Blessings…

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“Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Very early on in my tenure as a writer in residence at the Hospice, I was given a very difficult assignment.  In the morning meeting, held before the patients arrived, I was told that should Janine come that day, I would be asked to work with her.  In other words, I would be expected to spend a couple of hours with her, and listen, and keep her engaged and chat.  This was deemed good for her, and something that would help.

In truth, I felt that Janine was something of a hopeless case. She was an alcoholic and the Hospice was keen to find space for her for two reasons.  Firstly, they were short of people – either not enough people dying, or not enough people being referred to them and, secondly, they felt bad for her parents who were stalwart fundraisers.  They were at their wit’s end. Janine was not the lovely, sweet daughter they remembered: she was alien to them.   Another factor was that, although Janine’s death was not considered imminent, it was certainly always possible.  She had, for want of a better phrase, pickled her liver and in common with many alcoholics, her throat and digestive tract was riddled with peptic ulcers which could burst at any stage, and cause serious and potentially life-threatening disease and infection.

Like most alcoholics, Janine would scheme and lie, and say that no drink had got close to her that day and yet she would arrive at the Hospice and it was clear that she had had a drink already – you could smell it.   The nurses would ask her if she had taken a drink and steadfastly Janine would deny the consumption of any liquor and yet, the alcohol smell, and her slight slurring of her words would continue.  We knew that she carried bottles in her bag, and about her person, and once, in the toilet, we found a bottle of whiskey hidden inside the ceiling tiles.

It was difficult to spend time with Janine, she was often unfocused and didn’t maintain a linear narrative but as the minutes ticked over, she began to talk sporadically and tell me about her life – about her path to this place – despondent and desolate at 38.  Her story came in fits and starts over many weeks. I would look at her, as we sat together in the conservatory of the hospice, boiling hot because of the mid-day sun and wonder why she had let herself get into the state she had – bloated, and disconnected and thoroughly sad. She did not like the silence any more than I did: we talked of television, of yesterday’s supper, of a range of topics, and then slowly, slowly she started to peel back the layers.

It had begun some 20 years before.  At that time, she was a bright young thing: perriwinkle blue eyes alive and smile radiant enough to make men stop, sit-up and take notice.  She could have anyone, that’s what she said.  She knew what to wear, how to make-up her face and how to simper.  Even in the hospice you could see that she had been very beautiful – that rare combination of light blue eyes and dark hair, and occasionally, she would flash that beguiling smile that promised so much.  She would flirt with a coat stand.

At 18 she had taken a job with the West Yorkshire police, as an office worker and pretty quickly she had risen through the ranks so that she had become the secretary to a senior detective on the force.  At that time, he was a man under the most enormous of pressures – he was one of the officers involved in the inquiry for the Yorkshire Ripper, and whoever was committing this crime, this series of crimes, was making the police look very stupid. He took solace in the arms of his beautiful secretary.

I won’t judge him or her  – in the fraught day-to-day of a deeply affecting serial killing spree it was hardly surprising that he, and the men with him on the case, felt pressure that no man could bear.  He used his secretary, as many men have done before and Janine, young and impressionable, allowed herself to be his lover.  She never disclosed to me what was said in their intimate moments and I did not probe, but she often looked off into the middle distance and it was clear that he shared as much as he could when they were together, more than she should have known about the case, the very grim details. She carried his pain, she held the words of fear he dared not say to his wife, his concern that he would never help find the man killing women across the county.

Janine always knew the officer had a wife, and although she always carried a torch for something more, she knew that she was just a passing place, a stopping post on a much bigger journey.  She hoped for more, night after night, she fantasised about how it would be when all this was over. But in her heart, she knew it never would be. That when peace reigned in his soul again and when they’d caught the killer, and sent him down and thrown away the key, that her lover would leave her without a backward glance.

And just as she predicated, when it was all over, that was exactly what happened to Janine.  She was excess to requirements, no longer needed as a shoulder to cry on, the abandoned port in a storm.

In those long summer days when Janine spoke to me, she never once called him anything other than a gentleman; she never once suggested he was a bad person for using her as he did. She had wanted more but she was smart enough to realise it was never going to happen.   All of this she told me in a fleeting rush of alcohol-induced eloquence, and then, when those moments had passed she did not speak at all.  She did not mention the cavernous pain within her, but smiled and filled the air with the mundane.

