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Autumn Flowers, And The Spring

"Have you seen him again?" the girl asked, holding out her pack of cigarettes and producing a lighter from somewhere in her thick winter coat.

Jane knew the girl was too young to be smoking, but she didn't say anything. Who was she to criticise? She knew she shouldn't be smoking either. She was far too old.

They lit up and sat shivering together, trying to crouch out of the reach of the wind and the drizzle, sheltered under the small overhang of Jane's back porch.

Jane thought about lying, just as she had lied to the doctor, just as she lied to everyone who asked her that question. But Tracy was thirteen or fourteen and hated her mother and her school and everything about her life apart from these small, snatched conversations, and Jane found it difficult to lie to her.

So she said, "Every night," which was the truth, and she sucked deep on the cigarette and closed her eyes and thought about what David would say if he could see her now.

"Have you, like, tried talking to him?" Tracy wanted to know. The girl had a thick accent Jane had struggled to understand when she had first moved back. She had lost her own accent years ago. But then, Jane had struggled to understand anything about her life when she had first moved back here. What was the accent of one lonely, angry girl when you put it next to losing the man you've loved for half a century? It had been such a small confusion. Perhaps that was why Jane had been drawn to the girl. She had been a tiny challenge, a puzzle slight enough to face. Making sense of the bigger problems had been impossible.

"No," said Jane, staring out over the cluttered concrete backyard that the estate agent had belligerently referred to as a garden, despite all evidence to the contrary. "I know it's not him. I know he's dead, really. But I still see him. When people walk down the street, when I go into shops. I mean, I'm not mad or anything," she added, giving Tracy a severe look.

"Oh," said Tracy, looking down at her fingernails. They were painted neon green today, Jane noticed. She wondered what Tracy's mother had to say about that. Probably nothing. The woman hardly seemed to notice her daughter most of the time. "Is that sort of normal, then?" Tracy asked.

"It happens sometimes," said Jane, though the truth was she wasn't sure, not anymore. The doctor had told her it would stop, that grief had strange fingers that played strange tunes with the way one made sense of the world. The doctor had said that it often happened after a bereavement, at least at first, seeing your dead husband getting onto the same bus as you, or on television, or crossing the street. But that had been more than a year ago now, when Jane had first come back to Birmingham, and there had been something unspoken in the doctor's words, some hint that such distortions were normal, but only if they passed. If they persisted, perhaps they were not. They had not persisted last time, though that had been many years ago. She told herself it was because the grief was bigger this time, which wasn't true. How could you compare two griefs that were both so huge? Surely something so massive was always unique.

"I never saw my dad," said Tracy, glancing at Jane then looking away. She had big blue eyes that should have been innocent but weren't. "Not when he left. Not once. My mum said it was good riddance. But then, I didn't really know him. And I was only four. Maybe it only works if you've been with someone for years and years."

Jane took another pull on the cigarette, relishing the harsh, acrid scent of the smoke as it crept down her throat and into her lungs. It was odd. She had not smoked since she left the city, fifty years earlier, and yet the habit came back to her as easily as slipping on a well-worn glove. Perhaps it was part of the same thing that had driven her back here, when she was first riding the stormfront of her grief out of the ruins of her old life. She had fled their years in the country, running before they could collapse around her and drag her down so deep that she would never be able to crawl out. She had turned seventy-three this year; she had not been here since she left with David, five decades earlier.

"Maybe," said Jane, though she knew that wasn't true. The same thing had happened to her when May had died, and May had only lived to be fifteen days. She and David had both seen their baby often after she had died, though that had faded and vanished after a few months. They had never had any other children. They had not been able to face the thought, not after May.

Jane looked at Tracy, examining her smooth cheek and the deep blue of her eyes. May had had beautiful blue eyes, too, bright and precious and sparkling like the ocean. Jane had always wanted to travel the world, had wanted to explore every ocean there was. But when May was born, she had thought no ocean would ever be as lovely as those blue eyes. May closed her eyes too soon and forever, and Jane found she never had the heart to travel after that.

