Authors: Carol Wyer
harlie was acutely
aware of an urgent drumming in her ears. The noise threatened to deafen her. She couldn't move. Even if she had the wherewithal to make an emergency ascent, she was unable to. Her feet were weighted down, rendering her immobile. The bubbles of air that had been floating above her head like silver balloons ceased as she held her breath, transfixed by the sinister grey shape that was now focusing on her. If she weren't so terrified, she might have admired the enormous shark. However, it had fixed its glassy stare on her and was heading towards her, not at speed, but at a teasing, leisurely pace, biding its time before deciding to rip into her flesh. She didn't take in the sparkling white underbelly of the creature or the power of the muscular tail as it effortlessly guided it through the water. All she could see were row upon row of razor-sharp teeth all grinning at her.
. She willed every muscle in her body to relax. Her vice-like grip on her regulator made her jaw ache.
Remember to stay calm. Don't show it your fear.
The placatory voice in her head continued in vain as Charlie suddenly and uncontrollably began to shake. The shark picked up its pace.
Why, oh why, did I allow myself to get in this situation?
you for your company the last two hours. Join me again tomorrow evening when we'll have some smooth seventies tracks and more groan-inducing gags. In the meantime, snuggle under those bedclothes and enjoy the late show with Sam Sullivan who is coming up next. This is Charlie Blundell signing off.' With that,
âDancing Queen' filled the airwaves.
Charlie removed her headset and glanced up at the window separating her from the technician/producer. She could see Mercedes talking to one of the orderlies. Mercedes finished chatting, looked through the glass and gave Charlie a thumbs up. The door to the studio opened and Sam bustled in carrying his usual flask of coffee, balanced on a Tupperware container of sandwiches and cakes. A large man in his early sixties, and sporting a white beard and glasses, he reminded Charlie of Santa Claus. Sam presented the late show from eight to ten o'clock each evening on City Hospital Radio. He preferred the late show. It got him out of the house every night and meant his wife, Brenda, could watch all the soap operas and period dramas on television in peace. Sam wasn't interested in those. He preferred his music and enjoyed his gig at City Hospital.
âGreat show, Charlie,' he said as he unpacked his food. She beamed at him. Sam was one of her favourite colleagues. âWhere do you find those one-liners? I expect half the patients will need their stitches replacing after tonight.' He smirked and slipped into the chair now vacated by Charlie, fiddled with the mixing desk and sat back to wait for his cue. He waved at Mercedes who blew him a kiss. The youngest and keenest member of the team, Sean, had joined her and was hunched over a screen. Sean was interested in journalism and IT, but could not afford to go to university, so was learning the ropes at City.
âGood evening, you are listening to the late show with me, Sam Sullivan. I have some excellent tracks tonight to help lull you to sleep and if you fancy a late night brainteaser, we'll be doing Sam's Teaser at half past eight. First, let's start with some Simon and Garfunkel and one of my personal favourites, “The Boxer”.'
Charlie mouthed, âBye!' Sam nodded in acknowledgement, now concentrating on a sheet of A4 with his running order and notes scrawled on it. She slipped out of the studio and into the technician's room where Mercedes was shrugging on her coat.
âHi Sean. How's it going?'
âAll good thanks. I've been updating the radio website. I didn't have much to do this afternoon so I hung out here, uploaded photos of the presenters and added a few words about each one so anyone listening to the station can now put the face to the name.'
âThat looks great,' she said, leaning over and squinting at the screen. âYou're really clever with all this technical stuff.'
His face lit up. âI enjoy it. I like presenting even more though. I'm going to try and persuade Sam to let me read out some news stories later.'
âGood luck with that. Once he starts talking, you can't interrupt him. He adores that microphone,' said Mercedes. âI think he loves it more than he loves his wife. Come on, Charlie. Let's get going.'
Mercedes reversed her wheelchair and manoeuvred it towards the door that Charlie held open for her. Charlie accompanied her friend to the car park where she helped her into her adapted vehicle and folded the wheelchair away, slipping it into the back of the van. Mercedes was fiercely independent and even though a sporting accident in her late twenties resulted in damage to her spinal cord and the subsequent loss of her lower limbs, she lived life almost like any other thirty-five-year-old woman. She was married to Ryan, a police officer and the love of her life. They had no children but treated Bentley, their miniature schnauzer, like a spoilt child.
âYou still on for the weekend? I don't want to think of you being on your own New Year's Eve, but I know how difficult it is for you. You sure you'll be up for it?' Mercedes squeezed Charlie's right hand.
âI'll be okay. Gavin is meeting me at the cemetery. I just can't believe it's been five years since we lost her. It only seems a short while ago.'
A vision of Amy, Charlie's thirteen-year-old daughter, flashed before her eyes. So young, so beautiful yet not destined to live long. She blinked it away.
