Lucy Garrold hadn't visited Matthew Wellington in 40 years, years during which she'd straddled a baby, then toddler, teenager and adult to her hip, a tear stain permanently etched into the shoulders of her clothes, and managed a newly deceased husband barking demands over her shoulder, his raspy but sharp voice cutting down the front of her blouse like knives. Lucy found it hard to believe she finally had time to breathe, let alone sleep.
It was a long drive to Matthew's institute, but she enjoyed the serenity of the wind clawing through her hair, the rotten car rattling down the streets. Her scarf hung out of the window, tightening around her neck. It was pleasant to have a piece of material making her breathless, rather than the endless duties of a house wife, now a widow.
Lucy hadn’t ever noticed many people entering or exiting Matthew's building, especially not patient visitors. She walked tall through the chilly, stone building, smiling quickly at a nurse, and made her way into the back garden.
Matthew sat beneath a low hanging tree, dumbly tossing a large leaf between his fingers while his visionless eyes glanced unsettlingly in the opposite direction.
‘Still a blind fella,’ she said, collapsing into the plastic chair beside him. Lucy felt the white plastic peel away from age as she rested her cement forearms on the arm rests.
‘Still bet'r lookin than yer ol' bloke!’ Matthew said, throwing the leaf to his dirty, bare feet. He reached for her, his fingers fumbling up the frame of her chair as he tried to grasp her hand.
‘And how would ye know?’
‘Ey,’ he said, defensively. ‘F'he's anythin like he was twenty-seven years 'go, he's still a bloody rat.’
‘Ye remembered me weddin' anniversary.’
Mathew's grip on Lucy's hand and wrist tightened. 45 years of marriage hadn't extinguished the spark that erupted in her fingers when he touched her.
‘Can't ferget th' worst days o' me life, Luce.’
Lucy watched the words, less pained and more nostalgic now, flow across his mouth, upon the lips she'd had her first kiss.
She remembered the moment, and the days and weeks that had followed, with undying accuracy. It was at the Royal Fair, the kissing stall, and 11 year old Matthew Wellington, a mess of blonde hair and emerald green eyes, had tricked Lucy Garrold into kissing him, instead of the muscly teenagers sitting upon stools, welcoming girls upon the stage for a kiss. Matthew had followed her around, throwing pebbles at her window and buying her ice creams - which she declined. Not that it bothered him terribly. Matthew could easily make his way through two icecreams. They had the same favourite flavour.
He would never have known that Lucy secretly watched him demolish the cold treats as he sat on the curb, so intensely concentrated on the ice cream that the shoulders of his navy overalls fell over his shoulders, his hat falling over his eyes. She admired the way he sat, stood, walked and talked. Matthew Wellington was handsome, Lucy noticed, wearing the soft skin of his mother, yet always covering himself in some kind of dirt and grit. But he wore it with pride, as if he didn't give a toss what an old man yelled after him as short and scrawny Matthew barged through his legs on the busy pathway.
‘What’s bin on yer mind, Luce? 'Aven't seen ya in a while. A long while.’
‘Me life’s bin busy. Too much to do, ya know?’
Lucy felt Matthew’s grip slip away because, in reality, he did not know. For 43 years, Matthew had been imprisoned in the institute, stuck in a storm of nurses, doctors and worsening vision. Her heart lurched as she realised the ghostly sadness that enveloped what she’d said.
There was a brief silence and Matthew seemed to enjoy the soft breeze that swirled under his chin, prickly with white stubble. He lifted his head slightly, his eyes vague and unwary of his surroundings.
‘I’ve bin writin some stories. Get the nurses to write em for meh.’
Lucy uncrossed her legs. ‘What they ‘bout?’
‘This ‘n that. Mostly me life.’ Lucy noticed the slight wobble in his voice as he said ‘life’ and her straight posture caved into the shape of the hard, plastic chair. She breathed out slowly, watching as a smile brushed across Matthew’s lips. The sun beamed upon his face, highlighting the gold flickers in his slowly fading chocolate hair, and she bit the inside of her cheek.
Lucy Garrold went to her senior formal with James Flex, a tall, strong and square-jawed fellow who’d asked the girl with the biggest breasts in school to accompany him and his fancy limo into the night. Lucy remembered dancing with James, she remembered the way his hands wrapped around her waist with a softness that was somehow more gripping than if his fingers had dug into the pudginess of her hips. Sitting there next to Matthew, though, soaking up the sun with more innocence that a child crying for a mother’s love, she only felt the fire of happiness that bubbled out of her mouth when she’d looked past James’s shoulder to watch Matthew dance clumsily within his bundle of friends. It was in that moment that Lucy Garrold wanted to kiss Matthew Wellington, and not because he was pretending to work at the kissing stall at the Royal Fair, but because he made her laugh.
