From the moment that we met, I liked her very much. She had a cheeky sense of humour and used the language men use with each other. She was a forceful personality, one that I never had, nor would I ever know the like of again.
You meet people in weird ways. I met Joanna filling up at the petrol station. I’d just deposited the diesel into the cranky old jalopy, and Joanna was manning the payment kiosk. “Wow, that car really is a piece of shit.” She said it with a half cocky smile and a glint her eye as she took my debit card. “Fuck you,” I squawked back at her, not really knowing how my much-loved profanity would be received. “Well, I get off at ten, and I’m not promising anything but if you’re around?” All of my senses flared up. My heart started beating like a drum loop on a Goldie jam, and by 10 PM my piece of shit and me was back at the garage.
If I lived to 159, like some of those Native Americans do, I don’t think I’ll ever forget that night. We drove country lanes and bought cider. Up in the peaks, there’s a beauty spot, that overlooks the Amber Valley. I drove us up there, and we cracked the cider and looked out over a lilac sky with burnt edges. June is a genuinely inspiring month. We were not alone there, a group of slackers had a barbeque and some J’s, they were eating, smoking, drinking and chatting. We joined them for a bit, then cuddled up in the car. We talked through the night, about music and films and gigs and dreams. Our dreams, that seemed to be in the same universe. “I wanna kiss ya,” she said. I wasn’t going to stop her.
The lilac turned to navy blue, mapped with stars unburdened by the pollution of electric light. Soon it grew lighter then turned to a violent mauve taken over by red. Eventually giving way to one of those skies that just says; today is going to be wonderful. I drove her home. She shared a place with three other girls. They were all studying. Joanna was doing theatre design. The garage kept her in fags and booze and occasionally food. Joanna had a way of prioritising. She told me she’d go out Saturday, dance until her feet bled, sleep all day Sunday and come up shining on Monday. It saved on food bills. That night was the start of it. I’d seen nothing but beauty for the whole evening, and it was all I would see for the rest of my life. Because I knew then and there I was not going to let her get away.
You can’t count the dates, can you? They start at one or two a week and quickly blur into every moment you can share. Then it’s tearful goodbyes on a Sunday evening, as the world of work and education looms. Eventually, you take the plunge and move in together. I remember that night, dinner at a Greek place, I had goat – roasted. Joanna ate healthy, salad and feta. She looked at me, she had a way of looking at me. “I want to tell you something,”
“Ok,” I said.
“Before I do, I want you to tell me something about you, something that you’re ashamed of? I want to do this because I have an idea and I don’t want any secrets between us.” It was going to be one of those conversations. You know, the deep ones. “Tell me something that you would change if you could,” I had to think for a minute.
“Well, there’s a few things. I have a criminal record. I got caught bootlegging T-Shirts and ended up in court. It’s funny that happened the day my Nan burst into flames, and my cat killed the neighbour.”
Joanna spat out her wine. “Your cat killed a neighbour?”
“Yeah, just dived on him and ripped his artery, the poor bugga bled to death in seconds, then I got served.”
“Jesus fucknuts! That’s amazing. But horrific naturally.”
“Yeah, but there isn’t much I could have changed, the t-shirts, I just needed cash. I think the one thing that I really regret is something that happened when I was young. I beat this lad up. I didn’t mean to. It’s just that where I’m from it’s dog eat dog. And when there is someone weaker than you, you just dive in, because you can. At least it wasn’t me taking the beating, for once. The thing is I saw him years later. Just a lad, well, a bloke now. He was walking home with his shopping bags and his family. He was carrying everything and his kids, they were cute. His wife and him looked rough. I don’t think that the years had been kind.” I was getting a bit teary, and Jo grabbed my hand. I looked at her. Nothing had changed, I could see that she still loved me. Despite the form and my merciless bullying.
“When he saw me, he dropped the bags, I was smiling ready to say hello, water under the bridge and all that. But he screamed, like an animal. His face went wretched with terror, and he ran away. Shopping flying behind him. It was terrible. Sometimes I want to rip my own eyes out.”
Joanna looked at me. She didn’t need to say a word. Jo just got me. She squeezed my hand that little bit tighter. Then kissed it. ‘That’s nothing. My fuckin’ wanktard of a brother, killed his mistress thinking it was his wife, who was also her sister. Can you believe it? His wife has a twin, they were seeing each other, he won the lottery and planned to run off with her. After killing his wife. Dickhead killed the wrong twin. He’s in prison.”
