Short Story Category: 20 Minutes+
Well that’s great news winging its way over here to scorching Sydney (God it’s hot!). Got yourself an audition, and with a proper orchestra too. Good job one of us terrible trio ended up with some talent. Only thing I’m good at is fouling up relationships, but won’t go there now, not with how you must be feeling. When is it? Real pain we are so far apart. Goes without saying that you know I would jump on a plane to come and cheer you on, but things a bit tight right now. For that read well and truly busted. But enough of me. Well done little sister. Ps must be dead chuffed.
Well next big step on the way to your career! I am sure you will pass this just fine. Cup of camomile tea always helped with nerves before any big occasion. All of those long past for me now. So over to you!
Colin sends his love.
Dad’s just told me the brilliant news! Far out! Go for it. Sure you’ll be just fine. Must dash; exams beckon. Jammy beggar you being past all that! Talk later.
Just wanted to drop you a note before your big day. So sorry I had to cancel our last two lessons (God awful timing) but as you know Bill’s been taken really ill and I just need to be at his side. Know you will understand.
Sorry I was bit snooty about the Kodaly. Still can’t understand why any composer needs to mistune the instrument to get colour when everyone else manages just fine with what’s already there. You made a passionate defence of it and I’m sure you would have made a reasonable fist of it; we both know that you’ve surpassed me technically a good while back. But please trust me, the Bach suite is a better choice. You will be able to relax back without half your mind on remembering awkward fingering and will shine with it. Bastard that they won’t let me be with you, sat quiet as a mouse at the back of a room. Stupid regs. Suppose that’s one way of seeing whether you’ve got what it takes. Well take it from me you have.
Me again. Tried three times to ring but no joy. Badly need to hear your calming voice right now. Graham and I have split up. This will come as no great surprise to you. If you’re honest you never liked the guy (remember telling me how God awful it was someone squeezing their spots when they thought no-one was looking!). Being frank (which is how I know you like it), things have been crap for a long time. First time he played away from home I did my honest best to put it behind me and forgive (silly word; are such things ever forgiven? That’s the trouble with sex; a lot of embarrassment and awkward fumbling, but if the truth be known the only time men and women get anywhere near one another). But found out yesterday he’s at it again, and yes, just like last time, it’s with someone I know. Bitch. Not really my mate, but still would have thought she would have seen him as a no go area. So as you can guess I am well and truly hacked off. And the really bastard thing about Graham is that as you know it was him that pressurised me into coming out here, such an awful long way from home. His so-called unmissable job which he only sticks for a few months before finding something else. I am in a right state, as you’ll imagine, and just wish we could chat instead of me sending this hysterical e-mail. Like so many times before I wish I had your calm temperament. Never seen you raise a bother about anything much. Right now with how I am feeling I will take time to sort things out, sell everything off and jump on a plane home.
Please don’t tell the Ps yet. Hurdle I’ll have to cross but need to take my time over it. Dad won’t be surprised, of course, as like you he was pretty unimpressed with Graham. In fact if I know him he’ll be relieved. Be a different story with Mum. She’ll tell me folk have to work at things; that all relationships go through bad patches. Had that when I told her about Graham’s last little dalliance. As if she can talk! Running off with someone else when the fancy takes her and leaving Dad on his tod.
Any way; enough of all my whingeing. Guess by the time this gets to UK you will have had your audition. Can’t wait to hear how it went. And that can be face to face now courtesy of Graham.
Hope to see you soon.
It’s one of those pale December days when I set off, emboldened by a light fission of excitement, or as near to excitement I could manage in my understated way. The usual loving care placing my beloved cello on the back seat in its spanking new glass fibre case I had treated it to. No more lugging it round in the old canvas excuse for protection, which was useless with the bangs and pushes it gets on the Tube on the way to lessons. Dad hugged me in his rather diffident way with a subdued ‘good luck you will do brilliantly’ and I got in, set the sat nav, put my favourite CD in the slot and drove off. Dad had wanted to come with me but I knew they wouldn’t let him in the room so didn’t see the point. Big gesture that. Although he would be very hurt by any implication he had put me under any pressure, there is no doubt he would have been cock a hoop if I’d followed him into dentistry. Started when I was little. I had to open wide and there he was, pointing out all my teeth with his little finger, naming them; lateral incisor, cuspid, first, second and third premolars all the way through them and finishing with a self-satisfied smile and waiting on mine. But my smile only came some years later when in the middle of a chaotic childhood music found and claimed me. Difficult for Dad given my mum being a talented flautist who ran off with the trumpet player in her orchestra.
