The Promise

A young couple meet on a skiing holiday and fall in love. So far, so ordinary. But the love between Joanna and Frank is special, profound and generous. And when the time comes, Joanna gives Frank a great gift; she gives him his freedom.

The sun was brilliant, the sky was deep blue, and the ski-lift was crowded. I had only just managed to squeeze into the gondola, pressed close to a young woman. She was tall and slender, and long, dark-brown hair cascaded from under her casquette; her dark amber eyes were merry and she was smiling.
As the door slid open at the upper lift station, I said “After you.”
“No, after you!”
“Aggressive feminist?” I wondered, and glanced at her face. We both moved at the same instant and half tripped over each other, apologising and laughing.
“Why don’t we ski down together?” she suggested.
She was a better skier than I, especially through the mogul field, but she slowed to allow me to catch up. I pointed to the mountain restaurant.
“Can I buy you lunch?”
“That would be lovely. This is my all-time favourite restaurant!”
We ate lunch. We drank wine. We talked; and suddenly it was five o’clock. We had dinner that evening. By the end of our holiday we were a couple.
Joanna lived in London, while I lived where I had grown-up, near Manchester. Within two months I had a job and a flat in London and we saw each other every day.
I asked Joanna to take June 30th as holiday, and show me round London. The day started cloudy and grey, so she took me to the Courtauld Gallery to see their collection of paintings by the Impressionists. By noon the sun was shining.
“Why don’t we visit the London Eye? It would be wonderful to see the city from above.”
“What a good idea, Frank!” she said. “I’ve never done that, even though I live here.”
“I’m glad you said that!” I grinned, and produced two tickets from my wallet. “Flexi fast track, so we can turn up any time and beat the queue.” She kissed me and squeezed my hand, and then held it tightly all the way to Westminster.
The view from the Eye is spectacular. We ooh-ed and aah-ed with the best of them as the gondola climbed high above the buildings. And at the high point of the ride, I went down on one knee in the crowded gondola, and asked Joanna to marry me. She simply answered, “Yes, of course,” but with such a radiant face. It was the happiest moment of my life.
It was during March the following year that we noticed something was wrong. Joanna had no energy. She suffered abdominal pains that sometimes disturbed her sleep.
“I’m just run down,” she expostulated. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
But she didn’t improve. The pains became worse, and more frequent, until even Joanna couldn’t pretend she was well.
She was pale when she came back from the Health Centre.
“The doctor says it may be serious. He rang up the hospital, and they want me in for some tests. Ow!” She winced and grabbed at her midriff.
“When’s the appointment?”
“Now. I’m to pack my things and go in straightaway.”
I had never felt so frightened in my life as when she told me that.
I went with her, of course. As she sat in her hospital bed that evening, she looked quite bright. It was only then that I realised how much pain she must have been suffering; they’d prescribed morphine for her.
Tests, tests and more tests. They were extremely thorough.
When the results were available, the consultant saw the two of us together. He wrapped up the truth in medical mumbo-jumbo but the reality was still the same. There was no hope. Joanna had only a month or so to live.
She came home for a short while, just a few weeks. The pain became worse, despite the morphine. Eventually, “I think I’d like to go into the hospice for a few days, just while they work out the analgesia,” she said.
That night, as she lay in the hospice bed, she said “Don’t grieve for me too much, Frank. Promise me you’ll try to find someone else.”
Those were the last words my beloved spoke.
I held her hand, the tears flooding down my cheeks. Nobody could replace her, nobody.
“I promise I’ll try, my love. I promise.”
She relaxed. Her face was at peace, even smiling. Her long, dark-brown hair streaked over the pillow as it used to after we made love. There was a little colour in her cheeks. She was beautiful.
A few minutes later she slipped away, so quietly that I hardly noticed. One moment she was asleep, breathing very gently, the next moment she had gone. Her mum broke the stillness. She came to my side and put one hand on my shoulder, while with the other she stroked my hair.
“I am so sorry, Frank,” she said.
She held me close, and I buried my head against her and wept as though I would never stop.