âWell, if you want me to come along for support, give me a call. If not, we'll see you at the house at seven before the others arrive. It'll give us a chance to have a quiet drink before Ryan plays at being Pete Tong, shoves his favourite dance CDs on the player and we end up doing the Hokey Cokey around our garden. I made him promise not to set you up with another of his work colleagues like he did at the last party. I'm sorry about Tentacle Trevor. I had no idea Ryan planned that.'
Charlie laughed. âIt was okay. You've apologised enough. I managed to fend off his advances in the end. Boy, that man had his hands all over the place.'
âOh god don't remind me. I still cringe at the memory. So, see you Saturday. I'll be thinking of you and if you change your mind...'
âI'll be okayâ¦ I hope.'
harlie watched Mercedes drive away
. She trundled to her own car and let herself in. The mask she had been wearing began to slip as she pictured Amy â her blonde-haired angel. The pain was still raw even after five years. Losing Amy had changed her life dramatically. The weeks following her little girls' death were the hardest of Charlie's life. Her relationship with husband Gavin took a turn for the worse and a few months after the accident, unable to live together any longer, they divorced. Life deteriorated further for Charlie when she also lost her mother to cancer.
City Hospital Radio had saved her from insanity and depression. At City, she still felt some connection to both of the people she had loved most, for both of them had spent their last days on wards there. The radio station had helped her through it all and it had been during one of her request rounds that she had met Mercedes. Recovering from major surgery and feeling low, Mercedes had been glad of Charlie's company and over the ensuing weeks the pair became firm friends. Charlie now considered herself fortunate to have people like Mercedes in her life and City Radio gave her a sense of purpose. By presenting a light-hearted show, filled with laughter and fun, she felt she could at least try and help others who were suffering by raising their spirits. Her spirit had been crushed by the death of her daughter. She wiped the mascara smudges from under her eyes, started the car and tuned into Sam's show to see if she could guess the answer to his quiz question. Yes, at least she could make some difference.
windy when Charlie pulled up to St Peter's church. St Peter's, originally built in the thirteenth century, was an ancient Gothic fabric made of stone with a slate roof and a square tower. It had been welcoming people for centuries. The local community was active there, with a bell-ringing club, regular meetings, and services. During daylight hours, it was always open for visitors who needed a few minutes of quiet contemplation. Charlie recalled the day she and Gavin were married there. She could still envisage the faces of their friends and family as the newly married couple had walked back up the aisle, arm in arm, man and wife. She remembered posing for photographs as the ancient bells pealed joyfully. The pathway to the entrance arch was filled with laughing people and strewn with brightly coloured confetti. Outside, on the road, a white horse-drawn carriage had waited to take them to New Hall for the celebratory dinner. The church was the perfect place for such occasions, nestled as it was in a picturesque village that boasted antique shops, local pubs and a sweet village school. The school that Amy had attended. She had so many friends there; Charlie wondered where they all were now. Amy was christened at St Peter's too. She hadn't cried when the near-sighted vicar dribbled water all over her head and into her mouth. She'd gurgled and cooed. It had been one of Charlie's happiest memories.
The church also held sad memories: the small white coffin sitting in a black horse-drawn glass carriage â the wreaths and flowers lining the path to the church door â an entire village mourning, all dressed in black, wearing sombre expressions â the recollections of that day as fresh as if it had only happened a few weeks ago.
It seemed happiness had travelled full circle and now her baby was here, so she visited most weekends and some days in the week to be with her or to maintain the grave and ensure fresh flowers were always in the little vase on Amy's plot. It was a peaceful location and the grounds were well tended. In springtime, bright-yellow daffodils grew throughout. Today, the large pine tree in the corner of the churchyard sported Christmas lights that twinkled even on this grey afternoon.
Charlie stepped out of the car and drifted down the path past the church entrance and into the graveyard behind, clutching a small pink porcelain teddy bear. Gavin was waiting for her by the graveside. He held a posy of freesias. He was enveloped in a large black coat and a striped scarf. She noticed grey streaks in his hair. The tragedy had aged him. He looked tired but still as handsome as she remembered. The loss had taken its toll on both of them. Gavin held out an arm as she approached and wrapped it around her, holding her to him. They may be divorced, but neither blamed the other. It had just happened. Two people had loved, lost and had grown apart. But she knew she was mostly to blame. After all, it had been her that had mentally withdrawn from the relationship and allowed it to crumble. Gavin was now remarried to Tessa, a teacher. He had begun to rebuild his life. Charlie envied him that ability.
They stood in silence absorbed in memories of their precious child. Neither wished to recall the last weeks of Amy's life, but focused instead on the happier times. After a while, Gavin knelt and placed the sweet-smelling flowers into the vase in front of the headstone. He stood up again, unable to speak.
