This is a new short story, one of three in the new, enlarged edition of my anthology Another Spring, to be published soon. I hope you enjoy it.
Billy always talked to Caroline. Every day. Even though she’d been gone eleven months now. Eleven months and, what was it, thirteen days? Yes, it was easy to work out. She’d left him on the first of January and now it was the fourteenth of December. She’d departed a third of the way into last winter and now, already, it was winter again. Well, it had felt like one long continuous winter, from eleven months ago to now. Quite honestly, he’d often thought over the past few months, it might just as well have been for all the sunlight there is in life now.
And what a miserable time of the year she’d chosen to go! At its bleakest lowest point, with the coldest, winter month about to begin but without even the promise of Christmas to relieve the dreariness.
This is what Billy (Caroline always called him that although to everyone else he was Bill) said to her on waking that morning, lying in bed listening to cold sleety rain rat-tatting on the window pane, trying to summon the enthusiasm to get out of bed and face yet another pointless day without her; doing battle yet again with the leaden lethargy that was his constant companion now:
‘Hello love. How are you today? How are things where you are? Good, I hope. It’s raining here. It woke me in the wee small hours. Blowing a gale it was and really chucking it down. It made me think of you, for some reason. How we used to come to bed sometimes on stormy nights and lie here, snug and warm and dry, while the weather outside furiously threw everything it could at us. It was like that old song: I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm. Do you remember it? Yes, alright, I know; it was almost before our time. Way back in the war, wasn’t it? Or possibly even before. And who used to sing it? Well, a lot of those old-style American crooners did, I suppose. I think Sinatra did it, and Billie Holiday. Not sure whether you’d call her a crooner though. Aren’t (or weren’t) crooners always men? I dunno. But she was jazz singer anyway, I think.
Well, whatever, it used to be wonderful, didn’t it, lying here, close together feeling smug and safe and protected from the elements, metaphorically shaking defiant fists at the meteorological Furies. Puts me in mind of that quote from Shakespeare. How does it go now? ‘Blow winds and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! Where did that come from now? The Tempest? No, King Lear, wasn’t it? Not The Tempest, as you might expect.
Ah yes; The Bard. We had some great times at the theatre, didn’t we? At Stratford and the Globe in London. Aye, such times! And not only Will Shakespeare of course, but John Osborne, Alan Bennett and Alan Ayckbourn. Not to mention Pinter, and Beckett! Yes, Beckett. That takes us back, doesn’t it? Remember our very first trip to the theatre, in nineteen fifty-five? We were so, so young back then. I was just twenty-two, coming up to my Finals at Oxford, full of myself and smug: the working-class boy made good, would-be architect of the reborn post-war world with my vast wisdom, or so I arrogantly thought, and you were only twenty: a mere slip of a girl as my mum used to slightly disapprovingly say. And I so wanted to impress you with my great intellect and high cultural sensibility in spite of my background, so I suggested we go to see Waiting for Godot, because it was Experimental and Groundbreaking and Avant-Garde, and we sat through it both of us pretending that we saw the point of the complete lack of any plot. Talk about The Emperor’s New Clothes! Where was it now? Ah; the Royal Court, wasn’t it? That’s right.
Yes, it seems just yesterday, not sixty years ago. Isn’t it strange, my love, how the distant memories never fade but stay sharp and crisp whereas I can’t reliably remember what I did yesterday? But that’s old age for you. Well, it could be worse, I suppose. I haven’t actually got dementia – at least I think I haven’t. It’s impossible to tell about yourself, really, isn’t it? It’s for others to judge whether your marbles are rolling irretrievably away, perhaps. One can’t really be objective about oneself.
I even remember what you wore that evening. Can you imagine that? Yes, it was a sapphire-blue dress with many petticoats. You didn’t so much wear it as it floated around you, like a wispy corona, or a gas flame. I remember speculating about your legs tantalisingly cocooned somewhere in there beneath all those layers; imagining their flawless whiteness, especially the upper parts, which at that stage in our chaste courtship were completely out of bounds of course. How times have changed, haven’t they? The young ones think nothing of hitting the sack together five minutes after meeting nowadays. Perhaps they’re right though, and we put ourselves through unnecessary deprivation under the tyrannical heel of respectability back in those days.
The dress had a wide black shiny belt and you wore white shoes with impossibly high heels, like a film star. I thought you were absolutely ravishing and terribly sophisticated. And to be honest, groin-achingly desirable. I can’t remember what I wore at all, probably because it was unremarkable. I’m sure I looked pretty dowdy compared with you, anyway. Well, I was an undergraduate after all, and stony broke, as I remember. I didn’t have wealthy parents supplying a generous allowance, like many of the students did. Like you, for that matter! Yes, it was a case of Beauty and the Beast alright. I never really understood what you saw in me. It certainly can’t have been looks, so I suppose it must have been my fine brain, rapier debating skills and scintillating wit. Joke! It took ages to convince myself that you really did want me; want me for the essential me, not the dull, shambling, awkward young upstart with his hair always falling into his eyes behind those thick framed, thick lensed glasses. Well you must have seen something in me, I suppose. And for that I’ll be eternally grateful.
