Standing at the top of the hill above Nimmings Wood, I feel a sudden pang about what I am here to do. The view of the Severn Valley is unusually bleak and muted today, there are black clouds heading towards us, and despite our warm clothing the air bites at our faces and numbs our fingertips. Katy’s arm is linked through mine, and I can feel she is trembling too, but I know it’s not simply because of the cold.
‘I don’t think I can do it to him,’ I admit.
‘Mum, you can,’ she replies, surprisingly firmly. I think about why we are here, and feel the anger start to resurge. She’s right, I can do it. I squeeze her arm, and we begin to walk slowly forward to the edge of the escarpment.
I remember walking out of church arm-in-arm with Alan, just like that, on the day we married. I know it’s a cliché, but it really was the happiest day of my life. And from then on, Alan was my life. We were married for almost thirty years. Katy was born not long after our second anniversary, followed by Claire two years later. I had worked as a typist before Katy was born, but by the time the girls were in secondary school and didn’t need so much looking after, everything had changed. Alan said there was no point me trying to learn about computers. He said there were younger women who would get all the jobs going, and why should I work when he was doing well enough to support us all?
I was contented with life anyway. Alan was a wonderful husband, and the girls never gave us any trouble. Not like some of the teenagers you hear about. I missed them so much when they went away to university, and then got jobs in London. It was especially quiet during those weeks when Alan was away too. He had worked his way right up through the company to the Board of Directors, which meant his job involved a lot of conferences and meetings in other cities. I spent my days gardening or looking after our house, which was far too big for the two of us, and planning nice meals for Alan’s return. He always came back with something for me: often flowers or chocolates, and sometimes jewellery or an ornament for my collection. Our evenings together were peaceful and companionable. We’d watch television together, and Alan would read his paper. We rarely went out. Alan said he got sick of restaurant food when he was travelling, and would prefer something home cooked. I didn’t mind.
About six months ago – Friday 4th July 2008 at 11.37am to be exact – Alan was out playing golf with a client, and I was looking through a Dulux brochure wondering what colour to paint the dining room next. The phone rang, and assuming it would be one of the girls I answered with a cheery ‘Hello!’
A short silence, then: ‘Pamela Carr?’
‘Hello there, Mrs Carr. This is Mike Thompson, the General Manager at Moseley Golf Club…’
His tone was hushed; respectful. I barely remember what he said, but I do remember thinking this was just like something in a soap, or that tragic bit in a novel before everything starts to go right again. He sent a car round to take me to the hospital, but by the time I got there it was all over.
Katy and Claire stayed with me that night. They took turns fussing around me as if I was the child and they the parents. Then sometimes all three of us were crying at once. I didn’t know what to do, and I kept coming up against the fact that Alan wasn’t there to ask.
By Monday I felt able to start planning Alan’s funeral. It was fairly straightforward – Alan had always said he wanted to be buried near his parents, and had invested years ago in a plot for the whole family. The Funeral Director was sympathetic and helpful, and the girls continued to be marvellous, making all the necessary difficult phone calls to everybody in our address book, and dealing with the shock expressed by everyone over such unexpected news.
My feelings seemed to shoot about all over the place. Within an hour I could veer from grief and floods of tears, to panic about how I would cope on my own, to rage at the world for allowing Alan to die at fifty-three when other people’s husbands survived heart attacks in their seventies, to anger at Alan for abandoning me like this. I couldn’t eat or sleep, I couldn’t read or watch television, I didn’t linger in the bath or paint my nails – I mainly drifted about the house and garden, drinking coffee, crying, occasionally engaging in short bursts of frenzied housework. There were a lot of visitors and well-meaning phone calls and letters to be dealt with in those days between Alan’s death and the funeral. Flowers and cards arrived at the house. One of Alan’s colleagues, Simon Clegg, turned up with a large box of his personal belongings, and explained to me that he had been insured through the company, and that I would not need to worry about money.
Things got gradually easier over the next few days. I missed Alan terribly, but every so often would catch myself thinking momentarily about other things, almost as if he were simply away on another business trip. I couldn’t bear to look at the box of things from his office though, so I took his briefcase off the top and put it away in the cloakroom, then got Claire’s boyfriend to carry the box upstairs and put it in one of the spare bedrooms.
That evening I was alone for the first time, and I sat on the sofa, twisting my wedding ring round my finger, and thinking in part about Alan and also about the buffet I needed to prepare for after the funeral. I heard my mobile phone beep, and went out to the hall to get it from my handbag. Strange – there was no text message showing on the screen, and Alan’s phone was switched off, upstairs on my nightstand with his wallet and Rolex. As I moved back into the lounge I heard the beep again. It seemed to be coming from the cloakroom, and I began to wonder if someone had left their coat behind with a phone in the pocket. I couldn’t see anything out of place in there, apart from a jacket of Katy’s, and that had no pockets. I sat on the floor and opened Alan’s briefcase. There was a phone in there. The screen said there were ten new messages and seven missed calls. I wondered stupidly if it was Simon Clegg’s, but that didn’t make sense, how could his phone have got inside Alan’s briefcase? I felt puzzled, but also strangely chilled, as a feeling of dread began to prickle my skin. I opened the messages. They were all from someone called Christine.
‘What’s going on?’ was the latest message.
‘Please Al,’ said the one before that.
The next in the list was: ‘R U OK? Darling call me. I miss U XXX’
Shocked, and horribly nauseous, I read all ten new messages, and the two hundred or so other messages in the phone’s memory. Then I listened to the voicemail messages. Then I lay on the cold cloakroom floor and cried myself to sleep.
In the morning I phoned the Funeral Director and told him that the plans had changed.
The service and cremation went smoothly. I don’t know if ‘Christine’ ever found out about Alan’s death, and I certainly didn’t want to know any more about her, so I deleted her number from the phone, then stamped on it until the screen cracked and put it in the bin. It had been clear from some of her messages, which included references to holidays they had shared, that their relationship had been going on for a long time. It was also abundantly clear from Alan’s messages to her that I had meant very little to him.
Our daughters were as baffled, devastated and furious as I was. Claire was particularly angry, and ranted at length about her father’s behaviour. Katy, who had far more tact than her younger sister, tried to silence Claire’s outbursts, but all three of us felt the same. He hadn’t been the man we thought he was – our Alan had left us behind many years ago.
I discovered this hill on a walk with the rambling group I am now a member of. I have also joined a book group, and every Wednesday I go to an evening class in basic computer skills. I have made a lot of friends, and have lunch or coffee engagements most days.
Alan would’ve hated it up here. He never enjoyed walking, although it was always something I would have liked us to do. So that is partly why I have chosen to come here today.
Katy and I stop walking when we reach the edge, and look at each other. I nod. She opens the small box and hands it to me. I raise it high, and abandon what is left of Alan to the bitter winds and the hard January frost.