The grey, cool room held so much sadness that the old mismatched furniture had absorbed the heavy look of grief. The dim light, respectful of the injustices it revealed below seemed to watch the surreal story painfully unfold. Martin sat staring at nothing. His pale cheeks carried rivulets of salty tears. With faces creased in concern the nurse and counsellor looked from Martin to me. I sat looking at Martin trying to take in the awful news.
We had just spent three months in America pulling our lives back together after Martin beat leukaemia into remission. The night before we flew back home, to the UK, Martin complained about a back pain. We tried to make jokes about him pulling a muscle, but at dinner Martin just sat and silently cried into his plate. He knew. The journey home was almost unbearable, there were hours of delay which led to Martin becoming increasingly uncomfortable. This caused the stewardesses to become alarmed. They didn’t want an emergency situation on board during the flight. They talked to us quietly.
‘We have to know if you can make this journey,’ they said. Their eyes betrayed their concern.
‘Just get me home,’ said Martin.
Throughout the journey, every hour the pain increased and was met with yet another passenger offering a pill. It was quite remarkable to see all the different types of medications available on board from our fellow travellers. It provided a moment of amusement within our little world of hell. I was helpless.
We arrived back into the UK and the next day I had returned to work while Martin went to hospital. Overnight, the pain relief drugs had helped. At 11 am that morning he called me. The back ache had revealed the disease’s subterfuge over the months. He said, ‘I have two weeks to live.’
The next minute I was in the hospital room with him, where so many people before us had lived out this awful drama. Now it was our turn to re-enact the tragic scene. But, in the tangible gloom of the winter day, all I wanted to do was hold him, protect him, and make it all go away. But I just sat there stunned, uselessly saying, ‘Don’t cry.’ The gloomy rain tapped against the window. He looked at me, the sadness palpable. He said, ‘Will you marry me before I die?’
Two days later, while I held his hand in utter disbelief, Martin left this world. Our wedding plans forever on hold. Death is so quiet.
Six months later, assaulted with a confusion of emotions in my lonely north London flat, I resigned from my job and packed my bags. I needed to get as far away as I could from the tortuous memories. To reach another land at another time in history was not possible, so Australia became my destination. I did everything my counsellor said I must not do – I ran away.
Though I had removed myself from the memories, I hadn’t distanced myself from the hurt. A new relationship was not on my agenda. No one had said that the emotional pain from bereavement would actually, physically hurt. I had a pain in my stomach, and I was desperate for release, which was peculiar and in opposition with the aching barrenness. I’d watched a perfectly healthy (so we thought) man slowly die.
The vacant hurt that clung to my innards eventually gave way, but did not vanish. It was replaced with deep anger at the injustice. I wanted to blame, shout, and scream; I wanted answers. None came.
I, like millions of people before me, had to ride it out. I felt lost, detached like a leaf that was constantly pushed and spun around in the wind. My emotions buffeted me along; I could not think. I could only follow whatever force it was that led me to put one foot in front of the other.
While riding out these all too vivid emotions that left me wrung out and sometimes desperately sobbing, begging for Martin to come and get me, I met someone. Noel and I were in every way a ‘rebound’ couple; we were both confused by the twist of a new relationship that somehow simultaneously made no sense and perfect sense.
Sitting on my emotional roller coaster, it felt odd to feel drawn to a rather strange, true blue Aussie. I had met Noel a few days after landing on the other side of the world. What confounded me more was that he seemed to have every relationship turn-off I could think of. He was a divorcee. He had kids. There was a substantial age difference between us (sixteen years, though quite often I am the more mature), and he sported a rather thick beard. As a wandering soul, who had not quite found his place in life, Noel could not have been more different from an unworldly, shy ‘English Rose.’ Despite the clashing of two worlds, every wobbly particle of my being egged me on to be near him.
Meanwhile my head said, ‘Whoa, rebound.’
We had met through family; actually we’re related. Uncle Noel and I are intrinsically linked through marriage, not blood. Having family in Australia meant a straightforward welcome and a gentle introduction in to a new culture. It also meant a new connection for us both that would transport us into a movie-like adventure and, eventually, into an inner tranquillity I have only read about.
I spent three months in Australia, partly travelling along the east coast and partly travelling with Noel. At the end of a remarkable journey, where I fell deeply in love with one man while grieving for another, I returned to the UK for a whirlwind three weeks in Hertfordshire, where I had grown up. I had a brand new car and a rather nice apartment to deal with, and a multitude of goodbyes.
My parents had long ago accepted I was different: ‘flighty,’ I think is fair. In fact, I’m constantly amazed that my parents still talk to me at all after my wayward teenage years and my inability to settle – but that’s another story. They weren’t at all surprised when I revealed I was going back to Australia. Without a single question or thought, they offered their complete support and love.
‘As long as you’re happy,’ they said.
They’re pure gold in human form.
Not once did I question my decision. During drunken, painful farewells with friends and tearful, wrenching goodbyes with close family, I had not one doubt. Even the heart-raw farewells with my niece and nephew didn’t give me pause. Their fear of a barmy aunt in the family were totally confirmed when I blubbed on their shoulders.
‘Why are you going if it makes you cry?’ my nephew’s wide, slightly fearful eyes seemed to hold many questions, as he tried to peel off my clinging arms.
‘I dunno,’ I sobbed, covertly wiping my nose on his skinny shoulder. What could I say? ‘There’s this old, hairy man waiting for me the other side of the world, I have no idea why, but I have to be with him!’
Actually, I knew why, he made me laugh. Not just giggle or snigger from time to time, but a full, belly aching, wet knickers guffaw. On occasions, I made him laugh too, though sometimes it was a little embarrassing, as it was usually when I was trying to be serious.