Written by James McCann
Kate woke-up at seven twenty-seven, just as she always did, three minutes before her alarm was set to ring. She was still half asleep, in that hazy phase where you quickly run through whatever snippet of dream you could remember and tried to decipher what was real and what was sleep fantasy. The bed was warm and so comfortable, it was as though it had arms that had wrapped around her to keep her there, encased in the duvet-tomb forever more. Briefly she wondered why it wasn’t Jack’s arms that were encasing her, keeping her warm, keeping her safe. Before the thought had completely formed, her answer had already popped into her head. It was an answer she’d had to face and deal with for the last three months, and she’d have to deal with all day today, and all day tomorrow. Maybe all of her tomorrows. Over time, Kate knew, the people would move on to the next subject of interest, to the next gossip point. They’d forget it, they’d move on with their lives.
For Kate, it was always going to be a part of her life, and despite what people told her, she couldn’t see a way the pain would ever lessen.
Her arm reached out, her open palm stroking and searching the empty space beside her, the space that should have been occupied by her husband, Jack. He should be here now, smiling at her, saying good morning by the way of a kiss on the tip of her nose. He should’ve been home all night snoring, talking in his sleep, occasionally rolling over and wrapping his strong arms around her and holding her closely. His indent still remained, but his scent had started to dissipate, though sometimes Kate would still catch a little sample of it when she was moving about and disturbed something, bringing back a flood of memories that were still painful to remember. She lay there in their bed, her eyes still closed, savouring the last moments of comfort that came with Jack’s memory. She could, here in the imaginary world where conversations and kisses and words whispered true could be replayed infinitely, find comfort, she could find the strength to go on, she could find her smile.
Kate opened her eyes and the immensity of the bedroom struck her, the same way it had for the past few days. The blue and white walls seemed too brutal. The images in her mind of Jack were great for her, but in contrast with the real world, her memories seemed as weak as tissue paper. There was no doubt in Kate’s mind which was the dream and which was the nightmare, which was the fantastical and which was the true. Kate didn’t want the true, she didn’t want to be here any more, she didn’t want to be her any more. For the past seven years Kate had loved being Mrs Bittan, but now it felt like a lead weight. Mrs Kate Bittan of course was the widow of Mr Jack Bittan, one of the latest in a long, full history of fire-fighters to die in service.
It had been kids, little punk bastards with nothing better to do on a Friday night. At least that’s what she’d been told. They’d set fire to the abandoned Enterprise Centre at around half-past eleven, several people from the apartment blocks that over-looked it had called it in, and off they’d gone, sirens blaring, lights flashing, a machine of steel and chrome as red as Hell-fire itself. Roughly fifteen minutes after the blaze had started they got there, an old man from a near-by house had told them he’d seen eight kids enter, only five had come out, and so the fire crew had gone in, battling against the blaze as they went.
Keith had said that once they got into the building itself it was just a labyrinth of smoke, they didn’t even realise that the far side of the building had started to fall down and cave in. Keith had, for himself and for Kate, come over and explained in as much detail everything that had happened. The visibility was down to zero, Keith told her that he was unable to see anyone else’s torch beam, that he could see nothing in front of him and nothing coming from behind him.
‘It was like being in the abyss,’ Keith said, looking straight ahead. ‘It was like there was nothing but grey all around. Nothing, but you couldn’t move.’
Keith had come around at two in the afternoon on the Tuesday before the burial. He asked how Kate was, all things considered, and asked if she wanted to know the story before or after. That was all the explanation Kate had needed, already knowing he was going to tell her what happened that night. He hadn’t known until he’d sat down and started to talk whether he’d be able to. He’d tried talking about it with his own wife, but Lizzie hadn’t wanted to hear it. Keith didn’t blame her. Depending on how easily he was able to tell Kate the details of that Friday night-into-Saturday morning, Keith was going to go back home, sit Lizzie down, apologise, and then tell her he was quitting.
The first thing Kate noticed was how pale Keith was. The second thing was how deep and sunken his red-purple eyes were. The third was how gaunt his face looked.
‘We went forward maybe twenty feet,’ Keith continued when he felt like he could. ‘I got on the radio and suggested we pull out. There was no way we were going to find those other three kids in there, if they were still in there. Jack insisted going on.’
He swallowed, came close to tears, then went on. ‘I don’t know how long it was, maybe five minutes, maybe thirty seconds, there was no way to tell, then I said again that we had to leave. It wasn’t a suggestion, I was telling everyone to get out. Jack never replied. I tried again, but nothin’. From the moment we went in, I never saw him.’
Keith sniffed, took a deep breath, then lost control over his tears, which came in a sobbing flood. Kate went to him, held him, and they sat there, arms around each other, crying heartily for a good long while. It amazed them both, how a person could cry and cry and cry, and then still have enough left in them to tear up again at the drop of a hat.
