A Tiny Escape of Air
Jane Seaford's novel ‘Archie’s Daughter’ was accepted by Really Blue Books (nothing to do with porn) and e-published in 2012. It has received excellent reviews. Several of her short stories have been placed, highly commended or short-listed in international competitions. Many have appeared in anthologies or magazines. Others have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. As a freelance journalist she has a column in a magazine called ‘Bonjour’ and has sold pieces to the Guardian, the Independent and other British publications. She is the joint fiction editor for Takahe, a New Zealand literary magazine.
Her website is janeseaford.com.
The last sound was so little, so insignificant: a tiny escape of air, the final exhalation of the lungs. A pulse beat in Tom’s neck which Annie watched, as she put her hand on his heart and it was still. Hours earlier, in the late night when the nurses and the doctor were all about the bed, thinking he was to die in the next few minutes, she had pressed her palm on his chest and had felt the soft movement of fragile life. Now, ten thirty in the morning, a time not suitable for death, the pulse in his neck slowed, stopped and Annie, still watching, reached over him to ring the bell. It was extraordinary, the ease with which he left her. She stopped being who she had been and became a person marked by this, the strangest of moments.
The nurse arrived in a rush. She and Annie stood looking at Tom, side by side.
‘Has he gone?’ the nurse asked.
‘I think so.’
The two women continued to stand side by side staring at Tom’s thin, lifeless face. From the other side of the closed door came the gentle noises of the hospice, the murmur of voices, the clink of teacups on a trolley, the distant sound of a phone ringing.
For over a week this place had been where Tom and Annie had lived. The final place they would be together. ‘Our last hotel’ Annie called it one morning when a winter sun was giving the false hope of warmth and she was standing by the French windows, looking out at the small courtyard that the room gave onto.
At first he had dressed in the mornings, slowly, taking time to shower, resting afterwards, sleeping after lunch, sleeping in the early evenings as Annie watched the news on TV, talking to him from time to time. Sometimes he answered. The answers were not always comprehensible. One day he did not get up, was not given breakfast, was not offered lunch. In the evening a friend came to visit and Tom roused himself a little, then slipped back into unconsciousness. He said goodbye when the friend came to the bed to say he was leaving.
A day or so later, in the very early morning a nurse had woken Annie to say that Tom was dying. After a while, when his breathing had stabilised, Annie slept again and when the light, coming through the sides of the curtains, signalled the arrival of day, Tom was sitting up in bed, pouring water into a glass.
‘Shall we head for home?’ he asked. And Annie told him not just yet, he needed to be here for a while. He lay down and closed his eyes before she’d finished speaking.
Then came the night when it seemed certain that Tom would not last much longer. When he continued to live, the nurses had gone, one by one. Annie and the doctor had sat on either side of the bed, telling each other stories from their past, watching Tom, waiting for a sign that he was about to die. When that didn’t happen the doctor said she couldn’t stay any later and Annie lay in the fat chair by Tom’s bed, holding his hand. She slept. Morning came, Tom lay still, but breathing. She dressed, fetched herself breakfast, left the hospice for a few minutes to buy a paper, telling him what she was doing as she came and went. She wanted him to die, for this horrid time to be over for him and for her. She wanted a miracle and for him to wake and turn, climb out of bed and complain about being here when there was nothing wrong with him. This wouldn’t happen, Annie knew, but also the idea of him dying, of no longer being in this world, seemed scarcely possible.
It happened. At mid-morning: a pale sun giving a strange clear light to the room where he died. She had imagined it happening but the reality was nothing like anything she had ever experienced. For the rest of the day she moved about as if all that she did and said and heard and saw was not real.
When the doctor sat by her to offer comfort, Annie said, ‘My grief is locked inside me. It’s a big swelling, filling me up, and I’m waiting for it to burst, but it won’t.’
One of the nurses heard her saying to her sister, Louise, ‘No, it’s OK, I can manage.’ When Louise went to make coffee, the nurse said, ’You must let people do things for you, now.’
