It struck me as I lie on the bed, doona up to my chin and my socked feet sticking out the other end. I have all this time and no idea what to do. A mythical calendar appears in my imagination, huge and white. Unmarked by those little jottings people fill in the squares with; ‘lunch with Magda’, ‘dinner at the Pugh’s’,’Simon – tennis’. I can’t think what I would write in those squares now. The calendar sheets start to rustle in an imaginary breeze, May sprouts a set of wings like angels and then June does the same. By the time I reach August I feel giddy.
Like a pie whose filling has been sucked out. What with Julia back at Agricultural College and her father dead. Simon dead? Why would he do that? We always discussed everything at length, every decision we might have to make. From big things like which house would we buy or holiday destinations, to small things like where to buy the best organic tomatoes. I hadn’t been in on the death conversation.
I watch the dust motes dance in the stream of sunlight looking like the beam from a flashlight. I notice the bedroom curtains need a wash and as I look up I see a damp spot. What did one do with a damp spot? Take a hairdryer to it? Apply blotting paper? There were so many things a 56 year old woman should have picked up and I hadn’t. We may have been equals in decision making but anything involving grouting or WD40, strictly Simon’s territory.
Such a fit man, tennis and jogging round the park every morning. Even the occasional yoga class. He’d been popping out in his lunch hour, Gayle from the office had said, for today’s newspaper and a packet of chewies. It hadn’t been a bus, just one of those four wheel drives everyone seems to have, with big clumsy bars at the front. BANG! CRUNCH! What was that? Your husband, love.
Miriam Flowers, the unlikely name of the woman driving the four wheel drive. She was distraught apparently. Came into town once in a blue moon for a spot of shopping, runs over middle-aged man. Poor Simon. Poor me. Not poor Miriam. I don’t think. At least she gets to go home to Mr Flowers.
I wriggle my pink-socked toes to stop them going numb. Next door’s car starts up. Gerald, as in Gerald-and-Susan. Now I am half a couple I resent the snugness of others. Gerald, a school teacher, drives a Camry and wears a bow tie. A bow tie that would probably be quite hard to tie. Not one of those ones on elastic. I hate that bow tie. He is making a statement with it, I’m not sure what kind of statement. Susan works in credit control, whatever that is. Working in a publisher’s office I’d never heard of such things.
I expect I should be weeping into my pillow, mourning poor Simon. But I’m not. I can only liken it to an operation, having something surgically removed but there’s no visible scar. I move my legs across to Simon’s side of the bed, cold and alien. I only ever ventured over to his side of the bed when he was there. The odd the things that catch you, filling you with a sense of loss, hearing something absurd or amusing and having no one to share it with at the days end.
Simon loved the absurd. He would have enjoyed the banality of his death. Of crossing the road to get a paper then being knocked down by Miriam Flowers. He used to read out the oddities of life from the paper while I cooked dinner. His strange bark like laugher and my high pitched giggle joining him while I sautéed potatoes or poured red wine into a casserole.
I hear the lock turn and a muffled slam.
“Celia! It’s only me! Are you up?”
Fiona, my sister, checking that I haven’t topped myself during the night. I have two sisters, Fiona and Emily. Both older, wiser and hideously efficient. Emily is more tactful, she’s the middle one. A willowy blonde who moves through my house silently, washing dishes I have let pile up. Cereal stuck like cement to ceramics. I find I eat a lot of cereal these days. It’s so much easier than cooking. Who wants to spend an hour or two rustling up something from a Nigella Lawson’s when I can just slide my fingers across the top of a box and pour. I believe Nigella’s husband has a fondness for Weetabix. I have variety, I buy a great many of the cereals displayed gaudily on the shelves of supermarkets. I run my trolley past and knock each type straight into it. It’s very satisfying.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Emily. She puts my washing in the machine, only once a week now. There was a time when the machine was on every day. When Julia was home. When Simon had work clothes, tennis clothes and gardening clothes. And those dreadful velour leisure suits that were in vogue for a while that I wore, a uniform for the middle aged. Emily does yoga and she’s a dressmaker, fingers neat and nimble. They alternate days to check I’m getting out of bed and making an effort. Fiona and Emily. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be making an effort for.
