Steph was waiting for us at Gatwick this time, and of course she had to inspect our rings, and hug, and all the usual little touches that aren’t actually that little in the meaning and emotion they carry.
“Dave tells me Little John was up to his usual standard, or should that be down?”
Larinda grinned. “Caught him checking out Karen’s arse, and then she caught him checking mine out. Cheeky bugger!”
I did my best to bristle. “And what’s wrong with mine? Bloody men!”
James was puzzled. “We didn’t check any arses in…”
John took him to one side to explain. Sometimes James could be so literal, I thought, and then wiped that one. That word, ‘sometimes’: it had once been ‘always’. Whatever connection he had found with John, it was working wonders. I turned back to the tall redhead.
“You will be there in April? Not having a big entourage, like, just a couple of bridesmaids, but we’d like as many friends as possible there”
She grinned. “You want music?”
I thought back to my earlier uncharitable and very, very wrong thoughts, and just grinned. “Why not?”
Her smile became broader. “We could offer you a little more, Jill. Annie’s family are a bit choral. Would you mind if I invited some more people, good people?”
I looked at my…bugger a hell, aye, my wife, who was smiling as broadly as Steph. She slipped an arm through mine after giving my backside a squeeze.
“There you are, arse checked out and approved of. Steph, both of us have had a lot of shit over this relationship—no, love, I’ll tell later, yeah? This day, it’s gonna be a big wotsit, demonstration. We have as many ‘good people’ as we can in, we rub it in the faces of other people, like those arseholes in the pub a while ago. If I could have the whole bloody world there, just to see who I love, then I would”
She squeezed my arm. “Wanted this one as soon as I met him, her, yeah? Took both of us a while to get it sorted in our heads, and I will always have issues and stuff, but she is mine and I ain’t changing my mind. Let everyone else see that, yeah? Now, we better get home. Work tomorrow, yeah?”
Steph shook her head. “Some honeymoon!”
Larinda shook her head. “Told you, we ain’t had the wedding yet, just the paperwork. Got an idea for the honeymoon…”
Work did indeed take over after our return, and I noticed one odd thing. The traders and accountants I dealt with seemed not to stare as much, as if my wedding and engagement rings added some sort of glamour to me, in the old magical sense. Can’t be a man in a skirt, look at the rings. The weather worsened steadily as Christmas approached, and then suddenly it was there, and I found myself sitting in a store room realising, as I stretched my back and neck, that it was only a week away. I had become so focussed on the events due in April that I was missing the months before. Mam had always told me off when I had wished, as a small child, that it could be the holidays Right Now.
“Wishing your life away, pet!”
A week. Ouch. When I got home that day, there were two messages on the answering machine.
“Jill, Larinda, it’s Annie. What you up to for Christmas? Give me a ring, aye?”
I suddenly found myself in tears. Every now and again something came out of nowhere to remind me where I had been, how close I had come to having, being, nothing. Such a simple message; such weight to it. Just like Steph at the airport. I went to wash my face and put the kettle on, and nearly forgot the second message, which I only listened to after my wife came home and noticed the message light.
“Jill, Ian. We need to talk”
So terse, so typical. Larinda called out as she went to the kitchen.
“Brought a set meal Chinese from work, love. You give him a shout while I get the oven warm”
“Aye. Thanks for getting back to us so quick, there’s a few things I need to sort out”
I found myself smiling at that. “We already did a lot of sorting out, pet”
“No, there’s stuff I need to do…look, I am trying to get a court order on this one, but…”
There was a long, long pause.
“Could you take Bethy in rather than her mam getting her claws into her? Hays is sorted, with the home and that, but Bethy…”
I had to sit down, hard. What the hell was going on?”
“Ian? What? Talk to me!”
His voice was clipped, oddly precise, the same flat tone that he had used when he told me all those years before that if he ever saw me again he would kill me.
“I need to make sure everything’s sorted”
Fear held me close just then. “Talk to me, love, please!”
Larinda was at my shoulder, sensing the wrongness. Ian was still flat, dead.
“Von was a chance, aye? I got to see how things could have been for the girls, and I went at it like a bull, like I do, aye? I… I would like to make it work, give it a shot, and I thought, well, she’d be good for the girls, but things… things move on”
Silence, except for the sound of his breathing.
“I’m on a timer now, Jill. It’s a myeloma. Blood, bone marrow cancer thing. I start the treatments next week, after Christmas, like; they gave me that much. They weren’t sure at first, so I have been having the tests, and now they are sure, so… I just thought, the girls need a family, and if I don’t have time to sort things out with one good woman I thought, well, two good women would do”
I was crying, and Larinda was concerned, and so I made writing motions. A pen, an old envelope, and enough words to spell it out for her. She settled into a hug as I tried to form the words I needed for my brother. I put the phone on speaker.
“Ian… what do the doctors say?”
A long sigh. “Shite, woman, they say they will start chemo after the holidays, like, give me family time. But they’ve been very blunt about my chances. It doesn’t just go away. If I’m lucky, really lucky, they can put it into remission. If I’m a bit lucky…”
Shit. “How long, love?”
“Unless I have lottery winner’s luck, typical time is four, four and a half years”
There was a little hint of a chuckle from him. “Now you see why I got so pushy with your Valley Commando”
“Have you told her, Ian? Shit, have you told Mam?”
“Neither. I don’t want Von to know just yet, and Mam, well, she’s just wed, like, it wouldn’t be fair”
Another little chuckle, as the proud man got himself back together. “Traditional, that’s me. Sort of thing that should be shared with your sister before your brother”
I realised I was crying steadily now, no sobbing, just tears falling.
“Jill? Can you take Bethany when I go in? The docs say I’ll be in shit state for a while after treatment. And, well, later, if, you know, when I don’t win the lottery?”
That brought the sobs, from both of us, and I was nodding before I realised he couldn’t see, and I stumbled over the words, the ones that told him what a stupid bloody question that was, and how I loved him, and for god’s sake get over to ours for a proper Christmas, and we closed it down as he said he had more calls to make.
“No. Neil first, then, if I can, Raafy. I owe him that”
Another of those awful, dead pauses.
“Then I better tell Von”
Pause. “And Bethy”
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