Sarah Crabtree currently lurks and works in deepest, darkest Berkshire, UK. Her short fiction, poetry and reviews have been published in a variety of magazines both print and online, including Quality Women's Fiction, Bella, Chat, Yours, MOJO, The Dream Zone and BuzzWords. A story is lined up for a Holiday Horror Anthology and another will feature in the first issue of the new Terror Tales.
'Go and see him! For heaven's sake, June. The guy's dying. What excuse have you not to go?'
'We were never that close. Then there's the kids. I have to be back in time-'
'It's only five miles out of your way. What are you so afraid of? Oh!' Lesley gave June a bitchy look. 'You think you're going to catch it, don't you?'
'Don't be ridiculous! I know you can't catch skin cancer.' Though the thought had never occurred to her. 'It's just he probably won't want to see me. It was you he always liked. Tell you what, why don't you come with me?'
'No. I've already said my goodbyes.'
A strange feeling came over June.
'He liked you as a friend,' coaxed Lesley. 'Don't you know how important that is?'
'Isn't it just?' June noticed Lesley's ruby-red nails matched her ruby-red lips.
'I'll think about it, Lesley.'
'You're a funny one. I mean, it's not as if you've got a seedy past you want to hide away from.'
June looked at her big green eyes, golden-blonde hair and still perfect curves.
'No,' she answered, trying desperately not to sound rattled. 'Have you got his phone number?'
Lesley reeled it off.
June arched her eyebrows. 'Ring him often, do you?'
Lesley sighed and tapped those long fingernails. 'Number, numbers...'
June was now digging around the bottom of her over-large handbag.
'Oh, for heaven's sake.' Lesley sighed again. 'It's only a six digit number.' She looked away repulsed as June triumphantly withdrew a chewed-up till receipt from the bowels of her bag.
'That'll do to jot it down on.' She checked her watch. 'Hey! Shouldn't you be getting back to the office? I mean, it's ten to one.'
'It takes me three and a half minutes to reach my desk from here.' Lesley swept up her new white leather handbag, uncrossed her white leather courts, and swung her bronzed legs into action.
June watched a smartly-dressed man turn to eye-up Lesley as her friend trotted efficiently towards her office.
Okay, Lesley. I'll do it. I'll go there this afternoon. I'll show you.
It was only when June was angry that she became assertive. Instead of dismounting at her home stop, she paid the extra fare to transport her to Gareth's cottage.
She gasped when she saw it: a neatly thatched, white-walled abode appeared before her. She smelt the lavender, busy with bees and white butterflies. Just as she unhooked the gate, the tidy blue door was opened by a thin, brown-haired man.
'Hello June. I've been waiting for you.'
Spurred on by the welcome, she raced up the path.
'Gareth! How are you?' She searched into his eyes: they were as expressionless as usual. There was no sudden "light-up" which he always had for Lesley; the "light-up" men always had for Lesley.
She tried to push the feelings of disappointment into the furthest corner of her subconscious. It didn't matter now; even if he looked pretty healthy, the guy was dying. Six months the specialists had said; six months of gradual deterioration, and then...June groped for something to say: 'What a beautiful cottage. What a lovely place to- ' She stopped abruptly.
'I know, I know.' He didn't even bother to turn and look at her.
She followed him disconsolately into the cottage. Although the summer heat had penetrated her thin white cotton blouse, it hadn't touched the stone of the cottage hallway. She shivered at the sudden coldness; and it was so dark. Removing her blue framed sunglasses, she strained to see where Gareth had slipped off to.
'Where are you?' she called with a cautious voice. 'I can't see you.' She was feeling stupid now. Lesley wouldn't have found herself in this predicament. She would have strolled confidently through into the lounge. She would probably even be out on the back lawn sipping a glass of Pimm's by now. But then Gareth would have guided Lesley, swept her in with his right arm encircling her still-narrow waist. Not left her to trot in after him like a well-trained puppy.
The drop in temperature made her feel light-headed. 'Atichoo!'
'Bless you, Mary!'
As she recovered from her sneeze, she opened her eyes to a dimly-lit room.
Perhaps his condition warrants subdued lighting.
Gareth was lying on a bed in the corner of the room.
'Look, if you're feeling that bad today, maybe I should come on the morrow.'
On the morrow? What was she saying? How strange her voice sounded, how countrified, old-fashioned even. Then she looked down at her feet: they were almost obscured by a long, dark skirt.
'Come here, my dear. Come, Mary!' The figure on the bed gently lifted his hand for her to take.
Mary? Who the hell's Mary? Is it the heat? Was it something I drank? Haven't I just crashed a seventeenth century play? June tried to work out an explanation; but just as the bright sunlight had faded into flickering candlelight, so had her memories. Nothing that had happened before mattered; now was all that was important.
I am Mary.
'Come, darling. Let me look at your lovely face. Come to your beloved Frederick.'
She glided over to take his feeble hand, aware of the susurration of her dark gown as she moved. 'What ails thee, my dear?' Her voice was softer now, yet it was her own voice that spoke.
'That I am soon to leave you, my darling.'
In the flickering candlelight she discerned the tell-tale wheals on his young skin.
'It was brave of you to risk seeing me, my darling. Have you no fear of the Plague?'
'The only fear I have, is of losing you, my love.' She felt the tears sliding down her face.
'And you, who have so many suitors.' The voice was fading. 'You have a heart as beautiful as your face.'
'Me? Beautiful?' Still clutching his hand with her own right, she lifted her left hand to touch her cheek.
'Aye. Have you never admired your own beauty? Are you humble as well as lovely?'
A tarnished mirror hung to the side of the bed. She released his hand at last, and stood to examine her features. An image of blonde-haired, blue-eyed loveliness shone back at her. She watched the cupid's bow mouth whisper, 'That is not my face.'
'Cup of tea, June?' She spun round to face Gareth looking at her bemused.
'Um, yes. That would be nice.'
'Thought we could sit out on the lawn. There's a nice bit of shade at the bottom there.'
She mutely followed him, every movement guarded, thoughtful. They sipped their tea from the pink rosebud china cups. When he'd drained his, Gareth rose out of his garden chair.
'Look, June, if it's all the same to you, I think I'd like to get some rest. I hope I don't appear rude, but...'
He wants me to leave now.
As she mechanically closed the front gate, their eyes locked for the first and last time. They both knew they would never meet again.
But we've lived, Frederick. We've really lived. Haven't we?
Gareth's front door clicked shut. June turned towards the direction of the school, and a bumble bee clumsily flew into her cheek. As she instinctively brushed it away, she realised her face was still damp.
Reaching the bus stop, she unzipped her handbag to sort out the correct change. Her fingers touched on the shopping list with the scrawled telephone number. Mounting the bus, she crumpled up the paper in her hand, and threw it into the "Used Tickets" bin.
(C) Sarah Crabtree 2003
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.