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Authors: David Wiltshire

Beneath Us the Stars

BOOK: Beneath Us the Stars
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Beneath Us the Stars

DAVID WILTSHIRE

THE LAST ENEMY THAT SHALL BE DESTROYED IS DEATH

 

St Paul’s First
Epistle to the Corinthians
XV, 26

For Peggy Wiltshire

My thanks to June Elks for deciphering my handwriting with her usual good humour, and to Brian Howard for evolving the title over a bottle of wine.

David Wiltshire

The roar of the piston engine filled the small cabin as the plane flew straight and level, almost as fast as a fighter of an earlier age.

Far below, where columns of sunlight uninterrupted by the towering clouds touched its surface, the water sparkled like puddles of molten silver in a sea of lead.

Caught in the clear light, the glinting disc of the unseen propeller plunged into cloud, dulled, then flashed anew as it emerged into an abyss between the sun-kissed mountains of the sky.

Abruptly the engine throttled back, the roar in the cabin replaced by the shrieking slipstream – and the sound of Glenn Miller’s
Moonlight Serenade.

As the saxophones continued the haunting melody, the wind slowly subsided, became only a whisper. The
propeller
now clearly seen, flicked erratically as the plane lost flying speed, became unstable, then finally ceased to fly. The nose dropped, pointed towards the surface 10,000 feet below, began to fall.

Suddenly the motor picked up, the roar rising and rising
until the tortured, overloaded engine reached the pitch of a dive-bomber.

Banking away to the right the plane dwindled to a speck, eventually could no longer be distinguished, disappearing into the ever changing silver and slate-blue shadows on the surface of the cold water.

The North Sea.

The final resting place of so many.

He had lain awake for over an hour, the pain in his side leaving him in a cold sweat. He’d tried not to wake his wife but he’d eventually felt her stir.

‘Bill – are you awake?’

‘It’s OK, Mary – just going to the bathroom.’

Light flooded the room as she turned on her bedside lamp. ‘Is it the pain?’

He knew it was no good pretending, not with Mary.

‘Just a little.’

Bill hauled himself up on to his elbows. At eighty-five his once dark hair was now white and thinning, the intense blue eyes that had so captivated her in their twenties, paler, but still carrying in them something of the far distant look of the hunter in the sky he used to be. In those wild
dangerous
days of his youth the ability to see the tiniest of specks was often the difference between life and death.

He pulled back the rumpled cover and swung his legs to the floor.

‘You go back to sleep, sweetie – put the light out.’ There was still, after all the years in England, an American
inflection
in his drawl.

As he shuffled, angular frame bent and stiff, to the
en suite
, Mary reached for the switch. ‘Don’t stub your toe.’ In the dark when he returned, he climbed in and cuddled up to her, unaware of the tears in her eyes.

She had lived all her adult life frightened of mortality. Oh, she had strong views on the spiritual existence of mankind, but the awful truth was that here and now, the life of the man she loved was impermanent, fragile, that it could cease to exist without warning. When she’d first met him in those dark days of war, that could have happened any day, day in day out. But now, with the advancement of years she knew that their time was inevitably running out. Loving anyone left you vulnerable.

Next morning Bill picked two more slices of toast from the machine, added them to a pile on a plate, and took it over to the window table of the apartment.

The morning rush hour in the road outside was well under way.

‘There you go.’ He set the plate down as Mary swung her wheelchair up to the table. Her long white hair crowned a face that despite the ravages of time, still hinted at the beauty that had taken his breath away so many years ago.

They sat in silence, busying themselves with butter and marmalade and sipping coffee. Bill took two quick bites of his toast, then folded his paper back on itself and then again before setting it beside his plate. Occasionally he laid down the slice of toast, sipped his coffee, and resumed eating, all without taking his eyes from the newsprint.

Mary had her paper too, but this morning she kept
surreptitiously glancing at him.

At last she spoke. ‘Traffic looks heavy. Maybe we’d better go earlier.’

He glanced up. ‘Nice day, what say we walk?’

She frowned, ‘You’ll be too tired to push me all the way home.’

Snorting, he took the marmalade-pot and fished in it with his knife.

‘Nonsense. The doc’s not going to do anything today. Just give me the results, probably tell me another pleasure in life must be denied.’

Not believing him for one moment, she nevertheless nodded. ‘All right, but only if you promise we’ll have a taxi back if you’re tired.’

Bill raised his hand in a mock copy of someone taking an oath.

‘I promise so to do.’

