What Pegman Saw – A big ask

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is Hanoi, Vietnam.

WPS - A big ask 180908

Hanoi, Vietnam | © Wonov.com, Google Maps

A big ask

Nguyen Anh Dung was nervous. The table was covered with small dishes of food, spicy prawns, savoury meat, crisp vegetables, tangy fruits. He hoped the American would enjoy it. Perhaps at last his daughter would marry.

The American, Matt, was working in Hanoi despite his memories of imprisonment and torture twenty-five years earlier. He found himself liking the Vietnamese – one of them in particular. Thirty years old, not beautiful but with a quirk to her lips when she smiled that he found irresistible, Nguyen Co^ng won Matt’s heart.

Soon, she took him to her father’s apartment.

The eyes of the two men met; they froze. Then Anh Dung bowed deeply.

“I once did you great wrong,” he said. “Nothing I do now can atone for that. Can you forgive the father’s evil for the sake of his daughter?”

Slowly, Matt unclenched his teeth.

“I guess I can try,” he said.

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Friday Fictioneers – Singin’ the blues

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Singin' the blues 180815

PHOTO PROMPT © Yvette Prior

Singin’ the Blues

The cigarette smoke stings my memory.

I remember evenings with Robin. We would play the ‘Moody Blues’ on his hi-fi as we sat on his single bed, our limbs tangled under a blanket, sharing a packet of ‘Disque Bleu’ cigarettes, swigging Heineken and nibbling peanuts.

In our first year at university he asked me to marry him, and I said, “Let’s finish our studies first”.

He asked me again when we graduated, but I said, “I want to complete my PhD first”.

He moved. We wrote. We phoned. We visited.

The smoke teases me. I wonder where Robin is now?

Short Story – First Meeting

Not flash fiction this time, but a short story. It’s about 600 words long, so it won’t take long to read! I welcome constructive criticism, so if you have suggestions as to how I could improve it I would be very grateful if you would comment.

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First Meeting

The cobbles were wet and slippery.

Susan skirted the edge of the market and paused at the butcher’s stall. She wondered whether she could afford their bargain offer of two rump steaks for £8. She shook her head. No. Too much Christmas shopping still to do and not enough money.

She was completely unprepared for the sudden shove and went flying, arms flailing, scattering packages all around.

“Oh, gosh! I’m terribly sorry. Are you alright?”

He was tall, about thirty, slim and dark-haired.

Susan sat on the cobbles and rubbed her right arm, wincing.

“Can you move it? I mean, is it broken?”

Susan flexed it gingerly, and grimaced.

“Just bruised, I think.” She glared at him and started to pick up her packages, ramming them into her bags. She stood up and tried, unsuccessfully, to carry all the bags with her left hand.

“Do you live close?”

“About a mile.”

He hailed a taxi, talked briefly to the driver, handed over cash.

“Give the driver the address. Once again, I’m really sorry.”

All she wanted now was a cup of tea.

It wasn’t until she was at home waiting for the kettle to boil that she realised her pendant was missing.

Sunday came. Jonathan wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but he woke early, the weather was fine, and it was, after all, nearly Christmas.

The sun brightened the east window and cast patches of light on the stonework above the choir stalls. Jonathan thought of how the light had gleamed from the corn-gold hair of the woman he had so unfortunately barged into on Friday. She had worn it in braids wrapped around her head. The colour was that of a schoolgirl; the style that of an elegant woman; but she was neither.

And he had her pendant, which was a lovely piece. How could he return it? He’d found the taxi that had taken her home, but the driver ‘couldn’t remember’ the address. Jonathan had the unpleasant feeling that the man had thought he was a stalker.

He’d probably never see her again.

He sighed, stood up – and there she was, right arm in a sling, hair covered by a headscarf. Her eyes opened wide. Jonathan suddenly realised how very much he wanted to know her better.

“Oh. You.” she said.

Jonathan looked at the sling.

“I’m so sorry. Was it broken after all?”

“Yes.” She looked hostile.

Jonathan fished in his pocket.

“I found this under the market stall. Is it yours?”

She reached out and grasped it. She pressed it to her cheek.

