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Susan M Phillips

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For Better, For Worse
By Susan M Phillips
Monday, September 29, 2003

Rated "PG" by the Author.

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A story of love and hurt.

Sally watched darkness turned to grey dawn from a bed that seemed made of rocks. She slid back the quilt and sat up stiffly. Beside her Jamie stirred and opened his eyes drowsily. “Hello, early bird.” A frown shadowed his face. “Are you in pain?”Sally smoothed her side of the bed, turning away as she spoke, “No, I’m fine, just not sleepy.”The frown vanished as his muscular arm snaked out and he caught her hand, stroking her fingers softly. Those cornflower blue eyes were suddenly very much awake. “Sleep isn’t the only option, you know.”Sally turned away. “I, I need to eat, I’m hungry.”“I see.” He released her, pulling his hand back under the cover. When she turned back his eyes were closed and his mouth set in the hard line that had become so familiar lately. Of course, it did not mean anything. Jamie could not possibly still be attracted to her now that livid red lines criss-crossed her body. It was just an act, put on to assuage his sense of guilt. She limped to the bathroom and showered, letting hot water cascade over her face, fighting to keep her eyes open. Every time they closed Sally relived the accident.They had been on their first outing for months. After a fairytale wedding, the raven-haired beauty and fair young man had moved into a house on the new executive housing estate. Both had good jobs and furnished their new home in the latest style using interest free credit offers, secretly laughing at older acquaintances who reminisced about starting married life with bare floors and second hand furniture. The repayments, though, so modest when looked at individually, added up to a prodigious monthly total that, along with the mortgage and other bills, swallowed up most of their joint earnings. After six miserable months their stringent food budget was leaving Sally constantly hungry. At dinner that night she looked at the tiny portion before her. “Jamie,” she began, “We’ve got to do something about money or we’ll starve.”“What do you suggest?” he asked dryly, “sell the car?”“Would your boss let us sell the company car? Seriously, we need to eat properly.”“Unfortunately, very little money buys very little food. I don’t know any way to change that, do you?”“Yes. Economies.”He looked at her blankly. Sally explained: “At that new discount store we can buy a whole sack of potatoes for the price of a little bag from the supermarket and if we bought our regular supplies in bulk, we’d save a packet. Then I think we should cancel the papers. Jamie sighed, “People I’m in charge of shop there. How would it look if they saw a management executive shopping in a tacky place like that? And I need the newspapers to keep abreast of things. You’ll have to come up with something more practical.” “The window cleaner – he charges a fortune and …”“And we rather enjoy being able to see outside.”“Just for a while, until we get back on our feet.” Sally hesitated. She wasn’t sure how he would take this next suggestion. She spoke softly: “The television could go. The rental payments are exorbitant. The satellite and cable contracts too…”“But the football! Now we can’t afford match tickets it’s my only pleasure.”“With what we save we could get a digital TV adaptor. There’s no rental and you get plenty of sports channels, I’ve been watching the adverts. Within two months it would pay for itself, only… only we’d have to save for two months to get one.”“Is there any point if there’s no television to plug it into?”“The portable could come down from the bedroom. We’d save a bit more if you cancelled your squash club membership…”“How come I have to make all the savings? I don’t notice you offering to give anything up.”“That’s because I have nothing to give up. If you recall, I was going to join the gym after Christmas when the payments for the bed finished. Anyway, I use the telly and read the papers as well so we’re both cutting back there.”“It’s television and newspapers,” he corrected her curtly, “do you have to talk like some factory wench?” Sally bit off her usual retort. A row would be counter-productive, so she said merely: “We have two choices: cut down or lose the lot. How would it look to your precious workforce if we got thrown out on the street?” They finished the meal in silence, Jamie moodily chewing each morsel and refusing to meet her eyes.Later, in bed, he turned to her. “If we did send the big telly back and the portable stayed upstairs,” he gave her one of those intense looks that used to turn her to jelly, “we could snuggle up in bed and save on heating bills. I might even forget about football for a while.” Sally wanted to pick him up on saying “telly”, but he was coming round and that was more important than scoring points. It had been some time since they had made love, money worries had robbed Sally of desire, but that night she accepted his body to hers. She had hope and felt better for it.The hope was short lived. Cancelling the newspapers saved nothing; Jamie simply bought them daily on his way to work. The television rental agreement was in his name and he conveniently forgot to cancel it. She did, though, start shopping at the discount store but this saved only a few pounds and the overdraft remained ponderous. Sally was reading the latest bank statement with a sinking heart when he came home waving theatre tickets at her.“Oh Jamie, we can’t afford those; whatever were you thinking?”Jamie pulled her into his arms, flipping the statement away and grinning infectiously.