Jack stood holding the kettle, frozen in a world so suddenly empty it sounded hollow. Suburban sound came flat and lifeless echoing his grief. Mowers hummed and cars drove past but all of this took place behind a thick opaque curtain that stood between him and the world outside. His feet tingled and the floor felt like it would crumble away underneath him at any moment. He reached a hand towards the bench top to steady himself against the tilting room and wondered if he was going to actually feel something solid beneath his palm.
Was anything real ?
'This is so foolish' he thought briefly and then his red flushed face began to twist with tears torn from eyes that he knew to be much tougher. The kettle began to wobble in his failing grip and he thumped it to the counter. Angry came and went so quickly it had hardly made its presence known.
"It's just a goddamn cup of coffee..." he lied to no-one. "What's wrong with me for god's sake ? I've seen 3 wars. I'm stronger than this."
"Your wife of 40 years is lying dead on the lawn, thatís what is wrong mate."
The other voice continued, "She was going to get the paper off the lawn and you were going to sit and have coffee, just like you have done every morning for the last 6 years since you retired. Her cup is still on the bench. Do I need to continue? You think if you make that one cup, only one cup of coffee that it will make it suddenly real?"
"Oh fuck off."
Jack hurls the cup at the floor. It bounces and the handle comes off. He so much wanted it to smash. He feels so impotent.
Walking to the window he looks down at the yard and sees the police and ambulance people looking back. They look away, embarrassed almost.
"Suck it up man." says that persistent voice, the Sergeant back in basic who had warned them all that he would be the voice in their heads for the rest of their lives, "in the heat of battle you will hear me, in the quiet of your dreams, in the silence before a shit fight and even when you are in the arms of your girls back home it will be me whispering, 'put it in her arse'."
Jack breathes in deep and calls himself back from all of the wanderings of his mind down different memories of her. Gathering as much 'Jack' as he can, he follows the rules again.
"Situation?" says the little voice.
"Betz is dead," he replies.
"Get through today... (Deep breath) Okay, Undertakers, the kids need to be told, get those cunts downstairs out of my yard."
"They are just doing what they have to."
"Um, the funeral is organised - she insisted we do that a while ago when she had the first lot of chemotherapy. The rest is just phone calls and... guts I guess."
"Looking at 2-3 days till the funeral, the undertakers will be here within a half hour of the call, soon as they've been the cops and co. will fuck off... time... " he is suddenly frightened again thinking of all the time he will have alone now.
"Death has come to my home this time fuck it. I'm not in some desert or the jungle where people are supposed to die. My front yard man!"
"I hear you mate, now 'DO IT' and it's 'SORTED'."
Picking the now handleless mug off the kitchen floor he says to the empty room, "'Sorted', I don't think this will ever be 'sorted'." He makes the coffee he began earlier and sipping it he picks up the phone.
The calls are made and he rises stiffly from his favorite chair.
Jason, his eldest answered the phone first and was going to let the others know. They all live so far away now. Theyíre all grown up with kids of their own. It didnít seem that long ago they were playing sword fights on the same lawn where their dead mother lay.
The undertakers were helpful and they weren't going to be long either, half an hour or so they said.
He stops at the study on his way to the door and looks at all his photos. The walls are lined with faded pictures. He looks at old black and white photos and vivid colour memories fill his vision. He picks up a dark framed photo that stands on the desk and studies it.
A young man in uniform smiles back at him with his arm around the waist of a striking dark haired woman. She looks so small next to him and even a stranger holding this photograph would know they were in love. The couple seem so bold compared to the field canteen behind them and the dirty tired soldiers almost don't exist. He'd known Betz 36 hours when that photograph was taken. His throat swells and his eyes fill. Looking down he notices his pyjamas.
He opens a mahogany door and takes his fresh pressed clothes from the hanger. Dressing quietly, he tucks the photograph in a pocket of his coat. The laces on his boots are strangely stiff today. Parade gloss smells rise from the leather and he finally feels prepared to meet the vultures in his yard.
Walking towards the door he stops abruptly and returns to the study fetching some afterthought from the drawer of his desk and placing it absently in his trouser pocket.
At the top of the stairs he stops, dizzied by the bright of day. He grabs a rail and sees a dark station wagon pull up in the driveway. Two men in suits get out and start walking toward the police. Hands are shook and nods are nodded and heads are turned to Jack.
Jack nods back and starts down the stairs.
Betz is alone now. A plain sheet covers her against the eyes of the neighbours and the vultures seem to have forgotten her for a moment. He kneels down beside her and gently draws the sheet from her face. She looks exactly 19 again.
So peaceful. So pretty. So - asleep.
Jack becomes aware that he is being watched and looking up he's a little surprised to see his best mate Andy.
"Gidday Mate, Betz is gone."
"Thats Sergeant Mate, you rude bugger," Andy laughs and Jack manages a half smile.
"She's not gone mate, she's here with us. Even got a good scotch waiting to warm you up."
They are almost interrupted by some urgent mumbling from the crowd near the ambulance. "Two?"
"See you in a while then mate." says Andy and snaps off a crisp salute to his old Captain.
Jack returns the salute...
Two tired police officers watch the old man as he comes down the stairs. They are too polite to let their mouths drop open but nonetheless they are openly surprised to see the old bloke in full uniform. He had said he was in the army... Must have kept a uniform or two...
Grief does funny things to people.
They watched him steady himself on the rail then descend the stairs and walk across to kneel beside his wife.
The undertakers arrive in their dark station wagon and introduce themselves. Hands are shook, names exchanged, details noted.
"Where's the second body?"
"Our caller said that there were two deceased, Mr and Mrs Thompson."
Turning quickly they see retired Captain Jack Thompson stand up beside the body of his wife and pull himself to attention. His right hand rises from his trouser pocket in a crisp prolonged salute...
His knees bend, his hand drops out of salute and the browning falls in slow motion to the grass. The old man in the uniform seems to hover there mid fall for just a bit too long then he folds gently down beside his wife.
Purple morning light finds them through a gap in the trees and plays games of shadows around their bodies. It looks for all the world like their spirits are dancing on the precisely kept lawn.