© Karen Milner
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Ironically, on the day I die, I’m busy writing a story about someone else’s death. The spell check is finished when I hear the late post thud onto the floor.
Abandoning the laptop, I dash to the kitchen. Lying behind the stable door are three letters. I scoop up two thin brown envelopes along with a heavy, large one. My heart plummets when I recognise my own writing scribbled across the biggest; still I rip it open.
Dear Author, thank you for giving us the opportunity to read your work. Unfortunately, it's not what we are looking for. We wish you well…
I fling the letter, the returned manuscript, and the unopened bills, onto the pine table and look up at the wall clock. It’s already three, only thirty minutes before the school run. I should really make a start on dinner, but my legs march me back to my computer. Rain batters the small mullioned windows and the ominous grey, which hangs over the surrounding fields, darkens. A chill in the air makes me shiver and I drop another log on the fire.
My bottom lands heavily on our worn settee, I click back onto my story and have a quick read through. I'm anxious to send it out to more unsuspecting publishers, although I know there isn't time.
Forcing my finger to press the off switch, I get up and nearly fall over a mound of Lego. Our fire-bitten rug is covered with the colourful bricks. I should really vacuum, but the boys will go mad if I destroy their models. I head for the fridge. Apart from milk, a few ham slices and a small lump of cheese, it’s empty. A good time to clean it, I think, closing the door.
There's not much more in the freezer but I manage to find a pizza and some oven chips. Usually I make more nourishing meals; it's just today time has run away with me.
I’m emptying the chips out when a sharp pain fills my chest making me double-over. I hold my breath; excruciatingly it shoots down my left arm. A stroke? No, at forty-four I’m surely too young. The pain dissolves, leaving me numb. I straighten up taking a few deep breaths while holding onto the work surface. I'm fine. I blame the attack on my weak digestive system: shouldn’t have shoved that cheese pie down at lunch. Although, I'm well aware that you don't get indigestion in your arm. When I bend again, to pop the chips in the Aga, the pain returns stabbing into my heart. The oven tray clatters to the floor and I join it.
Now it starts to get really strange. I can see myself lying on my side from the vantage point of the beamed ceiling. My long tee shirt has risen slightly, exposing a broken zip and a straining button which battles to keep my jeans fastened. I have to admit I'm shocked: not because I think I’m dead, that thought hasn’t even entered my head yet. No, I’m shocked by my appearance. I haven’t paid much attention to it recently; not enjoying seeing my once pretty face acquiring jowls and wrinkles. My dark hair straggles my shoulder, in a wild, uncared for fashion, whilst spreading from my roots is an oak leaf clutch of grey. A flabby arm sticks out of my short sleeve and flops across a flabbier stomach. What a mess.
I look at the chips scattered across the quarry tiles, another mess. I will myself to pick them up, yet my body remains motionless. I should feel cold lying on the floor, but I don’t and that’s when it hits. I look closely at my pale face. Behind smudged, black framed lenses my brown eyes stare back, though it's obvious they no longer see.
“My God, I’m dead.”
Now you’d think I’d want to cry and scream at the abruptness of my departure, yet I’m calm and quite accepting of my new status. And then – and I know it sounds like a cliché - a bright, white light appears in the far corner of the room. It starts to pull me towards it and I drift close, but then I see the kitchen clock again.
“Damn,” I say. It's after half past three. I’m late for the boys.
I pull away from the light and float near to my body.
“For God’s sake get up,” I shout, but of course I don’t move.
Turning around I watch the bright light shrink and disappear, leaving a faint triangular cobweb in its place. I'm relieved, I need some thinking time.
My husband, David, is an English teacher in the senior part of the boys’ school. He finishes later, that’s why I collect them. Normally I turn up early and I pride myself that I've certainly never been late. Will the teachers have the sense to keep them until David's last lesson is over? It’s a private school and some of the children board so there are always staff around.
I calm myself, of course he'll bring them home. However, another more traumatic thought surfaces. Who is going to walk into the house first? I couldn’t bear my little boys running in and finding their mummy dead.
I fret and worry. Time ticks on and then I hear David’s car. Another quick glance at the clock, he’s finished early. I pray he senses something is wrong. I listen to the boys squabble as they near the kitchen door.
“They were my crisps not yours,” says my seven-year-old, Tom.
“You’re such a liar,” shouts Matt, his ten-year-old brother.
“Enough.” David’s stern teacher voice silences them.
The door handle turns and it's my husband's face I see. He pokes his head into the kitchen.
“Jenny” he says, spotting my slumped, curled up body, and just stares.
“Come on Dad, I’m getting wet,” moans Matt, hidden behind his father.
“Wait outside,” David shouts, closing the door and rushing over to me.
