A Garden For Bella & Tommy: A Short Story of Enduring Love

The snow had fallen heavily overnight, and the residents of the garden – the tiny nightingale with its enchanting song, the speckled song thrush, the scarlet-breasted robin, the bushy-tailed red squirrel, fleet of foot and fur of flame, the little hedgehog and the great spotted woodpecker – all woke to find their home swathed in winter’s white veil. The grass, once green, was covered by a thick blanket of unspoiled snow that glistened in the sun as she spread her warm fingers of light over the frozen land. The ivy, dark green and bejewelled with frost, sparkled too; stunningly beautiful, like ivory on jade. A fir tree, wreathed and garlanded with winter’s stole, offered shelter amongst its emerald fronds, whilst the old-fashioned wishing well which stood beneath had frozen solid, entombing the hopes and dreams cast therein, until the Spring thaw would set them free.

At the far end of the garden, the oak and beech tree, their naked, rime encrusted limbs outstretched to greet the dawn, stood beside a small brook which once babbled merrily, but whose voice was now muted by a thick layer of ice.

Bella was 8-years-old when she first stumbled across the garden. She had accidentally lost her grip on her mother’s hand, and since her mother neither noticed nor cared that her little girl was no longer by her side she had wandered, lost and alone through the city where she lived until she happened across a large, heavy, wrought iron gate. The gate was securely fastened with a thick chain and a lock as big as Bella’s hand, but the bars were just wide enough to allow Bella to squeeze through. Beyond the gate was a gravel pathway. Bella delighted in the way the gravel crunched beneath her feet as she walked. At first the pathway ran straight ahead, but soon turned sharp right, where it gave onto a small courtyard with another locked gate. This second gate was too narrow for Bella to squeeze through, but, undaunted and possessed with the energetic zeal of youthful adventure, she saw that she could easily scale the bars and drop down onto the other side. This she did effortlessly, and after rounding a large privet hedge, Bella found herself in the garden.

“Nothing cures the senses but the senses” wrote Oscar Wilde. For Bella, now aged 80, this was certainly true. She still came to the garden, her “little piece of heaven” as she liked to call it, to escape the humdrum banality of her life, but primarily to fill the void of lonliness which, like a swirling black hole, sat at the centre of her being, threatening to pull her in entirely.

Today, a glorious day in the height of summer, as Bella stepped barefoot onto the crisp, cool grass, every last vestige of negative emotion was banished absolutely. The hedgerows were ablaze with violet blooms, their petals still wet with morning dew, shimmering brilliantly in the bright summer sun. The grass too had erupted in a riot of colour, as pink tulips, blood-red poppies and purple and yellow pansies strained their heads upwards towards the clear blue sky. The oak and beech tree, the boughs adorned with glossy, bright green leaves, played host to a veritable array of birds who sang and called as if in greeting to their faithful friend. The fir, too, was busy with energy and life. The fleet-footed red squirrel, no doubt a descendent of that which she had seen on her very first visit, and with a family of its own, shimmied down the trunk and scurried across the garden, stopping here and there to snaffle a few tasty acorns discarded by the oak. High up, amongst the boughs of the beech tree, the great-spotted woodpecker poked its head out of the home it had hammered out for itself earlier in the spring.

Gingerly, Bella eased herself down onto the cool grass. She wasn’t entirely sure how she would get up again, but she would think about that when it was time to go. As she sat there amongst the flowers, she thought about all that had happened in the years since she first found her idyll. The world had seen two wars, with millions lost. Friends and family had come and gone; some had simply lost touch; others had passed away. Meanwhile technology had moved apace, bringing gadgets and gizmos to the masses, making the world smarter, and yet somehow colder.

She thought too about Tommy, the love of her life, the only man she had ever loved. They had met at the cinema in January 1914. She was 18; he 21. Bella had arrived at the cinema with a different date, a local boy about whom her mother always said was “a wrong un” and that “his eyes are too close together.” As it happened, her mother was right, for as they entered the cinema, he suggestively suggested that they sit in the back row. Bella had smiled and said that this was only their first date, and besides, she wasn’t that kind of girl. He shrugged and said OK, but then half way through the film he said that he had to go to the toilet and that was the last time she saw him. When the film had finished she walked out to the foyer alone, dejected, rejected, but determined not to be upset. Her determination was never that strong though, and the tears began to fall. That’s when she met Tommy. He was there with friends, but seeing her distressed, had offered to walk her home.

Love blossomed during the walk, and from that moment, until the war came, they were inseparable. She brought Tommy to the garden, and was thrilled that he was as enraptured by its serenity, tranquility and beauty as she. They would sit together on the grass, just holding hands and talking like they had known each other all their lives, or simply listening to the sounds of nature all around them. It was here in the garden that he had told her he loved her, and, with a freshly picked poppy in hand, had got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.

