His sports car soared between the shingle beach and the peaceful mirror of water it enclosed, Slapton Lea. The long straight tarmac road shimmered in the evening sun. Chris’ senses, overloaded by the throaty roar and the vista rushing past, gave him a feeling of almost suicidal exhilaration.
He slowed as he approached Torcross, close to his destination, and wound up the last, soft, curved Devon hill in the fading light.
“I’m not sure I can go through with it,” he thought.
He arrived outside the lovely thatched cottage where Julie lived with her mother and aunt. Julie came out to meet him, looking sexy in a pink halter top and tight white jeans. She shrugged off his embrace and offered her cheek when he tried to kiss her lips. Nothing had changed.
Inside the cottage the familiar cloying feeling suffocated him – the soft furnishings, voluptuous and over feminine, and the heavy scent of newly picked roses.
Julie’s mother and aunt welcomed him in a haughty sort of way and offered him tea and scones. Then they pummelled him with questions which he fended off as best he could, having already decided to put off breaking their news till morning.
At breakfast thankfully only Julie and her mother joined him. He waited until he had finished his cereal before blurting it out across the round mahogany table.
“Julie and I are going to get married next month, on the 23rd. She’s pregnant.”
The words, practised so often in his head over the past few days, seemed inadequate. The heartache of the past few weeks couldn’t be adequately condensed into these few brusque words.
Julie studied her corn flakes intently and her mother glared at him as if she had already suspected as much.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
“I know you won’t believe me but this feeling’s different. It’s not like pain. I’m used to that.”
The old lady was really too frail to live alone and often talked to an imaginary companion in her cluttered flat above the antique shop.
“Wait while I fold up this bread wrapper and put it away. Oh! Botheration-take-it! The elastic band’s broken. They’re not as strong as they used to be. I’ll have to use another one. Now, where do I keep elastic bands? Let me see now. Oh, I remember, they’re in a yoghurt pot, second draw down in the oak chest of drawers.
“I know I’m stupid to save so much but most of the stuff I keep comes in useful sometime. Anyway I can’t bear to throw it away. Youngsters now a days, they’ve more money than we’re used to.
“Right now where was I? I remember. I was trying to explain about this feeling. It comes from deep inside and really hurts; although, funnily enough, it’s not painful. That doesn’t make sense I know, but it’s how it seems.
“I mean, I’m familiar with suffering. Forty years of rheumatoid arthritis has taught me all there is to know about pain. This sensation just isn’t the same. It’s as though something is being continuously wrenched from somewhere inside me.
“Oh dear! Look at the time. I’d better hurry or I’ll miss my train.”
She lived just one train stop away from her daughter and called in each weekday to ‘help’ with the chores. She loved to see her three grandchildren, especially when Chris, the eldest, was there. Unfortunately, though he had recently left home and married that awful Julie.
“What a silly boy to get her pregnant,” she thought. “Mind you, it wouldn’t surprise me if she’d gone and done it on purpose. I wouldn’t put anything past that wanton hussy.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Chris had thought his smart new trousers might be a mistake. Now he could see from his family’s disapproval that they were. He’d thought with a black jacket and a black tie he’d get away with the colour. It didn’t help that Julie had told him they looked awful before he left.
“Only an idiot would wear cream trousers to a funeral,” she’d said.
He wanted to do the proper thing for his dear old Gran. Not that the old treasure would have noticed what he wore anyway.
How he was going to miss her. She’d always been the person he turned to for advice. No one else was really interested and she never judged him, or criticised the various messes he’d got himself into. Unlike his mother and father.
The five of them and cantankerous old Uncle Ben were at a pub for a pre-funeral lunch. His mother and uncle seemed upset but the rest of them were quite jolly. Thoughtlessly so Chris thought.
Julie hadn’t been able to come as she was heavily pregnant and had developed complications. Chris was proud of her. She still looked really good, she seemed more affectionate and she was carrying his baby.
“How’s Julie?” asked his mother as if reading his mind. He wondered, unnerved, how much else she could divine.
“She’s O.K. But she has to rest a lot. The baby’s been very active over the last few days – kicking and squirming as if he wants to get out.”
Then they talked about Gran who’d always seemed so full of life even though hunched up with her arthritis. Then over the last few months her life force had just seemed to flow away. Each day she’d been a little weaker.
No-one knew exactly what had killed her. She’d also suffered with asthma, high blood pressure and angina and had complained bitterly about a pain from her solar plexus. The doctors hadn’t been able to find anything wrong there.
Just before she ebbed away, she’d apparently mumbled a few strange words, “Go on, you can have it all now. I’ve got no use for it any more. I hope you make more of it than I did.” Neither of them understood what she was referring to.
The ceremony was upsetting. The graveyard, chosen because it was close, was large and impersonal and the noise from the nearby Motorway, intrusive. John, his younger brother, had insisted in taking a photograph of the coffin at the bottom of the grave in spite of everyone’s disapproval.
Chris threw a handful of soil down into the grave and was startled by the loud, echoey noise that emerged as it hit the coffin. A simultaneous up draught of damp earthy air seemed to brush his lips and ruffle his fringe.
He didn’t believe in an afterlife, or even in God for that matter, but found himself wondering whether this was a tangible expression of his Gran’s spirit departing. Weird.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Chris contemplated the ordeal of the funeral as he drove home. A day with his family always disturbed him. His parents had a strange relationship, too polite with each other; no warmth or passion. His father was always so critical and had been unable to ignore the faux pas of the light trousers.
His brother too unsettled him, seeming so much more – well so much more everything than he was. He had more fun, was more outrageous yet, at the same time, more sensible – he’d never fluff his degree or get his girlfriend pregnant.
These depressing thoughts were interrupted by the shock of seeing his mother-in-law’s car parked in the road outside the awful, cold, thirties semi that was his and Julie’s first home.
“Hell,” he thought, “I hope Julie’s O.K.”
He let himself in. No one was about. Nor was there a note. What to do? Then the phone rang. It was his mother-in-law.
“Julie’s here with me. She couldn’t get hold of you,” she said contemptuously.
“I was at my Gran’s funeral,” Chris answered defensively, “Anyway where are you?”
“In the maternity ward. I had to rush over. It was an emergency. We’ve given birth to a son.”
“But it wasn’t due for at least another fortnight. Is Julie all right? How big is it? When?”
“Julie’s fine. Tired, but we pulled the little chap out very quickly. He was born at five past four and weighted 3.1 kilos.”
Chris ignored the sarcastic digs. He was suddenly overjoyed. A son! His son! How tremendous!
What a day it had been – a huge loss and now a huge gain – great sorrow and now great happiness. He wondered whether there was any connection.
Could there be a link between his Gran’s dying process and his son’s growth in the womb? Between her death and his birth? Could the puff of air from the grave have happened as his son took his first breath? And what did his Gran mean by those peculiar words she uttered? He’d never know for sure but ….