The Time of Her Life
A short story by Barbara Godfrey
A hubbub of laughter and chatter mingled with the blaring music from the open-air band as Malouines and visitors threw themselves joyously into the quatorze juillet celebrations in St Malo.
There was dancing in the Place Chateaubriand, where the dynamic accordionist Emilio and his group played musique populaire from a stage erected in front of the Hôtel de Ville. Men, women and children thronged the square, lustily applauding their favourite songs, but were slow to take the earth floor until dusk slid into darkness with numerous coloured lights overhead, strung from the city walls. Then more and more couples joined the children already cavorting to the music in their own uninhibited version of the dance.
Near by, street entertainers competed for the attention of the merry-makers milling about in the warm night air. There were robotic performers, African musicians in colourful tribal robes, caricature artists and Chinese girls wizards with their tiny scissors snip-snipping incredibly accurate silhouette portraits for an incredibly low fee.
People strolling on the ramparts had a birds eye view of the ever-changing spectacle. Those too indolent or well fed to wander the narrow streets or join in the dancing watched the festivities from the comfort of the crammed bars and restaurants facing the square, where they relaxed while waiting for the grand firework display to start.
Among these armchair revellers was Rita Sinclair, whose boozy smile highlighted the sense of wellbeing which radiated from her plump middle-aged person like a warm glow. On the tablecloth in front of her was the debris of the repast she had just enjoyed a large platter of seafood, followed by a selection of delicious French cheeses and a sinfully rich dessert, washed down with a couple of bottles of the best wine.
Rita was having the time of her life. Lazily watching the overworked waiters and waitresses jostling and almost falling over each other as they carried laden plates of French delicacies to each mini oasis of gourmandism, she reflected for the umpteenth time: Why on earth didnt I do this years ago?
She glanced benevolently at her husband as he sat slumped opposite her, ill at ease in these plush dimly-lit surroundings.
Poor George, she thought, without genuine pity. Hes out of place here, the dull old fool. Serves him right, though he shouldnt have been such a stick-in-the-mud all his life.
George Sinclair could not have been described even by his best friends as anything more exciting than a stick-in-the-mud. He was one of those stolid, solid men, a precious little gem of a husband for the right woman, Rita used to say. But not for her no, indeed, she wanted some fun out of life. And now, thanks to her Idea, she was getting it at last.
In the old days, when they lived in England, she used to start nagging George as soon as he put his head round the front door, saggier and stodgier than ever after a hard days work. It was always the same, yet he could never stop himself from flinching when she drenched him with a torrent of complaints.
George, I hope were not going to sit at home again tonight watching the television, she would say. Its time you took me out. Ive been stuck in this rotten house all day and deserve some fun in the evenings.
Slow-witted though he was, George always managed to fob her off by playing for time until it was too late to have an evening out. He either took an interminable time over his tea, or found something vital he just had to finish or, if he was really cornered, he just disappeared, murmuring vaguely that he would be back in a minute.
A minute stretched into two hours and her chance of an outing was foiled, so yet again she consoled herself with her usual tipple a bottle of Gordons gin.
All that had changed now since they had retired to Brittany. Her Idea had been sown in her mind one morning by her friend Babs Heathcote, a fellow ex-pat.
Babs was patiently listening to Ritas tale of woes, which were magnified tenfold now she was surrounded by foreigners who didnt even speak her own language and who had strange customs which left her feeling fraught and unsure of herself.
You want to make George feel sorry for you, dear, Babs said. Your trouble is that youre too tough and capable. Act a bit frail and helpless and youll have him eating out of your hand.
It was at that precise moment that Ritas Idea was born. She and Babs discussed it like a pair of conspirators and when George came in after a solo shopping trip God, how he loved to spend hours in those frightful soulless hypermarkets Rita put her plan into operation.
Bracing himself for the usual harangue, George put his head timidly round the door. Nothing happened. No one pounced. There was no sign of Rita nor even any sound from her.
He couldnt believe his eyes or ears. Such a fortunate reprieve had never befallen him in 30 years of marriage.
Its a trick, he thought. Shes up to something.
He went cautiously into the sitting-room, wary as a cat. His wife was draped over the settee looking, she hoped, like a wilted flower.
Why, whatevers the matter? George asked, taken aback. He had never seen her like this.
Rita sighed wanly: Nothing, dear, nothing at all. Ill get your tea if you give me a minute.
With an obvious effort she got up from the settee and drifted towards the kitchen. George followed.