“Jen,” he whispers, lifting my wrist. His hand is damp and the dark wool of his coat glistens with rain. My blank eyes must give away my condition as he drops my hand and backs towards the door; closing it quietly behind him. I try to follow but it appears I’m unable to leave the confines of our home so instead I listen.
“Boys, go over to Clare’s and ask if you can play with Robbie.”
“But Dad, we’re still in our uniforms,” says Matt.
“Just do it.” David’s voice is too harsh. He comes back in again, alone.
I’m shocked he doesn’t watch them across the lane, though it’s a quiet road so they should be all right. He grabs the phone.
“Ambulance…my wife’s collapsed.” A tremor betrays his anxiety as he stumbles over our address.
Then, clearly acting on instructions he places the receiver on its side, crouches over me again, listening to my chest before returning to the phone.
“No, I can’t feel a pulse - or a heartbeat.”
The call finishes and a huge wail escapes his lips as he covers his face with his hands. I’ve only ever seen him cry once before, at his father’s funeral. I’m touched, but I want him to get a grip for the sake of our boys.
He opens the drinks cupboard and pulls out a bottle of whisky. I can feel his thirst and want some too. He stares at the bottle, for a long moment, before putting it away and coming back over to me. Kneeling, he strokes my face.
“How will we cope without you? The poor boys. How am I going to tell them?”
Now he’s making me cross. Doesn’t he know I feel guilty enough?
As the tears roll down the gentle lines of his face, my anger fades. A huge droplet splashes onto my cheek, the last tear to ever grace my ashen complexion. His large hands reach for my smaller ones. My fingers are dwarfed as he cups them to his chest. Kissing the tips, he sits beside my fallen body and sobs. His shoulders lifting and falling with the force of his emotion.
“David, it's okay, I'm still here,” I say, even though I’m pretty sure he can't hear me; I have to try to comfort him.
Outside there’s a siren and a few seconds later a pair of paramedics are rushing in. It doesn’t take them long to discover what David already knows. They lift me onto a stretcher and cover my face.
Now I’m panicking, they are taking my body. Does that mean I have to go with it? I watch my husband and the stretcher disappear, but I remain on the kitchen ceiling.
David returns, paler than the dropped chips. Yet his sad face is still handsome. He’s lost weight, probably due to his recent sporting endeavours. He actually looks really good. Why have I only just noticed? His dark hair is also greying, though it somehow makes him look distinguished. He takes off his damp overcoat before ringing our neighbour.
“Clare, could you look after of the boys for a while? Maybe give them a bite to eat. You see, they don’t know yet but it’s Jenny, she’s collapsed and - died.”
Collapsed and died. Even though I know I’m dead, these words still seem harsh.
Next he rings his mother and then mine. I cannot even begin to imagine the impact his words must have on her.
I start to think of the boys again. Will he remember it's bath night? Will he look in their bags for homework? Will he check their sport kits, to see if they need washing? My worries are interrupted by his next call.
“Hi Kathy.” There’s a pause. “It’s my wife, Jenny…”
I listen as he explains, but who the hell is Kathy? The only Kathy I know is that peroxide, snooty cow, the school secretary.
“Of course, I won’t be able to make it this Friday. I'm sorry but you understand, I need to be with the boys.”
Make it this Friday? After school on Fridays he plays golf with Phil. Then I feel such a fool. He’s playing around, but it’s not a round of golf!
“I’ll let you know if there’s anything.’ Another pause. ‘Love you too.”
My God, for a moment I forget I’m dead and rush at his head. He shudders.
“I’m okay,” he says, the receiver trembling in his hand. “Someone just walked over my grave.” His eyes search the room. I’ll ring soon.” He puts the phone down.
I rush at his head again. This time he looks up startled, his green eyes narrow, staring into the space where I furiously hover.
How could I be so dumb? Though our relationship wasn't the most passionate, I never dreamt he’d risk losing me or the children. When did he fall out of love? Then I remember my flabby, unkempt body and I sort of know when. He leaves the house, I presume to tell the boys, and I’m left alone. I can’t bear to think of their hurt little faces. I'd give anything to stop their pain, yet all I can do is wait.
* * *
When he brings them home it’s late, way past their bedtime. And I know by their red eyes and glum expressions he’s told them.
“Come on, let's get to bed,” he says.
“Can I sleep with Mummy?” asks Tom.
David stops and crouches, his face now level with our youngest son's. He pushes Tom's wavy, black hair out of his brown eyes.
“Remember, Tom? Mummy is with Jesus now.” His voice croaks on his emotions. “You can sleep with me though, in fact we’ll all sleep together tonight.” He stands, one arm around Tom's slight body, the other pulling a watery-eyed Matt into his arms. If I still had a heart it would break.
* * *
I drift upstairs, watching them dump their uniforms on our bedroom floor.
“Pick them up, David,” I shout, but of course he doesn’t; they will be such a crumpled mess in the morning.
