Coming Full Circle - A Short Story

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

An insight into the final thoughts of a widower.

 

Coming Full Circle

 

I catch sight of one of the most precious things in my life, the one possession I would rescue from my house if it was burning down. Framed in silver, it is a black and white photograph of my wife and I on our wedding day, hiding behind other family photographs which sit on the mahogany chest of drawers, conveying an ordinary family to the rest of the world, but one that I was nevertheless proud of, just like most other husbands, fathers and grandfathers would be.

One week after my wife’s death I resisted the painful pull of the photograph; it has now been three months since I last set my eyes upon it. Thinking it would ease the pain to consign it to the back, I tear open my wounds again. I look into Mary’s eyes, going beyond the black and white realms of 1937 and into her deep, blue eyes, the purity in them encapsulating what Time had snatched away from me. The current fading of my memory has not erased the crystal clear vision I have of our wedding day: I can still smell her sweet perfume, feel the smooth silk on her white wedding dress, taste the beauty of her luscious lips, and feel the summer breeze as we were whisked away on horse and carriage. I consider myself lucky that I can die in the knowledge of fulfilling the cliché of my wedding day being the best day of my life.

At the front of the chest of drawers is a photograph of my mother, taken around the mid-1920s. It is one of my favourite photographs of her, probably because I find it hard to remember her as the fresh-faced woman with the delicate features, instead of the withered shell that died some twenty-eight years ago. I hope I do not go the same way as her: if my Mum had known what she was like in the latter years of her life, she would have wanted somebody to end her time here. Again, my memory does not fail me with the events recorded deep in my past, as if they were designed to last the course of time like the pyramids. I can remember my mother’s funeral as if it were yesterday, but… no, I do not want this pain. Straining to fight the onslaught of my mind, I try to think of the mundane. I’m struggling to remember what I had for dinner last night, however. I’ll probably forget the events of this day, too.

Photographs are funny things. When I hold them, I am holding a piece of time; a part of time that is not slipping through my hands like quick sand. It is always there when I want it. It may only be a nanosecond, but I own it. The moments of my wedding day will never materialise again, but when I hold the photograph of me and Mary, my mind takes me back in time. That is one of the beauties of the human mind. However, when I look at the photograph of my mother I realise there is a tragic artificiality of the photograph: it offers retrospect, interjecting the natural flow of time, and shows us as we were before the future took its toll on us.

I glance at my mother’s eyes again, picturing in my mind the mysterious hazel colour of them, and decide it is time to leave the house and breathe fresh air. The atmosphere in my house is slowly growing reminiscent of a morgue and the photographs are suffocating me. I escape to the local grocer’s, taking in the house I grew up in along the way. My mother lived there until her very last breath. She had lost a lot of things towards the end, but she was still as stubborn as ever when it came to that house. It was the family home, the centre of what became a matriarchy, and it would have broken her heart to have been forced to leave, even when she was not really capable of looking after herself.

Approaching the drive that leads to the old, detached Victorian house, the heady aroma of geraniums attacks my senses. Owners have come and gone since my mother passed away, not emulating her longevity, but the scarlet red geraniums that were planted by the side of the wooden gate appeared to be one of the few things that were immortal. There must be something about them which appeals to the British, although I am not an admirer. For me, their appeal lies in what they represent. It immediately transports me back to my school days, even if I despise their pungent smell. It signified either the beginning or the finish of things, such as going to school or coming home from playing cricket with my younger brother. Mum did not keep many plants in her later years, but she was stubborn about those geraniums as well. Perhaps it was because my father loved them also, a man she never replaced after his death in the Second World War. Harold was the love of her life; no man would ever live up to him.

I would be lying if I said I was close to my father. I think the combination of my mother being omnipresent when I was a baby, whilst my father saw out the Great War, inevitably led to an immediate mother-son bond. My younger brother Arthur was luckier in that respect, being born after the Great War. Still, I felt a tremendous sense of guilt, as well as sadness, that I survived World War Two, and my father did not. I thought he was too old to serve in the British Navy, but he loved our country too much to admit that to himself. Irrespective of age, if the country called for the ultimate sacrifice, he answered. The subsequent telegram confirming his death at sea shattered my Mum’s world.

