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Rated: GC · Short Story · Relationship · #1835710
Impending death reunites two former lovers
I held her hand as she died.

I felt the slightest twitch from Stella’s fine, fragile hand, and saw a faint smile as she turned her head towards me.  She closed her eyes, gave a deep sigh and stopped.  On the other side of the bed, her daughter, Carrie, sat with her head bowed to her chest with tears flooding down her face.  I kissed Stella’s silent mouth lightly in a final gesture of farewell and left the room, followed by Carrie.  A nurse showed us to a quiet room and we sat looking at each other, memories flooding back, becoming almost tangible between us, but neither of us seeming to want to break the silence.

“It was only after mum told me all the details of your relationship that I agreed to contact you,” Carrie told me eventually.

“Surely it would have been easier for her to get a nurse or a social worker to make the contact?” I observed.

Carrie smiled, a rather watery smile, “I think she was trying to get me to reconcile with you.  She knew how I felt about you, and she didn’t want it continuing after she died.  Underneath all her fierce determination, mum had a very soft spot for the people she cared about.”

I knew this to be true, and my mind went back to that evening six weeks ago.  I was relaxing after a hard day’s work; I was a clinical psychologist and the clients that day had been particularly tough.  Around 6:30 pm, the phone rang and I answered, rattling off my number.

A quiet voice that I somehow felt I ought to recognise asked, “Peter Craven?”  “That’s me,” I replied.  “Peter, this is Carrie Temple, formerly Carrie Hemmingway.” 

I was astonished; this was probably the last person on god’s green earth who I would have expected to hear from.  “Uh well, hi Carrie, how are you?” I managed to ask.  “And how’s your mum?”

“I’m coping, I guess,” she replied with a tight voice, “but mum … ,“ she sobbed and my heart tightened.

“Carrie, what’s happened,” I asked, my voice betraying my fear.

“Peter, I really don’t want to talk about this on the phone—could we meet somewhere?”

“Sure, Carrie—if you think you can trust me, you could come to my place.” I gave her my address.

Carrie hesitated, then said, “Yes, I guess that will be okay—I’m actually quite close, so I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

Shortly after this, the doorbell rang, and I invited Carrie in.  She had changed quite a lot over the past twenty years.  She’d put on weight in all the wrong places and she looked the epitome of a harassed, defeated housewife.

“Thank you, Peter,” she said as I offered her a drink, “white wine if I could, please.”  She settled into a lounge chair and I waited for the news that I secretly dreaded.  And dreadful it was.

“Mum has been diagnosed with an incurable and rapidly spreading cancer,” she eventually gasped, throwing the words out as if she needed to get rid of them, as if they were some form of curse.  “When she was first diagnosed that rat Eddie walked out on her saying he wouldn’t be able to care for her.  Not that he ever had cared, really,” she reflected.  “When it was obvious that there wouldn’t be a cure, and the doctors were evasive about how long she might live, mum became adamant that she wanted to see you again.”

I felt as if I’d been hit by a truck, but struggled to maintain my professional detachment in the face of Carrie’s obvious stress.

Carrie paused then continued, “Peter, I owe you a huge apology.  I’d hated you ever since I can remember, first because I believed that you broke up my parents’ marriage, then I assumed that you had walked out on mum.  It’s only been over the last few weeks that mum has managed to persuade me about the truth.  Anyway, she was desperate for me to contact you.  I objected strongly at first,” Carrie looked at me with a cautious expression on her face, but I didn’t bite and she continued, “then we made a deal.  I would contact you if she told me the whole story, warts and all, about your relationship.  She did and I did.”

“I’m so glad, Carrie”, I replied.  “I can guess how hard it must have been for you to contact me and I don’t like the idea of anyone hating me.  I suppose your mum told you that I was just the catalyst for the marriage breakdown; the seeds had been there for a long time.  As to walking out on her, well, yes, I guess I did, but it was the result of a monumental row after we jointly decided that we couldn’t continue our relationship.  We discovered that, no matter how much we loved each other we just couldn’t live together.”

I returned to an earlier theme.  “Carrie, you must be completely devastated.  I know how close you have been to your mum.  How are you managing to cope?”  My professional training started to kick in but I resisted the temptation to go into full psychologist mode.

