Read the 2nd Prize Winner 2023 - A Lease of Life by Kathleen Conlon
A Lease of Life
It was cool and cloudy when we left England; here in Umbria the heat is so fierce it could render you senseless. Especially if you’re marooned with a flat tyre on a little winding road somewhere off the beaten track between Spoleto and Terni.
Michael has taken the jack from the boot and endeavoured to raise the wheel in order to change it but the jack doesn’t seem to fit, no matter which way he tries to adjust it, and now he’s on the phone to the hire company and I can tell by his reiteration and over-emphasis that he’s talking to someone whose command of English is limited.
He makes an exasperated noise and ends the call. “They’re going to send out a mechanic,” he says. “I think.”
“Did they say how long they’d be?”
He shakes his head. “He’s got to come from that Acqua-whatever-it’s-called place so it’ll be a while.”
There isn’t a patch of shade to be had. I have no hat and I discovered earlier that I must have left my sunglasses on the table in the trattoria a few miles back where we stopped for lunch. Nor, since we broke down, have we encountered any passing traffic, probably because it’s the Italian equivalent of siesta-time.
“Are you sure you can’t get that jack to work?”
Which is quite the wrong thing to say.
“You have a go,” Michael replies, his tone just this side of belligerent.
I lean against the bonnet of the car, feeling irrationally annoyed that he can’t fix the problem. It’s irrational because I’m fully aware that some problems seem beyond our powers to fix.
Umbria was meant to provide an opportunity to find out if we could recapture something of the compatibility and affection that used to exist between us but, thus far, things aren’t working out that way: by the time we’d acquired the hire car and set out on the road to Spoleto it was pitch dark and we missed the sign post indicating the turn off to the hotel and then, when we located it, discovered that there’d been a mix-up with our booking and, until the next morning when it could be sorted out, we were relegated to a rather utilitarian annexe.
We'd dragged our cases along a rutted path without exchanging a word and, similarly, prepared for bed. Once upon a time, a sense of humour might have gone some way to lightening the mood, but humour seemed to have deserted us.
I lay down on the bed and I thought that it wasn’t always like this, remembered holidays in the past, holidays which pre-dated four-star luxury, holidays on the cheap: in tents and boats and bed and breakfasts. We’d been happy then. And though those times could never be recaptured, given what had happened since, surely it wasn’t impossible to achieve some sort of harmony, surely what had been broken might be mended?
And then I thought about the vase, sole heirloom, handed down to me by my grandmother; not a particularly attractive object but, Michael, discovering its provenance, had had it valued and been pleasantly surprised by what it would be expected to fetch at auction.
With a young child in the house, we thought we’d put it out of harm’s way, high up on a shelf in the kitchen, but one day Danny was bouncing a ball rather too exuberantly, the ball hit the vase, the vase toppled over and hit the tiled floor and broke into several pieces.
Danny, aware that he shouldn’t have been playing with a ball indoors in the first place, burst into tears. I comforted him, telling him that the vase could be glued together. Seamlessly, I’d thought, but it wasn’t so: the cracks were apparent and maybe it was the wrong sort of glue because eventually it fell apart and was, finally, consigned to the dustbin.
I lay on the bed in the rather dingy hotel annexe, feeling very sorry for myself and remembering that irreparable damage and wondering whether Danny had actually been the glue that held Michael and me together, and now that Danny was gone we could not ever be mended.
***We are practically baking in the sun when, after what seems like a thumb-twiddling eternity, we spot a car approaching. “At last, the cavalry!” Michael exclaims. But the car contains not an overalled mechanic but a young man and a pregnant girl.
It slows. The man leans out of the window. “You have a problem?” he asks.
Michael, who’s been playing solitaire on his mobile phone, switches it off and looks up. “You could say that,” he replies gloomily.
“Maybe I can help?”
The young man has a pronounced southern American accent and its relaxed intonation somehow manages to suggest that he isn’t making any claim to superior mechanical skills.
Michael shrugs. The young man gets out of the car and while the pair of them bend over the offending wheel, his companion – wife, presumably, since she’s wearing a wedding ring – tells me that their names are Rick and Melissa and they hail, originally, from Texas but, for the last year, Rick, who’s a microbiologist, has been attached to the university in Rome, and during this, their vacation, they’ve rented a villa.
“Just along there,” she says, indicating the road on the left that winds up the hill.
Her husband stops fiddling with the jack and says,“Pretty sure they’ve given you the wrong one. Guess you’ll just have to wait for the man.” Melissa calls across to him. “Why don’t they come up to the house and wait there? At least they’d be in the shade. And they can always call and tell the mechanic to ring when he gets near.”
We make a few, obligatory, polite protestations but the prospect of shade is irresistible so Michael makes the call and we gladly accept their kind offer.
