Annie never knew why Jack had chosen her. In hindsight it was probably self-doubt that made her more tolerant, more patient with him. Annie liked to think of the songs he had written for her when she had almost drowned in his shining blue eyes as she watched him play, preferring to overlook that they had almost surely been recycled over many previous girlfriends.
“Irresponsible!” was the cry of her family and friends.
“Irrepressible!” was what Annie knew to be true, and looking at him that way made the harder times easier to bear. Others only saw her life as a canvas of chaotic color, but Annie knew many a masterpiece was meant to be viewed from afar, like Monet from a distance, when the colors revealed their true shape and beauty. In her case the distance was measured in years. She knew Jack made her otherwise ordinary life something special, accepting that she was someone special by association only.
There was a time when she believed she was a writer, but in the end she kept her scribbling to herself, unable to balance the need for words with the inevitable busyness of life. She was one of those people that had needed encouragement, a little praise perhaps. But Jack’s need was always greater, her children’s needs insistent, and she loved them all too much to choose herself. At the time it didn’t seem such a great sacrifice. Only now, sometimes, when she fell to sleep with the embryo of a story grappling for form in her mind, would she wake with a mere smattering of words left clinging to her memory, only to feel a distantly familiar yearning that took all day to dissipate with activity.
Occasionally she saw him flashing across the brilliant blue of her children’s eyes, when they closed protectively around her. Both Matthew and Jessica had a big helping of their father’s creativity, tempered by a healthy respect for money, believing it was much easier to develop creatively when the basic necessities of life took care of themselves. Annie recognised that acquiesence to practicality as her contribution to their personalities. But they never really understood her unflagging devotion to their father.
“You know he treated you quite badly sometimes Mum,” Jessica said when they met for lunch that day.
“One must make allowances for creative people Jess. They can be quite a slave to their emotions,” Annie tried to explain. Matthew shook his head.
“I can hardly remember him being around when we were growing up Mum,” he said, a passing trace of anger furrowing his brow. “It seems you’ve spent half your life alone,” he said, gathering his mother into his arms. Annie wrapped her arms around him, rubbing his back in a comforting way, like she did when he was a child.
“I’m fine, I”m fine Mattie,” she replied, finally holding him at arm’s length so he could see she was smiling. “And look, you turned out beautifully!”
“Why don’t you and Jess come with me tomorrow?” she added, as if she had never asked them before. The two of them exchanged a look of solidarity.
“No Mum. It’s okay; it’s your thing really,” Jess said, as she planted a gentle kiss on her mother’s cheek.
The following day Annie heard the morning sounds tugging at her with a clumsy gentleness into inevitable concsiousness. A pair of doves cooed a repetative anthem somewhere close by prompting Annie to stretch her lips into a sleepy smile, though her eyes remained defiantly closed. She finally opened them to stare blankly at the soft grey above her, the old ceiling rose like a muted sun, echoing her own fuzzy awakening. Every morning Annie was always struck by the utter normality of the real world after the vivid fluidity of her dreams. But then she turned to her left and saw his face smiling at her, and her dreams filled her reality once again. His youthful smile was always a doorway to facing another day.
“Good morning my darling, my one and only,” she whispered, rolling completely onto her side so she could see him all the better. The sunshine peeked its way through the gap in the curtains, making his eyes shine like amber. She curled warmly around the pillow beside her. She was so glad he hadn’t had to endure the grizzled greying of those wonderful brown curls, unlike her own faded glory, once so glossily brown and straight. Now it sprang and poked every which way in stubborn old age, as Annie grimaced with faint disgust.
“I might have to cut it my love,” she sighed, as she gazed into the mirror. “I’ve tried to keep it long for you, but I’m starting to resemble a crazy old hippie!” Her sudden laughter echoed in the bathroom, and she started to sing. Jack always said the bathroom was the best place in the house for singing; great acoustics.
“And I still can’t sing,” she sighed good-naturedly, as she pulled her hair back to tame it with a large tortoise shell comb.
Annie shuffled to the kitchen and pushed back the curtains carefully, as if opening a much anticipated gift, and drew in her breath as the sunshine cascaded across the black and white linoleum, revealing a momentary illusion of marble. It was Annie’s favorite room, a cocoon of wonderfully soothing sensations. She sat at the table on her regular chair, her back towards the warming sunshine. It creaked in greeting at her familiar weight. She closed her eyes and listened for the approaching rush of the kettle boiling, and the delicious penetration of the scent of bread toasting, and sighed deeply, imagining once more that little Parisian cafe. She cradled the hot cup in both hands, smelling and sipping the rich dark coffee, as if it was the finest wine.
