Ralph Pennicott was in his element, singing once again at the Marlborough College Summer School Choral Workshop. It was not as easy as it had been as his wife, Nessa, was now bedridden. He had had to give the previous year a miss but now had a living-in carer for her which allowed him to resume his hobbies, such as this and playing golf, which entailed being away from home for three to four hours. Even the weekly shop had been a worry for him leaving her on her own for an hour and a half or so. He was still there for her most of the time and it was clear that she appreciated it although she might not be able to say so in as many words. She had Early Onset Senile Dementia beginning to show itself when she was sixty-two and then slowly developing. It was not the same as Alzheimer's but no less debilitating. She could talk lucidly about things that had happened twenty or thirty years ago which gave pleasure to them both but anything recent was beyond her. She told of journeys to Staffordshire which had never taken place. She accused Ralph and indeed the carer, Enid, of things they had never conceived of let alone done. Finally, after two years, she found standing and walking beyond her and was put to bed. One had to read her face and react quickly to giving her a bedpan. She needed help to eat and drink.
It was a miserable existence for both of them and yet Ralph loved her still. He lived on the memories of the bright, intelligent, lively and attractive woman who had given him so much happiness. He needed though to maintain his own health which is why he had taken on Enid. She was a pleasant if unattractive woman in her fifties and it appeared that Nessa liked her. She was a devoted and single-minded carer whom Ralph liked and deeply appreciated even though her single-mindedness could rankle on occasions.
So, because of Enid, Ralph was back at Summer School and thoroughly enjoying it. The programme outlined by the director was varied, ranging from the classical through to modern with a light hearted party piece to amuse their audience at the final concert. The concert only lasted twenty minutes but the audience always seemed appreciative which was a just and happy reward for the choir's efforts during the week. The first time he had attended, an American soprano had got a friend to video the performance sending copies to everyone. He still enjoyed watching it, particularly as there was one stunningly attractive, blonde soprano. She had been one of the director's pupils and the director said quietly to Ralph that she really ought to drop to contralto. Perhaps it was that or motherhood which had stopped her from attending subsequently. The big thing though was that Ralph still found it fun. Furthermore, this year he had found himself next to a strong, confident sounding bass who would undoubtedly help him through some of the trickier bits.
The workshop was held in the school chapel with the choir sitting on the chancel steps. They were not the same depth. Coffee break arrived and Ralph moved forward, misjudged an invisible step because of the crowd and fell forward clutching for support. He found himself embracing a statuesque woman in her late fifties.
"Ooh!" she cried but gave Ralph the support he needed.
"Thank you," he gasped. "Without you I'd have gone an absolute pearler."
She laughed, a genuine, unaffected laugh. "And you held me to your manly bosom. Yum!"
Ralph had no ready comeback to that other than to say sorry but he could not help but smile.
"Even though it's free," he said, "may I have the honour of ordering you coffee?"
"How noble!" she teased. "Yes please. Do you need me to support you all the way there?"
"Thank you but no," he smiled back. "I haven't wounded myself."
She gave a brief chuckle. "Good! So, a good rugger expression: 'Heads down and shove.'"
"Patience is a virtue," he said piously.
"Not one of yours judging by the way you were coming down the steps," she retorted.
Nothing more was said as they made their way out of the chapel and walked up the side of Court to the coffee tables.
"Black, white, sugar, doughnut?" asked Ralph.
"White, one sugar and a doughnut, please."
"Fine! Go and grab a table if you can."
"Yessir, bossy bags!" She smiled though.
Ralph went and collected their coffee and doughnuts and then found there were no trays so had to make two trips. That caused further teasing.
"Ralph Pennicott," he said as he finally sat down.
"Nell Kirkby. How do you do?"
He grinned. "Very well thank you."
She grinned back and they both chuckled.
There was a short silence and then she asked, "Are you fairly local or staying here?"
"Half an hour, Donton five miles odd north of Pitsbury."
"We're almost neighbours. Midbourne."
"Doan' know abart thart. Foive moile away that mus' be," he replied in the local dialect.
Nell laughed. "Come on. Only fifteen minutes on a bike in this day and age."
"Oi got a car."
"Wow! Five minutes then."
"Probly a bit more'n thart. Sometimes takes three or four goes on the startin' 'andle it does."
Nell laughed again and spontaneously reached for his hand and squeezed it. She snatched hers away again.
"Sorry, Ralph. That was familiar but you made me laugh."
Ralph smiled at her. "Forgiven" he said.
There was a silence while they both attacked their doughnuts and drank some coffee.
