‘Faith, Hope and Love’ Part 6

We fell into a pattern. As the winter nights got colder, the leaves drooped and rain fell like wet kisses from the denuded branches of tall trees, I got into the habit of popping round to Arthur’s whenever I had finished gardening. There was always something to tidy: leaves to clear, branches to pull and burn, hands to snarl on old, reluctant thorns. I was happy outside, those afternoons. The work cleansed my thoughts and stretched my body in beautiful, aching curves. And afterwards, there waited Arthur’s kitchen, or the living-room with the French windows where we sat together, watching the shadows and the wind dancing with the remains of the leaves.

“A top-up?” Arthur’s enquiry broke through my thoughts. He found me getting lost in my silences.

“That would be great!” I said, pushing aside tiredness. As I watched Arthur pottering about in the shadows, I felt immense gratitude that he did not feel the need to chat about the latest bad news, the international situation, the lamentable state of his shares portfolio. I could not have borne that. Politeness forced me to smile as I took my mug of water with the hint of chamomile, and the couple of water biscuits that Arthur now kept for me. He paused, “On second thoughts, would you like some spread on them?” I realized I would, some jam or honey. Not low fat, lo sugar or ergonomic and environmentally conscious but just your standard pink, sweet stuff.

“Yes! That would be lovely.”

Arthur lifted my plate to the kitchen counter, fetched a knife out of a drawer and smeared jam from a jar. Watching him looking after me, tears pricked behind my eyes.

“I can do that,” I called, without conviction.

“Yes, I know. But I am up anyway, and you have been working outside all afternoon. I have only been sorting through boxes.”

He was suddenly beside me. “Strawberry all right?”

“Yes, of course!” I croaked self-consciously, a surprising tear slipping unbidden down my cheek. Perhaps he didn’t see it, because he said nothing, but crossed back to his usual chair.

“Penny for them?” His voice was careful and light. In the gathering dusk his voice was penetrating.

“What?” I sniffed.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

”Oh!” Uncomfortable flutterings rose to my throat.

“Just begin anywhere. I will catch up with you.”

“Well, in that case, how about rock buns…?” I was muttering to myself again. I sat up straighter in my seat and looked over at his gentle smiling face. He trusted me. I must not disappoint him.

I said, “It seems that age is catching up with me. I’m rather tired, that’s all.”

“You are being brave again.” He spoke quietly, but I understood him perfectly.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, I see you getting about, managing. I see you trying to smile when you knock over the milk bottles and have to bend to retrieve them from a gritty path. I see that you cope.”

“Well, doesn’t everyone?”

“I suppose so. You were going to tell me about rock buns.”

I stifled my reluctance and began slowly, spilling snippets and stories of my childhood: the way my mother would bake miracle melting biscuits once or twice and then never make them again. And later, away at school, while I was being teased and left in among reams of rules that others would easily flout but which clogged me up, how I found motherly friendship with the kitchen staff. They baked all sorts of delightful cakes for us, coconut melts, shortbread, chocolate krispies and rock buns for afternoon tea; our consolation before prep began and dull routines of boarding school closed around us once more.

“But surely, it can’t have been that bad?” Arthur was lightly dismissive.

“Well, I suppose it wasn’t. We got used to it. But there was a sort of neglect that went with it, and a feeling that I could never be myself. I was forever hiding under sarcasm, frowns or routine.”

“There were the holidays to look forward to?”

“Yes. Anyway, the point is, I am unused to having someone look after me. It makes me emotional.” There was a long pause while I ate my jammy biscuit in the gathering gloom, turning away gratefully from my first impulse to weep.

“Perhaps you mean that you don’t look after yourself as well as you might, but that is hardly surprising. You have a wonderful daughter, you cope mostly alone, and you manage.”

“Yup! God, how I hate that word – manage! It is so dull and put upon.”

“We all manage,” he replied automatically. Still, to me the word conjures up such aching compromises, that I stuck with my assessment, my mouth set in a straight line.

With great deliberation I enunciated carefully, “I love rock buns, and chocolate cake and biscuits, and wine and cheese and tea and coffee and steak and chips and ice-cream, though not all at once.” My attempt at a joke fell flat. “So, I am just like everyone else, but none of that stuff agrees with me anymore. In the last few years I have discovered that if I eat steak, or drink a cup of coffee I cannot walk. Do you want to see me crawling around the house? If I eat butter my kidneys ache and my head itches. Ditto cheese. My wrists and fingers seize up. Chocolate cake makes me ill. I am fed up, not being able to do what everyone else takes for granted.”

There! I had said what I wanted, and the world was still here.

“I see. Is that all?”

It was quite the wrong thing to say. I burst into tears. “Yes. Not being able to do what everyone else does!” I managed a wail. “It is not just food, and chores, and not having a job or a husband. But everything,” I finished limply.

“Everything… yes.”

He let me sob and sniff and slowly reach up and out of the other side of my sad hole. I wanted him to put his arms around me, but I just sat in my seat. As I always have.

“And if I said you were lucky, how would you feel?”

I laughed a sad bark and sighed. “I would say, of course, you are right, and I would also say I don’t know. Most of the time I would agree with you.”

There was a movement over there, and over here. Suddenly Arthur was sitting next to me, holding both my hands in his own.

“You are lucky, Marian! You have a wonderful daughter. You can see her every day. You have your own little house, and you don’t have to work for a shitty boss who calls you up in the evenings or on your days off making unreasonable demands. You can please yourself every week day from eight in the morning until half past three or four or whenever your daughter gets home. And in the evenings when there is no-one to talk to, you have your daughter who loves you, living under your roof. I call that lucky!”

I was ashamed and I sat forward starting to say sorry, but he interrupted me. “No, don’t apologise. What did you say, except how you feel? What’s wrong with that?”

I smiled again and sniffed, and he handed me a handkerchief.

“I’ll get it back to you,” I nodded.

“No. Just keep it.” For some reason, Arthur seemed to be avoiding my eyes.

“What is it?”

“I spent years – God, it was months, years – looking after Lilian. At the end she couldn’t speak, she was fed through all sorts of tubes; she slept in one room down the hall. A nurse watched her and I was upstairs. I used to go and sit with her at night, hold her hand and pray that God would come and pull her out of her misery. But it was years. And then one day I looked up and they were taking away her bed, her boxes of pills and the monitor, and the nurses were shaking my hand and getting ready to leave. The cleaners were coming round to clear away the smell of urine and bandages and for the first time in months, I opened the window, with the old-fashioned catch, that looked out over the lawn at the back, with its rose borders and the cherry tree in the middle. It was spring. And finally, Lilian was finished with breathing in jerks and spasms. She was beautiful again, I knew. And I had lost her. She had gone. All that was left was an empty space, the marks on the carpet where her bed had been, and the boxes of sterile gloves and tissues. It was a relief. I felt guilty.”

(to be continued)

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