The cranky Fiat 500 I treated myself to much to Phil’s derision rattled away to itself contentedly as I joined the main road. I’d reckoned on three hours relaxed driving to get me to the venue in Birmingham. I sensed myself smiling remembering the ruckus I’d had with Tony over the piece I’d wanted to do for the audition; the Kodaly cello sonata. He told me I was mad and didn’t I realise that there was a scordatura; that the two lower strings needed re-tuning to B and F sharp. That this meant there was a whole load of new fingering to learn? Nice to see his flabbergasted expression when I told him I had been playing it for months. Got himself together and said that pyrotechnics didn’t always impress, and that something more collected might serve me better. I’d be much better off playing the sixth Bach cello suite. More collected! The Kodaly is all collection, and the Adagio, before all the pyrotechnics as he calls them, is simply wonderful. It says it all. But what to do, what to do. Mum insisting that Tony was right. Her teacher had told her to do something straightforward for her audition, and it had served her well. The Bach is lovely enough in its way; his suites are part of the learning repertoire for all students, so I knew it inside out. But, but but … . By now I know the Kodaly pretty well too. Hell.
As I approach the notorious Hanger Lane cross-roads I can’t quite believe that the traffic lights are at green. They are always at red! Which is a real pain as you can be sat there for about five minutes as each of the four directions gets its turn for a green. I had slowed up on approach, expecting the usual red. But it’s green for once so I follow the slow moving traffic held up by the speed limit that starts just the other side of the lights. Along the road approaching from the left I see a police car with blue light flashing and siren following a car. I turn back to the road ahead and yes, the light is still at green. In the junction I have the appalling realisation that the car on the left isn’t stopping and has just gone round the stopped cars waiting and is on the wrong side of the road. I jab at the brakes instinctively; there is a moment stopped in time and I see a face with round O where the mouth should be and startled eyes beneath a fuzz of purple hair. There is a long thwoomp as the car crashes into my side. I feel myself pushed across the road and another thump as I am shunted into something. There is a needle shaft of jabbing pain in my left side. With mounting fright realise I am trapped and can’t move at all. It is oddly still, but then I hear the police siren again. The windscreen is smashed into a craze of cobwebs with just a relatively clear bit over the steering wheel; I can’t see anything out of either side of the car. I try to steady my breathing, reasoning that with everyone there at the junction help will come soon. And yes, then there is a blurred face through the windscreen, trying to peer through it.
‘Hang on in there; help’s on its way,’ the fuzzy face says.
I have a crazy thought about how am I going to get to this audition on time now with the car in this state when sense takes over and I realise that I am badly hurt as the pain becomes excruciating. I start panting. God knows how long I am waiting, because the panting and trying to deal with what is now appalling pain is all that there is in this mad world.
Then there are two faces at the windscreen.
‘Can you cover your face?’ one is asking.
Through the pain I sob something about not being able to move. The figure gesticulates through mime with his hand for me to cover my face. This isn’t easy, as I can’t move my left hand at all, and the right feels pretty stuck too, but with agonising pain caused by any movement I manage to pull it free and do as he asks. There is a ‘thwack’ and suddenly a hole appears in the windscreen. Now thickly gloved hands are pulling at the bits, breaking them away to make a larger hole. A head with police cap on it pokes its way through. ‘You hurt,’ it asks. ‘Can you move?’
I shake my head. Speech won’t come through the pain.
‘All right love; ambulance on its way; be with you in a jiffy.’
He disappears and there is a gabble of urgent voices outside the car. I try to take stock, and realise that it’s my body that’s trapped; I can move my head and now have my right arm free. Can move my feet a little, but that’s it. The passenger seat is at an odd angle, as if it as been tipped up and then pushed into my side. The passenger door window is smashed and what looks like the crumpled front of a car right up against it. My right side is jammed up against the side of the door, and what looks like coloured chromed metal completely blocking the window. The voices disappear to leave a curious watching calm, calm if it wasn’t for the pain that is. This is worsening by the second, and I hear myself whimpering. Then a siren sounds from the distance and grows and I hear what I pray is the ambulance coming to a squealing stop by my car. Doors open and bang and another gaggle of voices. Footsteps hurrying toward me. Someone seems to be clambering on the car and I see a head topped by grey hair through the hole in the windscreen. With no hesitation at all he worms his way though the windscreen, and pulls a bag after him. Under this grey, rather distinguished hair is a kindly, wrinkled face that you just know you can just rest back into. His hands are on my face, fingers on my neck, and then he checks my pulse. I see him looking me over, his focus on the left side of me, peering intently at the passenger seat.
