Tuesday, April 13, 2021

For Better, For Worse by Catherine Ogston

 Cold freezing mist swirled around our legs, circling us. It had crept up from the north side and snaked its way across the top of the mountain. We might have been the only people left in the world; everything beyond the mist was another universe.

            ‘I’ll take your picture,’ said Dan, striding away from the cairn where we had halted, catching our breath before the wind turned the sweat on our skin to a chill. I turned towards him and watched him step backwards.  A few more steps and he would be swallowed up, sucked into an abyss. The wind whipped my hair across my face like tiny rats’ tails and I forced myself to smile for the camera.
            ‘One, two, three,’ he called.
            ‘I know you’ve been cheating on me,’ I shouted into a gust of wind.
            But Dan didn’t hear and only gave me the thumbs up as he walked back towards me. Then we heaved our daysacks onto our backs and walked through the mist down the mountain.

***

The pool was sapphire blue, water diamonds sparkling inside it as sunlight caught its ripples. Dan paused at the side, long enough to garner attention, before diving into the depths. Then he swam underwater from one side to the other, surfacing only to refill his lungs. I sat on a sun-lounger, a book held up to shade my face and so I could ignore him. 
            One chapter later and a shadow appeared above me. He dripped water all over me as he leant down and kissed my cheek, shaking his hair like a puppy.  ‘Enjoying yourself?’ he said, smiling with his perfect aligned teeth. Without waiting for my reply, he strode off and posed again at the poolside. Once he had dived in and began his underwater strokes I decided to answer him.
            I walked to the edge of the pool. His body wriggled under the surface, refracted by the light waves travelling through the water. I stood there, imagining throwing a spear like a stone-age hunter, trying to catch a seal.
            ‘I’m going to leave you,’ I called to him. But he carried on his sub-aquatic journey, unware of my declaration. I returned to my sun-lounger, pulling it into the shade of a hibiscus tree, and holding up my book to block out the idyllic scene, playing out in front of me.

***

We raised our glasses to each other as the bubbles raced to the surface. The restaurant was as quiet as a museum, only the murmur of polite diners and the clink of cutlery. The waiting staff prowled, looking for empty plates or a stray napkin to be scooped up from the carpet.
            ‘Happy anniversary, Emily,’ Dan said, smiling. Then he winked; a remnant of our past flirtations which I had once found charming. Now it seemed like a shortcut, an invitation. ‘I’m interested, are you?’ it said. I wondered how many women it had worked on.
            ‘Ten years,’ he mused. ‘Did you think we would last that long?’
            I drained my glass. The honest answer, until a year ago, had been yes. We were the perfect couple with the perfect house, holidays, life. But then the scales had fallen from my eyes; wrenched unwillingly would be more accurate. A quiet warning word in my ear from a friend, the possessive attachment to his phone (always on silent, always password protected) the things I found in the pockets of his jeans that no married man needs. But I was stuck, trapped in that land between staying and leaving. I had needed time. Paperwork had to be gathered, precious possessions transferred to a safe place, arrangements had to be made. And I’ll admit, I thought about putting up with it, turning a blind eye. But once the day came when the touch of his hand on my skin made me twitch I knew it was over. It was just a case of biding my time.

***

Everything in the house was neat and tidy when I left. I even hung up the washing and left him milk and a microwave meal in the fridge. My letter explaining my decision was on the kitchen table, instructions not to contact me and my lawyer’s address for him to pass any paperwork onto. Putting my case in the boot I felt a lightness in my heart I hadn’t felt in months. Freedom was a plane trip away; my three month job contract on the other side of the world could be extended if it suited me, or I could go somewhere else. I locked the front door behind me, and then backtracked. I twisted my wedding ring off and placed it on top of the letter, letting the door slam behind me as I stepped back outside.
            When my phone rang I nearly ignored it. But something made me look at the screen and press the green button.
            ‘Emily, it’s Dan. He’s been taken to hospital,’ Dan’s assistant’s voice was breathless and panicky. ‘You need to go there straight away.’
            I drove to the hospital in a trance. ‘This is not happening,’ pounded through my head as I walked into the A&E department. Down corridors and round corners and then Dan was there, lying prone in a bed, machines whirring and clicking. Nurses recorded numbers from screens, checked drips, padded around the bed silently. I stood in the doorway, stuck between going in and walking away.
            A doctor appeared behind me and led me down the corridor.  ‘A stroke,’ she explained. ‘A serious one. There’s a good chance he will pull through but there may be some damage.’
            I looked at her blankly. This was not part of the plan.
            ‘I know it’s a lot to take in,’ she said in a reassuring voice. ‘But there is rehabilitation.  With some modifications he may be able to come home. We can support you, to help him recover.’
            She pressed a leaflet into my hands and disappeared.
            A nurse led me back into the room and sat me in a chair by Dan’s bed. His eyes were closed and I wondered if he was dreaming, or hovering in another world, a blank dreamless state that only the very ill visit. I glanced at the leaflet, its paper glossy under my fingertips. The lines of letters marched like ants in front of my eyes until I folded it and put it in my pocket.
Time ticked by. I looked at the clock on the wall and thought about how I should be checking in, answering security questions and putting my watch and jewellery in a grey plastic tray while I walked through the scanner. I phoned the number on my ticket and told them I wouldn’t make my flight. The voice on the other end was polite but curt; it was an everyday occurrence to him. For me, it was my future slipping away.
I stared at Dan. He was motionless, like a copy of himself. He was never normally still for a moment – he had always been a whirlwind of action, decisions, adventures. Now he needed me. In sickness or in health. Those were the words we had said to each other. For better, for worse. This was when it counted.
‘I brought you a cup of tea,’ said a nurse. She had a stud in her nose, a blue dot against pale skin. I took the cup, even though I never drank tea. I couldn’t taste anything anyway.
‘These things can come out of nowhere,’ she was saying. ‘Can’t predict them.’
I nodded. A tear slid down my cheek. She passed me a tissue and left the room. I let the bleep of the machines synchronise with my breathing. I took Dan’s hand in mine and lay my head on the cool white sheet. I felt the smooth gold band on his ring finger as I slipped into my own thoughts.
Later, the kind nurse with the stud in her nose touched my arm. ‘You’ve been here all day,’ she said. ‘Why don’t you go home and get some rest?’
            ‘Yes, I think I will,’ I said and stood to leave. Leaning down, I kissed Dan’s cheek. Then I picked up my handbag and left. The car was exactly where I had left it, my case still in the boot. I turned on the engine and drove.
            I would probably need to buy a new ticket. But I was getting on a plane, one way or another. 

© Catherine Ogston

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