He returned to his paper. He did not see the look of love and worry on her face. But he didn’t need to. After sixty years the two of them seemed to know each others’ mind as if it were their own.

They started out early, Bill pushing Mary in her chair, stopping in a lane to pick a few blackberries. He gave her half. She laughed at the staining on his tongue. ‘Mr Parsons is going to have a fit when he sees that.’

At last they reached an entrance, passing a sign reading
Welcome to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge
.

The waiting-area for the outpatients was packed. Several women manned a large reception desk, shifting through buff-coloured files and answering phones. Bill parked
Mary at the end of a row of chairs and, after checking in, sat alongside her, doing
The Times
crossword. It was Mary who did most of the solving. He was just triumphantly getting one for a change when they became conscious of a nurse standing over them.

‘Mr Anderson?’

Bill nodded.

‘Would you like to come through?’

He looked at Mary. ‘Here we go.’

She squeezed his forearm. ‘Good luck.’

She watched her husband follow the nurse, quite swiftly considering the limp from his war wound, and only a little bowed after all these years.

Quickly she returned to the crossword, changed what he had just proposed, tried to carry on as normal in spite of her desperate worry. After all her years at Bletchley Park, although not one of the cryptographers – she was in the department that analysed the different use of language regionally in Germany and Italy – she found the crossword very easy. She had completed it by the time Bill had finished redressing and was facing Mr Parsons, a tall man in a white coat that was not quite big enough for him, stethoscope dangling from his neck. The surgeon completed his notes, carefully replacing the cap on his fountain pen.

‘Please do sit down, Mr Anderson.’

Bill took the offered seat.

There was a moment’s silence as Parsons studied the pen, held between his two hands, obviously trying to find the right words.

Bill’s eyes narrowed. ‘Give it to me straight – please.’

The surgeon looked up. There was no avoiding the command – even though it had been spoken politely, quietly. Maybe it was the accent.

‘You have a tumour in the colon.’

The face before him didn’t seem to register any emotion. He knew from his notes somewhere that the man had had a distinguished war. Perhaps he’d grown accustomed to the idea of death. His own line of thought was interrupted by his patient.

‘Is it benign or malignant?’

Parsons chose his words carefully. ‘It is a malignant form, but with surgical intervention and some therapy your expectations for a further – say, five years, would not be unthinkable.’

At last the face changed, into an ironic smile.

‘For a man of my age another five years is a mixed
blessing
indeed.’

The consultant smiled back weakly, not sure how to take the remark.

‘You will have to have a colostomy of course. You do understand what I mean, Mr Anderson?’

Bill shook his head slowly and emphatically. ‘No.’

Mr Parsons mistook what he meant, and pulled a sheet of paper towards him, intent on sketching out in
diagrammatic
form what had to be done. ‘Well, we have to make a new opening for the gut, and a bag is—’

Bill stopped him.

‘I mean no – I won’t proceed.’

Perplexed, the surgeon scratched the corner of his
forehead.
‘I know it sounds awful, but it’s really something you can, with a little adaptation to your way of life—’

Bill half-raised a hand.

‘Look Mr Parsons, I appreciate you are trying to do your best for me, and I thank you for that. I have great
confidence
and respect for your ability – that has nothing to do with it.’ He grunted. ‘Or fear of the knife – after all I’ve had quite a few run-ins with surgeons in the past – they’ve fixed me up pretty good every time.’

The medical man’s concern was evident.

‘So – why not now?’

Bill sat for some time before answering.

‘My wife relies on me completely – for
everything
.’

Looking relieved, the consultant said: ‘My dear Mr Anderson, we can arrange through her GP and Social Services to have all the necessary cover for her while you recuperate – and beyond.’

Both knew he meant permanently.

Bill smiled weakly, really liking the man. He obviously genuinely cared for his patients.

‘I know, I know. It’s – well – personal. On bad days I lift her out of bed, on the loo and so on – we’re an old married couple – been together a long time. It would be …’ He gestured hopelessly.

Mr Parsons tried a last, direct approach.

‘You do realize that if we do not cut it out you will succumb to the cancer?’

Bill sniffed.

‘I think you mean
die
do you not, doctor?’

His lips in a tight line, Mr Parsons nodded firmly. ‘I do.’

His patient considered the answer for a moment.

‘How long have I got?’

 

Mary sat before a baby grand in their main room, furnished from a lifetime of collecting in shops and auction rooms. The standard lamps in the corners were from the fifties, small Victorian chairs were placed against the walls, while grouped in front of the fireplace were traditional sofas imported from the States in the eighties. On side tables were many silver-framed photographs, one of the very young Bill and Mary standing outside a Register Office, she in a suit with a hat and a fox-fur draped around her
shoulders
, he in his United States Army Air Force uniform with wings.