"Your wife doesn't sing then," said Nell.
"Not anymore, I'm afraid. She used to have a lovely rich contralto."
"Oh!" said Nell quietly. There was a story here and probably a painful one. She was not going to pursue it for the time being. They were virtual strangers.
Ralph held back from asking a similar question about her husband. "So are you a grandparent like me?" he asked.
"You bet! Four! My son has a seven year-old boy and a five year-old girl and my daughter two sons, four and eighteen months. What have you got?"
"My elder son has two girls, five and a half and two plus another on the way."
"Boy or girl?"
"Don't know. They're being all secretive about it. They may not actually know themselves and don't want to. Then my daughter is due in a couple of months' time and that is a girl."
There was another short but not uncomfortable silence.
"What did you do for a living?" asked Nell.
"Ooh! Were you a general?"
"Far from it. A mere lieutenant-colonel."
"That's pretty senior."
"Not really. Half way up the ladder but, I suppose, a bit higher up the pyramid."
Nell thought that one through and then nodded. "Not bad though."
She grinned. "Rupert reached the giddy heights of National Service Second Lieutenant."
"And then went on to high places in civilian life."
"He didn't do too badly. Chief Executive UK of a multi-national company."
"Not too badly at all."
Ralph realised that both had touched on sensitive issues. "Finished?" he asked. "We don't want a rocket from Ella for being back late on Day One."
Nell smiled. "No. I caught one last year. Is this your first year?"
"Lord no! This is my eighth. I had to give last year a miss though."
Nell registered again that she was treading on sensitive ground and looked at her watch.
"Five minutes," she said. "We don't need to run."
"What are you going to do at the end?" he asked. "Hare off home or have lunch here?"
"What are you going to do?"
"Snack lunch here."
"Come on then. Let's see if we can order now. There might not be a queue."
There was not and they were able to order and get back to the chapel with half a minute to spare.
Lunch was fun. They were joined by two other members of the choir who they knew from previous years and there was much laughter. So it continued for the rest of the week. During that time Ralph learned that Rupert had died of a stroke some two years before.
"It knocked me sideways I have to admit," she said. "It was the total unexpectedness of it. The children were wonderful. They rallied round and helped me sort out his affairs and had me to stay for lengthy periods. My son wanted me to sell the house and move into something smaller nearer one or other of them but I didn't want to leave. Rupert and I had been very happy there and it's in the area where most of my friends are. I've got my choir and the operatic society. I'm over it really now and am happy."
"Good for you!" said Ralph. "I'm glad."
"You told me that last year was the first you had missed after seven years. Is the problem solved now?"
"Yes and no. Four years ago my wife began to develop Early Onset Senile Dementia. After two years she required pretty well full time care. I just about managed and my daughter would come and stay for the week of Summer School. Then she became bed ridden and I felt I couldn't leave her except to do the weekly shop and collect her medicines from the village surgery. I managed that for just over a year by which time I was utterly exhausted and doing myself no good. I decided to hire a live in carer and found a real winner. More importantly Nessa is comfortable with her. It's meant that I can share the burden with Enid and get away now and again to relax."
Nell touched his arm sympathetically. "You deserve to. Have you thought of moving her into a home?"
"Yes and decided against it. She'd be even more unhappy and I love her too much to let her go even though seeing her almost comatose much of the time and ga-ga the rest of it nearly breaks my heart." He smiled ruefully. "'In sickness and in health as long as ye both shall live.'"
Nell was silent but her eyes spoke volumes, sympathy and admiration mostly.
The end of the week came and with it a successful concert. Ralph and Nell went for a final snack lunch together.
"Will I see you next year?" she asked.
"Good. Ralph, would it be all right if I rang you occasionally just to find out how things are going and possibly to cheer you up a bit."
"That's kind of you, Nell. I'd like that very much. I'd better give you our number as we're ex-directory. I got fed to the back teeth with all the cold callers, not that it seems to make much difference."
"They're a pain, aren't they? I have caller display and if it's anonymous or an 08 number I don't answer it." She chuckled. "I've probably missed winning umpteen thousand pounds."
"More likely not. I must give it a try." He found a piece of paper, wrote down his number and handed it to her. "Am I allowed yours?"
"Of course you are."
She folded the paper in half, tore off the bottom half, wrote her number and handed it to him.
They walked down to the car park together where they separated, their cars being some distance from each other.
"Au revoir, Nell," he said with a warm smile. "Don't leave it too long before you ring. I've really enjoyed your company this week."
"Same here." She reached up and gently kissed his cheek, "and au revoir to you too."