Most of the time, Annie didn’t cry. She surprised herself by being able to do normal things; sleeping, eating, talking to people, discussing plans for the next few days, making decisions. Nonetheless it was as if in a daze. And every now and then she’d feel an intense discomfort – a need to be still and alone – as if she was in the wrong place, as if she were waiting for her real life to begin again. It was hard to describe this feeling, even to herself, but it was almost unbearable; a desperate need to escape but with nowhere to go.
A year passed and it was lovely to walk along the beach, the wind in their faces and cold on their cheeks, blowing their hair back. Three cousins, similar ages, who had spent their holidays here as children and as teenagers. Annie, Sally and Isobel. The sky was clear and the sand, the sea, the dunes, the village across the estuary, the hilly pastures above it, were pale, as if painted in watercolours by a delicate brush.
Annie was in the middle, arm in arm with the other two, protected by their warm bodies on either side, by their soft voices and their concern for her grief; this her first visit since Tom’s death. This is where she had met Tom. He had recently started working on a contract for one of the few large local firms and she was visiting her parents for a few days while they were on holiday. It was where they had first lived together, and where she had learned, at last, to love the place. Almost every year since then, they had visited, Tom insisting on at least a week when she had proffered other holiday destinations. He had always been clear about the places where he wanted to spend time, the things he liked to do and not do. And it was in this part of Devon where first Sally and then Isobel had settled and where the three cousins had finally become friends.
They had not, when young, been close, forced together as they were for at least two weeks every summer, often longer, spending time here where their three fathers had grown up. Each year there had been the same excursions, the most memorable a boat ride to the lighthouse for a day spent prawning, playing cricket on the sands, dabbling in the rock pools, eating huge amounts of food brought in wicker baskets and drinking tea from old fashioned thermoses.
‘Do you remember the lighthouse picnics?’ Annie asked.
‘Of course,’ Sally said.
‘It was the best day of the holidays. The only one I think we all enjoyed.’ Isobel said.
Annie felt tears coming. Those summer weeks with the extended family had swelled in her memory so that it seemed that here, in this place, was her past and the strongest part of this was her young yearning for when adult life would begin. A time of waiting.
Annie, Sally and Isobel, aged twelve and eleven, sitting on the wall of the pub where their parents were drinking together. Laughter came through the open door and the smell of cigarettes, alcohol and hot home-made meat pies. The boy cousins were there, too, and Louise, Annie’s little sister. The boys were arguing, biffing each other, but not seriously. It was what they did. Louise had nearly finished her bottle of cherryade and was blowing bubbles through the straw into the gaudy pink liquid, making a farting sound. The youngest boy, Peter, laughed, raised his bum and did a real fart.
‘They’ll tell you off,’ Isobel his sister said, prissy, and Peter stuck out his tongue. Annie looked away and wished she were somewhere else. On a foreign holiday like some of her friends. Spain, Italy, in a hotel with a pool. In a hotel where there were families not related to her, families with sons her age, or better still, a little older. One of them would ask her to walk down to the beach with him, would tentatively reach for her hand as if he weren’t aware of doing it. Not much would be said and as evening grew darker his arm would find itself pulling her close to him. They would kiss, probably they would kiss. Annie breathed deeply imagining this. She felt an almost painful desire for the future, for when she would be loved by a man, who would take her dancing, tell her she was wonderful, ask to marry her. Annie longed to no longer be a child forced to spend time with not just her immediate family, but her uncles and aunts and the cousins whose company she was expected to enjoy. She liked the older boys, Sally’s brothers, their male smell and their masculine otherness, even the way they sometimes teased her, akin to flirting. But still, they were cousins, almost brothers, sons of the uncle and aunt who had known her since she was a baby, and who every year presumed she was the same girl she had been the last time they saw her. Annie wanted to escape the familiarity of family. She wanted to be with people who hadn’t known her all her life, people for whom she was a possibility, a mystery, people who would want to discover who she really was.