“Only just, Peter; I know she doesn’t have too much longer—six weeks seems to be the maximum estimate but it could be less.”

“SIX WEEKS,” I shouted, regretting my outburst as soon as it was out seeing the pain in Carrie’s eyes.  “I’m so sorry, Carrie, I was just astonished at how little time there is left.  When can I see her … please?” I begged.

“Mum hoped that you would be prepared to see her again after all this time, but I’d better warn you, the disease and the treatment have knocked her around quite badly.  She won’t be the same person you used to know.” Carrie warned.

“Mmm, I actually think she will—the externals may be different but I doubt whether her spirit will have dimmed."

“Okay, Peter, she’s at the Central Palliative Care Unit in town.  I’m there every day, and mum is usually at her best just after lunch.  If you could call in tomorrow around, say, 2:00 pm, I think she’d be happy to see you.”

Carrie left.  Only then did I allow my feelings to have free rein as I sat motionless with a flood of emotions pouring through me.  I remembered the joy and excitement that Stella had brought into my life, diminished by the volcanic argument that had ended our relationship.  I felt distressed that she should now be facing imminent death, and that I had never done anything to try to mend the fences broken down as we split apart.

How did I feel about Stella now, after twenty silent years, now that she was facing the end?  I found myself almost overwhelmed by an intensity of love, tenderness and something close to a renewed passion for this woman that I had once expected to spend the rest of my life with.  Now I had just six weeks to attempt to bind her to me in a last farewell.  Not nearly enough time, but I felt a powerful need to reconcile myself with Stella before the opportunity was lost forever.

At two o’clock on the dot the following day, Carrie took me into Stella’s room.  She was asleep as I walked in and Carrie put her fingers to her lips and turned, indicating that we should leave.  However, I walked to Stella’s bedside and looked down at the woman I had loved so passionately twenty years ago.

Carrie was right.  Stella had shrunk, her skin looked fine and fragile and she had lost a great deal of weight, the bones showing through her hands, and probably other parts of her body.  Her head was covered in a scarf, the legacy of hair loss through chemotherapy.  I bent and kissed her forehead as lightly as I could, but she woke from her sleep.

“Boy?” she queried after opening her eyes; her pet name for me as I was seven years younger than her.  “Oh my god, I thought I was dreaming.  You’re really here, it’s really you?”

“Yes, Stella, I’m really here, thanks to Carrie’s generosity and powers of persuasion.  Now what on earth have you been doing to yourself?”

“Well, I managed to develop a very aggressive, very fast moving form of cancer, and I’m afraid it will kill me within a few weeks.  When I heard about it, and particularly after Eddie abandoned me, I knew I needed to see you again.  I had a bit of a battle to persuade Carrie to contact you, but I told her our sad story and she agreed to do so.  Now here you are,” and she favoured me with a brilliant smile.

“Oh Stella …,” I started, but my futile attempt at detachment collapsed under the weight of the truth.  My voice choked up and I was unable to go any further.

Stella looked at me with an expression of great love and compassion and whispered, “Come here, you silly boy and let me comfort you.”  So saying, she pulled my hands down causing me to bend forward so that my head nestled into her shoulder.

She stroked my hair and made soothing noises until I straightened up saying, “My darling Stella, I’m the one that should be comforting you, not the other way round.”

“You just being here is comfort enough for me, Peter.  It’s my last wish come true.”

Carrie had been silent this whole time, but when I looked at her I could see tears streaming down her face.  “Poor Carrie,” Stella whispered, “this is so much harder for her than it is for me.  Peter,” she continued, her voice now firm but insistent, “please don’t reject Carrie.  She needs all the support she can get, and I’m afraid her husband Benny is rather a weak reed.”

“Stella, I can imagine how hard it must have been for her to approach me in the first place.  I don’t bear her any malice at all, and I will do anything I can to help her."

“Thank you my darling Boy,” she smiled, and beckoning me to her, gave me a soft but very sweet kiss.

“Stella, I don’t want to cause you too much stress—it must have been a big shock for you to see me standing there, totally unexpected.”

