FIRST CHAPTER FOR: Irregular Heartbeats.
It will be one year ago tomorrow that I first slept with Martin. I remember it was the day of the school Christmas panto matinée, and I'd called my sister in Suffolk to tell her I'd finally taken the plunge. “So how was it?” she'd wanted to know, eager to hear despite being about to go out carol singing with my fourteen year old nephew Danny. So I told her.
It was the beginning of the school summer holidays of 2009 when we first met. I was unofficially covering for a week at the accommodation agency run by my sister-in-law. That's the sister of my late husband Paul, whom I lost almost three years ago. Did you know prostate cancer kills more men every year than breast cancer does women? It's a fact. Anyway this personable, smiling young man who explained he'd just taken up employment at the engineering works locally came in looking for a flat to rent. Emily, my grown up daughter, happened to be there at the time too. She was also helping out prior to flying out to the Cote d' Azure. I fixed him up with some possibilities, then at the end of the week he came back and asked me if I'd care to go for a drink with him.
What did I think? Well, initially that he'd had some thoughts on Emily in mind. Even if I say so myself us females of the family do make for a visually appealing set, and my Emily is certainly no exception! He declared himself at once though. Told me of how as a teenager he used to secretly fancy his mother's friends. And about his two previous relationships with much older women. I remember smiling indulgently, and asking him if he realised I was the 45 year old widowed head of a nine hundred pupil high school, as well as a regional representative of the Association of Head Teachers? “I just know this is meant to be,” he told me with all the conviction of twenty-four years. Or at least, that was the way I chose to interpret it at the time. “You understand about finding the absolutely right person you know you've been searching for? Well, I know absolutely that that is what I've done in meeting you.”
Even so, it still took him almost five months of steady effort to win me over.
I suppose your first concern is perception. How will your family, your child, colleagues, friends react? Need they know? My little sister knew because I'd been giving her a running commentary practically. For the whole five months since August. “How does he kiss, Rosemary? Haven't you gone to bed with him yet?” It was like being in our twenties again! And when eventually I did go to bed with him, that very first time exactly one year ago tomorrow, it was incredible! How more eloquently do I need put it? Suddenly this new happening zooms into the fast lane of your life and you're left gasping from the shock of it! I do believe Baby Sis was quite envious.
But of course, it doesn't stop there. My prime teaching subject is English, although I scarcely get the minutes in a day to stand before a class now. I love all English poetry, but Shelly and Keats in particular. I also love Italy, partly because of its connections with certain nineteenth century poets, but also because Paul had friends in the expatriate community there. And as for their cuisine, certo! Martin of course knew little about either, but was very willing to learn. So I became what I like to be best, a teacher once more. On the other hand, what he didn't know about practicle matters wasn't worth the knowing, and my large Art Deco property has become quite a burden ever since I've been alone. As someone who'd have struggled to change a fuse or a tap washer, I learned too. The excitement of a new relationship generates its own momentum in all manner of directions, don't you agree?
For this year's Easter break I already had a trip arranged to northern Italy for Emily and myself. At the very last minute she wanted to take along a university pal, which caused no small amount of complication. I debated whether to ask Martin to join us as well with the idea in mind that he and Emily might get to know one another a little better but in the end decided against it. She's been fine about it anyway. “Since he obviously makes you happy mum, he's okay by me.” And I've privately reassured her concerning her inheritance. I think that may have helped a touch! I sent him a postcard every day we were away though. Six altogether. Four from Florence, and one each from Pisa and Lucca. 'Buongiorno, com stai? ... Ti amo, solo un bacio, Ciao!' Later I discovered he'd mounted the cards in a double glassed frame and hung it in his flat, to be turned around for either pictures or words to show.
We did grab a few days together just before the start of summer term in the Lake District. Wordsworth is not one of my top favorite poets, although I quite like the works of his lesser known Lakeland contemporary Robert Southey. We stayed in a guest house in Keswick, and I suppose I treated it as something of an experiment. I booked in as Mr and Mrs Hughes since it was my treat, and after some debating with myself decided to keep my wedding ring on. One night we couldn't sleep so we slipped out around two and strolled all around the deserted town, and down to the shore of Derwent Water. It was cold, but the sky was clear, and looking up you could see the whole of the universe, or so it seemed, watching. We must have stayed out nearly an hour. “This is the way life ought to be,” Martin said then. When we got back we purloined a toaster and some bread from the owners' kitchen - they were fine when we explained next morning - and warmed ourselves up with tea and toast up in our room!
