A new life
She lay still under the cold sheets, listening to the sounds of the early dawn, trying to recapture the remnants of the dream which she could not recall but which had left her feeling vaguely happy. She was wistful for a sense of contentment that now eluded her. She tried to curl back into a foetal ball drawing the covers round her, Barry seemed to have wrapped himself into the blankets more than ever this morning, holding on even more tightly than usual, to his share of the communal warmth.
She turned her back on him and closed her eyes, seeing in her head the pictures of the previous evening. Barry, his dark grey suit, stretched and shiny across the mound of his stomach with that horrible pink shirt, which he insisted made him trendy. He was fawning on the Chief Exec. as though it still mattered what he thought, as though Mr Bradshaw could still advance his career or still grant him the key to the Senior Management restroom, which he had always coveted.
She saw too the limp and boring buffet: over spiced and greasy chicken wings, egg and tuna sandwiches, soggy mushroom vol-au-vents and cold sausage rolls. Bitter black and green olives (‘sophisticated,’ claimed Barry) and over-sweet coleslaw and potato salad which nobody could eat; standing up, with thin paper plates and plastic forks.
She saw too the fixed smiles on his colleagues’ faces, as they made insincere comments about how much Barry would be missed. What a valued team member he had been! How hard it would be to run the department without him! How lucky he was to have been given such a generous redundancy package and an enhanced pension! Nobody mentioned how glad they were to see the back of this parsimonious little man, nit picking every decision, criticising his colleagues at every opportunity, constantly moaning, never part of the team and always right. Taking credit for everything that went well and no responsibility for errors or mistakes. She smiled to herself, knowing that he had no idea how he was seen by the rest of his team. ‘They will find it so hard to replace me.’
She reached her arm into the cold air and groped for the alarm before its loud beeping could spoil the morning then slowly swung her legs out of bed, groping for her slippers with her feet, desperate not to wake Barry. She was anxious for a few moments of peace and solitude in the cool morning kitchen, for the brief respite that was exclusively hers before Barry's presence filled the house.
She crept down the stairs, avoiding the one that had creaked every day of their forty year marriage but was not worth doing anything about because it was, ‘not structural, just a waste of money’.
She crept into the kitchen and put on the kettle by the light of the street lamp filtering through the roller blind and bent to stroke Jenny's soft warm head and the dog opened her gentle brown eyes, blurred with sleep and age and licked her hand in response. She tickled her gently and whispered in her ear a murmured apology for the changes which were about to wreak havoc in the old dog’s life. Not just tirades of abuse for supposed misdemeanours at odd times between golf and Rotary club at weekends and occasional evenings… but every day, all day, every week, every year...
She finished making her tea watching the brown fluid pouring from the teapot (‘making tea in a mug with a tea bag is very working class, one must preserve standards’) added the milk (‘My mother always added milk last’) and as an act of rebellion took two chocolate digestives out of the tin. She moved across the kitchen and sat at the table stroking the scratched and worn surface, (‘what is the point of replacing that, solid wood, they don't make them like that anymore’). Her mother-in-law had given it to them as if bestowing a sacred gift. It had been bought when Barry’s parents got married in 1947. (‘Unfortunately, they didn't make utility furniture of that quality for long after the war!’)
Jenny heaved herself out of her bed and padded across the kitchen, she stopped by her bowl and lapped softly at the water and stood quietly by the door. It took a moment to find the key and open up to let in the cold, moist morning air and allow the dog to go out. The mess would have to be removed before he woke up to avoid any criticism of herself or the dog. She smiled quietly. Despite advancing years the little cocker spaniel still had plenty of energy and was racing round the lawn with her ears bouncing, chasing the fat pigeons which were after the last berries on the big bush by the back gate.
The (‘amazing’), retirement presentation clock in the lounge made her jump, booming out the Westminster chimes to indicate it was seven o'clock. (‘It's wonderful my dear, you can set it so that it only chimes during the day and we won't be disturbed at night’). So why had it chimed every hour since one o'clock this morning?
