Winter

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic
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Submitted: March 01, 2017

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Submitted: March 01, 2017

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Winter

 

Winter comes at the end. From the hugest giant to the smallest microbe, the one Achille’s Heel that we all share – the cold. Make anything cold enough, and it’ll die sooner or later.

That’s the thought currently rattling round and round Ian’s mind. Not of the insurance, or funeral costs, or mortgage, but of the cold, and the thick, warm material of his overcoat.

It was a quiet affair. A handful of people, gathered around a hole in the ground like moths over a candle. As the years had raged on, the number of friends around them had whittled away; however, like chipping away rock from a gem, only the most dear and precious had remained.

Ian wiped his nose with his handkerchief. It wasn’t caused by tears – he’d done all his crying weeks ago – but simply the cold. Snow and ice crunched underfoot, stark grey clouds haunted the sky, and trees had been stripped of their leaves as flesh tears from the bone.

There wasn’t to be a wake, they had decided. Due to the attendees of the funeral, they all knew each other anyway, and, besides, they weren’t exactly spring chickens themselves. Best get home, they reassured each other, out of the cold. Ian had agreed graciously, waving them off as their cars scuttled away from the cemetery and onto the motorway.

It was a silly place to put a graveyard, he thought idly, as he waited for the vicar to his tidying. There was a constant rasp and whir of cars rushing past, so not a single moment was silent. It was like trying to pray whilst someone was chattering into your ear.

‘Now,’ the vicar said at last, clapping his hands together and rubbing them for warmth. ‘That should be everything. Do keep in touch, won’t you?’

Ian looked up, glassy eyes watching the vicar. ‘Yes,’ he replied, forcing a smile. ‘Of course I will.’

‘Good.’ The vicar looked at Ian for a moment, and nodded sadly. ‘I was so…’ He struggled to find the right word, eventually settling on: ‘sorry when I heard about it.’ It. That’s the name everyone seemed to have. As if some great horror or scandal had happened, that they daren’t even mention the name. ‘It’s one of life’s greatest injustices, isn’t it? After you reach a certain point in life, things stop coming… and they start going away.’ The vicar cast a look to the floor and, shrugging on his overcoat, parted with Ian.

 

The house was cold. Of course it would be, chided Ian, watching his breath condensate in the air before him. He hadn’t turned the central heating on, had he? And now, the winter chill had trespassed into the house, taking residence in every little nook and cranny it could find.

Cranking the dial on the radiator, Ian stood up awkwardly, joints screaming at him with arthritis. At least it would become somewhat habitable shortly.

He sighed. It could the peak of summer, and it would still be cold to him. The place was missing her, like a schoolhouse without children. There were still two armchairs in the living room; two mugs in the sink; two coats by the front door. It was almost as if she was still here.

Long ago, back in the opening of their relationship, they’d decided against kids. The reasoning changed from one week to the next – “I just think my career wouldn’t cope with it,” “I’ve never been good with kids,” “Do we really want to risk the financial side?” – but the result was steadfast. By the time they both started to warm to the idea, it was too late. They’d both gotten old, and that time of life had long since passed for them. It was only as they were sitting in their empty, silent house that they started to think they may have made a mistake.

Not to worry, one would say cheerfully to the other. At least we’re not on our own, eh? And that would be the end of it.

For the vast majority of their life together, right up to the last few weeks of it, they’d been symbiotic. One would clean, the other would cook; one would do the shopping, the other the washing. They both earned money for the house, and they both looked after the other. They were full-grown adults and this was the twenty-first century, after all. No time for old-fashioned beliefs.

Then it all came to a halt.

The smallest clues gave it away. Like static before a thunderstorm, or birds flying from a disaster, it was the subtlest hints that things might be about to go horribly, horribly wrong.

 

Ian was just settling down with a cup of tea when the doorbell rang. That was suspicious enough in its own right; nobody ever rang the doorbell. Whenever they’d have friends round, Ian or Shell would be waiting by the front door to welcome them in. And whenever it was a cold-caller, it would be heralded by a stolid dun-dun on the door, not the shrill tinkling of the bell. Warily, Ian placed his mug back on the table and headed to the curtains. He slipped a hand behind one, pulled it back, and glanced through.

‘Ian! You home?’ It was Mabel. Ian tutted and let the curtain fall back into place. A moment later, he unbolted the front door and opened it.

She beamed as she saw him. Then, noting the occasion, it shifted into a more sombre smile of support. ‘How are you doing?’

‘Erm…’ Ian’s hand went instinctively to his balding shock of white hair, brushing into place. ‘Not bad. Do – do you want to come in?’ She did.

