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A Constant Heart

Thursday, 26th January 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition.

Written by Julie Whittingham

Picture the scene, if you will.  A shabby terraced house in a rundown area of London.  It’s 1962 and in the scullery, pretty little Rose is washing dishes and silently weeping into the soapsuds.    She’s seventeen years old and has just had her heart broken for the first time.  For the last time too because, despite her youth, she truly loves her young man and will never have the same feelings for anyone else.  That’s not teenage dramatics, by the way, it’s a simple fact.  She will never fall in love again.

To his credit, Robert loved Rose as well, with an intensity to match her own.  He would have done anything for her – anything at all.  When he proposed and she of course accepted, I don’t believe there was a happier couple anywhere.  For a few short months they revelled in their love for each other as they talked about the glorious future that was to be theirs.  That’s when the problems began.

Robert was ambitious and restless with a young man’s lust for adventure.  He had big plans for a better life in Australia and he wanted them to marry immediately and make their home there.  When Rose hesitated, he accused her of not really caring for him at all. 

What can I say?  He was only twenty himself, headstrong and impatient and soon both he and his injured pride were sailing away forever.

Back in the scullery, Rose dries her tears before returning to the room where her father sits and her four younger brothers are squabbling over a board game.  Her father pretends not to notice that she’s been crying but he knows, and he also knows why.  He’s sorry but he’s relieved too because, truth be told, how would he manage without her? 

He had not been foolish enough to forbid the marriage.  What quicker way to drive a pair of young lovers into each others arms?  No, he was more subtle than that.

“Could you really be happy, Rose” he’d said “leaving your little brothers behind, after you’ve been the closest they’ve got to a mother these last five years?  If he truly loves you, he’ll understand.” 

He knew his daughter very well, and her stricken face told him his words had found their mark - she’d never desert the boys whilst they were so young.

He’d suspected Robert would not be prepared to wait, and felt a kind of angry satisfaction at being proved right.  It made him feel less guilty.  Why in a way, he’d done Rose a favour and if he himself benefited, well that was just a bit of icing on the cake. She’ll get over it, he thought, she’s better off without him, much better to stay here at home.

Now, try not to judge him too harshly.  He loved Rose, of course he did, but his wife was dead and he’d a brood of children to raise.  What else could he have done?

So she stayed, poor tender-hearted Rose, and continued to care for them all with her usual gentle cheerfulness.  But her heart never healed and no, she never got over it.

Time passes, and now it’s 1984.  Rose is still here in her childhood home, her face now showing a tracery of fine lines and her hair streaked with touches of grey.  Her brothers, her beloved little imps, have all grown up.   One by one they left, leaving home as she had once thought to do, moving out and moving on as was the natural course of things.   They now have wives, and lives, of their own and she does not see them quite as much as she would like.

She had hoped, once the boys were grown, that she too would get her chance to fly the nest, but then came her father’s devastating stroke which left him disabled and unable to cope alone.

Well, we know a bit about Rose now don’t we, so it won’t come as a surprise to hear that she took on the role of carer.  After all, who else would do it?

The brothers gave a collective sigh of relief.  They were fond of Rose, of course they were, but they had no wish to take on such a burden.  They promised they would help out, and they meant it at the time, only soon they had families of their own and – ah, well, you can see where this is going can’t you?

Don’t think though, that Rose got no pleasure from her life.  It wasn’t all doom and gloom!  She loved her family and was fond of her nieces and nephews.  There was always one or two of them around the place because after all, wasn’t Rose the perfect person to baby-sit whenever required?  She’d not much else to do, apart from looking after Dad, and nowadays he kept pretty much to his room.

She tried to be content with what she had and learned not to yearn for more.  She was luckier than most, she told herself, for wasn’t she mistress of her own home?  And didn’t she love the place, with all its memories?  Only sometimes, sometimes in the quiet of the night, she longed for a freedom she had never known. She kept her longing and her loneliness to herself however, and if she ever wept for the life she might have had, she did so quietly and in private.

 

The years slip by and here we are, in 2011.  The same house and yet so different!  The place is empty of furniture but smartly decorated.  There are new windows and bathrooms and a kitchen such as you’d see in one of the glossy magazines.  The old scullery, the one where Rose broke her heart all those years ago, has been knocked out and a garden room built in its place.

Her father died a while back.  He wasn’t wealthy but everything he had he left to Rose, including the house.  So she’d spent a while smartening the place up whilst she pondered her future.  The place was much too big for just herself and she considered moving into a little flat somewhere.  But it was odd.  She had sometimes longed to escape from this house and now that she could go anywhere she wanted, she found it impossible to break the ties that bound her here.  In truth it was the first time since she was twelve years old that she had nobody else to care for and at first the freedom frightened her.

Well, Rose is still here, but her suitcase is packed and she’s waiting for a taxi.

A few years ago, she’d received a letter out of the blue.  A letter with an Australian postmark.    He had thought of her often over the years, he wrote, he hoped she didn’t mind him getting in touch.  He was a widower, his children grown and now that he was retired, his thoughts seemed to turn more and more to the old days.  Did she remember when…? And how was …? Did she still keep in touch with…?

So a correspondence had begun, reserved at first, but gradually giving way to the old intimacy.  And then a few months ago, the invite.  Why didn’t she come and visit him?  He had plenty of room, she could stay as long as she wanted.  Perhaps if she liked, she could stay forever….

The brothers were horrified.  She couldn’t be serious, she’d never been anywhere on her own!  Who would look after her, they asked without irony?

 “Robert” said Rose with quiet pride, “Robert will look after me”. 

Money wouldn’t be a problem.  The house was no longer shabby and the area was no longer rundown.  It sold quickly, and now it stood empty, waiting for the new family to move in.

She had said a silent goodbye to every room.  She was quite certain that she would never come back.  But it didn’t matter.  In a little over 24 hours, she would be with Robert.  She loved him now just as she had when she was seventeen and she thanked God that she was getting this chance to see him once more.  She knew that she was moving at last to her true home, her final home.  For the first time in almost 50 years, the ache in her heart had stopped.

She remembered what the hospital consultant had said.

 “One year, perhaps two if you’re lucky…”

She didn’t mind.  One year was all she asked.  One year with Robert.  She knew better than anyone that it would be worth more than a lifetime spent apart.

Written by Julie Whittingham

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition