`Oh Hell-why did we order spare ribs? This sauce is bound to dribble down my chin. How attractive is that?`
Jill watched in relief as he leaned forward and bit firmly into his. `I always order these` he announced with a grin `especially on a first date. If the girl wants to lick the juice from my chin rather than hand me a napkin I reckon we have some chemistry`
Delighted and relieved Jill reached for a rib herself, laughed, and nibbled.
An hour later they were still gossiping, flirting, probing-oblivious to the detritus of egg fried rice, lemon chicken and noodles around them.
Jill assessed his olive skin, twinkling eyes ,friendly mouth and a ridiculous thought popped into her mind totally unbidden. `I want to spend the rest of my life with you`
Horrified she stood up, interrupting his torrent of ideas on the perfect way to stop horses crapping all over the local roads, and murmured
`I must go for a pee-too much wine….`
Peering into the mirror in the loos she reflected .
`Where did that come from? I don’t have mushy thoughts about eternal love. Must be the wine! Bet he`s good….
Jill`s grin became frozen as the door burst open-there he was! He grabbed her arm, saying urgently `Come on! We need to get out of here`.
He dragged her after him, Jill desperately grabbing at her hand bag on the way. Through the double doors she began to cough and felt really frightened.
Firmly he ploughed on until they spilled onto the pavement-just as a fire tender screamed up inches from them. Jill coughed and wiped her eyes which were running tears of irritation, fear and mascara. He was coughing desperately, turning his back to her, urgently sucking on a blue inhaler.
It was cold, they stood around with the others, discovering the fire had erupted suddenly in the kitchen, speculating as to why no fire alarms had sounded. Eventually he said he would go pay the bill then they could go somewhere warm. He was gone for no more than 3 minutes, Jill felt lost. He reappeared , grinning, `Well that`s one way to get a free meal!`
Jill never really went home after that. The next morning she shared his toothbrush without a second thought musing `I do hope this guy`s for real-I don’t usually do this`.
At work Mrs. Smith remarked `You alright dear-you look very tired`.
`I`m fine-just ready for my days off` she smiled.
`Are you ready for your shower now-or would you like another cup of tea?`
It was always hard, trying to give them enough time and attention, talking whilst emptying the commode, picking up clothes, making the bed, appearing not to rush. Showing an interest ,a genuine interest, in Misty the cat`s latest antics, whilst thinking `They`ve only given me five minutes to get to Mrs. Pierce and I know it`s going to take fifteen.She gets so cross when I`m late!`
Eventually all ten on her roster were visited, helped to wash, shower, get dressed, beds tidied, lost glasses found, new batteries put in hearing aids, cornflakes served and endless cups of tea offered.
Jill sat in her ancient, rattling Nissan-well what do you expect on minimum wage?-and prayed it would get her home. She had just finished her mileage form thinking `well 15p a mile helps a bit` when her mobile rang. Sighing, expecting pleas from the office, cajoling her into working that evening, she did not look at the display
`Hello Jill….` `Hi you` she smiled…..
`Where have the last five years gone? `Jill mused out loud.
`You wait until you are my age`grumbled Mr. Jones.He winced as she eased his shoes on his swollen feet
.`If you took your water tablets every day like the doctor says these might be less swollen` she chided gently.
`Make me pee all the time-takes me ten minutes to get to the lav. An` by then it`s usually too late…` he replied morosely.
`Yes, I know` Jill sympathized.`Perhaps if you agreed to use a bottle….?`
And so her days went on-offering help, sympathy, walking an exhausting tightrope between caring and intruding.
Only these days it all seemed so much harder-everything was such a rush. Up at 6am to dress and feed baby Jack, get his Dad a cup of tea, connect him up to his nebuliser, nip baby Jack round the corner to her sister ,who, thank goodness, looked after him with her own two. The child credits did help there…. She could never afford anyone else though-not on her wage. Then she would hurry back to take him, the bravest, most loveable man in the world, off that machine and help him downstairs.
Jill remembered the other evening when she finally arrived home. Fortunately Julie had already bathed baby Jack and popped him into his cot.
`If you loved me you’d help me` . Jill had stood, uncomprehending, looking at him. He sat there, leaning on the old, chipped, dining table, wheezing , perspiration running down his loving, bloated face.
` What do you mean?` she asked as she kissed his forehead, bag in hand, coat still on covering her uniform
`You would help me finish this` his lungs whistled with the effort of talking. He avoided looking at her.
`I can`t` she replied too quickly, without compassion, shocked.
Heavily, wearily, she sat on the other chair next to him and gripped his unresponsive arm with both her hands.