“Yes, but it was a lovely shock; I hadn’t expected it, just hoped with all my heart that it might happen,” she smiled again.

“Okay, my beautiful Stella, I shall visit you every day; I think we have a lot to talk about, and I have some things I want to say to you, all of them, I hope, will be gentle and loving.”

I bent and kissed Stella once again, then turned and left so that she couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

I settled into a pattern of regular daily visits, somewhat neglecting my practice, but that was the least of my worries.  I could see that the disease was taking its toll on Stella’s limited reserves of strength and resilience, and one day after about two weeks of visits, she said to me, “Peter, can you call in tomorrow around two o’clock.  Carrie won’t be here; I’ve managed to persuade her to let me spend some time alone with you, although I think she will still worry about me.  Is that alright with you, my dear?”

“It’s more than alright, Stella, I don’t know how I will get through those hours before I see you again.”

“Silly boy,” she teased, but again gave me her brilliant smile that seemed to compress all her love and tenderness into that one gesture.

I arrived at precisely two o’clock as summoned.  Stella was sitting up in her bed, dressed in a lacy bedjacket with what looked like a silky slip underneath.  She had put on light but effective makeup; lipstick, light eye shadow and some moisturiser.  She had painted her nails the same colour that she always wore when we were together.

“Well, hi handsome,” she greeted me, “what brings you here?”

“Listen, you cheeky wench, I’m here at your command, ready to do all or any of your bidding,” I batted her mischief back to her.

Stella couldn’t maintain her badinage, however, and tears gathered in her eyes.  “Oh god, Peter, Boy, please, my darling, love me.  Love me like you used to; love me just one last time.  Please!”

“Stella, my dear, sweet, wonderful, gorgeous Stella—are you absolutely sure?  I don’t want to hurt you or make your situation worse than it already is.”

“Peter,” she was firm and quite certain.  “You couldn’t damage me any more than I’ve already been damaged.  Of course, if my condition repels you, I quite understand, and …”

“No, Stella, no, no, no,” I was equally firm.  “Repulsion is the last thing on my mind, and if you don’t believe me …,” and with that I swept my hand up and removed the scarf from her head.

Stella was startled; “No, Peter, please …,” she begged, but I bent and kissed the top of her head, powdered with the lightest dusting of hair regrowing after the chemotherapy.

“Right at the moment I can’t think of anything I want more than to make love to you.  I just want to be sure that you won’t be harmed; after all, as I remember, we used to get quite enthusiastic.”  I stated my case with a conviction based firmly on the truth.

“Mmm, I want you, too—so much that it almost hurts.  Only now, please be gentle with me, my love and I’m sure we can find a special place for both of us to treasure for ever.”  Once again her tone changed, now back to playful.  “So stop dithering, Boy and get your clothes off.  I want to see what I’ve been missing for the past twenty years!”

“Your wish is my command, mistress,” I joked and in no time at all I was in front of her clothed in nothing but a wide grin.

“Mmm yes, very impressive equipment, even for an old man!  Now come closer, I want to make a proper inspection.”

“An improper inspection, you mean don’t you, you wanton hussy?” I laughed as I went to stand by her bedside.

Stella giggled.  “Yes, of course, Boy.” And she reached out and took me in her hand.  She was soft and warm in spite of seeming to be so fragile, and she stroked me into the beginnings of a very functional erection.

“Mmm, ooh Peter, kiss me,” she murmured, and I sat on one hip on the bed and held her with my arms around her slim shoulders.  I kissed her, running my tongue along her lips and gently pushing into her mouth as she opened it.  Our kiss was long and sweet and tender, and Stella hummed and made soft mewling noises as we embraced.

We broke the kiss at last, and I looked at Stella and was mildly surprised to see mischief in her eyes, the sort of mischief that had used to make my heart do cartwheels.

“Now kiss me again, Boy,” she demanded and I moved back towards her.  “No, not there,” she giggled, “Kiss my pussy.”

“Your body may be betraying you, but inside you’re still the same hot-blooded little minx that I’ve always loved.”  I countered.