Keith eventually composed himself, Kate let the tears run out naturally, she didn’t feel she had to, or should, compose herself. It was perfectly natural for her to be like this, and she didn’t care what anyone may have thought about her. Keith was still trying his best to be in man-mode, which for some stupid reason meant crying was a sign of weakness.
Kate didn’t think it was weak. Kate thought it was pain getting out, it was the best way the body had of getting the hurt out. Kate sought refuge in the notion that she could only possibly hold so much grief, and the more she cried the more she was getting it out. Just get all of it out and then everything will be okay again. Of course, that was what she’d thought back then, before she’d really had the chance to think about what was going on. As time passed by Kate learned that a person could cry and cry until they died of dehydration, and still the pain wouldn’t lessen. Kate would come to learn that a person could live for a thousand years and that pain could still strike so painfully if a person let it, if a person wanted it to. Or you could try to focus on what still remained over what was lost, and you could make an attempt to live.
Pretty much, Kate had decided, a person could do whatever it was they wanted to.
Time had appeared to both stand still, the hours dragging by so painfully slowly, and move at the speed of light, entire days having started and finished in the blink of an eye. On one occasion that had rocked Kate with a completely inappropriate guilt, she’d forgotten if it had been five weeks or six weeks since the accident that had killed Jack. Kate felt that all the things, the happy memories of their life together and the pain of his death, should be tattooed on her soul. She had felt restless for a day or two after that. The purest reason that Kate could think of for languishing in the pain was that on some level it was the only new emotion she could feel with Jack. All the fondness and gentleness and the love was gone, burned and buried. But the pain, the heartache, the deep guilt, all of that was new, and in a perverse way it made Kate feel as though Jack was still around, still affecting her day-to-day life.
Sitting alone on the sofa, Kate forced herself to stare straight ahead, not allowing her head to twist to the left. On her left was where Jack used to sit, where they’d both snuggle, and if she looked over there now she would cry. Kate had done a very commendable job of facing every other aspect of what was once their home but had now taken on the feel of being just a house.
Jack’s toothbrush by the bathroom mirror.
His deodorants and colognes.
Jack’s large bath towel hanging on his rail by the shower.
Gone, despite Kate’s initial wanting to use it herself from now on as often as she could.
Most of his clothes had been pushed to the back of the closets or designated to the bottom drawers.
Jack’s mugs, emblazoned with sports team logos in a bizarre coupling of colours.
Pushed to the very back of the cupboards.
Every once in a while one single escapee sock would pop up in her laundry and bring back a photo-album of memories, which in turn would produce a tidal wave of emotion and, for better or worse, bring on a flood of tears. Sometimes remembering things she did with Jack made Kate cry with pain and the odd feeling of nevermore, other times it would make her smile and then laugh, and then cry, happy tears coming in abundance in remembrance of what she’d had.
Kate had attempted to find others in her position. Typing the word “widow” into a search engine was as far as she had ever gotten. After that, she found herself stopped. Part of her was afraid that there would be absolutely nobody else in the world that could relate to her, that no one else would ever have felt what she was feeling. The other part of her paused because she was afraid that there would be a lot of other people who did know what she was going through. There would be people out there who could claim a part of her pain. Kate didn’t want to give up a part of her memory, a part of her grip, a part of her love, a part of her suffering. A part of her Jack.
‘This pain,’ Kate whispered to herself, ‘is so selfish.’
And that was the one thing that Kate knew she would never be able to talk about, not because it was so difficult but because it was going to be difficult for people to hear. Grief is selfish. That was all there was to it. The emotion of grief was nothing more than a longing for something you lost. You no longer had something or someone, and you felt badly because you wanted it back. Your life was now lacking something, and you felt bad about it. It had nothing to do with that other person, it was all to do with the impact that other person had on you. How your life was now missing a component.
The pain was selfish.
The grief was selfish.
The tears were selfish.
The anger was selfish.
And if Kate had tried to explain that to anyone, she knew they’d try to convince her otherwise. They would tell her not to be so hard on herself, that it all wasn’t her fault she felt this way. They’d try to use their faux-psychology on her, repeating and misquoting the feel-good therapists they’d seen on daytime TV or heard on radio talk-shows. They meant well, but it didn’t make any real difference. The only thing it made Kate feel was angry, if only briefly, that they were arrogant enough to think they were capable of helping or that her problems were so petty they could be fixed by a simple, “it’s always darkest before dawn “ or a, “you’ll get through this, don’t worry” or a multitude of other cheer-me-up slogans they got form a poster. It amazed her because the pain and the grief and the anger was, yes, selfish, but it was also hers, and it was caused by Jack. It was the only real thing she still had with him.
Kate sat up at night, leafing through an album of all the photographs she’d printed off, her and her now-dead husband in all manner of fun places and fun outings. And now she’d never add any more to the collection, she’d never fill out those final, empty pages. The pain, the anger, the grief, the loss, the emptiness, it was all hers and she was never, never going to let it go.