JULY ISSUE: On Promises

Image from author’s collection: Book of Life – The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia

This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for subscribers on Substack looked at pledges, promises and bargains. Readers were then invited to share short true tales of their own on this theme. Here is where those responses are showcased.

Jane Adams

July extract

‘When are we going to talk about it, Tan?’ Tears in Nye’s eyes, a catch in his voice. ‘I’ve always wanted this, since I was a boy myself. To be a father.’You are that for me, who never had one. This, too, I did not say.

‘I’ve never wanted to have a small person in my power.’ I said instead. ‘What if I they felt trapped, like I did? I’ve got no model for family life, no feeling for it. It’s only something I wanted to escape. And what if we have a child and each stage of its life triggers memories of what I’m trying to forget in mine?’

‘But I’ve loved you ten years now. When will enough time have passed for you to be over all that?’

Never, I thought.

But instead of that terminal answer, I asked for just a little longer, please: If Nye and I could both cast off our inertia, our shyness — if we booked holidays and went abroad like normal people instead of spending our annual leaves parked by our childhood beaches reading books with our feet on the dashboard — if we began to use our money instead of only saving it for accidents and emergencies (his carefulness a legacy of growing up in that mining valley during the strikes; my caution got from the short rations of Mother and me alone) — if we lived more in our bodies and less in imagination — then we could try for one.

This time next year. Yes?

Like the Miller’s daughter who promises her firstborn child to a stranger if he will spin straw into gold, I did not think we would change very much, or that Nye would hold me to that moment.

Before we kissed on it in the white light that revealed his age and mine, I should have remembered the shadow side of bargains: their strange insistence on terms. Even when those who make them have no belief in fate or design themselves.

The Cure For Sleep

Reader responses

Ten years ago…

*

newly diagnosed with metastases, I remember saying ‘ten years. Ten years would be amazing.’ And here we are, as if some greater force had heard me and kept me to that bargain.

Now I’m bargaining again. Two-thirds of a life? Yes, I’ll take that. A week of pain and fatigue for 2 weeks of relative normality. That seems fair.

Half a life? Yes, I’d take that. A third, a quarter…

How small would I go? What sliver of life would I hold on to? A finger-nail, like the smallest imaginable crescent moon? Would that be enough? A pinprick of life?

We’ll see.

Sarah Connor

The Secret to Survival

*

Eventually I make promises to myself because there’s certainly no bargaining as she tells me, nor afterwards. I’ve been sick for double digit years and fought so hard to know what it is in the first place. Asking the Universe for a fairy-tale healing via celibacy or turning towards God and church every Sunday is pointless. I am sick; a fact as immutable as the white walls in this exam room. And she tells me IT is here to stay.

IT is:

autoimmune fire in the spine with bum hip shoulder elbow finger knee and toe joints tin woman mornings sleepless nights a battery too low to talk or eat or dress a heart’s dance that needs watching ribs that become a wall without flex as achilles burn and eyes turn red and go blind without hourly drops it is all my days however long or short they stretch because there’s no magic pill just band aids

Over the years we apply and remove one band aid after another, sometimes modulating the peaks and valleys of fatigue and pain and sometimes not. Eventually I learn the secret to survival. Eventually I realize, decide: I must come first.

I promise me:

No more people who demand, dismiss, or tie me in knots. Sadly, this goes for family, too.

It’s okay to say no, to balance the ratio of shoulds to wants, to revel in slowness without guilt. The world can rush around me like a stream around a stone as I sit look hear and feel; sleep.

I’ll find different ways of loving old loves like trail and water, with compression sleeves and trekking poles and flotation devices; and I’ll adjust time, loving more or less depending on the energy I’ve got for the day because sick time is different than healthy time. In Chronic World, 24 usable energy hours do not exist, nor 12; sometimes not even 2.

Note: pledges subject to modification

AMy MILLIOS

I took it as a promise of love

*

It was my first day’s walking in the hot, dry autumn of Navarre. The way wound around a field of full-throated sweetcorn taller than me. They rustled sweet whispers as I went past, but of course it was in Spanish and my ear hadn’t acclimatised yet. As I rounded the corner I saw a solitary figure, standing still, leaning on a stick. I checked behind me to see who he was waiting for and the road was empty. It was me.

He seduced with Mozart and oysters. He kissed with tongued passion, and the lovemaking left me trembling. I texted my friend, ‘Oh that’s what they mean when they say French men are the best lovers!’ As we trekked, he told me about his wife leaving him and I said my husband had done the same. He listed his girlfriends, and I confessed mine. We spoke the language of lovers.

As the days became months, he took photos of graffiti which said je t’aime, became increasingly jealous when I smiled at other men, sang to me while we walked, and dragged our hostel mattresses onto the floor so we could sleep side-by-side. I once made the mistake of mentioning amour and his reaction should have been a warning, but still we were inseparable.

As winter came on, we arrived, hand-in-hand, at Santiago de Compostella. We eeked it out a little longer, went to Finisterre together, the end of the earth and back. He bought me presents.

Then he got the plane home to his girlfriend.

I had thought it was a pledge, but it wasn’t. It was an interlude.

Tamsin Grainger

A Touchstone

*

As I lie here looking out at the swaying bamboo outside my window I am trying to remember promises made and bargains struck. It is like looking through muslin in the sun. I am waiting for memories to take shape, their colours to deepen. Bargains, stones and jewellery come to mind…

A long time ago whilst paddling in the lower lake in Glendalough I saw a shiny object winking in the sunlit water. I picked it up and beheld a small brooch: A handmade pin-clasp face up. And when I turned it around, the most delicate inlay of flowers made from Mother of Pearl lay in the palm of my hand. An object of real beauty and days gone by.

