The gravel cracked and crunched under Stacey’s wheels, setting a swirl of dust into the air behind her as she pulled up at the house. Betty and Ray were Stacey’s first and most loved nursing clients. Betty had come from money, and Ray had been a motorcycle rebel. He rode through the fifties causing small time trouble until he met Betty. He met Betty at just the right age, at a time when she was finishing high school and starting to doubt the tight parameters of her world. So Ray got the good girl in the pearl earrings and pastel pink who was willing to jump on the back of his bike and cling to his leather jacket.
The first time Stacey visited, she had been nervous when she rang the front doorbell. When Betty answered, her healthy height and posture did not give away any of the secrets of her cancer. Her hair curled in a structured frame around her face. She wore earrings but no make-up on her surprisingly youthful skin. It was hard to believe that she had been given only a little while longer to live. She smiled sweetly and greeted Stacey, then told her in no uncertain terms never to ring the front doorbell again. She directed her to enter through the gate which led to the backyard.
Since that day, they had become a part of each other’s daily lives. Stacey had come to know the rules and rituals of the house. At the same time each day she entered through the side gate and slid the back door open. She washed the two crystal sherry glasses that lined the kitchen sink, held them up to the light to look for streaks and then put them away. She then walked onto the back porch where she found Betty having her morning coffee and cigarette while listening to the kookaburras. After a little chat, she helped Betty with the beds and any other household chores. After medications were administered and lunch was served, Stacey left, and the ritual was repeated again the next morning.
Today was the same as any other. Stacey went out on the back porch to find Betty stretching and smoking on the deck. ‘Good morning, Betty’, Stacey stepped through the flimsy old wire door.
As the girls chatted on the porch, Ray joined them. His hair slicked into the hairstyle that he had worn since the fifties, he wore black jeans and a black t-shirt, broken only by the silver studs on his belt. His eyes hadn’t completely blinked off his sleep, and he hadn’t shaved today. As the days rolled on, the fear of Betty’s death showed more on Ray’s face than on Betty’s.
Every day, Stacey drove up the long driveway, washed the crystal sherry glasses and had a coffee with the couple on the back porch. She helped Betty to make the beds, assessing the droplets of blood on the pillow. After Betty’s medication she stayed for lunch then left for the day. The routine didn’t change, but Ray did. His smile stayed white and his hair stayed the same. But he moved about the house as though he didn’t belong in it anymore. He always had a shadow across his skin, and his eyes grew darker every day.
To celebrate Ray’s 72nd Birthday, Betty invited Stacey to a roast dinner. At dusk, she rolled along the driveway to the sound of crickets humming in the long grass, and the leaves of the tall Blackwood trees rustling against the dusk sky. With the roast came a wine, and another wine, and before she knew it tears were streaming down her face with laughter as all three sang along to old fifties songs. Ray beamed when The Twelfth of Never came on, singing deeply with one hand on his heart and the other serenading his wife. His voice matched Johnny Mathis’ crooning ‘I’ll still be loving you’ almost perfectly, and his brilliant smile made it impossible to not be in love with a man who was so in love.
Betty went out for a cigarette, so Stacy joined her. They looked up as Betty smoked and pointed at the stars. According to Betty, the constellations included a tin pot, a house, and a pair of lovers.
‘That’s what I see, but you may very well see otherwise.’ Betty sipped her wine.
‘You have your stars and I have my stars. My stars shine for me.’ Her gaze broadened beyond the stars. ‘I’ll be up there soon enough,’ she continued. ‘And if I shine, it will only be for Ray.’ Her gaze dropped.
‘Ray will be okay,’ Stacey said, ‘He-‘
‘No, dear, he won’t.’ Betty interrupted. ‘I think about it all the time, how it will be for him. He only has me.’ She exhaled, rotating the tip of her cigarette into the ashtray. ‘And that’s the scariest part of this, for me. I’m not scared of dying. But what will become of him?’
When Stacey left she had Betty’s worry on her mind. Betty was right, Ray would have nothing left to live for.
The next morning, as she rolled into the long driveway, she opened the car door to the sound of birds singing and sun blazing across in shadowed stripes through the tall trees. She entered through the side gate and through the back door. But the sherry glasses were missing from their usual place on the sink.
She checked outside to see if Betty was having her morning cigarette on the deck. She wasn’t. The ashtray sat, clean and empty, untouched on the table.
‘Betty, are you home? Ray?’ Stacey paced through the house. Betty had made the beds and the back door had been left unlocked for her.
She approached the door that led to the garage. The radio was on, echoing the beat of Johnny Mathis crooning The Twelfth of Never. Stacey’s heart skipped a beat. She swung open the garage door.
Betty’s face rested peacefully on Ray’s shoulder. Her make-up was splendid, her lips red and her pearl earrings visible under her curled hair. Ray wore his leather jacket and not a strand of hair was out of its gelled place. Their eyes were closed and their hands were wound together in an eternal embrace.
And there were the two crystal sherry glasses, empty, on the dashboard.
One of my clients used to be in the Royal District Nursing Service. She told me about her old job and the wealth of stories that she had when she was working with the elderly in the community. So this partly true story is hers, including the crystal sherry glasses.
I still struggled with the structure and I see that potentially, this is too big a topic to fit into a thousand words. I worked on multiple short stories, but this one really drew me in. Before I knew it, I had a complete image of the house, from the front to the back door. I knew the colour of the driveway and the way the car sounded as it kicked up the orange dusty gravel behind it. I let myself write it completely and Ray and Betty became such fleshed out characters that I couldn’t allow myself to really work on any other story.
Ray and Betty are actually the names of my stepdad’s parents. They are very similar to these characters. But when Betty was diagnosed with lung cancer in her late fifties, she chose not to tell anyone, including Ray, and kept smoking. When she died, it seemed as though it was sudden, although she had prepared for her death as best she could.
She was really the glue of her family and Ray has deteriorated since then. Mostly in his spirit. I don’t spend much time with him anymore so it is hard to say.
My grandfather and grandmother loved each other the way that Betty and Ray do, and my partner and I as well. It is a much criticised love, the dependent type of love. The type of love where you know that if they leave you, you will be completely broken. The type that builds you emotionally but your whole structure is completely dependent on their foundation. If they go you will crumble. This is a comment on that love and its inherent beauty.
Just before this happened I had a dream that I was dying. I knew that I was dying and I wasn’t afraid of dying. All I wanted was to figure out how my wife was going to live without me. And I was scared for her because I knew that she wouldn’t want to live.
So Betty and Ray came to life. I am still uncertain that I’ve done them justice. I had to cut a lot of the story out to make it fit into a thousand words. I have had a friend, who is usually a good editor, read it. She only made minimal changes though. I prefer to be slaughtered.
Hopefully enough of Ray and Betty’s light and love will shine through the sherry glasses, despite having to cut out a lot of dialogue, as well as their garden gnomes and flimsy wire door.