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Time to Move On

Friday, 3rd February 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the 2 runner ups in the Peter Barry Short Story Competition

Written by Tess Niland Kimber

How quickly the years pass, May thought, gazing at her John in the hospital bed.

     If she didn’t know, he could be back at their home, sleeping off an extra Sunday pint; the pint Ted Lake at The Rose would’ve ‘insisted’ on.

     “He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” John would smile, his words only slightly slurred.

     She’d smile back over a plate of dried-up roast beef. “Born yesterday, was I, John Harris?”

     She wiped at the determined tears now chasing down her cheeks.

     It seemed only yesterday they’d bantered over the pints he’d supped; yesterday, when they’d taken their first coach holiday and yesterday, when they’d wed all those Springs ago.

     Under his mop of wiry, grey hair and the deep lines seventy odd years of living had etched on his sun worn face, the lad he’d been on that cool April morning, was still there.

     “Rest of our lives, gal,” he’d said, sweeping her into his arms and swaying her around the tiny, sitting room as if he couldn’t quite believe she was his.

     And ‘his,’ she’d been. Roles were clear cut back then, she thought, unnecessarily straightening the blanket on his bed, keen to do something - anything - for him while she still could.

     “We knew our place, didn’t we, pet,” she smiled, the action forcing more tears to stream from her brown eyes as if she was squeezing out a flannel.

     Yes, John had worked while she’d stayed home in their tiny terrace, making a casserole or, if they were lucky, a shoulder of lamb, stretch to the middle of the week.

     “John works hard.  Up to me not to waste his pay,” she’d tell her sister Vi, who by the Sixties was all red nail polish, false eyelashes and new fangled ideas about,

     “ …enjoying life while she was young,”

     and how she’d not be at,

     “… any man’s beck and call - no matter how handsome.”

     May patted John’s motionless hand.

     “I loved looking after you. Still do.”

     In those early days, Vi made May feel she’d chosen the boring option.

     “Married straight after school and a baby on the way before Christmas, no doubt,” she’d sneered on her first visit after their wedding.

     May had tucked her tightly, permed hair behind her ears and told Vi she was wrong to think marriage lacked excitement.

     She’d loved their life, especially once they’d moved into number 3 Locks Mews. Granted, the rooms were small - well, cosy - and come Thursdays, they were always searching for an extra bob, but she made do while John made life fun.

     “I’ll decorate,” he’d said. “Get it tidy for the little ’un.”

     You see, Vi had been right about that. A baby was on its way before their first Christmas.

     Her glam sister, with her counter job at Timothy Whites, was horrified by their news but May wrapped her pregnancy to her, like it was the best present ever.

     “We’ll be a proper family,” John said, squeezing her tight and kissing her nose as she glimpsed tears sparkling in his eyes.  “A new home and a new baby.  What more could we want?”

     He’d set to, decorating each evening after work.

     “Happen you’ve more paint on floor than ceiling,” May laughed as he whitewashed the ceiling.

     She’d patted her neatly rounded belly, watching from the ‘safety’ of the comfy chair - its arms worn where many hands had rested in its previously owned life.

     Those were the days before furniture superstores with leather sofas and interest free credit. Not that she’d buy ’owt on tick. Die of shame first, so she would.

     “If I splash floor with a bit of paint, it’ll save bother of a new carpet,” John said, his blue eyes - mustard keen whenever he’d faced a challenge - had shone back.

     Sadly, painting wasn’t the only test in their long marriage.

     The baby, a girl, was early.

     All their plans - from a storybook birth to nights marvelling at her perfection - had faded like a yellowing bruise as Lily slipped away from them before the month was out.

     “Poor little mite,” John mumbled, over and over, until May thought her head and heart would burst.

     That first challenge brought others following like a flock of sheep.

     Some they faced together and - for a while, when it didn’t seem they’d make it - some apart, too. Not properly apart but May learned two people can be separate even if they live in the same terrace.

     She’d discovered that when their Gary was born, one windy March night, many years and two miscarriages after Lily.