She shivered the moment she stepped over the threshold, presumably expecting it to be warm. ‘Sorry about the cold,’ he explained hastily. ‘Heating’s acting up...’

‘You ought to get that seen to,’ she replied, moving into the living room. ‘My old neighbour, Jeanette, her heating went over the winter. One morning, it got so cold, that she ended up freezing to—’ Mabel stopped.

Gently, Ian nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I’ve heard stories like that. The carer used to always tell me to wrap up warm, never go outside unless it was essential. I was in the Army, I’d tell her. When you’ve been shot at, bombed, stabbed, all manner of things, a little bit of frost won’t do you any harm?’

Mabel’s expression was one of surprise. ‘You were stabbed?’ she asked, raising an eyebrow.

‘I was!’ he replied, a little indignant. ‘It was in Korea, ’46, I think. One of the bastards came charging at me with a sharpened stick, drove it into my leg. I didn’t come off too badly, mind. Just hurt a bit.’

‘I can imagine!’ Mabel cast her eyes towards the kitchen. ‘Any chance of a cuppa?’

Springing to his feet, Ian apologised hastily, and popped the kettle on.

 

They were both creatures of denial. That was one of the bedrocks of their relationship – instead of blowing a minor issue out of proportion, they’d simply ignore it until it went away.

Except this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away. The doctors were sympathetic, as they always were; reeling off a tome of medical jargon and babble, which they hastily translated into common English for them. Put in layman’s terms, her body was worn out. She was struggling to breath, her body couldn’t digest the food properly, her eyesight was beginning to fade, and it would only get worse from here. Optimistically, she’d have five years. Realistically, one.

As brutal as it might sound, he’d been expecting it. Neither of them had been specimens of health. He’d like the odd pint or five, she’d smoked ten a day until recently, and they’d both enjoyed a hearty diet, full of cholesterol and fat and whatever the papers were saying caused cancer this week. It was only inevitable that their health would catch up with them at some point.

But he was living in denial. A few more years, that’s all he wanted. A little more time of relative peace and quiet, before the end started to tumble into focus. They wouldn’t get that. Now, there was a deadline. Five years. Two hundred and sixty weeks. Ninety-fiveish thousand days, give or take a few dozen. That’s all they had left, and even that was wishful thinking.

When he was a child, a smattering of years older than his sister, his mother had died. He was only small, he didn’t understand what was really happening; all he knew was that Mummy had gone away, and Daddy had been crying when he thought nobody was looking. He had to look after his little sister – he was her big brother, after all. And that’s what big brothers were for.

That’s how he felt now. It wasn’t his job to cry, or mope, or wander around the house feeling sorry for himself. Things needed doing. Meals needed making, medication needed preparing, the house needed cleaning. She was the one who was getting sick, not him. She was the one whose days were numbered. Why should he get to suffer? He had to be her rock, to look after her. It’s what he was there for.

 

Mabel stayed round for the rest of the day, drinking tea with him, talking about old times. They’d known each other since God was little more than a glint in the milkman’s eye – living in a village as small as this all your life did that to you. He supposed, underneath the chatty exterior, was an ulterior motive – distract him. Keep his mind off the awful day, and give him something to smile about.

He’d always liked Mabel. There was something about the way she smiled at everyone who passed her by, or had an obsession with tea that bordered on the addiction. There’d even been the slightest flutterings of infatuation back in their school days, if he could recall. However, that had been firmly stamped out after he met Shell.

It wasn’t that she was paranoid, or jealous in any way. It was just a form of chivalry – even the idea of wanting for another woman was simply abhorrent to him. He’d manage to form a loose friendship with Mabel, which had only solidified in the past years.

And as she sat before him, gibbering about the new girl in the corner shop, he smiled, almost as if the past however many years hadn’t even happened at all.

 

One morning, he cleared out the house. He wasn’t planning to do so – the bane of retirement, in that having so many days free leaves little scrutiny for timekeeping. But, as he had woken up, habitually remaining on his half of the bed, he got dressed, ate some breakfast, and grabbed a black bin-liner.

Clothes were first. Anything that was hers, he stuffed into the bag. Charity shop. They’d decided that long ago, it was the best and easiest course of action. Within half an hour, he’d finished. Quick cup of tea to recharge, and then he was onto:

Books. Same matter – he combed through them, keeping the ones he liked (Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, all the Doctor Who ones she’d always thought were a little bit rubbish) and carefully packed all of hers (Philippa Gregory, Jenny Colgan, classics from Dumas to Austen) into a plastic box, like laying bricks. It was the same for the DVDs, and CDs, and even VHSs and cassettes they’d thought long gone (did they even have a VHS player anymore?). He stepped back. The shelves looked… rather bare now, truth be told.

