SHORT STORY: FLORA AND JACK

When they were first married they would go on long picnics in Epping Forest. That was before Nigel and Kate were born. The summers always seemed to be hotter in those days. People said that it was just their memories painting a brighter picture, but they knew otherwise.

Flora Jones laid out the pair of white plates on the table. She placed the lettuce and the tomato slices at the edge of the plates then a slice of ham on the opposite rim. She had been listening to a sad radio play as she prepared the salad. It had been set in the thirties and it had made her remember those sunny summer days and the ripe tomatoes, red as blood and how the juice trickled down your forearm as you bit into them. Jack had laughed loudly into his own plump fruit as the spray from her tomato hit her in the face. He had wiped her skin with a cotton napkin and kissed her where the juice had landed.

She laid the plates onto a tray and walked through to the lounge where Jack lay in bed. Only his mop of grey hair was visible above the white sheet.

At first he had hated the idea of having the bed moved downstairs. He knew it was practical: He could reach the downstairs toilet and things were easier for Flora, but still he hated the idea.

She woke him with a gentle tap on the shoulder. He opened his eyes and smiled. He had deep blue eyes. They were still clear, but the rest of his face seemed to have died around them.

He tried to sit. The effort was painful to watch. Flora had seen him slowly fall away from her. Each day, a fresh symptom. Each day, he passed a little further over the horizon.

She helped him up and supported his back with a pillow. She placed the tray on the bed beside her and brought round one of the plates. The food had been cut into small pieces. He opened his mouth as she brought the fork up to his lips. He allowed himself to be fed.

After a few carefully chewed mouthfuls he raised a hand as another forkful of ham and tomato came towards him. He looked into his wife’s emerald eyes. His expression was grave. Then he ran his hand, freckled and veined along her cheek. He curled his fingers under her soft chin.

“I think it’s nearly time,” he said. His voice was almost a whisper now. Once he had been a magnificent baritone.

She knew he meant it. The dread subject had not been broached until this moment. She felt the blood drain from her face. She ran her fingers along his hand.

“I’ve been dreaming about the woods and the summertime,” he said. “Is it still raining out?”

“No, it’s stopped now. Sun’s come out.”

“Oh,” he said.

“You not hungry?“

“Not really, love,“ he said.

She no longer insisted that he eat.

“I’ll keep it for later. You warm enough?”

“Fine,” he replied.

She put the plate and the tray on a side table and sorted out their bedding. She tucked his thin arms under the sheet and brushed his hair aside with a single, gentle movement. She kissed him on the forehead.

“You sleep a bit,” she said.

Before taking the things through to the kitchen she crouched down and turned up the gas fire.

Back in the kitchen the radio was playing some nostalgic music she half recognised. She placed the tray next to the sink and sat down heavily at the table. She looked around the room without really seeing anything.

They had met very young, but their lives together had passed so quickly. Was it really all those years ago that she had stood at the railway station waving Jack goodbye? Little Nigel had stood beside her. She had held his hand so tightly, afraid to lose the one thing Jack and she had made together. Nigel was only vaguely aware that something was up. She waved and Nigel waved. Jack’s huge hand swept through the air a hundred yards away along the platform.

Jack had looked so gallant, so dashing. They had kissed at the entrance to the station. All around them, other soldiers, wives and girlfriends were making their farewells. Nigel stood beside his parents looking up at them, trying to figure out what was happening. Jack had picked him up and had made him laugh by tickling him under the arm with his free hand. He had told Nigel to be a good boy, that he had to look after his mum, that he was the man of the house now. Jack had smiled at her and lowered their son to the ground. They looked at each other again. Neither could express the agony they felt.

Jack had picked up his kit and turned towards the waiting train. When he was in the carriage he had lowered the window and leaned out as the train drew away. At that moment she had really believed she would never see him again.

She surveyed the room and then looked out at the patch of green beyond the kitchen window. The sun was shining on the rows of red rooftops. Lower down the hill she could see a middle-aged man cleaning his blue car. He was hosing the bonnet. Water streamed off the end and onto the shiny chrome and the tyres. A little further on, at the base of the hill, two young mothers pushed prams. They were talking, one was smoking. If she ignored the hum of the radio she could just make out the tap, tap, tap of a neighbour doing some handiwork. It was Sunday and the clouds had all cleared away.

She turned back to the room. Standing up slowly she walked over to the cupboard beside the gas cooker. It had a yellow door. A painting of a house done by her first great-granddaughter, Sarah, had been pinned Blu-Tacked next to the metal knob. She paused to look at the picture and smiled. Sarah could be a great artist one day. She had her grandfather’s eye.