Still, they had been happy. Now that David was gone, Jane understood just how happy. They had had chickens and a little cottage with a vegetable patch and a stream that rubbed at the bottom borders of their land. They had been happy together for half a century, despite the lack of children. David had blond hair that turned white so gradually she almost hadn't noticed, and arms that stayed strong into his seventies, and a heart attack that toppled him quietly from the world one Sunday morning while he was sat at the table, reading the morning paper.

Tracy took a final pull from her cigarette and threw it to the ground, crushing it out with a twist of her heel. Jane looked at her. The girl appeared a little older than her age, Jane thought. She was tall, already taller than Jane, and she would probably be taller still. But it wasn't just her height, or the makeup she plastered on too thickly every morning. There was something knowing about her eyes, something cynical and a little raw. Jane wondered if it was that edge of cynicism that kept her from reprimanding the girl about smoking cigarettes instead of sharing them. In her old life, she would have hated Tracy, would have had nothing to do with her. But David was dead and the whole world had frozen, and the rules of her life had changed. The girl had become a strange mote of warmth in a Universe full of cold, meaningless things. Jane felt very little for anyone else, but she was fond of Tracy. Fond in an odd, distant sort of a way that held no room for judgments about the way she dressed or talked, or the way she lived her life.

How old would May have been now, if she had lived? Forty? Fifty? Jane tried to do the calculations, but her mind had felt thick lately, like sodden bread, and she found she wasn't sure. Older than Tracy, much older.

"Are you on your way to school, then?" Jane asked. She knew perfectly well that while they had shared the cigarette, the girl had missed the bus. Still, there would be other busses.

Tracy rolled her eyes.

"What, are you my mum now?" she asked. There was sarcasm in her voice, but it wasn't heavy or bitter. Jane thought there was even a touch of irony there.

"Just wondering," said Jane evenly.

Tracy huffed, but a smile was suddenly bursting out of her like a sneeze she couldn't contain. Jane managed to summon a small smile of her own, and the girl picked up her rucksack and slung it over one shoulder. She paused, on the brink of saying something, one hand on the gate that separated the two properties.

"I'm glad you came here," she said after a moment. "I mean, it's awful what happened. And I know you wouldn't have come here without it. But it's nice. Having someone to talk to, I mean." Then Tracy opened the gate and left.

When she had gone, Jane threw her cigarette away, too. She watched the last cherry-red inch of tobacco splutter and fizz against the rain, and thought yet again that there had never really been any choice. If she had stayed in the cottage in the country, the weight of David's absence would have crushed her to nothing. She had felt it every day, from the instant she had come back to find him slumped in his chair, eyes open, a faint look of surprise on his face. There had been no pain in his expression. Just mild surprise, like he had put a strawberry in his mouth and realised it was a grape. She had felt the absence as she had hauled him onto the stone floor and started chest compressions. They had learned CPR together three years ago at a first aid course. She had been sure the course was a waste of time, but David had insisted. Jane had been right. She had known at once the compressions would not work - the thing in front of her was not David anymore, it was just a complex layering of flesh and valves and vessels - and her movements had been rough and mechanical, devoid of either desperation and hope. She had felt his absence during the days that followed, when the machinery of society swept through the cottage to take away his body and arrange what would come after. David's absence was like a paper cutout of himself standing always at her side, a white emptiness out of which blew a cold wind, and which in exchange drew in all the light, until she seemed to walk everywhere in shadows.

A low growl of thunder rolled out from somewhere far beyond the row of narrow terraced houses, which clung like disheveled mollusks to the borders of the city. The rain came down harder, and Jane went back inside.

A few months later Jane began to notice the gaps. They were small things at first. She would stand in the kitchen, unable to remember why. She would sometimes find a word tumbling around in her head and have no idea either what it was doing there or what it meant. She had always loved words, they had always been her friends. Now she had frozen up, and her words were deserting her.

