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ONLY THE CERTAIN SPRING

 

They might bring themselves to forgive the absence of any outward show of grief on her part. After all, they could always say to one another that Madge was taking it well. And people can‘t help their dispositions, can they ?

But not to have had a funeral tea after the ceremony was unforgivable, and she knew it. They would assuredly not allow her to forget that fact easily. Out of outward sympathy for her loss, of course, they would say nothing now, but she could imagine what they would say in a few months‘ time when they judged that a suitable interval had passed.

‘Of course I understand, Madge ! Quite understand, but then, you know me. People are so silly about these traditions, aren‘t they ? Why, it‘s almost working-class ! Much more sensible just to have a quiet service and then – well, go home . . .‘

She could almost hear their voices, the words spoken with an apparent fervour which their eyes would belie. The music of those words would be all wrong, quite lacking in conviction. The family, as she knew only too well, clung to their folk-ways. Especially his family. She wondered if they knew why she had declined all offers of company on this day of all days, and what they would say when they knew.

All through the service in the gloomy, echoing chapel she was aware of their curious, furtive glances. Custom decreed that the widow should be helped to her seat by close relatives before the service began, that she should weep silently throughout, and should then, when the last words had been said, be escorted by the same close relatives past the rows of mourners, while the organ played pianissimo to drown the shuffling of feet. It was the way these things were done, the way they should be done. They liked to know where they were, they would say. Conduct such as hers left them feeling awkward and inadequate, not knowing quite what to do next. And they didn‘t like it.

 

She closed the front door behind her, and heard the night latch click into place. Without conscious effort she climbed the stairs to her room, momentarily recalling when they had begun to have ‘own rooms‘, took off her hat, her gloves and her coat, and put all three in their customary places.

But the sound of the falling latch had left its mark upon her mind, and had dragged her back to that evening when that sound had struck a note like the crack of doom. She was about to brush away that recollection, as she had done so many times in recent days, when it struck her that there was no need for that now. All that she had now were memories; she could take them out one by one, give them an airing, and then consign them to where they belonged, forever in limbo.

There was no time like the present, no occasion more apt. She sat on the edge of the bed, folded her hands into her lap, and remembered.

 

It was that evening, more than any other, that she wanted to forget. The evening which had begun with the click of the latch, a sound which had echoed through the long night of horror which followed it.

 

She heard his car on the drive, and went out, as she always did, to open the double doors of the garage. Then she made her way back to the kitchen, to put the final touches to the meal she had prepared. She noticed that he did not come through to the kitchen, but that was not altogether unusual in recent days.

They ate the meal in silence, he replying to her questions about the day with even less enthusiasm than he had shown of late. As she gave him his coffee in the sitting-room she asked him how he liked the new curtains. It was clear from the startled glance and the flush of embarrassment that he had entirely forgotten, though they had spoken of them that very morning.

There was an awkward silence. She was about to break it with yet another attempt to restore some semblance of normality when he coughed, moved uneasily in his chair, and said in a strange, harsh tone,

‘Madge, I want to talk to you !‘

Even now she was unaware of anything significant in the words or the tone.

‘Why, yes, Harry. It would be a change !‘

Then she caught sight of his face, and knew that she had quite misread the situation. He coloured, and appeared to be thinking better of his intention. She was at once contrite.

‘I‘m sorry ! You were about to say – ?‘

This sort of conversation between them was always the same. They were never discourteous to each other, never unmindful of the other‘s feelings. But when you came right down to it, the atmosphere between them resembled an armed truce rather than a loving compact. At times she wondered what he would have done or said if she had begun to swear and throw things at him. Sometimes she was almost tempted to try.

But whatever it was he wanted to say now, it was clear that he wasn‘t finding it easy. She looked at his face again, and felt a sharp stab of unease. He drew a deep breath before he spoke.

‘Madge, you‘re not going to like this. I – I wish I could spare you, but it‘s got to come out. I‘m sorry, really sorry. But you‘ve got to know some time.‘

Now her unease had grown to alarm.

‘What‘s wrong, Harry ?‘

‘Aye, that‘s the word,‘ he replied. ‘Wrong. It‘s as wrong as it can be, and I doubt you‘ll be willing to accept it. I doubt if any woman would.‘

And then she knew what all those covert glances, and all those hints had failed to convey. A childless marriage, always open to such a hazard. The frequent ‘business trips‘ to London, the sudden silence at coffee mornings if such subjects were even casually mentioned, her own stubborn refusal to accept that Harry would so demean her.

And it was all true, and he was trying to tell her before some chance remark in the town should make her aware of what had been going on. She had to stop him, to save him needless shame.

‘I think I know.‘

He looked startled, disbelieving.