‘You will be in a lot of pain. Don’t worry we’ll get that sorted and get you out of this mess.’
I am aware of his fingers busy at the sleeve of my right arm, hear a snipping sound. I see he is cutting it with scissors, and if I weren’t already gritting my teeth with pain I would be now. It’s an expensive dress with tight sleeves and a long flowing skirt that would wrap round my cello nicely; it took me days to find. He is busy, busy backwards and forwards to his bag. Heaven knows how he is managing to do anything lying through the jagged mess of the windscreen.
‘Small scratch’ he is saying and even through the blinding pain I sense an injection into my arm. ‘You’re doing great. Get you out of here soon.’
He is then busy trying to search over the rest of my body; like something out of a pantomime show as he tries to wriggle through the hole in the windscreen enough so he can get down my legs.
‘Sorry about the liberties,’ he says; ‘got to check you over. The bits I can see that is.’
‘No worries,’ I say, echoing the phrase beloved by Phil, my American boyfriend.
I feel his hands patting my legs carefully through my dress and trying to push their way down each side of them where they are trapped against something.
‘Seems OK down here, anyway,’ he says after extricating himself with some difficulty. He rummages in his box and goes back to my left side and pushes a dressing down there, carefully wedging it in. Blissfully the pain starts to lessen and I wonder how it is that I am ‘doing great’; perhaps the fact that I am lying mute not saying anything beyond the pitiful mewing I was doing before. Which at least can stop as the pain continues to abate. My hero starts wriggling to manoeuvre himself back outside. ‘Don’t worry; back soon’ he smiles on his way out.
But I feel bereft when I am left back trapped in what I suppose is the remains of my car. I hear muted voices outside, ‘We have to get her out quickly. There’s major trauma from just the little I can see. Looks like the passenger seat’s been lifted and pushed into her side.’
There is something about the fire brigade on its way to ‘cut me out’. Immediately I start to panic, thinking that perhaps the ambulance chap has told them my arm needs amputating but before I can get into any real panic I feel myself becoming very woozy and drifting. At least the damn pain has stopped now. The fact that I am all squashed up and can’t move in the crumpled remains of the car I had been so chuffed with no longer of any consequence. There are insistent voices outside the car, but quite muffled and subdued as if concerned not to disturb. I become aware of a more insistent buzz and it’s some time before I locate it. Then I see it, there; a wasp, as it comes into my line of sight and settles on the dashboard. I look at it curiously, aware of two things. Firstly the oddity of there being such a thing as a wasp in December, although everyone has been commenting on how unseasonably mild it is for this time of year and if this is finally proof of global warming. But secondly, even in my woozy state, aware of the paradox of my lack of panic; I am normally frightened of wasps, having had a bad allergic reaction to a sting from one when little. I look at it carefully, seeing how well the coloured stripes complement one another; how compact and all-of-a-piece it is. Rubbing its front legs together, sensing the air. Another siren pierces the peace, frightening the insect away. Its departure leaves an empty space, again leaving me somewhat bereft as I had been when the ambulance man had wriggled himself free. I hear footsteps, more clambering onto the bonnet and another helmeted face appears; this much younger and highly tanned. Sun lounger or winter holiday in exotic places?
‘You doing all right in there love? Will soon get you out.’ His face disappears and there are urgent voices in conversation. I make out something about needing to hose petrol away before they start. Hazy sunshine streams through the window and I close my eyes against it, conscious of what seems like quite an effort to do so. The voices stop and there are sounds of concerted activity outside the car. A kind of whoosing sound starts. My helmeted hero re-appears and wriggles back through the windscreen.
‘Hello again. How you doing? Guess we can’t go on meeting like this!’
But even as he is talking he is busy looking me over and again concentrates on where the seat is pushing into my side. ‘Back soon,’ he says, and again somehow wriggles his way out. Although it feels like eternity I don’t suppose its more than a couple of minutes before he’s back, managing somehow to get himself part-way back into the car while holding a bag of fluid and some metal gadget.
‘Given the hospital a ring. They suggest getting some saline into you as a precautionary measure, and it should help you feel more comfortable.’
He puts the bag on my shoulder as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, and takes some time sorting out what I see now is some kind of stand that takes him an age to stand up properly. It has telescopic legs and he has to find places for each leg then adjust the lengths for it to do its job. Giving it a shake to see it’s reasonably firm he puts the bag at the top of it and connects a tube to what I see now is a needle he’s left in my right lower arm.