Surveying the geraniums like a botanist, my mind captivated by the past, I barely register the father and the son stepping out of the house. For a moment, the recently fitted modern door vanishes, replaced by a crisp, blue wooden one, and I see my father and Arthur leaving the house, about to step into our Austin 7 ready for a spot of fishing. That warm summer’s day around the early 1930s disintegrates as I turn my back on the house. I could make chit-chat with the current occupier of the house, Kevin, but I cannot face talking to him as tears seep through to the surface of my eyelids. Arthur should be with me here, right now.

I drag my body through leafy Cranbrook, and as I do, I realise one of the cruel sides of this life. After emerging from the war with my life intact, I began to appreciate life as a blessing, a one in many million roll of a dice. My parents could have had anybody instead of me, but it happened to be me that won the race to the finishing line of entering this world. I wanted to live a long, healthy life, and on the whole I have, even if my body cannot perform the things it once did, but there has been an unexpected tragedy to it. As I become older and older, more and more people die around me. As life extends, I view death through a lens ever more closely.

The fruit machine may have struck a lucky three fruits in a row when it came to my birth, as it does indeed with anybody’s birth, but I have had worse than average luck when it comes to experiencing death around me. Not only have I had to suffer the death of my parents, my wife, and younger brother, but my two children died very young during heavy German bombing in Kent in 1940. Mary later had several miscarriages after the war. One of my biggest regrets is never experiencing the joy of being a grandfather, but I had to come to terms with this many years ago.

The day of my new life after the war, as a teacher in one of the new technical schools in Kent, suddenly comes back to me. Perhaps it is because my mind is searching for the happy spells down the expansive corridor of time. I remember most of the names and surnames of the children of my classes; some details have vanished from the memory bank, but on the whole I remember this significant time for me like it was just yesterday. Now I’m staring at ninety-three. Do years really have 365 days in them?

I acquire the few bits and bobs I need and head for the till where a fresh-faced teenager serves me, probably no older than sixteen. I observe her unspoilt features, her youthful smile, and think how she could be my great granddaughter, even if in my heart and mind I am about forty years old. But then I see something subtle in her eyes that is often sported by society, a view of a ninety-three-year-old man that I am not acquainted with, and the chasm opens up between us. If only my body reflected its feelings, rather than bowing to numeracy.

I did feel slightly better when my mind was distracted by the mundane task of grocery shopping, but now my mood is dampened again by the reconfirmation that I am labelled as this ancient being, this other species. My two best friends, in fact my two remaining best peers that are still alive, Edward and Beatrice, know how I feel. I have known them since secondary school and they have always been there for me, particularly since Mary’s death. Like me, they will probably die in the place they were born. There has never been any reason to leave cheerful Cranbrook.

On my way to their house, I pass the local newsagent’s. I pause outside as I catch the headline of the latest Kent Messenger “ELDERLY COUPLE DIE IN CRASH”. Out of curiosity, I read the first few lines and I am soon forced to read the report all the way through. There cannot be another elderly couple in their early nineties called Edward and Beatrice McKenzie. As I digest it, my heart slowly shatters, shard by shard. It cannot be true, especially in a car crash of all things. But it is: a recent photograph of them smiling merely confirms my worst suspicions. A 20-year-old joyrider tearing down Waterloo Road smashed into Edward and Beatrice at approximately 9:15pm last night. Both of them died at the scene it said, whilst mentioning they had been married for seventy years. They should have gone on to be married longer than me and Mary.

I immediately think of their family, I know how close they were to them. I bet they are devastated, even if their son Alan is quoted as saying: “Neither of them would have coped without the other and although this is a bittersweet tragedy, it is a small mercy that they died together and will now be together in peace for eternity.” I suppose he is right about it being a small mercy- there is a part of me that wishes I had died with Mary. I think about visiting Alan as he only lives around the corner, but decide the family will probably want some time together. I do not really feel like talking, speech is failing me at this moment in time, though I will probably give Alan a ring when I get home.