‘You know ? What about ?‘

She tried to smile.

‘The other woman is the usual phrase, I believe.‘

Keep it cool, she said to herself. Don‘t fly into a tantrum and risk losing it all. Keep it cool.

He was now flushed once more, but this time, it appeared, with something nearer to anger.

‘I don‘t know that it‘s a subject for light banter !‘

At once she repented of the remark. I‘m always saying the wrong thing, she told herself. Aloud she said,

‘I‘m sorry ! I didn‘t intend that ! I – I just thought it might save you embarrassment to know that I was aware of it.‘

At that he rose to his feet and crossed to the hearth, where he stood gazing into the first so that she could no longer see his face.

‘I – I don‘t understand you, Madge. If you threw something, or took a knife to me, or anything. You have a right. But this – this acceptance . . .‘

And then he went on to tell her the whole of it, and destroyed her world.

It wasn‘t what she thought, he said. It wasn‘t like that at all. He simply hadn‘t wanted her to be hurt. She hadn‘t deserved that. And he hadn‘t wanted to be furtive, or anything like that. It was just that it had all happened a long time ago and she had had a child, and then, well, he couldn‘t leave her, could he ? Not just drop her. Not with a child. You couldn‘t just walk away from that.

She heard him out dry-eyed, but it seemed to her as though her barren womb wept scalding, wracking tears.

But the worst was yet to come. He wasn‘t talking about a babe in arms. He was saying that the boy was thirteen and that he was looking for a school for him.

At that point she scrambled from the chair, and got to the bathroom just in time, vomiting again and again until her throat was raw.

 

It was a long time before she could bring herself to talk about it again. The armed truce continued. Their conversation was once more studiously polite.

When, it seemed, he judged that she had come to accept the situation, he came to the point which he had failed to reach last time. He wanted the boy to follow him into the business, he said, but he wouldn‘t do it unless she could agree. For his part, he would ensure that the fact of the boy‘s parentage would not be made known.

But this she could not bring herself to accept. She coldly declined to accept such an arrangement, pointing out that as an equal co-director she had the right to refuse.

From that day they each had those ‘own rooms‘.

For some weeks they sustained the charade of their marriage. Then, one evening, he returned at the usual time and, leaving the car in the drive, began to pack some clothes. When she asked him what else he needed he stopped in his task, and looked at her for what seemed a long time before he spoke.

‘I‘m leaving, Madge ! I can‘t stand any more of this ! It‘s all right, I‘ll make suitable arrangements so that you‘ll be secure.‘

A few minutes more and he was gone, and the click of the latch was like the stroke of a pen ending a chapter. Much later, she remembered to close the garage doors.

As she returned to the house, she heard the telephone bell in the hall and rushed inside, hoping that he had changed his mind.

The voice at the other end was guarded, hesitant.

‘Mrs Hardwick ?‘

‘Yes ?‘

‘Police station here, Mrs Hardwick. We‘re sending a car for you. It‘s your husband. He‘s been taken to St Mark‘s. We thought we‘d give you time to get ready.‘

‘What is it ? An accident ?‘

‘No, Mrs Hardwick. He was taken ill at the filling station. Chap there reported it to us. It looks like a heart attack, But try not to worry. Happens all the time, you know. People under stress, and all that. They‘ll be able to cope with him, I‘m sure.‘

They were very kind, and the taxi made the best time it could. But when she got there he was already dead.

 

Now she sat, dry-eyed, on the edge of the bed, and wondered why there was nothing she could do.

Then, with a sudden decision, she scrambled to her feet and almost ran down the stairs to the sitting-room. There she seated herself at the writing-desk and wrote to a woman she had never met, to tell her of the last wishes of the man whose love they had shared, and to say that, when the time came, his wishes for his son should be fulfilled.

She sealed the letter and left it there. Somewhere in his belongings, no doubt, she would find the address.

Then she went out into the garden and the chill air. A pale sunshine lit the branches of the bare trees, but could offer little warmth to the sleeping earth.

Her thoughts were still too much like the wintry garden. It could offer her no comfort yet. She turned and began to make her way wearily back to the house and the long, lonely years ahead.

But, before she could lift her head to face that prospect, she caught sight of a small flash of green, and stooped to look. Through the frosty soil the daffodils were already thrusting their green spears, the vanguard of an army soon to appear in bright array, blazoning the bright year with their golden trumpets.

The green starred, clouded and dissolved as the first tears came, necessary and healing. And with the tears came one all but forgotten line of verse, to remind her of the call which every year those golden mouths would proclaim, until she herself joined them in the resurrecting earth.

‘Nothing is certain, only the certain Spring.‘