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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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“I think mum and dad are doing enough, don’t you think?”

“I wasn’t suggesting they weren’t, Mel. And I presume that they will be going to St Vincent’s as usual. Is it everyone back here for lunch then, like usual?”


No
. Sarah is too poorly for all the noise. Simon I
warned
you…”

“I know. Things aren’t normal. I get it. I just thought. Well, it’s Sunday. We always … never mind. I’ll tell my mum and dad.” Simon washed the wine glasses from the night before by hand, perversely enjoying the slight pain the scalding water caused.

Melissa drained her glass, grimacing as the undissolved powder from the bottom hit her lips. “They know. I spoke to your mum last night. Terry is coming up to say hullo around teatime, though.”

“Oh.” Simon dried his hands. “So, do you mind if … I’ll check on Sarah first, obviously … Is it okay if I go to church?”
“Of course I don’t mind, Simon.” Melissa’s voice was brightly false. “It’s your life.”
“My life. Right.”

* * *

St Matthew’s was packed, Palm Sunday having brought a healthy sized congregation. Simon took a palm cross from one of the boxes by the door, put a pound in the collection jug and smiled at the elderly gentleman handing out hymn books. The church was gearing up for Easter Sunday celebrations and display boards at the entrance exhibited the Sunday school’s work, Crayola art depicting the rising of Christ.

Simon bit the corner of his lip, suppressing a smile. Had it been last year? No, the year before perhaps, when Sarah, well enough to be in church, had surprised both her family and the congregation with a typically loud question, mid-sermon, and so doing, unintentionally introduced a complicated theological query into a number of the St Matthew’s congregation’s Easter lunch conversation.
“Daddy, who rolled the stone away?”

That was the thing with Sarah. Nothing got by her.

They would, Simon supposed, have to talk to her soon, though he could see no reason to tell her that she was nearing the end. Sarah was rapidly becoming extremely ill. Her waking moments would soon be dampened by a blanket of morphine, her lucidity compromised. There was a chance that she would never need to know what was happening to her. Why scare the child?

They were to view Madron House on Tuesday. It was a prospect that terrified Simon. The idea of visiting the home where his daughter would … the place where she …. All those sick children! The mechanical devices, the enforced good cheer, the other patients – children who all looked ill. No. He would not think about it at the moment.

Simon stood for a hymn, surprised that the service had even begun. His subconscious had performed the required responses whilst his deeper thoughts had stayed with his daughter. How on earth could he tell Sarah that she was – going? Simon steadied himself against a momentary giddiness. Where Sarah was going precisely was not a speculation Simon could allow himself. Heaven was the usual destination for an innocent child, and the most painless explanation.

For Simon, a person could not just
cease
to be. How could they? How could a vibrant, buzzing energy just simply disappear? It was not physically possible. If you bounced a rubber ball on the floor, the kinetic energy continued in some form, never entirely dissipating – or so the physicists said. Surely a person’s psyche left its mark on the world, the amassed energy of life continuing to reverberate for some time after death?

Any further thoughts on the sordid details of
disposal
repulsed him. Simon’s view of death had changed little from the feelings of the seven-year old boy who had held onto the body of a stinking terrapin. He continued to struggle with the concept of a corpse, a cadaver – the ‘empty overcoat’. Even in medical school, he had still considered the donors to be people, and had given them the respect they deserved during post-mortems, unlike some of his more raucous classmates.

He knew what a dead body looked like; knew what they felt like; had driven a scalpel into cold, deceased flesh. It was true that they appeared – empty. Devoid. But where had the person gone? They had to go somewhere.

Sarah’s body was not a thought that he had dared approach. The possibility that his daughter would be put in a box in the dark, in the ground, was unthinkable. That she would be going to heaven was as far as Simon’s mind had allowed him to travel on the road to acceptance. A misty, distant land, bathed in white light and populated with – Simon did not know. He ripped himself back to the here and now, the joyous chords from the organ stirring the congregation, their voices swelling as they went into the last triumphant verse of the Palm Sunday hymn:


Ride on! Ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die;

bow thy meek head to mortal pain,

then take, O God, thy power, and reign!”