He pulls the curtains closed and as he straightens the duvet, I feel a twinge of guilt: I neglected to make the bed this morning.
“It's chilly in here,” David says, turning the radiator up before getting under the cover.
Dressed only in underpants and without cleaning their teeth, my skinny little boys climb in at either side of him.
I take it in turns to try and snuggle next to their small bodies but my proximity seems to make them shiver and sob even louder. So in the end I float above, watching them cry into their father's chest. I'm so relieved when sleep finally takes them. Although, later that same night, Matt wakes.
“Mum's here,” he says.
“Sure she is,” says David, stroking Matt's dark curls. “She’s watching over all of us.”
I rush at my husband’s head again. Shuddering, he pulls the duvet over his face.
I won’t - can't dwell on the following few weeks, suffice to say they were dreadful. No parent should live to see the death of their child and no parent should hear their children cry for them. Part of me wishes I’d left with that white light, but I want to see them smile again. I want to see them grow.
Due to being house-bound, I miss my own funeral. Unfortunately, I don’t miss my little men, dressed in specially bought black suits, sobbing their hearts out before setting off. Again David pulls them close.
“Come on guys, Mum wouldn’t want you to be upset. She loved you too much for that.” The final word leaves his mouth in a whisper and he clings to our boy’s slight frames, crying softly into their unruly hair.
After my funeral things start to get a bit more normal. The boys go back to school and David goes back to work. I’m still furious with him, for his affair, but I must admit he’s been brilliant with Matt and Tom; patient and loving. Bedtimes are the hardest. However, he continues to sleep three in a bed; though the dark lines under his eyes show it’s not ideal.
Five weeks after my death, he organises for the children to sleepover at their cousin’s. David's brother comes to pick them up. The boys bicker over a computer game on the way out. Their argument would once have made David cross, now he just smiles. He knows, like me, their grief is starting to lift.
That evening, alone for the first time, he gets our wedding album out. Carefully, dusting it down before opening the sepia pages. The photos are wonderful and I remember how in love we were. I’m surprised to see a tear trickling down his face, but I’m more surprised when he picks up my laptop and turns it on. He scrolls down my documents, looking at the many and varied story titles.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I've asked him to read my work: hoping he'd help me with my terrible spelling and punctuation.
“Later,” he’d always say.
Of course later never came but now I'm dead, he takes an interest. Typical.
He stops when he gets to my latest story, Passed Away. I cringe as he opens the document. These words were never meant for his eyes. Still, I can't help but read with him.
My best friend is dead. The man I married, when the only line I owned was a waistline, has gone. The man who fathered my little boys has passed away.
I’ve hooked him, he moves down the page.
“Damn,” I think, spotting several typos, but I continue to read.
I loved him, although somewhere along the way I'd stopped telling him. I hope he knew. Our last words were angry. A stupid row about whose job it was to clean the toilet.
This bit is true and I see his lips start to turn up.
How will my young boys cope without their daddy? The man who wrestled them to the floor, built huge Lego towers, and listened to endless chat about Star Wars or Super Mario games. Now he's smiling.
The man who took us camping and forced us to have a good time whether we wanted to or not. The man who hated to lose, even to his seven-year-old.
His smile vanishes, but that's as harsh as it gets.
I leave out the bits about his farting, short temper and the occasional slaps he hands out to the boys. I make him sound really good and to be fair, as fathers go, he is.
Tears are trickling through the fine stubble on his chin when he finishes. I can’t help feeling pleased that at last my writing has moved someone.
David turns off the computer and pours himself a whisky before picking up the phone.
“Hi, it’s me,” he says. “Look, I need some time to sort myself out. I know we’re supposed to meet tonight, but I’m not up to it. And the boys- they’re still shaky, they need all my attention.”
I can hear her crying. She is desperate not to lose him, but he doesn’t love her. Even though he forgot for a while, he still loves me.
He spends the night on the settee, next to a roaring fire, watching the programmes we used to love. He drinks and cries and I try my best to curl up near him.
“Don’t worry, David. I still love you,” I whisper into his ear.
He rubs the side of his face before pressing the off button on the remote control.
“Jen,” he says softly. “You’re still here, aren’t you? Jen, you know I love you?”
“I know, David. I’ve always known.” The lights flicker and the flames suddenly shoot high into the chimney.
Above me the bright, white light returns. Its magnetic pull is strong as it shines down from the oak panelled ceiling. I look away and kiss David's lips. His fingers brush his mouth and his gold wedding band glints in the light.
No longer able to resist its pull, I start to float upwards. Out of a silver framed photo, which hangs over our fireplace, Matt and Tom's angelic faces smile at me.
“Take care of our little boys,” I say, looking down.
His moist eyes look deep into my essence and I feel his pain and his love and I’m sure he senses mine. Then I'm in the light and David's face has passed away.