"Slurry," she would say to herself. "Slurry, slurry, slurry. Slurry, mellifluous, redolent. Predicate, predicate, predicate."

When this happened, she would turn to ask David, but David was not there. So she wrote the words down, and kept the list with her. But she was scared of asking anyone. She was scared of what they might say, of what they might suspect. She had suspicions, too; and the list of inexplicable blanks grew and grew.

"You left the door open again," Tracy told her one day, when they sat smoking another cigarette on Jane's porch.

"No I didn't," said Jane, but Tracy held up a necklace, beautiful, red-golden and topaz, a gift from David many years ago.

"You did," said Tracy. There was no reproach in her voice, just a slight undercurrent of concern. She held it out, and Jane took it. She stared at it, stroked it with a finger. When she stopped stroking, the finger carried on by itself, trembling and rolling tiny circles in her hand. She remembered the restaurant they had been in when he had given it to her. She remembered the blue tissue paper wrapping and the dark warmth of his eyes and the taste of the soup they had shared. How was it she could remember all these things perfectly, and yet not be able to recall what she had done the whole of Saturday?

"Sorry," said Tracy. "I didn't take anything else. But I knew you wouldn't believe me otherwise. You didn't believe me last time."

Jane dropped the necklace into a pocket, hesitated, drew it out again and slipped it around her neck. She did not want to forget the beautiful thing again. She wanted to cling onto it, grip as tight as she could, to the necklace, to the words that were slipping away, to every memory of David. She felt as if she were unpeeling, like a dying flower, shedding layer after layer of translucent petals. Soon there would be nothing left.

It's eating me, she thought sometimes. Eating me all up. Soon, there'll be nothing left.

"Thank you," she said quietly. She wanted to promise that she would be more careful. But then, maybe she already had. Would she even know?

The year turned, the days growing longer and warmer. The trees were full of leaves again, and the grass was green and fresh. But inside her house, Jane felt that time had ground to a halt. It seemed that the hours were telescoping in from either end, contracting into something dry and meaningless. The world had changed. She had been left behind.

"What's your name?" asked the man dressed all in green. The shadows around her lit up blue and red. She shivered. It was dark. When had it got so cold?

She told him her name, and her date of birth when he asked her. But when he wanted to know where she lived, Jane started giving the address of their old cottage in the country. She stopped halfway through, confused, appalled at the white shards of nothing that were sliding through her mind, slicing her memories to shreds.

"Why were you out walking? Where were you going?"

But Jane did not know.

She told them not to take her to the hospital, but the paramedics would not listen. So she waited in the bright hospital cubicle in a blanket, feeling absurdly, irreversibly old, and waited as meaningless minutes dripped away into the darkness of the past.

"No, she lives alone," Tracy was saying, though Jane could not have said when the girl had arrived or where she had come from. "I'm her neighbour. She doesn't have anyone else."

Later - how many days later Jane could not say - the two of them sat in a car. Jane thought she had seen it before, but she wasn't certain.

"It's getting worse," said Tracy. "With my mum, I mean. She shouts at me all the time. I think she hates me. Maybe I should run away."

Jane looked at the girl's face, trying to place what was bothering her. The eyes were red and the cheeks were wet, but it wasn't that.

"You've had your hair cut," she said at length. "That's what's different."

A look of frustration passed across Tracy's face. Her brows furrowed then relaxed. She sighed.

"I had it cut and dyed a few months ago. Remember? When I left school."

Jane nodded vaguely. It sounded familiar to her, but it was insubstantial and shadowy, like something spilling over from someone else's dream, recounted in a thick voice in the middle of the night. Should she have known that? She couldn't tell. Suddenly, she felt scared, naked and broken. Her mind was slipping away. She couldn't hide from it, she couldn't hide it from anyone.

"I'm sure your mother doesn't hate you," she said, flailing desperately back in her mind for something else to talk about. "Your mother loves you."

Tracy gave a slow, lazy smile, twisting up at the corners of her mouth.