***The views from the terrace of their villa are stunning. We sip ice-cold drinks under the canopy of a verandah wreathed in vines while we look out over a green valley and glimpse, in the distance, a blue haze denoting the margin of a lake. There isn’t another human habitation to be seen. Melissa refreshes our drinks. “It was the tranquillity that attracted us,” she says. “All that you can hear are the different bird songs and, in the evening, some very distant church bells.”
“It’s so peaceful,” Michael says. “Blissfully far from the madding crowd.”
But I reflect that we’ve relied on the madding crowd – or other people, at least – these last few years to act as a buffer against the prospect of spending too much time alone together.
“Space!” says Melissa, making the appropriate expansive gesture. “That’s why I like it so much here. I can breathe!”
We converse for a few moments about the delights of our surroundings but then I notice that she’s grimacing and her knuckles are tightening and whitening on the arm of her chair. “Are you all right?” I ask. Gradually, she releases her pent-up breath, nods her head. “I think Junior’s destined for the football team if the strength of the kicking is anything to go by.”
I’m thinking back to my own pregnancy and I certainly don’t recall that a kicking baby caused any sort of sensation that could be accurately described as pain.
I am startled from reverie by the first few bars of The Ride of The Valkyrie which is the ring tone on Michael’s phone. I watch the expression on his face changing from expectation to annoyance. After a few abrupt sentences he terminates the call and turns to the rest of us, arms outstretched, palms upward, to emphasise his disbelief at what he has heard. “It appears,” he says, “that the only available mechanic has been diverted to another breakdown which is blocking a main road somewhere, so we can continue to wait for heaven knows how much longer or, if we can get ourselves back to Acqua-whatever-it’s-called, pick up another car. We could call a cab, I suppose …”
Rick interjects. “Nonsense,” he says. “I’ll run you there. It’s not far.” He turns to Melissa. “You’ll be all right?”
“Of course,” she replies. “Catherine and I can talk babies.”
Which we do, for a while, discussing her pregnancy and her plans for the birth. “Do you have children?” she asks and I’m just about to answer when her face contorts and she emits a cry, holding herself rigid as if to stifle the pain. Her eyes are wide, unblinking. She bites her lip, clutches herself in the area from which the pain is emanating. I realise that what she is experiencing has nothing to do with the energetic kicking of a confined baby and everything to do with the contractions that precede that baby’s entrance into the world.
“When are you due?” I ask her. She relaxes as the pain subsides and says, “Not till September.”
We look at each other. “Ring Rick,” she says, handing me her phone.
I ring Rick. I ring Michael. There is no response from either of them and I remember that Umbria is a region of mountains and sometimes it is impossible to get a signal. Melissa gives another cry and I frantically try to remember all those television programmes featuring babies being born, the sort that are up-close and personal, sparing no gory detail, but all I can think of are stupid clichés about boiling kettles and fetching towels. Melissa looks at me pleadingly. “Breathe,” I say. “Just keep breathing, slowly, deeply. It will be fine.”
She starts to pant. “It’s too soon,” she says, “much too soon.”
***By the time I’ve managed to make contact with Rick and Michael, the ambulance has arrived and is conveying us: myself, Melissa and the tiny little baby, to the nearest hospital where they have a specialist neo-natal unit.
I think I managed to do things more or less as they should have been done because she cried and I believe that’s very important: the first cry. I try to ascertain her condition from the paramedics but their acquaintanceship with the English language seems comparable to my lack of fluency in Italian. They just make soothing noises while taking Melissa's pulse or measuring her blood pressure. In between these ministrations I squeeze her hand and attempt to reassure her, tell her that babies even more premature can survive these days, given modern medical interventions.
***Rick phones later that evening. He says that the baby is holding her own but that the next few days will be crucial. Michael tells him that we’ll call into the hospital tomorrow. Meanwhile, is there anything we can do to help? Not really, Rick says. All we can do is wait and hope.
Michael relays the gist of the conversation to me. “I just feel so helpless,” I say in response. “Well you shouldn’t,” he replies. “If it weren’t for you …”
He puts his hand on my shoulder and leaves it there long enough for me to detect a gentle pressure. It’s an unusually tender gesture. “Get to bed,” he says, “you look shattered.”
It’s due to nervous rather than physical exhaustion so I don’t sleep particularly well. Nor, it seems, does Michael. We’re both out of bed at an hour when most holidaymakers would be expected to be still deep in slumber and after a fairly perfunctory breakfast we head for the hospital.
Rick and Melissa are sitting together in a small ante-room. They look as though they've been there all night. Without preamble, Rick says, “There’s a bit of a problem with her lungs but the medics say she’s got a good fighting chance.”
