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Hold Them Dear

The muffled sound of laughter could be heard through the walls of the two bedroomed, semi-detached bungalow, it was a familiar sound from next door. Joan remembered the first time she’d heard it, about a year ago. She’d wondered then what her new neighbour would be like; Joan needn’t have worried, May was lovely. The pair of them often went into town and had afternoon tea together. May’s son and daughter visited her all the time; at least that’s what it felt like to Joan. She started to wonder whether her own children cared about her at all, they were always so busy, too busy to worry about her. Joan struggled to escape the laughter; she had a bath and got into bed.

"Hello May.” Joan was hanging out washing; the early morning summer sunshine felt good on her skin; she breathed deeply, the fresh smell of clean washing mingled with the potent smell of the Jasmine plant nearby. Joan eyed her elderly neighbour suspiciously, over the low bushes that separated their gardens; she looked pre-occupied sitting in her chair, with her arms tightly folded. May’s eyes squinted, in the early morning sunshine, as she stared into the distance.

The small garden had raised flowerbeds and a patio area, it was a good size and at 67 years old, Joan was still capable of looking after it herself.

“You alright May?”

May’s hand slowly moved up to rub the back of her neck. “Yes,” a deep sigh escaped May’s lips, she didn’t feel like idle chit chat. “Sorry Joan, I was in a world of my own.”

“Are you alright?” She repeated. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No I’m fine, thank you; it’s a lovely morning.” May stumbled, as she stood up, nearly knocking over her drink.

“Careful, let’s hope it stays that way eh.” Joan pegged her last item on the washing line, before continuing. “What are you doing today?”

“I don’t know, Susan’s coming, I should get ready. It takes me longer these days.” May sighed, shaking her head, her grey curls swaying.

“Well, if you’re at a loose end, give me a knock, I’m going into town later and I could always do with company.”

May nodded. “I think I’m going to be busy most of the day.”

“You’re lucky, your family are always visiting or taking you somewhere. I think mine have forgotten me, they’re always so busy, I’ve only had two or three visits in the last nine months!” Joan ran her fingers through her soft dyed brown hair, as she spoke, pulling the straggling ends away from her face. She was eight years younger than May, but Joan thought May looked good and she, like Joan, was very independent.

“Yes, I suppose I’m lucky, but sometimes I don’t appreciate the company, I just want to be left alone.” May glared before picking up her cup and going inside, the door banged shut behind her.

Joan shrugged her shoulders, not understanding what had just happened; she picked up her empty wash basket and returned to her kitchen.

“You know Jack, May doesn’t realise how lucky she is.” Joan could feel herself getting angry.

May’s family were coming and going almost every day and yet Joan was lucky if she got a phone call. She took a mug out of the cupboard, slamming the door shut in her frustration.

"Stop." She shouted to the empty room.

She’d been widowed for nearly eight years; No point feeling sorry for herself, that wasn’t going to change anything. Joan made a cup of tea and took herself into the front room; she sat down in her comfortable winged back chair, by the large picture window and stared out into the sunshine. She watched the postman, chatting to neighbours as he went up and down the garden paths. Frank, at number 72, was weeding his garden, Joan watched as he slowly bent down to rest on his knees, he was soon joined by a young man. “I bet that’s his grandson, what do you reckon Jack?” Joan picked up the old silver framed photo of her husband.

It was only then that she noticed a black saloon car parked a little up the road, she could just read the doctors sign in the window. “Oh Jack, somebody’s not having a good start to the day, I hope it’s nothing serious.” Joan forgot her bad mood, as her sympathy went to the unknown patient. She knew she should move away from the window, but life was being lived out there and she felt compelled to watch the scenes unfold.

A silver Ford Focus pulled up outside, a tall slim brunette in her mid-thirties got out, she stopped and spoke to Frank and then ran towards May’s bungalow but, at the last minute, she saw Joan and waved. Joan could feel heat flushing her cheeks, she wondered whether Susan would be able to see her jealousy just by looking at her, she felt ashamed, she tried to smile but her teeth were clenched so tightly her jaws hurt.

The chimes of the wall clock made Joan jump, it was ten o’clock, she picked up her blue floral china cup and sipped the hot tea, it felt relaxing as the warm strong liquid cascaded down her throat. She took a deep breath. “That’s a good cup of tea Jack, not as good as you used to make, but good enough all the same.”

The telephone rings loudly interrupting her conversation, without thinking Joan reached to answer it.

“Finally mum, it’s Simon, how ya doing?”

“I’m ok, you know me, I’m always alright.” She lied.

“Yes I know, it’s good that you’ve got such a great social life, I think you do better than I do.” Simon laughed. “I know you’re busy but I’m just calling to see how you are?”

“I’m all right, I’ve just got a lot on and I know you’re always busy with work and everything.”

“I’m never too busy to talk to you mum, have you finally managed to catch up with Alice?”

