common at last and I wanted her to acknowledge it. When I got to the pool in my green swimsuit, feeling slightly nervous, Marie was already there, and wearing hers again. She waved when she spotted me and nodded towards the lounger beside her. “Kept it free for you,” she said, then lay back and closed her eyes with a smile. Her composure astonished me. The cat was out of the bag: she knew now that I knew her secret and she knew that her secret was also mine. Yet, typical Marie, she was as cool as a cucumber. I placed my glasses and book beside hers on the little table between the loungers, spread out my towel and lay down.
Minutes went by. I wanted to say something but felt tongue-tied, as so often with Marie in the past. Suddenly I was ashamed of my behaviour. Why had I played this childish game? Couldn’t I have been discreet enough just to stick to the cream swimsuit and let Marie keep her secret? What was I trying to prove – that she was flawed too, no better than me after all? All at once, Marie opened her eyes and glanced across. I hadn’t known she could smile so warmly.
“By the way, you have excellent taste in swimwear, Anne. That one you had on yesterday - believe it or not, I’ve got it too, in red. Nice to have a contrast, isn’t it? And they do work, these swimsuits, don’t they? Nobody would ever know.”
So this was the new Marie: sensitive and kinder than me. I returned her smile. The stories of how we came to be who we had become would be told, all in good time. For now we would just relax in companionable silence. In the plate glass window our reflections hovered against the gently bending pine trees outside. We were almost a mirror image of each other: identical loungers, towels, swimsuits, linked by the little table with our books and glasses in between.

Lucy Bauer
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