With war looming on the horizon, Bella and Tommy married post haste. After the ceremony they took the train to Brighton for their honeymoon. That was the last time she had ever been truly happy; the last time she had ever felt complete.

Tommy, like the thousands of others who believed that they “would be home by Christmas” enlisted in the army and was immediately posted to Belgium. He died two months later, in the mud at Ypres, leaving a world at war, and Bella alone.

That day, when the postman arrived with the telegram, Bella had run to the garden. She remembered how the birds seemed to fall silent, as though they could sense her grief. Strangely, they were silent again now. Aware of someone standing close beside her, Bella looked up. Tommy’s handsome face gazed down at her. He was smiling, not a day older than when they parted all those years ago at the train station.

“Tommy?” she whispered.

“I’ve come to walk you home,” he smiled “Just like when we met”

He reached down and handed her a poppy, and then sat down beside her, like he had done on that wonderful day when she first shared the garden with him. As they sat on the cool grass face to face, she closed her eyes to blink away the tears of joy.

Two days later, on page five of the local newspaper, was the headline:

ELDERLY WOMAN FOUND DEAD IN SECLUDED GARDEN

CLUTCHING A POPPY: A TRAGIC, LONELY DEATH

If only they knew.

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Think Before You Unzip

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Still from the 2004 movie, Alfie.

As I mentioned in my post Life In The Front Rowone of the major changes that recently took place in both mine and my husband’s life, was that our best friend and former Casanova-cum-Lothario, was flying to Las Vegas to get married.

I for one, never thought he would go through with it. Having known him for over twenty years, I have seen him go from one relationship to another, and even have seven different girlfriends on the go at the same time! Now, don’t get me wrong. He is a lovely guy and the best friend anyone could ever wish to have in their lives, and other than an inability to be honest that he wasn’t ready to choose one particular woman to settle down with, he never mistreated the women he was with. On the contrary; he wined and dined them, courted and cavorted with them. They loved him. Couldn’t get enough of him.

Since he met his wife, however, he seems to have been a changed man. All the sleeping around, all the courting and cavorting, even all the wining and dining, has been well and truly put to rest. Even so, just before he left for Vegas, I told him two things. “I wish you all the happiness in the world” I said, and then added, “For god’s sake, don’t f*ck it up” He shook his head and smiled, and promised he wouldn’t.

The day after his wedding, I caught up with him on FaceTime. He was positively glowing, and after a five-minute verbal onslaught over how he was torn between wearing a blue jacket or a gray one, he said that they were currently in a suite at the Bellagio. It was, he said, a wedding gift from his new wife’s best friend, Andrea (not her real name). “I tell you what though,” he said, his voice dropping conspiratorially, “Andrea is so cute” It was, for me, a real head-in-hands moment. “What?” he said, as if he were as innocent as virgin snow, “I’m only saying”

I thought a moment, and then remembered a line I had heard several years ago, in the movie remake of “Alfie” with Jude Law. And so I said, “I can’t tell you what to do or how to behave, but whatever you do … think before you unzip.”

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Pretoria Pit

The Pretoria Pit disaster took place on December 21, 1910, in Westhoughton, Lancashire, a town just a stone’s throw from where I grew up. The pit employed 2,500 men and boys, all of them local, and many from the same families. On the day of the disaster, 900 men and boys clocked on for the early shift, while the rest of the community finished their Christmas preparations. Many of the miners had, in the past, complained of about gas and hot air in the mine. 

Unbeknownst to the miners that morning, the previous day saw a 20-yard (18 meter) section of the roof had collapsed further down the mine. It should have been cleared before the miners clocked on that morning, but it had not been. This caused a build-up of flammable gas within the now enclosed space. At 7:50 a.m a faulty safety lamp ignited the gas, resulting in a huge explosion and causing a wall of hot coal dust, carbon monoxide and methane gas to fill the mine. Of the 900 men and boys who clocked on for work that morning, 348 of them died. 

This poem was inspired by the story of Ben Byers, whose brother, Fountain Byers, was one of the 348 who died. Fountain was brought out alive, but died a short time later of his injuries. Fountain was buried on Christmas Day, 1910. The worst affected family, however, was that of Mrs. Miriam Tyldesley. She lost her husband, four sons and two brothers. 

I can see it as clearly as I saw it then

That hideous black day in 1910,

When the fates saw fit for our souls to plunder

And tear hundreds of families completely asunder.

I was 14-years-old and worked in the mill

When the news jolted in, and the world stood still.

I strained my ears and hoped I’d misheard

That a terrible tragedy had occurred,

Further down yonder at the Pretoria Pit,

And I was told I could leave if I saw fit.

I had three brothers that worked down that mine

Mum always worried, but they said they’d be fine.

