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Elsie walked to the kitchen and hummed a tune as she prepared breakfast. Tom’s appetite had not been good lately but maybe a poached egg, fresh from the market, might tempt him. As she finished setting the table, he shuffled in and they smiled at one another. He was using the walking stick Allan, their son, had given him and if Elsie noticed he used it more and more these days, she didn’t say anything.
She considered this the best part of the day, a restful time, before starting on the chores like cleaning, washing and shopping, the things that filled in the spaces of her life. She read the paper and offered it to Tom. He waved it away and went to sit in his rocking chair.
‘I’m going out in the garden this morning’ she said. ‘It’s a lovely day and I’ll plant the pansies I bought yesterday. They’ll be a wonderful show for spring.’ She saw Tom’s eyes were shut and he seemed asleep. His skin was translucent and his breathing shallow. Last week she had wanted him to go for a check up, but he became distressed so she had not said any more. Maybe tomorrow she would phone that nice doctor at the medical clinic and get him to make a home visit.
She tidied the house, put on her gardening hat, gloves and shoes and went outside. The sun was warm on her back as she bent to dig and weed. Where the flowers bloomed and the herb garden flourished, had always been the place where her thoughts were clearest.
Today as she worked, she thought of Tom. This August would be their sixty-third wedding anniversary. They had been wonderful years, full of laughter and love but lately Elsie had noted changes. Tom’s appetite was poor and he did not talk much. Communicating had been one of the special parts of their marriage and Elsie found it distressing that Tom no longer seemed to want to share his thoughts with her. The rocking chair in the dining room, claimed him more and more. She found him there all hours, usually sound asleep. She was worried and the more she considered it, the more the idea of speaking to the doctor seemed a good idea.
Elsie finished planting the pansies and began to prune the climbing rose along the fence. It was one of the hardy English varieties and as she clipped and chopped, she felt her frustration and worry, ease. She turned and saw Tom looking through the window. She waved and he smiled.
Elsie continued working for another hour, until eventually she straightened, feeling the ache in her bones and a slight headache behind her eyes. It had to be after eleven o’clock and it was annoying that Tom had not called to come inside for a cup of tea or bring out a cool drink. The thought irritated and rankled.
She stepped back, forgetting that earlier she had moved a pot so it was directly behind. Her foot hit the container and losing her balance, she fell. For a moment, stunned, unable to comprehend what had happened, she lay looking up at the sky. Her hand was bleeding and her knee throbbed where she had twisted it. She called out ‘Tom, come quickly, I’ve fallen.’ There was no reply, no door opened, no footsteps hurried to her aid. She called again. No one answered.
Elsie realised she would have to help herself. Heaven only knew where Tom was. Maybe he was asleep or had gone into another room. Groaning, she stood and straightened up. Nothing appeared broken but tomorrow she would be sore and bruised.
Elsie went inside and calling her husband’s name, went from room to room. There was no sign of him. Panicking, she hurried outside. Seagulls wheeled overhead and a group of teenagers playing on the beach, looked up when they heard her voice and mimicked “Tom, Tom.”
Tears blurred her vision. She went to the rocking chair. There was an indent in the soft velvet where Tom put his head. She stroked it, then bent down and laid her cheek against the material that smelled faintly of his aftershave.
She phoned Allan. ‘Your father’s missing’ she said and her voice faltered. ‘I’ve looked everywhere but he’s gone. I’m going to call the police.’
‘Don’t do that Mum’ he said. ‘Just wait and I’ll be there in twenty minutes.’
Her son was tall and like his father, had blue eyes. He frowned and looked worried as he came into the kitchen. Elsie tried not to cry but tears ran down her cheeks and wet the front of her blouse. Allan sat and held her hands between his. He gently traced the fine pattern of blue veins that marked her aged skin. He sighed and said ‘Mum, Dad’s been gone six months. He had a heart attack and died in his chair. You found him. Don’t you remember?’
And then, like waking in a different universe, Elsie did remember. She remembered coming into the room and thinking Tom was asleep. She remembered the funeral, the flowers, and people coming to the house. She remembered everyone’s grief and sadness. How her children, friends and neighbours had cried not only for Tom but for her. But Elsie didn’t cry. She couldn’t feel anything.
For more than an hour, Allan stayed with his mother. Elsie listened as her son talked about his father and the good times they had together. She felt as though the ground had fallen away beneath her. She wanted to be alone, to get used to the idea that Tom wasn’t with her any more – not ever again. The pain rose and choked her but she continued to smile and nod.
‘I’ll phone tomorrow’ he said as he left. Elsie shut the door and numbness filled her soul. Allan said Tom was buried at the little cemetery up the road and he would drive her there on Sunday. ‘We’ll take some flowers from the garden’ he said. She had nodded. Sunday.
Elsie walked into the kitchen and as she had done for the past months, glanced at the rocking chair where Tom sat, smiling. ‘Missed me old girl?’ he said. ‘You know I’d never leave you.’