It was six months before Nigel had seen his father again. She and Nigel had been evacuated to Dorset. Jack had been given thirty-six hours leave. He arrived on an army motorbike at dawn. Nigel had been sulky and quiet. Jack had pretended not to be hurt, but she had seen the sadness in his eyes.

That night they made love. It felt as though it had never happened before. She had forgotten how his arms felt. She could hardly recognise the lines in the skin of his neck and the sound of his whispered words.

And then it was all over. Nigel had cried after his father had gone, and they had comforted each other curled up on the sofa.

A year had passed before the dread news came. The telegram arrived just after breakfast. Nigel had been in a bright mood. He loved the countryside. He had just left for school. She had been sweeping the lounge carpet. The telegram said Jack had been killed in France. The Allies were advancing. She had felt cold.

That day had been surgically removed from her memory. Nothing had happened until Nigel came home. There had been no tears, no words, no thoughts. She had sat alone by the lounge window. The wind had blown the clouds across the sun. It was January and it was dark by the time her son returned home.

She opened the cupboard. The bottle of pills stood where she left them beside the tea-caddy. She picked up the bottle and returned to the kitchen table. She knew what the label on the bottle said but she read it again anyway. ‘Datolan: one tablet, three times a day before meals’.

For nearly eighteen months she had believed Jack to be dead, but the War Office had made a mistake. He had been captured near Grenoble. The Germans had been retreating. Conditions in the POW camps had deteriorated; letters had been forbidden.

The war ended. She and Nigel had returned to London. It was late May 1945 and everyone was still in a state of euphoria. She had seen the jubilant crowds and she felt relieved that it had ended. She had lost her husband, but there were millions like her. Now she had to look after her son.

There had been a street party. She had found it difficult to muck in, but she had done it for Nigel’s sake. The memory of her last night with Jack still burned in the pit of her stomach.

She had been coming out through the hall, a tray of cakes in her hands. Jack had been standing in the doorway, the early summer sunshine streaming in all around him. The cakes and the tray hit the floor. Even now she could see the walls rushing past her as she dashed forward. His arms were strong. He smelt wonderful.

Two nights after arriving home, Jack announced that they were going out, uptown for a celebratory meal, just the two of them.

They had wine. Jack order chicken and she had lamb. It was the best meal they had ever had. They talked and talked. It was warm and they ate outside on the balcony of the restaurant and looked out over bomb-shattered London. She pointed out the missing landmarks where the doodlebugs had done their worst. St Paul’s was mostly unscathed, but it stood like a sad mother hen that had lost all her chicks to the wicked fox.

That night was one of the happiest of her life. She felt safe again. Jack, her darling Jack had survived. She had survived and their child, their son, Nigel had survived. Providence had been on their side, and she was so grateful, she felt humbled by it. The coffee had been ersatz but it hardly mattered. She had everything she wanted.

“Jack, I want us to make a promise,” she had said. She felt light-headed but never more sure of what she wanted to express.

“What sort of promise, love?” Jack had asked.

“Oh, you’ll think I’m being silly.”

“No, go on.”

How shy she had felt. She had never been shy with Jack before. He looked into her eyes.

“Okay,” she had said at last. “I want us to promise that if we live until we’re old that we’ll die together.”

He had look surprised. “Steady on, Flo. Why be so morbid?” he had said.

“No I mean it, Jack.” She had fixed him with an insistent stare, suddenly confident.

She could see his face now. He had looked tired, but, oh, so handsome. At that moment, she had adored his every fibre. He and Nigel were her world. “I know you might think I’m being daft, but I love you so much. I want us to take an oath. I want us to swear that, one day, when we’re very old, if one of us is about to die, the other will put us both to sleep. I want us to die together. Will you swear it, Jack. Will you?”

Jack had looked frightened for an instant. He had taken a sip of coffee before returning her earnest gaze.

“Of course I swear,” he had said at last.

She had grabbed his hand. “No, I want us to swear it together, now.”

Jack had looked so embarrassed, the poor darling. He peered around the room. No one had been looking their way.

“Well if you don’t want to…” she had begun, hurt.

“No, no,” he had said quickly. “Of course…what shall we swear?” He had regained his composure.

She had told him and they had sworn it together hunched close over the candle flame.

Now, so many years later, that day had arrived. She was terrified.

