| It was June, the early summer sun streaming through the patchwork windows of the little room at the back of the church. Beyond them, was a manicured lawn with bright interruptions of flowers. Daisy Asters and pom pom Dahlias huddled together cheerfully nodding in the sun, overlooked by the spreading branches of an ancient Ewe. Inside the room, sitting at a table made of old, dark wood, she was weeping; her face buried in the fine white lace of her gloves. In the many years that followed, she would remember little of the details of that day, just the aroma of polish, the feel of lace on her cheek and her wedding dress; white lace over silk, the train trailing after her like an afterthought as she left.
As she often did, Elizabeth woke to the remnants of a dream, the details lost. It was June again and she sighed into the gloom of her bedroom with invasive shafts of sunlight spilling through the gaps in curtains. Lying on her back, she planted her arms on the top of the bedspread and flexed her hands, lifting them to gaze disconsolately at the folds of loose skin.
There was no hurry to get up, the bedside clock ticked relentlessly belying the fact that it was still early and she had no real plans for the day. She looked at it and sighed again. At some point she would have to go to the loo, but for now there was little compunction to move from her place between the comfy mattress and warm bedding. She swept her arm across the empty expanse of bed beside her, the old well of sorrow returning. It was, how many years, since hope had drifted into acceptance that a double bed was an unnecessary indulgence.
There were times, still, that she longed for the feel of a broad and masculine hand on her skin and found herself drifting into old memories.
They were young, his face, not terribly handsome; Mr extraordinarily average, were in not for the glint in his eye that lifted his features into the realm of incredibly charming and slightly dangerous. In the warm seclusion of a room she had no earthly reason to be in, with the winter winds whipping up snow drifts outside, her fiancÚ had whisked her into his arms, abashed and enthralled. She could still feel the warmth of his breath on her cheek and every other feeling that followed, as he danced her into the moderately illicit world of sex before marriage.
There were no apparent rules regarding the appearance of old memories and Elizabeth did sometimes wonder what people thought when she found herself smiling enigmatically in the queue at the supermarket. Or, weeping for no good reason, for that matter.
Some time later, who knew how long as she often thought the bedside clock was fibbing, there was a definite pressure low in her guts. Throwing back the bedding, she eased herself to sit on the edge of the mattress. Not before taking a moment, as she did so often in recent years, to wonder when her legs had got so thin and bony. Finally upright, she padded toward the bathroom, pointedly ignoring her reflection in the full length mirror as she passed, her long white cotton nightgown with tiny pink flowers, slipping off her shoulder.
Turning off from the hall she winced at the sudden optical intrusion, the light from the frosted window bouncing uncomfortably off the bright yellow bathroom walls. Hucking up her nightie, she eased herself to sit on the raised seat of the loo, installed after she nearly fell down the hole in the middle, because her legs refused to bend that far without her knees giving out. Then, with her feet planted on the cool tile floor, she relieved herself, gazing out on a daffodil yellow world, sincerely wishing she had opted for Atlantic blue. The nice little man who had painted it for her, short and over fed with a homely smile, had agreed on her choice. Prising open the tin of paint with a screwdriver and announcing, ‘it’ll look lovely,’ in a thoroughly reassuring manner. Four cups of tea, a full pack of digestives and an hour’s chat about the problems of being old, later, he left. Job done. Except, it wasn’t. Sitting on the loo contemplating nature, Elizabeth’s gaze fell predictably to the patch of fading white that he had missed in the corner of the wall just above the skirting board. She sighed.
The day progressed as normal, a variety of clocks suspended on walls and sitting on polished wooden surfaces, marking out the unchanging routine. She washed and dressed, dragging a comb through her thinning grey curls, unconsciously monitoring the lines on her face through eyes that had once been an excitable shade of blue. She had long since stopped counting the passing years and had settled instead for marking time by the sagging trajectory of pale matt skin. It had glowed once, she remembered distinctly a time when it was smooth to the touch and apt to blush and tingle at the caress of a hand she couldn’t bring herself to forget.
After a day of sitting in front of daytime TV, preparing and eating a modest lunch and thinking about tea, she began to feel the weight of routine; an invisible hand that pressed down on her shoulders and dulled the brain. By mid afternoon she was snoozing, sitting in her armchair with an open puzzle book on her lap and a pen in her hand. Sometime later, the doorbell woke her from a half formed dream about potatoes. Still trying to force awareness, she made her way to the door, the puzzle book and pen on the carpet where they had fallen.
“Hello Elizabeth.” He beamed, a little stupidly, she thought, but then it was difficult to tell through the stubborn fog just behind her eyes. “I was passing and well. . . I just thought I’d drop by and see if you wanted to do something.”
“What would I want to be doing at this time of night?” The fog clearing enough for her to feel suitably irritated.
