A Free Short Story for You
Tim usually took his time waking up; a gentle easing into consciousness with a few stretches and a yawn or two, then a throwing back of the duvet, and a resigned effort to sit up and assemble his thoughts into some sort of order. Today, though, was different. As he turned over, his hand, as always, reached out for her, but instead groped an empty pillow.
His eyes flew open in shock and his heart thudded. It was today. He sat up immediately, his breath catching in his throat as he saw the suit hanging on the wardrobe door. He never wore a suit, except for weddings and funerals, although Amanda always said he looked very handsome in a suit. It was for her that he’d bought this one, and it was for her that he would be wearing it today.
His eyes strayed to the dressing table, to the photograph of the two of them taken on their wedding day. She’d looked so beautiful. A cloud of blonde hair framing a heart-shaped face, and large, sparkling eyes smiling up at him as he stood, gangly and awkward by her side.
It had hardly been a fairy tale wedding, though. Cheap and cheerful was how his mother described it, but they hadn’t had much time to prepare. Shotgun wedding was his mother-in-law’s phrase, said with a purse of her lips and a disapproving sniff. How someone like her had produced someone as lovely as Amanda was beyond him.
Inside and out, Amanda was beautiful. He’d known that the first moment he saw her, all those years ago in Frosty’s Ice Cream Parlour on the seafront in Scarborough. It was the early summer of nineteen seventy-nine. He’d just cashed his giro and, ignoring his father’s demands that he go straight to the job centre, he’d headed to the beach with some of his mates. After a few hours hard work playing cricket on the beach, they’d strolled into Frosty’s, eager to cool down. And there she was. A young girl, so stunning that cooling down wasn’t an option.
When he’d ordered his third ice cream sundae — much to his friends’ disgust — she’d raised an eyebrow.
“Another one? Crikey.” She’d smiled at him and he hardly knew what to do, he felt so nervous. It was a new experience for him.
“Been keeping tabs on me, have you?” He’d grinned at her, determined to maintain his composure. You never let a girl know she mattered. Everyone knew that.
“No! I’ve just noticed your bill’s going up and up.” She replied a little too quickly, her face flushing, and he knew she was interested.
“Has anyone ever told you, you look just like Debbie Harry?”
She laughed. “Oh, yeah. All the time.”
“No, really.” He meant it. She was a stunner. How could she not know that? He began to sing the recent number one, Blondie’s Sunday Girl, to her, pointing at the posters advertising the ice cream sundaes and winking at her. She laughed again.
“It’s my favourite song, and now I know why,” he said. “I was waiting for you, my sundae girl.”
Her face turned pink again, but not as pink as his did when he heard his best mate’s voice behind him. “Are you for real? As if she’d fall for that!”
He’d had that chat-up line quoted at him by his friends for months afterwards.
The kettle seemed to take ages to boil. He dropped a teabag into a mug and stood looking out of the kitchen window, relieved to see that it wasn’t raining.
As he finally poured boiling water, his phone rang. He put the kettle down and fished in his pocket for his mobile, feeling a sharp pang that it wasn’t her name that flashed up on the screen, even though he’d known it wouldn’t be. Couldn’t possibly be. It was his son, Michael, asking how he was feeling.
“I’m fine. I’m just having a cup of tea.”
“Did you get much sleep?”
“Of course.” The bed felt empty without her, and he was too nervous about today to settle. His son’s tone of voice told him he didn’t believe him anyway.
“You mustn’t worry, Dad. Look, Holly’s on her way round. She’s going to make you some breakfast.”
Tim felt indignant. He didn’t need his daughter-in-law’s help, or anyone else’s for that matter. “No need. I can look after myself, you know.”
“Have you eaten?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Thought not. She’ll be there in ten minutes.”
Tim ended the call. He could make his own breakfast for goodness’ sake. Then he wondered how many times he’d actually cooked over the last thirty odd years. He could have, but Amanda had always done it for him. He should have made more effort from the start.
“It’s only temporary, you know.”
“What is?” He’d been startled for a moment, thinking she meant their relationship. Relationship. It sounded so grown up. They were only sixteen, but this felt like a forever kind of thing to him. Three months they’d been together, and already he couldn’t imagine life without her.
“The job,” she said, removing her sunglasses and staring at him, suddenly serious. “It’s September now. Frosty’s was just a summer thing.” She sat up, hugging her knees and wriggling her toes in the sand. “I can do better. I will do better.”
He hadn’t really thought about it. She had a job, which was more than he had. He didn’t think much beyond the day. It was still warm, the sun was shining. He didn’t want to think about the summer ending. It had been the most perfect summer of his life.
“I wanted to stay on at school,” she said suddenly.
“Really? Why?” He’d never liked school. He’d messed around for most of the last year, and hadn’t even bothered to turn up some days.
“Why do you think? A levels.” She bit her lip. “I got my O level results last month.”
