Bad news always evokes internal analysis and it can be either liberating or depressing; sometimes a mixture of both, but this day, this day in particular, no one could have written the script for what was about to happen as the wind blew his £300 toupee of his head.
It was his grey piece, his favourite in fact, but his mind was in such an etherised state that he just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm to run after it. Nothing seemed important now after his news. Six months really isn’t a very long time. Is it? Why should he chase the wind when he knew he’d never catch it? What could a man do with it anyway if it were possible to catch? William fleetingly thought about his predicament as he compared his wig to the wind.
His mind toiled with the dilemma of the wind and the wig and he was grateful because it put some life back into his numbed state of mind. He saw a funny side to the blown away toupee that would have escaped the sanest of minds, for no one else he knew, had a wife like his. Jean was the love of his life and in a way, in a quiet sort of way, he was still attracted by her quirkiness, she was a one off. Definitely.
He smiled at the thought of Jean and the undertaker deciding which toupee would best suit him, probably coffined in his dinner jacket. She loved him in that jacket. Made him more distinguished she had once said. More distinguished than whom, he’d asked her and she in her unique way had replied ‘than anyone’. And he loved that reply so much he often pondered on it. The toupee scenario was based on what had happened when Jean’s mother Ellen died.
Jean had employed a beautician to make-up Ellen’s face for the wake, to the shock horror of the rest of the family. When they walked in and saw their mothers face, a face they barely recognised, and to make matters more bazaar when Jean made her entrance into the wake, she was wearing the identical Oatmeal hippy top that Ellen was also wearing.
It was a step too far for the family. They demanded that the lid be put on the coffin there and then. Jean couldn’t understand their reaction and they never understood Jean’s way of thinking. The family saw Jean’s behaviour as a statement of mockery towards their beloved Ellen. William knew that Ellen would have understood and had a bit of a giggle from beyond. Now this very day his dilemma was how would he break the news to Jean that he had six months at the most to live; and how would he also let Mariea know?
Walking much further than intended he was stopped in his tracks by a small red squirrel making a rush for a young bird with a broken wing; he knew he couldn’t rescue the poor bird on foot, so quickly removing his left shoe with his right foot he aimlessly fired the weapon in the direction of the squirrel achieving the intended result; though too late; when he reached the bird it was beyond help but still breathing. He looked around for a large stone to end its misery quickly, but there were none. He knew he had to do this for he could not let this poor little bird suffer when there was no hope of its survival.
Now, suddenly the surrounding silence was invaded by a flock of birds flying overhead then perching in the big oak tree down by the stream at the bottom of the well-worn pathway. William had heard once about the way birds take their dead or injured to somewhere private; it was something good to believe in and he dutifully carried the dying bird wrapped in his best linen handkerchief that Jean had pressed and folded for him the night before. Cautiously he moved down the slippery pathway and placed the dying bird where its’ flock could reach in safety between the protruding roots of the oak tree they would commandeer for their final salute to a dying friend. Realising that the birds wanted privacy to nurse or as it was now, bury their dead, he moved slowly so not to unsettle them further. There seemed a perfect silence before he tripped over a large rock that had been camouflaged by long grasses that hung across part of the pathway.
Resting himself on the rock he didn’t dare look back at the ceremony taking place for fear of intruding on the privacy of the flock; he waited until they flew past and only then looked back and clearly saw the white shroud still lying between the protruding roots of the tree. He knew he had been privileged to have been a central figure in this unexpected drama; perhaps Karma would repay him in kind, he wished.
In the distance he could hear the bells of St Francis’s Church peel out the Angelus; 12 o’clock mid-day; he checked his watch. As sure as day follows night those bells rang out daily at 9am, 12 noon, 6pm and then 9pm from as long as William could remember. The sound of the bells had become a part of his life; he knew for certain that at this exact moment the bells would be ringing out in St Mark’s Square in Venice also. The bells of St Francis used to ring out at 12 midnight also until people complained that they woke up their children and were a nuisance at that hour of night. William was glad to hear them now he was glad that they distracted his thoughts. They were a reminder to him that life goes on regardless of what is happening to an individual.