The congregants around Simon gasped and stepped out of the way muttering first in confused irritation and then in concern as the man who had stood amongst them a few seconds ago slid heavily to the floor in a dead faint, his hymn book thumping onto the pew in front.

Chapter 13

“It’s alright. He’s coming round.”

Simon squinted as he looked up at the myriad of concerned faces.
Oh bugger.
“I’m okay. Sorry. I’m okay. I’ll just get up. No, really, I’m okay. Sorry. Terribly sorry. Please don’t make a fuss.”

Simon allowed someone to heave him up from the wooden floor, wincing with a mixture of pain and embarrassment. His hangover washed back over him and he hoped fervently that he didn’t smell of second hand merlot.

“Come on, Simon. Let’s get you over to the vicarage.” Familiar high cut cheekbones and an elegant hairstyle came into focus and Simon groaned with relief as Mrs. Hughes smiled at him. “Gentlemen, if you could just accompany us, just in case. Can you walk yet, Simon? Do you need a moment?”

“No, no – I’m fine. Sorry, ergh …” Simon gingerly touched his head – he must have bashed it on the way down. “Sorry, everyone. Awfully sorry.”

“Do stop saying sorry, Simon. Thank you. Coming through … thank you.”

The blast of air as they left the temporarily paused service was most welcome, sharpening Simon’s senses somewhat and calming his swimming head.

“I think we’ll be fine now, gentlemen. Thank you so much for your help.” Mrs. Hughes dismissed the men who had accompanied them out with the briskness of a woman used to dealing with The Brighouse West Scout Brigade. “Do you want to sit on a tombstone, or do you think you can make it across the road?”

“I’m fine, honestly. Sorry. I should just go home.”

“Absolutely not. You doctors make the worst patients. You’ve cracked your head on the pew and we’d better make sure it’s all working up there before you go home. Come on. You can see the progress the girls have made.”

Simon groped around his memory, sure that the ‘the girls’ should make sense. It didn’t.

They made their way slowly back to the vicarage, Simon feeling slightly better as they progressed. Mrs. Hughes held onto his arm firmly. Not, Simon mused, that there was much hope of the tiny framed Mrs. Hughes being much help should he decide to keel over again, but the support felt good.

“Watch out for dogs,” Mrs. Hughes advised redundantly, their arrival celebrated by a cacophony of yipping and barking. They fought their way through the motley gang of animals and Mrs. Hughes settled Simon in a chair at the kitchen table. “Now, Simon, brandy or whisky?”

“Ergh, you’re kidding? It’s only 11.30 a.m. isn’t it?”

“I thought you were supposed to give people a tot when they’d fainted. Anyway, as I shall be driving you home – don’t look at me like that, Simon, you can’t drive when you’ve had a banged head – as I shall be driving you home, you may as well have a drink. Brandy, or whisky?”

“Brandy would be lovely. A small one.”

Simon was grateful to be treated like a small boy, albeit one that was allowed hard liquor. In fact, there could be no better person in the world to take care of him right now. Mrs. Hughes (who did actually have a first name – Muriel - but was always referred to as Mrs. Hughes by her husband Duncan and therefore by everybody else) had a gentle, yet firm, personality. Old fashioned and posh, but with the ‘common touch’, Mrs. Hughes was loved by everyone. Her formidable energy was bundled into one tiny, well dressed and well spoken package. She poured it into charity work, her animals, cleaning the church, running the parish opera society and a million other duties, which she took on without complaint and exceedingly good grace. In short, she was a pocket rocket.

Mrs. Hughes poured his drink and winked as she tipped a thimbleful-sized amount into a glass for herself. “It would be rude not to.” She beamed and taking out a chopping board began to peel a pile of potatoes with astonishing speed. “So, Simon. How are you feeling? And I’m not just talking about your bruised head and hurt pride. We heard about Sarah. Duncan, as you know, sits on the school Board of Governors. No names were mentioned, but it came up that a child was being withdrawn. Obviously, we put two and two together. How are you holding up?”