He pushed the box into a corner with his foot – far too heavy to life on his own, he’d ask the neighbour’s lad to help him tomorrow – and sat in the chair. It wasn’t even lunchtime, and he’d already sifted through most of the tasks.

In her will, she’d left everything to him. This was mostly a matter of convenience – they’d lived in the same house for so long, the line between what was his and what was hers had become so blurred, it was practically non-existent. Secretly, he’d been hoping that some, if not all, would be left to some distant cousin or relative he didn’t know about. That they’d swoop into the house one day, grab the stuff, and disappear in a cloud of smoke. At least that way, it was done with. He wouldn’t have to do the damn thing himself. It was like writing her out of history, forgetting she’d ever been there in the first place.

It wasn’t just the shelves, he decided. The whole house looked emptier now. It was simply too big. Maybe he should move away, give the house to a family who needed it more. There was a pair of bedrooms, a study, good sized living room and kitchen – what did he need it for? Let him rot away in some care home for what little was rest of his life, that’s what the world would want of him.

No. This was his house. He’d lived there for three quarters of his whole life, he’d more than earnt the right to choose to stay in it. And he was staying put.

 

Over the next few weeks, he slowly adjusted to the new life. He stopped saying ‘Good morning,’ to Shell when he woke up, and just thought it instead. He managed to stop himself from making a second cup of tea, or asking what she wanted for dinner. It wasn’t easy. It was going against every fibre of his being, but he soon managed. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” rang in his mind relentlessly.

He was thinking of getting a dog. Something that didn’t take much looking after, but enough to keep him company. Pets were always out of the question with Shell – dogs, she was allergic to, cats, always scratched too much, birds and rodents messed with her breathing. And whilst she’d agreed for a fish, it was hardly companionship.

He could have a dog. A little Yorkie, or a Corgi, something small and wouldn’t take up too much space – not a Husky or a Malamute, nothing like that. Yes, he could see it now – walks in the park just after lunch, cheekily handing down little scraps and slivers of his meals for the pooch to nibble on, sitting with it curled as he watched the news. So it was decided; first thing tomorrow morning, he’d go to the pet shop, see what they to offer.

Anything to break the silence.

 

If you’d told eighteen-year-old Michelle Harris that in less than five years, she’d be married to Ian McFadden, lanky, spotty, gangly Ian McFadden, she’d have laughed. He was clumsy. He was awkward. And he always called her Shell, omitting the first syllable of her name for no reason other than it annoyed her.

But time has a funny way of working itself. As cliffs erode to dust, and continents shift apart from each other, the tension between the two gradually cooled. After a year, they were talking whenever they passed on Regent Street in their lunch breaks. Two years, they’d see each other in social groups and concerts. Three, she’d be telling him about how she was scared of never achieving anything in her life, how her mother had gotten ill and the terror that came with it, how Julie Wainwright in number forty-two had a bigger bust and the burning envy she felt over it; all the personal aspects of her life never before revealed to anyone but herself. By the fourth year, they’d been dating for some months now, and by the fifth, they’d be returning from their honeymoon – a week in Edinburgh.

And for fifty years, they’d woken up together, gone to work (him as a plumber, her as a typist), eaten their dinner and gone to sleep, in harmony.

Mabel had never had anything like that. It wasn’t that she was a particularly flighty sort of person; indeed, there was nothing she longer for more than someone steady she could listen to the radio with, and bicker as they cooked meals. But it had simply never happened. There had been rumours about her spending the night at Mr Arkwright’s, the butcher, or holding hands as she walked through the fields with Adam Quinn, who worked on the buses, but they were just that – rumours. Any trace of romance that was in these actions melted away not long after.

But she’d never become embittered. As friends around her grew old, got married, had children, she was always smiling, always offering her congratulations. If she couldn’t be Mummy, then Auntie Mabel was a fine substitute in her eyes.

 

On the fourth finger of his left hand, a small circle of gold sat defiantly. Ian didn’t know what to do with it – by rights, technically, he wasn’t married anymore. “Until death us do part” was simple enough to understand, naturally. But to him, it still felt like a betrayal.

In the fifty years or so of marriage, the ring had been removed precisely three times. Once was on a holiday to the Algarve, trying to get through airport security, the other two for hospital stays. The rest of the time, it had been wedged on his finger, almost becoming a part of it.

