DYING TO BE WITH YOU
PUBLISHED BY D. DONOVAN FOR Shakespir
COPYRIGHT © 2015 D. DONOVAN
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means, without prior permission in writing of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
Thank you for downloading this e-book. Please be aware that it remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. Thank you for respecting the hard work of the author.
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Ilona Cameron’s long, caramel coloured hair trailed over the pillows, the waves and curls interwoven in a tangled mass. Her restless night was further evidenced by the crumpled sheets and the heaped mound that was the duvet in the middle of the bed. Grumpily muttering to herself, she turned over, stretched out her limbs and quickly curled up again, pulling the duvet around her and telling herself she’d get up in a minute. It is Saturday after all, she told herself, and it was the middle of December so there was a chill in the air that even the central heating couldn’t quite dispel in the mornings. As she lay there, enjoying the moments between sleep and full wakefulness, the dream she’d had floated into her consciousness. Opening her eyes fully as she recalled some of the details, she threw back the duvet and swung her legs over the side of her bed, annoyed with herself for being such a fool as to waste any more time on that idiot. She’d thought she was getting over him but the dream had been so vivid, bringing all those hurtful emotions back into sharp focus just when she was managing, for most of the time at least, to keep them buried.
The idiot in question was her ex-fiancé, John McLeod, who’d abandoned her the day before their wedding. Mrs Ilona McLeod she would have been by now and enjoying her first year of married life, but instead she was still Ilona Cameron. Recently she had begun to laugh and enjoy the company of other men again when Jocelyn, her best mate since primary school, had dragged her out for an evening on the town, but she was determined there would never be another man in her life in the way that John had been. She’d trusted him completely; he’d never given her reason not to until that dreadful night six months ago. Devastated by John’s sudden departure, she had vowed never to leave herself in such a vulnerable position again.
Why am I once more reminding myself of this sorry tale? she asked herself as she padded downstairs and through to the small kitchen to put the kettle on, but despite telling herself that she didn’t want to think about it, she ran over that horrible day in her mind again, thinking that it felt so long ago and felt like it was only yesterday at the same time.
Ilona and John had decided not to entice any bad luck and stick to the tradition of the groom not seeing the bride the day before the wedding, even though neither of them were the suspicious type. Ilona had gone to stay at her parent’s house for a couple of days since she would be leaving from there with George, her dad, anyway. It was nearly midnight and she’d been sitting with Sheena, her mum, and George in their lounge watching telly when the phone in the hallway rang. Ilona went to answer it thinking it would be John calling to say goodnight, but instead it was to tell her that they would not be getting married in the morning. John was no longer going to marry her. It was that simple. Ilona had cried and screamed down the phone but it made no difference. The wedding would not be going ahead.
Walking back to the lounge, Ilona had been unable to speak from the shock. Sheena had heard the commotion and met Ilona at the lounge door. That was when Ilona’s world turned black and she tumbled to the floor. When she’d come round the doctor and a very worried Sheena and George stood over her; Sheena talking softly to her and patting her hand gently. After giving all three a brief explanation through her heartbroken tears, the doctor gave her a sedative and left some more with Sheena, enough to keep Ilona almost catatonic for the next few days. She’d stayed in bed for a week, just letting a creeping numbness overtake her, barely thinking of what John had done for fear that she would start crying or screaming and never stop. Those were the worst days of Ilona’s life. She preferred not to think about them but last night’s dream had brought it all to the forefront of her mind once more.
Pouring scalding water from the kettle into the mug she’d prepared and giving the coffee a final stir, she walked through to the small lounge, set the mug on the side table and flopped into her large purple sofa with its overfilled, extra comfortable cushions. As the sofa enveloped her, she smiled smugly and wriggled deeper into the softness in an act of defiance as she reminded herself she probably wouldn’t even have the sofa anymore if she’d married John. He’d hated it. To think she’d have given up the sofa she loved so much for him when he’d turned out to be such a louse made her silently fume.
Picking up the remote control for the telly, she flicked to the news channel, looking for some background noise to drown out her thoughts while at the same time wondering why she would have had such a dream now. There had been nearly a whole day last week where she’d barely thought about John, only remembering about him when she’d went to bed at night. She’d taken that as a sign she was moving on with her life but now this dream was telling her otherwise. Making a conscious effort to focus on the news, she sipped her coffee, feeling its warmth and bitterness begin to chase away all remnants of drowsiness and wishing it would also dispel all memories of her dream.