‘There. That’s better. Just to keep on top of any blood you may have lost. Soon get you out so we can introduce ourselves properly. I’m Jim by the way. What’s your name love? Pain easier?’
‘Juliet. Yes it is, thanks. Big thank you for that.’
Panic suddenly hits me; right there in the middle. Winging its way like an arrow through the chaos.
‘My cello? Is it all right? I put it on the back seat.’
‘Yes, my cello. It’s on the back seat.’
He pulls himself forward a little in a brave attempt to look past me into the back.
‘Sorry love; it’s a bit scrunched up in the back, a bit like you are in the front. Where did you say it was? In the boot?’ he asks, clearly elsewhere as he is back to checking the dressing on my arm and peering down my left side.
‘No; I put it on the back seat. It should be there, just behind me.’
He takes his time trying to examine what he can see of me, and it’s several minutes before he comes back and strokes my face tenderly.
‘You sure the pain is OK now?’
‘Yes, I’m fine thanks. Feel a bit woozy, but God that’s better than what I was going through.’ I look into his wonderfully gentle eyes. ‘Please see if you can check my cello. It should be there on the back seat.’
He smiles patiently and again pulls himself forward and looks behind me.
‘Can see part of what looks like a grey plastic case. Can’t see a cello.’ He gets back to face me. ‘Mind you; I’m not sure what a cello looks like! Is it some kind of instrument?’
New times, new places and new beginnings. One time I would have groaned hearing someone say that. ‘Yes. It’s like a big violin. And it’s in a big grey glass-fibre case. Does it look all right?’
‘It looks just fine love. Bit squashed, perhaps, like you. I’ll make sure we get it out after we get you out.’
He strokes my face again. ‘Perhaps a little scratched on one side. Nothing for you to be worrying about.’
I try to smile. ‘It’s a Thomann. Bloody good one. 21st birthday present.’
Suddenly there is a helmeted face to one side of my rescuer at the windscreen.
He talks to Jim. ‘We’re ready to start pulling the car off. But can I get inside first; want to see what’s what in here.’
Jim gets his hands on the steering wheel to help push and wriggle his way back out. He’s replaced by a young man with a grim expression belying the mop of blond curly hair. ‘Hi there. Going to make a start on getting you out of this but you’ll have to be patient; there’s a dreadful mess outside. The car that pushed you into the lorry has ended all mangled with your We car. need to take it one step at a time to make sure we don’t do any more damage as we pull it off; that it doesn’t pull at your car too.’
He looks around, carefully feeling his way along the dashboard presumably to not risk touching me, tries to examine the passenger door. Awkwardly getting himself back he starts to feel over my head. ‘Roof’s come in here,’ he remarks non-commitally. Makes sense now of why my head is rubbing against something if I move it. Satisfied he wriggles his way back out. He’s immediately replaced by Jim, bringing with him a bottle of juice. ‘Drink?’ he asks and without waiting for reply unscrews the top and offers it to my lips.
The blond helmeted figure climbs back on the bonnet. ‘Going to start pulling the car off. Ready inside?’
My visiting angel turns and nods. ‘Done what I can in here. Will steady her.’ He turns back to me and puts firm hands on my shoulders. There is an appalling groaning, scraping sound and suddenly light appears to my left. Not sure what I was expecting, but still feel pretty trapped. Jim grabs this new development to make more examination of me. ‘At least I can see a bit more now’ he mutters, and, still muttering, frantically tries to feel up and own the left side of my body. Then he’s back to his bag, frantically pulling more dressings out of it and doing something at my side at waist level. The helmeted figure re-appears at the windscreen.
‘OK?’ he asks.
‘I can see what we are up against now,’ Jim replies. ‘The passenger seat has lifted and twisted and the lower part has gone into the lady’s side. I can’t shift it. Will wait on you for that.’
‘Right. We’ll be on it now we’ve got the car off. Still be a while I’m afraid; the side of the car is a right mess. Have to get in bit by bit. Do what you can for her.’
He disappears leaving me with Jim, who is stroking my face again.
‘Try not to worry love. We’ll get you much more comfortable and sorted once we get you out of this shambles.’
Conscious of the pain continuing to ease, blissfully like the tide receding from the beach, I am able to concentrate and look properly into his face for the first time. A kindly, wrinkled face; a face that’s seen a lot of life. A life of what? Smashed bodies etched into those lines on the face? His eyes, intently on mine, are steel blue-grey, like my father’s.