“I suppose I should say thank you,” she rasped.

“My pleasure,” murmured Jonathan.

He hesitated – and walked away.

Even though it was Sunday, the Christmas market was open. As he left the church, Jonathan could hear the mechanical organ of the carousel. He mooched, hands in pockets, towards it.

What on earth had possessed him last Friday? The raucous music had stirred him, lured him onto the ride, set his feet dancing as he dismounted – and sent him spinning into a young woman with golden hair and grey-blue eyes, knocking her headlong.

And now he knew that the accident had broken her arm. It was hardly surprising that she didn’t want to see him again.

He watched as the brightly painted horses, with their gilded manes, raced in endless, futile pursuit. There was no exhilaration left in the day. The sun had disappeared and a fine drizzle was slowly soaking him.

He felt a tap on his shoulder.

She stood, looking apologetic.

“I’m sorry I snubbed you in the church. You took me by surprise – not that that’s an excuse! I’m Susan, by the way.”

“I’m Jonathan”. He smiled. “Shall we have coffee together?”

Susan smiled back. “I’d like that. Thank you!”

 

 

 

What Pegman Saw – The Shadow of History

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the 360 degree view of the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code.

WPS - Cambodia temple 170923

“When I first saw you, I thought you were the most beautiful girl in the world,” sighed Chanvatey.

Achariya giggled, and pushed herself up from him. Her face shone in the moonlight, and her eyes were bright

“And now?” she asked.

“Now I know you’re the most beautiful.”

“When I first smelled you, you were all sweaty in the bottom of the trench.” She tickled him.

“I’m an archaeologist! That’s what we do! That’s why we can come in here at night – ow, stop! Mercy!”

“I must tell my family about our engagement tomorrow.” Achariya stopped teasing, and looked serious. Chanvatey squeezed her hand. “It’ll be okay,” he said.

But it wasn’t.

“Son Chanvatey, you said?” Her father’s expression was dark. “Son is a bad name around here, bad blood. The killing fields…” He bit his lip.

“I forbid this marriage,” he declared. “You must never see this man again.”

In the 1970s, Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, who tried to impose an egalitarian society based solely on agriculture. They killed about two million of their own citizens in a reign of terror. Intellectuals and professional people were particularly targeted. Even wearing spectacles could have you hauled off to prison, tortured and executed. The places where people were executed became known as the killing fields.

Son Sen was a leading member of the ruling party.

The country has set up structures in educational establishments to help bring about reconciliation.

The circle of life

I’ve posted predominantly flash fiction for a number of weeks recently. However, I haven’t given up on longer forms, and I’ve been working at incorporating the lessons I’ve learned from flash fiction into a full-length short story. ‘The circle of life’ is a little over 2000 words, and will take about 10-15 minutes to read. I hope you enjoy it!

The circle of life - Lamb 170906

The circle of life

The blades of the plough sliced smoothly through the soil, peeling the ground into ribbons of compacted earth that rolled aside in long straight rows. Rooks followed the plough, feasting on the earthworms it turned up. Fluttering around telephone wires, the swallows were restless. It was nearly time to migrate.

Robert, as he walked alone, studied the pattern of the furrows, which the sun, low in the clear autumn sky, made stark. He strode down the gentle gradient from his cottage in Hillfold, lingered briefly at the Withy Brook to enjoy the chuckle of its tumbling water, and then on to Midham.

There is a post office and general store in the village of Midham which stocks everything you would reasonably expect and some things you wouldn’t. There are tins of Irish stew, tins of cling peaches, tins of sardines. There are sweets, tobacco products and booze. There is angling equipment, because the owner, Tom, is an angler. And, of course, there are newspapers.

Robert went in and bought ‘The Times’, as he did every day. The shop would have delivered for a modest charge – Robert could easily have afforded it – but he enjoyed his walk, and, more to the point, he enjoyed meeting people there. For Robert was a widower; he was retired, and he lived on his own.

As he chatted to Tom about the village quiz, a woman, a stranger, came in.

“Have you got anything for cleaning a ceramic hob?” she asked Tom. She had a noticeable accent; Yorkshire, thought Robert. Tom shook his head.

