© Claire Whatley
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© Claire Whatley
A SHORT STORY
For a long time all that exists is darkness.
The darkness is calm, smooth and continuous.
Something else – there is breathing in the darkness.
And I hear a voice.
“Mum? Mum, it’s me.”
The voice in the darkness makes me happy. If only I could remember who it is.
There is a light touch, somewhere on a body, possibly mine. I try to connect to it, but the effort is too much.
And then, after a time of timelessness and darkness, I remember. It all started with the breathing.
* * *
I am waiting for sleep. The hooting of a distant owl competes with the sighing, whistling breathing next to me. The regular little whistles so near my face are at the same pitch as the tawny’s ‘oo-oo-ooo’s and it becomes hard to distinguish the two sounds. Then my ears pick up a distant vibrating hum. My heart pumps harder as I recognise the sound, swelling to the thudding roar, of a helicopter on night training. It builds to an ugly crescendo and fades. How I hate the helicopters. The army air base is more than ten miles away – why don’t they pester some other village? My heart slows and I listen again for the owl but there’s only the breath now. I startle myself for a moment as I hear my own breath, like that of a stranger.
Then I sit up, appalled, staring into the darkness.
There is no one next to me. Alan is dead. He died two and a half weeks ago. I fumble for the light. Night after night, in those moments before I drift off, I hear him breathing. The sound is as real as the owl’s call or the helicopters’ pulsing drone. At sixty-three I’m too bloody old to be imagining things, like a child frightened of the dark. Wide awake, I reach for my glasses and my book and pull the duvet around me.
I read two paragraphs without absorbing a word. I return to the beginning of the first paragraph and hear a whirring throb growing louder as another helicopter comes to plague our village. As the sound builds, so my anger grows. Not directed at the helicopter pilot, but at Alan. How could he have left me, and in such a cruel way? I hurl the book to the floor and, seeking an outlet for the rage swelling inside me, I punch and punch his pillow. I’m raging at the world now, furious tears streaming down my face and dripping water marks onto the pale blue bed linen. Probably soaking into the duvet: Alan wouldn’t have liked that. I’m raging at all those smug, happy couples still alive and well; those cosy old twosomes looking forward to their Caribbean cruises; their visits to their high-achieving children and adorable grandchildren; jolly birthdays and merry Christmases going on and on into eternity. All my so-called friends, believing themselves immortal, lost for words, mouthing their endless mantra, “If there’s anything we can do…”
The helicopter’s hovering very close. It’s a Chinook and the walls are actually vibrating. I’m vibrating too, with anger and I’m glad of the thunderous noise: it’s as though I’m generating it myself. I feel in a minority of one on this entire planet, knowing death happens, while everyone else is playing pretend. I get up and peer between the curtains to locate the infernal machine.
It’s a beautiful night: stars on stars, sparkling their way back to the beginning of time. The Chinook is over there, off to the right. So black. A helicopter-shaped template, like a mass of dark matter sucking starlight from the sky.
It’s moving off at last, towards the air-base. I remain at the window, staring at the waxing moon, nearly full, and my mind wanders back over the years.
We’d always been happy. In thirty-two years, the wheels of our marriage had been oiled more by laughter than by tears. We’d had fun, Alan and me, and our darling boy, Tom. But since his retirement three years ago Alan had become unsociable, aimless and – I realise too late – depressed. He’d become obsessed with the helicopters. He wrote Mr Angry letters to the commander of the air-base, and to the local paper. He’d started a petition. Well, at least it kept him busy, and I did support him - knocking on all the neighbours' doors - even though I couldn’t agree. After all, the pilots had to train somewhere I told him, and it didn’t go on all night. So, on that particular night, a Chinook had been hovering – just like tonight – giving rise to that menacing noise and that fearful vibration. Alan had been standing at the window, shaking his fist, for goodness' sake. Muttering useless expletives, and getting himself so worked up. I wasn’t in the mood for it.
“Alan, for God’s sake, get into bed,” I said. “Just ignore it or read your book ‘til it’s gone.”
“I can’t bloody ignore it – it’s bloody outrageous! This is three nights in a row and they’ve been going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards across the village – this is the fourth loop – I’ve counted! There are dozens of villages they could fly over, why us? Why?”
“Well, they probably fly elsewhere on the other nights,” I said, quite reasonably I thought.
“We’ll have to move.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not moving. We love it here.”
“Not at night we don’t! I can’t take much more of this, Sue. I want to be allowed to go to sleep when I want to. Is that too much to ask? Is it? Just to go to bed and go to sleep when I want to? Isn’t it a fundamental human right?”
“If you didn’t get so bloody worked up, you could go to sleep!”
“I’m worked up because it shouldn’t be allowed. It’s torture – of course I can’t sleep.”
“Will you close those curtains and get into bed, for Christ’s sake?” I was shouting by this time.
“Don’t tell me what to do!”
“I will tell you what to do – you’re being bloody pathetic. Just get a bloody life, Alan!”