"You always sound posh when you're trying to hide something," she said. Jane bristled, but there was warmth in the girl's voice, and she leant over and - to Jane's surprise - gave her a small kiss on the cheek.

"Come on," said Tracy. "We should get you there. Let's take you home."

She started the car and drove. But when they stopped, it wasn't home, after all.

Jane was somewhere else, somewhere strange. It wasn't her home, but they would never let her leave.

It was a big place, with lots of rooms, and lots of strangers that she didn't trust. There were large rooms where they all ate together, old, slow people with grey faces and blank eyes. And there were small rooms where they took you to sleep, and sometimes you recognised a picture or a pillow, but most of the time not.

Sometimes she thought she was starting to recognise the nurses, but just when this happened they all changed again - or so it seemed - and the only presence that never seemed to change was the black cat, the big black cat that stalked proudly from room to room, half-watching her from bright green eyes.

Sometimes she saw David, but he never seemed to notice her. When this happened, Jane cried and cried, or sometimes screamed, or one time hit him, hit him as hard as she could because it was so unfair. Then she fell down and wept, and then there was a sharp scratch on her arm and she dropped into a darkness so deep that she thought she had died.

But she had not died, she realised, because the dead do not wake up in odd rooms that smell of lavender and vomit, the dead do not look at their hands and find suddenly that they are the hands of a stranger, with skin as thin as rice paper and finger nails grown long and horny and horrible. These things do not happen to the dead, she told herself. So I must be alive.

Though if it was life, it was a strange sort of a life, and she was sure it had not always been this way.

Days came and were swept away, swelling up out of the dreary everlight of neon nurse's stations overnight, sickly insubstantial days that went nowhere and then vanished again into neversilent midnights, almost before they had begun. She felt something was consuming her, crouching hungry in the darkness, swallowing up every ounce she had to give, every mote. She couldn't see it, but she knew it was there. Things were as bad as they could get.

Beyond the windows, the world was wet and windy. The leaves turned yellow, then red, and then they fell and decorated the grass with their wild colours. The cat was out there sometimes, stalking amongst the leaves, relishing the wide, clean, cold air. More often, the cat was inside with her - and inside, the air was too thick and warm, and smelt always of piss and detergent and the endless, tasteless food.

Jane did not speak anymore, not to anyone. What was the point? No-one here wanted to speak to her, not really. No-one would tell her what she was doing here, or where here was, anyway, not even David. David she hated most of all, for the fact of his betrayal, for his being dead and then not dead, and then being dead again, for the inconstancy of his abandonment, which she felt had ushered her into this inconstant world.

How was it that she could remember his name, when she had forgotten even her own? People asked her what it was sometimes, asked her her name or the date or the year, or what is this object? Or when were you born? Or what was the address I asked you to remember, and what job do you think I do, and count backwards from twenty, and thank you, you've been very helpful.

Her indifference to the questions melded seamlessly with her unknowing, and she never answered them either way.

Time began to break down. It had a funny way of rushing forward, then freezing, then running on without her. She would wake up from a sleep that had gone on for hours, for days, for at least one hundred and fifty years, and it would still be dark outside, and she would scream at them and cry and cry and cry, because someone had forgotten to turn on the sun, and the whole world was going wrong. Then they would tuck her back into bed, the sheets so tight that she couldn't move her thin arms, and she felt that she could scarcely breath. And they would lock the door and turn the lights off - even when she begged them not too - and she would sob herself to sleep.

And then there were times when she would walk into a room, and freeze open-mouthed, because she was seeing herself as a young girl, as a woman in her twenties, at her wedding, or in her herb garden, plucking idly at plants and turning and smiling and looking up. These visions were always visible at a great distance, seen as if through a thousand miles of perfect, clear air. She could see these things, these glimpses of a half-remembered past, but she could not touch them. When she reached for them, they decayed into strangers doing strange things, and the nightmare swayed and flowed back around her, like a dark ocean surrounding a tiny boat.