Should she take his tea now as usual on a week day, she pondered, or should she wait until eight as she usually did when he did not have to go to work? Which would avoid a confrontation? Or, did it really matter? Whichever decision she made would be wrong anyway. After a moment’s thought she let the dog in and poured another cup of tea. If there would be an argument anyway she might as well have another hour of peace and read her book.
The clock in the living room ticked softly, Jenny snored gently at her side, her warm head resting on her feet as it had done every day since she had with uncharacteristic courage challenged the boys who were forcing the struggling bundle of golden fur into a sack weighted with stones by the canal. It was no good, they told her, a runt with a twisted foot, worthless, nobody would buy it, better off dead. She had seized the little scrap of life and hung onto it fiercely and eventually the boys had shrugged and walked away. She had wrapped the shivering puppy in her cardigan and carried it home, feeding it first with a dropper and later a teaspoon until the triumphant day when it lapped milk and ate puppy food from a dish. It was the only time she had ever stood up to Barry, standing her ground, refusing to ‘get rid of the horrid smelly thing’ promising it would never leave the kitchen and would never enter the ‘lounge’ or worse still the bedrooms. In the end unbelievably Barry had given in. Jenny had stayed and brought love and joy into her life. The slight turn on her back foot had never caused any problem and the dog had always run, jumped and played with far more energy than any of the other dogs in the park. Furthermore she had even provided some unlikely friendships with other dog walkers, shared cups of tea and cake in the park cafe and walks beside the lake that Barry knew nothing about. ‘Not our sort of people, dear,’ she imagined him saying, never sure what sort of people were their sort as they had no friends.
The new clock boomed out again, eight o'clock, Jenny ran to the back door again, as if she recognised the end of their happy interlude. She let her out. Better make his tea and take it up. No sign of him stirring. Should she wake him? No rush. She took her time and carried the bone china cup and saucer (‘standards must be maintained’) carefully up the stairs and pushed open the bedroom door.
She walked to the window and opened the blackout curtains (‘must have darkness to sleep’) and turned to the bed. Barry liked to sleep with a pile of pillows. (‘It stops me snoring’). It didn't, but she had stopped telling him. Now however he was slumped down in the bed and silent and oddly one foot was sticking out from under the blankets and hanging over the side of the bed. Slowly she walked round the bed and stood looking at her husband’s face. It was strangely peaceful, smooth and rounded, she could almost see traces of the handsome young man who had attracted her forty years ago, when his pomposity had seemed like sophistication and his mundane job had offered security to a girl from the typing pool and the council estate.
She placed the cup carefully on the bedside table and tentatively stretched out her hand to touch his face. How long was it since she had actually touched him?
He had long since stopped touching her, not even pecking her on the cheek when he left for work. The stubble on his chin was course and rough but he felt very cold. His arm was cold too. She shook his shoulder. He didn't stir. She lifted his arm. It fell loosely onto the bed. She stood staring at it. Finally with her hand shaking slightly she reached for his wrist. Using her best First Aider skills she felt for a pulse. Nothing.
Slowly she turned from the bed. She walked from the room and down the stairs. In the kitchen she put on the kettle, made a cup of tea in the cup with a tea bag. She made two slices of toast and spread them thickly with butter and jam. She opened the back door, let the dog in and walked into the living room without closing the door. She curled her feet up on the sofa and called the dog to sit beside her, feeding her crusts from the toast and tickling her ears. She remembered the ‘good pension with wife's benefits’ and the ‘lump sum to be invested for our old age.’ Slowly she sighed as she recalled snatches of her dream. A small hotel, a white sandy beach, a Greek Island, it all came back to her. A gentle smile spread across her face as she reached for the phone. Carefully she composed herself and dialled 999.
‘I think I need an ambulance,’ she said, ‘and perhaps a policeman.’
‘I'm afraid my husband is dead.’