The pit gives a living, and the pit destroys,

And takes the best of our men and boys.

A friend of mine’s dad worked down there too,

We grabbed our coats and then we two

Ran like the wind through the drizzling rain,

Trying hard our composures’ to maintain.

We hoped against hope that all would be well,

And troubling thoughts we fought to dispel.

Rounding the corner we came on the scene.

The air was thick and the smell was keen.

Women with eyes filled with fear and hurt;

Children sobbing and clinging to their mothers’ skirt.

The menfolk were stoic, but you could tell they knew,

That there was very little anyone could do,

Save some semblance of hope to try and derive

That at least one or two would be brought out alive.

And so we waited, in the drizzling rain,

Wondering if we’d see our loved ones again.

By four o’clock it was almost dark.

I was cold and wet, and so I walked through the park,

Back towards home to my Mum and Dad,

To see if any news they’d had.

As I stepped through the door I heard sobbing cries,

And my Dad came to greet me with dread in his eyes.

There, by the fire, my brother George sits;

Poisoned gas had shot his lungs to bits.

A cry from the parlour, so loud the devil awoke.

My brother, Fountain, just died … and Mum’s heart just broke.

My third brother was one of those to survive.

He was still at the pit, bringing out the dead and alive.

I once told my Dad, “You know, our George proclaims

That one day that pit’s going to go up in flames.”

They laid my brother to rest on Christmas Day.

What a heavy price for coal we pay!

His wife, now a widow, and his newborn child,

Never knowing her father, so gentle and mild.

When my brother to Saint Peter his name does tell,

He’ll be told “Come on in and rest, lad. You’ve seen enough of hell.”

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Cereal Killer

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A silly little verse to indulge my love of wordplay. 

He was sitting, eating his breakfast,

When amidst a clap of thunder,

He was drowned in his bowl of muesli

A strong currant pulled him under.

His wife, who was upstairs packing

For a weekend getting her kicks,

Was discovered dead on the bedroom floor,

Throttled by a Weetabix.

A few days passed without incident,

When an icecream van from Manfredi’s

Had to swerve to avoid a woman in the road,

Who’d been stabbed to death by some Shreddies.

The police investigation

Eventually came to naught,

And all the deaths were deemed freak events,

Or at least, that’s what people thought.

Then the detectives received a letter

From a criminal mastermind,

He boasted that he was the brains behind all the deaths

And that him they’d never find.

“I’m climbing the heights of infamy” he said

“I’m the Moriarty of my day!”

He ended his letter with “You’ll hear from me soon!”

And he signed it, “Special K”.

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Surprise! It’s A Grass Spider!

A couple of mornings ago, as is my habit, I wandered outside to check the postbox. As I did so, I noticed dozens of small silken webs, each one bejewelled with dew, all over the lawn. I was immediately intrigued, more so given the fact that I had never noticed anything such as that on my lawn before, even in all the years I have lived here. I felt compelled to take a photo, if only to record the stunningly delicate beauty of the dewdrops, glistening on the silken threads in the spring sunshine.

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At the time, I had no idea what had made these webs, nor indeed why they were so numerous – there were at least two dozen of them. My best guess was some kind of caterpillar or moth, such as the Ermine Moth, which spins ghostly silken webs in and along hedgerows in late spring and early summer. Imagine my surprise then when I discovered that it was in fact a Grass Spider that had bedecked my lawn with its handiwork!

Now, whilst I would never do them any harm (to me, all life is precious), I would be lying if I said that spiders were one of my favourite creatures. So to know that there is such a creature as a grass spider, well, I don’t mind admitting that I shan’t be walking barefoot on the grass this summer!

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Neighbourhood Oddities

In yesterday’s post Life In The Front Row I wrote about the major life changes on which my husband and I are planning to embark. Not all changes though, it has to be said, have to be major in order to make a difference.

Recently – three weeks ago to be precise – we decided that it was time to stop procrastinating about our desire to get fitter and actually get off our backsides and do something. Anything high-impact, however, is a definite no go. Not only do I not enjoy it (a crucial factor when it comes to sticking at any form of exercise), but the fact that my husband has had surgery on both of his knees, as well as back and shoulder problems, means that anything along the lines of running or jogging are out of the question. We thought about swimming, but my husband’s misgivings over how he might look in swimming trunks soon put paid to that. Eventually, we decided that one thing we did want to do was to get out in the open air, to feel the breeze and the sunshine (not that there’s much of that in Belgium) on our faces. We therefore opted for the relatively low-impact activity of walking.

Oh! How addictive it has proven to be! We have walked each and every night for the past three weeks. Whilst we don’t necessarily measure or set ourselves a regular distance, we have found that our walks have gradually been extended from basically walking around the block, to last night’s hike of 7 kilometers or 4.3 miles. Since we began, our moods have improved, it’s proving to be a real stress-buster, and we are exploring parts of our neighbourhood that we didn’t even know existed. Not only that, but we are also seeing a range of weird and wonderful sights. Honestly, the things that our neighbourhood inhabitants keep around their homes, is truly mind-boggling.