     The moment May held him she knew that although he’d make it, where Lily and the other babies hadn’t, things weren’t as they should be.

     She’d shoved away the worry. They’d a baby at last and she’d love him, no matter.

     The night after the hospital doctor told them the stark news, they’d sat by their new, hissing gas fire.

     “After Lily … I’m not sure I can handle this,” John said, honestly.

     Was there a choice? May wondered, rocking back and forth in the worn, brown armchair, hugging the strange, new knowledge about their son to her, like a hot water bottle.

     For a while, John lost his way.

     Nights when she’d struggled to bath a child that couldn’t talk or walk, he’d be in the pub, if not exactly drowning his sorrows, at least holding them under the water for a while.

     She could’ve felt bitter but didn’t have time. And he was grieving - for their beautiful Lily who hadn’t made it past a few short days - and for the lad Gary might have been.

     It had taken time but John grew through his grief and came out the other side, May watching as if he were one of her pink fuchsias, struggling to take root and flourish in the border under the kitchen window.

     One late afternoon she’d come in with a basket of washing under her plump arm, expecting John to be leaving for The Rose. But he was in the sitting room with Gary, now ten, on the sofa. John had him tucked against him, Gary’s stick thin legs flopped over his, as he read a Horrid Henry story with a cast of different accents.

     Gary laughed in all the right places. It was theatre in its truest form.

     “He loves it. Knows exactly what I’m saying.”

     “Of course,” May said, tears dotting her eyes.

     That night, The Rose, lost one of its more frequent customers. Oh, John didn’t stop going all together - there was still crib on Tuesdays and darts on Thursdays - but most nights he’d stay in and read to Gary, rewarded by squeals of delight and a smile as wide as her hips.

     “It’s been hard, love,” he’d told her.

     As if she hadn’t known

     “See,” he said, a faraway look in his blue eyes as she loaded the dishwasher that they’d bought with his last overtime pay, “I didn’t know how to love him.”

     “But you do now?”

     “Oh yes … if only he’d say he loves me back.”

     “He does - in his own way. Just listen.”

     John smiled but did he understand?

     As summer passed, May watched them together. Although Gary couldn’t speak, she knew he was trying to tell his Dad how much he loved him with words fashioned from flashing eyes, smiles and patience.

     “Got the latest Horrid Henry for our Gary,” John said, one evening rushing in from work. “Woman behind counter said I was lucky. They’ve only just checked in the stock.”

     May smiled, folding the ironing. She hoped Gary and John wouldn’t outgrow these stories about the kind of boy their son might have been.

     Hastily taking off his old tweed jacket, John put the book on the edge of the dining table. It fell and from his place on the sofa, Gary wriggled stiffly over to it.

     “I’ll get it, lad,” John said, leaning over him.

     With a smile pulling at one side of Gary’s mouth, he turned to brush his wet mouth across his Dad’s stubbly cheek.

     John’s fingers gently traced where his son’s lips had touched.

     “It’s a kiss, John. Gary’s way,” May explained.

     Slowly, a smile lit his face as tears glittered in his blue eyes. Leaning over, he hugged Gary hard.

                                                                     *

When it came John’s heart attack was as sudden as it was strong.

     “He won’t survive the night,” the doctor warned May as John was settled in a side ward.

     Waiting and hoping, she’d sat listening as his breathing shallowed by the hour.

     Life without him would be hard - more difficult than she could bear to imagine - but all the challenges they’d faced in their long marriage had made her strong. Somehow the legacy of John’s love, living on in the house he’d lovingly made a home for them all, would see her through her grief.

     Perhaps, he wasn’t leaving her - just moving on …

     When it was time, she leaned across John and gently kissed his forehead, the goodbye kiss capturing every second of the long years they’d shared.

     Suddenly, his eyelashes flickered like butterfly wings.

     “M-ay,” he muttered - his last, true word.

Written by Tess Niland Kimber

This is one of the 2 runner ups in the Peter Barry Short Story Competition