“Do you want to hear my dream my love?” she said, looking across to see his familiar smile.
“Of course you do; you are always the star!” she laughed. She closed her eyes to access again the pictures of her dreams.
“Oh, we were young again Jack,” she sighed, and cocked her head quizzically to one side, as she saw them so clearly in her mind’s eye.
“Remember that mountain we climbed Jack, with the children? The fairy mountain, Oberon’s mountain?” Her arms lifted involuntarily from the table, and she spread them wide as if balancing on the edge of something.
“It was the very top the world, as if we were on the brink of knowing the reason for everything.” Annie slowly pulled the comb from her hair, and let it splay in a wild profusion around her head.
“You took my hand and made me run past the edge, and we flew into an endless blue of sea and sky! Our laughter mixed with the wind, and it streamed behind us in every color of the rainbow.”
Annie let her arms fall gracefully to the table. “It was wonderful. And scary too. But not for you Jack,” she whispered, still in awe of what no one else could see or know.
“It was as if you had been doing it forever, and I just had to hang on tight, or else you would have left me behind…let me fall.” A tinge of desperation could only be detected in the tightening of her hand on her coffee cup.
Annie opened her eyes then, and took another sip of coffee, the warmth snaking through her body, and anchoring her to the earth once more.
“That was a good one wasn’t it? I think maybe I should stop eating so close to bed time!” Annie laughed, and subconciously shook off that faintly stalking disquietude that made her leave her toast half eaten and head quickly to the bathroom instead.
She kept the window shut, and purposely neglected to turn on the exhaust fan, liking the way the small room with its sky blue walls, filling with steam, made her feel she was aloft in the clouds.
“We’re together in the ether Jack,” she said, wrapping the towel around her, and reaching out to wipe the moisture from his face. She swiped the mirror with the back of her hand.
“I love the way it softens all the edges. Especially on this old face!”
Annie dressed carefully, laying her much-loved red dress across the bed; the one Jack always admired her in, and she checked it for any loose threads or marks. A hundred wonderful memories rushed through her veins as she slipped it over her head, settling it comfortably across her shoulders and hips. The fabric slid tantalizingly over her breasts, like a hand that barely skimmed her flesh. Annie sighed audibly, frozen momentarily in her private reminiscences, of long brown fingers playing her like one of his guitars.
“Oh Jack, it’s twenty-five years today my darling,” she said, her voice thick with emotion. “And I love you as much as ever. Even more if that’s possible,” she added tenderly. “But never less,” she breathed, running her hand lovingly down the corduroy shirt that hung on the wardrobe door.
She finally gathered up her bag and headed purposefully for the front door.
“I’ll meet you after work, in the usual place darling,” she said with a smile, as she closed the door behind her.
Annie pulled up at the curb and instinctively adjusted the laminated sign on her windscreen-Delivered Meals Service it read in bold black letters. She could have easily stepped over the low brick fence to Maisie and Bill Tanner’s house, but she swung open the little wrought iron gate and carefully snibbed it behind her; in their neatly ordered life, that’s what Maisie and Bill would rightly expect. The relentlessly mown grass was clipped with precision along the length of the concrete path that led like an arrow to the front door. There was not one weed in the sun-baked earth of the garden bed, that ran parallel across the front of the brick veneer home, with not a hint of a curve nor a dropped leaf, the rose bushes cut back to a stump. Annie stopped momentarily, balancing the two foil-trayed meals, and tried to recall when she had ever seen flowers on those rose bushes, obviously pruned before they had a chance to bud.
“Probably way too messy for Bill’s taste,” thought Annie with a quick smile and a shake of the head. She had to admire this old man, who despite his severely stooped frame, refused to let one leaf or blade of grass grow rebelliously outside his idea of order.
Annie wrapped loudly on the front door and as usual let herself in. She was immediately engulfed by that familiar mustiness of things that have stood in exactly the same place for way too long, quietly, invisibly decaying. She felt a small tug of fear twist in her gut, a feeling that was becoming more frequent in the last few weeks, when time had begun to feel like a runaway train, endlessly passing the same landmarks. It made her inexplicably want to run away to Paris and paint, although, of course, she had never painted a picture in her life!
Annie followed the faded rose-patterned carpet to the kitchen, determined not to look at her reflection as she passed the gold-framed mirror in the hall. The soft monotones of the old radio grew louder as she approached.
