This story is by Gilbert Masie and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
‘What you need to understand is that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you’.
When Stephen came out with his lugubrious warning, he wore an expression of such solemn pomposity on his silly, pink face that we all just collapsed into helpless giggles. I can remember the moment vividly. It was after a college Gaudy in 1986. The speeches had ended, and we had spilled out of the dining hall into the Master’s Garden to start some serious drinking. It was a real ‘Brideshead Revisited’ moment. The last rays of the sun had turned the honey coloured stonework to a deep, glowing gold and the grass was lush and verdant. The boys looked magnificent in their DJs whilst us girls draped ourselves over the cane work furniture like the pampered inmates of a Sultan’s seraglio.
It was the first time the old gang had been together since we had gone down and we all looked as if we had just descended from Mount Olympus. We literally oozed, health, beauty and prosperity. Thatcher’s revolution had steeped us all in riches; everyone seemed to have the touch of Midas. The oncoming apocalypse of recession, illness and death were unthinkable so when Stephen came out with his gloomy pronouncement it struck us all as being so hysterically funny.
But then that was so typical of Stephen. Whilst he was one of the Staircase One Wunderkinds, his was an orbit on the outer reaches of our galaxy. He was the only lawyer for a start. The rest of us were emotionally excitable creatives, testosterone fuelled sports jocks or clever, sardonic wits. One or two really gifted people like Justin were all three. Don’t get me wrong we all liked Stephen, well apart from Justin but he only really had eyes for one person: himself. But Stephen was more of a pet than a friend. He was like an old Labrador: genial, well mannered, but a bit slow, a bit fat and frankly a bit dull. His room was a frequent refuge. He had a refined taste in tea, an educated taste in music, there was an ever present supply of decent sherry but best of all he was a great listener.
Difficult to explain to people nowadays but back in 1975 women in Oxford were something of a novelty. Ours was only the second co-ed intake into our college and, as a result, we were in high demand, and I am not talking about our male companions – oh no! If I had a fiver for every time some corduroy jacketed, whisky smelling don had made a grab for my crotch during a tutorial I would be … well, anyway, you get the idea.
Some of the girls did find the attention a bit bloody – sometimes literally – but I was not one of them. I had left my virginity hanging on the beautifully carved bed post of my mother’s ski instructor long ago and had sort of developed, not just an enthusiasm, but some considerable skill in the business. To me Oxford was a veritable flock of juicy pigeons to my stooping falcon. I know, I know, but remember this was the era of the sexual revolution, the pill and Cosmopolitan. AIDS was unheard of outside California and as far as we were concerned, to borrow from one of my favourite ‘lurve’ tracks: ’Let’s Get it On!’
But even an Über predator like me can get a bit bruised in an encounter and it was really great to have Stephen to drop in on at any time and let it all gush out. It was the normal stuff: how could men be such utter shits and why couldn’t they not at least have the decency to ring up the morning after – even if just to say thanks for the coffee? I could not speak to any other man like I did to him. They would have immediately tried to hit on me. With Stephen that would have been unthinkable. He was one of those guys who went from childhood to middle age seemingly without any intervening period of youth or vigour. Although he was only in his early twenties, with his paunchy body, sloped shoulders and balding pate he looked older then my father. As such he was a safe shoulder to cry on, and cry on it I did. At least until we both went down when he went off to the law and I married Justin. Indeed, I forgot all about Stephen. Then I had my episode.
Subarachnoid brain haemorrhage; I still don’t know exactly what it is. All I do know is that one moment I was with Justin and the boys in our cottage in Suffolk having a laugh with some friends and the next thing I am waking up in Hospital with a nurse telling me I had been in a coma for a month. I could not speak other than in incoherent gurgles and now needed a wheel chair and full time care. It was not good, not good at all and then it got bloody worse.
Justin could hardly bear to look at me. Then, after a month, he sent the boys to his parents and came in to see me in tears. Apparently, he just could not cope, surely I could see that? He said it would be the best for all us if I went off somewhere on my own. He had found a house out on the Dengie peninsular, Essex’s very own version of the boondocks, where I could live with three live in Carers. What could be better?
When something like this strikes you one positive outcome is that you discover how many true friends you really have – and I had none. Only batty old Marge managed to track me down in my de profundis and I could see she could not wait to leave, poor bitch. To cheer me up she reminded me of Stephen’s dire warning at the Gaudy and how we had laughed at him.
‘Not laughing now,’ she observed, I thought somewhat unnecessarily. After she had gone it set me thinking. I managed to make intelligent contact with one of the Carers to google Stephen and send him an email. It was a long shot. I mean he had also probably forgotten who I was. As it turned out, he hadn’t and appeared, seemingly in minutes. He was clearly doing well. He had always been a portly but now looked like a huge pink and white marshmallow wrapped up in pinstripe. He had a brief case and papers and talked to me about powers of attorney for all matters pertaining to my finances, property, health and welfare. As I had no money or property and my health and welfare were in freefall I thought ‘what the hell’ and signed where he indicated. He then discussed divorce. Strange but I had never considered this but when Stephen explained things to me it made perfect sense. If Justin was going to stick me out to grass, he could damn well pay for the privilege.
Stephen was magnificent. We had to go to London for the hearing and despite Justin’s protestations by the time I left the court I was quite a rich woman. Stephen drove us all back to what I now termed Bates Motel. I was so looking forward to moving out of there back to London. I really, really wanted to party but I was dead tired so, one of my carers, took me upstairs to my room; the room I am now in, the room where I have remained now for, God only knows, how long. It is dark and outside I can hear the cruel and bitter East wind, all the way from the Ural mountains, battering the decaying shingle of the walls; but the wind is not loud enough to hide the sound of his footfall upon the stair.
The slow ponderous ascent up the steps. Then the sound of the door handle being turned, the chink of light from the landing, blotted out by his bloated frame as he slowly enters the room. I listen to his laboured breathing, the exertion makes him pant but his breathlessness comes also from his expectation, the heat of lust and passion, his longing – for me.
He will sit on the side of the bed and slowly pull aside my duvet. I am powerless to resist him. All I can do is look up at those loathsome, porcine features and shudder as his hands begin to once again to explore my helpless, paralysed body and I know he is whispering.
“All those times I had to listen to your filthy, mindless prattle. You screwed everything in trousers except for me. Well your mine now.”
But I don’t hear him. All I hear are those words from years ago: death is not the worst thing that can happen to you.