He’d heard about people who moved the ring onto the same finger of the opposite hand – it was supposed to be symbolic of lost love, some rubbish like that. He didn’t get that. It was like a light switch to him – either you were married or you weren’t. And if half of the relationship was deceased… well, wouldn’t take a genius to work out which it was.

Ian was sat at the kitchen table, working his way through a bacon and egg sandwich for his lunch. He’d only been in the army a scant few years, but the rigid protocol had been drilled into him – up at six every day, washed, dressed and making breakfast by half past. Even on Sundays or holidays, he wouldn’t sleep in. He probably didn’t even need the alarm clock now; there was something in the paper the other week, Circadian Rhythms and sleep patterns. He didn’t understand most of it, but the general gist was that as he’d been waking up at six every day for all of his adult life, it was now going to be instinctive for him, alarm or not.

Shell had always hated being called that. It was handy when they were working that day, of course, but of a Sunday, she wanted nothing more than to stay in bed, catch up on reading, only venturing out to make cups of tea, and then to fry up a nice breakfast. Sunday was the day of rest according to the Bible, she’d tell him; he’d quickly retort that, seeing as neither of them were religious, exactly what did that have to do with the price of fish?

She didn’t like being called Shell. Not at first, anyway; sounded too much like a character from a Disney film. In the first few months of their acquaintance, she’d take the time to remind him that it was Michelle, however long it would take. It didn’t do any good. It started off as teasing her, but it came to mean something more – only he was allowed to call her it. Anyone else would be committing blasphemy by doing so, they decided.

At the funeral, Ian had book a name, arranged in flowers, to be carried in the hearse. Indulging in a rare moment of selfishness, he asked for the name used to be not ‘Michelle,’ or ‘Wife,’ or ‘Sister,’ but ‘Shell.’ Nobody had minded. He needed it more than she did.

 

Mabel wasn’t quite sure what she was doing. At the back of her mind, there was the constant mantra – ‘Whore! Cow! Bitch!’ – that didn’t seem to stop, no matter what she did. He’s just been widowed, the voice thundered. He’s most likely still in shock – the body most likely will still be warm! Shouldn’t the poor sod be given a chance to grieve and come to terms with what’s happened, before you come swanning in like Mrs Robinson?

That would have been sensible. Let the dust in the air settle, and the feelings and emotions and hormones cool down, before they both made a big mistake.

It’s not that they’d been rushing into anything, of course. Once a week, just after Sunday Mass, Mabel would come over to Ian’s house, and they’d sit down with a cup of tea and catch up. He could do with the company, he reasoned. Someone to talk to whenever things got a little too much.

Aramis, the little Yorkie Ian had bought from the pet shop, would nip at her heels and yap incessantly whenever she called around, and Ian would always awkwardly scoop up the dog and calm it down. Mabel laughed at the sight, and took the dog from him, scratching the top of the head and under the jaw. That did the trick. They’d had a dog when she was a little girl, she explained to him, so it was second nature for her.

The little dear soon become used to her, and even barked excitedly whenever she knocked on the door. Mabel did, however, suspect that this had something to do with the bits of leftover bacon she’d slip it whenever Ian wasn’t in the room. Life’s too short for dog food, she decided.

It was rapidly approaching Christmas. The snowfall thickened around the solstice, fortunately dwindling after that. Ian and Shell had never had much plans for the yuletide – outside of having friends over for the meal, and the obligatory party in the town hall, what else was there to do? But now, even those faint celebrations were more than he could hope to do this year.

When Mabel had lost her brother, what seemed so long ago now, it wasn’t the anniversaries that affected her most, but the smaller ones. The first Christmas without him. The first Easter. The first Guy Fawkes’ Night, or Hallowe’en, or New Year’s, or Valentine’s Day. The occasions that seemed so mundane, but now she couldn’t imagine them without him. He’d died just before New Year’s, and every year, she could feel winter approaching, the terrible reminder of what she had lost, even now.

They decided to meet up for Christmas. They were both lonely, they reasoned, and had nowhere else to go or be. Why not? So he fumbled his way through a Christmas roast (Shell had always done that) whilst she arrived briskly at three o’clock dead on, with a bottle of wine and wrapped present in hand. Two hours later, she’d manage to correct everything he’d been doing wrong and they could finally eat what was left of the meal.

‘Sorry about the sprouts,’ he said sheepishly, inspecting one he had speared with his fork. ‘Thought I’d done them properly…’

‘It’s alright. I’ve just never seen them blackened before, that’s all.’ Mabel popped one into her mouth, swallowing it before she had a chance to taste it.