“You never said!” He’d thought they shared everything. “How did you do?”
“Four As and two Bs.” She shrugged. “Not bad.”
“Not bad!” He gaped at her. “You’re a genius.”
She smiled. “Hardly. Fat lot of good it will do me, anyway.”
‘But why? With those grades you could do anything.’
“I needed A levels. I wanted to go to university, do a history degree, but…”
“But what?” How hadn’t he known all this? They’d talked about favourite groups, films, foods. He knew her dad was a joiner and her mum was a cleaner. They lived in a three-bedroomed semi which they’d bought from the council.
She knew his dad hadn’t worked for a couple of years, since being laid off from the biscuit factory, and his mum worked at the fish shop at the end of his street. He had two younger brothers. She had an older sister who worked in a trendy clothes shop in town. It was all he’d needed to know. Now he realised there was much more to her than he’d supposed. He felt uneasy.
“So you’re going to university?” He tried to hide his anxiety. If she went away, mixed with “that sort” of people, would he still be enough for her?
“No, I told you. I needed A levels, and I had to leave school.”
“Why?” He didn’t understand. If she’d wanted to take A levels, why hadn’t she?
She sighed and lay back on the sand. Fixing her sunglasses in place, she stared up at the clear blue sky above them. After a moment she spoke, her voice thick with the emotion she was obviously trying to suppress. “University’s not for people like us.”
“Mum and Dad. They said I needed to be realistic. Leave school, get a job. They’re right, I suppose.”
“Oh.” He didn’t know what to say. His indignation on her behalf battled with his relief that she wouldn’t be leaving.
She was silent for a moment, then she turned to him, lifting her sunglasses to peer at him. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Well, what are your plans? What do you want to do with your life?”
He shrugged. “Haven’t thought about it.”
“How can you not have thought about it? You must have some idea what you want to do for a living. You can’t just want to stay on the dole.”
“Do you know how hard it is to get work? My dad hasn’t found a job, and he’s got loads of experience. What chance have I got?”
“So you’re just going to give up?”
He heard the disappointment in her voice and felt sick with fear, suddenly certain that she was far too good for him. He couldn’t lose her.
“No,” he heard himself say. “I’m not going to give up. I’m going to get myself a trade. One day I’ll have my own business, you wait and see.”
She’d smiled at him, and he’d felt a warm fizzing of happiness inside him. He would do whatever it took to make her happy. He’d show her. One day he’d make her proud of him.
Holly let herself in with her key. “You okay?” she said, smiling softly at him.
“Why do people keep asking me that?” he grumbled. “You didn’t have to come round. I can look after myself.”
“If you say so. I’ll cook your breakfast then you can get a shower. Bet you haven’t eaten properly all week.”
“Of course I have,” he said. She raised an eyebrow, and he wondered why they considered him so useless around the house. Probably because he’d done so little while the children were growing up, though he was perfectly capable.
He felt ashamed as he remembered how, bit by bit, it had become Amanda’s job. Her role in life, as he trained to be a bricklayer, going to college one day a week, sitting for exams that he’d never thought he’d pass, qualifying and starting work at one of the local building firms. She’d worked in the offices of a solicitor, spending her days in a dusty old room, sitting at a desk with a view out of the window over a back yard and a brick wall, tapping away on an electric typewriter. Then she’d come home to start the housework while he’d sat in front of the television and complained that he was exhausted.
As he finished his breakfast, he thought that she’d hardly got a bargain when she’d married him. He’d often wondered, if they hadn’t found out that Michael was on the way, would she have gone through with it? That had caused ructions in the family, for sure. His own parents had been anxious that they wouldn’t be able to manage financially, but had supported them. Her parents, though, had been furious, and refused to come to the wedding. Their loss.
Amanda had quite taken his breath away, and he’d made a vow to himself, as he watched her floating up the aisle towards him on the arm of her uncle, that she wouldn’t ever have to worry about finances. Shame he hadn’t made a vow to let her have a life of her own. He may as well have chained her to the kitchen sink. If only he’d realised sooner how much she’d yearned to better herself. So many wasted years.
“I’ve brought tissues,” Holly reassured him, taking them out of her handbag to show him. “I’ll be right beside you, just in case.”
“I won’t need them,” he said. “I won’t cry.”
“There’s nothing wrong with crying,” she said, glancing at her phone. “The kids are ready, thank goodness. I thought Daisy would never eat her breakfast.”
“Do you think we’re doing the right thing, letting the kids come? Daisy’s not even three. Will it be too much?”
“We agreed the whole family should be there, children and all. Stop worrying.”
“I just want today to be perfect,” he murmured. “After everything Amanda sacrificed, it’s the least we can do for her.”
She squeezed his arm. “It will be.”
He was ready in fifteen minutes, the finishing touch a splash of Amanda’s favourite aftershave.