“We deserve it. Anyway, they were free.”Sally took the tickets from him and studied them suspiciously. “Then why is the price printed along the bottom?”“Wasn’t trust in amongst those vows we made to each other? I thought you took them as seriously as I did.”“You thought they were old-fashioned clap trap, and don’t deny it.”“No, I meant every word and I know you did, so why not trust me now?”“You’re confused. I promised to honour you, not to believe you when you tell me outright lies. These are not free tickets and we can’t afford them.”“They are free – well, virtually. Bob from Accounts bought them as an anniversary surprise for his wife but she’d got other ideas. They’re on their way to Paris for a long weekend. Bob was so surprised he more or less threw the tickets at me and told me to give him half the face value when he gets back. What could I say?” he gave her a squeeze, “Anyway, it’s too late to go back on the deal now so hurry, it starts at half seven.”“But what about dinner; it’s your turn to cook.”“We’ll catch a bite at the theatre restaurant afterwards.”Sally found herself being propelled towards the stairs, but dug her heels in. “We can’t afford a meal out as well,” she said firmly, “there are some tins of soup in the cupboard.”“Very well, but for heaven’s sake get ready.” The microwave hummed as the first bowlful heated up. By the time Sally had showered and changed she was feeling a little better. The bills could wait one more day. She would worry tomorrow. Jamie was wiping his mouth as he bounded upstairs. He grinned at her from the landing. “Yours is on the table. Add plenty of pepper, it’s got a bit of a twang.”Sally sniffed unenthusiastically at the soup. It had been on special offer and she had bought several tins, but had hesitated to use it after discovering that it tasted more like the can than actual food. “A quick sandwich will do me. I get clumsy when I hurry.”“So now we can afford to waste food? You told me off this morning for throwing away stale bread.”“The bread was fine for toast. If I spill soup on this dress we’ll have a cleaning bill to pay.”“Tuck a tea towel into your neck – and have a sandwich as well if you like, I don’t want your tummy rumbling all through the performance; I’m still blushing from the time my mother fell asleep during Evita. She did an enormous snorting snore just as Eva Peron was about to sing ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’. It put the actress off her stride completely.”“All right,” she chuckled, “just for you, I’ll eat up. Now, go and get ready yourself or we’ll have to sneak in half way through the first act.” Jamie slapped his hand against his forehead in mock anguish.“No, no, spare me that fate. Aaaagh!” he disappeared into the bathroom leaving her giggling helplessly. Sally ate her soup hastily, shuddering at the taste. “Will you drive?” he called out.“Thought I wasn’t authorised – what if someone finds out?”Jamie jogged down the stairs, dragging a comb through his wet hair. “Oh, I won’t tell if you don’t.” The roads were clear and Sally turned on the radio. The signal was a little distorted so she glanced down to retune it. Suddenly Jamie cried out: “Watch out, he’s on the wrong side!”Blinded by headlights on full beam Sally tried to avoid the oncoming vehicle. There was a sickening crunch and a screaming of tortured metal as a large car ploughed straight into them, pushing the steering wheel hard against Sally’s chest and she experienced an instant of intense pain before black oblivion engulfed her. Suddenly there were lights and strange noises. Jamie’s voice sounded odd: high pitched and frantic. “Sally! Sally, don’t die. Oh God, it’s my fault, I shouldn’t have taken those tickets. Sal, they’re cutting you free. Just hang on.”Then Jamie was holding her hand and she was in hospital. He looked pale and a large patch covered one eye. “Oh, Sal, thank God.” He reached up and pressed a button above her head. “Promised I’d call a nurse the moment you came round.” Sally opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Oblivion engulfed her again and the next time she came to she was alone. There was a sound of footsteps; sensible shoes on vinyl flooring and a stranger’s face. “Awake, are we? Good.” The smile was kind and impersonal at the same time. “No, don’t bother trying to talk, you’re all tubes and wires for the moment. Your husband has been here every day, talking to you, reading newspapers, telling jokes. He even sang a few songs. Regular one-man show – should be on the stage. He’s only been gone about half an hour. He’ll be sorry to have missed your wakening. Never mind, he’ll be back. Hasn’t missed a single day in three weeks.” The nurse breezed away.Three weeks? She had been unconscious for three weeks. Every part of Sally ached and her right foot seemed to be in a draught. Nurses came from time to time to check the machine keeping her alive, but nobody bothered to ask if she was comfortable, not that she could have answered, her breathing was being done for her by a machine next to the bed. Her foot was cold. She wondered whether it was really there. Perhaps she’d lost it in the accident and was feeling a phantom chill. At last morning came and Jamie arrived. The patch was gone and there was a jagged scar just below his eyebrow, but the beautiful eyes were intact. She tried to make him look at her foot, but he seemed to think her grimaces and twitches were a hangover from the coma and chattered endlessly about trivia that bored and annoyed her simultaneously. Finally, determined to make him understand, she squeezed her eyes tight shut, then opened them and stared hard at him. Next she looked down towards her hand that was clenched into a loose fist. On the third attempt he realised she was trying to communicate. With an effort that brought beads of perspiration to her brow she uncurled her index finger and pointed down at her feet. Jamie, finally comprehending, apologised profusely.