(Published in World Wide Writers, Winter 1998)
BETSY FLUSKIE took the mugs from the huge oak welsh-dresser, checked that her hair, white going auburn, was holding at the back, smiled into the small mahogany mirror and did not feel 67 years old at all. She tied the cord around her silk dressing-gown and patted herself as if she were a warm spring egg about to hatch. The house gently rattled when the 7.20 a.m. express from Brighton to Waterloo slowed for Clapham Junction.
Upstairs, it jigged Charlie Finnegan’s soapy shaving brush on this bright May day. He smiled benevolently at the old bathroom that had faded with him over the last forty years. At twenty-nine, as foreman in a Clapham metal works, he moved his lodgings from a dingy Islington basement to the Fluskie’s top floor in Cranleigh Road, Clapham. He heard the breakfast sounds from the kitchen and thought of Betsy with a soft feeling that was new to him.
Albert Fluskie had bought the bomb damaged house in 1953. He and Betsy, his wife, had worked hard to restore the gloomy building. They decided to let the top floor. Charlie was their first and only lodger. Albert had died from a coronary and Betsy and Charlie continued the rhythm of their own distinct lives.
Charlie massaged his face with satisfaction and tapped on his favourite aftershave. His six foot frame was bent only slightly with age and the upper body retained the tone of a strong, confident and handsome man. He heard the rattle of cups and plates from the kitchen as he swept back his thick black-grey hair on either side of the crisp parting.
The spring light halted as Charlie shut the bathroom door and walked slowly down the corridor towards his bedroom. “Hmm.” He focused on the letter by the bedside table he knew to be from Dr Slattery. “Time I opened the bloody thing.”
Betsy put the bread under the grill and turned to the enormous gilt-framed fashion mirror that Alfred Cluskie had salvaged from a corsetry shop in Stoke Newington in the early sixties. “Not bad, not bad at all.” Her hands rose behind her head as they had done when she was a girl in Kilburn. Skipping lightly in front of the stained and pitted mirror she could see her parents dance all those years ago and quite forgot the toast.
She heard Charlie’s heavy footsteps on the stairs and her heart flipped a little, anticipating something she could not express.
“Morning, Charlie, the Sporting Life’s under the jumper over there.”
”You sound low, Charlie.”
”A little stiff in the back, nothing some bacon wouldn’t comfort.”
He put his hand on her shoulder.
“Of course Charlie, how many rashers will you have? It’s not like you.”
She sensed so much about him. He was impressed inside her and onto the patterns of china jugs on the shelf, glazed into the surface of the cream kitchen walls.
“What’s that letter, Charlie?” He didn’t know he was holding it.
“Oh nothing, nothing really.”
“Charlie!” She took it from his shaking fingers, read it slowly, read it again, sat down.
“Oh Charlie, my dear Charlie!”
Without thinking she walked over to him, put both arms around his shoulders and squeezed his cold, sweaty hand. He snatched back the letter which then slipped from his grasp. He kicked it under the table.
“It’s just an operation, Charlie, and you’re fit as a … ”
“It’s a tumour, Betsy, in my head … ”
“It only says … ” A few days in hospital for further tests”, and Dr Slattery has already talked to you about that. These days, Charlie … ”
“Oh Jesus Christ, Jesus bloody Christ … ”
His broad shoulders flopped onto the table, he cupped his head in his large hands and cried like a baby.
“There, Charlie, there,” she massaged his shoulders, “we’ll fight this together.”
After all these years, she thought, we are together, and the idea was a huge shock, like a large wave breaking over a sea front.
She watched Charlie settle, dry his eyes. He took a gulp of strong tea. She loved the way his shoulders loosened when he sat and expanded like cliffs as he got up.
She stood by the sink drying a cup over and over, “Oh we’re like brother and sister” they would tell their friends. She put down the cup with a little crack. But how could poor Charlie feel the new closeness she now felt? How could she be so selfish? …
”A tumour, a bloody great tumour! How shall I spend my money if I’m going to die, Betsy, you know I’ve got a tidy sum.”