I was breathless, she just laughed. She did a funny voice, “me Brother’s in the nick.” She laughed harder, the way she always did, not a care in the world for the stuff that can’t be changed. “You just get on don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“So, how about we move in together? I’m sick of saying goodbye on Sunday’s, and I know you love a roll about in the morning. Could you imagine having me on tap?” she winked.
“You can’t cook!”
“I know, but you can. I’m creative and very sexy. The things I can’t do you can. It’s how we fit together. So come on, are you up for it or what?”
I couldn’t say no. I wouldn’t say no. Jo was right about everything. We did fit together and as clichéd as it may sound, that sort of thing does not come along very often.
Like an all-nighter in the countryside and romantic heart to hearts, you don’t forget your first real row. Seven years in and we hadn’t so much had a crossed word about anything. That’s fourteen holidays, two moves, one puppy and an engagement ring later. Then and only then did I see Jo’s angry side. I suppose the only thing that she would lose it over would be the wedding. She was now a set designer for the movies. She was away a lot. I didn’t mind though. I had the dog and to be honest, absence does make the heart grow fonder. I just loved her more everyday, and when she came home, I was more excited than the dog. I couldn’t put her down. So, planning the wedding was the thing that Jo took control of. The only thing I needed to do was to pick a best man.
Men have tiny social circles. Mine was minuscule. I didn’t really do friends. I had acquaintances but not many friends. However, there was one lad who worked in the warehouse for the music distributors where I was working whom I liked. No one else did. But I found him refreshing. His name was Karl. He was a bit outspoken and politically a million miles from myself, but he knew a lot about James Bond, electronic music and he had a dangerous undercurrent. You never really knew what he was going to do, or say.
I decided that he would be a great best man if nothing else the speech would be a shocker. “No! No, no! Not Karl.”
“Who else have I got?”
“Seriously. Not fucking Karl!”
“What do you mean why? He was found off his head on drugs wanking over a sheep in front of a family up in Derbyshire! No! Not Karl.”
At this point, I should have quit. But I persisted. And I don’t know why I did. I mean, Karl didn’t mean that much to me. But I planted my flag and really pushed for it. That was the only night that we were in the same house but slept in separate beds. Needless to say, Karl was not my best man. Instead, it was Jo’s best mate Jeni. We’d always got on, and she looked good in a suit. Her speech was both funny and affecting and that day sits with me along with that first night. It was a day where I sat back and observed a room where there was only love. I looked at Joanna, and I felt something, something like total ecstasy. A fulfillment unknown, until now.
You look back at your life, and it feels like a stretch, but while you are living it, it has a habit of speeding along. Jo went from strength to strength career wise. In the meantime, the music industry was going from analogue to digital. That was bad news for distribution. I lost my job, which gave us a chance to start a family. Will came first. A tiger of a lad who from the moment he arrived up until this day has not sat still. Three years later we had Lilly. I started a home business. It was making jams and sauces and selling them on the Internet. Like the kids, it grew. Thankfully, I was home. I was there for them, and Jo had become so successful that as the kids sprouted, she could take the summers off. We’d spend those days together. Holidays, pets, walks, and adventures. The things we would make and do. Lilly was a bright wee girl. When I met Jo, I believed that I was falling in love for the last time. Then along come these little people, and you fall in love all over again.
Jo would make sets, Lilly would act along with me, and Will organised and directed proceedings. Looking back on this now, it was idyllic. Of course there were bumps in the road. Will had a friend who wasn’t the best influence. He got caught nicking sweets from the school tuck shop. The way that the head carried on you’d have thought that he was Pablo Escobar. Lilly, well, she danced her way through school and university.
Will, he’s a funny lad. He went to London. Within a month he had a faux cockney accent and stopped wearing socks. He went into the music industry as a manager. He had some massive stars working with him. That bloke, I can’t remember his name, he was the lead singer with the Bass Kings. Well, he left the band and signed up with Will. They conquered the world.
