Julia watched the removalist truck beep its way up the neighbour’s driveway. From her bedroom on the second floor she had a commanding view of the procession of boxes and pieces of furniture making their way into what once was old Mrs. Lukeman’s place.
Julia felt sure the little white cottage with the cute dormer windows would miss Mrs. Lukeman terribly. She had only mentioned it to her mum yesterday as they drove to school.
“Don’t you think her house looked sadder the longer she was sick Mum? And the roses – the roses only bloomed like half-way to what they normally do.”
“Oh, of course!” her mum had laughed as she steered around the corner, tapping her ear to remind Julia she was on a call.
A splash of pink against the removalist’s blue overalls caught Julia’s eye and had her to her feet, hands on the windowsill, straining to see around him as he ambled his way to the shed at the end of the yard. To her delight, someone called out to him and as he turned to answer, Julia spotted the pink bike he was carrying.
Did it have the same flower basket as hers?
Too late! He was on his way to the shed again.
The quickest way downstairs was on the thick dark bannister. Julia had seen lots of people sit up and slide but she was happy to throw her belly onto it and gain the same effect and speed with the least amount of fuss.
“Well that’s not very glamourous Julia.” Her mother sighed as she stepped over her, phone to her ear.
A slight miscalculation on her landing left Julia sprawled on the tiles of the foyer but she quickly recovered and followed her mother into the kitchen.
Waiting for the right time to interrupt the call, Julia gathered items to make her lunch while stealing glances at her mother. Having arranged them in the correct order on the island bench, she sensed an opportunity and leaned over the loaf of bread, a slice in each hand and whispered as loudly as she dared,
“I think a girl is moving in next door – a girl like me!”
Her mother covered the mouthpiece of her phone and looked down at her, “A girl like you?”
Julia slopped the peanut butter directly onto the bread and nodded. She slammed the two pieces of bread together and took a large bite.
“Om-gumma -go -ober –affa -ma- lush”
“No, no you’re not.”
Before Julia could ask why, her mother’s finger appeared in front of her face and she slumped, returning to her personal version of being ‘on hold’. She finished her sandwich and spun on the bar stool, wondering if she could make the seat spin off its legs. Her patience was rewarded when the call was cut short.
“But why can’t I goooo?”
“You can go Julia, just not today.” Her mum poured herself a fresh coffee and looked out the kitchen window. “Moving’s really stressful, and these people might’ve travelled across the country. Just give them a break before you barrel over there.”
Julia knew her mother was right, she was always right. But that didn’t mean she had to be happy about her plans being thwarted. She used her feet to give the bar stool one more big swing and then headed towards the stairs.
“And I don’t barrel!” she called over her shoulder.
She stopped for a moment at the bannister and listened for a reply, then trotted back upstairs.
The next morning Julia put on her favourite dress and her prettiest sandals and made her way towards her new neighbour’s house. She thought about running straight through the lawn and leaping across the garden bed and onto the veranda in one bound like she used to when she visited Mrs. Lukeman, but decided today was too formal for that.
She approached the path that led directly to the front door and looked up to the house. Maybe it was the sunny morning that made it look brighter, or perhaps it was because they had already replaced the old flowery curtains with crisp blue ones, but Julia decided the house looked happier already.
Julia walked the path to the front door. She knocked three times and was suddenly overcome with nerves. She hadn’t given any thought about what you’re meant to say to new neighbours. A man’s face disappeared behind the blue curtains and she heard voices and shuffling from behind the door.
A key turned, a lock clunked, and the door opened.
A girl with long dark hair pushed the door wider and smiled.
“Hi, I’m Adie.”
“Hi, I’m Julia, and I, umm, live next door.”
Julia shuffled her feet, smiled, and tried to figure out why Adie kept pushing on the opened door – until it started to push back. Adie’s parents appeared from their hiding spot and suggested the girls play outside away from all the packing boxes and clutter.
So it was there, in Adie’s backyard that the box first appeared. Perhaps the morning was so bright that Julia didn’t even see that she had brought it with her. She sat down next to Adie and poured her another cup from the plastic tea set.
“Here,” she seemed to say, “I’ve got something for you.”
Together they opened the box; it seemed quite small but promising.