It is not only a huge loss to their family, but also to me. I cannot really believe it; I have known them longer than I had known Mary. They have been a constant presence throughout my life. Sure, they were like me in the sense that society deems them “old” and I can already hear in my head somebody mentioning something along the lines of “they’ve had a good innings”; there is even an underlying tone of this in the news report, despite the fact the crash happened just last night. Yet they were in good health and would have had happy years ahead of them. They were not on the verge of dying at any moment. Amid the sadness eating away at my heart, I think that had they died in their sixties from ill health, people would see them going out at a relatively young age in a slightly more tragic light than a couple in their nineties dying in good health. Age is a number, but one’s health does not have to be dictated by a number.

I do not know how I would have coped without them since the death of Mary, but I shall have to now. I do not feel like living a long life is such a good thing, all of a sudden. When I was young I thought I would live forever, and after World War Two, I still thought this to an extent. The problem is one supposes everybody around them will live forever, too. Edward and Beatrice dying is the last nail in the coffin that is my vision of immortality. In truth, the concept shattered long ago when I lost my children, Alexander and Heather.

The walk home is long, as I process the web of memories created with Edward and Beatrice. The summer holiday in Somerset, Mary and I shared with them in 1957 springs to mind- what a delightful time that was. The camping holiday in Wales a few years later was also one of the happiest times of my life- even if it was not particularly funny at the time, having to set our tent up at three in the morning when we arrived. My mind wanders across the mental landscape and it lands on the time when Mary wrote to me telling me how much they helped her after the death of Alexander and Heather. On the front line, feeling a million miles away, it was a heart-warming consolation even if I was at rock bottom emotionally. Instantly, I felt the type of attachment that I had never felt before with other friends. I would always be grateful to them for that, like I am for their support since the death of my wife.

As the key turns the lock of my front door, I feel like I’m entering a place of incarceration. All around me are a barrage of memories constantly launching themselves at me, trapping me inside a tragic realm. Yet I’ve come home almost out of habit and with my two best friends dead, I have nobody to turn to. I pass the telephone in the sitting room, think of telephoning Alan, but I still cannot bring myself to talk to him yet. I need to deal with this sadness. Somehow.

I switch on the wireless for the local news, but as I do so, nature calls. Before leaving the bathroom, I catch myself in the mirror. What I see is an awful sight. Some would say the man in the mirror looks good for his age, but he is a far cry from his younger days when his physical appearance kept pace with his internal age. I stare at the wisps of white hair, the deep furrows that run across my face like a canal system and which surround my drooping eyelids. Only my hazel eyes, offering the same mystery that my mother’s did, give an insight into the man I am inside. But I know I am dying. I can feel it right now, as if I have just aged another year in the past hour. I raise my right hand to my face: the skin feels stretchy and cratered, not only the result of a loss of elasticity, but also the weathering of the storms of time. It cannot take any more tragedy, though.

So this is how the world sees me. This is what ninety-three years of human age looks like. I remember reaching my Mum’s age at death and thinking how weird it was to be the same age as my mother- how was that possible? I’ve moved well beyond her now though and am approaching my end. I should be grateful for a long, healthy life, something that a lot of people are never blessed to have, but a long life has brought me more pain than happiness.

I catch the last bit of the report and then turn the wireless off with a strange kind of contemplation, the kind that comes when you are forced to part with a beloved item. Before I find some rope and a chair, I take one last glance at the most precious possession of all. My life has come full circle.


Submitted: June 26, 2012

© Copyright 2022 Ben James. All rights reserved.

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Comments

David Stevens

this is a very nicely constructed insight, thanks for posting it keep up the good work.
David Stevens

Fri, April 5th, 2013 7:26am

Mark Spencer

I particularly like "Taste the beauty". Thank you for sharing this Mr. James.

Tue, October 24th, 2017 1:32am

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