“You can come home with us,” she said.
Everybody was so kind.
It must have been dreadful for Stephen and Gillian to lose their only child like that, and yet in the midst of their grief they were able to offer me love. I hated them. How dared they accept Joanna’s death? How could they not rage that she should be taken so young?
I had to escape, had to, I couldn’t bear to be here in this place, in this time. I wanted her back. I didn’t want her to have gone. She hadn’t gone.
I fled to the Alps. The high meadows were full of flowers, but snow still shrouded the peaks. It was a world of beauty from which I was excluded. I walked there until I was exhausted, day after day. Night after night I woke at three o’clock and lay sleepless and miserable until the morning.
I went down to the sea. The eternal waters washed the harbour walls; the tides rose and fell in their eternal rhythm. The sun blessed the waves with loveliness, and I spat on them in envy of their joy. I swam until my body felt wooden with fatigue and cold. How easy it would have been to have swum away from the shore, and just keep going! I thought of Joanna and my promise, and turned back. As I stumbled out of the waves, an old man looked sadly at me, and shook his head. He knew.
I went home. I took a new, ruthless edge to work. What did I care about other people? What was their hurt compared to mine?
I couldn’t bear it.
I accumulated the pills over several days. It’s possible if you try hard enough, if you know where to look. I drank some scotch; not a lot. I turned on the music system. Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” The memory of Joanna’s funeral slammed me as the music gently and insidiously filled the room.
I lined up the pills on the table. Here is a lethal dose. Here is double a lethal dose, and here is treble. And one more for luck. I fetched a pint glass of water, sat down, and took a deep breath. I listened, and remembered our shared joys. I picked up the first pill.
“I’m sorry, Joanna, I can’t do it. I just can’t. Forgive me.”
The doorbell rang, strident, continuous. I waited but it didn’t stop.
I replaced the pill on the table, and answered the door.
She was young. The curls of her blonde hair made a halo around her face.
“Oh dear,” she said, “I’m afraid I seem to have broken your doorbell. I’m awfully sorry!”
The doorbell abruptly stopped. We looked at each other. She seemed about to laugh, and then her face changed.
“I was going to ask to scrounge some milk; but there’s something wrong, isn’t there?”
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” she asked.
She came in, and I told her.
She took away the pills, and the scotch. She took away some of the pain.
I’m seeing her again tomorrow.
* * *

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The Flying Dutchman

I had been riding for about three hours. The magnificence of the midsummer stars was fading as the sky ahead of me became grey. The solstice dawn was hurrying westwards to greet me and I still had five miles to travel. I opened the throttle gently until the needle of the speedometer touched eighty but there was no need. The world was still in shadow as I sped up the last rise to the summit of the headland.
I propped the bike on its stand, took off my helmet and breathed. The air felt cold and fresh. I could hear the sea sighing, deep, slow exhalations like a heavy sleeper. It was good to stretch after the journey, to stretch and allow the vibration of the road to ease out of my body.
Every second the light was changing, intensifying. Colour was creeping back. The grey of the eastern sky became pearl, and then peach. The springy seaside grass was just perceptibly green. No birds sang yet, no insects buzzed, but life was stirring all about me.
I watched the vapour draped like a robe across the horizon. Brighter and brighter. Suddenly there was a pinprick of intense gold in the heart of the mist. It grew and grew, a flood of fire pouring out across the water. The beat of the sea took on a louder and more urgent note, the cliff seemed to shudder under the impact of the waves and the breeze freshened, blowing hard against my face.
“In the morning, long before dawn, He got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there”. The words rang in my head, as though burned there by the light, or swept there by the wind. How strange. It had been many years since I had been in a church. The faith in which I had been brought up had faded. Grief borne unsupported had gnawed at my trust in God. I had never rebelled or turned consciously away, but I had lost the habit of belief.
The full light of day shone around me.
I was hungry. There was a transport café a few miles away. I suddenly wanted a fried breakfast more than anything else in the world.