Charlie bent down and placed the teddy bear on the grave beside the headstone. âHappy birthday, sweetheart,' she whispered, and then sunk her head into her hands as a large sob escaped from her throat.
Gavin held her against him as she continued to cry. When the sobs eased, she looked at him with reddened eyes. He too had tears running down his face. âIf only we could have really celebrated her eighteenth,' she began.
, how have you been?' asked Gavin as they sat in the pub opposite the church. It had changed hands since the days when they had lived in the village. Neither of them recognised the landlord who served them their drinks.
Charlie looked out of the window that faced the pretty church. âYou know. Keeping busy. I do five days a week at the cafÃ© and I still do my radio slot every evening and Sunday afternoons at the hospital. I thought I might volunteer to work in the charity shop in town, St Chad's Hospice. All the proceeds go to help the hospice.' She looked at her orange juice and faltered a little before looking up and smiling determinedly. âI'm fine, Gavin. Honestly. I'm just fine. What about you? How are you enjoying life in Devon?'
âIt's certainly different,' he replied. âI've taken up surfing. Can you believe it? A forty-year-old surfer? I haven't got to the point where I call everyone “dude” yet, though.'
Charlie chuckled. âI can't quite imagine you in a wetsuit or board shorts. I guess the move brought out your rebellious side.'
âIt made sense to move after, well, you know. We don't need to go over that again. Tessa's family is in Bideford so it'll be convenient whenâ¦' he stopped, flushed and took a deep breath. âLook, I know this isn't the time or the place and there is no proper way to tell youâ¦'
Charlie looked into his eyes. She knew what he was going to say and felt the air whoosh out of her.
âTessa and I, we'reâ¦ expecting a baby. It was completely unplanned and came as a shock butâ¦' he left the sentence hanging between them.
Charlie blinked tightly, and then inhaled. âCongratulations,' she said and squeezed his hand. âI mean it. I wish you both much happiness. It's a surprise, that's all. I'm genuinely happy for you both.'
They sat for a while longer but did not know what else to say. They had, after all, drifted apart. Amy had been the glue in their marriage and now there seemed nothing but fuzzy affection and sadness.
âThe village has changed quite a bit, hasn't it?' said Gavin, after a few moments. âThey knocked down the old garage and turned it into a plot for houses; and the Spar shop, that's gone too. I wonder what happened to Mrs Pepper who owned it.'
âShe moved to Scotland to live with her daughter, by all accounts. I saw Ted, our old neighbour, about six months ago. He was visiting a friend in hospital and came by the studio to say hello. He's still got Dolly, his terrier.'
âWhat? Dolly must be about fifteen years old.'
âYes. Dolly loved Amy...' Charlie stopped herself. She didn't want to wipe Amy out of her heart or mind, but it wasn't helpful to keep reminiscing and reminding Gavin of what they had lost. It was not his fault he was driving that dreadful night. If only she had not caught a rotten cold and had an awful headache. She would have collected Amy from her friend's house. If she had collected her, it might not have happened. She would certainly have chatted longer to Sarah's mum and then they wouldn't have been on the road at that fateful moment.
She looked at Gavin. The pain was still evident. He was thinking the same thoughts; thoughts they had shared for too many years. The angry scar under his left eye from the injury he sustained that night was now faded; but it had left its mark. The mark on his face, though, was not as deep as the one left on his soul. He would never forgive himself for the accident. He was overtaking the lorry when it suddenly burst a tyre and veered out, crashing into the side of his car. The guilt ripped them apart as a couple. For the first few months after the accident, they both poured their energy into willing Amy out of her coma and back to life. When she died, Charlie's hurt turned to anger and even she blamed Gavin for a while. They bickered. Then they avoided each other and, finally, they separated, each broken, miserable, and tired of fighting.
She took in Gavin's sad eyes. The hurt was palpable. He deserved to live again. He did not warrant the constant guilt. One of them at least had to move on with their lives
She patted his hand. âYou make sure to let me know when the baby is born and send me photos, please. Do you know what sex the baby is yet?'
Gavin nodded, a spark of enthusiasm lighting his eyes. âIt's a boy.'
Charlie was in part relieved. âThat's wonderful. You always wanted a little boy. You'll be able to teach him how to be a surf bum!'
Gavin laughed. âThanks Charlie. I didn't know how you'd take it and I didn't want to write or call you about it. I hope you find someone too. I really do. You deserve some happiness again.'
after the drink with promises to stay in touch, yet Charlie knew that it was unlikely. Gavin had moved on and would not want to drag his past about with him. He had a new life in a new area with a new family. She had moved away from the village and into a city, but her life was still without purpose. It was a good thing she had her friends. At least she wouldn't be wallowing in misery tonight.