Space, too, became odd and unreliable. She found that the dimensions of her body itself were unstable, so that one minute she felt like a mote, an atom, a tiny speck, and the next it seemed that a single fingernail was the size of the known Universe. Not only that, but these aberrations would slide into one another, so that she would begin by walking into a room hoping for breakfast and end by falling backwards into a Tuesday in 1978 spent with her sister - now long dead - and try to shout for help, only no one ever did.

She began to long for death. Death would be so much cleaner than this wretched, hollowed out half-life. But death would not come, however sweet she begged, and the nurses would never help her. She took to telling them all, again and again, that this was what she wanted, this was the only thing she wanted: to die, for it to be over.

At least, she thought that was what she told them. But how could she ever be sure? It made no ends, for no-one ever listened to her.

And then, one night when she had lost all hope of salvage, as she lay once more in the endless, ageless darkness, a sudden something crushed at her chest and she thought - yes! Yes, at last!

But it wasn't death, not yet - just the cat, the old, black, nameless cat she had seen haunting the unstable corridors of this ever-mutable prison. It had jumped, she realised, up from the floor and onto her bed. Or fallen, perhaps, though fallen from where? And how had it got in? They always checked her bare room before they left, they always closed the door.

Still, there were plenty of places a cat could hide. She began picturing them: in the wardrobe, or behind the curtains on the sill, or under the bed, or…

And then it occurred to her that her thoughts were much sharper than they had been for…for how long? Forever, perhaps. And this was followed by the thought that for her to be reflecting on the process of her thinking was even stranger.

"Perhaps I am dead, after all," she said out loud.

"Not dead," said the cat. "Not yet. But your story is nearly told. I've been sent to offer you a choice."

Jane lay in the bed, lay very still. She felt the cat shifting its weight on her chest. It was a very big cat. It seemed, she realised, much bigger than it had any right to be. It's eyes were huge and green.

"Not dead," agreed Jane at last. "Dreaming. Dreaming I still have a mind to dream with. Does that mean I do have a mind, still?"

The cat shrugged.

"That's a question for philosophers, not cats," it told her. "And certainly not for messengers, which is what I am today."

Jane thought about this, then shrugged too.

"If it is a dream, I'm making the most of it," she said. "I'm not going to waste time wondering. What type of message? From who?"

"From my Mistress," said the cat. "She's been watching you unspool for some time. She can't wait to eat you."

Jane blinked.

"To meet me?" she asked, uncertain.

"Yes, that too," said the cat. "She's been listening. To your request. She has decided to grant it."

A spark of hope flared in her then; hope…but with a red-raw gleam at the edges.

"What request?" asked Jane, suddenly wary.

"Why, death," said the cat. "Of course, death - what else?"

She felt the cat tense, and then it leapt off her chest and onto the floor.

"Follow," said the cat. Jane lifted up the cover and stepped out. Her body felt strange, light and precious and perfect, perfect in a way she had not known for…for how long?

She could not remember.

The floor was cold. She followed the cat across the room and to the closed door. The darkness did not matter. Jane found that she could see very nicely despite the steep, inky blackness.

"There," said the cat. "Look there."

And it pointed with its head, indicating a wall-mounted radiator.

Jane looked. There was nothing to see, just a simple, bland thing of bent metal.

"Feel behind," the cat prompted, so she did.

There was something there. A light, plastic something that rattled when she shook it.

She held it up to her eyes, and examined it in the darkness - the darkness which didn't matter, for she could see it as clearly as if she stood beneath bright floodlights.

She read the label, and understood.

"There's enough there," said the cat. "Mistress made sure of that, made sure when she made the nurse drop them. Take them all, and lay down. It won't take long. There won't be any pain."

Jane fingered the rim of the plastic bottle. Then she flicked the lid, shook some pills onto her hand. They rolled for a moment, then were still. Her hand trembled not at all.

"And - then what?" she asked.