As soon as she was old enough, Annie had decided she would leave home. She would live in an attic and be loved by a poet. She would also be a singer in a nightclub, climbing up from a smoky basement as dawn light turned the dark streets into smudgy grey, only a few people walking about, their footsteps loud in the quiet of the early morning. Accompanying her was her poet; they were arguing maybe. Annie imagined this relationship to be tempestuous, many quarrels, shouting, anger, but then reconciliation, passion, tenderness. She would be cherished. They would not be like her parents, leading ordinary lives. There would not be much money, poetry was not well paid, and there would be only second hand furniture in their attic, home-made shelves, chairs that didn’t match, storage in cut down packing chest. Often Annie lay on her bed, closed her eyes and told herself stories of how she would be as a young woman.
Annie breathed in deeply, blinked away the tears. The cousins had stopped walking, were standing, still arm in arm, looking out at the turbulent estuary where two rivers met the sea and the water whirled and crashed. Above them, seagulls wheeled and cried. High in the sky, clouds began to mass and darken.
Sally gripped Annie’s arm more tightly. ‘It’ll get better, it will,’ she whispered. ‘Let’s go home now and I’ll light a fire and make tea.’
Sitting in the back of Sally’s car, Annie leant back, closed her eyes and her mind filled with Tom. At least once a day, Annie cried for him. Sad for him that he had died so young. He had been sixty, and his father had lasted until he was ninety-three. Just over a year before his own death Tom had been arranging his father’s funeral. For six months Annie and he had lived with the knowledge that he didn’t have much more time. They talked about it a bit, not in depth.
‘I am dying,’ Tom would say when she tried to make some future plan; he rejected her suggestion of a trip to Devon. ‘Too difficult,’ he said. He rarely told her how he felt. Occasionally he said he was ‘fed up’. He cried only once, watching a film in which Peter O’Toole played the part of an old man who was ill and then died.
‘I’m in denial,’ he told Annie one afternoon as he was lying on the sofa and she was bringing him a cup of tea.
‘So am I,’ said Annie.
In the doctor’s surgery on one of their many visits, they joked that Tom was the lucky one, knowing when he would die. Easier than not knowing. Annie and the doctor laughed. Tom smiled slowly. His eyes were sad.
‘At least you have me with you while you are ill,’ Annie said. They were sitting on their patio, Tom with a beer, she with a glass of wine. It was autumn but still warm. ‘I will not have you when it’s my time.’ Tom nodded. Annie turned away so that he would not see her tears. He hated it when she cried.
A very bad time was at the hospital after a scan.
‘Your tumour has not grown,’ the young doctor said.
‘Does that mean I’m in remission?’ Tom asked, sitting up, he had been feeling so much better since the chemo started and his medication – some new drugs for this and that – seemed to be allowing him to eat and sleep again, almost normally.
‘But… the secondaries have increased. We don’t think the chemo is working…’ the young doctor said and Tom looked about, eyes wide, not knowing where to focus.
‘But he’s improved so much since he started,’ Annie said. She watched as Tom shifted and turned his head from side to side. This was almost worse than when she’d come to visit him in hospital on the day the operation had failed and the surgeon had told her that Tom had terminal cancer.
‘He has months, not years,’ was how he had said it before ending the phone call.
‘I’ll get George to see you,’ the young doctor said now, as Tom turned to face him, despair in his gaze. George was the oncologist, the man who had been looking after Tom. He explained to Tom what he thought was going on, what should happen next – chemo that would be more invasive than the previous treatment. Annie and Tom left the hospital in silence and walked to where the car was parked. Chemo, George had said when he first saw them, was not a cure, would maybe extend his life a little. Nonetheless, nonetheless, both, without saying anything to the other, hoped for more. That is what you do. You believe the terminal diagnosis, but on another level you imagine other possibilities. Each evening until she couldn’t do it any longer, Annie concentrated on Tom getting well again. Not a prayer, for she was an atheist, moments spent with her eyes squeezed shut, thinking of Tom and calling on some power to heal him.
