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Authors: Amanda Prowse

The Christmas Café

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The Christmas Cafe

About Amanda Prowse

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About No Greater Love

About No Greater Courage

Table of Contents

    
    

www.headofzeus.com

To read this book as the author intended – and for a fuller reading experience – turn on ‘original’ or ‘publisher’s font’ in your text display options.

For this I am truly indebted to my teams at Head of Zeus, Midas and PFD.

My colleagues, my friends.

I really, really, love you all.

Prologue

Bea stood in the early-evening light and let the warm New South Wales wind lift her long, layered grey hair and kiss her face. It was seasonably clement and the city had an air of expectation about it. As far as Sydney-siders were concerned, the warmer the better, allowing them to enjoy all that the outdoor life had to offer. She stared at the bronze boar in front of her; Il Porcellino stared back as her fingers twitched in the pocket of her funky grass-green linen smock. Commuters keen to get home and make the most of the evening sunshine, either with a trip to the beach or supper in the garden, rushed along Macquarie Street behind her, shedding jackets and rolling up sleeves. Groups of colleagues making an early start on the Christmas party season walked with arms across each other’s shoulders, the booze-fuelled banter bringing them closer than any teambuilding around a boardroom table. Bea envied them the ordinariness of their preoccupations. Looking to the left and right, swallowing her shyness, she stepped forward and gingerly rubbed the shiny nose of the tusked creature.

‘Please.’ She mouthed the one word and closed her eyes briefly before tossing the little round coin with the square hole into the water at its feet. Throwing her head back, she took a deep breath and looked up at the grand arches and pretty green ironwork panels with terraces behind. It was a beautiful building in the city that they loved; that in itself was a comfort. There were far, far worse places for her husband to die.

‘Ah, you’re back. Did you have a little wander?’ The kindly nurse flicked off the overhead strip-light, leaving the room dulled, with only a subdued glow coming from the side light above the sink. It was most fitting; cosy and calming.

‘Not really, just went outside for a breather. It’s warm tonight.’ Bea pinched and pumped the front of her smock.

The nurse nodded. Her shift didn’t finish until the morning; the weather outside was of little consequence. She placed her hooked fingers against Peter’s wrist and swept her palm over his brow, smiling into his milky eyes. ‘I’ll be back in a wee while, Peter,’ she said.

Bea greatly appreciated how civil the nurses were to her husband. He might or might not have been able to hear or comprehend them, but she was glad they assumed that he could.

She resumed her position in the vinyl chair by Peter’s bedside, still in the clothes she had worn for the last seventy-two hours, crumpled and dappled with splashes of coffee and streaks of mascara that her tired arm had blotted from her tear-stained face.

‘If you need anything, Mrs Greenstock, then you only have to buzz,’ the nurse said as she made her way towards the door.

Bea nodded. ‘Thank you, yes. Do you think he needs anything right now? Should we give him more medicine?’

The nurse smiled and spoke slowly as if addressing a child. ‘No. No more medicine. Really, it’s best we just let nature take its course.’

‘How long, would you say, if you had to guess?’ She spoke quietly, averting her eyes, guilty for asking.

The nurse shook her head, her voice equally soft. ‘It’s really hard to say. Sometimes, when the final decline starts, it can be quite quick; but other people hang on, literally for days. There’s no way for us to know, but I would say that with Peter it will be sooner rather than later. It’s good that you are here.’ She crinkled her eyes in a smile as she shut the door behind her.

Bea was grateful for her honesty and her kindness. She sat forward in the chair with her elbows resting on her bony knees. ‘Did you hear that, darling? It’s good that I’m here. But actually, I’d rather neither of us was here. I’d rather we were on a little sailing boat in the Whitsundays catching fresh fish for lunch, washed down with a cold glass of wine. Then we could nap on the deck in the sunshine and when we woke up, we’d swim in that glorious sea, go ashore to walk on that fine, white sand and sit and watch the day pass overhead.’ She smiled. ‘Do you remember that wonderful Christmas? Just the two of us. It was paradise, wasn’t it? The best ever.’

Bea held her husband’s hand and leant over his face. His eyes seemed to have fogged, but his head moved slightly from side to side, as if seeking the face that he could no longer see.

‘It’s okay, my love, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.’

There was the slightest flicker around his mouth. She wanted to believe, in the half-light of this hospital side ward, that it was a final smile for her, but it could have been wishful thinking. He was preoccupied with his battle, bathed in a sickly sweet sweat as his body fought the inevitable. It was a cloying, unpleasant scent that she would smell in the future on certain flowers and on the breath of the ill and elderly and find herself immediately transported back to this room at this moment.

