6 - A Grieving Process

It was one of those old-fashioned rotary dial phones that one seldom sees outside of the cinema these days. He remembered remarking on the curiosity of the item when they had first arrived; it had seemed to be possessed of a retro charm and be rather out of place in the room, ‘kitsch’ was the word he had used at the time even if it wasn’t quite what he meant. Now their attention was utterly focused on it as it rang and broke the silence and all activity, muted though it admittedly had been, came to a halt. It seemed a very serious, very weighty thing now, for the tension and anxiety that had opiated through the air all morning, as it had for the past several days, was brought to it’s crescendo, culmination and release by the ringing. Or, at least, it soon would be.

Today the disquiet had taken on the complexion of significant silences truncated by variously realised sniping and brooding between the two of them and they had mostly taken to opposite sides of the room and collided rarely. The uneasy limbo had been a torturous thing but it – but anything, really – was preferable to the total and unfathomable debilitating blow that would signal its end and they both knew it. The seemingly interminable dread had also been a curious comfort in that light; the degree of uncertainty it engendered and entailed was preferable to the grim finality of the knell of the rudely ringing phone. They would have traded anything for the chance to flame into an irrelevant argument now; it would have meant, at least, that the fresh cruelty of the antiquated bell ring of the phone could be staved off.

They had colluded and, with trepidation, entwined to shy away from harsh, unhappy reality and each knew this of both themselves and the other. The fear in each of them had been actualised through pure and immediate frustration on occasion, when it became too great to contain entirely. He had let the cliché breath through him and, quite unsure of what else to do, smashed a fist through the cheap plasterboard wall of the hotel room. It was designed to look like bamboo and maintain the tropical motif of their lodging but its artificiality had ignited his rage in an irrational instant. When they moved a wardrobe to conceal the hole he had created and washed his bloodied hand together it had felt like healing for a moment.

Her catharsis had been less visceral, less violent but vicious and bitter all the same; the temporary neighbours they had chatted and laughed with at check in, the nice couple they shared anecdotes, nibbles and wine with at the downstairs bar were quite put out at her outburst when enquiring if the two of them fancied accompanying them, in their inanity and mundaneness, to a marvellous little restaurant round the corner one day. It really wasn’t good form and gossip and Chinese whispers grew to their predictable forest fire of innuendo, spreading through the group and staff as one. There were mostly avoided now and, though they didn’t know they wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the staff had even taken to drawing straws to determine which of them would attend to the tasks involving the two. These tasks were mercifully few as they had barely left the room save for a silent and absurd walk through the rain and wind on the beach and an excursion or two – quite out of kilter from normal time-keeping – to satiated their muted appetites and attend to the concerns of the flesh. Neither really knew what they should be doing with their time and it wasn’t something that could be effectively taught or gratefully learnt.

The rain would actually have been welcome and quite fitting, quite apt, if it hadn’t been part of their internment. There hadn’t been such storms for a generation, they were assured. They would be fortunate if their scheduled departure date, five days hence, could be kept to and any prospect of leaving earlier was fantasy in such conditions. Before they had left – it seemed an age now – they had become aware of the expected poor weather conditions and they had briefly considered forgoing or postponing their escape but it was the trip of a lifetime - so remote, so exotic - and plans had been made, deposits laid, such an opportunity was not an everyday thing. They so decided to make the best of things. Naturally, such concerns seemed trivial now but that wasn’t really fair because most everything did.

Neither had moved since the phone started ringing and the room had shrunk and warped around it. The archetypal inoffensive hotel room paint scheme faded even further into insignificance and the red hue of the phone dominated and inverted everything around itself. For a ludicrous second it reminded him of the Adam West Batphone. It had rung three – three-and-a-half – times when their eyes met and he summoned the strength to stand.

“Hello?” his voice cracked as he answered the call, his hand gripping the receiver intensely.

From her perspective there was pause and he was stoic at first but she knew what was being said as she looked up at him from the bed where she suddenly found herself to be sitting. Every possible course the conversation could take had already run through her mind a thousand times but they both knew which was most likely. That his proud and handsome face looked so suddenly old and defeated was silent confirmation.

She realised that he had been speaking and she hadn’t heard his words but she thought resilience, even dignity, flickered back through his features for a moment and was conversely proud and confused at him.

“Yes…yes, I see. I see,” he was stammering and choking, “I – thank you.” The receiver found itself clumsily and incompletely returned with force as he cut off the distant voice on the other end. If it were less ancient, the thing would have soon begun a shrill wail to inform its users that it was incorrectly placed in its cradle. That would have been appropriate.

Nothing happened for a while. Perhaps he thought that even this could be a comfort for her - it wasn’t absolute and that was something. He knew that what was coming was worse. Their eyes met once again though and the exchange was laden with meaning. He was shaking ever so slightly and she didn’t think he was conscious of it, eventually his head dropped an inch; a gesture that would have been imperceptible if she hadn’t been studying his form so intently. Her eyes felt like they were going to stretch and burst but they didn’t and she knew what it meant even if the cogs of her mind were whirring frantically to deny it, she understood but needed just a few more seconds, just a few more seconds where she could lie to herself. They meant everything when each instant was as pure and strained and stretched as they were to her now, when a spoonful weighed a tonne.

“What did they say?” she asked and they were both surprised. The words had prised themselves out of her without consent, whispered and crackling. His guard was shattered more than lowered and he knew that it was obvious as much as he knew that he was required to make it real with his own words. It was a terrible task but it gave focus and brought him from himself for a time. He didn’t know whether it was wrong of him to be glad of the task and the temporary relief it brought but he couldn’t worry about that now. He moved to his wife, sat by her and drew her into him with as strong and sure an arm as he could command. Her breathing was rapid and grasping.

