Monday 29 April 2024

Puzzles by Judith Skillleter, a large glass of rioja

It is well over fifty years since Angus and Rose enjoyed their wedding day. It was the swinging sixties, Rose wore a mini-skirt which horrified her mother and Angus had shoulder length hair which horrified Rose’s father. But Angus and Rose didn’t care; it was the best day of their lives.

They lived a fairly isolated life. Both were only children and after all these years all the previous generation were long gone. Although Angus thinks he has a distant cousin in Winnipeg whom he has always intended to seek out but has never got round to. It is too late now. Also Angus and Rose never had children despite having a lot of fun trying. Children just didn’t come along. It was before IVF and all those modern techniques that prevent childlessness. But Angus and Rose have long since been OK with this; they are happy together and that is more than enough.

Since retirement their days have developed a routine. They get up after the Today programme on Radio 4. Angus helps Rose to get ready as arthritis and heart issues prevent her doing as much as she would like. Her mobility is very poor and they have had all sorts of gadgets installed to help her get about. There are two Zimmer frames, one upstairs and one downstairs, a stair-lift, a walk in shower with an attached seat and everything in their kitchen and living room is at a level that suits her. Angus is still quite mobile for his advanced years and after Rose is safely downstairs preparing their breakfast he takes their dog Davy for a walk. It is a walk with purpose – pee, poo and papers, the three Ps. Davy must pee and poo and together they collect the Daily Telegraph and The Times.

Once home Rose will have breakfast sorted. Toast, cereal and some fruit washed down with Earl Grey tea for Rose and hot chocolate for Angus. Angus is particular about his daily hot chocolate, none of this powder nonsense. His daily breakfast drink has to be made with dark chocolate pieces melted into heated double cream and sugar and Rose prepares it to perfection every day.

Breakfast is usually taken in companionable silence. They start their papers' puzzles. Angus takes The Times and immediately tackles the cryptic crossword and Rose takes the Daily Telegraph where she tackles the Sudoku. She likes the killer Sudoku, especially on Fridays when that puzzle is “diabolical”. She has tried cryptic crosswords but finds them totally baffling – she can neither understand the questions nor the answers despite many patient explanations from Angus. Rose is much happier with numbers, after all she used to be a maths teacher.

After lunch, usually something light, they move onto the jigsaw puzzle they are completing together. The latest jigsaw has been a Brueghel, 1,000 pieces, The Battle of Carnival and Lent, and they are about two thirds through. Their evenings are TV based. They have the lot – Skye and Netflix - and their evenings are never boring. Life is good, life is content and life is very happy.

Or at least life was good; it had been very very good.  Four months ago Angus came back from his morning walk with Davy, shook his head and said that the chest pains had come back. They had been troubling him for a while but usually went away if he rested. This time they didn’t go away and when Rose brought him his hot chocolate he was sitting in his chair, sagging in his chair, totally unarousable - dead. An ambulance was called but it was all too late. Angus’ death had been instantaneous.

Now, four months later, Rose was sitting in an almost empty house.  Some things had been sold and a house clearance firm took the rest. The house had been sold to a lovely young couple who wanted a family home for their soon to be born baby. Davy had been rehomed as had Rose; she was waiting for transport to a retirement complex where she would be cared for until her death when she hoped to be reunited with Angus.  Her personal effects and the bits of furniture she was allowed to take had already gone and her room, her new home, was waiting for her. Rose hated with a vengeance everything to do with what was happening to her now.

She also occasionally hated Angus for going before her. They had always assumed that she, Rose, would be the first to die given her frailty, heart concerns and arthritis. They had accepted that Angus would be OK on his own, with Davy of course, but Rose needed care, Rose would struggle. The fact that the day might come when Angus would die first had never crossed their minds.

Rose feels guilty for hating Angus and also blames herself for bringing on the heart attack – too many hot double cream and chocolate drinks. Why didn’t she insist that he visited their GP when the chest pains first came on? Why didn’t she limit his intake of artery blocking food items? It was all her fault.

After Angus’ death things had to be done; administrative, financial and legal tasks and, of course, telling people. Her puzzles had taken a back seat and The Battle of Carnival and Lent jigsaw was returned to its box unfinished. It was now at the local charity shop with all the other jigsaw puzzles. Since Angus died Rose had not been able to look at a Sudoku. Puzzles had represented their happiness, jigsaw pieces had always become a complete and beautiful picture which described her life with Angus perfectly. The very thought of tackling one just brought on floods of tears.

The funeral had been straightforward as both Angus and Rose had previously organised a cremation without ceremony; the body was taken away and after a few weeks an urn containing Angus’ ashes arrived.  Rose’s fifty plus years of a glorious marriage was now represented by a pot of dust.

But everything seemed so much worse now when there wasn’t much to do, nothing necessary and unpleasant to occupy her mind. Now the agonising pain of her loss was destroying her. It was as if this pain had been waiting for her defences to be down, for emotional space to be made for it to attack – it was a pain that was excruciating, a physical pain, and an emotionally agonising pain.  The pain was a result of so many losses, not just of her beloved husband, but also her home, her dog, her security, her lifestyle and her reason for living. Rose felt desolate. Nothing made sense anymore, everything was puzzling but, unlike her Sudokus and jigsaws in her past, not in a pleasurable way.

She had thought of taking all her medication and joining Angus “before her time”. She knew that Angus would not have approved of this way forward; he believed that life had to be lived until the end and he would be cross with her if she arrived early. Rose nevertheless hoped that her own death was not too far away. “The sooner the better” she thought to herself.

She saw the transport arrive and a kind lady helped her make the last journey from her home to the car. Rose couldn’t look back as the car eased into the traffic as she left everything that had been so loved and familiar for the last time. If life was hell then she was facing it.

 About the writer 

Judith Skilleter is new to writing fiction after a long career in social work and teaching. Her first children's novel The April Rebellion, has recently been published. Judith is a Geordie, who settled in East Yorkshire forty-five  years ago and is married with four grandchildren, 

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