Bea thought of the many deathbed scenes that she had witnessed in movies and plays. The laborious last messages of love or confession as violins built to a crescendo. It was of course all utter, utter rubbish. She had seen one man die before, happening across a traffic accident one morning on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Park Street, and he had barely twitched an eyelid before passing. Peter fought for every last second, steely and determined till the end. She wished the movie scenes weren’t rubbish, she wished he would sit up straight, look her in the eye, with his palm against her face and a bloom to his cheek, tell her that it was all going to be okay, that he had no regrets, that he had always loved her. This last fact she knew, but the thought of not hearing it again made her unbelievably sad.

She felt a rush of love and also gratitude for this man who had met the love of his life and been content to walk by her side, knowing that in her affections he came third, after her son and the memory of one she had loved long ago. Even now, in his final moments, he was self-contained, as if considering her needs until the last, making her experience as comfortable as he possibly could. She didn’t need violins.

‘I was so blessed to find you, Peter. You are a wonderful man, a wonderful friend, and I love you – you know that, don’t you?’ She sighed. ‘What do I do now, my love? Where do I go from here?’ She heard his words loud and clear, the mantra by which he had lived.
‘Always remember, life is for the brave. This is our one time around the block!’

‘I know...’ She nodded. Her many silver bangles jangled together, cracking open the silence with their noise. She squeezed his hand, hard, hoping for reciprocation.

‘Oh, my love, your hand has gone cold.’ She bent forward and kissed his nose, which was also cool against her lips, but his body was still hot, as though a furnace burning centrally was losing its ability to ignite anything out of immediate reach.

Peter turned his head a fraction and with every ounce of strength left in his body he reached up and past her, seeming to focus on the space to the right of her head. His thin legs twisted in the same direction, as if he was trying to leave his deathbed.

‘Where are you off to?’ She cried then, knowing where he was going and that she could not follow. ‘You go, my darling; you go wherever you want to. It’s okay. Just go to sleep and know that you are loved.’

Peter sank back against the shallow pillow and his breath faltered. He opened and closed his mouth as if trying to speak. She bent low and with her ear against his mouth, she heard the faintest whisper of his final words. ‘It’s been lovely.’

‘Oh, it has, Peter! It really has!’

The gaps between each breath grew longer and longer, until there were no more.

Bea waited and watched, fixated on the waxy skin at the base of his throat, hoping for one more fluttering tremor that would mean he was still with her and she didn’t have to start grieving. But there was none.

She’d been told to press the call button when the inevitable happened, or if she needed anything, but instead she sat holding his hand, with her other pressed in the nook of his elbow where warmth lingered. She wanted to stay just like that until the warmth disappeared, like singing a baby off to sleep, waiting for the right moment to shuffle backwards out of the room, leaving the door ajar.

It was way past midnight before she finally left her love and quietly closed the door behind her on nearly thirty years of marriage.

The hospital canteen was quiet, the silence shattered only by the occasional weary medic, wearing creased scrubs and with dark shadows beneath their eyes. They gave small nods in her direction, knowing it could not be happy circumstances that saw her lingering over a cup of scalding, weak, machine-issued coffee all alone at that ungodly hour. She was grateful for their lack of intervention, wanting to be alone with the images that were crystallising inside her mind. His last minutes, engraving themselves on her brain, there for perfect recall whenever she might need them in the future.

She looked around the walls of the canteen that had been her refuge for the last ten days, the place she’d crept to hourly, when nurses invaded the room to ‘make him comfortable’. She always gave them ten minutes to complete the chores that she didn’t want to witness; not for her sake, but for Peter’s. It was strange to think that it would now be someone else’s turn to sit on that plastic chair in the dead of night and figure out how to stop feeling numb. Women just like her, going through the same thing, would be scanning the panini menus, scooping chocolate bars from the shallow baskets and searching pockets for small change. She felt a wave of pity for them, because they didn’t know what was coming and it was horrid.

‘There you are!’ Wyatt’s voice jolted her from her musings. His short-sleeved white shirt was undone to reveal a little too much chest and his khaki board shorts had wisps of grass hanging off them; he looked like he had just come in from the garden. He sounded slightly cross, as if she had been hiding, his stance and tone indicating he had been mightily inconvenienced by the whole carry-on.

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