A few minutes later Ilona jumped up and hurried through to the kitchen, remembering that Red, her aptly named ginger and white striped cat, hadn’t appeared again last night. The last Ilona had seen of her was on Thursday morning when the two of them had been curled up on the sofa watching the early morning news before Ilona went to work. Opening the back door, she peered out into the watery sunshine that coated her small, neatly tended, back garden and called for Red a few times. Nothing in the garden moved except the bushes to the left which were swaying gently in the chill December breeze. Hugging her fluffy robe around her, she stepped outside to check over by the gate and behind the shed but Red was nowhere to be seen.
Returning to the kitchen, Ilona checked the dishes of cat food on the kitchen floor. They remained untouched since last night when she’d put fresh food out in case Red returned. Sighing, she shook her head. Red had a habit of disappearing for several days at a time so it wasn’t particularly worrying, but Ilona could have used a hug today. Closing the door and checking that the cat flap was unlocked, just as she had the previous evening, she went back to the sofa, snuggled into the soft cushions and wrapped her dressing gown tighter around her as she stared at the television without really paying any attention to it as her mind began to replay the dream that had unsettled her so much despite her reluctance to relive it again.
In her dream, Ilona saw herself slipping out of bed. Somehow, she knew it was her wedding day but the bedroom was unfamiliar to her and she looked around, confused as to why she would be waking up in a strange room instead of the spare room of Sheena and George’s bungalow. The bed she’d just vacated was oversized and the bed linen was dark red and black striped, not something she would have chosen at all. Much too sinister looking, she concluded as she looked around, noticing that the curtains were the same deep shade of red. The carpet on the floor was thick and dark grey, adding to the room’s lack of personality, but the chill in the room made her thankful for the soft, luxurious feeling on her bare feet. A door near the far away corner stood slightly open and she could see it was an en-suite. Walking over to it, she pushed the door open fully, surveying the stainless steel fixtures and fittings that looked very clinical. It was all so unfamiliar to her but at the same time she had a feeling she had been here before.
Ilona shrugged, still wondering why she was in a strange house today of all days. This wasn’t the plan at all. After having a quick look around for slippers and a robe, but not finding any, she rubbed her arms against the chill. The pyjamas she was wearing were thin cotton with a T-shirt style top and bright purple in colour; not ones she had ever seen before either. She would have welcomed something a little warmer to put on as she ventured out into the hallway and descended the stairs to the right of the bedroom.
Opening a door to her right at the bottom of the stairs, she found it was a small cloakroom and W.C. decorated in the same clinical style as the en-suite in the bedroom. The door opposite led to a medium sized lounge with a dining room at the far end, separated from the lounge by an arch way. The décor was much the same as the bedroom. The walls were an off-white colour, but apart from that everything else was dark and masculine looking. The carpet was the same as the one in the bedroom and on the stairs. The curtains, sofa and chairs were all black with silver grey scatter cushions. Various ornaments, all silver in colour, were placed on the ebony wood sideboard and myriad of small, oval, black glass tables that surrounded the room. Even the dining room table and chairs were black. Ilona had to admit it looked smart and sleek, but was definitely not her style. She preferred bright, cheerful colours.
Noticing a door in the far left corner of the room, Ilona decided to explore the house further; hoping no-one was around to witness her curiosity. Beyond the door was a kitchen fitted with all black appliances including a huge American style fridge-freezer. The kitchen was far larger than her own, with an island in the middle. She’d always wanted a kitchen like this with plenty of room to move around. The worktops were of a black marble design and covered the tops of the pale grey cupboards. The sinks were stainless steel and black slate tiles covered the floor making Ilona think of a morgue. A silver coloured roller blind adorned the window and Ilona looked out to the garden beyond. The rest of the house was so neat and tidy she was surprised to see a slightly overgrown lawn with even more overgrown bushes surrounding the boundary.