Others were of their children at various ages, the two girls and a boy, ending with each one of them on their
graduation
days. There were photographs of groups of people, celebrating past Christmases and New Years in a home very much larger than the apartment they were now
occupying
.

Her slim hands, showing liver spots where once there was only smooth white skin, picked out the notes of
Für
Elise
as noises came from the kitchen.

Her husband’s voice eventually floated out from the doorway.

‘Come and get it – lunch is served.’

She stopped playing, gently lowered the lid and propelled herself into the dining-kitchen, taking her place at the table. Bill set down a dish of steaming new potatoes. Cold meats and a salad were already on the table.

He poured white wine into her glass, then his own and sat down. Mary sipped hers and looked at him over the rim of her glass.

‘Surely he must have given you another appointment?’

Bill busied himself dishing out the potatoes.

‘No – just said the doc would get his letter and take it from there.’

Mary remained unconvinced, accusing him. ‘You’re not telling me the truth.’

‘Sure I am. They were his last words.’ He wasn’t lying, he told himself. They
had
been Mr Parsons’s last words. What he hadn’t told her was the rest of it.

They ate in silence for a while, only exchanging the odd word. The radio, playing Classic FM in the background, helped to fill the gaps.

At last Mary placed her knife and fork together, even though she obviously hadn’t finished.

‘I can’t eat any more. Do you mind if I lie down for a while, I feel a little tired?’

Bill got up, suddenly concerned.

‘Everything all right?’

Mary pulled back from the table.

‘No – it’s not, and you know it.’

She wheeled away down a short corridor, leaving him to pick up her plate glumly and put its contents into the bin before following her.

She had stopped by their bed.

Mary placed her hands around his neck as he stooped. Puffing, he straightened up and settled her on to the covers, falling forward on to her with the effort. He stood up, spent
some time getting his breath back.

From her pillow she regarded him steadily. When she spoke it was very softly.

‘I love you.’

He smiled down at her.

‘I know. And I love you.’

Mary gazed up at him.

‘Let’s see, how long have we been together now? From the very beginning?’

Bill looked at his watch.

‘Oh, I’d say sixty-something years, eleven hours, twenty minutes and ten – no, fourteen seconds.’

Mary nodded solemnly.

‘That’s about it, so don’t try and hide anything from me, mister.’

Bill winced. ‘I’m not—’

Mary cut him off with a wave of her hand. ‘Bullshit.’

The Americanism coming from her very English voice was effective. He floundered, but before he could say anything further she closed her eyes and said: ‘When I wake up we’re going to take a ride.’

He frowned. ‘Are we? Where?’

‘To the airfield.’

Bill blinked.

‘What airfield?’

She kept her eyes shut.

‘You know very well where I mean. And when we get there you are going to tell me exactly –
completely

everything
he said to you this morning – right, Lieutenant?’

He gazed down at her, realized the game was up.
Ruefully he murmured: ‘Right, ma’am.’

He bent down. Their lips brushed.

When he pulled back she said, still with her eyes closed: ‘Now bugger off!’

Grinning, he closed the door gently behind him, leant back against it, his face dissolving into immeasurable sadness. He moved into the sitting-room, his hands
shaking
slightly as he poured a Jack Daniel’s and slumped into a chair. He took a gulp, and reached out to a wood-framed black-and-white photograph. It was Mary, aged
twenty-one
, hair brushed across one eye to curl down at the corner of her mouth.

Although he had been as light-hearted as he could manage for her, the surgeon’s prognosis, spoken aloud, had been, despite his premonition of the seriousness of the illness, a cruel shock.

He took a sip of the whiskey, felt its warmth steadying his nerves.

Even before the morning he had been well aware of the corruptibility of the flesh – who wasn’t at his age? He already took six tablets every morning for blood pressure and cholesterol, and a further three during the day for his late-onset diabetes.

But with Parsons there had been no escape, no ‘if you do this you will live for ever promise,’ only the blunt, bleak truth.

The train of his life was about to run into the buffers.

He was not overtly religious, though they did go to church at Easter and Christmas. For him, the experience was more the shared spiritual atmosphere in the wonderful
old college chapel that had seen so many generations go before, than any burning belief.

But he knew Mary felt differently, had very strongly held convictions – even though she was not a regular
churchgoer
either.

BOOK: Beneath Us the Stars
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