And I remember the way you’d done your beautiful ebony hair; hair that perfectly matched your button-bright beautiful ebony eyes: up in a sort of bouffant style, like that film star. What was her name now? Ah yes; Audrey Hepburn. We saw her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the film, do you remember? Although I think that was a few years after the mid-fifties. She had her hair like it in that, I’m sure she did. So you must have been right on top of the latest fashions if you wore it like that a few years earlier. Not that I’m any fashion expert of course. All I know is that you looked absolutely radiant that night and I was so proud of you.
So, so proud.
Well, proud to be in your company, at any rate. Like the cat that’d got the cream, I was. I remember how I actually wanted the men to stare at you so that I could feel a bit possessive and a bit smug, when we stood in the bar during the interval, you sipping a pink gin or something, I think it was, and me having a glass of wine because it seemed more sophisticated than beer or anything like that. And how we tried to make intelligent, pretentious conversation about the play, trying to impress each other, although as we both admitted later when we’d got to know each other better and felt easier in each others’ company, neither of us had a clue what we were talking about!
And then the journey out to Esher afterwards to your parents’ posh detached house; me doing the gallant thing and escorting you there because I craved every possible available moment in your company, even though it meant a very late train back again to unprepossessing Shoreditch and my mum’s humble two-up-two-down, which as a war widow was all she could afford. Of course there was no question of staying the night with you, although not for the lack of any desire to on my part. It simply wasn’t an option. Your parents wouldn’t leave us alone for a moment, would they? Remember that stiff, awkward taking of coffee and just one small brandy, sitting in your lounge side by side on the sofa but with a decent separation between us, facing them? I was a little intimidated by your dad, I must admit, and it was quite a strain trying to conduct an intelligent conversation with him and create a good impression. God knows what he thought of me that first time; he having been a major during the war and then something high-powered and impressive in the City, whereas my dad had only been a lowly private in the Middlesex regiment before he was cut down by German machine gun fire at Normandy in ’44, according to his friend Ginger who survived.
Although to be fair, your dad wasn’t a snob, and after that first difficult meeting, which felt a daunting test even though you assured me that it wouldn’t be, he and I got on pretty well, really. He seemed impressed that I’d made it to Oxford, anyway; me, a mere machine tool setter’s son. It didn’t happen a lot in those days, did it, a working class kid rising above his ordained station in life and making it to Oxbridge? And he liked it that I was reading politics, although I kept it discreetly quiet that I was very left-leaning, almost to the point of being Marxist! I think he would have had apoplexy had he known, and considered me extremely unsuitable for his only daughter!
Of course I only got there because my mum scrimped and saved and did two jobs: her shop one during the day and then taking in ironing during the evening, to pay for my books and uniform and all the rest of it at the grammar school, not to mention supporting me as much as her limited funds would allow through Oxford. It was a good job that our Sandra was prepared to pitch in and help her with the housework and everything; take some of the burden off her so that she could concentrate on earning money, quite a chunk of which paid for my education. I owe those two so much.
Yes, I’ve been very lucky to have such wonderful women in my life, really: a selfless mother who did her best to bring up two children in the absence of a husband and breadwinner and also give me the chance of a proper education and a passport to better things, and a supportive big sister who if she was jealous of me, didn’t show it, bless her. And you know who the third wonderful woman was, don’t you, my love? If I was blessed once with my mum, and twice with Sandra, I was certainly blessed thrice with a woman who met me and wanted me for the intrinsic me; my background – and my looks – utterly irrelevant. Of course my old mum shuffled off this mortal coil many years ago, in nineteen eighty-six, and Sandra went three years ago, and now that you’ve left me too I’ve lost all three of you. There were no other women, much I would have liked – we both would have, wouldn’t we? – a daughter. But it wasn’t to be. Just the three lads.
Yes, they’re good boys. Boys; listen to me! All three are in their fifties now with Peter only a couple of years shy of his sixties. Where have the years gone? Where have they gone? But they aren’t, with the best will in the world, the same as girls. Just one would have been nice. One like her mother, of course. Maybe if we’d tried for a fourth baby (what a silly expression that is, ‘tried,’ as if the act of love requires any conscious physical effort or special skill to precipitate conception) we might have got lucky, but then again it might have been yet another boy. Neither of us wanted to take the risk, did we? Although ultimately it was up to you of course. You were the one who always had to go through the pregnancies and births and then do the lion’s share of caring for them, back in the fifties and sixties when gender roles where defined rigidly like that and I, de facto, was the assumed breadwinner.