She knew, as she had known then that she could not live without Jack. Nothing had changed during those years. Of course, there had been difficult times. Nine months after that heavenly night, Kate was born. They had so little money that sometimes she really thought they would go under. But things always worked out in the end. Jack had re-started his building business. There were plenty of people needing work done, but there was so little money to pay for it. Mother had helped with the children and she had found a job at a local shoe factory.

She read again the instructions on the side of the bottle.

It was easy for Jack, he had faith.

She had gone along with his beliefs. She had gone with him to church. She had listened to his ideas, but she could not believe. It was easy for Jack. He was sure of the future, sure of an Afterlife. She saw nothing but a void.

Of course, she still felt the same way she had that night in 1945. She didn’t want to live without Jack. It was just that she knew that this was it, the end. Jack was happy, happy inside. He knew they would always be together.

Ironic really, she thought. How strange that blanched expression on dear Jack’s face when she had suggested her oath. And now here she was, the one in control. She was the one left with the monumental decision; she, the one lost.

There could be only darkness. Afterwards that is. Darkness and nothingness. ‘What would nothingness be like?’ she thought, not for the first time. ‘When I go to sleep, I feel nothing, I know nothing of the world. But all the same, it goes on without me. I wonder if I’ll dream afterwards?’

Suddenly she felt a strange lightness, a sudden sense of freedom. For the first time in her life she really was free. In this terrible moment, when all seemed lost, she felt a wonderful sense of liberation. The family no longer needed her. She had not been needed for a long time. Nigel and Kate had both married and their children had had children of their own. She and Jack had six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. She was free.

Before lunch she had been looking thorough a set of old photograph albums. They lay there now where she had left them. She dragged the top one towards her.

There had been the holiday in Scarborough when Nigel had caught a crab and chased Kate with it. She looked tiny.

Jack and she had gone to Paris in 1950. He had worn his wedding suit. It still fitted him. The Eiffel Tower all lit up, the Seine glistening in the moonlight. He had bought her flowers. A maître d’ had presented them after coffee at a restaurant in Montparnasse. Nigel’s graduation. He had Jack’s fine cheekbones and her chin. Kate’s wedding day. Her first baby. Postcards from Nigel in America. Regent’s Park with Nigel’s first wife in 1965. Such strange clothes. And the hairstyles…

She closed the album and crossed her palms over the cover. Jack was the only one who needed her. And he was all she needed now.

They had done well, but all good things had to end sometime. She felt calm as she unscrewed the top of the small, brown bottle. She emptied the contents onto the table and counted the small green tablets. There were twenty-two.

She stood up and walked over to the sink, filled the kettle with water and flicked it on.

She never wanted to be a burden. Nigel and Kate had been angels. Each had offered their home for the time when neither she nor Jack could cope. When Jack had fallen ill the kids had offered their help again. They were good children.

She felt fine. She could manage. I probably have a few years left in me, she thought as she stared at the kettle. But there was no life without Jack. She never wanted to be a burden to anyone, not even her children. That would be a living death. No, this was the best way. If only…

From the drawer beneath the sink she pulled out a rolling pin. Then, from the cupboard beside the refrigerator she fished out a sheet of greaseproof paper. She placed the paper on the table, scooped up the pills and let them fall from her palm. Folding the paper into four she rolled the cylinder of wood over it a dozen times bearing her weight down onto the twenty-two tablets of Datolan.

When the kettle had boiled she poured the water onto the four teabags in the best china pot to make a strong brew. Opening the greaseproof paper she looked with satisfaction at her handy-work. The pills were completely powdered. She took a knife from the drawer and divided the pile into two.

The Datolan made two tiny mounds in the bottom of each teacup. She added milk and a spoonful of sugar to each. The tea was ready. She placed the strainer on the rim of the first cup and poured the hot liquid over the mixture. She repeated the process with the second cup then stirred them both. She sat back in her chair and stared at the two cups.

She tried to remember a time when she had believed. It was difficult.

It had been about six months after Jack had gone. Nigel and she were in Dorset by then. The skies were full of fighter planes. There had been three days of dogfights. Along with everyone else, she had known instinctively that her fate lay in the balance. Those few men overhead would determine the future.

It had been near dusk on the third day when the German plane came down in the field next to the village pub. It had screamed over the rooftops, its tail aflame. Somehow, the pilot was managing to keep it level. He brought the nose up from a crash dive. He had guided the plane into the field. It had landed with a bump and had disappeared into the trees at the far end, away from the village.

She was the first to arrive at the scene. The pilot was unconscious. He was slumped forward over the joystick. She had given no thought to the danger and had tried to unbuckle him. Peter Southgate, the landlord of the pub had got there a few minutes later. By then the pilot had died. A stream of crimson liquid had run down between his open eyes.