“No.” Joan felt her heartbeat quicken as the heat raced into her neck and face. “You know how it is, we just keep missing each other.”

As Simon chatted, she heard the thud of car doors shutting, she strained to see what was going on, she saw May sitting slouched in the back of Susan’s car, she was momentarily distracted, she wondered where they were going, they never asked her to go with them, but then why would they.

“Mum, are you listening to me?” Simon’s voice broke into her thoughts.

“Sorry Simon, I think the line went funny, I didn’t catch what you said.” She lied again.

“I said I thought I might come and take you out for lunch at the weekend, what do you think?”

“Oh that’s nice, but I’ve a hectic weekend I’m afraid, maybe another time.”

“Ok, if you’re sure. I’m sorry mum but I’ve got to go, I’ll ring you tonight and try to ring Alice, she wants to talk to you.”

“Don’t worry, I will, I’m out tonight, I’m having a meal with some friends.” Joan managed to swerve the topic of Alice.

“You’re always so busy, you’re going to have to make time for me at some point, you know.”

“We’ll speak soon, take care.”

“Bye.” The phone line went dead.

Joan caught a glimpse of the calendar on the wall, she had no diary dates; why did she lie to Simon so much; she didn’t have anything in particular to do, she didn’t want to be a burden to them.

The shrilling of the house phone broke into her thoughts; Joan fiddled with her pearl necklace, she nervously glanced at the wall clock, it was probably Alice, her thirty four year old daughter, she guessed she’d want something from her; she already had her slow cooker, which was only meant to be for a week but had turned into two. Joan knew Alice wanted her to do some sewing for her but she couldn’t bring herself to answer the phone, there was bound to be something else, there’s always something.

“Don’t stare at me like that Jack, it’s alright for you, you’re not the one left behind.”

The house phone started again, Joan stared at it. “What do you think Jack? I suppose it must be urgent, because it never rings and now it’s rung twice!”

“Hello.” Joan’s crisp voice rang out.

“Oh thank god mum, I didn’t think you were ever going to answer the phone.” Joan could hear Simon pacing. “I’ve sent a taxi to pick you up and bring you to the hospital.” He continued before she had time to speak. “Alice has had a fall and is unconscious, I think she knocked her head when she fell, that’s all I know.” He blurted, the words tripping over each other in their rush to get out. “Mum, are you there?” Simon called.

“Is she alright?” Joan managed, her eyes darting around, catching glimpses of the photographs of her family.

“I don’t know, Mum, get your coat on, the taxi will be with you in the next few minutes and I will wait for you outside Accident and Emergency, ring me if the taxi doesn’t arrive.”

The line went dead; Joan still held the handset to her ear, trying to take in what had happened. A sound of a car horn broke into the silence, it pushed Joan into action, and she quickly grabbed her coat and her handbag and left the house.

True to his word, Simon was waiting for Joan, they hugged each other tightly and quickly went into the hospital.

“Do you know anymore?” Joan’s voice quivered.

Simon shook his head.

“This is my fault, I’ve been awful, I’ve been avoiding Alice, all because I didn’t know what to do! I didn’t know how to act! I’ve been a complete fool.” Tears rolled down Joan’s face.

“Don’t mum, it’s not your fault.”

“Yes it is, please god, let her be alright and I promise I’ll do better, I promise.” Joan paced as she spoke.

“Hello Joan, what are you doing here?” May’s voice stopped her in her tracks.

“May?” Joan couldn’t hide her surprise. “What are you doing here?”

May hesitated. “Just having a check up, and you.”

“It’s Alice.” Joan paused. “She has MS, she’s had a fall and is unconscious! Oh May, I’ve been a terrible mum, all because I couldn’t face it, what happens if she doesn’t wake up.” Joan blurted out.

“She will, she’ll be alright, you’ll see, you must live life for today and don’t have any regrets Joan, life is too short.”

Joan stared out of her front room window, at the colours of autumn, the golden browns and oranges of the leaves, she sat in her chair, drinking tea. She picked up the silver framed photo, trying to come to terms with the unfamiliar silence from next door.

“I shall miss May, she never told me she was ill you know, I should’ve guessed when I saw her at the hospital that day, but I was worried, I just didn’t think. I can’t believe she’s gone.” Joan’s voice was barely audible.

“Are you alright mum?”

"Yes, I shall miss the sound of laughter from next door.”

“Yes, it was a lovely funeral, it was filled with good memories.” Alice stated. “Perhaps we should get out of these sombre clothes, May wouldn’t want us to be miserable, would she.”

“No, live life for today, that’s what she said and she was right, to think I told her she was lucky to have such a loving family around her. I never realised they were making the most of what time they had.”

“Don’t punish yourself mum, let’s go and get changed,” they helped each other out of their chairs and made their way to their adjoining bedrooms.

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