emma branch

The Last Dance

It was me who cried when the doctor took her hand and smiled.

Me who sobbed as she listened to his advice.

Me who broke down like a baby when he left us alone to face her fate. 

And it was she who comforted me and held me tight.

She who told me it was fine, inevitable, for the best.

She who asked me to marry her.

Get married whilst we still had time.

Get married before it was too late.

Get married before…


They moved her to the hospice the next day. I waited in the corridor whilst they settled her, observed how the faces of fellow visitors transformed from grief-stricken horror to sunny optimism as they crossed the threshold into their loved one’s room. I watched as a young man no older than me walked the length of the sun-filled corridor. A solitary tear welled over his eye lid and meandered down his pale cheek. As he drew close, he caught me staring, I smiled awkwardly. He sobbed a shuddering, guttural sob. A primeval gasp of pain. Without thinking I jumped up and engulfed him in my arms, holding him tight. No words passed between us only the sound of his wracking sobs echoing along the corridor. I had no idea why I’d leapt up to hug a stranger other than the hope that when it was my turn someone would do the same for me

.

A bustling nurse beckoned me in. Jen was, of course, in bed propped up on pillows, grey and bird like against the bright cheery paintwork of her room. Every surface was covered with framed photos of us. A colour-filled, smiling montage of our happy, active life together. Jen and Tom clad in wet suits, scrambling through Cornish waves. Jen and Tom standing arms outstretched on the peak of a Peruvian mountain. Jen and Tom tanned and grinning from behind ski goggles. Bright blue jackets jewellike against the white of the snowclad slopes. My fit, busy, funny, beautiful girl, my life, my rock, my everything reduced to this, to this spider’s web of a life. She took my hand and pressed a scrap of paper into it. The registrar’s phone number. ‘Please Tom, please whilst I still have the strength.’


The registrar was happy to oblige and penciled us in her diary for the following Wednesday. I hadn’t appreciated how a wedding, albeit it a very small, simple affair, took on a life of its own. Jen’s days were spent in whispered conference with her mother and best friends. I arrived after work to find her spent and exhausted. She barely managed to kiss my cheek and press a list of instructions into my hand before the morphine sped her away to oblivion. I watched her for hours before drifting off myself. I noticed how shallow and rattling her breathing was. Noticed how her ribcage poked through the cotton of her night dress. How the grey circles around her eyes had deepened and bled into her cheeks.


I felt angry and cheated. Where was the Jen who laughed out of the photo frames at me, the Jen who danced and sang and made up silly jokes? Where was the Jen who had been at my side through thick and thin, through the good times and the bad? We’d been inseparable since childhood, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, forever and ever…. I smiled and kissed her thin hand. She was here! And I was here with her and here for her. We were together regardless of what was to come. Together forever because I loved her and she loved me.


The beautiful Victorian conservatory at the side of the hospice was transformed into a scene from a Midsummer’s Night Dream. Boughs of greenery draped down from the rafters, flowers and fairy lights filled the room with colour and scent. Jen sat in a wheelchair swathed in white flowers and dark glossy leaves. The bridesmaids, plump and bright in summer florals stood in sharp contrast to Jen, pale and ethereal in an iridescent silk shift dress, her long blonde hair piled up on her head hung in curled tendrils around her flower wreathed face. She looked like an angel! She was my angel. I leant down to kiss her full on the mouth, a long, deep, sensuous kiss. A kiss unlike anything that had passed between us in months. A titter of excitement rang around the older guests and an ahhhh amongst the younger ones. The register politely coughed to bring order and smiling widely began the ceremony. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…


After the vows and the signing of the register, after we became man and wife I noticed Jen nodding over to her father. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata was silenced and Jen, with the most beautiful, youthful smile beaming across her face, held up her arms to me as a child does to a parent. I gave a questioning frown then, hearing the opening bars of U2’s With or Without You, caught her meaning and bent down towards her. She wrapped her arms around my neck and whispered into my ear.


 ‘Would you care to dance?’


 ‘Our first dance? Are you sure you can…?’


Her arms tightened around my neck as I stood up straight. She was nearly as tall as me, her chin fitting, as if made to measure, into the crook of my neck. I felt her thin feet step up onto my polished shoes and, as the music welled, I shuffled us both awkwardly along in time to the beat. Each time the tempo rose I held her tighter until I clung to her, heavy tears rolling down my face, splashing onto her silk covered back. Finally, she whispered to me that she was exhausted, I lifted her legs up into my arms and carried her, as if over the threshold of our marital home, into her room to cheers and whoops of delight from our guests.


That night was the first time I saw her cry. Tears of anger and loss and the futility of it all melted into self pity and I held her in my arms as she sobbed until the kind nurse washed her tears away on a wave of morphine.


I’d like to tell you that she rallied that night, that being married to me gave her the strength to live a full and active life. But I can’t.


I’d like to tell you that the doctors discovered a miracle cure and removed the cancer that ate away her youth. But I can’t.


