I have almost reached the end of my National Novel Writing Month journey, writing every day and shaping my manuscript during November along with hundreds of thousands of writers from across the world. My final novella in the manuscript “Belonging Places”, is the story of Jill Bridges, an elderly woman facing the prospect of a nursing home, who fights to hold onto her independence. It’s a story of love and loss and how freedom can be found in the most vulnerable of circumstances.

Chapter 1:

She placed the delicate posy of lilacs on his coffin before it was lowered into the ground. He had loved to garden and the heady scent of the October bloom had always brought memories of his childhood. She wanted to fill his dark grave with the scents he loved best. She couldn’t look anymore at the disappearing coffin, so she turned away, a lump in her throat, hopeful no family members would approach her when she could barely speak. She wanted a moment alone to control her grief, so she could look up and talk to them all, tell them she would be ok. She turned away to face the hillside and listened to the priest reciting the graveside prayers. Oh yes, he would be accepted into the Lord’s house on angel’s wings. He was, after all, a good man.

They had been married 40 years, though he was slightly older than her by 10 years. Enough time for death to take him first and leave her widowed and alone. She remembered their first date. It had been a picnic at his uncle’s farm. It was spring, she recalled and what a spring it was, coming as it did after three rainy seasons. The ground was jumping with life and she could feel the fertility beneath their picnic blanket. She even remembered their first real meal together – crusty Italian bread and thick wedges of cheese, fresh ham and billy tea. They had been so innocent then. She was shy by nature and those early adult years had not been easy for her. One on one she showed her true self, but within crowds she would clam up, anticipating the end of her ordeal when the evening was at a close, and she could return to the safety of her home. But on that first picnic, she felt strangely at home with him, this man she hardly knew.

Bill Bridges was a man’s man, but he made an exception around her. She knew this; knew that he was putty in her hands, but she never used it against him, never. She wasn’t sure when she fell in love with him, whether it was on that first springtime picnic as they munched on the most wonderfully tasting bread and cheese, sipping the tea so that the flavours mixed together, so typically Australian, or whether the love came later. It had been so long ago. The tears ached at the back of her eyes as she recalled that picnic, surrounded by the wild daisies and the gentle hum of springtime. And now, as the coffin disappeared into the ground, the dull whirring of the mechanical gears, the only sound aside from the silent sobbing of his two children; their two children, she struggled to remember…their special times together.

They married quickly, within six months of that first spring picnic, and were so in love by then. Jill and Bill Bridges. It always had a nice ring to it, like they were meant to be together. And perhaps they were. She had had a good marriage, plenty of passion in the beginning and they had shared the good and the bad, like any strong couple. What affected her certainly affected him and vice versa. That was the way it was in their marriage, a symbiotic partnership. When she was depressed after her first child – postnatal depression they said – life was equally bleak for him. When he was wronged by a business partner, that man who long after remained nameless in their household, was her enemy too. In sickness and in health, was never truer for them. They even suffered the same ailments. Two peas in a pod, her mother had said, and she was grateful she had found love in this lifetime, from the beginning.

Their two children had come quickly, one after another, a boy and a girl, their pigeon pair. Life had been complete. That wasn’t to say they didn’t work hard. They did, for every penny they earned, and saved. They had made their home in a modest three bedroom brick veneer, in a small country town, a couple of hours from Sydney. It was a town where everyone was known to everyone, and they had become fixtures, joining in the various clubs and, in her case, the women’s groups. She knew she was particularly rated for her cooking. It didn’t matter what she cooked, she had that special touch. Her pumpkin scones were well known at the various fundraisers over the years. Jill Bridges pumpkin scones, she thought ruefully. Was that her contribution that would be remembered? She wondered how Bill would be remembered.

He had set up his own mechanics business not long after they had married. They had debated the risks: was it better to work for someone else and play it safe, or take that leap of faith on their own. She supposed being married had given Bill that extra courage because he handed in his notice to the largest mechanic business in their town, where he had worked since leaving high school some 10 years before and rented a small, rundown shed on the edge of town. It had been hard at first, and she had worked extra hours cleaning at the local motel, just so they could get by, but little by little their business grew, and now it was the biggest in town, run by her son Jeff.

Memories. She turned back to the graveside to see the coffin firmly planted in the ground. She was not expected to watch the earth being thrown over it. It was time to go. Her son and daughter Ellen were approaching but she had no desire to leave Bill. The tears came and she let them fall down her face, making no effort to dab them away with her handkerchief.

“Mum?” Elle said, in a particularly soft tone for her. She glanced at her daughter, noticing the grief that weighed her down. Unlike Jeff, she was close to her father.

