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Shell

By David Gardiner

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It's wonderful what they can do nowadays, isn't it? Do you remember Harry Clifford's wife Maude, down the road when we were in Hampstead? Well, she had a far worse accident than yours. It was shortly after you left. Her son was driving her up to their place in Oxford and some teenager in a stolen Range Rover crossed the central reservation and ran straight into them, head on. They said the bones were sticking right out of her legs. Both of them were nearly cut off, like something you would see in a butcher's shop. Nobody thought she'd ever walk again. But she did. She went to a private clinic they put her bones back together with screws and metal bars and gave her all that physiotherapy and the latest drugs and she can walk pretty well now. Not very far of course. With two sticks. Her son... well, she lost her son. What can you say, eh Jenna?

The only bit of you that was hurt was your head. Just a bit of bruising on your face. That'll soon clear up. And when your hair grows back it'll cover the scars. You'll be a beautiful woman again. You don't look a day older, you know. A bit thinner, maybe. You've always been a fine-looking woman. Everybody says that.

I used to be so proud of you, Jenna. My beautiful wife. Everything I did back then I did to please you. I don't know whether you realised or not. I wanted you to live in a beautiful place, and not have to work so that you would have time for your painting, and go on wonderful holidays, and have the best and most expensive of everything. Do you remember the clothes you used to wear? You always looked so graceful and sophisticated. Like a model, or a film star or something. With your looks you could have had any man in London, and you chose me. I often used to wonder why. What you saw in me. I felt that I had to live up to you, prove to you that I deserved you. Or maybe prove to myself that I deserved you. Maybe that was it. And every moment I was away from you I was afraid that I would lose you. And I did in the end, didn't I? It was almost a relief when it actually happened... Sorry, I didn't mean that. It was a silly thing to say. Forgive me.

Can I hold your hand again? Is that all right?

It's very cold. Maybe I should get the nurse? No, the machines would tell them if anything was wrong, wouldn't they?

Can you hear me Jenna? Is my voice getting through to you? Squeeze my hand if you can hear me. Just a little squeeze. No? But the doctor said you might still be able to hear, even if you couldn't squeeze. So I'm going to assume that you can hear me. Is that all right?

You know this isn't all that different from when we lived in Hampstead. Especially towards the end, just before you left. I used to sit down beside you, and tell you everything about the business, and about my friends and my family. About my sister and her kids and how Mother was getting on in the retirement villa, and all that kind of thing. I used to ask you if everything was all right, and how you were feeling, and if you wanted anything and a lot of the time I wasn't certain whether you heard me or not. You never seemed to answer me. I suppose it was a form of depression, wasn't it? Like you said in the note when you left. You called it depression. I thought it was just me. I thought I was probably boring you. I'm a simple man, you know, Jenna. Running the business was the biggest thing in my life back then. I didn't have a lot of time for anything else. I've never been... a cultured man. You knew that when you married me, didn't you?

Was it me who made you depressed? It must have been, mustn't it? There wasn't anybody else around. Maybe you should have talked to me more. Maybe that would have helped. If you'd just told me what it was that you wanted from me. Even if it was just for me to shut up. I would have done anything to make you happy. Anything in the whole world. But you never told me what it was, did you?

Maybe what you wanted was somebody who wasn't me. Somebody cleverer, better educated, who could talk about books and music and theatre and politics... was that it?

Maybe I wasn't any good in bed. You seemed to go off that side of the relationship pretty quickly. Maybe we should have... you know, gone to see somebody. A counsellor or something.

The thing is, at the time it didn't seem all that serious, did it? Couples go through bad patches. Women feel a bit down from time to time. Men too. I thought what we needed was probably a good holiday. But there just never seemed to be the time. The business was growing at a fantastic rate back then. It wasn't the right time to go away. I didn't have executives that I could trust to do things properly. I just never got around to it. I wanted to, but it never happened.

You loved Venice when we were on our honeymoon, didn't you? I wish I could have given you more time there. The phone just kept ringing. It was when the first Hong Kong deal was going through. Bad timing.

That's what we should have done. We should have gone somewhere.

Somewhere... cultural. Florence, maybe, or... oh, I don't know. Where is that place in Russia where they have the hermit's museum? Somewhere like that. I would have been so happy to go somewhere like that with you. You could have looked at all the pictures, and I could have followed you around, and you could have told me about them, and then when we got home we could have talked about them, and looked at photographs, just like when we went to Venice. I was really happy then. The happiest I've ever been in my life. Were you happy? It was always a bit hard to tell with you. Even when you were laughing and seemed to be having a great time, there was always some little... I don't know... emptiness. Like those painted eggs in Venice: bright and beautiful and colourful on the outside, but hollow on the inside, and so fragile you could almost blow through the shell. And if you broke the shell there would be nothing left, because that's all that there was really shell.

God, I do talk a lot of bullshit, don't I? How did you ever put up with me?

Oh, I forgot, you didn't put up with me, did you?

Nobody knew where you'd gone. You didn't go back to your mother like runaway wives are supposed to. I knew it wasn't another man. Don't ask me how, I just knew. I haven't told you this, but I paid a company of private detectives to look for you. You covered your tracks extremely well. After a few months they said there was no point, that I was wasting my money. You know me, Jenna, never one to waste money! So I gave up.

And all those years went by without you contacting anybody. Why did you do that? Why did you never write a postcard or pick up the phone? Were you punishing me, was that it? I could understand it if you were, but your mother? Why would you want to punish your mother? I don't understand, Jenna. I don't understand at all.

Then that strange phone call. A woman knocked unconscious by an Underground train, with nothing but a credit card to identify her. A funny sort of accident. Dreadful piece of luck. They traced me through your landlady, did you know that? Old letters that they found in your room. I went to that place where you were living and met her. You're such an innocent, Jenna. I bet you had no idea what kind of place that was. Why didn't you just come home? Was it pride? Didn't you know I would forgive you no matter what you'd done? Didn't you know how much you meant to me? How could you live like that, in a place like that, and make all those dark and terrible paintings? It almost made me cry, to think how unhappy you must have been.

Maybe your accident was meant, you know what I mean? Maybe it was fate. To get us back together again. Do you believe in that kind of thing?

The police were pleased that I wanted to take responsibility for you. They didn't know of any other living relative. I told them nothing in the world would make me happier. That's all I've ever wanted. Just to be here for you. I've got something to offer you now, even if I never had before.

I've talked to the doctor about taking you home. He said it was possible, if you could have some special equipment, and twenty-four hour care. I told him I could afford it, but why waste money on carers? I'll be here twenty-four hours. It's where I want to be with you. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. The business looks after itself now. I've been semi-retired for years. I finally learned to delegate. Making money gets boring after a while, I don't mind admitting it. What I need is somebody with me. Companionship. I need you, Jenna. And now I've got you. I've got you back. I think I'm a very lucky man.

Did I feel something just now? Did you try to squeeze my hand? No, just my imagination I think.

And one day, you might wake up again. It'll be just as if you'd never left, won't it? And we'll go away together on a holiday. A long, glorious holiday, far far away...



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