Tom was walking into the living room, taking an old man's care with the tea-tray, when he heard Jenny speak. He stopped so suddenly that the plate of biscuits and the two cups of tea he was carrying slid forward and bumped against the rail of the tray. A little tea splashed out into the saucers, and he found himself staring at the mess for a moment before lifting his head and looking across the room at his wife.
Jenny was sitting in the two-seater just as she’d been when he left her, but he saw the difference in her eyes straight away. They were alive again, alight with confused intelligence, and she was looking straight at him, present in a way she hadn't been in months. It had happened again. While he'd been in the kitchen making tea, it had happened again.
He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. He saw Jenny smooth her skirt, noticed a blue glint on the floor near her left foot. One of her earrings. He cleared his throat and tried again.
Her eyes flashed and focused, and she glanced at the tray.
'You spilled the tea, Tom.'
He looked down once more, looked up, felt his lips tugging into some kind of smile.
'So I did, lass. So I did. And you dropped one of your danglers.'
He crossed the room, put the rattling tea-tray down on the coffee-table, and bent to pick up her earring. His hip cracked loudly as he straightened, and again when he sat down beside her, but he barely noticed. Take it calm, he told himself. Take it calm and slow and steady.
Jenny plucked the earring off his palm.
'It came off,' she said, resting her other hand on his wrist. He'd almost forgotten how lovely her voice was, how soft her touch. All those months.
'Did it now? Well we can't have that, can we? Took me ages this morning to get you looking as good as this, and there’s you spoiling the effect. Let's pop her back on, eh?' He looped Jenny's hair behind her ear and clipped the earring back in place. She smiled at him and seemed about to speak, then her brow creased and her smile faltered. He saw her blank and drift away again, saw her hand rise into the air and remain, hovering uncertainly. A bubble of spittle bloomed on her lower lip. Tom pulled a clean tissue out of his pocket and wiped it off.
'Jenny?' he said quietly. 'Jenny, love, can you hear me?’
A rash of sweat beaded his temples as he waited for her to answer. He felt blood throbbing in his neck. Closing his own eyes, he prayed for the fragile light to come back into hers.
He should have realised this morning, when he was getting her dressed. It had been obvious then that she was better than usual, with-it enough to point to a particular outfit from the twenty or so hanging in her wardrobe. He'd been pleased, partly because it was his favourite, the cream with the pale blue print, but mainly because she seemed to remember it was his favourite. And there had been less trouble than usual getting her inside it, too, just the one hitch, when she insisted on slipping her right foot into her left shoe, her left into her right. She couldn't walk like that, of course. She'd flopped down on the bed and Tom had been able to swap them over, no trouble at all.
He opened his eyes and glanced down at her feet, scared to look up, not wanting to meet that awful, empty blankness. Such pretty shoes, he thought. Lucky shoes. She'd been wearing them the last time it happened.
He jerked his head up. She was back, the light in her eyes as shaky and uncertain as a candle flame in a night breeze, but there nevertheless. She focused on him and her hand floated down to settle once more on his arm.
'The picture, Tom. I want their picture.'
'What picture, pet? What picture do you mean?'
She plucked at his shirt sleeve and shook it, like she sometimes used to in the old days when he was being particularly dense. 'You know! The picture of them dancing! Them dancing to Poor Jenny!'
He knew it, knew it instantly.
'It's upstairs, pet. In one of your albums.' He didn't think he should leave her. 'Do you want me to fetch it?'
'Yes. The picture.'
He rose reluctantly.
'You just stay where you are, now. I'll be right back.'
Her cases were packed, a neat, silent reproach waiting by the front door. He tried not to look at them, staring instead at the clock fixed to the wall at the foot of the stairs: 4.10 pm. David was due at five o'clock, so fifty minutes, give or take.
He'd left the living-room door open so he could still see Jenny. She'd twisted herself around on the two-seater and was looking at him, making impatient go-up movements with her hands. He smiled at her, then began the long climb to their bedroom, his hip clicking on every second step.