“Sorry. You’ll need to go into town for that.”

“When do the buses run? I suppose there is a bus?”

“Eight o’clock in the morning and five o’clock in the afternoon, but there’s no bus back in the afternoon.”

“So I’ve missed it, then.”

“If you like, you can use some of mine.”

“That’s very kind,” said the woman, doubtfully.

“No problem,” and Tom vanished through the curtained opening at the back of the shop.

“New here?” asked Robert.

“Moved in two days ago. Still living out of cardboard boxes.” Her hair was dark, streaked with grey.

“Here we are.” Tom handed her the cleaner.

“Thank you, I’ll bring it back in ten minutes, if that’s okay?”

“No rush.”

Tom watched her with a smile on his face until she’d left the shop, then he went to the window and watched her walk down the street.

“Number 11,” he told Robert. “Good-looking woman, eh?”

“Very pleasant,” agreed Robert, although truth to tell he’d hardly noticed her appearance.

Paper bought and conversation finished, he walked on through the village. Out of curiosity he glanced at the front window of number 11.

“Of course, she’ll be in the kitchen at the back,” he murmured to himself.

*       *       *       *

December came. The frosts were early and hard that year. Robert’s breath steamed as he walked. He watched diligently for patches of ice. “Have I reached the age when I would ‘have a fall,’ rather than ‘fall over’?” he wondered. The grasses beside the Withy Brook were rimed and white.

He noticed her as soon as he entered the shop.

“Good morning. Settling in now?”

She smiled. The skin beside her eyes crinkled attractively. “Yes. Only a few cardboard boxes of books left now. Why do they never build houses with enough bookshelves?” Her accent was definitely Yorkshire; her laugh was gentle.

“I have a spare bookcase in my garage doing nothing. It won’t fit in my cottage, but I could never bring myself to dispose of it. Would you like it?”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that. If it’s a treasure that you’ve kept, I mean.”

“Book cases are meant for books. I’d be delighted if it fulfilled its true function.” He looked at her, and then, surprising himself, said, “I’m Robert, by the way. Would you fancy having dinner with me in the Jester’s Motley some time?”

“A man who values books. A bookish man. Dinner in the Motley? I’d like that very much indeed, thank you, Robert. My name’s Helen. Just in case you didn’t already know.”

“Helen. Lovely name. I’ll bring the bookcase round this afternoon – Helen.”

*       *       *       *

March departed with a shout. April crept in, with gentle sun and balmy air, and Robert and Helen walked side by side past the Withy Brook. Water, turbid and brown, pooled upstream of the bridge. There were large puddles on the road.

“Two days ago this was under six inches of water,” observed Robert.

“You told me. You had to go the other way to visit me.”

“Oh dear! Repeating myself. A boring old man!”

“Never that, Robert. Not old, and certainly not boring.” She squeezed his hand. “I was amazed to see you in the stormy weather. You could have been squashed by that tree that came down! And the rain – I’ve never seen rain like it!”

They strolled on, comfortable, relaxed.

“Oh, look, Robert! That lamb must be new-born. Look how wobbly his little legs are. I must take a photo!”

Robert smiled as Helen pulled out her phone, and crouched on the verge to take the picture. She was sixty-one years old, medium height, with square shoulders. She gave an impression of brisk competence, energy and enjoyment of life. Robert realised suddenly that she was beautiful.

“Mind the ditch,” he called as she edged forward.

“Oh, you. Mr Cautious,” she grumbled, but cheerfully.

They ambled back to Midham. “Would you like a cup of tea? I’ve baked a cake. Carrot cake!”

“Sounds delicious.”

And it was.

“Why don’t you stay for dinner?”

Robert hesitated.

“Don’t you like my cooking?”

“I love your cooking. It’s just…” Robert paused. He couldn’t think of how to say what he felt he should.

“You’re afraid I shall drag you into my bed? Well, the idea’s tempting but I think I can probably just about control the urge.” She was grinning, but Robert was not.

“Don’t joke about it,” he pleaded.

Helen’s face softened. “I’m sorry, Robert. You’re right; it’s too important to joke about. But do you mind if I say something?”

