’98…99…100’. Her eyes flew open, ‘ready or not, here I come!’
The young girl rose quickly from her crouched position beneath the large apple tree and ran down the hill into the wood. It was midsummer and the warm, humid air was tinged ever so slightly by the dusty smell of corn being harvested nearby.
She busied herself with seeking, darting between trees and circling rocks. At twelve years old she was well accustomed to searching for her older brothers hiding places, but today, he’d brought a friend. Michael was a tall, dark studious looking boy who’d made her feel strange. Normally so used to boys, Michael had made her feel shy and her tummy had fluttered when she saw him. She shrugged to herself and refocused on the game – she wanted to find him and prove that she could be just as good as a boy, show him that she wasn’t the quiet little mouse he’d met earlier. She’d never been that way with her brother’s other friends. It didn’t make sense. It confused her.
At that moment she heard a rustle to her left, she spun on her heel, glimpsing a flash of blue amongst the lush green leaves. Michael. Her heart jumped and the butterflies returned. Distracted, she turned and ran towards where she’d seen the flash of blue, but, at that moment her foot found an overgrown root and before she knew it she was falling, then rolling down the steep embankment, gathering speed as she fell.
‘Tess?’ A voice shouted.
The edges of the world were blurred as she tentatively opened one eye, then another. Blue. She saw blue. She remembered falling, down and down, round and round – and then nothing. Her first thought was that her head hurt, and as she lifted her hand to her head she smelt the pungent, rusty scent of blood. A mixture of squeamishness and pain almost caused her to slip back into unconsciousness, but then he came into focus. His deep brown eyes peering in to her own. She felt sleepy, so sleepy, and yet the urge to keep looking into his eyes won out. He leant down towards her and gently lifted her head. ‘You’ll have a bump in the morning and no mistake; I reckon it looks a lot worse than it is though’. He smiled reassuringly; it was the first time she’d seen him smile. ‘Reckon you can sit up?’ Tess nodded dumbly, as he held out his hand to help her. As their skin touched one another something passed between them. A feeling, a knowledge that they were meant to be. She didn’t understand it; all she knew was that at just twelve years old she knew she’d met the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. She glanced up shyly, not knowing if he felt the same, telling herself that she’d hit her head too hard, that she was crazy. Her eyes found his, and she saw and felt her own confusing, yet sure feelings reflected. That was the last thing Tess recalled before her eyes flickered shut once more and she passed out in Michael’s arms.
She rapidly blinked to clear the tears which threatened to fall as Michael ran towards her, circling his arms around her tightly, lifting her from the ground and spinning her joyously. Ever since Michael joined the RAF a year ago, Tess had lived in a constant state of anxiety. She had tried to remain positive, but dark thoughts had lurked menacingly on the periphery of her mind. But now, the Nazi’s were defeated, Hitler was dead and Michael was home. The war had aged them, still only 18 years old, Tess felt as though she were at least ten years older. No-one had escaped the war or its devastating effects. Everyone had lost someone and she couldn’t see how life could never return to the way it once was.
As he returned her feet to the dewy grass, he sank down to one knee, whilst looking up into her eyes, she hadn’t noticed, but in his hand was a small black velvet box.
‘I should have done this a long time ago, Tess, I promised myself that if I lived to see the end of this damn war I’d make you my wife. I love you, I always have, ever since that day in the woods. You’re my best friend, the woman I want to have a family with and grow old with. I want forever with you. Imagining our life together kept me alive up there. Tess, will you marry me?’
Tess sank down to the ground, beaming with happiness and at that moment all the worry, the anxiety and fear she had kept pent up inside over the last year, dissipated and in its place remained pure love. ‘Nothing would make me happier’ she responded, smiling so hard her cheeks hurt. He opened the box and there, set amongst the rich cream silk, was a small, but perfectly formed round diamond, set on a gleaming circular band of gold. He placed the ring on her finger, clasped her hands in his and leant in for a kiss, closing her eyes Tess leaned towards him, kissing him tenderly on the lips.
Tess’ eyes widened as a pain like she’d never felt before, tore through her body. ‘It’s time’ she heard a distant voice say. She couldn’t think of anything but the pain. ‘TESS!’ The midwife shouted bringing Tess screaming back to the present moment. ‘It’s time; you need to bear down – NOW’. With everything she had, Tess pushed, long and hard with everything she had and finally felt her baby slide from her. The midwife lifted the baby from between her legs. ‘It’s a girl’ she exclaimed, as she took the baby to one side to clean her up. Exhausted, Tess just wanted to sleep, but then she heard the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard. Her baby cried. All at once it hit her, she was someone’s mother. It didn’t feel possible, and yet here was her daughter being brought over to her, swaddled tightly in a snow white blanket. The midwife placed her daughter in her arms. Hastily cleaned, her skin was slightly mottled, her little fingers, peeping out from the top of the swaddle, were dainty and perfectly formed. Her hair, slick and damp, was jet black. Tess felt something shift inside her, until this moment her love for Michael had been stronger than any other emotion she’d felt. But looking at her daughter’s tiny face, she knew that she was capable of feeling and giving more love than she had ever thought possible.
Hours seem to pass until Michael was finally allowed into the delivery room. His eyes immediately locked onto her own, before sliding down to their daughter who slept quietly on, nestled into her chest. Closely watching him, she saw the same shift of love occur deep inside him. He came closer, stunned. ‘Would you like to hold her’, Tess asked. He nodded dumbly, the sight of their tiny baby shaking her usually confident husband to the core. He tenderly took the sleeping babe from her arms. She could see tears glisten in his eyes as he looked up, their eyes finally locking on to one another again.