He leaves stroking my face and takes hold of the right hand he has salvaged.
‘Tell me about this cello you’re so worried about. Where were you off to with it?’
‘An audition. Got myself an audition for the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.’
‘Wow. That sounds rather grand!’
‘Well yes, in a way it is. For me certainly. I was pretty chuffed to get it. Normally you have to have the right track record; years at one of the schools of music.’
‘So you must be pretty good then?’
‘Well I don’t know about that. Truth will out at the audition of course. Though I don’t suppose I’m going to make it there today am I?’
Now there’s the gift of a sad smile of friendship and slightest shake of the head. ‘I think you will need a rest from the cello for a while.’
I try to digest this and gather some bravery together. ‘Do you think I’m in a bad way, what with all the pain before you gave me something?’
Now he is all strength that he gathers from inside and places a finger on my lips. ‘We will have to wait and see. I can’t examine you properly with you all squashed up like this. You may have some crush injuries inside, but that’s running ahead of ourselves. We’ll know more when we get you out.’
As if on cue a high pitched whine starts up, followed closely by a metallic rasp from the left side.
‘There; that’s the fire brigade starting to cut you out. Won’t be long now; they’re real stars these chaps, always cutting people out of wrecked cars.’
‘So like when they cut your plaster off, they’ll stop when they get to me?’
‘Oh, yes; don’t you worry. I will be right here, making sure they know where you are!’
He sees me shiver and calls back over his shoulder to someone. Almost immediately two blankets are passed through to him. With quite extraordinary gentleness he arranges them around me, wrapping my legs with one and doing what he can with my top half.
‘Tell me about your music.’
Again I look at this kindly man, chattering away to take my mind off things but repeatedly doing what he can to examine me over. He’s repeatedly checking my pulse.
‘It has always been there, from a very young age, mum encouraging me. I must have listened to one of the pieces she was playing one time; she always had something on, and I liked a particular piece and asked her about it. She told me it was a cello playing that part, so it went from there. Before the week was out I had an instrument. A small child’s one, obviously. Guess I wanted to follow my mum’s lead. She was and is quite a big shot with one of the London orchestras; principle flautist there. Flute player,’ I add, remembering my rescuing hero is no musician. ‘Truth to tell, my getting an audition is probably down to my mother pulling a few strings. Doubt Birmingham just listened to my teacher.’
‘She must be very proud of you.’
More scraping sounds from the side, as if things are being pulled away. The high-pitched whine starts up again.
‘Yes, she’s made up. I don’t live with her; I’m with my Dad, but know she will be well chuffed. Don’t see much of each other, really.’
‘Well I guess Dad’s jolly proud too.’
‘Yes, I think so.’
I pause, reflecting on the oddity of this conversation in this mad place. I don’t do talking about myself, and certainly not to strangers. Perhaps you only have real conversations in mad places.
‘Dad’s a dentist. I think he was really hoping I would follow him into dentistry; he’d had no joy with my brother or sister, so I was last chance. But I discovered music and set my heart on doing something with it, and in fairness to him he has been pleased enough that I have taken it so seriously.’
‘Good for him, then.’
I feel myself smiling. ‘Given I’m telling you my life story, I’ll let you into a secret.’
There’s a warm smile back. ‘Great; I like secrets!’
‘This audition. Big decision what to play. Even before I had the news I had one. After sending the application off I was there, in my head, sorting out what I was going to play.’
‘Something to knock their socks off!’
‘Something like that. Thought I would play this sonata which I love. It’s fiendishly difficult to play; in fact it’s the hardest piece in the repertoire and even professional cellists dread it, but I love it.’
He is all attention. ‘You like it hard?’
‘No, it’s not as simple as that. But when I learn that yes, incredibly yes, I have actually got an audition I was quite decided. That’s what I was going to play and dug it out and practised furiously. But my teacher and mum were having none of it.’
‘Why on earth not, given how much you love it?’
‘Because it is so technically difficult. They tried to persuade me to play an easier piece, which, in fairness to them they thought would leave me free to concentrate on the emotional expression and not have to worry about just getting my fingers round the difficult bits.’
I look at him with what I suppose is a sheepish grin. ‘So to keep the peace I agreed. I would play the Bach.’
‘There’s a but here.’
‘Yes, just before I was pushed off the road I was agonising about which piece to play when I got there. Was just about deciding to play the Kodaly – that’s the difficult piece – when bang!’
There’s no pause here at all; none at all. ‘Well good for you.’
