Flamenco shoes tapped on the bricks, thundered on the veranda. The back door burst open.
'Here I am! Are you ready for my show?'
Nicola couldn't turn her head. She had to swing her whole body around. 'Who is this glorious señorita?'
Bessie leaned back from the hips and flung her arms in a high curve round her head. The blood-red nasturtium she had stuck into the elastic of her ponytail trembled there, its juicy stem already drooping. She bent her wrists and began to twine her hands round each other. her fingernails were grimy, her palms padded with thick calluses from the school-yard monkey bars. She lowered her brow in a challenging scowl and paced towards us, flicking aside the bulk of her skirt with every step.
Nicola reared back on her stool. 'Stop. What's that cack on your lip?'
Bessie dropped her arms and ran the back of one hand under her nostrils. It left a glistening trail across her cheek.
'Oh shit.' Nicola got off the stool and backed away. 'I'm sorry, darling, but you can't come in here with a cold. I've got no resistance left. Helen, you'll have to send her home.' She shuffled as fast as she could down the hall into the spare room, and pulled the door shut behind her.
I picked up a pencil and took a breath to start explaining cell counts and immune systems, but Bessie didn't ask. She stood in the centre of the room with her arms dangling. Her face was blank. I heard the neighbour over the back lane slam his car door and drive away. At once his dog began its daily barking and howling. We had adapted our nerves to its tedious racket and no longer thought of complaining, but maybe the wind that morning was blowing from a new direction, for the high-pitched cries floated over the fence and right into our yard, filling the sunny air with lamentation.
One of my oldest friends is due just after Christmas for her third round of chemo. She has become a connoisseur of anti-nausea drugs. The wig is fabulous, though she says it's very irritating when people who haven't seen her for a while come up to her and say 'Wow, what have you done to your hair, it looks fabulous!'
I've known her since we were in our late teens. We shared a student house in our early twenties for two and a half years; we used to sing together a lot, and the other week we were driving to the supermarket when the young James Taylor appeared on the compilation CD singing 'Sweet Baby James' and we swung in behind him with two different harmonies. I was a witness at her wedding and a wet mess at her husband's funeral.
Now on the day before Christmas Eve I'm recovering from a very bad upper respiratory tract infection; though functional, I am still a little rattly, sodden and febrile. Every day, by email, she and I defer and renegotiate a meeting to exchange Christmas greetings and presents, which may have to become Proclamation Day greetings and presents (special SA public holiday) or possibly even New Year greetings and presents. Because she must not catch this. It put me in bed for the best part of three days, and my immune system's pretty good.
What floors me is the power of the drive to disregard it: the ferocious sense of what's good and proper that tells me I can't possibly not see her and her daughter, the fourth-year Aerospace Engineering student who at the age of eleven introduced me to Harry Potter, for Christmas. Everything about staying away seems mean-spirited, ultra-cautious, ungenerous, unloving. Which in the face of the immunological facts is clearly absurd.