"Then your story will be over," said the cat simply. "And your stain will belong to her."

She exhaled quickly, and did tremble then, a little, because it was what she wanted - it was all she had wanted, for so, so long.

From that moment she had found David, she realised, found him slumped in the kitchen. She had longed for it to be over. For it all to be done.

She put a pill in her mouth. It was only small. She swallowed it without any effort at all.

Then she took another.

And another.


And yet…

She forced herself to stop. To breathe.

Steady and quiet. She wanted to carry on. She wanted to cram the pills into her mouth, all of them at once, right then and there.

She took one more, slowly this time, placed it in her mouth, swallowed.


"David," she said. "Is he there, too? And my little one? Will I see them?"

The cat just stared at her. Then, slow and rather cruel, a smile spread, then turned into a huge yawn.

"No," it told her. "Of course, no. That is not what she offers."

"I see," she told the cat, and frowned, like she was pretending to think, though of course her mind was made up.

Slowly, a little sadly, she poured the pills back into the bottle and screwed the lid shut. Her hand was trembling again. Then she crouched and placed it back underneath the radiator.

As she stood up, her legs creaked.

The darkness was creeping back into the room, and her legs felt thin and unsteady.

She walked towards her bed, her stiff legs jerking. She was like a decaying clockwork doll, shuffling, stumbling, always on the verge of falling.

"Are you sure?" the cat called after her. It was not following her. "Who knows how much more of this there is to come? She won't give you another chance."

Jane was sure, but she found she could no longer say exactly what it was she was sure about. Her thoughts were growing slippery again, and things were no longer meeting up.

"Chances, chances," she managed to mumble, as she crept back beneath the sheets. They were cold and slightly damp, but that didn't bother her. A lovely, glowing warmness was beginning in her stomach, rolling out through her limbs, numbing her. Her head felt very heavy. "I'll take my chances."

But she was no longer sure what she meant.

Then something like a sigh came from the darkness of the room. There was a creaking noise, like a door opening…but that was strange, Jane thought, because she could see the shape of the only door this room had, silhouetted against the sterile light outside, and that door was still shut.

"Oh, you'll take your chances, will you? Not the tasty little chances I would give you?"

This voice wasn't that of the cat. It was a feminine voice, but rich somehow, low and dangerous, like dark, poisoned honey.

Jane started, tried to get out of the bed again, but her body was weak, so weak she could hardly move, and it was all she could do to shift her head. In the deep darkness of the room, a shape seemed to swell. It was broad and bulky, like a car or a van….a wagon, perhaps.

Something moved, and she recognised the inky blackness of the cat as it leapt upwards and in through an open door.

And beyond the door, two ruby-pale eyes stared out at her, pretty as winter and quite, quite dreadful.

Jane wanted to say something, but she did not know what. Perhaps she should scream, or cry, or laugh, even. But no words came, and no sounds either.

Then there was a chuckle, and the voice spoke again.

"Well, you have been interesting," it said. "You would have been a nice little dainty, to add to my collection. But you will not be mine, it seems. A pity. I do so like my dainties to have spirit. Your bitterness would have been most splendid. But it looks like you are not done and told. Not quite. Do enjoy your chances, wherever they lead you. I know I will."

There was a creak and a slam. The door was closed. A moment later, the room was empty again.

Jane lay in the darkness. A rushing was in her ears, growing louder, ever louder and louder. It was the rushing of a great river, the river of sleep, and as it came for her, as it bounded through the closed door and around the room, swirled over the radiator and past the curtains, under the bed, and finally crashed onto her, sweeping her off and away, Jane found that she was smiling, and wondered why.

There was cold wind on her face, and blue all above her, and in the distance the sound of waves.

Jane awoke, and for a moment thought of nothing, nothing at all, and all that was in her mind was the sky and the smell of salt and the air, which was freezing, but which felt endless and wonderful. Then a sort of confused clamouring began to arise in her thoughts, the familiar discordant bleating that stirred up in her always as her decaying mind tried to make sense of the world, and failed.