I’d like to tell you that she drifted off into a deep and peaceful sleep and slipped gracefully from this world into the next. But I can’t.


It took days. Days of rasping juddering breaths, days of drifting in and out of consciousness, murmuring memories and reminders of things I must do. She didn’t want visitors, people peering at her through cheery smiles. She didn’t want to feel their pity, feel their loss, so in the end it was just me. Unwashed, unshaven, barely eating, barely sleeping, barely living, just being every day at her bedside.


When on the fourth day I did finally sleep. I was woken by the nurse’s hand resting on my shoulder. I opened my eyes to see tears in hers. Jen lay quiet and still, her eyes still open staring towards me. A photo from our wedding day grasped to her chest.


After I had cried myself out the nurses showed me to the door of her room. The long empty sun lit corridor lay ahead of me, particles of dust shimmered in the bright afternoon sun. Like fairies dancing in the sun beams she always said. Fairies or angels perhaps.


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Beyond the Bounds of Happiness

 I apologise for the language used in this story. Whilst inappropriate now, it was commonly used in the period the story is set. Based on a true story, I’m telling it as I was told it. EB


How much happiness is one person allocated in a lifetime? Is it possible to use up the full allowance? How can one little person, a baby, my baby, make me feel, I mean really feel, so much joy. My body ached with it, my head swam with it, my soul sang with it. But once it’s gone, once that quota of happiness is used up, then what’s left?


What darkness lies beyond the bounds?

I’d always hoped to have a child, of course it was what was expected back then. Leave school, start work, meet a nice fella, court, marry, have a string of babies. Keep a nice house, a happy husband, healthy 

children.


But the war came and all the young men left. I joined the ATS, worked hard, kept my nose clean. Kept it clean when so many other girls didn’t, if you know what I mean. And when the war ended I noticed that the young men seemed to have aged beyond their years. Those who didn’t wear scars on the outside hid them in a darkness behind their eyes. It was a look I recognised from my father’s face. The trenches of the Great War, never spoken about, were always present. I’d lived too many years looking at his pain, I couldn’t live with it again. Gradually the mantle of spinsterhood slipped about my shoulders and I swept away all hope of a husband and family of my own. I kept busy. I told myself I was happy. I never expected life to be any more than that. 


In 1953 I bumped into Jeff, quite literally bumped into him on the high street as I came out of the Chippie. Chips and scraps all over the pavement. Chips and scraps all over Jeff. I remembered him from the war years. We’d been stationed at the same base for a while. Older than me, a grown man with a wife and daughter. Over an apologetic pint and a bitter lemon he told me he’d lost them both on the same night. A direct hit on the Carlton Cinema, Gaslightwith Ingrid Bergman. That was Casablanca ruined for him for ever more.  


We courted for a year, a sedate, understated affair. Holding hands, walking in the park. No fireworks, no passion; just comfort and companionship, kindness and compassion. I grew to love him slowly and without really noticing it. When finally he proposed, being married to him felt like exactly the right course of action. He was, by then, my entire life.


We moved out of London and bought a house in a New Town. Green fields and blue skies felt alien after the rubble and smog of the city. We were told the Town was perfect for families. The area had good facilities and modern schools. Perfect for other people’s families, but not mine, not ours. Children were, we agreed by never saying, something other people had. I was the wrong side of thirty-five and Jeff was heading for fifty. We were perfectly happy just the two of us.


Breaking the news of my pregnancy felt like some kind of betrayal. Such duplicity! I realised then that I’d wanted a baby more than anything. But a baby would change everything, spoil our perfect harmony, alter our dreams. I feared Jeff would think I had planned this. That Jeff would think I wasn’t happy in our solitary togetherness. Or worse still, that this baby would be a cruel reminder of his lost daughter. I didn’t want Jeff to think any of these things, so I decided to say nothing.


Weeks passed without my confession. In the end he asked me outright. He sat me down in our neat little front room, held my hands gently, looked me in the eyes. ‘I hope you’re going to tell me some wonderful news,’ he whispered. ‘I hope you’re going to tell me we’re having a baby.’ 


I couldn’t reply. I just nodded, tears streaming down my cheeks. He stood me up, tears streaming down his cheeks. He hugged me like I’d never been hugged before. ‘That’s wonderful, you clever, clever girl.’


Jeff was, of course, everything I loved about him. He was supportive and caring. He wanted to know everything I felt, every change my body underwent. He came to my midwife appointments, studied books, rubbed my swollen ankles, kissed my growing belly and converted his work room into a nursery. How could I have imagined he would be anything other than thrilled? To him this baby was a second chance, a miracle, a gift from heaven, a gift to him from me.