As Annie opened the car door after that hospital visit, she knew hope was over. But still, strangely, she continued to believe both that Tom would die and that he wouldn’t. When she saw him walking into a room, drying himself after a shower, choosing beer in the supermarket she would think, ‘he is alive and while he’s alive it’s impossible to consider him as dead or even dying.’ She thought this was his attitude as well.
Since he had died it was as if the whole of her life was with her. She thought of herself at home, sitting alone in the house she and Tom had bought so many years ago, Tom gone and she middle aged – elderly some might even say – and yet it was as if he were still there: as the young man she had met when a single mother of a small child; as the twenty-eight year old discussing whether they should have a baby or two, he deciding there were more than enough people in the world already, she agreeing; the man in his thirties with whom she learned to live in harmony in spite of moments when arguments almost split them apart; the older Tom becoming again involved in politics, the two of them joining the labour party; the man celebrating his sixtieth birthday, two months before his diagnosis, both of them thinking there were at least a few more decades of comfortably being together in the way that had developed over the years. She yearned for all these Toms, for all the days they had been together, for the passion and enchantment with which they first came together, for the years of domesticity when their love could still surprise and delight them, for the easy times when her child had left home and Annie and Tom had health, energy and money to do all the things they wanted to do.
She wished Tom was with her, she relived their past. She mourned all the times that could never be again. She wept for what had gone and could not be recaptured. These were her private moments that she did not want to share with anyone. Annie liked to keep her grief to herself. It was hers, and Tom’s and no one elses. There was no one who could know or feel or touch the way her life had been with Tom. She ached with yearning, she ached. She held all this inside her and was not ashamed of the way she felt. Because she was also looking to the future, enjoying much of the present.
‘I am not going to define myself in terms of loss, bereavement,’ Annie told a friend. She had the house re-decorated, getting stuff done that she’d wanted to do for years, which Tom had resisted. Some of the furniture was sold, replaced with new pieces. Holidays were arranged; short trips away, a week with friends who lived in France, a longer stay in the West Country with her cousins.
And now here she was. Annie opened her eyes and sat up as they turned into the street where Sally lived.
‘It seems such a short time since we were children,’ Annie said
‘It was when you started seeing that boy that the family began to fall apart,’ Isobel said as they walked up the path to Sally’s front door. ‘I don’t mean that in a nasty way… It was bound to happen one way or another.’
Annie met Simon when she was seventeen. She met him in Devon the summer after she’d left school. It was to be the last holiday when the whole family was there. The younger uncle, the father of Isobel and Peter, died the following winter, from a heart attack when shovelling snow. The eldest cousin emigrated to Australia in the spring when Annie was pregnant and Simon was behaving oddly.
‘That was the weirdest year. From that summer to the next,’ Sally said once they’d settled inside and she was pouring tea for the three of them.
‘Fathers dying, brothers leaving, young unmarried girls having babies,’ Isobel said, looking at Annie over the top of her glasses.
‘Yes,’ Annie said, remembering. ‘I couldn’t come on holiday because Jake was about to be born…. And none of you knew. Not even Mum and Dad.’
After meeting Simon, the two of them had moved to London, sharing a flat with several others. Her mother had protested. Annie ignored her, knowing that she would have protested more if she’d known that her daughter was living with Simon. This was what Annie had been waiting for: freedom from family, a man who loved and wanted her, learning to smoke dope, mixing with the sort of people her parents would spurn.
They went to the surgery together, Annie and Simon. He sat in the waiting room while the doctor examined her. Yes, she was most likely having a baby – this was before pregnancy tests were readily available. Simon held her close as they walked home.
‘I can’t believe it,’ Simon said.
‘Is it bad?’ Annie asked.
‘No. It’s just… I have to look after you now. Maybe we should marry.’ Annie flushed with pleasure. She felt as if her whole body was glowing.
Now, sitting in Sally’s small, warm living room with her cousins, Annie wondered at the girl she’d been, a mother at eighteen, living with a man who was turning mad, who ordered her not to leave the flat without him, who woke in the night to check the baby was still in his cot, who insisted that men they saw in the streets were after her, wanted to take her from him.