"Are you awake now? Can you hear me?" the voice came from a woman at her side who Jane had not noticed. They were both sitting in low canvas chairs, both well wrapped up in gloves and winter coats, and facing out towards a blue-green mass of something that was so huge Jane was sure she should recognise it.

She tried to speak, but her throat was dry and she could not remember how. Pills, she remembered. Surely she had eaten pills. That's what always happened. That's what they always did to her. Had there been more than usual? She thought there might have been.

"Here, have some water," said the woman. She held out a cylindrical object that had no name. Jane looked at it, baffled, and the woman moved her hand near the top, and pulled the top away, and suddenly it had become a bottle, and Jane understood that she should put it to her mouth, so she did.

The water was warmer than the day around them. It felt lovely on her throat as it slipped down, and she smacked her lips and smiled and said, "Thank you," in a hoarse voice before she could stop herself.

The woman smiled at Jane, and the smile tugged at her, and she knew that she knew the woman, but at the same time she was a stranger, so she looked back to the sea, feeling awkward and remembering she was sick, horribly, hopelessly sick.

The sea.

That was what it was called!

The sea. Such a small word for such a vast thing. It seemed to go on forever, melting into the sky in the deep, deep distance.

"I always wanted to…go to sea…" Jane trailed off. She wasn't sure what came next.

"You've been asleep for ages," said the woman. "We drove through the night. They've probably already been looking for us for hours."

Jane glanced back to the woman, who had produced a cigarette from somewhere and was offering it to her.

"Light it for me, Tracy," said Jane, remembering suddenly who the woman was, and at exactly the same moment forgetting that she had ever not known. "My hands shake. Too much."

Tracy did what was asked, handing Jane the lit cigarette. Then she lit one of her own.

They smoked for some time in silence.

Then Jane said, "Aren't you missing school?"

Tracy gave her familiar smile. Jane had always liked that smile, she remembered. And her eyes. The eyes reminded her of someone, someone she loved. She wondered who it had been.

"Not now," she said. "Not for years."

"Oh," said Jane. She inhaled the cigarette smoke. It tasted good. It seemed like a long time since she had smoked. Why had she ever stopped? "What about your mother?"

"I'm not worrying about her. Not anymore. I left. It was time to leave, so I left."

In the distance, a greywhite box floated on the sea, and got bigger, and suddenly became a ship, a ferry, springing abruptly out of a chaos of shape and colour.

"Good," said Jane at length. "I always knew you would, sooner or later. You have to get out in the world, you have to…"

She trailed off, her mind flashing backwards, traversing half a century in an instant, and she remembered David, young and slim and smiling, and the smell of him, and the smell of their cottage in the country, which they had both loved more than words could ever say.

A trumpeting rolled across the ocean to where they sat, and Jane realise the ferry was coming into port, and she realised the two of them were not alone. They were in a line, a queue of people, though most of them were standing, giving Jane and Tracy a respectful distance.

"I thought that you might like to come with me," Tracy told her.

There was a clanging noise as the ferry docked, and a restlessness fussed through the crowd.

Jane thought about it.

The wind was fresh and clean and the sky was bright and Jane suddenly did not care if her mind was full of holes and shadows. She had loved David and she had lost him. She knew she was just a thin inch from losing herself, too. All of her, every thought and act and smell and smile, gone, washed away forever.

But they had been hers; and this was what she wanted, this would be hers, too. Her choice.

Jane smiled. She squeezed the arm of her friend.

"You have to take your chances," she said, and something flickered for a moment, on the edge of her memory, then faded, and it didn't bother her at all.

The sun was rising, a blaze of bright yellow gold in the deep blue sky, as the two women - one young, one very old - stepped out towards the boat. It was going to be a beautiful day.

Midlands-based writer of fantasy fiction, from comic to dark. Juggles writing with a variety of past jobs, including doctor. Keeps busy, occasionally impresses wife with his stories.