“You know your problem, Boy,” she tried to sound stern but failed conspicuously, “You talk too much.  Oh, and by the way, I hope you’ve got some protection—I wouldn’t want you to get me pregnant!” Stella giggled, and then continued, “Now are you going to kiss my poor neglected pussy or do I have to get rough with you?”

I laughed out loud, but replied as I had before, “Your wish is my command, mistress.”  I threw back the covers and she spread her legs as wide as she comfortably could.  I scooted down the bed and worked my way up bearing all my weight on my elbows.  I was soon in position and my tongue stroked lightly over her sex, now with only the “peach fuzz” regrowth.

Using plenty of saliva, I worked my tongue between her outer lips and penetrated a short distance into her.  Stella gasped and whimpered as I moved up and down deliberately avoiding her clit.  I held her hips in my hands and then with absolute gentleness, started nibbling on her clit.

This had an immediate effect on Stella.  She writhed and cried, “Oh god, Oh Peter, Oh Boy, don’t stop, this is so good, please, more, … so wonderful … so beautiful.  I didn’t think I’d ever …  Ooh, ooh, ooh, Peter I don’t think I can take too much more of this bliss, and I so want you to love me.  Please, my love, please make love to me.”

“Hold me and tell me if I’m ready, you temptress,” I laughed, “but are you sure you are lubricated enough?”

Stella laughed in reply.  “Doesn’t matter.  I blackmailed one of my favourite nurses to get this,” and she produced a large tube of KY jelly from under her pillow.

“Okay,” I said, “I think side by side is the safest way,” and I laid down beside her, lifting one of her legs over mine.  Then, to enhance her excitement, I slid one hand up under her slip feeling for her breast.  The disease had caused her body to become emaciated.  Her breast had shrunk, but the nipple, although small, was quite hard.  I pinched it gently and Stella squealed and kissed me, murmuring, “Oh yes, Boy, just right.  I’d forgotten how good that feels.  Mmm do it some more,” which I did, getting the same response.

Then she gasped and told me, “That is so good, but what I really need is to feel you inside me.  Please, darling, don’t make me wait any longer.”

I worked a liberal amount of KY into her pussy and onto my cock.  “Ready, lover?” I enquired, and was rewarded by a long drawn out hum of desire and longing.

I positioned my now rigid erection at her entrance, pushing forward, gently at first.  There was some resistance but I didn’t want to hurt her, so I took it very slowly in spite of a gathering desire to plunge into her beautiful body that I had enjoyed so much all those years ago.

“Now listen, Boy, I may be sick, even sick unto death, but I won’t break.  Do me like you used to and make me happier than I ever thought I’d feel again.”

I took Stella at her word, and pushing harder, slid firmly but slowly into her, until she was full of me.  She clearly thought this was wonderful as she cried out in her ecstasy, moaning, whimpering and demanding.

“Fuck me, Boy, fuck me and make me scream.  Give me your seed as a parting gift.  Make me cum, you beautiful man.  Oh god, I want you so much—I love you so much.”

She moved beside me, seeming to force me even deeper into her and I could feel her silky muscles gripping me lightly as I slid in and out.  While those muscles were quite weak, her enthusiasm and the satiny heat easily made up for that.  I continued feeding myself into her as my own orgasm rose inside me, an indescribable blend of excitement, sensory overload and pure, unadulterated lust.

Stella’s cries of passion rose in a crescendo ending in a wailing scream as she clasped my back, digging her nails into me with surprising strength.  Eros must have been watching over us for we came together in blissful orgasms.  We both stayed holding each other and whispering words of love until my spent cock exited Stella’s body.

“One more thing, please my darling Boy, but you will have to help me,” she begged.

“Anything, sweet Stella,” I replied.

“Just scoot up so that I can clean you with my tongue,” she was quite positive, and I did as she asked.  Stella’s soft, rather hesitant tongue worked its way up and down and around me, until I knew what I needed to do.  I moved down again and kissed her, my mouth open and my tongue searching for hers as we shared our combined juices in a KY cocktail.

“Oh Peter, Peter, my darling, oh god that was the best ever.  You are a magician; I’ve been dreaming about this for so long but I feared it would never happen.  Thank you so much, my love.”