Simon took a sip of the brandy. He noted the lady’s lack of platitudes. She had not said
‘I’m sorry’
. It was refreshing. Most people effused. All apologized. It was exhausting, forgiving people for something that they had most certainly not done. “Well, in fact, Mrs. Hughes, I don’t think I am holding up. Melissa doesn’t think I am. I thought I was, but apparently I’m ‘not dealing with things’. Perhaps I’m not. I don’t think I can. My mind starts to work on it, but then as soon as I start thinking about the future,” Simon paused, taking a deep breath, “about certain aspects of the future, it pops back out. Like a gear shift that won’t stay in place.”

“You can’t force it. We all have our own way of handling these things. You might talk to Duncan. He’s rather good at these conversations you know. It’s his job. He will be able to help you.”

“Unless he can find a cure for cancer, Mrs. Hughes, I’m not sure that he can help.” Simon spoke softly, staring into his brandy.

Mrs. Hughes regarded Simon steadily, taking her time. She was not a woman who was afraid of silences. In her long reign as Vicar’s Wife at St Matthew’s, she had consoled innumerable grieving parishioners. “No, Simon. He can’t find a cure for cancer. No one is going to. Not in time for Sarah, I’m afraid. But he can help you with your grief. Help you find a way through. Help you find a life after Sarah.”


Life after Sarah.
That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Right now, at this very second, I can’t conceive a ‘life after Sarah’. Sarah is my life. I didn’t realize until it was too late. Nothing else matters. Not work, not friends, not even Melissa. I go to work to put food on the table for Sarah. I clean the car on a Saturday so that we look respectable and presentable – for Sarah. I used to do these things for Melissa, but now I’m not sure. It’s all for Sarah.”

“What about you, Simon. What do you do for you?” Mrs. Hughes scooped a cat off a kitchen chair and sat down.

“I don’t know. I suppose work was for me. Though studying to get there, that was for mum and dad. I play a bit of golf, but I never really enjoyed it, to be honest.” He gave her a wry smile. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that. I suppose I just thought that was what a moderately well off family man was supposed to do on a Saturday afternoon. That, and Melissa wanted us to join. Church. That’s for me. Melissa and I always seem to just miss each other with faith. First, when Sarah got ill initially, I lost faith, while Melissa became quite manically devout. Now, I still believe, but Melissa doesn’t seem interested. She appeared quite cross with me for coming today, actually. I think she thinks I should be by Sarah’s bedside. It’s not that I don’t want to be, but …,“ his face contorted and he swallowed hard, trying to get the words out before the tears blocked them, “there’s nothing I can do. I wish I could make her better, I wish I had a prescription. If I could just open my desk drawer and write her a magic note.
Take this to the pharmacy, it’ll take a few days to clear up
… but I can’t.” In that instant he lost the battle to compose his features. Tears stained his cheeks and dripped off his chin onto the table below. “I can’t fix this. She’s broken and I can’t fix her.”

A renewed chorus of canine ecstasy signaled Duncan’s return. He entered the kitchen with a retinue of dogs wagging their tails behind him. Duncan's voice was light and teasing. “How is the talk of the town? Has he come round yet?” Then he caught sight of Simon’s tear-stained face. “Oh, Simon. A terrible thing. This is a very lonely time for you. I want you to know that we are here for you if you ever want to talk, day or night.” The vicar took a scruffy jumper off the back of a chair and put it on over his ecumenical shirt and collar. He topped up Simon’s brandy, ignoring the feeble protestations. “Stay for lunch.”

Simon wiped his tears with the back of his hand, feeling less embarrassed than comforted to be treated like a school boy. “I can’t. Melissa wouldn’t … I have to get back.”

“You’ve had a bang on the head, Simon.” Mrs. Hughes got up and indicated her large oven. “It’s chicken casserole. I always make far too much. We should be keeping an eye on you for an hour or so anyway and I’ve already said that I will drive you home. Why don’t you let me call Melissa? I’m sure she’ll understand.”

“I’m not sure about that. She isn’t very … we’re not getting on very well at the moment.”

Duncan stroked a large ginger cat that had jumped into his lap. “That’s not surprising, Simon. These are difficult times. Any relationship would be under strain. Mrs. Hughes and I were only bellowing at each this morning and we are not going through what you are going through.”

Simon looked up from his brandy. The second shot had had the calming effect that Mrs. Hughes had intended; the pain in his head was fading. “You and Mrs. Hughes bellowing?” He raised an eyebrow in incredulity.

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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