His shoulders dropped an inch under his brightly coloured sweater, the generous brown of his eyes falling to mildly disappointed mud. Bill was a frequent visitor, but Elizabeth could never see him as anything more than a stray cat who stopped by occasionally for a saucer of milk. He had once brought her flowers, his fast aging and not entirely disagreeable features, wreathed in minor ecstasy, but even then, she couldn’t find it in her to be overly grateful.
“Very nice, but why,” she had said, leading him to the kitchen, where he would always sit sipping tea looking like a recently added nick nack. He never brought flowers again, not even on her birthday; he opted instead for chocolates and brought the wrong kind.
“Actually its only half past six,” Bill offered, standing on the doorstep and flipping his wrist to check his watch and sounding, well. . .a little more determined than usual, maybe, Elizabeth thought.
“Is it?” She turned her back on him and made her way up the hall toward the kitchen, knowing he would follow, closing the door behind him.
“I thought maybe you would like to go out for a change?”
Filling the kettle at the sink, placing it on the worktop and flicking a switch on the wall, she considered the question. When she turned back, he was standing in the middle of the kitchen floor winding his long fingers together and looking awkward. She didn’t fail to notice he had polished his shoes.
“I thought maybe the pictures,” he suggested, trying to disentangle his hands. “Or the pub. . . maybe.”
Elizabeth leant back against the worktop and, facing him across an expanse of lino, tilted her head to one side.
“Perhaps just a walk? “ he added, taking a step forward, his features overcome by something Elizabeth presumed to be desperation. “To get away from all this. . . “ he said, waving his arms in a meandering circle, apparently indicating the kitchen. “. . .I thought,” he ended, his arms dangling uselessly by his sides.
Elizabeth watched him, saying nothing and idly wondering if he had ever directed traffic at some point in his largely undisclosed past. “I like my kitchen,” she said finally. “Coffee or tea?”
“Neither,” Bill muttered, addressing the floor. “Maybe I should just go.”
“Maybe you should.”
He turned and made to leave, Elizabeth watching him with not an inconsiderable amount of curiosity, as he took a stride toward the hall, then stopped. “Are you happy Elizabeth?” he said, suddenly turning back on himself.
“Define happy,” she said obtusely, “I thought you were leaving.”
Bill visibly sagged and Elizabeth felt a pang of unexpected guilt squeeze her innards.
“ I came here. . . ” he stuttered, struggled with whatever was supposed to come next, mangling his features and pulling on invisible threads with balled fists.
Elizabeth could almost hear the melee in his head. Feel the tangle of emotions she had felt once herself an unbelievably long time ago, trying to reason with her ‘should have been’ husband to find answers to impossible questions.
“Dammit, Elizabeth. Why do you make things so difficult?” He took on the demeanour of a Tudor warship in full sail, advancing across the kitchen floor. Some of the swept fringe of his hair, steel grey and still full bodied, becoming unswept and falling back onto his brow. “I like you.” He stopped dead and stared at her.
“I know,” Elizabeth said softly, pursing her lips.
“Then why?” Bill persisted.
For an endless moment they said nothing; the clock on the wall ticking away the seconds as he stood his ground in the middle of the kitchen in his polished shoes, staring at her.
Elizabeth continued to lean against the worktop, though her instinct was to walk away. She was held by bitter and sorry confusion, with a minor war going off in her head; old feelings, old memories, lost desires and guilt pinching the back of her eyes. “Just don’t,” she said finally, looking back at him through a watery haze.
He ventured forward, arms extended, eyes, softly glowing with an emotion she barely dared to imagine. Pushing out her arm, she stayed him. Splaying a hand on his colourful sweater, she almost believed she could feel his heart beating.
“Why not?” He asked, in a manner stubbornly unresigned to any shade of failure. “You’re beautiful.”
She felt the return of an old thrill winding it’s through her psyche, a much younger self, not bound by hardened cynicism and self imposed isolation, smiling coyly. The confusion faded and the war in her head died down to a manageable affray, but the bitterness still had a word to say. “Don’t be daft.” She said stubbornly.
Bill faltered seemingly on the edge of a difficult decision, tracing the lines of her face with questioning brown eyes as if they might somehow inspire him.
Elizabeth thought he had never looked less disagreeable; the stray hairs lightly resting on his brow making him appear almost endearing.
Inspiration apparently eluding him, Bill dropping his chin toward the hand still resting on his heart and sighed.
“Come back tomorrow afternoon around six.” She smiled at him, sensing a wave of relief as he lifted his head and smiled back.
He lifted her hand from his sweater and, grinning, maybe not so stupidly, Elizabeth thought, planted a kiss on her knuckles.
“I’ll be changed and ready” She concluded, gently nodding her head.
That night she slipped into bed as usual and as usual, swept her hand across the empty expanse by her side. But, unusually, it didn’t seem so empty.