I later learned it was from the Victorian era and I have always felt a connection with some lady who paddled with her full skirts hiked high who bent to pick a stone and dropped her brooch for me to find. It has been one of my most precious possessions more valuable to me than any eye-popping jewels.

Many moons later, my dear friend Isabel was moving to live in Trieste and I felt the significance of the distance that was going to come between us; how life can fade the consistency of friendship. As I had a fear of flying I knew it would be a very long time until we would sit and drink coffee, share our thoughts, ideas, creativity and hugs…

And so I made a bargain with Isabel, loaning her my brooch: To be brought back in her own time.

A few years later Isabel, my brooch and our bond were reunited. This beautiful simple little object as our touchstone.

Louise newman

In Sickness and in Health

*

‘I, Jean, take you M–, for my lawful wedded husband, to have and to hold, from this time forward, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…’

We had an insurance policy that we always laughed about. It ended ‘or prior death’.

‘Don’t you dare die,’ I used to say.

That December, for some obscure reason, I decided that the Christmas present would be seven small gifts, one to be opened each month until his birthday on June 10th. It was great fun choosing them, from a mug from Barter Books, the huge second hand bookshop in Alnwick, with a promise of coffee by their roaring fire, to theatre tickets and a pre-performance dinner.

Christmas day was a bit strange. The excitement of seeing someone’s face as they open their gifts was on hold. ‘Hmm. Got that wrong,’ I thought. But he loved the first one and as Christmas was tidied away, six more gifts sat on the table in the bedroom unopened. 10th of January and the first surprise was revealed and appreciated.

However, there is no good way to reveal unwelcome news. Random blood test. Prostrate. Cancer. Aggressive. So followed rounds of appointments, tests, scans, more appointments. We were the fortunate recipients of a company health care scheme that speeded up the processes, the prognosis for prostate cancer was optimistic and we had a promise – ‘in sickness and in health’.

I asked our children the other day, how they had felt.

‘It was great timing. I was walking down Kentish Road on the way to work. Fortunately, my colleague was an ex-nurse and could reassure me.’

‘I overheard you talking.’

Surgery came and went. The insurance policy matured and we benefitted. There were secondaries that responded to treatment. It did not spread. ‘Prior death’ had to wait. Other consequences were manageable. When we were sad, I always said, ‘I’d rather you were alive.’ And there were the presents to open.

Would prior knowledge have made any difference to the promise? I was not always full of compassion – there was fear, frustration, annoyance even… Sickness does not send a calling card asking if it is convenient to call, or ring ahead to say it is on the way. And for some, a promise may be better withdrawn. But here we are. ‘‘Til death us do part.’

jean wilson

Bargains

*

But it’s not fair.

Whoever told you life was fair?

Mrs. George tried to teach us fairness in reception class, 1972, Y-Bont-Faen Primary School. You must wait your turn to pour imaginary tea, to make pretend cakes, to snuggle into the corner of the Wendy house with your best friend, just the two of you. It’s fair to let others take turns, to bargain, five minutes for me, then it’s all yours. How about you have the bike and I have that doll? And when you’ve run out of promises and it’s all too hard, I’ll take that unfair cuddle with Mrs. George, just me on her lap, held tight, legs dangling and arms all warm and soft.

Who ever said life was fair?

Make friends break friends

I can’t make it, not today, sorry

Bloody black dog of depression moving in again

Let things be, just as they are, in this moment

This is where stillness comes from

But it’s not fair

Expectations

What life promises to be

What the day holds what a lifetime holds

Like a marriage with two wives

Like waking up to blue sky in your tent only for a raging storm to hit later

Like that Christmas morning when you’re so sure you have that new bike

Like the quiet house you were certain would be filled with kids, animals, family, friends, life

Like a life that isn’t the one you bargained for

Stillness comes not when the world is quiet but when we accept things just as they are for now, in this moment.

So here’s the stillness, the acceptance of the self and of my life. The life that’s so different to the one I thought was promised, I imagined as a little girl. The life that’s given me times I thought I couldn’t bear ,but also riches I could never have dreamed up.

Louise stead

‘Will you look after me when I get ill?’

*

A question posed by a person who, until that night, I’d never met. A blind date. The pair of us squeezed into a corner of Le Bateau in Ashley Cross. Too many drinks. Balancing on tiny stools. Hemmed in by the chink of glasses, laughter, and bodies in going-out clothes. A normal Friday night. Except it wasn’t, was it?

Looking back, you had no reason to ask. Not then. You were well. Had been well for years. The ghosts of cancer were a distant memory that only returned, I came to learn, in your screaming nightmares. But you knew it would be back. And you wanted to know that I’d be there. I said Yes without a thought. Because no thought was needed.

Five years on, when the diagnosis came, you held my hand and told me that I didn’t need to stay, could walk away. You wouldn’t blame me. You’d understand.

Treatment was brutal. Life changing. When you couldn’t talk, I tried to be your words. When speech returned, I dressed, fed and bathed you. On excursions to get food, I’d sit in my car and rage, red-faced and snotty-nosed, against the unfairness of it all.

But you survived. People think you’re unlucky. But they don’t know. They only see the multi-coloured pills you need to take. The telltale symptoms that have us scuttling to the hospital for tests. The endless wait for results. They don’t see the joy that each day brings, or hear the farts that still make us laugh like kids.

Twenty years ago. Doesn’t time fly? I made you a promise in a sticky-floored bar, then you walked me to my car and kissed my cheek.

Jane Adams
%d bloggers like this: