A Bride Kept Waiting
by David Price
The brightly coloured interior of the care home was at odds with the atmosphere of despair; gaudily painted walls of peach and white; a garish carpet; colourful portraits. This was for the benefit of the visitors, rather than the residents, most of whom were in the late stages of dementia.
Paula Cumberland hated the place, and yet she visited her husband every other day. He never spoke; just sat in an armchair with a blanket over his knees and stared into a distant place. Paula placed an album on his lap and turned the pages, reminiscing about the old days. She rarely looked at this album when she was alone, for the memories were still raw, even after more than forty years.
At one time her husband, George, would also have found them painful; but now there was no flicker of emotion, no sign of recognition; he was little more than a shell, and the images meant nothing to him... even the one taken on that fateful New Year’s Eve.
That really was a good memory, in spite of what had followed.
In the final hours of 1963, three friends — Paula McLeod (as she was then), Minnie Harrington and Ellie Garrett — are dressed to the nines, their long hair fashioned into beehives. Paula’s mother had taken that picture, with an old Brownie box, just before they left. Five minutes later they had set off, looking forward to a night of music and fun.
Paula had first seen George on that night, and he had made quite an impression; tall, smartly dressed in a suit and tie, his jet black hair Bryl-creemed and waved into a Gene Vincent quiff; she’d certainly been attracted, but he had gone straight over to Minnie and asked her for a dance. They had been inseparable for the rest of the night, and left together shortly after midnight. At the end of the party, Paula and Ellie had walked home together, both thinking what a lucky cow Minnie was!
As ever, it was a relief to leave the care home. Paula got into her car and sat for a while, clutching the album to her chest; oh yes, George had been hers eventually; but the price had been high.
She looked at herself in the mirror. A few crows feet and laughter lines, of course; but her hair wasn’t completely grey. Still the high cheekbones; for a woman in her early sixties, she looked pretty good.
She’d been seventeen on that New Years Eve, the youngest of the three. Minnie had been nineteen; Ellie had turned twenty the week before Christmas.
Paula dropped the album onto the passenger seat and started the car. The great thing about being young, she thought, is that you don’t know how sour life can turn.
Three weeks later, Paula had been working in a record shop when Minnie and George had called in to buy some 45’s. They had chatted for a while, purchased half a dozen records and left. Those two kids were crazy in love, anyone could see that... but would it last?
She got the answer on New Years Eve, at a party in the same Village Hall, when — a year to the day since they had first met — he had proposed. Now they really would be inseparable.
The early part of that year must have passed like a dream for Minnie: setting up a home, planning the wedding. George was a mechanic, she worked behind the counter in a Woolworth’s department store; it wasn’t perfect, but they could live quite comfortably on their wages; and the rented bed-sit was only a ‘temporary’ arrangement.
The wedding was set to take place in a registry office at the end of July. It was, Paula remembered, a time of great excitement.
As the day approached, Paula and Ellie planned a hen night for their friend. Having just got her first car — a twelve-year-old, green Morris Minor — Ellie was keen to take them for a ride; and so (on the Saturday before the wedding) they set off in the morning for a day-trip to the beach; and like children they had laughed, and rode on The Big Dipper at the fairground, and dined on fish and chips in a rather grimy little café; and finally, after taking an hour-long pleasure cruise around the headland, they headed back for the car.
Ellie drove them home along the main roads, Paula and Minnie trying to decide if The Beatles were better than The Rolling Stones, or vice versa.
But there was someone else on the road that day; Rodney Lawson, a known alcoholic, who had spent the afternoon drinking and gambling at his Social Club, and was now fatefully heading in the same direction they were.
Paula herself would block out the memory for many years to come, for only she had survived; but it was evident what had happened.
The barrier had come down as the train was approaching.
At that moment, Rodney Lawson had come tearing around the bend and slammed on the brakes; but travelling at speed he had crashed into the back of the Morris Minor, bumping it onto the tracks and into the path of the oncoming locomotive.
The collision had sent the car up and spinning through the air. All Paula could remember was waking up in a hospital bed a few days later, surrounded by flowers and cards.
It had been some weeks before she had been able to visit the graves.
Paula pulled into a garage forecourt and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue; nearly half a century had passed, but she could still feel the raw emotions she had felt at the time.
“Pull yourself together, girl; this isn’t helping.”
She bought some flowers, as she had done many times in the past, and resumed her journey.
It was guilt, of course, for she had ended up with a life that had rightfully been Minnie’s.
It had been a little over eighteen months before George had come to see her, the association being too painful; but they had talked, swapped ‘phone numbers, and then talked more and more often.
Eventually, they started meeting up for coffee.
When had they become lovers?
Paula couldn’t say, but their union was tinged with guilt.
Then he had proposed.
She hesitated, but then agreed, and in September of 1967 they had married. It was a quiet ceremony, and they moved out of the village shortly after. It wasn’t a perfect start, but they had thirty-eight happy years before the Alzheimer’s had taken him from her.
Yes, they had been good years; but Paula had never stopped wondering if she had ever been more than a consolation. George had been an attentive husband, and they had shared many happy times; but had it ever been in the back of his mind that he should be doing of all of this with Minnie?
Yet nothing could change the last four decades, and dwelling on what might have been was pointless.
She was growing old, Minnie and Ellie never would.
At least she could remember them.
There was no railway crossing these days, and the sleepers had long since been taken up. Paula placed the flowers on the ground, and then wandered over to the bench. The paint had peeled off, and hung about it in flakes; but Minnie and Ellie’s names could still be read on the little brass plaque.
Did anyone ever pass this way and wonder about their story?
In Memory: Ellie Garrett 1943-1965 & Minnie Harrington 1944-1965
So young, and so hard to imagine them in their sixties.
Minnie wandered past her at that point, seemingly oblivious to her presence.
But then Paula had changed, and Minnie looked the same as she had on the day she died; her hair styled like a young Twiggy, jeans and a striped jumper; all very nineteen sixties. Many people had seen her spirit over the years, and most people avoided the area.
But it was only Minnie, why should anyone be afraid of her?
Yet she wandered the area alone: where was Ellie?
Paula believed that she had long ago crossed over, for in the first couple of years there had been reports of two ghosts wandering the area: then, in the early seventies, one of them had vanished. Maybe Ellie had accepted her death and moved on; maybe she had just tired of wandering around in limbo. Whatever the reason, Minnie was now a lone spirit, haunting the scene of her death.
In the past, Paula had tried to talk to her; but she wouldn’t, or couldn’t, communicate.
Was she waiting for George to join her?
Yes, that was probably it; and one day, he probably would; at the end of the day, he had loved Minnie and always would.
Paula just hoped that Minnie didn’t resent all the years the two of them had shared together.
For a time she nodded off.
She awoke to see Minnie looking down at the flowers she had placed on the ground; then she bent down, and actually picked one of them up.
Held it in her hand. Brought it to her nose and tried to smell the bouquet. But then it just slipped through her fingers.
Then Minnie looked up, and suddenly became animated, a smile coming to her face; she waved, and started running; straight into the arms of George, as tall, young and handsome as he had been all those years ago.
They kissed and held each other, together again after all these years.
Paula closed her eyes. She had now lost George, but he had never been hers to keep; she had always known that.
Arm in arm they walked away, heading for some distant place until they faded from sight: together again, at last.
As they should be, Paula thought, and mentally gave them her blessing.
It was a moment before she realized that her mobile phone was ringing. She took it out of her handbag; saw that it was the care home calling.
“I know,” she said, and answered the call.
“Mrs Cumberland, I’m afraid I have some very bad news.”
Copyright © 2008 by David Price