`You know how` he insisted stubbornly-still refusing to look at her, gazing at the shadings on the table supporting his weight. Tears rolled down face
` I don’t know how, I`m just a carer, and I wouldn’t-not even for you` As she uttered them Jill knew those words would never leave.
`Anyway-what would I do without you` She placed the palm of her hand on his cheek and made him raise his eyes to hers.
`Find another bloke, one who`s some use to you`. Now he looked at her with a trace of his old humour in his exhausted eyes.
`I don’t want anyone else-you know that. I like what I’ve got`Joe replied firmly making herself smile as she hastily brushed the renegade tears from her cheeks.
`Are you feeling really bad?` the question sounded inane but he nodded mutely.
`Lets have a cup of tea` She busied herself with practical things-going to the cupboard in the kitchen-the one stuffed with pills, inhalers, miracle cures from the health food shop and pulled down his bottle of Amoxycillin….
`Did you watch the football?` she shouted-anything to pull them both back from this abyss.
Jill tried to curb her impatience. She just knew this would happen-she was already running late, what with having to stay with dear old Mrs.Levington until the ambulance arrived. Poor Nancy had fallen in the night and had lain there until Jill arrived at 7.30am. Jill had taken one look at her poor leg twisted up behind her and called the ambulance. She had reassured Nancy, put a pillow under her head and covered her with the duvet off the bed. Then she had phoned the office who promised to phone her daughter-not much help in Spain though!
So now she was running forty-five minutes late and she was stuck in traffic .Calm down-Jill told herself-think of something nice. Smiling she thought of Jack in his bath last night-kicking his legs, laughing at his toy dragon. She was sure he was going to have his Dad`s sense of humour!
Jill fought back a rising sense of panic-don’t` think about the future, think about the good times.
Their first date! How she had known! He had taken her back to his little two bedroomed terrace .She had felt so loved, wanted and yes cherished. An old fashioned word that-but it was the right one. Moving in with him had been like coming home. He was working then of course and always buying her little surprises. Nothing pricey-neither of them had much money but little things-a few flowers, a book mark, oh and that lovely little china cat .Jill had said she would love a cat-he had taken her hand, explained he was allergic to cat fur, nuzzled her neck and suggested they have a go at creating their own addition to the family!
The next day he had brought her the china cat saying `just a temporary substitute, you understand` eyes twinkling.
At last-traffic was moving. Pulling up at Mr Benson`s door she sent up a prayer that the office had explained, as promised, that she was running very late. Opening the door as she arrived he shouted “ No use coming now! Soon be bloody dinner time!”`I`m so sorry Mr. Benson-did the office not ring and explain?`
`Someone phoned with a cock and bull story-always some excuse!`
Jill took a deep breath-remembered what her trainer had said- and tried another tactic.
“ Tell you what Mr. Benson. Lets go inside and I will cook you a nice brunch. Do you know what a brunch is? It`s an American word…..”
Later Jill dashed into town to do his weekly shop-he was so particular. Must have his ham from this butcher and his bread from the Old Bakery. Usually Jill delighted in making sure she found everything on his shopping list but that day it all just seemed like really hard work. Well life is,isn`t it? She mused. And it was raining!
Three months later she walked down those same, sodden streets and knew this was the end. Rain poured through leaky guttering, splashing rejected curry cartons and beer cans. Despair clung to her shoulders like a rain drenched coat.
She wondered aimlessly through their hateful town, knowing their time was up. For so long, for what seemed like a lifetime, they had battled this spiteful illness. Hours of thumping his poor, broken chest. Interminable nights listening to the whistle of his wheezing lungs grasping desperately at life.
What for? Angrily she kicked at more filthy clutter-evidence of carefree, senseless lives.
Resignedly she thrust her cold hands into pitiless pockets, hunched her aching shoulders and set her washed out face into a smile of hope.Turning into the warm cocoon of the hospital she breathed in deeply. Jill walked into the endlessly chaotic medical ward-glancing anxiously towards the bed. Still here then. She smiled in false hope and reached for his beloved, cyanosed , chubby hand-ignoring the insidious hiss of oxygen as it bubbled mercifully along their very own lifeline.
“ Hello darling” His eyes smiled a watery hello in return.
“ I`ve been talking to Ken at the office. He`s going to phone the social worker today-see if we can`t get you home. Kath and Joe have said they will come in and help. Ken even said he will . No point being in the caring business if you can`t look after your own he said”
His eyes lit up.
“You`ll be able to see Jack-he`s almost sitting up now but I can tell he wonders where his Daddy is.”
Slowly he lifted a finger and wiped away the tear that was trickling down her cheek.