It was sturdy and decorated with their favourite pink polka dots and it had a separate lid that was held down with a satin ribbon that could be tied into a bow. When they looked inside they found the walls were made of kindness and best wishes. They added smiles and cheeky grins and tea sets to the box that day, and decided the box would always be safe with them.
By the time Julia and Adie had finished school the box wasn’t as pretty as it had first appeared in Adie’s garden. The ribbon was tattered and the innocence of the polka dots had been replaced with the grubby fingerprints of broken hearts. The box wasn’t broken, but it was different. It had stretched to accommodate every treasure that was placed inside it. Memories of choirs, sporting teams and sleepovers fought for space with secret crushes, fashion magazines, and devastating arguments. When Adie and Julia looked inside they still found the smiles and cheeky grins from the garden hiding amongst the tears and tantrums.
As they arrived at university they both held onto the box tightly. Before long though, the box was disregarded and the treasures inside devalued. Exposed and without protection, the box suffered and hardened. Occasionally, after a night out they would try to jam more things into the box and jump on its lid to force it closed, only to find that the box had lost its suppleness and refused to bow to their demands. After years of alternating between hiding the box and searching for it, Adie and Julia managed to lose the box they believed would always be with them.
Julia had rushed straight from the airport to the path that led directly to the front door of the little white cottage with the cute dormer windows. The street was filled with cars and she was grateful for the space in her mother’s driveway. She wondered if it was normal for a wake to be this big and decided it was probably the shock of the accident that had drawn so much attention. As she stepped inside the front door she saw Adie, her long dark hair in a messy bun atop her head. She was leaning back against a tall man, his arm protectively surrounding her as she welcomed mourners into what once was her parent’s home.
Julia walked forward and kissed Adie’s cheek.
“Adie, I’m so sorry.”
Adie offered a tired smile,
“Thanks Julia. Oh! – I’m sorry this is Matt, my husband.”
Matt shook Julia’s hand in welcome as Adie simultaneously squeezed Julia’s other hand so tight it hurt.
“Please stay for when all of this is over- please.”
The garden swing in Adie’s backyard had always made that funny grating sound.
It seemed louder now against the relative quiet of a suburban night. Or perhaps it was the combined weight of two thirty-somethings, three and a half empty bottles of wine, and some crackers that had escaped their packaging to slide along the cushions in time with the swing.
Julia looked up to the kitchen window. It glowed as a solid yellow block except for when Matt’s silhouette bobbed around cleaning up.
“He seems nice. Are you happy? – I mean apart from y’know- today?”
“Uh huh.” Adie nodded, “I am. The kids drive us nuts at times, but we’re good. Matt was thinking of taking up a transfer back here, so now…. well, here’s this empty house…. You?”
Julia put her feet to the ground and slowed the swing gently to a stop, then held her hands out for balance until her head followed suit.
“Apart from my head you mean?” she laughed, “I’m fine too.”
They built a new box together that night. This one had tall sides made of best wishes that were flexible and forgiving. The following years were spent filling all that extra room inside with memories of shared holidays, childbirth, and graduations. They made sure to leave room for Julia’s divorce; Adie’s run away teenager, and bad financial decisions. And this time, when they looked inside the box they found accomplishment and laughter, courage and respect. Both Adie and Julia knew that on the toughest of days, they could find what they needed and pull it from the box. They called on each other to draw out support, reliability, and the rarest of traits, honesty. The box grew bigger as it was packed and repacked with trust, friendship, love, protection, and understanding.
It’s true that normality is always underrated until it disappears. Illness banished ‘normal’ from Julia’s life when she was called home to be her mother’s carer. Together Adie and Julia had poured over textbooks hoping to better understand the illness. The box performed its own special magic once more; Adie held Julia up when she felt she couldn’t carry on, just as Julia had supported her in her darkest moments. It wasn’t long after the street had been filled with cars for her mother that Julia thought she felt the box shrink.
At first she was sure she was imagining it, putting it down to the emotions of her mother’s passing. Soon she found herself searching for other convenient excuses for its diminishing size. Julia nodded her head in understanding as a mutual friend informed her of Matt’s illness, but couldn’t fathom why Adie had chosen to exclude her.
