THE LITTLE STORY

10 Oct

An additional Chapter by Peter Rogerson, slide it in before The Eulogy
” For the first time in his life Bernard gets to talk to a woman who isn’t his mother… “

“Let me tell you a little story,” said Bernard quietly.

It was much later in the day and Susan was still there. He’d put the kettle on twice and they’d just sat there, talking about what might have been the good old days had they been a great deal better. But at least they were the old days, a shared period with people and things in them that both of them recognised. And any kind of recollection can be mutually comforting when you’re seventy and lonely. They both thought that.

“I’d best be going soon,” said Susan, and she blushed slightly, “I only came round to see that you were all right. After all, I saw you in hospital and noticed your name on the patient notes by your bed while you were asleep. Quite a lot came flooding back to me … the time my family lived on Elm Street, and that was from when I was just about a teenager until I left home for medical school. It’s funny how much a name can bring back, and suddenly how important it can seem to be.”

“Were those years important?” asked Bernard.

She smiled at him. “You can have no idea!” she said quietly. “I remember sitting in my bedroom looking out at the street … I had the small room upstairs, at the front of the house … I would probably have been in my school uniform or my nightie depending on the time of day, and I was looking for the boy next door.”

“You mean me?”

“I mean you.” She sighed. “I had a crush on you, Bernard, and you never knew! And that time when we were going to the fish and chip shop I finally thought the time was right. I finally thought we’d get to know each other. I finally thought my teenage dreams were about to come true… but you know what happened.”

“I ran away,” he replied, miserably. “I thought you were nice but my mother thought the opposite. She didn’t half get into my head back then, telling me that you were the root of all sin! That you, being a girl, could only possibly do one thing to a lad like me and that’s drag him down until he was fit only for an Afterlife in Hell amongst the devils and the tortured souls… She was strong on tortured souls, was my mother, and my dad wasn’t much better!”

“And you believed her?”

“I suppose I did. It had been drip, drip, drip into my head ever since I learned to listen. But that story I mentioned, the little story I want to tell you…”

“Will it take long?”

“No, not if I make it short.”

“All right. You tell me your story and then I really will have to go.”

“Before I went into hospital I had a heart attack,” he began, “and everyone thought I was dead, but the woman who visits next door too often for decency was a nurse, and she knew enough to bring me round and save me.”

“I know. Amelia. I like her, and she is decent. I saw her once or twice when she visited you in hospital. I was only in the next ward, you know. Woman’s troubles!”

“Well, during the few minutes when my heart had packed up and before she brought it back to life I went to Hell. I suppose it was in my head rather than in a real Afterlife, but it seemed so real. And in Hell I met the devil, exactly as I’d always imagined him to be with horns and a forked tail and breathing out fumes of sulphur in the worst case of pyorrhoea I’ve ever sniffed at!”

“But it was a dream…?”

“That’s what it must have been, the last efforts of a dying brain to add one and one together and hopefully come to something more reasonable than two…”

“You make it sound really quite a nightmare!”

“In a way it was. There was a bus, too, in Hell, a bus that went through a tunnel that wasn’t there at the beginning, and took me to Heaven on a day trip. I can’t begin to explain just how different Heaven was to Hell. There were little groups of people everywhere, all naked and all smiling or singing, laughing and joking, being happy and plaiting an endless supply of little flowers like daisies into circlets for each other’s necks.”

“Sounds … interesting,” murmured Susan dubiously.

He looked at her, and smiled. “It was horrible!” he said, “everyone doing little things that when added together didn’t come to very much! Can you imagine what an eternal Afterlife would be like if it consisted just of doing insignificant nice things, singing the same nice songs on an endless loop of niceness, plaiting the same nice flowers into nice little daisy chains ” and all naked, whether you wanted to be or not, but naked in the nicest possible way!”

“Were you naked, Bernard?” asked Susan, and he could tell from the expression on her face that she was teasing him gently.

He blushed, and nodded. “Everyone was,” he said, shortly, “but I wasn’t the pot-bellied Bernard that’s sitting here besides you but the mush slimmer and much younger Bernard that I suppose I might have been.”

“You’re not pot-bellied. Are you?” asked Susan lightly.

He blushed again. “I’m not the man I was,” he replied obliquely. “But then, I guess nobody is.”

She got the point. “And neither am I,” she said. “Is that all of your story?”

He shook his head. “Almost all,” he said, “but the truth is I was glad to get back to Hell after my day trip to Heaven. There’s got to be a lot more to Eternity than perfect happiness untouched by anything that’s less than perfect. I suppose the truth is too much perfection is, itself, imperfect.”

“You need to add a dash of black to brilliant white to make an enticing shade of grey,” smiled Susan, “now you’ve given me food for thought and yet I really must be off. Can we…”

“Can we?” he asked when it was clear she had stalled.

“Can I come again?” she asked.

“Would you want to?”

“Well, I’ve got nobody. I was married, but he passed away in his sixties, which was dreadful and much too young but a long time ago. I had no children. Never wanted any, and neither did he. So here I am, in the twilight of my years, and there’s nobody to call me a dirty stop-out if I’m late in and nobody to ask where I’ve been and who I’ve been with.”

Then Bernard stood up and looked at her. Looked properly like a man, even an elderly man, might look at a woman, and sighed. A wild suggestion was racing round in his head, something so unBernardish that he hated himself, at first, for thinking it and then he remembered his image of Heaven and found it even more enticing before actually loving himself. Like spring after winter might be enticing, or a sudden rainy squall after a hot summer’s day or anything that contrasted with the status quo to turn the pleasantly normal into something truly special.

“You say you’ve nobody, and it’s getting late?” he half-mumbled, half said loud and clear. “You’re all alone?”

“I did and I am,” she nodded.

“Then why don’t you stay tonight … I’ve only got a double bed, but you’re welcome to half of it…”

“A double bed, you say? Not two twins?”

“What would a man on his own do with two beds?” he demanded, but he saw the twinkle in her eye and knew exactly what she meant.

“I’d be happy to share half of your bed, Bernard,” she whispered. “On one condition…”

“What?”

“That it you want to take advantage of a poor helpless widow you do it quietly… I hate the idea of neighbours being distressed by too much unnecessary noise!”

© Peter Rogerson 10.10.16

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