“No, go ahead.”

“Well. We’re not old, Robert, but we’re definitely nearer our end than our beginning. We don’t know how long we’ve got. For my part, I’d like to spend as many as possible of my remaining years with you. And, yes, I mean in my bed as well as every other part of my life.” She scanned his face anxiously.

Robert had shrunk back into the far corner of the settee they jointly occupied. His hands were clasped over his knees.

“What’s the matter, my dear?”

Robert just shook his head. “I don’t know,” he answered eventually. “I’ve been on my own such a long time, and everything had settled down, and now it’s…I don’t know.”

“You must have loved Margaret very much.”

“How do you know about Margaret?”

“Oh, Robert, this is a village. Everybody knows everything about everyone.”

He was shaking.

“I loved her so much, and she suffered, Helen, she suffered, and I couldn’t help her. And now, I’m starting… I’m starting…”

He stood up. “I must go. Thank you for the invitation. I must go.”

She helped him put on his coat. “You’ll need that; it’s getting cold,” and then she kissed him firmly, on the lips. He gasped, turned aside, gripped her arms. They stood still, cheeks touching. Helen could hear his uneven breath, feel the tickle of it on her face. His hands became gentle on her, neither seeking to control nor to cling on. Then he kissed her, briefly, softly, once, on the cheek, and departed.

Helen closed the front door quietly and took a deep breath.

*       *       *       *

Nearly a week passed and Helen heard nothing from Robert. He would normally have phoned her on Thursday so they could go together in his car to the supermarket; but this week he didn’t.

Instead, Helen caught the bus into town. She was cross with the check-out girl, and then felt she should go back and apologise. Which made her late for the return bus. Which meant a taxi ride home, fifteen pounds that she could ill afford. And when she arrived home mid-afternoon, she realised that she’d forgotten to buy potatoes.

“Damn and blast,” she said, and stomped out of the house to the village store.

“Sorry, Helen, I sold the last of the fresh ‘taters ten minutes ago. I’ve got tinned ones.”

Helen took the can off the shelf, banged it down by the till.

Tom looked sidelong at her.

“Your friend alright? He’s normally in here every day for his newspaper. He hasn’t been in for the last three days. Looked a bit peaky, you know, coughing a lot. That’s two pounds seventy, please.”

“Oh, I think I’d better have a tin of soup as well.” She took down a tin of chicken broth.

“That’s four pounds forty altogether.”

“Tom, you’re a highwayman.”

Back home, Helen packed the soup, a loaf, butter and some fruit into a backpack, and set off for Hillfold. The Withy Brook swirled and gurgled as she passed, its dark waters sinister under the indigo sky.

There were no lights on in Robert’s cottage. Helen pounded on the knocker. There was no reply. Heart thumping, she went to the garage and lifted the door. Yes, Robert’s car was there.

The rear garden was full of shadow. She could hardly see where she was going. She felt her way to the back door, turned the handle and pushed. The door stayed fast shut. What now?

She went back to the front of the cottage and stood irresolute by the door. Should she try knocking again?

She took hold of the handle and turned it. The door opened. There was a moment’s satisfaction, and then her concern redoubled. Robert would never have gone out leaving the door unlocked. As she entered, her feet kicked envelopes aside.

“Robert?”

Her voice quavered.

“Robert!”

She reached out her right hand and turned on the light in the hall. There was a handful of post under her feet.

She looked into the sitting room. Nobody there, but she left the light on; it gave her courage. She glanced into the little kitchen. There were some dirty dishes on the table. Her heart sank. Robert never left things dirty.

“Robert!”

Helen, full of trepidation, climbed the stairs. This was the first time she’d been upstairs in his cottage. She listened. Was that the noise of somebody breathing? She pushed open the bedroom door.

The room stank. Robert lay on the bed, eyes closed.

“Robert?”

He didn’t move.

Helen placed her hand on his forehead. He was burning hot.

The ambulance arrived quickly, in less than fifteen minutes. Less than five minutes after that, Robert was in the vehicle, a saline drip in his arm and an oxygen mask over his face.

“Will he be alright?” Helen begged.