I turned over and turned out my light. The helicopter moved on, and he did get into bed. He launched himself into the bed to cause maximum disruption to me, but I held on grimly to my part of the duvet. He switched off his light with a click that communicated his rage. We didn’t exchange another word.
And he never woke up.
So, those were my last words to my husband, hours before his death. “Get a bloody life, Alan.” How do I live with the irony of that?
Waking up on the following sunny morning, ready to forgive and forget, I’d turned over to find him stiff and cold. I will never forget the expression on his face. It’s the image of his dead, staring eyes that stays with me. Yellow, desiccated, and accusing.
Did he not wake me because he couldn’t, or because he didn’t want to? Did he forgive me before he died?
The funeral was a week later, and it’s since the funeral that I’ve had this waking nightmare of forgetting that he’s gone. It occurs just as I’m sinking into a dream. He’s breathing next to me, his sigh-whistle-sigh. I feel his warm breath on my neck and I’m almost asleep and then I remember. It’s probably the sort of thing that happens to the bereaved. I daresay it’ll pass.
* * *
Not a single phone call this morning. In the first week it was all “How are you feeling, Sue?” “Anything we can do, Sue?” There is nothing they can do. I don’t want their sympathy calls, but I don’t want their silence either.
I’ve been lonely before, for an evening, or for a day, but not like this. This loneliness is a presence: a black hole in my solar plexus threatening to consume me. It makes me hate everyone - most of all myself.
I feel thin, tired and shrivelled. And the house is too big for me. I step into the kitchen to make coffee. It's a room of modest enough proportions, but it opens out into a long, sunny breakfast room and it's as though the acoustics have changed now I'm alone. I walk across the tiled floor and my footsteps echo. No, it's not an echo, it's more - stupid, fanciful thought - as though other feet are following me. When I stop, they stop.
Coffee abandoned, I go into the garden to escape the emptiness. I open the shed door and confront the lawn mower. Alan always mowed the lawn. Yes, it was anti-feminist of me to have let him, but he said it was a bugger to get going and I’d never manage it. He did a lovely job and after all, I had my own domestic duties and responsibilities.
I hoist the mower out of the shed and I hear the petrol slosh in the tank. I position it on the flat lawn, ready like a sprinter at the start line, for my first lap. I breathe in deeply and yank the cord. Nothing. That’s fine – he never did it first time, either.
It’s a funny thing, since he died I’ve had a few attacks of nervousness. Little setbacks can overwhelm me and before I know it, I’m quivering like a leaf in an autumn breeze. My hands are a bit shaky now. Here goes. I pull the cord with all the strength I can muster. Hah! A brief cough from the machine. I can do this. Ignoring my trembling fingers, I give the cord an almighty tug. The mower surges into life and I’m away. It’s a glorious October day. The silver birches at the bottom of the garden sway like a retinue of swan-maidens, their green and ochre leaves so delicate against their gleaming bark. I stride up and down the garden, relishing the sound of the motor and to my intense satisfaction, I’m making lines. I can do this!
Job done, I march back into the house and for the first time since Alan’s death, I feel hopeful. As I head for the kitchen to put the kettle on, the phone rings. Tempted for a moment to ignore it, I decide to make the most of my lightened mood and I reach to answer it, glancing first at the caller name that appears on the display screen.
The deep thudding of my heart echoes in my ears.
Something wrong with the display, obviously. My wretched hands are shaking again.
I pick it up.
His voice. Cold and bitter.
I can’t speak. My entire body trembles and I clutch the phone with a fist so rigid it hurts. There is silence and then the burr of a disconnected line.
It must be some technological hiccup. There’s some rational explanation for it that I don’t understand. I mustn’t let my imagination run away with me.
I search out his mobile. It’s in one of the boxes I’ve packed up for Oxfam. Should have driven into town and got rid of them by now, but I’m not sure yet that I can walk into the shop and hand his stuff over without descending into tears.
My first instinct is to make a bonfire and burn the thing, but then, such high drama would be an admission that the call really happened. I tell myself again it was just some error of the phone network; his voice a figment of my imagination.
I wrap the phone in a thin supermarket carrier bag, and then another one, and I bin it. Dustbin day tomorrow.
* * *
I can’t go to bed tonight. I gather up clean bed linen and make up the sofa-bed in the sitting room. I don’t know how many nights I’ll do this, but I can’t face that bed tonight.
It’s a pretty, cosy room, our sitting room: feminine and flouncy, all pale gold and cream – my choice - and although it feels strange to be bedding down here, I settle eventually. I’m tired after so many bad nights plus the exertion of the lawn mowing and I drift easily into sleep. The only breathing I hear is my own.
* * *
I wake to another perfect day, the pale moon still visible in the powder-blue sky. The beauty of the weather and the season make me burst into ridiculous, self-indulgent tears. I don’t want a lovely day if I can’t share it. The birds are singing with such joie-de-vivre I can believe they’re trying to cheer me up. They don’t. I wish they’d shut up. I curl back into my sofa-bed as though I’m retreating into a womb. I bury myself under the duvet and weep and weep.
