Brian glanced down at Debbie’s hand resting on his thigh. Clinging to the fabric of his jeans. He reached out with his own hand, gently caressing and then covering hers. A move of affection. One of protection. But still he couldn’t bring himself to lift his head. To raise his eyes. He still could not, no matter how much he willed himself, meet her gaze.
A gaze that was in fact, similarly, not meeting, or looking to meet, his. Debbie’s own eyeline was also turned down, staring towards those entwined hands. A silent, bony, world of defiance. She felt separated, disconnected from her hand. It felt weightless, not of her. And still she watched it twist and twitch. It pulsed gently under the comfort of Brian’s. Unsure. Unsettled.
Both were struggling painfully to fight through the barren deserts that were their vocal chords, desperately seeking the vowels and consonants to form words. To convey feeling. But neither could. The strength, the words, both evading them.
Their hands squeezed simultaneously. An instinctive, unplanned gesture from both. One that prompted both Brian and Debbie to glance upwards. Their eyes met. Their respective gazes trapped by a fleeting movement and now rendered unable to avert. In Debbie’s eyes Brian saw desperation, hurt, appeal. In Brian’s Debbie saw the same along with a troubling darkness skirting the perimeters. One that threatened numbness. It threatened dominance.
She knew she had to speak. To allow the words to trickle from her mouth. She knew not what the words could or should be but she knew she had to be the first to wilt. He was struggling. He was slipping. She could see that. And soon she could lose him completely. However temporarily, she could lose him. And she would need him. More than ever. They would need one another. She could see he was trying, with everything he could muster, but he just couldn’t get there. She had to speak. She had to be the one to break the silence. If only. Just. The words. Words. Little things. So simple. So mundane. Transient. And yet the words. They failed to form. Stubbornly resisted. No she had to. She must. She…
‘What about…’ whispered Debbie slowly, shakily, her eyes fixed upon Brian’s, ‘what about…the time…what about the time our…our daughter…she took her first steps…she took her first steps and then fell back on her bum and landed on the cat…’
Brian looked at Debbie. A look halfway between bewilderment and incredulity. His eyes, once lost and weary, now full of the spark of confusion. Seconds, moments, of silence followed.
‘Remember Brian….?’ appealed Debbie, ‘please Brian…I need you to remember…with me…’
The look in Debbie’s eyes suddenly allowed the dimmest flicker of recognition to light up within him. Brian felt his heart sag. At the pain he felt. At the pain Debbie clearly displayed. He needed her. She needed him.
‘I do…yeah….I do.’ his voice was brittle. Strained.
‘You do…?’ something resembling hope propelled Debbie’s whisper into the realms of audible.
‘Of course I do…’ answered Brian, wrapping his hands around Debbie’s and strengthening his grip. ‘And…and…what about the time…the time when our son first tried spaghetti bolognese. Remember? It took us about month to clean that kitchen afterwards didn’t it…it was chaos…’
He forced the suggestion of a smile onto the corner of his mouth. Debbie’s eyes lit up as she felt her spirit warm. This was the Brian she needed. It was as if they were two isolated enemy soldiers slowly making their way across No Man’s Land to meet with one another in kinship and camaraderie.
‘I do,’ she said smiling, ‘and…and what about the time our daughter fell off that little slide at the playpark that day and bumped her elbow. We bought her an ice-cream from the van and then had to stock up the freezer with ice-cream and ice lollies for every other little bump she had thereafter. We could have opened up our own ice-cream shop…’
‘That’s right, yeah,’ Brian sniffed, his eyes suddenly more animated, ‘or what about our son’s first day at school. All dressed up, looking gorgeous and handsome in his immaculate new school uniform…only to find out it was the uniform for the school up the road! He was…he was mortified.’
Debbie laughed slightly, raising her hand to the area between her nose and mouth to stifle the small snort she allowed to escape.
‘Or when our daughter broke up with her first boyfriend. She cried on your shoulder so much that night I thought she would never let go of you. I thought you were going to kill the poor boy after that. Would have been harsh though. I mean, he was only 9…‘ she laughed.
‘And when our son scored his first hat-trick for the football team. I, who had coached him through years of training sessions in the back garden and stood with him through all weather for every game he had ever played, expect him to come running straight to me, his Dad, to celebrate, but no, straight to his Mummy. His Mummy who doesn’t even understand the bloody game!’
They both laughed at this. Both their grips strengthened further.
‘And of course,’ said Debbie, ‘the first time we had to pick our daughter up from a night out. She could barely walk. Underage and drunk. What a disgrace. But how funny was she in the back of the car that night? Laughing away and telling us how much she loved us. What a sweet girl.’
‘That’s true.’ nodded Brian, smiling. ‘Or when our son had his first lads’ holiday, away in Spain or Greece or some place, and he phoned us at about 4am in the morning, getting us all panicked, only for him to tell us he was missing us and wanted to come home. Haha. By the end of the week he didn’t want to leave that place did he!?’
Debbie’s smile widened further as droplets of water began to form around her eyelids.
‘That’s right’ she said with more than a little faux-affirmation. ‘And who could forget when our daughter went off to University and then came back after the first year to tell us she had met the love of her life and they were going to have a baby. Going to give us…a…
a…a grandchild.’ Her smile wavered slightly, creeping marginally over to sadness.
‘Yep…’ said Brian, struggling to catch his breath. ‘Or when our son…when our son…he…he…he got that promotion at his work. I was so proud…I was so proud of him. So proud.’
Brian’s gaze wilted, the strength instantly sapping from him as he looked back down at his and Debbie’s entwined hands. Once again unable to look Debbie in the eye. He listened though. And could hear. He heard as she spoke. Softly. And falteringly.
‘That was a good day…’ she choked. ‘No…a great day…’ she turned her head away as the tears arrived in waves. Her hand clinging onto Brian’s all the while for dear life.
‘Well…it…’ started Brian. ‘It…could have been…’
‘It should have been…’ exclaimed Debbie through sobs, ‘they all should have been’. Her eyes clenched tightly shut as she failed to fight the flow of emotion. Suddenly she felt the force of Brian as he collapsed against her. Both feeling their raw, contorted bodies writhing in sadness as they held onto one another.
As gradually the tears dried and the lights in the room became less obtrusive they felt their hearts beating back to life. Their hands still clutched together, they listened. They listened to the sympathy. They listened to the advice. They listened to the ‘you’re both still young, you’ll have another chance at this’. They listened to the ‘it just wasn’t right this time’. They listened to the ‘this is far more common than you would think’. They listened to the pity.
But they didn’t really listen. They couldn’t. What good could it do? Or would it do? All they could do was hold each other. And so they did.
They held. And still they held. To the memories they had created. To the stories they had concocted. To the tears that threatened to come in waves. And to each other. For strength. For comfort. For the lives they still had left to live.