He found comfort here watching the river flow effortlessly and continuously, though not with the same volume as the rivers in Venice but still a flowing river is a flowing river; his thoughts shifted back to the bells and he wondered if in the catholic primary schools if the pupils were still made to stand and say the Angelus. He got up for a brief second and shouted aloud: ‘The Angel of the Lord declared onto Mary and she conceived of the Holy Ghost’. Yes, he still remembered the words and kept to the Holy Ghost instead of the revised Holy Spirit; William didn’t like the new word Spirit he’d thought it scarier than the Ghost word. Still just a boyish way of thinking, perhaps.
Ghost stories were a big part in his growing up, in fact he’d convinced the other members of the Ghost Riders, a secret gang that pre-dated Ghost Busters, that he had seen the ghost of Jimmy Jones the notorious grave digger who was suspected of being a grave robber with his, just as notorious grave digger mate, Tommy Toeless; no one really knew his proper name but they called him Toeless because he never had a toe in his shoes.
Now back to what had brought William here today. He didn’t want to die, not now, not because he was afraid of death but because he wanted to live and be happy. He had his yearly holiday in Venice to look forward to. He believed he could be happy. Happiness had eluded him throughout his married life. He did love Jean, but Jean didn’t love him and they both knew it though never spoke about it. It was a curious time when they met. Jean was going out with Michael Morris, he was a rouge and everyone except Jean knew it. William was in love with Jean since their first kiss at 15 years old, in the back entry of the Lilliput laundry. It was a blind sort of date, her friend Betty fancied Michael and it was she who arranged the date, though it had backfired because Michael fancied Jean. They became an item. The most talked about couple in the laundry’s drying department. William was broken hearted and dreamt day and night about Jean; he had this longing for her that never left him, even to this day he still felt the same about her.
Coincidence is a curious thing. Is there such a thing as coincidence or is it fate? William still didn’t know which it was that day, one Tuesday in June, all those years ago when he bumped into Jean as she was leaving her doctors surgery. It was like their two separate worlds collided and they spent the rest of their lives, until now, putting things back into their proper place. Jean had been crying as she fell into Williams arms; ‘I’m pregnant what am I going to do’ she sobbed into his shoulder. He brought her a few doors down the street into his grandmother’s house. Inside it was dark and smelt of snuff. Granny Wilson was lying down for her afternoon nap and no one ever called except William, so they had both time and privacy to talk.
Jean poured out everything telling William she really loved Michael and was afraid of what he might think of her for getting pregnant after only half doing it the once. Looking back to then, 1952 things for girls were different; even though Jean was pregnant with Michael’s baby, Michael would be seen as the ‘good guy’ getting trapped, and Jean would be seen as ‘the Slut’ who trapped him. Jean’s only worry was how Michael would take the news. He would have to stand by her. A shot gun wedding. Family disgraced. But, no, there was no disgrace for Michael, he joined the British Army to distance himself from Jean. His cold words hurt. “How do you know it’s mine” sounded more like an accusation than a question. But William knew Jean was telling the truth and jumped at the opportunity to get Jean for himself, he loved her so much he was willing to take on another man’s child and disgrace his own family by the pretence that he was the father.
Finally Jean agreed to marry William. They married without any of their families present in a register office and a binman who was emptying the bins outside the building agreed to do best man. William believed from the start that Jean would grow to love him, but after the miscarriage two weeks later things between them went downhill for a long long time. Maybe if they’d had a child of their own it might have made a difference; but that never happened.
Life at times was like a bad dream. William never expected his days to get any better after the alarm woke him in his single bed each morning. Books and his dreams kept him from doing harm to himself over for years. Good holidays abroad seemed to be his only reward for the lack of love he had endured all those years. He particularly enjoyed Venice, where he found a lonely widow in need of companionship and sex, wonderful life saving sex!
This liaison came about in a most unexpected way and this is how it began: Jean loved Milan and its many Churches and art houses and museums, she never tired of sitting in the Milan Cathedral with the sweat dripping from her forehead thinking about her love for Michael Morris and how she kept it alive all these years by just thinking about him. She paid into the Cathedral daily and joined the long queues to get up on the roof and view the magnificent city from above while William just sat around the fountain in the Cathedral square feeding the birds and observing the crowds or venturing across to the mall to buy ice cream.