“Thank God the filthy bugger’s dead,” Southgate had said. He had laughed at the man’s pain, sneered at his death. “The only good German, what…?”

That night she had a dream about the dead pilot. She tried to picture his wife, his children, the pain they would feel. She had seen his wallet. Two blond boys. His wife had a pretty face. In the dark she could see again Southgate’s glee. From that moment she had begun to lose all faith in humanity. She realised then that you had to have faith in human beings to have faith in God.

The radio brought her back. She smiled at the familiar melody of Moonlight Serenade.

It was fear of the abyss. Quite a natural thing, really, she thought. There would be nothing after, after she had done it. There could be nothing. She couldn’t believe in heaven. There was no God, at least not a God who looked after each human life. That was impossible. “I’m just not that important,” she said aloud. “I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a wonderful life. I married the best man in the world. I have given birth to beautiful children and we have all been happy. To expect anything more would be greedy. I know that after today there will be nothing, but I’ve had it all already.”

She stood up and walked over to the window. She looked out across the housing estate. Down the hill, the middle-aged man was still cleaning his blue car. The mothers had gone, but there would be others walking that way soon, and more after them. She pulled the red blind down to cover the view. The room was suddenly thrown into gloom. She walked back to the table. She took down the best tray from the shelf above the table and placed the cups of tea in the centre.

Near the sink there stood a tall, thin vase. A single red rose leaned towards her. Kate had turned up with it the day before. She took it from the vase and laid it next to the cups. Then, as an afterthought, she reopened the photo album and turned the pages. Eventually she found the picture she had been looking for. It had been taken at the street party, within an hour of Jack’s return from the dead, She stared at it for a long time.

They had stood arm in arm. Jack was in his army uniform. The brass buttons on his jacket sparkled in the sunshine. Behind the two of them, bunting, smiling faces and trestle tables covered with white cloths, the Union Jack draped over a doorway. Her dress had blown tight about her thighs.

She pulled the picture away from the page and placed it beside the teacups.

Back in the lounge, Jack lay asleep where she had left him. She sat down beside the bed and placed the two cups on the bedside table. She looked at her husband. Asleep, he was a world away from her. But she knew that she could wake him and they could talk. Later, they would both enter the darkness, but each a different darkness. They would separate at last. Jack believed they would be together in a beautiful heaven where there was no pain, only togetherness and peace. It was good he thought that. She was glad he believed.

She looked at Jack’s grey face and his grey hair. One day, many years before, she had looked at that same face as he had said: “I do.” He had been so young. The future had lain before them. He had worn his only suit and a silver tie. A red rose in his lapel. His hair had been black and very thick, his eyes bright and clear. He had been very nervous and so adorable. ‘Why was time so cruel?’

She kissed his forehead. He opened his eyes.

“I’ve made us some tea,” she said.

She smiled down at him. “Can I get in beside you?”

He looked at her and his cheeks appeared to sink under his eyes. He smiled weakly and steeled himself for the pain of sitting up. She helped him again and then walked round the end of the bed. She placed her tea on a cabinet her side of the bed and kicked off her slippers. She puffed up the pillows and slid under the covers.

She showed Jack the photo. They both smiled.

“You’re more beautiful now,” he said.

She laughed. “And I love you even more.”

She picked up the rose. They each smelt it.

“Roses are still my favourite flower,” he said.

“Mine too. Kate brought it over.”

They sat together, their free hands entwined tightly under the heaped blankets.

“You know, when I’m better,” Jack said suddenly. “We ought to have the kids over. Have a little party to celebrate. What do you think?” There was a brightness in his voice she had not heard for a long time.

“Wonderful,” she said. “I could bake a cake. That Thomas gets bigger every day. He loves my currant cake.”

“And we should see Arthur and Gladys again. It’s been years.” She nodded in agreement, knowing they had both died during the nineties.

When the cups were empty, she took his and put them on her beside cabinet.

“How was that?” she asked.

“You’ve always made lovely tea, Flo. Always been a wonderful wife.”

“I’ve tried my best,” she said.

Suddenly there was no sadness. She had lived so many happy years with the man she loved. What more could she ask for? It was done, she was content.

“Hold me,” Jack said. “I feel a bit shivery.”

She pulled the covers up under their chins and he nuzzled into her shoulder. She kissed the top of his head and held him close. She looked at the ceiling and then at the orange patterned curtains past the end of the bed. She could hear Jack’s heart beat and she could feel his warmth.’

“I’ll never leave you,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

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