“I’m ok Elle. Just give me a minute.” Her voice was stiff and formal. She was not as close to her daughter as she was to her son. Funny how that went, she thought, that Elle was the apple of Bill’s eye, while Jeff understood her, and was distant with his father. Family dynamics were at best, fathomable but not fully understood.

She reached out for her daughter’s hand, bonded as they were in that moment, by their grief. Jeff approached with his new wife Narelle, a pretty young girl and clever beyond her years. It was a good partnership.

“Mum, it’s time to go,” Jeff said, placing a firm and supportive hand on her arm. “Everyone else is leaving, and we should be down at the club to greet them.”

She looked at her son, wondering about his grief. He didn’t have the easiest of relationships with his father. They were too similar, both men’s men and as stubborn as each other. Jeff had taken over the business five years ago, when Bill’s hands and knees were crippled with arthritis and the dusk of old age had begun to fall. It hadn’t been an easy transition for Bill. He had built the business from the ground up with the sweat of his youthful years etched into every brick and mortar, every contract they had ever won, and into the all the relationships built over 40 years with workers, clients and the townspeople who supported them. He had resented Jeff’s new ideas at first, distrusted them and rallied against them. They were, after all, not his and he loved his business almost as much as life.

But never as much her, she thought. She had been his one true love, and he would have sacrificed it all for her, had she told him to. She turned back to Jeff, forgetting he and Elle were waiting on her.

“You two go, and be there to greet our guests. I need a moment alone…to say goodbye. I’ll be alright; just leave me be…for a minute.”

They were puzzled and worried by her request, reluctant to go but Narelle stepped forward. “Leave her Jeff…Elle. She needs this time. We can arrange with Father Percy to drive her to the club.”

So they left her alone with her husband. They were starting to shovel the earth over the coffin. She watched as the clods of dirt fell softly onto the red ornate cedar of the coffin. She pictured him in there, sleeping peacefully. He had died without any pain, knowing it was his time, but reluctant to leave her. He had held on, long after the doctors thought he could, and they had tried to make the best of those last few months. She had fitted their home out with rails, and non slip matts in the bathroom, and a special bed. They had oxygen cylinders in the bedroom and the lounge room, and Bill had used a walker until he could no longer manage. Then they had used a wheelchair. She wanted to keep him in his home, as long as she could manage and with palliative care, they had done better than predicted. Bill had only been taken to hospital to lie in his deathbed two weeks before he passed.

“Thud, thud, thud…” She should go now, before they finished, and there was only a mound of newly turned earth to mark his grave…until the headstone came. She reached into her bag and took out an old black and white photo of them taken on the day of their first picnic. The faces of two young lovers stared back at her, hardly recognisable now…except for the eyes. Real joy and a growing love were there in the depth of their expressions, windows to the future. Momentarily, she paused, drinking in the familiarity of his face, and the mischievous humour always at the edge of his expression. She put her lips gently on his photographed face, and kissed him softly. Kneeling down, she placed the photograph in the dirt as a talisman for him, so that he would know he did not need to make his journey alone.

“I’ll always be with you Bill,” she whispered softly.

The grave diggers had paused out of respect to allow her to say her last goodbyes. She got to her feet and nodded stiffly to them, wanting to maintain her dignity. She knew that now people would be watching her, alone, ageing and vulnerable. She knew that without Bill at her side, she would need to struggle to keep her freedom. She felt the pain in her hip. It had been replaced three years ago and she feared the other would need the same. She walked slowly to the priest’s car. Father Percy was waiting patiently for her.

“I know this is hard for you Jill,” he said, gently, “but Bill was a good man, and is resting with the Lord now.”

She nodded, afraid to say anything at all in case she began to cry again, and could not stop. The Lord gave her no comfort today, none at all. Rather, she felt only anger that she had lost her love, and at the prospect of the lonely years to come. She took a deep breath and got into the car, letting Father Percy take over the job of getting her to the wake, where her children would be waiting with the many of the townsfolk who had come also to say goodbye to her husband.

She wondered how she would get through the afternoon, and dug deep for a resolve. But what else was there for her to do. She would go home tonight, to their empty marital home, perhaps switch on the TV to drown out her thoughts. She would not be hungry, and would put the kettle on for a cup of tea, one cup not two, and then when she felt the heaviness and mercy of sleep come, she would go to their bed and lie there in the dark, conscious of the empty space beside her. And that would be how it would be in the long coming months, empty spaces where he should have been, and always her, feeling only half complete as though a part of her was missing. And it was.

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