by Jeanne Davies
He collected Liliane at three. She wore the lime green velvet coat they had bought together many years previously. To him she looked as beautiful as ever, like a delicate faded flower with silvery hair as wild as Medusa’s. Their scruffy Jack Russell, Tula, greeted her lovingly as they were reunited, bringing an innocent smile to his wife’s face. Ray took her hand gently, escorting her to the car before tenderly enveloping her in the seat belt. Her fragile faced turned towards him as she asked if she was going home. How would he ever find the words to tell her? Today, like on many occasions before, his resolution was to try to explain, but he needed to find the right moment.
Glancing sideways at her as he turned the engine on, he remembered the excitement of the drives they had together when they were courting. In those days he had a Honda CB550 with a sidecar, and she dressed like Audrey Hepburn with her headscarf folded neatly into the nape of her neck, and huge black owl-eyed sunglasses. The motorbike engine was too loud for them to converse, so throughout the journey they would communicate with nods and hand gestures. At the end of any trip, Liliane would alight daintily, tugging at her scarf to release her golden curls which tumbled down her back in a swaying curtain. An inch or two taller than Ray even in flat shoes, she always took his breath away and still did to this day.
Today they drove slowly through the Hampshire countryside which was vibrantly painted in all its autumn glory of colours; neither said a word. The dappled light highlighted her age spots, once tiny flecks of girlie freckles across her nose, which surrounded her heliotrope eyes in a butterfly shape. He leant across to point at a striking giant oak tree, solitarily stationed like a warrior in the centre of a horse field. She stared at it for some time before gesturing back with a nod of her head and a weathered smile. They pulled over to the side of the road to see the horses, three mares and a foul; her eyes suddenly illuminated with enthusiasm. The naivety of her child-like smile brought tears forward which he promptly dismissed. How could he tell her these outings were numbered?
In the early days of the illness, she had told him that there were moments when she felt alone on a beach where the tide had gone out completely, taking all her memories with it. Every day he had felt her mind slipping away until one day she was completely gone. As the disease progressed her fear turned into frustration and anger, most of it aimed at him because there was nobody else. He often suffered injury from her violent rages and many times she became a danger to herself, frequently leaving the house barefoot and turning up at the other side of the village with no idea who or where she was. Strangely she still remembered Tula’s name, but these days often referred to her as ‘the puppy’. The time eventually came when he had no choice but to put his dear Liliane into a care home, which made him crumble inside. Before long, the drugs they were able to administer in the home began to calm her, although by then she hardly recognised Ray at all.
This little outing was all part of their usual Friday jaunt. Soon they would arrive at the coast, abandon the car in the seafront car park to walk across to Hayling Island. Here they would sit on a rickety old bench to watch the boats heading into the harbour for mooring, boats of many shapes and colours against the ever-changing skyscape. Ray covered Liliane’s legs in a car blanket, which Tula took as a signal to jump up. Ray’s hand fitted over Liliane’s as they gazed at the sun lowering in the sky, creating dark silhouettes of tiny, moored crafts outlined by the ocean. Twilight gradually persuaded the day to disappear. As tiny dots of light began expanding in the crimson velvet sky, they headed for Harry’s fish and chip bar, their eyes still wrapped up in the sunset as they watched over their tasty morsels being wrapped in white paper. The smell in the car was intoxicating. He could see her delight as she looked across at the warm parcel between them. He had been careful to hide the Estate Agent’s Sold sign in the front garden and hoped she wouldn’t notice how bare the house had become. Quickly switching on the lights in the house he led them into the parlour where he had previously laid the kitchen table for two with floral serviettes and two wine glasses. Ray took her coat to hang behind the door, carefully coaxing her to her usual seat at the other end of the table. He placed the cream donut he had bought that morning in the centre of the table, dividing it carefully into two. Her eyes were owl-like as they ate the fish and chips together, savouring every morsel with their glass of white wine.
The television went on as they sat with their coffee and half a donut on the two-seater sofa. Tula crept up on to Liliane’s lap just like so many times before. He could not possibly tell her now; what would he say? This was just one day in his week that highlighted his lonely life, and he did not want to waste it … not for either of them. Ray knew this was his last opportunity to keep to his resolution and be honest with his wife, but inside he knew he would probably fail again.
“But won’t mother want me home … won’t she be worried?” she gasped as they climbed the stairs together.
Mrs Smith at the Care Home had become Liliane’s mother over the past four years, catering for her every need and keeping her safe and medicated. Even so, sometimes Liliane did not even recognise her.
“She knows you are here dear and will be waiting for your return in the morning,” he said soothingly.
Ray had previously ensured that all his packing cases were well hidden under the bed before taking her into the spare bedroom. He helped her into her pyjamas and stood by as she obediently swallowed her night-time tablets. Leaving the glass of water easily within her reach and the low-wattage bulb on in the bathroom, Ray tucked Liliane carefully inside the crisp white sheets before quietly turning the key in the lock.
“Goodnight, sweetheart”, he whispered back through the door.
When he woke Liliane next morning with her cup of tea, that old look of distrust and fear had returned to her eyes. But with gentle coaxing he persuaded her to dip her favourite shortbread biscuit in her tea; the fear slowly subsided and she rewarded him with a smile.
They ate croissants and fresh orange juice in the conservatory before they belted into the car. After careful consideration, he had decided that his news would have to wait.
“Did mother say it was alright for me to have a sleepover?” she asked as they drove away.
He nodded. “Yes, of course, dear”, he sighed.
Liliane’s life now consisted completely of living amongst strangers, with unfamiliar faces, in places unknown. His Oncologist was correct, there would really be no purpose in sharing his prognosis with his wife. The treatment had ended, and his hospice bed was booked and ready. He held her hand until it slipped away from him. She didn’t say goodbye but disappeared behind the plastic bubble light doors of the care home. Her lack of recognition had finally confirmed everything for him … she would not notice he had gone; she would continue to be forever young.
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