‘Like a drum, my heart was beating, and your kiss was sweet as wine. But the joys of love are fleeting, for Pierrot and Columbine…’
Music is a wonderful thing, Pete thought to himself, as Judith Durham’s beautiful tones coursed their way through his head. Wonderful, but also strange, when you thought about it. For surely there could be no proper scientific reason why human beings should take such pleasure at what was, strictly speaking, no more than an array of sounds with differing lengths and pitches, arranged in a particular order. No obvious evolutionary advantage; no Freudian undercurrents about repressed sexual deviancy. Perhaps some things aren’t meant to make sense, he surmised. All that we really need to acknowledge was that it did exist, and he for one took a huge amount of joy from the fact that it did.
To him, it was a great leveller; a catalyst for human connection. He pictured himself amongst hundreds of young ravers in varying degrees of altered consciousness, jumping in unison; the DJ before them, orchestrating the spectacle with arms aloft, elevated above the throng like some hedonistic deity. The picture faded, replaced with an amalgamation of the many weddings he’d attended; arms around his best friends’ shoulders as they stood in a swaying, drunken circle, bellowing ‘Mr Brightside’ tunelessly at each other; all inhibitions – and dignity – long forgotten. More images came thick and fast: ‘My Way’ causing lumps in throats at funerals; warm hands reaching out across cold church pews to provide what scant comfort they could. East and West Germans embracing amongst the rubble of the Berlin Wall to the backdrop of David Hasselhoff, for God’s sake. The Seekers had finished their performance in his head now (didn’t they always close the show with ‘The Carnival is Over’?) and departed stage left – all that remained was the tranquillity of this place.
He’d been here a couple of days now. It was lovely, really – as he supposed they all were. Had to be. Jenny had brought him in the car; he’d stolen a sideways glance at her as she focused on the road ahead. One of those stubborn smiles she daren’t let go; her jaw must have been aching from clenching her teeth so hard. You don’t know how sorry I am, Jen. As they’d pulled into the car park, he’d noticed the logo on the building before registering the name. An approximation of some small bird in flight, in front of a beaming sun. A dove? He hoped not. They may as well have opened a dictionary and printed the literal definition of ‘cliché’ on the wall. The name was printed below, in sensible black typeface: St Stephen’s Hospice.
He couldn’t remember the first thing that went through his head when Dr Allen had gently informed him that there was ‘nothing they could do’. Well, there wasn’t one single ‘first thing’, was there? It certainly wasn’t like you see in films or on television; no tears, no collapsing. Sure, Jenny had squeezed his hand a little too tightly, and Dr Allen had looked on, wide-eyed and stoic; all the humanity and empathy that accompanies years of medical work etched across her face. But his mind was a maelstrom. I’m 37, this is ridiculous. Cancer is mutated cells. What’s for dinner tonight? I’ve never been to South America. Jenny. Jenny alone. Jenny crying. They’ll need to find a new Assistant Manager. Mutated cells. Mutation. Did she lock the car? Cells eating cells. One thing that he did remember was the picture that this malignant Wheel of Misfortune stopped on. Beans on toast, on a chipped IKEA plate.
That was another strange and wonderful thing, Pete thought now. Love. And romance, while we’re at it. And monogamy. It was evident to him that we all seek connection with our fellow humans; but what strange forces were at work in the brain that (most) of us should feel the urge to connect ourselves so inextricably to just one other? He found the social angle – we love because we’re taught to love by society – too dispiriting, too coldly cynical; he’d almost wept when a colleague had described marriage as ‘the cornerstone of economics’. For something so immeasurably deep and powerful, it had always amazed him how many of his fellow humans interacted with it on such a superficial level. Love was what privileged Hollywood directors told them it was; what Hallmark and Cadbury’s and Build-a-Bear Workshop insidiously whispered into their ears to relieve them of their hard-earned wages. He wasn’t angry with them for this, because it wasn’t that they were ‘incorrect’; maybe life was just too short (oh, the delicious irony) to concern themselves with searching for a deeper understanding which, even after all your endeavours, may never be discoverable. For him though, love had to be more. Love was everything. Love was the mundane. Love was beans on toast.