‘Well is it? Bit dishonest perhaps. If I flunked the audition; was turned down, it was going to be bloody difficult to face my mum, a professional musician who had advised me, knowing I had ignored her. She made me promise to do the Bach. Said she had been through it all with auditions and that I should trust her.’
‘Some promises shouldn’t be asked for,’ he says as soon as I pause for breath.
‘Maybe, but what about how I face myself if I do the Kodaly and flunk it and have to stay as sales girl at Marks and Spencer?’
‘You doing that is not as dishonest as not keeping faith with yourself. About the only thing all this grey hair has taught me is that the most important person to believe in you is you yourself. Let’s suppose you played this bit they you wanted to in the audition and are turned down. Not a good place for your mum to be. You play what you believe is right and you’ve been honest with yourself. And just look at how proud you will be of yourself if you succeed. And how mad you’ll be if you play the other piece and are rejected. Thinking then about how you would have shone if you did what you wanted to.’
‘Well thanks. I have got a bit tired of being so timid. Nice to have someone on my side. Just hope they will give me another chance with not turning up today!’
Instinctively I try to look at my watch and realise I can’t. I wear it on the left wrist. ‘What’s the time?’
‘Twelve thirty. Of course they will rearrange when they hear what’s happened here today.’ He wriggles and pulls a mobile phone from his pocket. ‘Let’s get some numbers. I’ll ring them in the ambulance. Phone your folks too.’
I give him details of where I’ve been heading and Dad’s number, telling him my mum’s on tour. After putting the phone away carefully he starts checking my eyes with an instrument he pulls out of his magic bag.
‘How are you feeling now?’
‘OK. Like I said, a bit woozy but apart from that OK. Pain has settled a lot; it’s quite bearable now. I’m probably a lot more comfortable than you must be lying across a load of shattered glass.’
‘Good,’ he says; ‘Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.’ He has yet another look at my left side.
The whining stops and there is more noise as presumably different bits are pulled away.
‘Nearly there,’ comes an encouraging shout from that side.
‘Sorry, I know it must feel like they are taking for ever to get to you, but they have to be very careful that when they’re shifting stuff away they don’t make things worse for you.’
‘It’s OK. You being here is really helping.’
‘You close to your bother and sister?’
‘Yes, I am. My sister is living in Australia, but probably on her way back. She married someone who pressurised her to go out there, but it looks as if the marriage is breaking up. Brother doing OK; in his final year at Uni.’
‘What’s he studying?’
‘Maths. Always a whizz-kid at it.’
‘Won’t be short of work, then.’
‘No, I guess not.’
‘Anyone special in your life?’
Despite this crazy situation I smile. I am quite a private, shy person and normally would bridle at personal questions like this. But mad times make for sudden intimacy I suppose.
‘Got a boyfriend, yes. Phil. An American. Works for Boeing who have just put a factory in Sheffield and he’s come over to work there.’
‘What does he make of your music?’
‘Oh he hates it! Pop and modern stuff is his thing. I persuaded him to go to a concert once but it was purgatory for him. Never to be repeated! Only managed one of those!’
‘Is that getting in the way of wedding bells?’
‘Ha! You may have hit on something there. I’ve been waiting on the proposal for months. Know he’s the chap for me; miles ahead of all the other drips I’ve been out with.’
‘Perhaps he’s shy? Needs the proposal from you!’
‘Phil! Shy! I’m the shy one. He’s the life and soul of the party.’
A high pitched whine starts up to my left.
‘Not long now,’ Jim says, holding my hand again. He’s no fool; I can see concern written all over his face behind the smile he has managed throughout all of this patter.
‘This is very strange,’ I say.
He laughs. ‘Of course it is. Not every day you end up squashed inside your car.’
‘No, not that.’ I look at him carefully. ‘Me talking to you like this. I don’t do talking about myself.’
Now he pats my hand. ‘Well, as you can imagine, I’ve been in more than a few tight spots with folk over the years. Being in a tight spot loosens most tongues.’
‘Even mine?’ I ask, unconvinced.
‘Yes, perhaps even yours. ‘He pushes himself back a bit on the steering wheel, trying to make himself a bit more comfortable. ‘Anyway, this is not just a special day for you. With the audition I mean, not this horrid accident. No, it’s a special day for me too!’
If he could he would lean back as there is a rather self-satisfied smile playing about his face. Lying through the shattered remains of my windscreen he can’t run to that. ‘Yes, today is my last working day and hopefully,’ here he pauses to glance at his watch, ‘you will be my very last casualty.’
