‘I know you can’t hear me but that’s not going to stop me from talking to you. You look so peaceful lying there. I often look at you sleeping when I wake in the night. I lean my chin on my hand and watch your chest rise and fall. Until my hand goes to sleep. Unfortunately the rest of me stays wide awake. But watching you soothes me.
We’ve woken together for thirty-seven years now, give or take a few mornings. Of course we were together before that, but not actually living together. Do you remember when you used to come and visit me in the holidays at Mum’s when I was a student? All the way from Leeds to Manchester on your Honda 90! We’d sneak up to my room and snuggle up together to records. Records! Simon and Garfunkel – Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme. Dory Previn – Mythical Kings and Iguanas. Mum would bang on the door when our tea was ready. Once we had to put ourselves back together in a hurry. Mum took one look at you and said, ‘I don’t see any reason why Alec’s flies should be undone at this time of day’. We weathered the storm.
It’s a gorgeous day today. One of those sparkling January days when the air is crisp and you have to scrape the frost off your windscreen. The first snowdrop has flowered in the garden. It’s hanging its head at the front of the big flowerbed. Those geraniums on the window sill need watering. They’re doing well to still be flowering. I really must get round to cleaning the windows in here so they let in as much light as they can. All in good time, I suppose.
I’m glad you had your hair cut and your beard trimmed last week. And your eyebrows. They were getting a bit Denis Healey. I still can’t believe your Turkish guy burns your ear hair with a live flame. What a neat trick!
Your lovely face hasn’t changed much over the years. Or maybe I just don’t notice because I see you every day. If I look at photographs I can see changes. You’ve slightly less hair, but it’s still the same caramel colour. Just a few flecks of white.
Weathering storms. Yes, well there’ve been a few of those. But you don’t expect plain sailing for as long as we’ve been together. I forgave you your … transgression. It took a long time. But in the end I decided I was better off with you than without you. I could see why you’d be tempted. Sonia was beautiful and charming. Still is. Not that much younger than you but no kids, no mortgage. I was homebound with our three. That’s how it worked. Of course I didn’t know the extent of it at the time. You drip fed me the details over the months. But I had to know. I needled you till you told me everything. A weekend in the Lakes with a walk round Wastwater. You said that was one of the quieter lakes so you’d be less likely to be spotted. Day trips to Formby and Edale. Places I would love to have gone. But I suppose you didn’t want to go with me at the time. It’s just a shame that Sonia was my friend. We’d known each other for years. A double betrayal. I didn’t lose you but I lost her. I blamed her. That made it easier to stay with you. Anyway it’s all water under the suspension bridge now.
I like to think of the all places we have been together. Those stunning mountains in the Highlands with the wonderful names rising out of the ground like lumbering prehistoric creatures – Suilven, Canisp, Quinag, Stac Pollaidh. You got so cross when your camera battery ran out half way up Stac Pollaidh. You made sure it didn’t happen again. And that little wooden train in Mallorca from Palma to Soller. The profusion of almond blossom in the valley. Thirteen tunnels. You counted them out loud one after the other. We had paella at Soller harbor. All those boats lined up on the jetties. The mountains behind us. You gave me all your clams. You didn’t trust them you said. But they were fine. Do you remember that man who was sunbathing naked on his boat? Until he saw us paddling and shot into his cabin.
It was out first holiday after the children left home. You were so attentive. Smoothing sun tan cream on my back. Giving me foot massages. Did I want a cold drink? Did I want a cocktail? Sonia was long gone – at least her physical presence was. Her ghost sometimes lingered in our bed. For me anyway. But you get over it. We’ve got over worse.
When little Elyce was born I was over the moon. We had our two boys and here was a little girl. She had your caramel hair. Your Celtic complexion. But her heart wasn’t whole. It hadn’t developed as it should. Her cheeks were always high in colour. Everything was delayed – her walking, her talking. But she loved to ride the pony at the stables, she loved to wear her frothy white party dress. We played and played, and read to her, and sang … we all loved her. You know how we loved her. But it wasn’t enough.
Her coffin was so small. I know she was small but that white coffin made her seem even smaller. We have the tree we planted for her in a park not too far away. It flowers every spring. Magnolia Stellata. Pink. I shall go on visiting the tree. Especially at Christmas, just before it flowers. Elyce loved Christmas. She was more interested in the wrapping paper than the presents. She’d tear it off everyone’s presents and throw it up in the air till the front room looked like landfill.
I’d rather have had her than not. So you see we came through the hardest thing.
That’s my stomach grumbling. I’ll go and make some lunch now. I’ll be back soon.’
‘Hello again. I had one of my favourites. Cheese on toast with an apple. It’s the savory and sweet together that I like. You like it too. Liked it.