The paramedic gave her a look, full of compassion. “We’ll do our best for him, but he’s a very sick man. If you hadn’t found him, I don’t think he would have made it through the night.”

After the ambulance had left for the hospital, Helen sank down on the settee in the sitting room. How could she have been so self-centred as to assume that Robert’s absence was because he hadn’t wanted to see her again? Why hadn’t she called him? She shuddered with the dread that he might die.

Eventually she rose, extinguished the lights and set off home. She locked Robert’s door after her, and tucked the key into her purse. Tomorrow, she would come and clean everything, in the hope that Robert would pull through.

*       *       *       *

The summer sun was hot on Robert’s shoulders as he walked hand-in-hand with Helen. He wore a carnation in his buttonhole, and she a broad-brimmed straw hat on her grey-streaked hair. The Withy Brook was back within its banks, which were green and flower-speckled.

“Robert, look! That’s the lamb I photographed in April, all grown up – I swear it is! Have I got two minutes?”

“Go on, then!”

The bells of Midham church sang across the fields.

Robert and Helen looked at each other, kissed and strolled on.

Tom, resplendent in a college blazer that must have been thirty years old, emerged from the Post Office and Village Store and turned over the sign to read ‘Closed’, before joining Robert and Helen. Friends greeted them, and then followed them to the church. And there Robert and Helen exchanged their vows; for richer, for poorer (I couldn’t be richer, thought Helen); in sickness and in health (I must try not to be a burden on her, thought Robert); till death us do part (to which we can all say ‘Amen’, and hope that the parting is long delayed!)

 

At first sight – part V

Jon and Vikki fell for each other at a party in London – the day before Vikki returned home to Australia. They have been writing to each other, and Jon has arranged to visit Vikki in Melbourne within the next few months. But Vikki is settling back into her familiar life, and renewing old friendships. Meanwhile, her abusive ex-partner, Guy, is trying to trace her…

At first sight - Qantas plane 170624

If you’ve missed the earlier chapters,  you can read them here

At first sight

At first sight – part 2

Short Story – At first sight – part III

At first sight – part IV

It was the second morning in a row that the postie had let her down. There was no letter from Jon. It was windy, cold and raining. She shook herself. “Come on, woman! Pull yourself together!”

“Hi, Vikki! Fancy a movie this evening?”

“Dan! I didn’t hear you come in.”

Dan grinned. He and Vikki had been in and out of each other’s houses all the time as kids.

“Sorry! I should have knocked. Anyway, what about this movie? La La Land!”

“Sure, yeah, I’d like that.”

On the way home from the cinema, Dan stopped his car at the kerbside a few streets short of Vikki’s home. She turned to him, ready to tease him, ready to defuse any threat of intimacy with humour. His face, though, was too serious.

“What is it, Dan? What’s the matter?”

“Can we talk, Vikki? I mean talk properly, not joking.”

“Go ahead.” She still sounded flippant.

She saw the fine lines deepen on his forehead. There was pain in his grey-blue eyes. She had always liked his eyes. As a teenager she used to imagine him as a Viking, facing the terrors of land and sea without fear.

“I’ve got to say this, Vikki, or I won’t be able to live with myself. I love you. Will you…will you marry me?”

Marry you, Dan?” There was a little quiver in her voice.

“Don’t bloody make fun of me, Vikki. You don’t owe me much, but you owe me the respect of taking me seriously.”

“I am taking you seriously, Dan. I’m just flabbergasted, I guess. I hadn’t expected this.”

They sat together in silence for a few minutes.

“You haven’t said no, at least.”

Vikki turned to him. She put one hand on his shoulder, and with the other, stroked his blond hair across his forehead.

“No, I haven’t. And I haven’t said yes either. Oh, Dan, this is just so difficult. Because I’ve loved you as a friend for years, and I find you sexy as hell, but…well, there’s somebody in England who’s special to me.”

“Not that Guy fellow, I hope?”

“As if!” Vikki stopped stroking Dan’s hair. She took hold of his right hand with both of hers, and squeezed it, as though to convince him of her earnestness. “He’s called Jon. I can’t explain it, Dan. It’s a mystery, but it’s very wonderful. I’m so sorry.”