"So young man, what did you feel that August afternoon when you came into my sister-in-law's letting agency?”
“Amazement! Joy! Mild panic! I'd closed the door behind me, then turned to see this incredibly attractive woman in a black roll-neck jumper behind the desk. She had very dark brown eyes, and dark brown hair pushed back behind her ears that swung outwards where it met her shoulders. Without needing to learn a single further fact about you I knew absolutely that I'd found the perfect person I was seeking for.”
And me? “I looked up to see a slim, smiling young man with very blue eyes. They still seem that way to me.”
Later on I gave him a snap shot of myself taken in 1984 when I was was twenty, just two years before I married Paul. I had much longer hair then, and a white rather than black roll neck jumper beneath an unbuttoned '80's style jacket. “Thank you,” he said, placing it by his bedside.
We'd made proper plans for the August holidays, until Fate in a manner of speaking stepped in. Venice is perhaps my most favorite of all places. I'd last gone there with my husband Paul in 2004, three months before his diagnosis was confirmed. Not that any of us knew it, but as it turned out he had just twenty months left to live. I thought my returning with Martin would perhaps make for a fitting valediction. And then just two days before we were due to fly out I had a call from my sister telling me her husband had disappeared with someone from work. It's happened before. I've long been of the view that she'd be better off without him, but had never before been so presumptive as to tell her so. This was on the Friday. Could I go down to take care of my nephew Danny whilst she sorted things out? Martin was totally brilliant about it. To add to the complication I'd just sent my car in for servicing, expecting to be away for the fortnight. He drove me down to Suffolk in his old van that same evening, making no complaints whatever about the loss of his limited leave time, and told me he'd come and fetch me as soon as I was ready. I handed him my house keys and told him to make himself as comfortable as he wanted as my guest. I think it was the least I could do.
So instead of the Grand Canal, the Ponte di Rialto, the Piazza San Marco and fleeting shades of Byron and his Venetian amores, it became four days of entertaining a fourteen year old nephew, bus rides to go swimming, cleaning out rabbit hutches - he breeds English Midi Lops for showing - and playing the inevitable plethora of computer games.
Baby Sis returned home late on the Tuesday with suitably chastened husband in tow. I called Martin, and his van drew up on their driveway around breakfast time following day. I went out to meet him. The youthfulness of his appearance still used to catch me unawares sometimes. A hug, five seconds at most, tiptoe, cheek to cheek. “Oh my god! Auntie Rosemary's having a love affair!” When we got back I discovered he'd occupied himself for the first three days we were meant to be away doing numerous much needed jobs around my house and garden. He'd even prepared a meal in the oven too, set on the timer, although we didn't get to eat it until some while later. I tell you, if young Danny's rabbits could have witnessed Auntie Rosemary's 'love affair' that afternoon they'd have seen themselves put to shame! I suppose too that if I had to pick out a single point in the past year when any lingering notions of it being just a fun thing were dispelled, it would have to be that brief embrace on Baby Sis' driveway. And I'm happy to say too that we did manage to get another flight and enjoy the ten remaining days of our holiday.
“It's been not quite a year so far. In just fourteen more I'll be eligible for a bus pass. Even if the mere sight of my face, the sound of my voice, makes your heart race now as you swear it does, will it still then? For now long, truly, will I continue to be your absolute ideal?”
“It is said, is it not, that with the passage of time desire and love unite into a single greater entity. I have never lied to you, Rosemary. As time will, with certainty, confirm.”
And now here we are back at the close of Christmas term once again, one year bar a day on. The time of problems with the school heating system, pupil reports, coughs, colds and sneezes - pupils and staff alike - and the annual school Christmas pantomime. Two out of three performances down with the final one to go this evening. Governors, parents, local press will all be present, even the town Mayor I'm advised. At least I can approach it with a more carefree attitude this year. 2005, my last Christmas with Paul, it was very different though I never allowed it to show. Near the finale of yesterday afternoon's matinée performance the rear axle of Cinderella's coach came adrift. It had been built by a group of Year Ten's as part of their Design Technology coursework, and it would appear their welding skills are not entirely up to scratch yet! I needn't have worried though. Martin collected the offending item from the school workshop yesterday evening, and had it fully repaired and tested by this morning. Not that he'd needed to be asked, either. “Contributing as and where appropriate.” It's hard to reconcile at times that he's still only twenty-five! After a year together I think we should give serious consideration to putting ourselves on a more public basis. Come out, so to speak, beyond the immediate circle of family and close friends. “We're a coming together of individuals, not birth certificates!”