William was so bored and restless during these holidays until finally they both came to an unspoken understanding while in Milan. Agreeing to go their separate ways for two weeks of every year. They also agreed that Milan was their base of choice and they would arrive and leave Milan together. It worked well, and Jean knew exactly what it meant; William needed sex and Jean needed only her dreams.
And so, William took the bus from Milan to Venice for the first time and on the small boat going across the waterway into Venice he was surprised to be chatted up by a woman carrying a small bunch of red roses and every so often, thoughtfully, she would throw a single red rose into the water. As the boat was about to enter the port, she held her empty hands out over the edge of the boat with closed eyes as though in prayer. William could feel a sense of being drawn into the actions of this mysterious woman. She wore a purple scarf around her long black curly hair that would soon fall on his naked body; though he was oblivious to how this would come about so quickly after their meeting.
She was from a rural village in northern Italy somewhere between the Dolomites. She made this pilgrimage on this date every year in honour of her dead husband, Valentino. They had honeymooned here in Venice in a small hotel and this was her way of remembering him.
It didn’t take long for William to decide to stay at the same hotel as Mariea and it didn’t take long either for Mariea to seduce him. Mariea sat down the rules for their affair. No names except first names although William had heard the receptionist refer to Mariea as Mrs Lamberti. They shared the next twelve days of passion in bed and in the shower together before dining out. They’d wander around the tiny cobbled streets and always ending the night in St Mark’s Square. Twelve days for fifteen years had been Williams heaven. In all this time, 12×15=180 days 4320 hours; 4320 wonderful hours that saved his life from inner boredom and freed his emotions from bondage.
Now, he felt that it was all a dream, it had come to nothing. It was over. No more Venice. No more St Mark’s Square. No good-byes. He thought about how he ensured the room, the small and dark room with the one window facing a white brick wall that he used only to set his suitcase in. He would phone the hotel at Easter time and book room number 8 for those twelve nights and he would enquire if room number 3 was booked by Mrs Lamberti and it always was. She had never let him down. So how also would he let her know that he would not be back to share her with her dead husband? They had no contact outside of Venice, no address no telephone numbers.
He had a sudden flash of inspiration and he knew than how he would break the news to Mariea. He would book the room when he reached home, and order and pay for 7 red roses to be place on the pillow in room number 3 for the date of Mairea’s arrival. He nodded to himself satisfied that this was a good plan; he had come to know Mariea in the fullness of her beauty and as her hair turned grey and her beautiful soft skin turned rough and slightly wrinkled he knew he had loved the changing seasons of her body and her mind. He still felt a fascination for the mystery of her. And now it was over.
A light shower of rain sprinkled down prompting William to put up his hood. And the thought crossed his mind that Mariea had never known him wigged. Maybe she would laugh if she were to find out now that he was so proud in his real life; he knew she would not have thought that pride was one of his weaknesses, she only knew the William who surrendered to her every desire in room number three. In their relationship they both lied and knew that the other wasn’t expected to be truthful. That was the beauty of it all and strange as it would seem to anyone but them, it was pure magic; in a way they both became actors for those twelve days each year, but sometimes it felt like this was the real William!
Suddenly from behind dark clouds that had formed overhead there came a peel of thunder and as a sheet of lightning struck the oak tree out ran a fox chasing a red squirrel; was it possible that this was the same squirrel from earlier, it out ran the fox until it tried to cross the stream where it’s foot was caught on a piece of wire. As the fox pounced on top of the squirrel William instinctively leapt into the stream to rescue the squirrel or at least frighten the fox into letting go but as he entered the stream his foot caught on the same wire that entangled the squirrel and forced William to fall face down banging his head as he fell. His motionless body lay on top of the fox and its victim. The fox escaped at the exact moment as William’s heart-beat stopped and it ran across to the other side of the stream leaving both dead bodies heads down in the shallow stream.
The six o’ clock Chapel bells peeled out into the darkness and there was no one there to stand up and say the Angelus. The darkness would have been complete if it were not for a pair of shinning brown eyes standing guard on top of the dead body of William Jones in that lonely stream. The fox had returned as though it had a sense of recognition for another living being in trouble; it stayed with Williams body until he was discovered the following morning at 6.am by a dog walker just as the Chapel bells were ringing out and local people were about to begin a new day. The Chapel bell were also ringing in Venice.