Poor Carrie! I often felt guilty that, having had such a promising time at Oxford yourself, your first job as a junior at Lincoln’s Inn was so short-lived. Just two years, wasn’t it, before you fell pregnant with Peter, in spite of our good intentions to wait for a few years; let you establish a career too. But once we’d had the first baby, we thought we might as well get all the family building done at one fell swoop; then there’d be time for you to resume a career later. And then, the second child having turned out to be Michael, and the third yet another boy, by the time Simon had gone to the senior school and part of your day was your own, that was eighteen years out of your working life lost. Not that you ever complained; you always said that motherhood was the most rewarding thing you ever did. But it did mean that you were over forty before you could take up where you left off, and of course it wasn’t a case of doing that then, after such a long hiatus. You virtually had to retrain and never advanced as far as you might have done had there not been the interruption. But still, that’s always the dilemma that professional women face, isn’t it? I know that if our political outlooks had been different we would simply have hired a nanny or an au pair, but you were vehemently against such a notion, and I loved you for it. You always said it would have felt too much like an abdication of responsibility, hiving off of what should be your proper role. And besides, with both of us being well on the left wing of the party, we could hardly have justified it philosophically, could we?
Anyway, my love, I can’t lie here all morning. Although it’s still difficult bestirring myself; there’s still the lethargy, the lack of purpose. Life still seems pointless nearly a year on. I really must try and make an effort though. Move on, as they say nowadays. The boys phone now and then because they’re probably aware that I’m lonely. Michael does it the most, as you might expect. He’s always been the most considerate of the three, hasn’t he? He’ll probably do so today, this evening, as it’s a special day. It’s a pity he, Jane and the grandchildren don’t live closer, but there we are. He has to be where his work is, and it’s in Northumberland. They have their own lives to lead and there’s no reason why they should bring me into the equation, really.
Yes, a special day indeed: your eightieth birthday. I’ll come and see you later on. I know I come every Thursday, but I especially can’t miss today, can I? Hopefully this blasted rain will have stopped by then. Right. I’m getting up!’
The rain did abate later, and after a light lunch of poached eggs on toast and a slice of cherry cake, showered, shaved and smartened up in sports jacket, corduroy trousers and his bottle-green parka, Billy set off, calling in to the shop on his way to make his purchase. A thin winter sun and patches of blue were managing to break through the dispersing clouds as he made his way there, deciding to walk as it was clearing up and it was only a couple of miles by foot from Hampstead. If the weather turned foul again he could always take the underground back; down to Euston and then back up on the Edgware branch of the Northern Line.
He arrived at twenty to three. He didn’t expect to have a dialogue with Caroline. Not anymore. She was past that now. But that didn’t matter. She was still his wife of fifty-eight years after all. He would just have to do the talking for both of them.
This is what he said:
‘Hello, my love. I decided to walk, as the day’s brightened up. And look, I brought you some flowers: your favourites. There’s white roses, freesias in various colours, some muscari and a few tiny narcissi to give a splash of yellow. I know they’re spring flowers really, but never mind. Isn’t it a beautiful bouquet? None of the flowers are in season of course, not in England, so I suppose they were either grown in glasshouses or abroad somewhere. It’s amazing that one can buy flowers out of season, I always think. But then if you couldn’t, the flower shops would go out of business, I expect. Is there a vase for them? Ah yes, there we are.
I shall miss not being able to buy you anything more substantial this year, but there’s really no point, is there? We used to have some grand birthday celebrations, didn’t we? Both yours and mine. Often a night out at the theatre, if there was anything running that we particularly wanted to see. Or a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, or the Barbican, or even the Wigmore. That’s all a thing of the past now though, I’m afraid. There really isn’t any point in going on these outings by yourself, is there? The whole point of it is the shared pleasure. Obviously. No, there’ll be no more of that.
As I said this morning though, I expect Michael will ring later. He’ll think of his old dad. I won’t be entirely alone. I hope so, anyway. And perhaps Simon will too. I won’t hold my breath waiting for Peter though. You know what he’s like. He was always the least clingy of them, wasn’t he? Anyway, I suppose he’s still full of this new woman in his life. What’s her name now? Belinda? Bella? Beatrice? I know he did tell me, but I’ve forgotten. Perhaps forgetting names is one of the first sorts of memory that goes. It’s a shame his marriage ended, after so many years – although nothing like as many as we two had of course. His Jane was quite nice, I always thought, but obviously there was something lacking in their relationship, somewhere, otherwise he wouldn’t have left her for that other woman.