The Sporting Life crackled dryly between his fingers. Sullivan and Curlie’s, a Builders Contractors, had grown and his capacity for figures led to him helping with the accounts and studying book-keeping at night-school until he became the company secretary. Now the firm (specialising in a huge range of bricks) was one of the largest of its kind in London. He owned a small farm outside Ennistimon in County Clare and was planning to move ‘home’ soon.
”Ah, I won’t die, Betsy, I never have done yet!” Tears came to his eyes in a strange revelry. He looked at the photograph of a jockey thrown from his horse in yesterday’s 3.30 at Uttoxeter.
”Any good ones?,” she turned three thick rashers. He stared transfIxed at the fate of the jockey. “Charlie, Charlie.”
“You’re a good one, Betsy and there’s no mistaking that.”
He got up, stretched and put his arms round her as she turned the bacon.
After breakfast Charlie went for a walk on his own in Falcon Park. The horror of the news returned, sealing him from the blithe air in a vacuum of damp sweat. He was angry with the little birds, babies, children, flowers, young grass. He imagined the tumour growing like a fungus in his head. Angry too with himself, with his big ego, so self contained that he and Betsy never ‘got involved'; studying art history with the Open University (Rembrandt and Goya were his loves). But all for what? He kicked away some litter.
Betsy moved the daffodils from the window ledge to the kitchen table. And there was Charlie in dazzling light. ”You fanciful old woman!” She patted her hair into place and felt a throb in her neck. Then the awful truth returned and she felt doubly guilty because it was too late for such things, and too wicked to even entertain them.
The next day Charlie went to Minogues, an Irish pub in Islington, to have lunch with some of his old pals. The boozy session fortifIed him and he took a taxi back to Clapham. He ignored the ‘Thank You for Not Smoking’ and belched fumes over the surly driver who promptly shut the dividing window.
”Why be a taxi-driver if you don’t like cigarettes?” He clawed at the petition, ‘Well, don’t expect a tip from me, that’s all I can say!”
He then sat back and explored his head for growths, confirming the taxi-driver’s worst fears of drunken Irishmen.
Betsy had an egg sandwich for lunch and tried to read but could not concentrate. She caught sight of the picture on the mantelpiece of her only child, Heather, who lived in Ontario and had her own family now. They wrote to each other at Christmas.
“Betsy!,” Charlie called out as he came in, “let’s have a proper chat, make us a coffee, will you?” He went up to her by the cooker. “Here are some daffodils for you.”
They sat in the old living-room that hadn’t altered for decades. “Those pains in my head, Betsy, they come and go, you know.”
“You must go into the hospital, you’ll be all right. You know I’m always here … ”
“Betsy, old thing, what a couple of fools!” “Fools, Charlie?”
“Fools, Betsy. Did we think we’d never die, that any day we could collect all our feelings together and make something of them … ?”
“I want to help all I can.”
“I want to spend some money and have good times – with you Betsy!”
Their coffee cups chinked on the table.
“But why now, Charlie, is it just death making you afraid? … Oh, I’m so sorry … ”
“No, Betsy, you’re not out of order. I am afraid and I want to live.
But let’s just have a bit of fun for Christ’s sake!”
“But you will still … ”
“I’ll go and have more tests on my poor old head, you can be bloody sure of that!”
The afternoon light deepened the cream walls.
Over the next days Charlie made many phone-calls, to family in Ireland and old friends, telling them what was happening and adding unselfconsciously at the end of the conversation, that “We plan to go away for a few days” and “tonight we’ve got tickets for a musical in the West End.”
Charlie made an appointment with the hospital for early next month. Time quickened. They were surprised by how much could be lived in a day, an hour, a look.
One afternoon Charlie had gone to see the bank manager. Betsy sat in the kitchen with a pot of tea and a digestive biscuit. The light was soft as it touched the daffodils in the brown jug on the table. Thinking of Charlie she felt a glow, from his voice, the smell of his room, his crinkled blue eyed smile.
One of Charlie’s art books lay open on the table. She envied the Rembrandt girls their eternal beauty. Her own stomach and breast pulsed with new life. She imagined Charlie drying her rose-fresh body.