The doctor’s reminded me that, whilst women of nearly forty did have babies, it wasn’t commonly their first. Elderly Primigravida they called it. I didn’t feel elderly. How could I with Jeff at my side. We buzzed and sang with excitement and busy anticipation. We ignored their talk of mortality risks, of high blood pressure, prolonged labour and caesareans. If we didn’t think about them, they wouldn’t happen. Instead I asked which he wanted most, a girl or a boy. Of course, he said he didn’t care, so long as the baby was fit and healthy. Its sex didn’t matter. So, we made lists of names if she was a girl, names if he was a boy, wondered whether she would have my eyes or he Jeff’s chin. We plotted and planned and hoped and dreamt about our perfect, happy family. Our perfect, happy life.


He arrived a few weeks early. An easy birth given all the possible complications. The midwives whooshed him away to clean and bundle him in clean swaddling. They talked in hushed tones for what felt like an age before finally placing him into my arms, calling Jeff to come on in to meet his son. My heart burst with joy. I have never felt happiness like it. Everything was perfect.


Martin, he would be Martin after Jeff’s father. My beautiful, wonderful baby Martin. Thick dark hair and a flatter version of Jeff’s chin. His eye’s not belonging to either of us, huge, widely set. ‘With the look of a China man,’ the woman in the next bed commented. We chose to ignore her sour grapes. What did you expect when her daughter looked like the back end of a bus

They kept me in longer than the other mothers. To rest, they said. My age, always my age. I yearned to be at home, to start our wonderful life together. Just the three of us, me and my boys. 


Jeff was taking a holiday from work to be with us – he didn’t want to miss a moment. Martin, such a good baby, didn’t squawk and wriggle like the others in the nursery. He was quiet and placid like his Pa. It wasn’t, however, without some tribulation. I struggled to get him to feed. His tongue protruded a little from the side of his mouth, so sweet like that of a tiny bull-dog, but it meant that he didn’t latch on very well. We agreed to bottle feed, which was perfect really as Jeff could take turns feeding him as well. Seeing him hold his beautiful baby son in his arms, cooing and purring at him, encouraging him to take the teat made my heart ache with love for the both of them.


As I packed my bag and prepared to leave, a young midwife approached tapping a crisp white envelope against her thigh. I tensed in anticipation. Martin had, she informed me, a small umbilical hernia. Nothing to be concerned about but they’d made me an appointment with a paediatric surgeon at the local hospital. I sighed with relief, tucking the letter away in my coat pocket as Jeff arrived.

 

 

For a glorious week we played happy families like children playing in the park. Jeff, the kind benevolent Daddy, rising in the night to feed Martin, changing nappies, shopping and cooking. I played Mummy keeping the house spotless, making up feeds, carefully sterilising glass bottles and rubber teats. The washing was endless. Airers filled with tiny clothes and nappies stood in every room of the usually neat little house. The extra washing-lines Jeff had installed in the garden went unused in the damp November mist. 

Finally, Jeff left us to return to work with tears and kisses all round.


Preparing to leave the house on our maiden expedition, Martin bundled up against the bitter weather in his grand Silver Cross pram, I discovered the white envelope still unopened in my coat pocket. My heart thumped as my finger tugged against the thick paper. I’d forgotten all about it, forgotten even to tell Jeff. All concern ceased the moment the young midwife said it was nothing to worry about. This afternoon! The appointment was two o’clock today.


I had no transport. The enormous pram would never fit on a bus. How did other mothers manage this? There was only one option, I’d have to walk. I peered out through the window. It was three or four miles in the freezing November gloom. At least it was dry, albeit bitterly cold and blowing hard.

Martin seemed to enjoy the bumping of the pram wheels against the paving and soon dropped off. I trudged on. The grey sky washed the sunshine from my mood. I’d failed, failed both Martin and Jeff. Left to my own devices for the first time and I’d let them down. Doubts and worries started to nibble at the edge of my happiness. By the time the vast, white edifice loomed into sight I was a poor excuse of a wife and a miscreant mother.


Mr Harold Palmer-Jones examined Martin, stripping him down to his nappy, looking first at his naval then his hands and feet, his eyes and ears. A thorough going over, I thought.


Looking up he enquired, ‘Why did you bring him to see me? We don’t usually bother with children like him.’


Like him?


‘A midwife at the maternity hospital made the appointment for me. Sorry, what do you mean, like him?’


‘Mongol! There’s no point operating, Mongol’s don’t generally live long enough to be worth the bother. Now don’t worry, dear. There are plenty of places that take children like him.’


My life shattered and fell in splinters all around me. I left, but I don’t recall how or when. I don’t recall what he said, I don’t recall what I did. I just walked. Walked away from the consultation room, away from the hospital, away from happiness. Tears streamed down my cheeks; my heart was breaking. Everything was ruined. How could I tell Jeff, how could I tell him that his baby was, was broken. We were broken.


Martin barely clothed, no hat or blankets screamed as the cold air hit him. I walked, walked I don’t know where. Walked until his screams stopped ringing in my ears, walked until I couldn’t walk anymore. It was all over. The child was going to die anyway, what did it matter anymore.


As the bus came around the corner I pushed the pram out into the road letting the smooth white handle slip effortlessly out of my hands.


There was nothing left but darkness.

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