THE sky was dark. The crisis was near. And the priest hovered over the phone at the presbytery while energetically sucking a Polo mint – a tip that had been passed on to him some years earlier by the whiskey-nipping suffragan bishop, as together they paused by the bar to regain their puff during a lull in the whooping and twirling of a parish knees-up.
But it was the looming crisis that zipped my thoughts to the present. For a feeble cough had rattled from the bed, where my wife lay, her face drained of colour, so that only the pale red of her lips, her hair and those lovely turquoise eyes could be seen against the altar-white cover on the pillow.
“Do you think I could lose my voice altogether,” she croaked, as I knelt by the bed to unwrap another menthol and eucalyptus cough drop and to lay a cooling flannel on her brow.
“By Jove! Good Lord! Heavens above! Perish the thought!” I cried, recalling, in those moments of devotion, how she had thrilled everyone on the Cleethorpes charabanc with her lusty rendition of Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien - all the Rs rolling like the wheels on a tumbrel, in the grand old Gallic style.
“Why, all the choirmasters of England would be cast into the deepest gloom. But I fervently pray that once we have conquered this crisis, your voice will be restored to its full magnificence. Grip fast to your courage,” I added.
“Don’t mock me – and put on the kettle,” she whispered, more softly than the flutter of a butterfly’s wing; but, on turning round at the door, I saw that a hint of colour had flushed her cheeks. Birds trilled again in our garden. The priest jigged, before returning his black hat to the stand by the plaster Virgin.
It would be an exaggeration to say that her recovery from then on was without complication. But my diary records that the worst was over. “Our prayers have been answered,” I wrote.
Now, it is often said that women endure illness better than men. It seems that their systems are programmed to suffer without complaint, so that they can give birth to more and more of us – and be rewarded with twinkling gems each time. But I am not sure that this is always the case. Indeed, I have heard the word “stoical” spoken in awe by admirers, when I have been laid low, succumbing only after a long and noble struggle against the flu. “So brave and dutiful,” colleagues had sighed in sepulchral tones, when they saw me dragging my carcass across the threshold, driven on by sheer willpower.
Well, that was the picture I had in my own mind. In truth, what they said was: “What’s he doing here, limping around like a martyr, spraying his germs – and coughing like a geezer just in case the bosses hadn’t heard that he made it in.”
Indeed, you can see such martyrs at this time of year in every office, sitting red-nosed under a miasma of olbas oil, peeping over a hillock of reinforced paper tissues, while spooning patent medicines at regular intervals.
Imagine, the stalwart of accounts sniffling there at her desk in the corner. Perhaps, she is waiting for words from a kindly boss. “Now, look here, Daphne. Your commitment to the cause has been super human. It will never be forgotten. We are forever in your debt. Nobody could have done more. But you must go to bed now,” he says – or, how she wished he had said that. Yes, there are times when we all like a little tender, loving care.
But, more philosophically, most of us think that the success of the operation, whatever it may be, hangs on our presence. We are indispensable. But could this mask a lurking fear that if we are not at our posts, no one will notice? Whatever the answer, you will be pleased to learn that only yesterday I heard a strong voice swelling again in the kitchen.
“Je Ne Regrette Rien,” it boomed. What a splendid choice of song, I thought.