How well would such a union, perfectly straightforward as it is aside from the age abnormality, go down with staff, parents, governors? Probably okay after initial surprise.
“It's obvious he's madly in love you, Mum. Just as it's equally obvious how crazy you are about him. Why should it matter if your heart has beat a few million times more than his has?”
“Second chances like this don't come along every day, Big Sis. Not even for someone with your looks and intellect. Now this one has it must surely be worth the taking?”
Tentatively last month Martin brought up the topic of our having a child together. We still could maybe, though obviously we'd have to be very quick! How much life's options can change over the course of a single year, eh? “I think I'd make a really great house father,” he told me in all evident seriousness.
He's taking me for a celebratory dinner straight after the pantomime this evening. Our first year as a couple. Being this near to Christmas it seems he'd had to make the booking back in September. And I have more than an inkling he's going to propose! A bouquet of red roses brought to the table probably, then down on one knee, boxed ring in hand! And when I say 'yes' everyone in the place will pause from their eating, and start applauding. And then they will look again in that becomingly familiar double-take kind of way. Would you look at that! True love really doesn't recognize age! "Doubly good luck to you both!"
Should I retain my present name for professional usage? Would Martin really not mind marriage to a professional high earner? Would he really be content to stay at home should a pregnancy just possibly occur? Will he really still love me, still fancy me like crazy, in ten years hence? He says yes to all!
And yet ...
The uncertainty about what I am doing refuses to go away. A year on and it's as powerful as ever it's been. It is my husband, you see. Paul. Right from the start he's been there. It is not that I hold any particular views concerning life after death. I lead prayers in school assembly of course, but my personal religious views are open minded bordering on atheist. And I certainly don't mean 'there' in the supernatural sense, either. Paul was my husband, best friend, partner for twenty-one years. He is the father of my child. We met at university when the same age Emily is now. We had a love, an understanding, a connection, that went very deep. As well as a shared love of our teaching work, of travel, literature, learning. But for all that, and I must be brutally honest with my private self when I admit this, the carnal aspect of our lives was at best pedestrian. There was never any reason as to why it should have been so, and it was never mentioned by either of us. But it was always so. We both, within our private selves, recognised it. With Martin of course it could not be more different. The chemistry, the frisson between us is electrifying! Sometimes in the night (or day) I find myself watching him sleeping beside me. After being made love to as perfectly and as comprehensively as any person could ever be, I want only to hold him tight tight to myself while pleasurably contemplating the next time. My love filled heart surges with happy emotionl! But next, and it's always next it seems, its uplifted beats begin to stutter and falter ...
My loving, loyal, faithful husband who faced his last months, weeks, days, hours, minutes even with heroic fortitude, dignity, calm? How would it make him feel if he were to know, if he could in some way possibly understand from wherever or whatever place he may be, that after less than four years without him I am experiencing ecstasies he could never give me, joys he and I were never able to share? And with another man - and a good man too - who is barely half my age? It is during the euphoria that follows the ecstasy that my thoughts turn involuntarily, yet inevitably it seems, in that direction.
My marriage vows were clear: 'Till death do us part'. But what if? Will Paul now give me away rejoicingly to my wonderful young lover? Or could he more likely be left contemplating eternity in profound sadness of the fact? I should truly not want that. Cannot then love not take on differing forms? And can't we, as people, not allow for this? He left me no clue before he died. We talked only of ourselves, and of Emily, until the end. The uncertainty of not knowing weighs so heavily.
Was it not the eighteenth century Irish poetess Frances Greville who wrote:
'Bliss goes but to a certain bound,
Beyond is agony.'
I have to decide what to do. If Martin and I are to have a long term future together then I need to ensure that Paul understands there will always be a place in my thoughts for him too, and for the life we shared together. Always. His memory, those memories, are never to be usurped. Nor ever devalued. But how? I can do little more than trust to uncertain hope.
I'm about to move from a year of irregular heartbeats into one which I hope and pray will prove to be more certain. Will you wish me luck?
Copyright Terence Hugh Hazelton, 2008
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