‘Oh,’ I say, ‘congratulations.’
Then I think a bit. ‘Well, I mean, well; is congratulations the right word?’
Jim nods firmly. ‘Yes, I think so. I’m ready to stop. Have been so for two or three years if I’m honest about it. Have to be honest about it; I’m well and truly past my sell-by date in terms of youthful fitness and agility.’
‘Don’t know about that so much. You’re not doing too badly here, wriggling about through a small hole in what’s left of my windscreen!’
‘Well thank you. Yes, I guess I can still rise to the occasion when needs must. But I have to be realistic; I don’t recover from days like this as I used to. And back to your congratulations; not sure if the missus will agree. Pretty sure she’s dreading it; having me under her feet all day.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true!’
‘I’m afraid it may be.’
He scratches at his ear and shuffles a bit. Lying across broken glass and the rim of a steering wheel can’t be much fun. Suddenly he looks at me intently, but the expression has changed. ‘Given that we are into confessional mode I may as well tell you. There’s a bloody great big secret blocking the way. Something that’s going to be pretty hard to keep hiding when I go and am there moping around the house all day.’
More metallic noises, voices and the whine starts up again, giving a perfect thinking pause.
‘What secret?’ I ask directly, marvelling at how we are talking.
My hero’s head drops, confidence suddenly evaporating from him. ‘I’ve got cancer.’
Now I’m struggling with my right hand to find his. ‘And that’s a secret?’
‘Yes; my wife doesn’t know.’
‘She doesn’t know?’
At last I manage to find his hand and squeeze it. ‘Why not?’
‘She’ll go to pieces.’
We pause, I guess both of us thinking frantically. I try to force myself to think clearly, aware of starting to feel a bit light-headed. Different from the wooziness before. There’s more pulling at metal work on the left and suddenly more light appears and I can see the door has been pulled away. ‘Nearly with you now,’ calls a figure cheerily from the new gap, his cheeriness contrasting oddly with what’s happening here inside.
‘Why are you so sure she’ll go to pieces? Don’t people normally find hidden resources when faced with difficult things? We all underestimate ourselves in that way. Most folk rise to the challenge when the chips are down. I did when my mother walked out on us; I thought the world had come to an end but when push came to shove I managed OK.’
‘Perhaps,’ he says softly, squeezing my hand back. ‘But she lost her twin brother about six months back. They were two peas in a pod in terms of closeness. She was devastated.’
‘But perhaps it’s me that’s the real problem,’ he says, extricating his hand.
‘How long have you had cancer? How can you keep it secret – if you’re ill I mean?’
‘Well it’s prostate cancer, and I’m not having any serious problems yet. They’re usually quite slow-growing cancers.’
‘That’s as may be,’ I say with a firmness I hadn’t known was there. ‘You can’t keep something like that secret from your wife! She’s going to find out one day. Imagine how devastated she’ll be when she does, knowing you’ve kept something like that from her. When were you diagnosed? How long have you known?’
‘Two weeks,’ he says contritely.
Now I am patting his hand. ‘Well that’s a relief. When you started on this I thought perhaps you’d known for months. Just bite on the bullet and tell her. Just tell her and give her a chance to be there for you. Like I’m damn sure you were there for her when her brother died and like you’ve been here for me today. Like you’ve given my Kodaly back to me. That’s what marriage is all about. Or should be, any rate.’
This frank but engaging interchange is brought to an abrupt halt by the fireman with blond curly hair using a power tool to cut through the seat to my left. He has a colleague leaning around him to hold it carefully. Through the furthest part of it he indicates to Jim that he is at the critical point. Jim responds by nodding and again placing firm hands on my shoulders. The fireman cuts away again, but with the delicacy of an artist as if putting final touches to a canvas. He passes the tool to someone behind him and he and his colleague pull the seat carefully away. I shudder, and it is as if something is pulled away from me too. I have been staring at Jim, concentrating as I guessed that I must; that this was now the critical juncture, but his face becomes hazy as if some fog comes rolling across the sea.
‘I’m here with you. Hang on in there. I’m not leaving you.’
I hear his voice, which is insistent through thinness, through a blur of hands that are on my body and I feel myself moved, lifted, all parts of it supported in the magic air, moving by itself with no effort from me at all. Then I have a vague sense of lying, as if in space, all the pressure from my sides gone, spirited away, and I am free, free. Then I sense myself being raised again, moved; re-settled somewhere. An engine noise, a distant, distant siren, wailing unconcerned and disconnected with me. My hand is being held and a voice, quiet but insistent speaks into what remains of my being; ‘I’m here.’