My god, I could never have imagined we two parting like that! If ever there was a marriage made in heaven, as the saying goes, I thought we had it. And thought you thought that too. We were such soulmates, weren’t we? Such a team. Everyone used to say so. A perfect fit. Like the yin and yang symbol. No, that’s not quite right. Like it visually perhaps, but not otherwise. That’s the attraction of opposites, and we weren’t that. Not opposites at all. Well, except in background, but that’s neither here nor there. No; we were perfectly complementary, weren’t we? Almost like identical twins in many ways. We seemed to have a perfect rapport; could almost inhabit each others’ minds. I knew that almost from the very start. It would be you or it would be no-one. I know it’s a terrible cliché to talk in terms of The Only One, but I honestly thought you were; were the only one I could possibly imagine spending my life growing old with. Remember that phrase from Thomas Hardy’s Far From The madding Crowd, ‘And at home by the fire, whenever you look up there I shall be – and whenever I look up there will be you’? I was so lucky, much more so than Peter, it seems, or so many others and (let’s be frank) quite a few of our friends. I really, never for a day in all our fifty-eight years doubted it.
And now, of course, I’m suffering the downside of loving someone so much, of needing someone so completely. The more you love and the more you need, the greater the feeling of being utterly, utterly bereft if it’s taken from you. Yes, I suppose I should be getting over your going away into that far-off land on a one-way ticket by now. I don’t suppose I’m showing much of the stereotypical British phlegm; the stiff upper lip and all that. But to hell with that. If I can’t help but wear my heart on my sleeve, then so be it. At least the memories, suddenly arising unbidden, provoked by things seen or words heard, don’t precipitate tears quite so often now, so perhaps I am slowly healing. I know it’ll never be complete though. How could it be? You don’t live with someone for most of your life and then lose them, to be left with a black aching void, and expect it to fully heal over, do you?
But I’ll be all right; I’m sure I will. Time will partially heal, at any rate. Anyway, let’s not be too despondent, not on your birthday. I remember your last one, when you were still bright and sharp enough to enjoy it, before the decline really set in. We had a trip up to Stratford, which was also a trip up memory lane if ever there was one, wasn’t it? To see Cymbeline again: the very first Shakespeare play we ever saw together, soon after the Beckett. It was pure nostalgia; we both thought so. You looked so calm, so serene, almost happy, and I certainly felt it too, at any rate some of the time, as you’d been diagnosed only the previous week. I oscillated between calm in your presence and rage, rage against the new, grim reality of your situation in my moments alone.
But we were determined not to let it get us down. Well, not outwardly, at least. I can’t imagine, for all that we were such soulmates, how you must have been really feeling though. If it was anything like I was feeling, there would have been an icy fist clamping your heart, but you certainly didn’t show it. You responded with that brave, warm smile every time I glanced at you, on the car journey there, during the performance and then at dinner in the hotel afterwards, because we wanted to make a full day of it rather than have a late, tiring return journey.
And in bed later I held your slender, so-familiar body so tight, clasped you to me, wanting to freeze time, freeze the moment, keep you there with me forever, until I drew my last breath. Oddly, it felt like that first visit to Stratford replayed, and the first time we shared a bed. It was as if two sweet and identical events had bookended our happy life together, except that the second one was so poignant.
Anyway, I’m glad you’re here, in this place, if you can’t be with me. It does seem rather fitting, so perfectly appropriate, doesn’t it?’
Billy stayed for an hour talking one-sidedly about many things, mainly in reminiscences, and then reluctantly got up to leave. His old bones were creaking from the uncomfortable seating, but it couldn’t be helped. He wouldn’t let a small matter like that put a stop on things. He bade Caroline a fond farewell, promising to see her again in a week.
In the pay booth at Highgate Cemetery, Sam Turner, due to retire the following day, was showing his young replacement James the ropes, not that it entailed a great deal, really. Just collecting the fees and directing new visitors who didn’t know their way around, and occasionally handing out leaflets about burial. He watched the bent old man making his slow way out of the grounds, clutching his folding chair. As Billy drew level with the booth he looked in Sam’s direction and raised his free hand in sad salute. Sam smiled; waved back.
‘You’ll see him every Thursday, as regular as clockwork,’ Sam told James. ‘That’s Bill Bradley; used to be a Labour MP, but before your time, so you probably don’t remember him. One of the Old School, he was. A proper Socialist. I’ve never known him miss a visit, whatever the weather. Always stays an hour or so, over near Karl Marx’s grave. That’s where his missus is buried. He must have been coming here for about a year now. Talk about loyal! He always keeps her flower vase nice, changing the flowers regular. I noticed him coming in today with a specially nice bunch. Perhaps it was a special occasion, or something.’