“It’s just me!” she called, as she entered the intensely laminated kitchen. “Morning Maisie, morning Bill,” she said in a sunny greeting. Bill and Maisie sat at the kitchen table with their morning cup of tea just as Annie expected.
“Nourishment for my lovelies!” Annie said with a broad smile, placing their meals on the table. Maisie tittered girlishly as she always did hearing Annie’s voice.
“Oh Maisie, you’ve been to the beauty parlour!” said Annie, raising her eyebrows in approval. Maisie giggled again, nervously touching her tight blue-tinted curls. Bill raised his head as much as he could from his stooped shoulders.
“Still as beautiful as ever,” he said, with an attempt at a wink.
“That she is Bill, you old flirt,” Annie retorted in amusement. “I’ll leave you two love birds then,” she said, moving once again to the door. “Take care of eachother now, and I”ll see you tomorrow,” she added.
“To be sure Annie, thanks love,” Bill replied, raising himself slowly from his chair. A familiar big band tune had come on the radio. “Let’s dance Maisie girl,” Bill chortled.
Annie heard Maisie giggle in feeble protest as she she made her way back to the front door, unable to resist looking at herself in the hall mirror this time, always shocked to see a faded replica of herself staring back in bemusement. Annie hurried for the door, suddenly feeling the tears prickle behind her eyes. Her mind wrestled more and more with conflicting feelings of joy at the old couple’s obvious and enduring love for one another, and shame of the fearful distaste for their diminishing life and growing dependency.
Annie defiantly left the little wrought iron gate ajar.
Later that day, as Annie pulled up at the florist shop, she really wished the kids had said yes this year, trying to shake off that restless feeling that had visited her briefly that morning.
Tiffany smiled broadly and let out a loud hello in her broad Scottish accent.
“Hello Annie!” she cooed. “How are you gorgeous? Good to see you love,” she added, kissing Annie on both cheeks. “I”ve already picked out the very best rose for you lovey,” she said cheerily, bustling her rather large hips between the delicious profusion of flowers held in buckets towards the back of the shop.
“How long is it now Annie?” she asked, presenting her with a deep crimson, perfectly budding rose, a white satin ribbon tied around its stem.
“It’s twenty-five years Tiff’,” Annie replied, running the velvety petals under her nose.
“No!” Tiffany declared wide-eyed. “Hasn’t time flown by Annie?” she said in disbelief. “I should have known though,” she added, clapping her hands on her hips. “These get bigger every year!” Tiffany laughed.
Placing the flower carefully on the seat beside her, Annie drove to the bottle shop to pick up a bottle of champagne, remembering last year when she had managed to drink nearly a whole bottle by herself, and she was forced to call a taxi to get home. She smiled and shrugged as she turned into the long driveway. Annie felt a familiar rush of adrenalin that made her feel momentarily unhinged, her skin warming and prickling, then quickly subsiding into gooseflesh and a vague sense of nausea. She rubbed her hand down her arm and took a deep breath, trying to rekindle a warmer feeling of anticipation.
“I’m coming my darling,” she whispered to herself.
As she settled herself on the cool lawn she noticed how beautiful the garden was this year, and how the sheltering trees had grown another foot at least. Annie smoothed her dress over her legs as she drew them in beside her, and plucked the champagne flute from her bag. The bubbles were bitter-sweet on her tongue, and after the first couple of careful sips she drank the rest of the glass quickly and purposefully, savouring the way it made her feel momentarily released. She carefully filled it again and then quickly looked around her.
“This one is for you Jack,” she said quietly, raising the glass just slightly then pouring it onto the ground, the bubbles lingering briefly before disappearing into the soil. She laid the rose over the damp earth and waited for her heart to skip that beat, for the music to play in her head. But it didn’t happen; it was just that unsettling wave that had been chasing her all week.
“Where’s the music Jack?” she whispered. Suddenly she felt silly and sad in her one-sided conversations, and all she could hear was the white noise of her growing desperation. He had been gone for years now, the date in shining brass on the plaque beside her. But she still knew he must live on somewhere, in some form, in some dimension…he must. Although for years now she had found it almost impossible to call it heaven. Her heart had given up on such notions long ago.
Annie unclenched her jaw, the blood thrumming in her temples, draining to pool hotly in her cheeks. She took his picture from her bag, immediately met by that forever-youthful smile. Annie hugged it silently to her chest, where her broken heart was still inexplicably beating.