The paper crossword lay incomplete on the
table. Edward sighed, lifting his glass to his lips with melancholy
pleasure. The crossword had defeated him, tonight. Reluctantly, he gave
it up, pushing it away from him, disgusted. Now there was another two
hours to ill before he could conceivably give up on another day and go
to bed. This was now his monochrome life. Fooling himself with
activities, dividing his day into manageable time slots.
Jane who had got him into crosswords, when she first retired. She loved
to play with words, loved the challenge of hidden patterns, things
fitting together as they never did in life. Even in those last days in
the hospice, she still loved to help him with one. She would lie back, a
smile on her grey, shrunken face.
He considered it a certain
achievement when he got to the end of another day without her. But the
truth was, the night was the beginning of another long day. He lay on
top of hard sleep, unable to sink into it, hour after hour exhuming
buried memories, stretching his thoughts out on a rack. A slow
He thought there was nothing to be done. He looked for
silver linings - one of her sayings - lifting up every dark cloud of
Jane’s absence and looking underneath, gazing from all angles, but
He closed his eyes, remembering their wedding day.
Illuminated in the oxy acetylene light of memory, his shy treasure in
her Sunday best, silk impossible to come by in those early post-war
years. Her eyes were full of secrets, her skin flushed and soft to his
touch. He looked at her and knew he didn’t deserve her. He stood beside
her, whispering a silent prayer to an invisible confessional. All the
shame, the mistakes, the horrors of his life before her fell away from
him as he held her small, warm hand in his.
With her, he was the
good man he could have been, should have been, if it hadn’t been for the
war. Her life lay open before him, ready for the full story they would
write together. His was a book already written from cover to cover, in
blood. Her secrets waited for his unravelling, her riddles teased him,
said to him: Solve me! He already knew that his own questions had no
answers. His secrets must stay secret.
Reaching for a tissue, he rubbed away the tears that had begun to spill from his tired eyes.
“I know, Jane. I know.” He whispered. “I’ve got to count my blessings.” Another of her sayings.
She had said it when the boiler broke, when he lost his job, when it rained the whole week of
long awaited holiday in Scarborough. She had murmured it with a shaky
smile and a sad lift of her eyes, when their beautiful boy died after a
He sighed, thinking that he would struggle to find any
blessings to count, under all the junk. Jane would cluck impatiently,
surveying the piles of newspapers, the unread mail, the abandoned Jack
Higgins on the settee. Not to mention the crusty meals-on-wheels
containers on the table and the socks that hadn’t made it to the washing
basket. He meant to keep on top of it all, but it had quickly gained
the upper hand. At first he had looked at the layers of dust on Jane’s
prized oak furniture through her eyes, ashamed, determined to do
something about it.
Tomorrow. After a good night’s sleep. When I’m feeling a bit better.
those times hadn’t come and now he hardly noticed. Since there was only
him, who was there to care if the sink was clogged up with limescale?
The uncompleted crossword mocked him from its place on the table. Jane would never have given up on it.
remembered that day in the botanical gardens, a favourite place of
Jane’s. It was a hot, grey day, the sullen skies oppressive. The flies
buzzed in their faces as they walked. They breathed the stormy air deep
into their lungs, not speaking.
Somehow he knew what she was going
to sat before she said it. It was the aggressive type, apparently -
already spread to the lymph nodes. Surgery no longer an option. They’d
try radiation, of course, but…
He swallowed hard, staring at the wild, bright growth of roses all around him, mocking them with their vibrant life.
“How long?” He said at last.
“They’re not sure, darling…”
“Tell me, Jane.”
She lifted his hand to her dry, fevered lips. “A few months.”
there it was. The words to transect his life, neat, clean, swift.
Sitting quietly together on their favourite bench, the wound to finish
him off - as no war ever could - had been inflicted by his dearest love.
The one who had healed him.
It’s shocking how selfish we can be,
he thought now. On hearing those words, he had been angry. Furiously,
blindingly angry with her, for getting it, for not telling him, for
leaving him so soon. For her crass ‘count your blessings’ mentality,
which had stopped her ‘bothering’ the doctor sooner. Sitting on that
park bench, she had clung to him and cried, but he had remained rigid.
And that memory was what stopped him sleeping every night.
was still only half past eight, the summer sky outside relentlessly
light. He thought about all the evening barbeques that would be going
on, the lazy, contented laughter, the children still out playing, the
couples walking in the softened evening air. Life going on without him.
course, everyone had had something to suggest. Their daughter Ruth
wanted to drag him to a pottery class. He could take up origami, golf,
sky-diving… Whatever it was that lonely widowers did with themselves
when their reason for living had gone.
Sighing, he switched on the
television, flicking through the channels. Reality T.V, sport, a
depressing documentary about abuse in old people’s homes and the
obligatory episode of ‘Inspector Morse’. Something unspeakable on
Channel 4 - whatever happened to the nine o’clock watershed? He switched
He could, of course, just go to bed now. Walking into the
hall, he gazed up the narrow, darkened staircase with a sense of defeat.
If he started climbing those stairs, he would have to admit that it was
all over. He returned to the crossword.
“Arch enemy, seven words,
second letter ‘E’.” He muttered to himself. “what the hell is that?”
“Nemesis.” A whisper, a soft stirring of warm breath against his cheek.
Jane was smiling at him.
He gasped, reaching for her. “Darling…”
“You are hopeless, Ed.” She pointed at his crossed out attempt at 4 across. “Tyrone? Juliet’s cousin was Tybalt.”
“Well, you always knew your Shakespeare, Jane. What about 7 down? ‘Short of cash’, second letter ‘m’, last letter ‘s’.”
She touched his hand, a glow on his cold skin that travelled to his heart. “Impercunious.” She said.
the hell was I supposed to know that? Who uses words like that?” He
smiled into her gentle blue eyes. “Apart from you, old girl.”
looked around her, shaking her head. “Look at the state of this place.
Honestly, Edward - can’t you do anything without me?”
didn’t seem much point.” He said ruefully. “There’s only me here.” She
leaned towards him, cupping his face in her small, soft hands.
“I was right to worry about you, my darling.” She said.
He sighed. “Things are a bit sticky at the moment, love. I’ll get on top of it.”
“I’m worried about you.” She repeated, her gaze burning into him. Smiling gently, she released him.
“Don’t go yet -”
looked at her with helpless, beseeching hunger. She was fading away, a
trick of the light as he tried to hold her in his gaze. He leaned back
and moaned. Jane…
Everything was still. Silent.
Then warm breath against his cheek, the stirring of a whisper in his ear: “You are a brave man,
Don’t give up, my darling. Work out the clues, find the answers. Look
for your life.” And then she really was gone, the air empty, clear, the
smells around him familiar again. He found he was smiling.
There was only one more clue to complete the crossword. He frowned, muttering:
underside of cumulus nimbus.’ Five and seven letters, first letter ‘S’.
What the hell -?” He heard Jane’s voice in his head, the laughter as
“Silver linings, of course!”
The copyright of this post belongs to Alison Stickings