I awoke in a strange bed. That, of course, I had been getting used to during my trip; but this was a strange strange bed. None of my usual travelling bits and pieces were visible as the dawn half-light stole quietly into the room. Twilight was still a novelty for me – dawns and sunsets take forever in those latitudes.
I became conscious of someone lying by my side. For a panicky moment, I thought myself back in Killarney and the figure Bonnie. Relief flooded my mind as the memory of the previous day brought joyous realisation. I turned on my elbow and gazed down on the sleeping Helena.
Her eyelashes were dark crescents, I looked in wonder at her tranquil face, even the laugh lines of her waking life smoothed out in sleep. Her mouth downturned in dream, her chin, still firm, her neck, unlined, led secretly into the darkness of a drawn up blanket, rising and falling so gently with her breathing. For timeless moments I watched my sleeping love until the intensity of my gaze alerted some hidden sentry. The eyelids flickered, blue eyes regarded me gravely. I kissed her smile.
While Helena cooked breakfast, I wrote a poem about all this: I called it ‘Joy in the Morning.’
I’m sexist enough to enjoy being spoiled rotten, and besides over the years, I’ve noticed a strange human quirk: people are friendlier doing a favour than receiving one. If you want someone’s friendship, let them do you a good turn. Still, Helena seemed to think it was a fair swap; she handed me a plate of bacon and eggs and I gave her the piece of paper with the scribbled poem. ‘Hope you can read the writing’ I said, ‘I usually use a keyboard.’
‘Oh Charlie,’ she wiped her eyes, ‘You are a most surprising man!’
I averted my eyes, open displays of emotion make me feel uncomfortable ‘Eat your breakfast,’ I said. ‘It’ll get cold.’
I rather liked the idea of preparing our own food. You don’t see the sign Motel as often as in Australia, in Ireland accommodation is more often provided by hotels, country pubs and the ubiquitous B&B, bed and breakfast in private homes. Our frantic searching of the previous day had found us an ideal unit, a modern cottage, far too modern to be described as a cabin, and available by the night. It was not cheap but it offered privacy. Sometimes money has its advantages.
It was a ‘soft’ day. I stood at the window watching the fine rain drift gentle tears onto the glistening asphalt that wended its way through unbelievably green lawns. Helena was doing something domestic with crockery.
‘What shall we do today?’
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It’s raining. Let’s stay home and play House.’
‘Good idea,’ she said. ‘We have so much to talk about. Do you realise,’ she added, ‘that in real time we have known each other less than 48 hours.’
‘Eleven days, surely.’
‘I mean time together – talking time.’
I did a quick calculation. ‘And sleeping time?’ She laughed.
But she was right, though. I felt as though I had known her all my life, but it really had only been a few hours. I suddenly realised how little I knew of her life. Somehow all our conversation to date had been concerned with ideas – our favourite authors, music, computers, systems; but personal things …? I knew about the death of Michael Patrick but what did I know of her marriage? Did they have any children? The questions tumbled over themselves to be asked and suddenly I felt incredibly selfish. Looking back, I realised that I had spoken mainly of myself. I hadn’t even thought to ask the obvious questions.
I turned to her in distress. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What for?’ said Helena gently. ‘Sit down and tell me about it.’
That was the beginning to one of the best days of my life. To listen and really be listened to was something I couldn’t remember having experienced before – ever! I’d read all the books, of course – Rogers et al -on reflective listening, that clever paraphrasing designed to show your understanding, but it had always remained theory, book-learning, until now. Now I was really listening.
Us being us, we devised a little system to avoid interrupting each other. We took turns, and to avoid forgetting an important point, we took a quick note of a pressing question. My education took a leap forward that day – and I learned a lot too.
Yes, there were children: two daughters and a deceased son. Susan, the younger daughter, was overseas with an aid organisation in Africa. Dierdre, married to an O’Reilly, was the mother of a two-year-old son.
‘So you are a grandmother,’ I said surprised.
‘I’ll show you a photo.’ Said Helena.
The story about the son was a tragic one, unfortunately not uncommon. He was a keen motorcyclist and a source of constant worry to his mother. He was good, but it doesn’t matter how good you are; a motorcycle always comes off second best against a car. He was killed on a wet road by an inexperienced driver who pulled out from the kerb without looking, and without a signal. The driver tried to deny that of course, but there were witnesses. Helena had coped, as mothers have been forced to cope throughout history, but Michael Patrick O’Donoghue had taken it hard; he had lost his only son.
‘After Susan, I was told that I could never have another child. Poor Michael was devastated. Do you believe that a shock can bring on cancer? He was never the same after, and he was sick within a year.’
No more kids, I said to myself. Well, Charlie, there goes your dynasty! Still, I never had a strong urge to procreate, I reckon One of me is quite enough for this world.
As the day wore on, Helena took her turn to winkle out all my secrets, but I won’t go into them here. In comparison, my life had been dead boring. She didn’t seem to think so, and I felt suitably gratified. We ended the day closer than ever – and that is saying something.
It just goes to show the benefits of good communications.
© Copyright H.St V.Beechey March 1997
Next Episode: Good Work