“Stella,” I started but then hesitated.  “Stella, there are no words to describe how I feel right now.  ‘I love you’ will have to suffice, but I want to wrap you in my love and hold it to me for the rest of my life.  You may have to leave me physically, but you will never leave my heart.”

She looked at me with tears in her eyes, but her expression changed and she seemed to withdraw from our togetherness.

“Peter, darling, I am so tired.  That little workout has drained me and I must sleep.”

“Oh Stella, I am so sorry; if I’d known that you would react that way, I would never …,” I started, but a little of her fire returned.

“No, Boy, I wanted you, I needed you and you were wonderful.  I would never have missed this and I don’t care about any aftermath.”

“Are you sure, sweetheart?” I was still unconvinced, but she smiled a sleepy smile.  “Go home and dream of me and know that I will be dreaming of you.”

I kissed her once and left, walking on air, knowing that this had repaired the damage done over the past twenty years.

I visited Stella every day after our coming together, but she was often sleeping and our conversations such as they were, were usually quite desultory.  This pattern continued for around two weeks, then one day I entered her room to find Stella sitting in her lounge chair, something I hadn’t seen before.

“Hi sweetheart.  So you’re able to get around a bit, now?”

Stella looked at me with determination blended with strain.  “Almost, Boy, but I needed to talk to you, and I wanted to do it face-to-face.”

“Mmm, tell you what—can you stand by yourself?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so, but what did you have in mind?”

“Let me sit there, then you can sit on my lap and cuddle up to me and whisper sweet nothings in my ear,” I suggested.

“Oh yes, that would be wonderful,” Stella replied, and in a short time she was snuggling her head into my shoulder.

“Peter, I need to tell you this—it is so important to me.  When the cancer diagnosis was confirmed and it became obvious that I wouldn’t survive, I became terrified of dying, absolutely petrified.  I was having horrifying visions of the angel of death coming for me and dragging me, screaming, into oblivion.”

“Oh Stella, my darling, how were you able to deal with that?”

“I wasn’t, and it was getting worse,” she replied.  “Then I became desperate and hoped against hope that you might be prepared to see me and perhaps offer a little comfort.  I hoped that you hadn’t completely forsaken me after all this time.  Then I woke up and saw you standing there and I could hardly contain myself.”

“Yes, and instead of being strong for you, I broke down.”

“No, Peter that actually made things better.  You could show that you were vulnerable but not run away from me.  That gave me hope.  Then you visited me every day, and I know you sacrificed your practice for me.”

I started to reply, but she put her finger against my mouth.  “Shh, let me finish,” and I did.

“With the knowledge that you cared, I started to come to terms with the inevitable; I’ve been able to accept what can’t be changed and I became able to deal with my limited future.  Now I know I can go without the fear and horror, knowing that I am loved without reservation.  Yes, I know about Carrie, but she is my daughter and we have strong family bonds.  But you have come to me without hesitation.  You never reproached me about the past or tried to justify yourself, and then, against all the odds, you were prepared to love me.”

“It was simpler that that, my love,” I responded, “I just wanted you, like I always wanted you.  Yes, your body had changed, but you were still the Stella that I knew and loved.  Nothing was ever going to change that.”

“Oh, Boy, I love you so much.  Please, my darling, please don’t forget me.”

“Stella, that will never happen—I’ve never forgotten you these past twenty years, and I’m not going to start now.  Yes, change will happen, but your memory will stay in my heart until that, too, stops.  Let me tell you something I sometimes tell my clients.  You can’t forget and shouldn’t try.  What you can do is to wrap those memories in tissue paper and store them in the back corner of the bottom drawer.  They’re always there and sometimes you can take them out and look at them.  Life must go on and I will know that I am cured when I can remember but don’t have to re-live—all the pain, sadness, hurt, sense of loss and grief around losing you.”

“Peter,” she said, and there was laughter in her voice, “don’t grieve for me for too long.  Then you need to find yourself a nice nubile girl who will adore you and give you lots of babies.”

“Mmm, I’m not sure about that, but who knows, it is just possible that I could eventually find someone who might just about come within a hundred miles of you, but it will be a long, hard search.”