One day, when we were locked in that hot, hot space she told me what she really hoped for her life.  She had a high-pitched, whiskey and cigarette ruined voice, and she spoke without fear, “what I always wanted was children, something solid that would hold me to the earth.  I loved him you know, Mary, I loved him.  And even though I knew his wife had his heart I still believed that I held him close,  somewhere special.  I really did.  I gave him everything, everything I had. And then, when they found Peter Sutcliffe, with his hammers and his knives, I knew that it was over and that those passionate, beautiful nights were gone. And that I was another one, another victim.”

Janine did not speak much of this again, and I was not equipped to help her move it on.  Her hopes and dreams of being the partner of this man died right then – and all she had given him counted for nothing when the charge sheet was written, and the cell door closed.

Was she angry at being left behind? “No,” she said, inhaling on her cigarette, “I was blessed.  But imagine being blessed by other women’s suffering.  Imagine being blessed by the worst possible crimes being committed, it’s tainted and yet – those were the best moments of my life, and I’ll never get that passion or that kind of love again.”

She never spoke of it, but I imagined Janine much reduced, back with her parents.  I imagined her back in her childhood bedroom, a single bed with a pink, candlewick bedspread, I imagined the hours between two and four – when she had known passion driven by pain, and fear and despair and hanging on for dear life as if you’d never breathe again, and I understood – profoundly, completely – why she drank  – because she’d lived her life in techni-colour, and at speed and now she was in slow-motion monochrome, and that intensity with a man who needed her was gone and she’d never re-calibrate to the ordinariness of the everyday again; like flying high on the trapeze and then being asked to get the same kick from a suburban garden swing. In the silence, her loss was profound.

I don’t know what happened to Janine in the end, but my fear for her is that she died without realising that even though she’d loved and lost, she never learned what her life was trying to teach her.

 

 

 

 

Author: Mary Brearley

I work in the charitable arts sector. I have worked all over the UK, and occasionally elsewhere.

42 thoughts on “Blessings…”

  1. Dear Mary
    You cannot imagine how much your blog has meant to me in the past months.
    For the last 12 weeks I have been helping to care for my terminally ill sister who died August 4th. Her last days were spent in a hospice which was a great comfort to us all. The staff were all wonderful.
    Yours on reflections of childhood and frailty of life have obviously struck a chord with with me.
    Your writing has warmth and wisdom, which was sometimes hard to read, but helped me through this very difficult time.
    Thank you
    Gill. ( Feather from Blip)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Perhaps the affair was the drug of choice at that time….providing the escape from whatever it was that she was escaping from…and the alcohol came with the realization there was no escape from life..

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s too bad, though I can certainly understand not wanting to write about events that caused so much trauma. As an English teacher, I often find that students don’t want to write anything. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. They were – mostly – happy to talk and for me to write. I also did lots of frameworks and list type poems… it was a very interesting position. Many people feel they have nothing to say/no story to tell (although I believe everyone does) or are very reluctant writers….

        Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s sad. She never learned, no.
    I cannot imagine somebody starts drinking just because a married man does not continue the relationship. Married is actually taken, it does not mean that all of them divorce.
    I have seen also girls getting married with somebody they stole, and that was pretty much another lesson: one cannot build their happiness on somebody else’s tears. Never. It just seems: so what? In fact, all this comes back and never allows these people to enjoy genuine happiness.

    Like

    1. Thank you. They were tricky times but she was a good person. I think it’s hard when you hit the heights: sexually, emotionally or in whatever way and you know you may never get there again. A lifetime of second best, or worse, is hard to stomach I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wonder. Another way of looking at it was that placing this guy who used her on a pedestal and clinging to her fantasies of him protected her from getting hurt again and gave her an excuse for her alcoholism.

        Either way, it’s a poignant and beautifully written story.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, but many sneak under the radar. Interestingly there were a number in the hospice – who I may yet write about – who’d say I’ve done nothing, then they’d start talking and tell the most fantastic of life stories. The Devil’s in the detail but most people look back en masse and don’t focus in…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice photograph and story of Janine. This phrase caught my attention: “disconnected and thoroughly sad”. My interpretation: If we are reduced to individuals this leads to sadness; we need the connection to others. Somehow she couldn’t get past that detective.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I feel for Janine even though it was a dream woven out of air. It had to disintegrate. Here again is the essential dichotomy of life: Do you just give up or turn life around? I did not walk in her shoes so how am I to know. Beautifully narrated story!

    Liked by 1 person

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