“I was so pleased you’d woken up,” he explained, “I just wanted to tell you everything. Good grief; those toes are like ice!” so her foot had survived. Tears of relief filled the corner of her eyes. He chafed the foot, massaging the blood back into her frozen toes and causing another wave of pain to engulf her. By the time he had wrapped the blanket snugly around both feet she was unconscious again. Jamie came daily, sitting with her for hours, leaving only when ordered to do so. After the respirator tube was removed Sally was able to breathe independently. It was a day or so before her voice returned and by then she was bursting with questions, which Jamie answered with more patience than she might have expected.The driver of the other car had been a thirteen-year-old joy rider who had died instantly. Sally was mortified. Had she paid more attention that night, that reckless child might still be alive. Jamie had escaped with cuts and bruises, but claimed that he would rather have been in her place. She worried that he looked so tired, but he dismissed her fears with a quick smile.At last she was well enough to leave hospital. On the way home he seemed nervous, chatting awkwardly as he sat beside her in the ambulance. Finally he seemed to brace himself and said: “Sal, before we get home I’ve got something to tell you. They’ve taken the furniture back.” He looked down, shamefaced. “I lost my job and, well, they took the lot. I didn’t know how to tell you.”He took her stunned silence for acceptance, “because the other driver was young, unqualified and uninsured, there’ll be no compensation.”“What about your company’s insurance?”“Invalid because you were driving. I was fired the day I went back to work.“People have been kind, though. We’ve been given a bed and a few other bits and pieces, so we’ll manage until we get back on our feet.”“You’re still out of work, then. No wonder you’ve been able to spend so much time with me.”“Actually I got another job a few weeks ago at Denners on the night shift.” It’s not quite what I’m used to, but it left me the days to spend with you.”“But a factory? You always swore you’d never do a dead end job.”“It’s a job, that’s what matters. The money’s good and we still have the loans – they only allowed a fraction of the value of the goods they repossessed. We still have a pretty large debt. Still, I think we can manage if we’re careful.”This was a new Jamie. The pompousness had gone and he admitted, with some surprise, that he actually enjoyed his new job. “I’m part of a team, Sal. What I do matters. Before, if I made a mistake it was easy to put the blame on someone else. Now I know I have to get it right or it’ll cause problems all down the line that come right back to me.”The house was dusty and the old furniture gave it an air of scruffiness. Jamie tried to act as if nothing was wrong. She had to give him full credit for effort. He even managed not to flinch when he looked at her disfigured body, pretended to still desire her; but that was just an act and she knew it.Sally pushed the memories out of her mind and turned off the tap. She stepped out, wrapping herself in a huge fluffy towel, a relic of more optimistic times. She returned to the bedroom where Jamie silently watched her setting out the make up now so necessary on the table beside the full-length mirror, the only one left in the house. Unable to bear the battered face that glanced furtively back at her whenever she passed her reflection she had thrown all the others out. Plastic surgery could only do so much.“You look like the Queen of Sheba,” he murmured. “Come back to bed.”Anger welled up inside her. “Stop it! Stop pretending you want me. For once in your life be honest. I know what I look like! Are you going to feel guilty for the rest of your life? Get over it.”Jamie’s mouth opened, then snapped closed again. He snatched the towel from her, throwing it across the room as he grabbed her wrist and hauled her in front of the mirror, gripping her chin, forcing her to look at her reflection. She let out a cry and tried to turn away, but his hand, strong from months of hard physical work, was like a vice.“Look. Just look at yourself and stop wallowing in self-pity. A few lines, that’s all. Just a few lines. Do you really think they bother me?” he released her chin and pulled her close to him.“I love you, Sally. I loved you when I married you, and I’ll still love you when we’re old and wrinkled. A few scars could never change that. Of course I feel guilty, but there are some things I could never fake.”Sally buried her face in his shoulder, letting the shuddering sobs wrack her body, feeling his arms around her, holding her. Then she knew she wanted him as much as he wanted her. He truly had meant the vows he’d made that day in church. He would always love, cherish and honour her, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. After all, wasn’t that exactly what he’d been doing? 

Copyright 1999 Susan M Phillips

No part of this work or associated illustration may be copied without the consent of the author

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Reviewed by Lisa Cannons 11/16/2003
Nah, Clay.... I want them to get two mill!
Great read soos!
Reviewed by Claywoman 11/3/2003
Awwww...this was sweet! Sniff...sniff...okay you going to continue this so this poor family gets a million or something?

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