The box continued to shrink with each phone call that wasn’t answered and with each text that announced,
‘Sorry, I’ve been a bit busy’ – as other friends came and went, laughing and waving their goodbyes to the little white cottage next door.
One afternoon Julia carried the sunken box to Adie’s front door and knocked three times.
Adie opened the door and smiled.
After some friendly small talk on the doorstep, Julia attempted to be as clear as possible.
“Have I done anything to upset you? Is there anything that is bothering you? – you can tell me, really.”
“No, no, not at all.” Adie shook her head, “I’m just a bit tired.”
“If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know. You know I do understand all of this.”
“I’m fine.” Adie had replied, “We’ve just been busy…”
Julia asked Adie to look at the gaunt and scraggly box, hoping she would remember how it once looked. Adie crossed her arms, leant on the door frame and said that it looked perfectly fine and there was nothing wrong with it.
Julia sighed, picked up the box, took it home and placed it on the island bench in the kitchen. She studied the box and decided it did look a bit sad and old. She wondered if she bought a new ribbon and made it prettier Adie might be interested in the box again. Then she realised that changing the outside of the box wouldn’t make any difference at all. Its value lay on the inside, and it was obvious that Adie just simply didn’t want the box anymore. In accepting that thought, grief squeezed through her heart like Adie’s hands had done on the day of the wake.
Julia decided that mid-afternoon was definitely not too early for wine. She tried to imagine being Adie and why she might choose to reject the box. She thought about times that she herself had rejected other people’s boxes.
The new girl at the office; and that older lady at the gym.
They had both offered Julia a small box of friendship and she refused, and in turn others had rejected her small boxes too. Julia decided there wasn’t a great deal of pain involved in those transactions because there wasn’t really anything in the box. It seemed to be a quite normal function of daily life.
After all, you can’t have deep friendships with everyone on the planet.
And some people just don’t ‘click’. It’s a human prerogative.
The pain really wasn’t about Adie rejecting the box, because we do that to each other all the time.
It was about Adie rejecting what was inside the box.
And what was inside the box?
Julia had so many questions that Adie didn’t seem to want to answer.
Had she done something wrong?
Why was she no longer trusted with Adie’s heart and her secrets?
Why so suddenly?
Had there been some kind of misunderstanding?
Adie would definitely ask her to verify any gossip – wouldn’t she?
Each question stabbed at her heart until she felt that her own heartbeat was holding a knife. Julia was amazed that just asking these simple questions could cause such a reaction. Of course she had heard about old friends ‘falling out’ and immediately understood that it was the reaction to the pain that made it so easy for them to become bitter and angry. The pain promised it would go away if she passed it back to Adie. How tempting it was to think of revenge! Julia placed a hand over her heart and forced herself to breathe deeply. Once she had relaxed she began to ponder if she really did have to know the answers to all those questions.
Did she truly have to know why?
Surely that was Adie’s business and completely out of her control.
Julia’s thoughts slowly came into focus. The word ‘irreparable’ floated into her thoughts just as ‘inoperable’ had all those months ago. She had already learnt that situations outside of her control responded best to acceptance. When she chose to accept them it was if all her anger, frustration, and fear stepped away to make room for peace.
I can’t demand that Adie treat the box in any particular way.
How she chooses to treat the box is Adie’s choice.
The outcomes, results and consequences of that choice will be Adie’s too.
But at the same time, I choose to not be disrespected.
The box shrank in front of her.
Julia realised it was her ego that needed answers to those questions. It needed things to be organised, understood, labelled, and explained. Her ego felt safe when right and wrong were assigned and packaged neatly into a box.
But Julia’s spirit didn’t care for fancy packaging; it chose to celebrate personal freedom, and to honour that fact Julia decided to celebrate too.
The next morning Julia put on her favourite dress and her prettiest sandals and made her way towards her neighbour’s house. She ran straight through the lawn and leapt across the garden bed and onto the veranda in one bound like she used to when she visited Mrs. Lukeman.
She didn’t bother knocking on the door, choosing instead to leave the small pretty box on the doorstep where Adie could find it if she ever went looking for it.
And if she did choose to open it, she would find best wishes inside.