Posted on: 9 August 2021
“They say hearing is the last sense to go, Barbara ,” said Phyllis as she sat in the upright chair next to her dying friend. Barbara lay neatly in the high hospital bed incongruously placed amongst the antique furniture of the spacious living room.
“You’ll have to put up with me waffling on until Geraldine gets back from work and takes over.” She crossed her legs and leant against the back of the chair, making herself comfortable for a long chat.
“You’ve been a really good friend to me, I wish we’d had longer. But I think we’ve made the most of our time together. We’ve had some good times, haven’t we?” She paused, as if expecting a reply, and then, lowering her tone conspiratorially she continued. “No-one around here knows this, but, I was a dancer you know. Professional. In the 50s, I know, you wouldn’t think it to look at me now,” Phyllis chuckled as she adjusted her chunky thighs. “I’ve never told anyone. I’m not sure why. I loved being a dancer, I loved it, the freedom… It was hard work, such hard work. However you felt, you had to turn up and perform, if you didn’t, there was always someone who could take your place. The costumes, what there was of them, were beautiful, exotic, exciting but the changing rooms were often cramped, dirty, too cold or too hot. I wasn’t one of those who posed in the nude, no, I was a dancer. I could do the fan dance but I never got to do it on stage. No, I kept the relevant bits covered, if scantily.” She took Barbara’s hand in hers, before continuing. “The best bit about it was the other girls, the camaraderie, intense friendships and rivalries. It was such an exciting time. When I wasn’t performing I was rehearsing, I have no idea when we slept. We were young, we didn’t need much sleep.”
“I had left home to become a dancer, my parents disapproved. My mother never came to see me dance, I think Dad did, I was sure I saw him in the audience a couple of times, but perhaps it was just wishful thinking. When I was working as a dancer, I lived in a boarding house, all meals included, no guests in the rooms. I have fond memories of that grotty place, even the acerbic landlady who ruled with a rod of iron. We girls had some laughs”
Phyllis paused for a while, listening to Barbara’s stertorous breathing. Then, taking a deep breath, she said, “I fell in love with the lighting director, Lance. He was older than me, much more experienced. He had blonde slicked back hair, blue sparkly eyes, his arms were so muscular and strong he was my Adonis. He somehow added energy to my dancing I needed even less sleep. We had wonderful times going out, we even managed a couple of weekends away. It was bliss. All the girls were jealous. Then, I discovered I was pregnant. I was thrilled, couldn’t wait to tell him.”
“We met as usual after the Friday night performance. He was keen to go to a new bar he’d heard about. I waited till we got there and our cocktails had been served. It was smokey, the lighting dim, jazz music was coming from the speakers above my head. I couldn’t wait any longer to tell him my news. I blurted it out. Perhaps I should’ve softened the blow a little, men aren’t the same as women are they? But I blurted it out. I’d read in books that people pale but I’d have never seen it before, even in that light I could see his colour drain.”
“He called me a stupid woman. I felt as if I’d been slapped. In effect he had slapped me, just not with his hand. But if that was a slap, his next words were a punch in the stomach. He said, ‘I’m married, got kids. How could you be so stupid?’” Phyllis’s voice became an angry snarl as she repeated his words. She rubbed angrily at her eyes when tears filled them.
“It was awful. I can still see the whole scene clearly as if it is a film, playing before my eyes. I was very calm, I picked up my handbag from the floor beside me and asked him to walk me home. He fussed around saying he’d get it sorted, that everything would be all right, too late being nice to me… I don’t remember saying anything else, I just asked him to take me home. Home! A dreary boarding house. Even all these years later, I can still feel the blackness that descended over me.” Phyllis paused, wishing for a response from Barbara. Wishing she had told her sooner, Barbara would have understood.
“The other girls were great, supportive they’d say now. But all I could think was that someone must’ve known that he was married. Why hadn’t anyone told me? I wasn’t far gone, I was skinny with dancing so I wasn’t showing but I knew my days with the troupe were numbered.” A few minutes passed.
“In a way, I was lucky that it was March.”continued Phyllis, stroking the limp hand that she held in her own. “The accountant’s clerk Gordon always came in March and September. He’d always made sure he spoke to me when he came, he’d time his visit when I was rehearsing. He’d asked me out before. I had refused but this time I accepted. He was my age, he was kind not exciting or sexy but he was kind and he thought I was wonderful. He wasn’t disgusted when I told him my predicament. I can’t believe that I told him that first day that we went for a cup of tea and toasted teacake at a local café. He just gently said, ‘I’ll look after you.’”
