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Rocio sat watching the procession of young men and women file silently up the steps and onto the dais, the men in dark suits and the women, like so many colourful butterflies, in their long dresses. They bowed and bobbed to the Dean as they received their hard earned diplomas and cast furtive, happy smiles at the audience hoping to locate somewhere, in that sea of faces, the ones they knew well. Now it was Olivia’s turn. What a beautiful girl she’d grown into; her hair as black as night, hanging down her back in a cascade of loose curls. Normally it was a loose mop that half obscured her face and she was constantly brushing it out of her eyes with her fingers but tonight it was carefully combed back and secured with two tortoiseshell combs that Rocio had bought especially for her. Tonight all the world could see that beautiful face with its perfectly formed features: the nose, delicately shaped but not too big, the lips, full and smiling and the almond shaped eyes. She was too far away for people to see the full brilliance of those eyes, how they sparkled when she laughed, how green they became when she was sad, how the subtleties of colour they blandly called “hazel” changed according to her mood. But she knew; she knew the contours of that face as if it were her own. A knot had formed in her chest and seemed to be pressing on her heart. She pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose. Olivia was shaking the Dean’s hand; her back was towards the audience but Rocio knew she would be smiling. Olivia smiled often and easily. Then she turned and it seemed that she looked straight at her and the smile on her lips said it all.
‘I’m glad she wore the blue; it suits her much better than the pink, don’t you think?’ The woman on her right leant against her and took her hand affectionately.
Rocio nodded. She couldn’t speak; her heart was too full, but she squeezed her friend’s hand in response.
Olivia had moved along the line now and returned to her seat with her companions. Later they would speak to her and meet her friends; she would show them the diploma and they would talk about her plans for the future. They would eat a little and drink some, then Rocio would make her way to Atocha to catch her train home. Inma had suggested she stay the night at her house but Rocio wanted to get home to her husband. It was an excuse really; Ernesto had said she should stay. He’d suggested she take a short holiday, stay a couple of nights with Inma; visit the sights, do some shopping and come back on the Saturday. But she’d said no, she didn’t want to stay in Inma’s house; she would not feel comfortable being there as a guest. She told him she preferred to come home and be with him. He didn’t argue with her. He couldn’t argue. It was he who had refused to attend the degree ceremony. It was he who would not visit Inma’s house. It was he who couldn’t bear to see Olivia receive her diploma. So he couldn’t argue with her when she said she wanted to come straight home.
‘I wish you would stay, if only for a night. It’s Olivia’s birthday tomorrow; she’ll be twenty-six,’ her friend whispered.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t. But I’ve got a present for her. I thought I might give it to her today over lunch.’
‘How sweet of you; she’ll be thrilled.’ Yes, Rocio thought, she will be thrilled; Olivia took great delight in presents. Even when she was very small she never ripped off the paper to see what it contained; no, first she felt the package, then she shook it gently, all the time looking at you for some clue as to what was inside before she carefully teased the paper apart, never once tearing it. Whatever it was, a toy, something to wear, sweets or games, she loved it; she would put the present to one side and throw her arms around you, give you a big hug and kiss and swear that it was just what she wanted.
Rocio smiled at the memory. One thing was certain she would always have those memories.
‘Jose has bought her a car, a Renault Clio. Don’t tell her; it’s a surprise. You know how she loves surprises,’ Inma continued. ‘It’s European Car of the Year; that’s what attracted Jose. That and the price of course.’
The woman looked at her husband affectionately; he was whispering something to one of his teenage sons. Rocio thought how similar the boys were, not identical but very alike. Yet neither of them looked like Olivia.
‘That’s very generous of him,’ she replied.
‘Well she needs to be able to get around and he doesn’t want her always relying on that boy she’s been seeing. Much better if she’s independent. She’ll be able to drive down to the beach house once she’s passed her test. You know Jose’s not so keen on the beach these days; he prefers to travel abroad in the summer, somewhere cool like northern France. I don’t mind as long as we get out of Madrid; I can’t stand it here in August. You could fry an egg on the pavement some days.’
Rocio breathed in sharply. If Olivia came down alone then they would be able to spend some time together; but how would Ernesto feel about that. She shook her head as if to dismiss the idea; better to worry about that when it happened. If it happened.
‘What’s that my dear?’
‘Nothing. I was just thinking of something.’
Her friend gave her hand another squeeze and turned to speak to her husband for a moment. Rocio looked at her friend; she was enjoying the occasion enormously. Perhaps she felt vindicated by Olivia’s success or perhaps she was just happy for the young woman. Who could tell? Rocio was extremely fond of Inma; they’d been friends since they were very young but even she couldn’t always fathom out what went on in Inma’s mind. It was at the beach house that they first met. Many years ago now. A faint sigh escaped her lips.
‘Are you alright Rocio?’ Inma asked.
‘Yes, fine really. Just a bit emotional.’
‘Of course, of course.’ Again she squeezed her hand.
Rocio smiled. Inma had not always been that solicitous of her friend. She thought back to when they first met.