Take this for example. Just a short walk from our house, this piece of surrealism can be found. Standing just outside the gates of the house is what appears to be a miniature sentry box. Take a look inside, however, and you see that it is not a sentry that is housed in the box, but rather two headless dolls made from plaster and surrounded by crudely fashioned pottery plates and decorations. It’s a little unnerving to say the least. My niece didn’t make it any less creepy when she proffered the suggestion that perhaps it is an example of what happens to those who trespass on the property!

There are beautiful sights too, such as this view of the canal at twilight.

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It’s not long though, before things get weird again. Then again, what else would you keep in your garden, if not an enormous yellow bathtub duck?

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There are spiritual sights too, such as this shrine. You can find these shrines all over Belgium. Often, they are placed at the sides of roads, or pinned to trees, and sometimes fastened to the sides of houses. More often than not, they will be adorned by the detritus of flowers, and prayers scrawled onto scraps of paper. This one, however, really caught our eye. Not only was it located on a perfectly ordinary suburban street – right next to someone’s gate, in fact – but it was beautifully maintained, glowing serenely in freshly lit candlelight. I am not religious by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t mind admitting that I was quite moved.

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We shan’t be walking this evening, otherwise I would hypothesise as to what we might come across. Alas, we both feel rather tired this evening, and my husband’s knees are starting to feel the strain, so we have decided to let ourselves recover for the next 24 hours. During our upcoming constitutionals, however, should we happen to come across any more weird and wonderful neighbourhood oddities, you my dear readers, shall be the first to know!

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Life In The Front Row

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As regular readers will have noticed, it has been quite a while since my last blog post. That last post – As The Wife Of A Husband With Depression – really blew me away with regards to the response. I wrote it merely to vent my spleen over how I was feeling, never expecting it to touch so many people and for people to be so kind, encouraging and open in their responses. Since then, I have been somewhat quiet. Well, insofar as blogging goes anyway. Away from the blogosphere (is that even a word?) I have been anything but.

On March 4, 2017, I began a TEFL training course. For those not au fait with the parlance, TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Were I to pass, I would then be fully qualified to teach English to foreign students, with a diploma that is recognised all over the world. My dear readers, I’m sure you’ll be as thrilled as I am to know that I did indeed pass, with an overall score of 94%! As soon as I received the news, I went into our study where my husband was and, a little shakily, said “I’m a qualified English teacher!” He hugged me so tightly that I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Then he asked “What time is it?” I told him it was 7:20 p.m “Great!” he exclaimed, “That means the supermarket will still be open. I’ll be back in a few minutes!” And with that he rushed out of the door, while I called my Mum and Dad to give them the good news. A few minutes later, my husband came back, bearing a congratulations card and a bottle of champagne. “I’m so proud of you” he told me. Honestly, I could have cried.

Since then, we have been busy little bees, making plans about what to do with my new qualification. I decided that I would follow it up by learning Italian. We have long since held a candle for Italy, and in fact were all ready and due to move there a couple of years ago, before fate took the reigns and everything fell through. Now, Italy is once again in our line of sight. If I can learn Italian, when added to the fact that I can already speak Dutch and am a fully qualified TEFL teacher and have a BA in English Language and Literature, it would all hopefully combine to put me at the forefront of the hotly contested English teaching job market.

All our plans will of course require dedication and hard work, but isn’t that the same with any plans of importance?

Both my husband and I are excited about the future, although I don’t mind admitting that such excitement is tinged with a little trepidation. After all, it’s a major life change that we are planning to embark on, the likes of which we have not done for almost nineteen years, since we made the decision to up sticks from the UK and move to Belgium. But if your dream doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough, isn’t that how the saying goes?

As I look around us right now, I see a great many changes. Our best friend, who just a few years ago would have gone along with the description of himself as a Lothario, or a Don Juan, is, even as I write this, moving from the UK to the United States and is due to get married next Monday in Las Vegas. Other more distant friends and still more distant acquaintances, have found themselves either on the wrong side of the law or facing life-changing health issues. One of my aunts, the wittiest and most vitally vibrant woman I have ever known, is in the cruel grip of Alzheimer’s and now requires 24-hour care. Everything is in flux and sometimes I feel as if the only thing we can ever be sure of, is that we are never sure of anything.

I refuse to end on a bum note though. Change is a good thing. It keeps us on our toes and helps us to grow. Just as a river would become stagnant if its waters were not constantly changing, so too would our lives stagnate if we did not embrace change. Nothing changes by staying the same, and, no matter what, I will always choose to live my life in the front row.

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