“Is that you, Charlie?”
“It’s me.” He gave her a bunch of red roses. “Charlie!”
“I know how you like them, I was passing the new florists … ”
“Oh sure I should.” He raised his hands in a wide arc like Father Findlay used to do when he was celebrating the Eucharist in Charlie’s Childhood.
The taste of rich currants lingered on his tongue. “We’ve not been out for a few days, shall we go somewhere a bit swish for dinner tomorrow?”
“I’d love too.”
Charlie had not had any pain in his head for a few days. He’d been praying to the Virgin Mary each night and yesterday had lit candles in St. Dominic’s.
“That was a lovely dinner, Charlie.” She took off her shoes with a feeling of delicious relief
“It was Betsy, it really was, and you look so wonderful tonight, like a film-star you know.”
”And did you see the men look around when we came in, well it wasn’t me they were gawping, was it now?”
“Clear the floor,” Charlie said, “let’s put on some waltz music and have a little dance.”
”You’re a devil of a charmer,” she rested her lips on his neck. They kissed with a force that shocked them both. “Good God what is happening to us?” She felt like a Rembrandt girl. In the bedroom she undressed with pride in front of him. “You’re still quite a man, Charlie!”
“Thank God for oysters!”
She poured him his first cup of the day. “It was lovely, wasn’t it?” “It was fantastic, bloody fantastic, we should write an article, “Hot Sex for the Over Sixties. We might even get on the telly!”
“Do you think we love each other then?”
“There’s a question!”
“I think we do, but we shouldn’t live together or marry or anything.” Betsy puckered her lips.
“And why not?”
“Because everything would change, we’re not made like that.” When she woke, with Charlie gently snoring beside her, her heart leapt a little each morning as she thought of this luck.
The scan clearly showed a growth, towards the front of Charlie’s brain, but the specialist, a bluff Yorkshireman, was optimistic. As spring turned to summer they spent a July week in a good hotel in Brighton. Charlie noticed all things with a new clarity: birds sang, trees shook, waves broke with fresh power. He especially loved all sea foods for some eternal sense they gave him. And Betsy was a bright torch in all the cobwebbed areas of his heart.
He went to a faith healer and a homeopath. Dr Slattery visited him twice. Betsy knew that the pain was sometimes excruciating. There were good days and bad, when he slept or dosed himself with painkillers. As the late summer days spread shadows in Falcon Park they were hardly apart.
“Charlie, what’s wrong with you?” she asked one morning as he sat quiet and ashen.
“It was bad last night, I’m afraid now about going to the hospital.” In the middle of September Betsy helped to pack his case, pyjamas, toiletries, a new silk dressing-gown, shoes, a shirt for coming home. No, that could wait she thought, I’ll take a fresh one in two weeks, that’s all it was, two weeks, and then, recovering, nursing him, loving him, a long holiday, they’d spoken of a cruise …
He said he could not bear it if she went with him to the hospital.
She cried on his shoulder and noticed leaves fall in the garden. She waved to the taxi and said she would come and see him tomorrow.
She sat in the kitchen and felt a lump behind the cushion of the chair. She pulled out a little round box and undid it to find a beautiful ruby ring which she held so tight her knuckles went white.
It was an evening in October. The swallows had left for the winter. The doctors had done everything. He had never fully regained consciousness. But she held his hand each day and the ruby on her finger seemed to deepen as they touched.
It was January in Betsy’s kitchen and the solid fuel fire was turned to high. She had arranged Charlie’s wake and funeral as he wished.
He had left her over £150,000 and given the farm in Ennistimon to his nephew.
She went out infrequently. The noisy pavements, the changes in the neighbourhood, the teeming world, interested her less and less. She was happy in her place. She read and drew and made teas for friends.
Charlie was often in her thoughts. He was a beacon. She heard the rhythm of a train. It was the express from Waterloo going south. She listened to the trumm-trumm of the wheels until they reached their vanishing point in her memory. She sensed the presence of Charlie all round her. She knew now she could wait happily until she followed him on the long train south.