It was one of those miserable January days, about 3 years ago; freezing cold, with bitter winds and relentless driving rain. It was dark when he dragged himself out of bed at 6.00am; dark when he got to the office at 7.30; dark when he finally left sometime after 7.00pm. The kind of dispiriting day where the whole year stretches out in front of you like a desert highway; the warmth and lightness of Spring feeling as far away as distant galaxies. He’d moved in with Jenny the previous October; although they’d only been together for eight months, it had felt like a natural step. It was a Wednesday, so she’d be going out to her evening yoga class – he’d be lucky to get 10 minutes with her. She’d have had her dinner already; something healthy, packed with superfoods. He could probably scrape himself something half decent together from what they had in the fridge, but as he trudged wearily home from the train station, soaked to the skin, all he wanted was an artery-clogging takeaway and a large glass of wine. He’d had a really shit day; tetchy meetings with belligerent colleagues, an ever-increasing to-do list, extra work added to deadlines that could barely be tighter. She must have heard his footsteps on the gravel drive, as she had the door open without him having to break stride. Resplendent in her matching green Lycra; car keys jangling in her hand. A peck on the lips as she passed.
‘Can’t stop, love, speak to you later’
‘Have we got any……’ But she was already in the car; the engine drowning out his question before, in truth, he’d figured out what exactly he was enquiring after. Sighing, he turned back into the house, only to be confronted by a vision of bliss on the kitchen table.
It was the note that he spotted first; her loopy handwriting hastily scrawled across the back of a Chinese takeaway menu. ‘Hope your day’s been OK. Made you this. Sorry it’s a bit crap. J x x’ His eyes moved over to the plate, and he allowed himself a wry smile. He remembered the glare that she’d given him when he’d chipped it (accidentally, he might add), mere days after their first IKEA trip as cohabitees. It remained the closest they’d ever come to having an argument. Finally, he surveyed the contents of the plate, still gently steaming. The visible edges of the toast were slightly burned; he concluded that she’d been making it whilst simultaneously getting changed, running up and down the stairs in various stages of undress to stir the beans and spread the butter. In truth, it could have been ‘shit with sugar on’ (to borrow one of his dad’s beloved phrases) as far as he was concerned; the intense feeling of gratitude, and sheer contentment at the simplicity of the gesture, caused him to stop in his tracks as tears pricked his eyes. The stresses of the day fell away, insignificant. I never tell you just how bloody great you are; how happy you make me. I should really do it more often. I’ll definitely say something the moment you get in, but for now, I’ll enjoy your humble offering, Jen. He sat down and picked up the knife and fork.
He was fast asleep on the sofa when she returned; the TV quietly humming to itself.
In his warm bed, surrounded by blissful silence, Pete found the taste coming back to him; saliva filling his mouth in anticipation. The sugary sweetness of the tomato sauce, creamy butter, that slight smoky bitterness of burned edges. More fragments of songs came and went; his mind an impatient teenager with an iPod, skipping after the opening verse. Eventually, Simon and Garfunkel made it to the second verse:
‘When evening falls so hard, I will comfort you. I’ll take your part, oh when darkness comes, and pain is all around….’
Her face flashed in front of his eyes, smiling through tears.
‘You heading off soon, love?’ The nurse made Jenny jump as she entered the room.
‘Sorry, I was miles away. Yeah, I’d best be going – the cats are going to be desperate for their dinner. I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘He’s been quiet today, hasn’t he?’
‘Yeah, not heard a peep from him. Just dozing – seems contented. Funny thing happened about 10 minutes ago though. His face, kind of, flickered, if you know what I mean. The slightest of movements behind the eyelids. And I could have sworn I saw a tiny smile at the edge of his mouth. Probably seeing things – I’m shattered, to be honest’
The nurse laid a gentle hand on her arm. ‘I know how hard it is. Try to get a good night’s sleep. We’ll look after him for you, promise.’
Jenny nodded, unable to form any words at that moment. Sliding her coat on and grabbing her bag from the floor next to the chair, she nodded once more at the nurse in what she hoped was received as both a ‘polite goodbye’ and a ‘thanks for everything you do’, and slipped quietly from the room.
She was almost at the lifts when she heard it. The shrill buzz of the alarm; originating from the direction she’d just come from. A door opened to her left and another nurse hurried past her; her eyes and expression betraying grim resignation. Jenny turned on her heels and ran back down the corridor, hoping against hope that she’d make it in time to say goodbye. To say she loved him, more than anything in the world; to give him one last kiss.