Gently, Dan removed his hand from hers.

“I don’t want your pity, Vikki. If you won’t have me, I reckon I’ll have to go away.”

“I haven’t said no, Dan. But I’m not saying yes either, not yet.”

“So, what the hell are you saying then?”

“Don’t be angry, Dan. I know it must look like I want to have my cake and eat it, but it really isn’t that. Can you give me a minute just to think how to help you understand?”

Dan nodded.

Vikki gestured at the two of them sitting in the car.

“This is kind of reality, Dan. The two of us sitting here; you loving me; you asking me to marry you; and me sitting here wanting to say yes, because I love you too, Dan, I do truly. But then there’s this thing like magic that happened the day before I set off home; this – connection I suppose you’d call it – between me and Jon.

Look, he’s coming out here soon. Next letter I get, I’m expecting him to say when he’s coming. Suppose I said yes to you tonight? And then saw him, and this thing between us boils up and I change my mind about what I said? That wouldn’t be fair for either of us, would it?”

“I don’t think you’re being honest, Vikki, not with me, not with yourself.” There was an angry edge to Dan’s voice. “You want to keep me in reserve in case it falls through with this – Jon. Well, that’s not going to happen. What kind of basis would that be for a marriage?”

Vikki took both Dan’s hands in hers, and looked him full in the face. In the moonlight, her amber eyes were dark, almost black, and luminous with unshed tears.

“Dan. If you want me to – if you want me to – I’ll say yes to you now. I’ll say yes, and I’ll stick to it. I’m sure we could make it work, be happy together. I’ll write to Jon and tell him –  it was just – it was just a… beautiful dream. And not to come.” A single tear escaped, glinting, and leaving a silvery track as it trickled down her cheek.

Dan shook his head gently.

“No, not now, not tonight, Vikki. But I will ask again, and then I’ll insist on an answer.”

He turned away from her, and started the engine. Neither of them spoke for the remainder of the short journey home.


“Dear Jon,

I’m thrilled that you’re going to be here next week! I can’t wait! I’d thought it wasn’t going to be until September!

I know we’ve written before about this in our letters, but you’d be more than welcome to come and stay with us. My mum thinks you must be “A real, old-fashioned English gentleman” because you’re planning to stay in a hotel for at least the first few days!

Now, there’s something I must tell you.

When I was little, I was a bit of a tomboy, and my best friend was a boy called Dan. He’s still my best friend now, Jon, and he’s very dear to me. You’re the person I cleave to, but Dan is close too.

The problem is, he proposed marriage to me this evening. I didn’t say yes, but I couldn’t make myself say no.

I must be completely honest with you, Jonathan. It feels to me that the bond between you and me is so special that it demands honesty, perfect honesty, or at least as close to it as I can manage. So – if I hadn’t met you, Jon, I would have accepted Dan’s proposal, and been very happy.

There. I’ve said it. If that changes your mind about coming, then I accept that. Oh, but I so hope it doesn’t! I just want to be close to you!

With much love

Vikki xxx”

Jon read the letter, frowned, and read it again. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.

“Dear Vikki,

Thank you for your honesty in telling me about Dan. I shall see you at Melbourne Airport at about 5 p.m. on July 10th. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it. I love you more than I can say.

With my whole heart.

Jon

xxx”

He took the letter to the post straightaway. It would, with luck, arrive before he did.


Jon was smiling as he tugged his suitcase into the Arrivals area. Where was she? He scanned the waiting faces, the family groups, husbands, wives; the people greeting men in suits who’d flown from England with only a briefcase and laptop; the taxi drivers displaying handwritten signs. There was no Vikki.

Jon frowned. Surely Vikki hadn’t stood him up? She must have been delayed. Perhaps her car had broken down?

He noticed a tall fair-haired man, who appeared to be waving to him. When Jon acknowledged the wave, the man beckoned to him. Stiff-legged, frozen-faced, Jon complied.

“Jonathan Hall?”

Jon nodded, curtly.

The tall man stuck out a hand.

“I’m Dan,” he said. “We have an emergency. Vikki’s disappeared.”

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.

london-eye
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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