The Pixies will return next week, in the meantime the following story is my entry for Deanna Schrayer's Birthday Writing Contest. It is also the 100th post here at Future; Nostalgic, I can't think of a better post to mark my first century.
Biting back the tears, Mary gazed deep into Tom's eyes. Birthdays weren't supposed to be like this, she thought, they were meant to be joyous occasions, not something papered over with a veneer of bonhomie. At least Tom seemed happy. It was sometimes hard to tell these days, but as she watched him sitting up in his hospice bed, slowly working his way through a steak dinner and sipping his wine, she began to relax a little.
'Lovely steak, dear,' Tom mumbled, 'My compliments to the chef.'
'Shame Sarah couldn't join us,' Tom continued, 'but I know she's busy, what with work and the kids.'
Mary felt the sudden stab of anxiety. 'I'm sure she'll be here tomorrow.'
'I hope so.' Tom took another mouthful of wine.
Mary did not respond. She was re-living the previous day's argument with her daughter, the reason why Sarah hadn't come to visit her father on his birthday.
'Mum, you can't!'
'But love, it's what he wants.'
'His mind's going. I'm having no part in this lunacy.'
Mary sighed. 'He's old,' she repeated gently, 'But his brain's as sharp as a tack. He knows his own mind.'
'No buts. If it's what your Dad wants for his birthday, why should I argue? Don't you think he's earned it?'
'But, what about the kids? What will they think? What do I tell them?'
'That their Granddad is old, he's happy, and that he knows what he wants.'
'He's dying, Mum. For God's sake!'
'No. It's decided. He's decided. I'm not going to argue with you any more. And don't you dare say anything to him about it. I will not have him upset.'
The last sentence hung in empty air, Sarah had already left, the slowly closing door the only reminder of her presence.
* * *
As Mary drove Tom out to the airfield the next morning, she didn't really expect to see Sarah's car in the car park, but still felt a pang of regret that it wasn't there when they pulled in. While Tom wheeled himself across to the hanger, she dialled Sarah's number on her mobile phone and stared up at the clear blue sky while the phone rang, and rang. Voicemail.
Mary dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief as she walked slowly over to the hanger. Tom, newly kitted out in blue overalls, was deep in conversation with a man in a pilot's uniform. Seeing her looking a bit lost, the pilot excused himself and walked over, extending his hand.
His grip was warm and reassuringly firm. 'Good morning, you must be Mary?'
'Yes. Is he...' she glanced over at Tom, '...is he...'
'He's just fine. We'll take good care of him. Don't you worry.' The pilot smiled, patting her hand. 'I'm Adam by the way, I'll be flying Tom today.'
There were so many questions Mary wanted to ask, but her voice had deserted her. Taking the silence for agreement, Adam continued. 'You can watch from the spectators' area,' he said steering her towards the door. 'It's over there,' he pointed, 'just where that little shelter is. The thing that looks like a bus stop.'
'Thank you, 'Mary murmured. 'I just wanted to ask...' she began, but Adam was already out of earshot, walking towards the plane that dominated the hanger. Mary wandered over to the spectators' area and settled herself on the bench inside the perspex shelter.
Her heart was in her mouth, white knuckles twisting the hankerchief into knots as the plane was pulled out of the hanger and started its engines. As it taxied across the apron, Mary saw it brake suddenly as a figure dashed out from the hanger and clambered aboard.
'Oh God,' she whispered, 'Please tell me there's something wrong with the plane so he can't go.'
The plane began moving again and was soon climbing into the azure morning sky, leaving Mary a lonely, disconsolate figure on the tarmac.
After what seemed like hours squinting fearfully into the sun, Mary watched as first one, then another, then finally a larger black speck emerged from the plane and began to fall away back to earth. When, a few seconds later, the canopies opened, Mary let out the breath that had been tightening her chest. Even she had to marvel at the sight of her husband, in tandem with his instructor floating serenely towards the large white “X” marked on the grass in front of her.
As Tom swooped in low for a landing, Mary caught sight of his face. He was grinning. A huge, sparking grin that lit up his face, and just for an instant she was transported back to the dance in the church hall, April 12th, 1940, when she'd seen that grin for the first time as the sergeant with paratrooper insignia on his shoulders had asked her to dance.
It wasn't until the canopies had been gathered in and Tom gently lowered back into his wheelchair by his instructor and the photographer, that Mary noticed the other figure again. She bent down to kiss Tom, pulling her helmet off and shaking out her long blonde hair as she straightened. Mary's heart leapt as Sarah turned towards her mother and waved, a mirror image of her father's grin lighting up her face.
Sarah ran over and hugged her Mother.
'I'm sorry, Mum, I nearly missed it,' she mumbled into Mary's neck. 'You were right though, I couldn't not go with Dad, could I?'
Mary held her daughter out at arm's length, gazing deeply into her daughter's blue eyes. 'Thank you,' she mouthed.
Mary pecked Tom on the cheek then stood back, not wanting to intrude on the memories her husband was excitedly sharing with his instructor.
'Dad, that was brilliant!' Sarah laughed, 'Bloody scary though.'
Tom roared with laughter at his daughter, a knowing, bittersweet look passing privately between him and Mary.
'Aye, kid,' he replied, 'As birthdays go, that one wasn't too bad.'