Lingering over the last of my coffee and bacon, I planned the rest of my journey. It was the longest day of the year but I had far to travel and much to see.
The first milestone had been to watch the sunrise on the Yorkshire coast. The next was to lunch at a pub in the Peak District that had been the place where I had first met my wife. After that I intended to visit the chapel in Rochdale where we had married, and finally make it to the Lancashire coast to watch the sunset. There was plenty of time before lunch; the rush would come later. Meanwhile, I could do some sightseeing.
Uplifted by the sunrise, I trod the stones of York Minster in the morning. A choir was rehearsing. Glorious music in glorious architecture. How strange that joy and regret can mingle and how strange the result of that mingling, creating now a poignant delight and now revulsion, distress and despair. I needed clean air. I needed reality, not the perfumed solace of high art.
The bike throbbed beneath me as I raced towards the Pennines. Eighty, ninety, one hundred miles an hour. I was buffeted, exhilarated and yet despondent, dragging mourning for my long-dead wife with me like a cross.
There was a lay-by that I knew, a place where I could park the bike and walk across the moor to a pub. It was a dappled day, and I strode through sun and shade across the heathery turf. The sounds of the wilderness formed themselves into music in my thoughts, violin, penny whistle and guitar. Her music. I trod lightly, a dancer, threading my way precisely through the mires and little brooks.
Lunch was good, beer, bread, cheese and pickle. As I walked back to the bike I sang, bass to the shrill soprano of the skylarks. Just before I reached the road I stopped, stretched out in the sunshine and peered into the blue void. Without meaning to, I slept.
The sky was cloudy when I woke up, and I was stiff and tired. I had ridden two hundred and sixty miles in the last fifteen hours and I could feel every one of them in my aching muscles. Like a pilgrim, I set my will to continue; there were still many miles to cover.
The next forty miles were frustrating. Cars were double parked on every High Street and I was running late. Unpractised drivers clogged the roads. No matter how often I overtook one, there was always another around the next bend. Two hours had passed before I finally parked the bike in the little yard of the chapel.
It was quiet. The chapel stood apart from other buildings. The shouts of children playing on the nearby council estate reached me only faintly. The building was dingy. There were grilles over the windows, and rust had trickled from them down the cement rendered walls. The doors were locked, indeed more than locked. A beam had been nailed across them. The place had plainly been disused for years.
I glanced at my watch. Twenty past seven. Perhaps the traffic would be lighter now? Briefly I debated whether I should just head for the nearest place on the coast, to be sure of catching the sunset.
No. It had to be the place where she and I had stayed eighteen years ago. The place where dawn had been a magical awakening, and dusk a time when the spell of human attraction, of affinity, of close companionship – oh, go on, think the word, think the forbidden – of l-o-v-e, had fused us into one being. It was a risk, to insist on going there. I might miss the sunset. But if I didn’t see it in that particular place I had failed anyway.
It was already evening when I arrived on the sea-front of a small Lancashire resort. As fast as I could manage, I trudged up the headland at the north end of the town. In the municipal gardens the flowers glowed with exaggerated colours, smeared with orange light. A youth was stacking deck chairs. I gave him a grin as I passed and he glowered back. ‘Who the fuck do you think you’re laughing at?’ he demanded.
When I reached the summit, the sun’s disc was already half submerged. I watched, silently. It would have been nice to share the moment. Nice to have someone whose hand I could hold, someone with whom I could relive the experience in the future, someone who would understand. The light slipped beneath the water, leaving a sky ablaze with violent pastel shades. It was enough; it was a sort of consummation. It was, at least, all I was going to get.
I rode home down the motorway, weaving in and out of the traffic. I rode fast; very fast. The lights of the vehicles were a video game as I blipped the throttle, touched the brakes, insinuated my way between them. I could feel my face set in a gamer’s rictus of concentration that I couldn’t relax.
Then I was off the motorway, off the main road and into suburbia. I turned into the street where I live, turned into my drive and parked. The house was dark, the milk delivered in the morning still standing on the step. I hunched on the saddle and wondered – suddenly – whether it was worth dismounting.