Stella laughed, but it was clear that she was becoming quite weak, so I stood with her in my arms and settled her into her bed.  “Thank you, my love,” she whispered and was almost instantly asleep.

I left quietly, and returned next day, but Stella was soundly asleep.  Then on the third day I had the phone call I had been dreading.  Carrie rang me early, around 8.00 am just as I’d finished breakfast.  “Peter, you’d better come quickly,” her voice trembled through her tears.  “The doctor says she has only a few hours left.”

I made a rushed call to my receptionist to cancel all my appointments and left for the palliative care centre, arriving about an hour later.  The nurse spoke to me as I rushed towards Stella’s room.  “Dr Craven, I’m afraid Stella has only a short time left.  Her breathing is erratic,”  “Cheyne-Stokes?” I asked.  “Yes,” she confirmed.  “Her blood pressure is down, she is taking no food or water, her hands are very cold and there is cyanosis in her hands and feet.  She will be able to hear almost until the end, though, so keep talking to her.”

“Thank you, Robyn,” I just managed and went into Stella’s room.  Carrie was already there with tears trickling down her face.  I sat next to Stella and took her cold hand in mine.  That seemed to waken her very briefly as she whispered, “Boy,” and I talked to her, telling her how much I loved her and that Carrie and I would be here for as long as necessary.  I was rewarded with a smile, but in the event we did not have long to wait before Stella finally left us.

Reliving that moment brought me back to the quiet room, Carrie watching me with a resigned look on her face.

“Well, Carrie, it’s all over now and we’ll need to move on as best we can,” I eventually conceded.

Carrie nodded her head then seemed to pull herself together.  “One last thing, Peter.  Mum made me promise to give you these,” and reaching into her bag, she pulled out an envelope and a small wrapped box.  The envelope was clearly a letter and opening it, I saw Stella’s handwriting, now weak and rather spidery, but still quite legible.

“My darling Boy

I have been so blessed by your being here with me at the last, something I had only dreamed about before you arrived that day.  I can’t find the words to tell you how much that has meant to me.  My pride and stubbornness prevented me from seeking to reconcile with you before—and, dare I say it, perhaps there was a little of that in you.  Suffice it to say, I settled for second best and now bitterly regret having done so.  What I will never regret and have never regretted is the love we shared for those precious years.

I have found myself again in the warmth of your love and when you held me and loved me, I could easily have left then on a cloud of passion and joy to float into the next life—whatever that may be.  Please, darling, remember me fondly, as I am sure you will, and smile to yourself when you do so; and I am equally sure about that.  I have been able to draw strength from you to help me through the last painful days, and that is a gift without price, without measure, and words cannot tell you how special this has been and how wonderful you are.

In closing, my love, I can’t do better than Mary Frye’s lovely words:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

All I now have to leave you is my undying love for ever.

Yours always

Stella

PS  I’m sure you will know what to do with the contents of the box.

PPS  Please be kind to Carrie—she has been my rock for the past few difficult months, especially as you have now relinquished any animosity towards her.

PPPS  (this next was written in even more fragile script that was quite difficult to decipher).  After our little talk today, I had to add that you have saved me.  Not my body for that has finally betrayed me.  You have saved my soul with your unconditional love and that will carry me forward across the threshold.

Love always

S.

I sighed as tears started in my eyes.  Carrie looked at me inquisitively and I handed her the letter without comment.  She read through it then asked me, “Peter, would you be offended if I asked you for a copy of this?”

“Of course not,” I replied.  “We could ask the ever helpful Robyn if she could arrange a photocopy,” which we did and it was done.

“Peter, I know it’s none of my business, but please tell me what is in the box?”

I smiled and tore the wrapping off to reveal a small velvet covered case.  I opened it and was almost struck dumb.  “OH … MY … GOD!”  I exclaimed with some force, and a tsunami of emotions and memories almost drowned me.

Looking over my shoulder, Carrie said, “That’s an engagement ring, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes, Carrie, that’s an engagement ring, and, to my shame, I’d quite forgotten about it; in any case, I thought it was lost.”

“But, …, but, …, but,” she stammered.

I looked closely at Carrie but she was clearly confused.  “Stella never told you, did she?”

“Told me what?” the confusion was still evident.