“Helen,” he said and looked her full in the face, something he hadn’t chosen to do for some time. It threw him momentarily because she was beautiful and then she melted into tears before he could continue. Apparently it had been enough, “I’m sorry.”

She clung to him as she sobbed and he tried as best he could to protect her, smother her, let her burrow herself into him but it wasn’t the outside world that threatened her and she couldn’t be shielded. He thought then, strangely apart from proceedings, on how odd his words had sounded – he had said he was sorry as if it was her loss, not theirs, not his, and as if saying something so facile and apparent could mean anything. As she cried and though it didn’t make any sense he realised that her tears weren’t just grief. She was inconsolable naturally, but the attempt meant something and something was everything.

So he began to say it again and again, “I’m sorry…I’m so sorry…”. He lost count of how many times he said it through the course of her outpouring. Eventually, he came to envy her slightly. He couldn’t help it. When the flow of tears stemmed, she looked up and his eyes met what should have been a ruined, frail creature with about the most heartfelt affection he had ever known. At the same time he was desperate to find a new palliative, for, in that instant, he realised that he had not been comforting her, they had been comforting one another and she had let him be strong because it helped both of them. The waves of compassion he felt for her, now more than ever, roused him into action – he had to reach into her terror and her grief and do something to, if not allay then to manage them. They both needed that quite desperately. Not to repair, there was no thought of that, but to cope.

But he cursed his nature. His uncertainly and doubt; his inhibition, even now. Times like this mandated that it could not be left unsaid. This time more than any other time. Their understanding had always been transcendent but nothing could be relied upon now – this was new – and he stumbled over words and actions in his mind.

“Are you…wet?” Was what he found. She looked up, desolate, doleful as she had been but also incredulous and incredulity was something. It was a spark and she saw the meaning of his words, they meaning they took on when he said them. She hadn’t been aware of it before but when she squeezed her thighs slightly firmer and was greeted by a familiar squelch and squish in response she nodded and almost smiled faintly, weakly.

“Do you…would you like me to change you?” It was unnecessary but he was hesitant and unsure and she nodded again.

He withdrew then into the en suite bathroom. She swirled her legs around and lay slowly onto her back in the middle of the bed. The torment of her thoughts had been strangely numbed and she wanted him to take care of her even as he wanted to care for her. It wasn’t an unusual response in such circumstances as those they found themselves in even if it had translated into an uncommon action.

He returned presently, just slightly tentative, and lay down beside her the small packet of wipes and single fresh and crinkling disposable nappy he had retrieved.

“Lift up.” He said, and she did it with such simple acquiescence and indifference. It was almost, but not quite, wonder.

He unbuttoned and tugged down her trousers, inched them off and released them from his grip with a flick of the wrist that saw them fall off to far side of the bed, settle there for a moment and then tug at the covers as they were pulled by the weight of one dangling leg onto the floor. Before and below him, she gazed up, open, liable, and shifted herself a little until he lay the palm of a hand onto the dampened and discoloured front of her nappy and she became still. The wetness indicator was splotchy: half there and half not, it told him that she didn’t really need to be changed just yet but that didn’t matter.

Sliding his resting hand over the contours of her nappy until he reached the side, he slipped a finger around the leg guards and ran it down the inside of the garment as a parent checks for wetness in an infant. He smiled forlornly as he did so. Withdrawing the finger, he took his hand to the top of her nappy on one side and tore open the tapes that bound it before repeating the action on the other side. The nappy opened and fell forward, following his guide, to lay flatly under her. She shifted herself slightly again, wriggling a little as she lay on the soused article whose padding rose and fell and she moved. It was a moment of purity.

“Up.” He instructed as he made to draw it out from under her and she raised herself obediently. He took the used nappy in his hands and rolled it before putting it aside and reaching for a wipe with which to cleanse his wife’s subtle skin. It was wintry and unwelcome to her but she stayed any physical withdrawal.

“Cold.” She said simply without flinching. He was affected by this earnestness and fondness frittered across his face but he didn’t reply. Instead he wiped her clean as tenderly as he could and brought forth the replacement nappy to tuck under her as she again lifted herself for him wordlessly. He brought it around her and pulled it tightly and snugly together before taping it up with deliberate concentration.

He was finished, she was changed, and he made to move from her after an instant of uncertainty but she, with a sudden urgency of action, sat up and stopped him by laying a hand on his arm.

“All done.” He said plainly and sadly as he allowed himself to be pulled back to the bed to join her and she curled herself into and around his form in a genuine and powerful embrace. They stayed together thusly and knew just a little peace for a period outside the ordinary and cruel progression of time. They would talk soon, they would face it but now the room was entirely silent again, only it was a different kind of silence now and she imagined again, as they lay there, being able to lift the spoonful they had been served. She didn’t know how and it couldn’t be done yet – it definitely couldn’t be done yet, the thought jolted her momentarily - but someday. Together.

6 - A Grieving Process

In all honesty, this story is very overwritten, which makes it somewhat difficult to get through. I did like the base idea for it… There is a lack of specificity to a lot of it that I enjoyed, as, with a short story, you don’t need to tell everything. If it wasn’t for the style, it might have been my favorite.

6 - A Grieving Process

Yeah, I kind of thought that myself. I haven’t written any fiction for a long time and I couldn’t really get into the tone I wanted at all. I re-wrote it once anyway and it didn’t make much difference so I thought I’d just put it up as it was.

The whole idea was just to take a theme that isn’t very commonly explored in AB/DL writing such as loss, but you did that far more cleverly and powerfully in The Watcher and the Dancer anyway.

Thanks for my point though!