David would be on time, of course. He'd always been punctual, even as a lad. Never any need to fret about him missing the bus to school, or, when he was older, not turning up when he'd said he would to lend a hand in the garden, or to take them both out somewhere. That steady, practical nature of his had served him well. They’d both been proud of the way he'd managed to keep his business going, even during the recession. And David was right, of course. The Cedars was the only practical solution. Tom had argued against it loud and long, but David had been persistent.
'Dad, you're not well yourself, and Mum's going to get worse, not better. It's the best option, really. You can visit as often as you like. And no need to worry about the fees. I'll take care of all that.'
He'd held out. He’d held out for weeks. But then there was the night he’d woken to the sound of bells to find himself alone in bed. He’d never forget that frantic rush to the front door (his hip had screamed about it later on). The sight of his Jenny walking in the garden dressed only in Mr Dawson's overcoat, the bloody marks her feet had left on the hallway floor, the way her body had shivered in the cold - it had just about broken his heart. David was right. It was practical. It was the sensible thing to do. Even so, as Tom reached the top of the stairs and shuffled towards the bedroom, he found himself hoping that for once in his life his son would be late for an appointment.
The photograph albums - Jenny had filled dozens of them over the years - were stacked on a shelf beneath the window. They were all dated in the neat, careful handwriting she used to have. It didn't take Tom long to find the one he was after. He opened it and began to flip the pages. The picture Jenny wanted was about half-way through. He slipped it out of its plastic jacket and made his way back downstairs. It was four-fifteen.
Jenny watched him cross the room, an expression on her face that he couldn't read. He sat down beside her and showed her the photograph.
'This it, Jen?'
She nodded, took it off him and held it in her trembling fingers. When she looked up her eyes were wet with tears.
'Oh Tom! Look! They were so young! So young!'
'I know, love. I know.'
It had been a Christmas Eve party, he remembered. The Everly Brothers in the charts with a song called 'Poor Jenny'. Whenever it came on the radio, Jenny would be singing along, wanting to dance. Tom had danced to please her, feeling awkward and self-conscious.
He put his arm around her and they sat and looked at themselves, rocking and rolling amongst the frozen balloons and paper hats, grinning out at the long-forgotten photographer. Softly, her voice hardly above a whisper, Jenny began to sing.
'Well Jenny has a brother and he's hot on my tail,
Her father wants to ride me out of town on a rail,
I hope I'm still around when Jenny gets out of jail -
She lowered her head to his chest and Tom rocked her gently. When she next spoke it was a faint mumble into his shirt.
'Those things. Those cases by the door. Are they hers, Tom?'
His words came out cracked and unclear.
'Yes, love.’ He thought he felt her nod. ‘It's a grand place, y'know. She'll be having the time of her life before she knows it!'
'Will their David be coming?'
'Aye, love,' he said. 'In a bit.'
'Does she... do I... look nice for him?'
'Nice isn't the word, pet. Pretty as a picture.'
She lifted her head and smiled, and as he looked into her eyes, as he bent to kiss her, he saw the light flutter and fade. The candle flame guttered and went out. He kissed her anyway, hoping, but her lips were unresponsive. When he pulled away and looked into her face again, the deep, deep emptiness was back.
Nothing. He held her, rocking her gently.
'Poor Jenny!' he said. 'My poor, poor Jenny.'
* * *
The doorbell rang at five o'clock precisely. When Tom opened the door David was standing on the step. He scanned the hall for his mother's cases and he seemed a little frustrated when he didn't see any.
'Dad?' he said. 'What’s up? Isn't she ready?'
Tom looked at his son. There were signs of Jenny in him, reflected in the high, clear forehead, in the rich blue of his eyes. Tom shook his head.
'No, she isn’t,' he said. 'Neither of us is ready, to tell you the truth. We’ve had a bit of a rethink, your Mother and me. A change of heart, you might say.'
‘Tom? Tom, is that our David?’
Jenny’s voice floated through from the living room, stopping her son in mid-sentence. He stared at his father, and Tom grinned back at him.
'Tell you what, lad,’ he said, taking him by the arm, ‘why don’t you come inside and I’ll put the kettle on. Your mother's always chuffed to see you, whether she shows it or not. And then I reckon the three of us could do with a chat, don’t you?'
END (1,800 words)