Here is a story I wrote for the King Lear Short Story competition in 2020.
I was delighted to find that it received a Highly Commended.
There was no waking, because there had been no sleeping. Not really. Eyes closed, breathing shallow, but not really sleeping. Was it the noise? The constant beeping of monitors, the soft but firm footsteps, the occasional cry from another bed? Maybe. But sometimes, all these sounds would dim, fade away, and there was still no sleep.
Betsy didn’t mind. She wasn’t tired. How could she be? You needed to have done something, moved somewhere, to be tired. And she hadn’t done either for such a long, long time. Or perhaps it was just a week. Or a few days. Time meant nothing to her as she lay there. Except – was it visiting time? It must be, because here she was. Betsy smiled as she felt the warm hand, still plump from childhood but reassuring as a parent, grasp her own.
‘How are you, Nana?’ Ellie said.
How was she? Betsy gave it some thought. Well, she was alive. Against all the odds. Her heart had continued to beat, albeit reluctantly, spasmodically, sometimes with a little help, but beating nonetheless. Her lungs continued to inflate, deflate; wheezing and rattling, but working. Her kidneys – maybe not so good, but hey, machines could do their work when needed. Tubes in various places, some in private places, some leading to collecting bags, some to the machines that told others she was still in this world. And one inserted in her hand, the hand that Ellie held now. She looked down at it. Ellie’s, so pink and smooth, fingers dimpled, one proudly sporting her engagement ring. And her own – skeletal, fleshless, loose in too much skin.
‘I’m fine sweetheart’ she said, her strong voice now diminished, reduced to a half-whisper.
‘You’re an old con-woman, Nana! You can’t fool me. You’re as tough as old boots!’
Betsy smiled. She would have laughed if she could. This was why she liked Ellie the best – she didn’t make allowances. She didn’t speak in hushed tones like the others. She didn’t seem to be mentally adding up the assets while sitting glum-faced at her bedside. She was pleased to be here, to chat, make jokes, tease her. The fact that tears sometimes swam in her young eyes, or that her voice sometimes cracked before a determined clearing of the throat, didn’t lessen the cheer she brought each evening.
‘Mum sends her love. And Dad too of course. Phoebe would have come if she could, but you know what her shifts are like. And Auntie Gaynor says she’ll pop in as soon as she can.’
And so they chatted. It might have seemed a slightly one-sided chat to anyone watching, but not to them. Yes, Ellie did most of the talking, but Betsy was fully engaged in the conversation, her face coming alive, her smiles and frowns and slight nods sparing her the energy of speaking, but the communication was definitely two-way.
The bell rang. Visiting was over for today. Ellie rose, reluctant to leave, but only too aware of the ward rules. She leant over and kissed her grandmother.
‘See you tomorrow Nana. And no wild parties tonight, okay?’
Betsy took a breath.
‘We never danced, you know’ she said.
‘Danced? Who? You and Grampa?’
‘He told me he could dance, but we never did.’
She took another breath, a shaky one this time. Ellie looked down at the frail old lady and swallowed hard.
‘I want to hear about this Nana! I can’t believe you never danced! You, the children of the fifties? The sixties? Not dancing?’
She kissed her again.
‘I have to go now. Will you tell me about it tomorrow?’
There was no shortage of dance partners that evening. A shortage of boys perhaps, but it was just as good to dance with her friends. Not too many boys could master the jive, let alone the far more boisterous rock and roll steps and throws. It was with her friends from school, an all-girls school, that she’d learned the steps, and now they were happy to showcase their talents. The music from the live band vibrated through the wooden floor, and she allowed herself to be whirled and twirled by her friend Shirley. It was exhilarating.
Rows of boys sat along one wall, girls who couldn’t or wouldn’t dance sat along the opposite one. The church hall was full, the music was loud, the lemonade on sale was sweet, and Betsy was flushed with excitement as the music finished with a crash. Time to take a breath before the next song started. The local band had picked their numbers with care – mainly those being made famous by Bill Haley and Carl Perkins, and the newcomer Elvis Presley. Ones with a beat, defying tradition, made for youngsters like herself.
‘Want a drink?’
A boy was standing next to her at the trestle table which was creaking under the weight of china cups filled with lemonade. Betsy looked him up and down. Yes, she knew who he was. Howie Lewis from the boys’ school at the other end of town. The girls had a way of finding out these things as they stood waiting, pictures of innocent, at the bus station after school each day. The only place where the sexes mingled. Apart from here.
‘Yes, okay, thanks’ she said, determined to sound cool, hoping the heat she felt creeping up her cheeks wasn’t visible. This was Howie Lewis. Howie Lewis! All the girls liked him. And it seemed that he had liked quite a few girls too.
‘I like the way you dance’ he said.
How to respond to this? A compliment? Or was he teasing her? Was he making fun of her? She decided to ignore it.
‘You’re not dancing then?’
‘Nah. Not tonight. I prefer proper dancing anyway, not this stuff.’
‘What – waltzes and stuff?’
‘Yeah. I’m good at those. What about you?’
‘Uhh – no, I can’t do those. We learn the Valeta and the Gay Gordons at school, but not proper dancing.’
‘I’ll show you one day. Promise’
And there it was. Betsy and Howie were a couple, inseparable, meant for each other. And he’d made her a promise. But he never did dance. Whether it was a get-together at the church hall, like the one where they’d met, or, as they got older, a more formal dance, he didn’t feel like it. He encouraged her to dance though. He liked watching her, he said. When they got married, Betsy had been looking forward to being swung around the dancefloor at their reception, but no. Howie stood in the centre of the floor, arms held aloft like a Spanish flamenco dancer, clicking his fingers, while she gyrated around him, laughing at his exhortations of ‘Go on girl!’ while the guests clapped, delighted at his humour and his charm, happy for the young couple.
It became accepted, normal, the way things were. She danced, he didn’t. Just as he took the bins out, she didn’t. She would dance around the kitchen with their daughters, he watched appreciatively. It never became an issue, never a problem. Now and then, she’d remind him of his promise.
‘I’ll show you how to dance one day, Bets!’ he’d say.
And she’d laugh and kiss him.
Was it the machines that woke her? Was their beeping and buzzing louder than usual? Had their tone changed? Betsy didn’t know, but when she opened her eyes, there he was, standing at the side of her bed. Handsome as he’d ever been, ageless. Not the thin, sick man she’d bid farewell to just six months ago. Not the man she’d sat with, talked to, laughed with, holding his hand as he slipped peacefully away. She’d been well then, fit, healthy. Or so she’d thought. Funny how things can hide away, be pushed away, when there are more important things to do. But here he was. Not sick now, not wasting away, but upright, beautiful. He smiled at her, his face crinkling, his eyes twinkling, and held out his hand.
She was mildly surprised that she could sit up, that she was unhampered by wires and needles and tubes, that she could swing her legs out of the bed like she used to. It felt good. She slipped her feet into her slippers, and stood, straight and tall, all the while holding his lovely, precious face with her eyes.
‘I promised you, Bets’ he said.
And he took her hand, pulled her to him, slid an arm around her waist. She felt the strength of his body as he held her close, his breath on her neck, his fingers as they squeezed hers. Where was the music coming from? Had someone turned on a radio? He was moving now, his feet assured, guiding her, leading her. They were dancing.
She laughed in delight. She followed his every footstep as they moved as one now, twirling, gliding, floating. The room was changing as they covered the floor. They danced towards the doors, the music following them as they spun into another space, and the only sound left behind them was the long high-pitched sustained beeping of a machine, dimming to a drone, a whisper, then lost in the music as they danced on.