His phone was ringing again.
He smiled at the sound of his daughter’s voice. “Vicky. Where are you?”
“On our way to St Martin’s right now. We should be there in the next half hour. How are you feeling?”
He sighed. “I’m fine. Absolutely fine.”
“Hmm, I believe you. I’ve brought plenty of tissues.”
“I won’t cry.”
“Yes you will, Dad. And it’s okay to cry. I’ll be a blubbering mess.”
“I won’t. I’ll keep my dignity. I’ll do your mother proud.”
“You’ve always done her proud, Dad,” she said gently. “Stop punishing yourself.”
“I could have done more. If only…”
“Dad, there’s no point in regrets. I’ll see you at St Martin’s. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
He put the phone down and took a deep breath. It was time to put on the suit.
As he headed downstairs, he heard the sound of voices. Michael had arrived, with Daisy and her four-year-old brother Henry in tow. Vicky and her husband were on their way from York. There was only one person missing.
“Let me straighten your tie,” said Holly.
“All set?” asked Michael, looking as uncomfortable as Tim felt in a smart navy suit.
“In the car already. They’re beautiful. All her favourites. Roses, peonies and alstromeria, just as you asked.”
Shades of pink. He remembered taking a bouquet of those blooms to the hospital, holding Michael’s hand as he led him into the ward to meet his new baby sister. His heart had been full to bursting. A new daughter and a new career. He’d started his own company, secured a start-up loan, and was heading out that afternoon to pick up a new van. This was just the beginning, he’d assured Amanda.
“Will we manage?” she’d asked, anxiously. “I can’t go back to work for a while.”
“Got jobs coming out of our ears,” he’d replied confidently. “We’re going places, sweetheart. This is the first day of the rest of our lives.”
It hadn’t been as easy as he’d expected, but they’d managed. And when Vicky started nursery, Amanda had gone back to work. She’d managed to get a job in the office of the local primary school. She could be at home for the children. It was the perfect job, as far as Tim had been concerned, and she’d never complained, though she’d never talked much about her work either. Not like him. He loved his job, and he loved his life. He was the luckiest man alive.
“We’ve checked with The Red Lion,” Holly was saying.
Tim blinked. “Sorry, what?”
“The buffet’s all laid out. They’re expecting us, straight after the service.”
“Don’t be nervous, Dad.” Michael was watching him sympathetically through the rear view mirror. “It will all go perfectly. Stop worrying.”
The forecourt of St Martin’s was packed. Vicky and her husband were waiting at the gates, almost lost in a sea of black. Tim felt a lump in his throat and the ominous pricking of tears.
Vicky hugged him, her eyes red-rimmed. “What did I tell you? I’m crying already.”
His stomach was churning. What if it all went wrong, today of all days?
Then he saw a cloud of blonde hair and his heart soared.
She was by his side, grinning up at him, looking as beautiful as always in her black gown. “Told you I’d make it.”
“I thought she’d ruin it. Spoil it for you the way she always does. Fancy forgetting to take your mobile. I’ve been frantic in case you couldn’t leave her and couldn’t let me know.”
She laughed. “She tried, believe me, but I was having none of it. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too. Time to go inside.”
As the ceremony began, he sat impatiently, his eyes fixed on the front of the church, waiting for her turn. When he heard Amanda’s name, he stood, along with his family, watching with overwhelming pride as she accepted her degree from the principal. First class honours in history. Six years it had taken her, but she’d done it. He’d been amazed to see how well she’d coped, juggling her studies with her job and being a loving grandmother to Daisy and Henry.
“If only I’d supported you earlier,” he’d told her so many times over the last few years, watching in awe as her grades improved with each assignment. “Think of the life you could have had.”
“I’ve had the life I wanted,” she’d replied firmly. “A wonderful marriage, beautiful children, and two grandchildren. This is the icing on the cake. I always wondered, you see. If I could, I mean. Now I know I can. And it’s not too late. It’s a different world today. There are opportunities for people of all ages. Who knows where this will take me.”
She shook the principal’s hand and turned back to her seat. He was so glad to have her back. Trust her mother to conveniently become ill just days before graduation. Amanda had no doubt been run ragged taking care of her and it had ensured that they’d spent the build-up to this special day apart. He’d been certain her mother would find a way to make sure Amanda missed the ceremony, but she’d failed. He needn’t have been so nervous, after all.
As his wife’s gaze found his, she smiled at him, her face alight with love, and he realised his own face was wet with tears.
‘Tissue?’ said Vicky, with a mischievous grin.
He took it and dabbed at his eyes. They’d been quite right, but there was nothing wrong with crying, after all. Who could blame him? His teenage sweetheart was now a fifty-three-year-old grandmother — but even after over thirty years of marriage, no one could hold a candle to his Sundae Girl.
First published in 2016 by DC Thomson
© 2016 Sharon Booth