‘You swore me to secrecy,’ Sally said.
‘And you betrayed me,’ Annie said.
‘What else could I do?’
Annie shrugged. ‘They had to know, I suppose.’
Early August and seven months pregnant, none of her family aware of this, Annie had left work, turned the corner towards the tube station and there was Sally, coming towards her.
‘Annie!’ She stopped, her mouth hanging open and stared at Annie’s belly. Her mouth shut, her top teeth biting on her lower lip.
‘I didn’t know you were in London,’ Annie said. She swallowed.
‘What are you going to do?’ Sally asked.
‘Have it, keep it, Simon wants it.’
‘Let’s find a café and…’
‘No, I need to get back….’ Simon had already started to be concerned, sometimes upset, occasionally angry if she was late home from work.
‘Does anyone know?’
‘None of the family. Don’t say a word. Please.’
‘You have to tell them,’ Sally said.
‘When the time’s right.’ Annie sighed. She had no idea when that would be. ‘Please, Sally, don’t… Swear you’ll not let on.’
But tell them she did. Towards the end of the family holiday. A depleted group; Sally, her parents, and Annie’s parents with Louise. Annie’s mother phoned her that evening and cried as she told her daughter that she knew about the baby.
They helped, of course they did. Annie’s father gave her money, her mother drove up to London once a week when baby Jake was tiny. By the following summer, life with Simon had become unbearably constrained. When he told her that he didn’t want her to have anything to do with her parents she left him when he was at work. She had little money, just enough for the train fare to Devon and a taxi to the holiday house where her parents and Louise were staying. The widowed aunt was there with Peter and she made a fuss of Jake, but she called him ‘poor little fatherless child’ in a mournful voice.
‘That time I came down when Jake wasn’t yet a year old, I missed you both,’ Annie said. She had, and that was odd because the three girls normally ignored each other.
Sally laughed and put her hand on the teapot. ‘Gone cold, shall I make more?’
Isobel shook her head.
‘Not for me,’ Annie said. She shivered. The past was all about her, here in this pretty room. The past before Tom linking to the past with Tom. She was overcome with such a longing for him that it possessed her, filing her up, stretching through her veins, tightening her nerve endings, gripping her heart. Still she did not cry.
Later in bed she wept a little and thought about her childhood and in particular the family reunions in Devon. She remembered how she’d longed to be grown up and her meeting with Simon. It had been, she had told herself – and him – the start of her real life. Silly. It had been an episode, some parts very good, some bad. She had learnt about sex and how wonderful it could be, she had conceived her only child, even before he was born she had loved him profoundly and his birth had felt like a miracle. She wept again thinking of Simon and how he had become so possessive that she could no longer be with him. When he was taken to hospital, she thought of him as mad with grief. Sometimes when she visited he looked at her with hatred, other times as if he did not know her. When Simon died, Tom had held her tight and let her cry for him. And now Tom, too, was dead.
Tomorrow would be her last day here. And then back to her empty house, the start of the second year without Tom. In the night she dreamed she was a little girl again, but strangely an adult as well. A car came and Tom was in it. She waved at him, he waved back and said he’d see her soon. In her dreams Tom was always alive but a little distant. She woke with a deep longing to be a child again, not the child she had been, focused on an imagined future, but a child able to enjoy her childhood. It was still dark, not yet morning and she turned over, trying to sleep again.
‘Why don’t you move down here?’ Sally asked as she popped bread into the toaster. ‘I’ve never regretted it and nor has Isobel.’
Annie thought for a while. From time to time she and Tom had discussed retiring to Devon. The thought that Tom had not lived to retirement age, caught in her throat and she put her hand to her neck, almost choking.
‘The thing is, Sally, the thing is, this place only became somewhere I loved when I lived here with Tom. I came to love it, because I loved Tom. I think I would miss him more here than anywhere else.’
‘So?’ Sally said.