“Your mum and I were engaged to be married.  I proposed about six weeks before the fateful Christmas, and we bought the ring together.  This ring.  We didn’t tell anyone else although Stella always wore it when we were alone together.  We’d been planning to tell the whole family at the big Christmas celebration that year, then two weeks before Christmas we broke up in that amazing confrontation.  We had been living together for a while, but it had become evident that at that level we were too incompatible.  I think we both fooled ourselves into believing that marriage would sort out the problems.  When we jointly realised that it wouldn’t, there was a monumental argument.  Stella flung the ring at me and I stormed out.

We did meet once more about two months later, but the wounds were unhealed, and it was an uncomfortable experience for both of us.  That was the last time I saw Stella until a few weeks ago, although I did pick up the odd snippet around the tracks; I had heard about her relationship with Eddie but nothing really concrete—until you rang me.”

“I see”, Carrie was non-committal; I think she was very surprised by this revelation, although it could have little meaning for her now.  “So what will you do about the ring?”

At this point I felt a strange sensation, almost like a tickle in my mind, and I knew without a doubt what should be done.  “Carrie,” I asked, “Are you arranging the funeral?”  She nodded her head.  “Then would you please arrange with the funeral director for this ring to be put on the third finger of her left hand before the burial?”

“Oh Peter, that is so beautiful,” Carrie sighed.  “Of course I will; that is the perfect way to resolve it.”

The funeral was a few days later, and I had a call from Carrie asking me to be at the funeral home half an hour before the service started.  I was curious, but arrived at the appointed time.  Carrie gave me an unusually welcoming smile and took me to where Stella’s coffin sat waiting.  It was open, and Carrie said to me, “Look, Peter, just as you asked,” and true enough, Stella’s engagement ring shone in the dim light, on the third finger of her left hand.  I bent and kissed her cold forehead one last time and looked at Carrie.

“Thank you so much, my dear, but I did trust you absolutely.”

“No, it wasn’t that, Peter,” she replied quietly, “I wanted you to see how it looked for your sake.”

I couldn’t answer; my voice was choked with tears, but I held her lightly in my arms and kissed her, which seemed to satisfy Carrie.

The service was simple but moving, conducted by a civil celebrant; Stella had never had any strong religious faith.  The celebrant had obviously spent some time with Stella as she caught up with me after the service saying, “You must be Peter, or should I call you ‘Boy’?”

“Peter will do fine; you obviously got to know Stella very well.”

“Part of the job, really, but she was a special lady and she did love you very much.  I think you were a very lucky man,” she finished.  I smiled and shook her hand, and we moved away when those who were going left for the burial.

This, too, was a simple ceremony, and I dropped one red rose onto the coffin as it was lowered.  I was debating whether to go to the family gathering, but I decided that I couldn’t face Stella’s family.  I had caught site of Eddie skulking in the background and I was afraid that I might be tempted to deck him.  Then I reflected that if he hadn’t abandoned Stella, I might never have got to see her again.  Clouds and silver linings.

I decided that I couldn’t face the blend of false bonhomie and crocodile tears that were sure to be involved in the family send off.  I sought out Carrie and made my apologies; she smiled briefly and thanked me again for all I had done for her mother.  I looked deep into her eyes, seeing the pain but also the sense of defeat that seemed to be her constant companion.  “Carrie,” I said, “Don’t forget that if I can ever be of any help to you, you only have to ask.  You’ve got my number?”  She smiled, a rather worn smile; I kissed her cheek and left; I needed to be alone for just a little while.

Leaving the cemetery, I drove to one of my favourite beaches to watch the sun go down.  As I walked idly along the shoreline, I could have sworn I heard Stella’s voice whispering one of her favourite sayings in my ear, “Life is short.  Break the rules, forgive quickly, kiss slowly, love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that makes you smile.” It had to be my imagination of course—didn’t it?  It must also have been my imagination that I heard her warm, loving laughter, either that or it must have been the rippling and chuckling of the wavelets on the shore—mustn’t it?

The sunset exploded in a glory of reds, oranges and yellows against a sky composed of infinite shades of blue.  I smiled to myself and returned to the car.

6281 words
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