Lilly, went to Hollywood, changed her name to Scarlett for five minutes and started making films. It’s funny. I worry about her, but she makes her own way. We see her on adverts and stuff. Then she turned up on Game of Thrones or something like that. That is hard to watch. You never expect to see a credit that says the third whore with your daughters name after it. But, once you’ve seen that, and the scenes that preceded it, very little shocks. I guess that I am proud of them. Up and gone in the blink of an eye. One minute they need you for everything, the next they need nothing but their own space, and some cash now and again. Not Will though, I’m sure he’s minted and respect to the lad, he takes care of his sister and never forgets mothers day or Jo’s birthday.
I sold the jam business to a VC, and that gave us money to pretty much retire. Jo loved the work so tearing her away was tough. I bought a boat; I called it ‘Le morceau de merde.’ Jo got the joke, and we made plans to do the whole country one canal at a time. It’s funny how relationships go full circle. We had the run of everything. No timetable, no kids, no responsibilities. We just had life. We made a pact that we were going to live it. It was exactly like it was in the beginning. Thirty years had passed, and almost nothing had changed. It was just Jo and me, enjoying the gift of each other.
The key to all of it was laughter. We laughed a lot. It was late September when I stopped laughing. Jo didn’t. She dealt with the whole thing far better than I ever could have. How can a lump, a small thing, a tumor, turn everything upside down? These things teach you. Jo taught me. I‘ve never seen strength so singularly personified in one person as I did in her. We put things on hold during the treatments. The kids helped where they could, but Will was on tour with the Rock Star, and Lilly was in Hollywood chasing the dream. And God forbid that I try and stop her. They called, but as it had been, is how it was going to be; Jo and me.
We were young when we met. I had a fairly decent waistline and Jo, well she was just perfect; athletic, gorgeous and surly as hell. During this dark time, I began to understand a very human gift. Despite her working away quite a bit, Jo looked exactly the same to me now as she did on the day that we met. Illness and age had taken nothing from her. That is the gift of growing old together. I would sit there everyday and just admire her. She’d look back and smile, that cheeky wee smile.
On my way to the hospital, I got a call, Jo had not had a good reaction to treatment, and things were looking bad. The nurse explained to me that there was not long left and that I needed to prepare myself. Jo was under the influence of some heavy drugs, and she may not recognise me when I got there. I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t believe it. I felt frightened, like a kid coming home to an angry Dad after some seriously bad behaviour at school.
I arrived, but I didn’t go in straight away. I just stared through the glass in the door. Jo was sleeping. I watched her for five minutes or more. Something dawned on me. I was frightened for her. Jo, from the moment she was diagnosed, had dealt with this. Then the epiphany, I wasn’t frightened for her at all, I was frightened for me. Selfishly, all I could think about was me. What would I do without her? We were one, we had been together for so long how would I go on? Engulfed by sadness, the stark realisation that all of my fear, terror, and panic was really just about me. How did I not realise this before? Jo took all of this in her stride. She fought and fought hard. From the beginning, the smile never left her face, and her needle sharp wit stayed well intact. I was starting to wonder what I had done to deserve her.
A nurse tapped me on the shoulder. “Remember she has received a lot of pain relief if she doesn’t know you that is normal.” I just nodded and went in. For three hours I held her hand. Looking out of the window I could see that same sky, the one from our first night together, lilac with scarlet edges. I looked at the light on her face. She opened her eyes and looked into mine. Time stood still for that moment. I said, “Hey, do you know who I am?” Jo smiled, her lips cracked slightly, and she said, “Of course I know who you are. You’re my boy. I love you.”
Jo didn’t speak again. I thank her for the days. All of those days, and not one do I regret from then until now. I shed the selfishness and let her go. The kids, bless ‘em, they want me to get out there. “Go on first dates Dad,” they say. They don’t want me to be on my own. But how could I be? The memories, this life fulfilled, the love and the adventures just won’t go. The house and the boat still smell like her. I don’t want that smell to disappear, not ever. I take the boat out, and go to our favourite places, and I drink wine. I drink it more than I used to. I look at pictures of us and then I marvel at the sky. I thank the universe that I was given the piece that completed the puzzle of my life. I raise a glass to my love and I marvel at how we fitted together.
This is a short story by Nick Mann, if you liked it, you can find more of the buggers here. Otherwise, if you have enjoyed it please consider sharing it – Karma and my badself will thank you for it. The buttons are on the right, thank you kindly.