The funeral was a sad affair, four people, including me, huddled inside the cold, empty church.The bare walls reflected the shallow, empty chanting, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he lays me down…’ There he was. Laid down. Bob. My neighbour. His body as limp and useless as the Church minister. Now me and Bob had something else in common, we were both cold inside.
Bob and I were relative strangers until we’d both retired, and found ourselves spending more time in the garden. We decided to talk to each other rather than the flowers. He’d spent thirty years of his life as a desk sergeant, which mainly consisted of throwing the local drunks in the cells and dealing with petty crime. He’d always dreamed of visiting Barcelona, being a particular fan of modernist architecture. He showed me books filled with pictures of Gaudí’s work. Barcelona, France, even Blackpool would have suited me. I also longed to get away from the claustrophobia of living in the same small town for most of my life, attending the interminable Women’s Institute cake sales and amateur wine tasting evenings. Bob tried to write poetry but was as barren as the Winter trees. I tried to make tapas with Quorn unsuccessfully. We’d both lost that spark. In my case, I was just lonely and too afraid to travel alone. In his case, I think his wife Susan was to blame. She never seemed to notice that he was in trouble. He confessed, in an unguarded moment, that he had occasional breakdowns into depression because she just didn’t understand him. Two years later, Bob was diagnosed with cancer.
Susan’s somewhat cavalier attitude always made me squeeze on the stress ball I have for a heart.
“How is Bob today?” I asked, knowing full well the curtains have been ominously closed for the last three days.
“Oh, not bad at all!” she replied breezily.
Bob had what later turned out to be the cancer death knell and was busy dying at home. Susan chose to disappear to America to administer to her sister’s husband who also had cancer, convinced that his death was more imminent. She announced she wouldn’t be back for Christmas. In their fifty years together, this was to be his first Christmas alone. He tried not to show the pain as he walked, his unshaven chin and creased trousers a reminder of her terrible abandonment.
I worried about what he would eat. Why would he bother to cook a wholesome meal for one? He could hardly walk let alone stand for half an hour at the cooker. I watched him struggle to put washing on the line, he would sit down heavily on the bench after pegging out, worn out and dejected. I offered to help but he refused. I wondered what he would do for Christmas? I didn’t celebrate it, but I imagined him sitting around a sad paraffin heater, glaring at the tree, suffering the ignominy of being alone when everyone else was having fun. Christmas came and went. It was now six months and Susan hadn’t returned. Squeeze.
I invited him to dinner as much as I could, before he would object and pride would lead him back to his empty house. Charity is a bitter pill to swallow. He told me that she rang him every week, talking about how hard it was to care for her dying brother-in-law to which he apparently gave her sound advice, patiently and without laying on the guilt. I fumed like a steamed pudding, drenched in anguish. Who would be there for him at the end?
To me it was as clear as consommé, no-one seemed to care about Bob. No-one else could see what I saw and what made it worse was that Susan was a retired nurse. She should notice. She should care. Squeeze.
The Minister was coming to the end of the eulogy, rattling on about the nobility of a life spent fighting crime. It was all blah blah blah to me. What about Gaudí and Barcelona? Nobody mentioned that. I looked around at the Church and realised it was just a completely featureless empty shed, definitely not somewhere Bob would frequent. He wasn’t religious either. Susan openly wept as the coffin was carried out and I was glad to get outside away from all the hypocrisy. Squeeze. It all reeked of pointlessness.
After the funeral I imagined asking her the same pointless question:
“How is Bob?”
To which she would reply breezily:
“Oh, not so good!”
No shit! Squeeze.
As I walked away, the clouds scuppered past and the wind blew me to my waiting car. I felt a hand on my arm. It was Susan.
“Thank you for coming, he would have been glad you did.” Susan’s eyes seemed brighter, full of life. This annoyed me.
I nodded, wearing my heart on my sleeve. Her eyes remained locked to mine.
“You know, I won’t miss the years of continual put-downs… Nothing I did was ever right for him. It was worse when he retired and got ill.” Her eyes showed a strength I hadn’t seen before. I tried to answer but she continued. “Next month would have been our golden wedding anniversary.”
I lowered my eyes.
“But, you know, when someone takes so much from you, sometimes you can’t handle them taking a drop more. Something just snapped in me.”
I nodded and banned my tongue from speaking. I noticed her hand moving around in her pocket. She saw me looking and pulled out a stress ball on a keyring.
“Silly, but I don’t know what I would do without one of these.” She smiled awkwardly and squeezed it, as if to prove her point.
I realised that somehow, slowly and often painfully, life squeezed us all. Suddenly, I felt a mad rush of adrenaline and excitement.
“Susan, how do you fancy a trip to Barcelona?”
Avalina Kreska lives on a small, remote island in the UK with her husband and approx 70 other beings. She’s currently writing her first novel and hopes to complete it before animals of the canine nature finally take over the island.