“Telling you all this, while I’ve been sitting here, I’ve wondered if perhaps I’ve glossed over some of the things that happened but I don’t think so. That is exactly how my memory is. I was kicked aside and then I was gathered up. It makes me cry to think about it now. Gordon encouraged me to give up the dancing straight away. ‘I’ll look after you,’ he said. He said it again and again, he still does.”
“He came home with me to my parents. They liked him straight away. I suppose he was a bit like Dad really, a bit boring. I think they were just pleased that I’d seen sense and stopped the ridiculous dancing. We didn’t tell them about the pregnancy. Gordon just let them think that he was so in love with me that he wanted quick wedding and they didn’t want to pay for a lavish affair so everyone was happy. There were just six of us. All very low key. I just couldn’t believe Gordon was happy to take on someone else’s child.”
Releasing Barbara’s hand, Phyllis picked up the sponge lollipop and soaking it in water she dabbed Barbara’s dry cracked lips, squeezing drops of water into her mouth. After a few minutes, she carried on with her story. “In the end I think it was fortunate that I lost the baby. It was on our honeymoon. Do you remember, when you told me about your honeymoon in Kenya, I told you how Gordon had splashed out on three nights in a hotel in Filey? The staff at Scarborough hospital were very kind. At the time, I thought my world had come to an end but as Gordon had promised, he looked after me again.” She smiled to herself and found herself saying, “Gordon isn’t very exciting in bed but at least it isn’t an ordeal. And of course I got pregnant again eventually. Hilary, bless her.”
“She was a very quiet baby, amenable, calm just crying when she was hungry or uncomfortable. Even her cry was quiet, not piercing like some. She’s a good girl. She does as she’s told. I think I’ve been a bit overprotective I don’t want her to make the same mistakes I’ve made. Gordon insisted she went away to school, he thought it would bring her out of herself, I’m not so sure. But as he has never insisted on anything else, since I’ve known him, I went along with his wishes. I’m a bit worried now she’s away from home but surprisingly she seems happy enough.”
“I hope you won’t think badly of me when I tell you that I still think about Lance frequently. I dream about him, I don’t still love him but hard as I try I can’t get him out of my head.” Phyllis took Barbara’s hand in hers again. “ Gordon sends his love,” she said, as if to negate her previous sentences. She sat silently for a time.
“As you know, Gordon works away quite a lot now,” she continued. “With him away and Hilary away, I spend quite a lot of time on my own. I write lovely long letters to Hilary which she replies to. She’s a good girl. But, I’ve also taken to writing about my experiences with Lance. I haven’t named him in my writing, I’ve made us into a fictional couple but I had to do something to get him out of my head. Gordon and I have travelled quite a bit we’ve had some lovely holidays and I have to admit I’ve used some of the journals that he wrote for the information about the imaginary places that my imaginary couple have visited. I write once a week to Hilary and while I have my writing paper out, I write a chapter. I’ve hidden it in my wardrobe, in old shoe boxes, there’s quite a pile now. Gordon is not inquisitive, he will never look. I’m going to throw it away when I have finished writing. It seems to be helping. At least the dreams are less frequent.” At that moment Barbara’s body twisted and her face contorted as if in pain. Phyllis thought that she was waking but the spasm eased and her breathing settled back into its laborious rhythm. Phyllis looked at her watch. Geraldine was due any minute. She pulled the sheets straight over Barbara’s emaciated form and kissed her forehead. “Thank you for listening. I wish I’d told you years ago.”
“Told Mum what?” said Geraldine, who had crept in. She took her coat off and hung it up in the hall.
“Nothing important,” said Phyllis, “but I suppose there’s always things you wish you’d said before it was too late. Anyway everything has been OK. Just ask if you need any more help but is it all right if I get off now? I’m expecting a call from Gordon this evening.”
“Of course, I’m here now, aren’t I Mum?” she touched Barbara’s shoulder. “And the nurse will be here very soon. All organised. Thank you so much for sitting with her. I couldn’t get out of that meeting but I’ve arranged cover for the foreseeable…”
Phyllis picked up her handbag, put on her coat and shut the door quietly as she left mother and daughter together. She felt lighter than she had for some time and, tragic as the situation was, she was glad that she had confided in someone.