Fiona, she’s the loud one. I can hear her now; crashing cutlery into the sink, turning the hot on full pelt. Singing something Christian. My sisters. Like Wagner and Debussy. But united in their care of me.
I gave their telephone numbers to the kind policewoman. They had sat either side of me, talking, not talking, holding my shaking hands. Emily rang Julia and gently told her what had happened. She took the train home, Fiona met her at the station.
Julia, tall and broad, practical and precise. Now 20 she had grown past the age when Simon and I embarrassed her. Our way of seeing the funny side of everything. I felt angry that her father had been wrenched from her life, torn away quickly like a sticking plaster.
Julia stayed for the funeral. A cremation; Simon’s choice. Followed by neat sandwiches, cake and tea served from teapots, back at the house. Fiona and Emily did the catering, Julia served the tea. I sat in Simon’s armchair, not speaking, not smiling and barely breathing. Julia and I were like two points of a triangle. When she returned to college Fiona and Emily formed a small cluster around me.
“Celia, we want to help you through this season.” Emily, always gentle. “We don’t want you to feel alone.” I could see she had been crying however she was a woman who could cry and not look puffy with piggy eyes.
So they came and they stayed. Cleaning my kitchen, making me cups of tea, being there, giving me someone to talk to when there would have been no one. They bought books and placed them around my house. Books on grieving; Christian ones from Fiona and New Age ones from Emily. Leaflets on local support groups lay on the kitchen table. All their good intentions building soft walls of cotton wool around me.
Several months later I’m at the in-between phase, much like a child growing, only sadder. I had passed through the shock, dealt with the absence as best I could and I didn’t know what came next. It felt like driving along a bitumen road which suddenly disappears into the ground, along with the familiar points of the landscape; houses, signposts and boundary fences. Stuck. Stuck being minded by Fiona and Emily, unable to forge my own way forward, held by loving sisterly-ties.
“Celiaaah. Are you alright? Shall I come up?” Fiona is a nurse. The thought of her bedside manner helping me put my knickers on is too awful.
“No, Fee. Just getting dressed.”
I’m lying in bed while I visualise my wardrobe. I wish I still had one of those velour leisure suits or maybe a primary coloured jump suit. Something I could just jump into and zip up. Why hasn’t someone thought of that before. So easy. Sort of Play School meets prison.
Eventually I enter my kitchen dressed in something shapeless and grey. Its some minutes before Fiona even notices me. I shuffle over to a chair. It’s the chair legs scraping on the tiles that alert her to my presence. The singing stops.
“Oh! Celia, I didn’t know you were there.” She takes in the greyness of me. “You should have worn something a bit more cheery.”
Fiona stands there with a wide illuminating smile, dishrag in hand. A large lady, dressed in fuchsia. On reflection I prefer grey. I have an issue with clothes wearing people rather than the other way round. Like Gerald and his bow tie. Guess I’ll have to re-think those jumpsuits.
“Now, what are we having for breakfast?”
“I don’t know about you but I’m having coco pops.” This is just the sort of thing I would have told Simon later. Pertinence in the face of the matronly sister.
Fiona throws open the pantry door and gasps. Every shelf is crammed full of multi- coloured cereal boxes after yesterdays shop and in an Andy Warhol way they are quite beautiful.
“Oh, Celia.” Fiona bursts into tears.
“Come on, Fee. Sit down.”
“I’m sorry, it should be you weeping not me.”
I pass my sister a box of tissues.
“We didn’t know what else to do, Emily and I. We couldn’t imagine losing our husbands. We wanted to make you feel better. To make it all go away.”
“Fee, you’ve both wonderful. Don’t think I don’t appreciate everything you have done. But after 30 years of marriage…”
“Have you heard of the five phases of grief. Number one is…”
“No, Fee. I’m going to do this my way. You can’t honestly see me going to therapy and reading self-help books can you?”
Fiona managed a weak, watery smile.
“If I want to eat just cereal for a while I will. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this but I do know, if I need someone to sit with me while I cry or someone to talk to I will call you and Emily. Okay?”
Fiona nods, shaking more tears loose, tears which mark her silk blouse. We sit there in silence listening to the breeze combing through the leaves on the trees and the sound of children playing in the street.
“Fee, you don’t know anything about damp spots do you?”