Michael looks at him, at his white, strained face, his dishevelled appearance. “You need a bit of a break,” he says. “There’s a bar along the street and we’re just at the end of a telephone should you be required.”
At first he protests but Melissa urges him to go along with the suggestion. “Catherine will keep me company,” she says and, when they’ve left, she calls for a nurse and, suitably attired in mask and gown, I accompany her into the adjoining ward where the baby lies in her incubator, all manner of tubes and drips and wires attached to her tiny frame.
“We’ve been told,” Melissa says, gazing at all this apparatus, “that this is one of the best baby units in the country.” She says it twice as though, if she keeps saying it, it will prove to be indubitably true. She looks at me. “You know, I can’t thank you enough for what you did.”
I shake my head. “No need for thanks. I wasn’t much help.”
“You didn’t panic and you helped to keep me from panicking. I’d read all the books and been to the classes but that doesn’t really prepare you for when it actually happens. It’s experience that counts, isn’t it? You seemed very assured. I guess you have children of your own?”
The baby's fist is opening and closing, attempting, perhaps, to clutch on to life. “Child,” I reply. “I had one child.”
Longed-for. We thought that it would never happen, had almost resigned ourselves to childlessness, and then it did, though we were told that it was unlikely to happen again.
That didn’t matter. Danny was enough, beautiful Danny, a composite of our best features, our most desirable qualities, who gurgled and smiled from day one. He had a mop of black curly hair and bracelets of fat around his wrists and ankles, and then he began to grow, a big-eyed fledgling. He kept a frog in a teapot and he had an imaginary friend called George who was responsible for all the acts of naughtiness that occurred. He disassembled every mechanical toy that we bought for him because he wanted to know how it worked. We thought he was destined to become an engineer like his father.
“What did he become?” Melissa asks. We’re sitting in the ante-room and a kind nurse has brought us coffee.
“He didn’t become anything,” I say eventually. “He was killed crossing the road six years ago.”
It was the first time, the very first time he’d been allowed to come back from school alone. Just one road to cross. “I’m not a baby,” he’d said. No one else in his class, he said, had mummy accompanying them.
Sometimes, these days, when passing school gates, I see all the mothers drawing up in their cars to collect their children and the guilt comes flooding back.
Melissa takes my hand as I took hers the previous night. “Tell me about him,” she says.
I close my eyes, try to encapsulate Danny’s brief existence. He was sunny-natured, almost all of the time, bursting with pride whenever he achieved a gold star or successfully assembled an Airfix kit or managed to stay upright on his bicycle without Michael holding on to the back of the seat. He hated: having his hair cut, trying on new shoes, being obliged to wait. Crazes came and went: dinosaurs, football posters, astronomy. He was full of zest and curiosity, full of life, and one afternoon we sat in a hospital waiting room just as I am doing now and after what seemed like forever a doctor came to tell us that it had taken only one false move for all that zest, curiosity and exuberance to be extinguished.
I realise that I’ve talked more about him in these last few minutes than I ever did, even to Michael, especially to Michael who simply closed up, turned in on himself, after it happened.
“I need to talk,” I tell Melissa, “even after all this time, but Michael thinks that talking about it simply prolongs the agony.”
Melissa stares into the middle distance. “People cope with things differently,” she says. “Rick, like your Michael, doesn’t believe in dwelling on things. I’m like you, I need to unload. But we have to respect other people’s strategies, otherwise …”
I’ve contemplated the otherwise for some considerable time.
We hear footsteps approaching along the corridor. Michael precedes Rick into the room. I look at him and I realise I still believe that, somewhere, somehow, submerged beneath everything that’s happened, we do still love each other.
***“She’s a fighter,” they told Rick and Melissa. And she continued to fight, clinging on, improving daily, until the afternoon when, back in rainy England, I received a phone call from Melissa telling me that she was well enough to be taken home.
And now we’re packing to go back to Italy for her christening. She's to be called Catherine, after me, and we're to be godparents, Michael and I. There will always be a special bond, Melissa says.
I feel a kind of excitement. It seems like a new lease of life. I can look forward to photographs and letters. We’ll Skype, perhaps even visit when they return to the States.
Meanwhile I consult Michael about my godparent outfit. “Will it do?” I ask. “Do I look all right?”
“You always look all right,” he says. And I sense that, rather than it being a knee-jerk response, he’s starting to see me again, properly. What happened in Umbria has had an effect, on both of us. I’ve realised that his anguish was and is as real as my own; it’s just that our ways of grieving are different. We've both realised that if we don’t begin to understand that, then the rigidity of our respective stances might mean the end of our relationship. And if the first move has to come from me, well, so be it. Life, and love, are too precious to waste for the sake of mere intransigence. And though we’ll continue to mourn Danny, we can also contemplate a celebration of Catherine.