‘Which part o’ yer life, exa’ly?’
Matthew dipped his head and tilted towards her. His shoulders were slumped, naked underneath his white robe, and if Lucy leant forward, she could see the long-gone muscles that’d carved his chest.
‘Most o’ it, really. I start at the Fair, ya know, at the kissing stall.’
Lucy couldn’t help but smile and was glad he was unable to see it. The blood prickled in her lips, feeling as alive as they had the first time Lucy had officially kissed Matthew. She could still taste the fairy floss he’d bought her and then the chocolate dipped icecream she’d dripped all over her hands as they walked through the Royal Fair, two weeks after their senior formal. She could still picture the checkered shirt he wore, rolled up to just before his elbows, and his workers’ boots covered in paint; Matthew and his parents were repainting their house – he’d painted his room lime green, Lucy’s favourite colour.
It hadn’t taken Matthew long to kiss Lucy, and it didn’t last long. Her lips stung the whole night, burning with the urge to kiss him again. Then her hand sparkled as he casually took it from behind, sliding his long fingers between hers. Every part of her was happy in that moment, regardless of how much sticky icecream stained her hand or how her dress clung to her back as she sweated through the 30-degree heat.
Lucy swallowed, glancing down at those fingers that had guided her through a handful of firsts – first kiss, first graduation, first love, the first time, and first arguments that caused her both physical and emotional pain.
‘Do ye talk ‘bout the accident?’ she asked.
Matthew wasn’t fazed by the question, almost as if he’d expected it. ‘’Tis me life, Luce. Not gonna pretend I’m sometin I’m not.’
And Lucy didn’t want him to. February 13th, 1940, was one of the few dates in history Lucy had ever disapproved of Matthew’s intentions. Something inside of her had sunk, an endless stream of tears had forged rivers in her cheeks and she’d struggled to look him in the eye. Matthew had guided her through another first – the first goodbye. Lucy didn’t know how to say goodbye to a walking time bomb. Off to war, Lucy had no idea how she’d smile without having Matthew next to her to hold, to touch, to make her laugh.
Matthew Wellington cried when he said goodbye to Lucy Garrold for a year. He kissed her tentatively, dropping his suitcase in a hurry to hold her as tight as he could. He tripped over his bag to grab her after she’d turned around, throwing his face upon hers in an urgent attempt to fill himself with as much of her love as possible.
Lucy had never broken a bone, but she couldn’t imagine it could be any worse than losing sight of Matthew as the bus rounded the corner and travelled thousands of miles away. On the curb of the street, just outside the icecream store where he’d bought her uncountable numbers of treats, she curled up and screamed herself through the agony. She filled the gutter with an uproar of torture, wailing as Matthew’s best friend helped her to her feet. In the end, he fell to his knees beside her and let her sob into his shoulder, allowing his very own tears to roll heavily into her hair. For two years, he’d watched Matthew love Lucy, holding her knee under the dinner table, breathing kisses into her hair and barely losing sight of her in a crowd. But he’d never fully realised the intense devotion they shared that ripped in two as Matthew left.
Blinking back tears, Lucy rocked forwards onto her elbows. Her first broken heart wasn’t a memory that died away, thrown into the fog of memories that she packed away before her marriage. It grew like weeds within her systems, sprouting out everywhere until she was infected with the immortal pain of letting Matthew leave.
‘I write ‘bout everythin. Mostly you. All yer visits ‘ere.’
‘What ‘bout yer visits to me?’ she asked. She could hear the thickness in her voice, the swamped tone that cracked as she fought the uprising of another memory.
Matthew’s round face spun around, and he was smiling. He was almost looking at her. ‘They’re me best bits. I write ‘bout every one.’
Even to that date, Lucy still wished there had been more. He came home bruised and bandaged most times, but seeing him for the first time after his first year in service had shocked her the most. His hair was gone, trimmed until he was almost bald, and he was thicker than normal, covered by muscles in places she didn’t know you could have muscles.
Matthew had stumbled out of the bus, dressed to his hips in army pants and in a black singlet. Lucy remembered the moment vaguely, the details were a blur, but the feeling of his hard arms around her shoulders was unforgettable. The bus had left and the street was quiet, lit up by mellow streetlights by the time Matthew let go of Lucy. She was numb against him and unaware that his parents stood behind her, waiting with wet eyes to welcome their son home.
He didn’t let her go while he hugged his sobbing mother and shook his father’s hand awkwardly with the wrong hand. Lucy felt the sweatiness of his palm against her skin and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. But Matthew didn’t care. He only grabbed her waist and pulled the straw hat off her head to kiss her. It was a moment they’d both spent sleepless nights imagining, conjuring up situations in their heads that would never live up to the actual moment. Lucy caved against him, enjoying the softness of his lips amongst his firm figure.