Dont you feel well, dear? he asked.
Im all right, George, dont fret about me.
But behind her reassuring words he detected a hint of anxiety. He was intrigued, even concerned, despite his relief at her mild manner, and questioned her persistently until he dragged the awful truth from her unwilling lips.
In a brave but faltering voice she told how she had been feeling unwell lately, how she had plucked up courage to seek out a doctor who spoke English. He had given her a thorough check-up, told her the truth.
It was incurable . . . she could not expect more than six months . . . all she could do was take things easy, enjoy what life she had left, have fun.
Here she burst into tears, so moved was she by her own tragic tale.
George paled and clutched at the table for support. Despite her thorny nature he was fond of his wife or had he just imperceptibly been smothered by her like a tree in its straitjacket of ivy? and this unexpected blow jolted him out of his dullness.
The doctor must be wrong, he said. Ill see him tomorrow, sort it out.
Rita interrupted hastily: No, please, George, dont ever mention it to the doctor or anyone else. I swore him to secrecy, told him I didnt want you to know, so he wouldnt discuss it with you.
Eventually George agreed, against his better judgment,to take no action. But from that moment he made up his mind to give her some of the fun she should have had years ago.
He never for one moment enjoyed the endless social whirl with outings, dinners at expensive restaurants, even several tiring trips to live it up at Paris night spots. And wherever did she unearth all those party-loving Brits who invaded Georges once quiet home so frequently?
But for her sake he suffered this riotous and costly routine uncomplainingly. As for Rita, she glowed in a way that seemed to George extraordinary, even a little indelicate, in a woman doomed to die so soon. He attributed it to her courageous spirit that refused to be quelled even in the face of disaster.
Now, six months after the fateful news from her doctor, here she was in her favourite bar in St Malo, well into her fourth Pernod after a four-course dinner and merrier than was becoming in her state of health.
George thought, not for the first time, that she was growing a shade too florid, a little bulbous round the nose and puffy in the cheeks. Her initial vitality was rapidly deteriorating into a boozy jollity as the months wore on.
Tonight she had put a red carnation, plucked from the vase on the table, behind her ear, which she fondly supposed added to her charms. As she eyed the young waiter coquettishly George thought, but instantly reproved himself for his mute disloyalty, that she looked rather ridiculous.
Still, who could blame her? he reflected. If I were in her position I expect Id be driven to the bottle.
His concern must have shown in his face, for Rita whispered to Babs, who was with them: Poor old George, how he suffers! I wonder when hell catch on? Still, it serves him right, and he enjoys being a martyr in a queer way.
Rita insisted on staying in the bar and drinking well into the small hours until long after the frenzied Bastille Day activities in the square had simmered down and the last firework had hissed and exploded in myriad starbursts over the city walls and the weird green lights from the laser display had slunk back into their projection nest.
Next morning George staggered blearily into the garden to tend to his asparagus bed, dark rings of tiredness round his eyes and with the step of a man far older than his 55 years.
Rita lay in bed for a while. She wasnt feeling too well.
Perhaps Ive been overdoing things, she thought. Well stay at home tonight and have a quiet evening.
During the morning she felt a sharp pain in her chest. When it persisted she decided to go to the nearest surgery that evening for a tonic or sleeping pills or something.
I feel a bit under the weather, she told the doctor. It was the truth she did feel rough.
The doctor, who spoke a little English, was quite stern. He told her she had obviously been drinking a lot more than was good for her and insisted on giving her a thorough examination, despite her protests. After all, she hadnt been near a doctor for years. She had always been, as George used to say in his coarse way, as strong as a horse.
The doctor looked very thoughtful as he sat down behind his desk. He fidgeted with his pen, then looked at her and said: Well, Madame, you have certainly been pushing yourself too hard. Youve put a great strain on your heart, and your liver is in a bad way.
He hesitated. Rita laughed uneasily and said: Come on, doctor, theres nothing wrong with me . . . just overtired, thats all.
The doctor said: Its only fair to tell you the truth, Madame. I dont want to give you false hope. Youll have to take things very quietly from now on. If you are careful youll have the best part of a year, perhaps a little longer. But if you insist on carrying on as you have been doing, I cannot promise you more than six months.
© 2001 Copyright by Barbara Godfrey
The story The Time of Her Life is an original work protected under copyright law, and may not be reproduced or adapted without the written permission of the author.
More short stories by Barbara Godfrey
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