‘She’s beautiful’, he murmured, ‘what shall we call her?’
‘I thought perhaps Gwen, for your Mother, what do you think?’
He smiled in agreement, ‘Hello Gwen’ he said softly. Gwen opened her eyes for the first time, looked dozily at the smiling face in front of her and closed them again, retreating to the safe world of sweet dreams, shutting out the strange new world she’d just entered.
Tess awoke suddenly as the hospital ward began to stir next door. Taking a split second to reconcile herself with her surroundings, she remembered where she was. Michael. Everything came rushing back to her. The accident. She had been at home last night waiting for Michael to arrive home from work when the police officer had come to the door.
Even now she couldn’t remember exactly what he’d said, but she knew the news was bad the second she opened the door. She moved from the chair in the corner, where a nurse had kindly covered her with a blanket sometime during the night, to the stool next to Michael’s bed. She tenderly folded her hand around his, squeezing gently, praying silently for a response. Nothing. The doctor had said there was nothing they could do. It was just a matter of time. Keep him comfortable.
The doctor’s words spiralled through her mind. His internal organs had been crushed and were slowly failing. The surgery had failed. They had tried, but the damage was too extensive.
Michael slept on as the machinery he was hooked up to beeped incessantly. Tess had called Gwen last night and she was on her way. Thirty years old and a mother herself, she had her own business, a husband, a home, a whole other life. She should be here soon. She glanced at the clock anxiously. If only Michael could hold on a bit longer, she knew he’d want Gwen to be here.
The ticking of the clock began to mock her, putting her on edge. Every tick signified another second less with him. Their lives together had been gloriously happy. They’d had their problems, and they’d definitely had some rows! But he’d been at her side since she was just twelve years old and she didn’t know how to function without him, indeed she didn’t want to live without him. He had promised her forever, and 35 years of marriage had gone by in a blink. Tess felt cheated. He hadn’t even retired yet. They’d planned to do so much. See so much. They’d planned a whole life together. And now that dream was dying, along with the man she’d loved for almost as long as she could remember.
Suddenly she felt a movement. A light, but undeniable pressure against the palm of her hand. She lifted her head from the crook of her arm where she’d laid gently dozing. His eyelids flickered. Once. Twice. And then his lips moved and uttered her name, barely an audible whisper, but he knew her, he knew she was there.
Bursting with excitement and hope, Tess yelled as loud as she could for the doctor. It was a miracle; the doctor had said he would never wake. ‘Just hold on, darling, the doctor will be here soon. You’re going to be ok. I love you, I love you so much, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you more, I’m sorry, please stay with me’ Tess sobbed, half hopeful, half terrified of what the next few moments held.
‘Tess’ he wheezed, fighting against his constricted lungs. ‘I’m ok’
‘I know you are, I know you are, you rest now, save your strength, we need you to get better’ interrupted Tess desperately.
‘No’, whispered Michael. Then, he opened his beautiful eyes and she was reminded of the first time she’d looked into them, that day in the woods. Only this time, the light behind them was dying, only a glimmer remained. It was then she knew. He was leaving her.
‘I love you Tess’ speaking was an internal battle for him, he wheezed and sputtered before uttering, ‘Forever’. And then the light died and his eyes closed for the last time.
‘98……..99……..100’, Tess opened her eyes in spite of the bright glare of the sun and watched as her great granddaughter ran to seek her brother’s hiding place. She chuckled to herself as she rose out of the deck chair she’d been settled in, reveling in her precious memories. It had been seventy two years since she’d met Michael and thirty one years since his death. She’d never remarried, there could never be anyone for her but Michael, and she’d lived their dreams without him, thinking of him every day, wishing he was there. Selling the home they’d shared all their married life had been hard, but she knew he’d want her to be near Gwen and her family, and somehow she knew he would be with her wherever she went, bricks and mortar meant nothing, he was in her heart.
‘Mum?’ Tess turned to see her daughter walking towards her carrying a tray of drinks.
Tess turned to smile at her daughter, struck as she always was by how much she looked like Michael.
‘Mum?’ Gwen said again, sounding concerned. Tess, confused, turned around to look at where her daughter’s gaze was fixed; the chair she’d recently vacated. Or thought she had. Tess felt disoriented for a moment, and then she realised. When she’d gotten up out of the chair it had been easy, she’d felt light and free in a way she hadn’t in years. And then she felt him. Michael. He was next to her, young and handsome, just as she remembered him on their wedding day. He held out his hand to her, and without hesitation or fear, she placed her hand in his. He smiled at her, and in that moment she accepted her fate, thankful of the life she’d led, and became the young woman she had once been. She turned to see her daughter crouched next to her body, sobbing for the loss of her mother. Slowly, Tess moved to her daughter’s side and placed her hand on Gwen’s cheek, ‘don’t cry, I’m happy, Gwen, it’s your Dad, he’s here with me’. She turned and smiled as Michael appeared beside her and placed his hand over his wife’s. As if sensing their combined presence Gwen turned towards them, her face bathed in sunlight, and smiled softly. ‘I love you’ she whispered into the breeze. As her family rushed towards Gwen, Tess and Michael moved away, their hands clenched together, as one.
‘What now’, said Tess.
‘Now, it’s time for forever,’ replied Michael, enveloping her in his arms and kissing her passionately as the sun’s rays cradled them into the light.
© Emma Rowson, 2018