‘Time passes fast when ye don’t want it to, don’t it?’ Lucy said, breathless.
Matthew took her hand again and pulled it into his lap, looking forward as he rubbed his fingers along her nails in an attempt to see her in his mind. His fingertips traced the shape of her engagement and wedding rings, and his grip loosened, but he didn’t let her go.
Much like the morning of his next departure. Lucy hadn’t been sure if she could endure the pain again, and she could read the dread on Matthew’s best friend’s face as they walked unwillingly down the main street and to the bus stop. As they paused in front of the bus, she watched as Matthew glanced nostalgically at the icecream store and then suddenly smashed his lips against hers with more passion than the night before. She felt it immediately, the ripping misery that lacerated her insides. She cried through the moment, making the kiss wet with grief.
As they both found, it wasn’t easier the second time. A week home had made Matthew question why he’d ever enlisted in the first place. The war had taught him honour and pride in himself and his country, but it had showed him hurt and loss. Matthew never missed home, he never missed his hometown and never missed his bed. He barely missed handmade food. But he missed Lucy, and she was everything.
‘You gonna publish it?’ Lucy asked.
Matthew lifted her hand to his cheek. ‘I don think I’m willin to share how I feel with the world.’
‘And how do ye feel?’
He winked through his blindness. ‘Yer’ll ‘ave to read it.’
If that was the case, Lucy hoped it didn’t resemble the words of her last letter from Matthew. He’d visited twice more during his next year while he served, dragging them both through the joy of reunion and agony of leaving more than she had ever dreamed of. But her love for him never wavered. He was all she ever thought about. Everything revolved around Matthew Wellington.
On the 5th of January, 1942, a month after Matthew’s visit, Lucy received a letter, the handwriting smudged by what she had originally hoped were his tears. If Matthew hadn’t broken her heart enough, leaving her to slowly mend it to pass the time while he was away, it was certainly broken after reading that letter. Lucy couldn’t describe the aching throb that erupted in her chest, the breathlessness that swept over her and the suddenly louder, deafening crack of the rain and hail against the shutters, pelting their way into the corner of her parents’ carpeted living room.
Lucy spent weeks wondering how Matthew had come to write the letter, whether he’d moved on himself, and almost found herself writing back, asking him how he’d woken up one day with no love left for her. She felt the complete opposite – a constant hole distracting her wellbeing, eating away at her flesh until there was hardly any Lucy left inside her body, a body that had belonged beside Matthew for four years.
‘But where does it end?’
Matthew reached down, moving his hand through the grass until he sat back up with a brown-covered novel in his hand. It was thick and dusty, untitled, but his name was written in bold, golden writing at the bottom. M.J. Wellington.
‘Took me a while to decide, I’ll tell ye that!’
For a moment, she reflected on the many occasions she’d wondered how long it had taken Matthew to write that devastating letter. How had he gathered such words to write so softly and intricately, almost to not disturb the peace, but cutting like a blade?
The letter had left an emptiness in Lucy that she couldn’t shake. She went to the theatres with friends, helped prepare dinner for family gatherings, even went to the beach where she simply floated until she was almost asleep, rolling over the velvet waves, infinitely lulling about the seaweed and fish. But no matter how many times she forced a smile upon her dear little face, held her shoulders back so people couldn’t see the weight that carried her down, he was still there. He was still with her.
It was two weeks after the arrival of Matthew’s letter that Lucy realised it wasn’t just her heartache that made her heavy. A child, half Garrold and half Wellington, grew inside of her. For a brief moment Lucy felt relief – Matthew couldn’t leave her now – and then she felt angry. Matthew had left so many times, but the letter was definite. She couldn’t care for a child that wasn’t born of the love she thought she’d been so lucky to experience.
Lucy bled in her sleep three nights later, which was both sickening and reassuring. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t love the child inside her, but as she woke with the blood trickling down her leg, the small bump on her stomach now defunct, the emptiness only intensified.
Lucy blinked away the memory and enjoyed the warmth of Matthew’s cheek. She could feel the corner of his lips as they parted to breathe.
‘How do ye write the end to a story that’s not ended yet?’
Matthew released her hand, placing it on the arm of her chair. ‘If ye read me novel, Luce, I think ye’ll agree it’s over.’
‘And if I don read it?’
‘Then one o’ us will ‘ave the satisfaction o’ knowin how me story really ends.’
Lucy wondered if it was really his story, or more theirs. If it was theirs, then Matthew didn’t understand how long ago it had ended. It may have begun with his letter, but someone else ended it.