I must have cried myself to sleep and I’m woken by the phone. Heavy-eyed and disorientated, I gradually register that first waking thought, Alan is dead. Then full consciousness returns and the ringing makes my heart thump. I force myself to answer the call. I look at the display. Tom.
I put the phone to my ear and I’m smiling.
“Hi, Tom, darling.”
“Mum, how are you?”
“Oh, not too bad. Keeping busy.”
“Oh, that’s good. Yeah, great. Listen, we wondered if you wanted to come up and stay for a few days. A long weekend. I know it’s a long drive, but you could come up tomorrow, Thursday, and stay till, say, Monday. What d’you think?”
“Er.” I really don’t want to do this. “Well, I’m not sure. There are still things I need to do…”
“Please, Mum. Ellen really wants you to come and Maisie would love to see her grandma. Please.”
I’m boxed into a corner and I don’t have the energy to refuse. I feel so tired at the thought, but at least it would get me away from that bedroom. And the thought of being squeezed in a guileless bear-hug from Maisie persuades me. “All right then, I’d love to. What sort of time tomorrow?”
“Well, I’ll be at work, but Ellen will be here all day. Any time after lunch – just suit yourself, really.”
“Say, late afternoon then?”
“Great! I’ll tell Ellen. Give her a ring when you’re nearly there so she can put the kettle on.”
“Will do. Thanks, darling. See you tomorrow.”
“Bye, Mum, see you tomorrow.”
I replace the phone and almost immediately, it rings again. Tom’s forgotten something.
But the screen reads: Alan. Mobile.
I snatch up the phone.
“Who is this?” My shouting can’t hide the tremor in my voice. I sound like a little old lady.
There is a pause.
I drop the phone and I scream. My screaming continues until I’m terrifying myself with my own fear. This is some sick joke, but who would do this to me? Does anyone hate me that much? Did Alan hate me that much? Minutes later, still quaking, I pick up the phone gingerly, as if it were a UXB. I place it close - but not too close - to my ear. Nothing now but that familiar hum, like tinnitus. I hold it there until I’m unsure whether it’s coming from the phone or inside my head.
Thank God I’m going to stay with Tom and Ellen. Away from that bed and this phone. I allow myself to look forward to the idea of being spoilt.
* * *
Before bed, I disconnect the phone and I turn my mobile to silent. If Tom needs to contact me, he can text. After a bath of scented bubbles, I choose my comfiest pyjamas – the lilac checked ones that Alan hated - and snuggle into the safe haven of my sofa, but sleep won’t come. I rummage through the DVDs and - ludicrous choice - I pick ‘The Wizard of Oz’. It’s innocent and sweet and it’s a memory of a time before death was real. Tears flow easily down my cheeks, salting my lips as Dorothy sings, and again, at the end, as Dorothy weeps to be back home. I cry for Dorothy and for me and for lost innocence. For ageing and death. The crying wears me out and sleep comes.
I take an inordinately long time to choose clothes for my trip and I pack everything with meticulous care. Again I have the unnerving feeling that I’m turning into an old person. I’ll be buying Lily of the Valley talcum next.
I set out early. The weather’s as fine as it has been every day since Alan’s death. Half way down the road, I’m overcome with a panic that I haven’t locked the back door. I’m doing that shaking thing again – my whole body is trembling - and I wonder for the first time whether I’m ill. I make a clumsy three-point turn and rush back to check all the doors and windows. All locked. After closing the front door behind me, I push hard against it, just to make sure.
I hear cantankerous footsteps crunching on the gravel behind me and an exasperated sigh. Alan’s sigh. He used to be so irritated by my little checking thing. I spin round. There is no one there and no one in the road. The only sound, a helicopter passing high overhead. I exhale a sigh of my own, infuriated by my wayward imagination. I stride to the car, climb in and slam the door, too hard.
Within half an hour I’m on the motorway. It’s not busy and I turn on the radio to listen to some celebrity reading his biography. He’s quite witty and I’m actually laughing to myself. The journey’s going smoothly and I’m quite calm.
The next programme is a documentary about Japanese pickles. I have nothing against Japan, but no interest in pickles. I turn it off. I should concentrate on the journey, anyway. Alan normally did the driving on our trips to Tom and Ellen. As the miles are swallowed up between home and me, I can see how this whole episode since Alan’s death has been a mental aberration. It’s been hard dealing with my guilt over our final cross words, as well as the natural grief that anyone would feel. It’s all quite normal, probably.
I’m so pleased with myself. I’m eating up the miles and feeling so confident now, I’m cruising along at eighty. Ha – I’m in the fast lane! The phone rings. That’ll be Ellen.
I look at the screen on the dashboard.
Please, no. Alan, please don’t do this.
My nervous system’s reaction is instant and I’m shaking so that I can hardly keep the car in a straight line. Should I answer? The ringing is unbearable.
My hands are sweaty. I press the phone button on the steering wheel.
To my left a lorry indicates to move out in front of me.
At the moment of impact with the crash barrier, I hear his measured words.
“Sue, just get a bloody life.”