After they’d loaded the dishes into the washing up bowl – ‘Let me do it later, it’s my house,’ Ian had insisted – they settled in the living room, a present each. It had only been a few weeks since their meeting-up had started, but they both felt it was the right thing to do.

First of all, Aramis got a little bone, which kept him occupied for the next twenty minutes or so. He didn’t seem that hungry; almost certainly to do with both Ian and Mabel handing him bits of turkey under the table, without realising what the other was doing the entire time.

Mabel handed over the present. Two weeks ago, she’d waited until Ian wasn’t in the room (making a cup of tea, popping the loo, something like that) and jotted down all the books on his shelf. There must be one, she guessed, that he wanted but didn’t have yet. So she handed the list to her nephew, and asked if there was any missing. He said there was, and, taking the money she gave him, went into the nearby city to buy a copy of it.

He seemed surprised when he opened it, glancing at the books on the wall. ‘How did you…’ he started, wavering a hand vaguely towards it.

Mabel smiled her all-knowing smile, and tapped the side of her nose. ‘A little bird told me,’ she explained, puckishly.

Then it was her turn.

The paper had been wrapped unevenly, with bits of tape sticking down the errant corners and folds. Ian grimaced the moment it left his hands – suddenly, it didn’t look very impressive at all. Still, she’d opened it quickly enough.

It was a photo frame. Inside was one he’d found when clearing out the house – an ancient black-and-white one, from his school days. When he was in the shops before, he’d asked them to make a copy of it, which they helpfully did. He bought a frame and some wrapping paper, and went home.

‘I didn’t know what to get you…’ he said apologetically. The photo had about a dozen people in it, all from the same class. Ian was at one side, sporting the uneven patches of a novice shaver; Shell was in the crowd too, and Mabel. ‘You’ve probably got a copy of it yourself, somewhere…’

‘Yes, but…’ Mabel looked up. ‘Thank you, Ian. Thank you.’

And then she kissed him.

She hadn’t been planning to do that; in fact, it was a good second or so before she actually realised what it was she doing. She sprang back into her seat, eyes wide. ‘Erm…’ she murmured, having completely forgotten every word she’d ever heard. Sorry.’

Ian just looked at her. It wasn’t surprise, or annoyance, or lust, or anger. Just an empty look. ‘I think you’d better go…’ he whispered, his gaze falling to the ground.

 

It was a betrayal. Not that she’d kissed him, that wasn’t exactly his fault, but rather the fact that he enjoyed it. The fact that it was a nice kiss, that he wanted her to do it again. He was betraying Shell.

What would she want? They always said that, didn’t they? Giving everything they owned to charity, playing Right Said Fred at the funeral, skydiving in memory of them – “It’s what they would have wanted.” But more often than not, that was just an excuse, wasn’t it? A get-out-of-jail free card to do whatever the bloody hell they liked, and not feel guilty over it.

Aramis padded over to him and started to lick Ian’s drooped hand. Coming back to life, Ian blinked a few times, and moved his hand to shake the dog’s head. ‘Good boy,’ he said, patting its flank for good measure.

The dog looked up at him with deep, empty eyes, and Ian felt a twinge of guilt, for some strange reason. It looked so small, so innocent, that he wasn’t sure it was right to call it a dog at all – more like a teddy bear on all fours. Now bored with its master, Aramis went to the corner and curled into a ball.

Ian rose from his armchair. On the mantelpiece was a picture – his and Shell’s wedding day. She’d hated it; one of the biggest days of her life captured on film, and she was blinking. But he’d framed it and put in pride of place nonetheless. Now, it was one of the few reminders of her that he had left.

She looked so happy. Well, why wouldn’t she – her life was just starting. She had the rest of it to spend with the man she loved, she was young, she was pretty…

She’d want him to be happy. To hell with everything, she wouldn’t want Ian on his own in the house, slowly fading away just as she did.

Ian took the leash from the hook, and, whistling shrilly, stirred Aramis from his slumber. He hooked the collar onto the leash and went out the door.

‘Fancy a walk?’ he asked. Fortunately, Mabel hadn’t gone far. After going out of sight from Ian’s house, she’d leant against a wall, doing her level best not to cry.

She looked at him. He smiled, breath forming minute clouds before his mouth. She smiled too, and took him up on the offer. Together, they set off down the path, Aramis alternating between trailing between them and dragging them ahead. About an hour into the journey, Mabel even felt her hand interlock with Ian’s. He didn’t stop her, which worked out well – she didn’t want to stop.

Winter always comes at the end of the year, Ian thought. But it also comes at the start.


© Copyright 2017 Ben Ramsey. All rights reserved.

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