I know one of us was going to die eventually. I just didn’t think it would be so soon. You were refereeing that football match only last week. It was the day before yesterday I got the phone call from my neighbour. She found you lying on a footpath in Deep Clough Woods and called the ambulance. I ran as fast as I could. Didn’t bother to lock the house. There you were, sprawled beneath two oak trees. You looked crumpled and uncomfortable. There was a look of astonishment on your face. My neighbor was pressing both hands down on your chest. She remembered ‘Stayin’ Alive’. One hundred to one hundred and twenty beats per minute. But your breath was already gone. When I touched your cheek it was cold. I wrapped your coat around your poor body and buttoned it up, tucked your cashmere scarf around your neck. It was a present I bought for your last birthday. We could hear the ambulance siren getting louder and louder. The paramedics took you away but there was nothing they could do.
If only we’d gone for that walk together. I could’ve called the ambulance sooner. God knows how long you’d been lying there. But I was determined on decluttering. I’d been sorting through our great piles of books to take to the charity shop. I’d driven six cardboard boxes over that morning. I’d filled another five boxes when the phone rang. Now I don’t care a toss about the clutter. I’d give anything to still have the piles of books and to still have you.
Your heart, Elyce’s heart. One lasted longer than the other. But the outcome was the same.
It’s a shame you won’t be at the funeral. Oh – you will be, of course you will be. You know what I mean. The boys are going to drive up. They’re both coming in Ralph’s car. To save the environment. I hope he takes it slowly. It doesn’t matter how long they’re on the road. We don’t want any accidents. I never feel quite safe when he’s driving. He takes too many risks. I want to tell him but I know he’ll blow up. I thought once he was a bit older he might take more care. I don’t know who he’s trying to impress. Now Peter is a totally different kettle. He doesn’t run red lights or push into lines of traffic. He hangs back and waits. I don’t know where Ralph gets his recklessness from. Not from us.
I don’t know if your brother is coming or not. I’ve never really understood him. He blows hot and cold. I offered him a bed but he said we’d be bursting at the seams. Well I wouldn’t have offered him a bed if there wasn’t one for him. Maybe he hadn’t taken it in. I got the feeling when I called him that he didn’t want to believe it. Which I can understand. You weren’t always close but I’d like to think in the last few years you had some good times together. We walked for miles the last time he came over. He was always the one with the map. Stopping every five minutes to check if we were going in the right direction. We know these paths like the back of our hands. We moved here so we could go for walks from our front door. We don’t need maps. But he wouldn’t listen. I hope he does come. A brother is a brother.
Last night I dreamt you walked into the bedroom and leaned over me to take me in your arms. Just as you were about to hold me I woke up. I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. But here you are, downstairs, in the front room, waiting for the undertaker to come. I’m grateful for this time with you. Just you and me. I hope you are warm enough. Oh what a daft thing to say!
There is something I want to tell you. Do you remember we had a terrible row after we’d been on holiday with David and Megan? We stayed in that cottage near Hadrian’s Wall with a thatched heather roof? It was freezing. You said I was very familiar with David. Always exchanging smiles and glances. Was I having an affair with him? Well I wasn’t then, but I did later. He was irresistible, and so kind. It began after Elyce’s funeral. He kept texting me and then he stopped. I missed his texts. That’s when I knew something would happen. It didn’t last long. Maybe four or five months. When Megan suspected we called it a day. We didn’t want to hurt anyone. He was the only person who could make me smile in those few months.
So there. Our score is settled. I didn’t feel the need to tell you till now.
It’s nearly time. The undertaker will be here any minute. After you’ve gone I’m going to go into the garden to gather all the greenery I can find. I’ll cut some winter flowering jasmine and winter flowering honeysuckle. I want vases filled all over the house. We made our garden together. I’ll make sure I look after it. The bulbs you chose will soon peep through the soil. There’ll be crocus, early narcissus, daffodils then tulips. We both love tulips.
I’ll say goodbye now. There will be more goodbyes at the funeral but I won’t be able to see your face. Goodbye then, sweetheart. We’ve been the best of friends, the best of loves, you’re the one who made my heart whole. I shall miss you terribly. Each and every day.
There’s the doorbell. One last kiss. Goodbye, Alec. I’ll keep you close. Goodbye.’
All Rights. Chrissie Gittins.
Chrissie Gittins' first short story collection is ‘Family Connections’ (Salt). Her second, 'Between Here and Knitwear' (Unthank Books), was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards and selected by Helen Dunmore as one of her top two 2015 collections. Her stories have been broadcast on BBCR4 and published in The Guardian, Fictive Dream, The London Magazine, Wales Arts Review, The Lampeter Review, Litro, Every Day Fiction, Unthology 6, Lunate, and Postbox. Her third poetry collection ‘Sharp Hills’ was published by Indigo Dreams. She is a Hawthornden Fellow and has received awards from Arts Council England and the Author's Foundation.