More Than Life

Entry by: Deedee

29th May 2015
After she was gone, Audley roamed the house – a lost soul looking for a life that no longer existed. He moved from room to room, seeking out those objects that had meant the most to her during life; the mahogany jewellery box – and, contained within it, her mother's freshwater pearl choker; the Lladro vase he had bought her for their fifth wedding anniversary. It was supposed to have been something wooden, but they had taken a rare trip to Harrods a month before, and she had spotted the vase as they were wandering around, its colours brought to life under the gleaming lights of the display cabinet.

A few days later, he had returned to buy it for her. He could have probably bought it in another shop that was more local, but it felt like a pilgrimage to Audley, returning to the place where she'd first spotted it – and besides, he couldn't have wrapped it with the same lavish attention that the young assistant had applied to the job. When he'd presented it to Helen on the morning of their anniversary, her eyes had lit up when she saw the green Harrods wrapping paper with its delicate gold lettering. The vase, although exactly the same as the ones that might have adorned the shelves of Debenhams or John Lewis, was suddenly elevated to something more. A little slice of luxury, and the memory of a day spent together. A day when he'd taken note of something that had pleased her – fulfilling one of those small wants and desires that she would never have given into herself. Now, it stood on top of their dressing table, gathering dust. It was surprising, Audley thought, how quickly grime settled into a house's nooks and crannies when nobody applied themselves to shooing it away.

Next he wandered over to inspect the ruby photo frame he'd given Helen for their fortieth anniversary. Inside, there was a photo of them on the beach at Brighton where they'd gone for the weekend. Their arms were wrapped around each other and, despite the passage of years, Helen still looked beautiful to him. Her hair, which had turned a silver grey, contrasted with the areas of ebony that remained – salt and pepper he believed it was called. In her youth, her hair had fallen to her waist, dark and luxurious. In the photo, it had been cut into the nape of her neck, showing off its slim lines. In all those years, Helen had never let herself go; she had evolved, metamorphosing into a different, albeit still wonderful, creature. There were lines, yes, but they'd both earned those. Life hadn't always been easy – but they'd been kind to each other and, above all, that's what had kept them together.

Their two children had moved out long ago – that was hard at first. Empty nest syndrome had hit Helen with a vengeance. She'd paced the house, the way he was pacing it now, looking for something that wasn't there. He didn't even think she was looking for Robert and Josie as they were then – age 20 and 22 – but that she was somehow seeking a memory of them; the fluff-headed infants and toddlers she'd reared with loving indulgence. That was a tough time for Audley – he missed them too. But he'd also feel released by their absence; a sense of freedom had floated over him. The remote control was his again; the bathroom was wonderfully vacant without Josie primping herself every five minutes; the lack of bass which seemed to perpetually thump out of Robert's room was true music to his ears! And, of course, the prospect of unfettered, unrestrained sex with Helen – something they hadn’t been able to indulge in once they’d had kids – was utterly compelling. He'd imagined it, even as Josie and Robert were still packing to leave – liaisons in the lounge, clinches in the kitchen . . . dropping their clothes as the mood took them.

But it hadn't quite worked out that way. Audley was ready to move on long before Helen. And that was where patience (his, that time) had saved them. But it was Helen's patience that had saved them when Audley's business collapsed. It was a tough time for businesses in general, and his had suffered. At one point, it had looked as though they might lose the house; and Audley, feeling like a failure – someone who couldn't provide for his wife – had visions of her leaving him, looking for someone better. But she hadn't. She'd taken on a second job and they'd rode the wave together. She had stood by him as he'd built his second business up from scratch.

These were the things that cemented them – the bad times even more than the good times. Because, of course, it's so easy to remain together during the halcyon days – it's only when you look at each other across a crowded room and know that you're together because you truly want to be – that life's blows haven't cut you asunder – that you realise how valuable you are to each other.

Now, Audley drifts back into the lounge. There is so much of her still here that he can hardly believe she's gone. Over there, the chair she always used to sit in – the impression of her body forever moulded into the soft fabric, in much the same way that the impression of her essence has been moulded into his heart. How can he ever live here without her? It seems impossible to him to think of going on. He doesn't know what's worse – the fact that so much of her remains, or the possibility that, over time, these little clues as to her existence might eventually erode and disappear altogether. Right now, the scent of her perfume lingers in the air – but how long can he expect that to last? How will his life be worth living without her?

He recalls her last day – Josie and Robert gathered in the house as Helen's frail body finally gave up the fight; the cancer winning at last. Audley had watched her battle daily and had longed to be able to help in some way – to take the suffering away. But in those closing moments, she had seemed almost at peace. She had looked at him then, a mix of emotions passing across her features – love, surprise, sadness, happiness and, finally, acceptance. He had watched as they took her away; strangers who knew nothing of this woman. And he had looked on as his children wept, unable to comfort them as he would have liked.

The house creaks and sighs under the weight of its silence, like a person acknowledging their own loneliness. Beneath that, Audley hears another noise – it starts as a sigh before building into a faint hum. The tune is La Mer, Helen's favourite song. "Somewhere, beyond the sea, he's there waiting for me . . ."

The hum transforms into the barest whisper of a voice, and he joins in – "We'll meet beyond the shore. We'll kiss just as before . . ."

He turns and suddenly there she is, as solid as he remembers her. Except that her body is no longer the thin, cancer-riddled shell it became. Instead, she appears healthy, vital – vibrant.

Audley gasps. "A ghost," he whispers. "I'm seeing a ghost!"

Helen steps towards him smiling. "No, my love," she says, brushing his cheek with her hand, and it's as solid as it ever was in life. "You are the ghost. You were the ghost," she corrects. "My darling, don't you know?"

Audley shakes his head and stares at her. "Know what?"

"You died a year before me. It was only as I was passing over that I saw you. You were trapped here – waiting. But I've come back for you now, to bring you across."

A tear trickles down Audley's cheek and all the fears and frustrations now make sense – his inability to comfort Helen when she was so ill; how he watched while his children wept at their mother's deathbed. He was neither here nor there – a nobody; a soul aimlessly cast into a hinterland of memories and pain.

"Come with me," says Helen, holding out her hand.

"Where?" Audley asks, taking a step back. "I'm afraid. Afraid that I'll lose you again. That our life together will be over. At least while I remain here, in this house, there's still the memory of you."

Helen smiles. "Oh Audley, I'll always be there for you; and where we're going, there's more – so much more."

"More than what?" he asks.

"More than life."

Taking his hand, Helen leads him into the light.