My body swims effortlessly to that other place, my bluebell wood. The haven I escape to when I need it, there now for me. The quiet away from it all, it all. The magic leafed track, threading its way through the carpet of persuasive blue on either side; the broad elms, their elegant branches tracing immortality through to the tall, forgiving bright sky. The chorus of innocent birdsong filling this leafy, wide green space. And then high, high in the canopy, pealing its special way down to me, a blackbird song, bright between the chorus, speaking to me, alone; recipient. A story and the willing listener. Come it says; come, lifting me, lifting me unresisting. And I float, effortlessly, supported; taken to that other place, that better place.
I’m so sorry to have had to ring you with that ghastly news. It took me quite a while to prize a number out of Graham. I must say he was really unhelpful when I rang, saying quite abruptly that you weren’t living there any more. Guess that must mean things are difficult between you, and while you know I never really took to him I am really sorry about that.
Wanted to follow up the awful call with this e mail to give a bit more detail, which I’m able to do now thanks to the ambulance chap who was with her when she died. A couple of days after I had the awful call from the hospital to say that she had been in a serious accident and had died on arrival, I was really touched when an ambulance chap, Jim Southerby, called, explained that he had been with her shortly after the accident, and asked if we could meet. He came round to the house and was able to give me more background, which I know you will want to hear. Juliet was driving to her audition when her car was rammed from the side by some lunatic teenager joy riding who was being chased by the police. She pushed Juliet’s car into a lorry that was waiting at traffic lights, and the car was badly crushed and Juliet’s spleen ruptured in the injuries she received. Apparently that causes internal bleeding and without immediate surgical intervention someone dies from this quickly. It needed the fire brigade to cut her out, and that took some time as they needed to be careful they didn’t add to her injuries while doing so. Somehow this chap got himself into the car whilst the fire brigade was pulling the other car off and cutting her out. He was able very quickly to give her some morphine so she won’t have had any pain. They spent quite a lot of time talking and she was full of how close she was to you and Peter, and how excited she was by the audition and expecting to do well. Looking forward to starting with the orchestra if she was successful, and how music had been the whole of her life. Apparently they even talked about how she was hoping to marry Phil, which was news to me. Suppose fathers are always the last to find out about things like that! He seemed a really decent chap; nice that he made all that effort to get hold of me, and lovely to know that her last minutes weren’t too dreadful. After we talked for a long time he asked rather diffidently if I minded if he came to the funeral. I’ll admit to being a bit surprised, as I thought as an ambulance man he would be quite blasé about people dying in front of him, but I got the impression that Juliet had made quite an impact on him, so of course said that we would really appreciate him coming as he had been with her there at the end.
Your mum was on tour when Juliet was in her accident, so it was a while before I could get hold of her. You can imagine the state she’s in. We’ve been on the phone several times, latterly to sort funeral arrangements. She told me that Colin sends his condolences, which I must admit I snapped back that he could keep. Doubtless she’ll tell you all about that. But I haven’t slept since the call and wasn’t in the mood for any sympathy from him. I have been beating myself up that I didn’t persuade her to sell that silly car and get something more substantial. We both knew that she loved the cranky quirkiness of her little Fiat, but I can’t get it out of my head that if she had been in something else she would have had more protection and might have survived.
And the girl that smashes into Juliet? Well she was in a BMW she’d nicked which is fitted with all the bells and whistles and all the air bags go off and there’s barely a scratch on her. Where’s the bloody justice in that? If I was a Christian I suppose I would be bleating about forgiveness, but as you know I’ve never nailed my colours to that mast.
Only crumb of consolation in all this is that Peter had just finished his end of term exams. As soon as he heard what had happened he was on a train and is back with me which is a real comfort. But she was only twenty-two, for God’s sake, with her whole life ahead of her. Just about to start a career in music which is what she had dreamed of for years. And here’s me crippled with arthritis in my knees and making heavy weather of getting up the stairs well past my sell-by date still going strong. Where’s the bloody sense in that? How I wish I had insisted on going with her. What’s the use of a Dad if he’s not with his daughter when something like that happens?
Let me have your bank details and I’ll wire some money across for your air fare home for the funeral. Guess money is pretty tight for you, so please let me do this. It’s on Tuesday next week. Have put it back as far as I can so you can get home.
It will be so good to see you. Having lost one very special daughter I really need my other special one home right now.
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