After gazing out for a few minutes and straining to see into the neighbours gardens, she decided to make coffee. She simply wasn’t worth anything until she’d had her morning coffee. Finding everything she needed easily in the well organised cupboards, she headed back to the stylish lounge and located the remote control for the T.V. She chose to sit in the large armchair, feeling uncomfortable in her surroundings. The sofa looked almost as comfortable as her own but she didn’t know who the house belonged to or if they might walk in at any minute to find her lounging in her usual fashion, sprawled along its length. She tuned to the early morning news as she always did. The little clock in the corner of the screen informed her it was seven in the morning.
Ilona decided to finish her coffee before exploring the house further. She’d noticed other doors as she’d left the bedroom and wanted to know if anyone else was around. Meantime, she sipped her coffee and daydreamed about the adventure she and John were about to embark on, even trying to imagine what their children would look like. They’d booked a honeymoon in the Maldives, no less, and were flying out the following day. Their wedding night would be spent in the airport hotel; not ideal for the first night of married life but Ilona didn’t mind. She would be married to the most wonderful man and that was all that mattered.
At seven thirty, Ilona headed upstairs and knocked gently on the bedroom door opposite the one she’d vacated earlier. After a few moments she knocked again, pressing her ear to the door this time but there was no sound so she gently turned the handle and eased the door open until she could see the bed, already made up in an empty room. There were a further three bedrooms, one of which was clearly in the process of being redecorated, but they were all empty save for the bedroom furniture and the neatly made beds. Puzzled, Ilona headed back downstairs wondering where her mum and dad and Jocelyn were.
As Ilona reached the bottom of the stairs, having given up her search for any other signs of life, there was a loud knock on the front door. Thinking that it might be Sheena, George or Jocelyn, she marched to the front door ready to let them know how annoyed she was at having woken up alone on the morning of her wedding, but more importantly, wanting to know whose house she was in and why. Pulling the door open with a forceful tug, she was confronted with a young woman who was so beautiful that Ilona was stunned into silence for a second. She gasped audibly before pulling herself together enough to speak.
“Hi,” Ilona’s voice wavered. “Can I help you?”
“I’m the hairdresser and you must be the beautiful bride to be. Can I come in? Oh, I’m Cassy by the way.”
Ilona noticed the various bags and small cases in the woman’s hands and finally came to life.
“Umm, sure, here let me help you with those.” Ilona took a couple of bags from Cassy and headed into the lounge. Cassy followed her through and they both put the bags on the floor.
“What’s happened to Fiona?” Ilona asked, now fully recovered from her earlier paralysis.
Ilona had been having her hair done by Fiona at ‘Buzz Cuts’ for years and was disappointed that she’d sent someone else in her place. Fiona was not only a first class hairdresser with an amazing talent for knowing just what suited who and knowing exactly when a new and different hairstyle was needed, but she was also an excellent conversationalist and Ilona had been looking forward to a chat.
“Fiona couldn’t make it, I’m afraid. It wasn’t good timing for her,” Cassy explained vaguely as she began to pull hairdryers and hair rollers out of bags. “Where do you want to do this?” she asked with what seemed to Ilona a wide, but nervous, smile.
“Just in here would be best I suppose,” Ilona said, indicating toward the dining room, “but I haven’t even washed my hair yet. I’ll just go and do that while you’re setting up.”
Ilona shot out the door before Cassy had a chance to say any more.
The morning wasn’t going exactly as Ilona had hoped but she supposed she’d just have to get on with it. Dreams had a habit of throwing up odd goings on, she surmised, then realised that was the problem. She was dreaming; nothing was real. Even so, she thought, surely my parents and Jocelyn would be in a dream about my wedding day. Turning round and running back down stairs she stuck her head through the door to find Cassy searching along the back wall for an electrical socket after having pushed the table to one side and placed one of the dining room chairs in the middle of the floor.
“If anyone knocks at the door would you let them in please? Jocelyn and my mum and dad haven’t arrived yet. Hopefully they won’t be too long.”
“No worries,” Cassy replied, showering Ilona with that fabulous, but hesitant, smile again.
Ilona headed back upstairs to the en-suite she’d discovered earlier. Deciding to have a quick shower at the same time as washing her hair, Ilona reached over to pull the shower screen into position. That was when she noticed her fingernails. They at least were exactly what she’d planned. Smiling, she admired her wedding nails as she reached to turn on the shower; simple white with a small diamante on each nail set off with a tiny silver stencil that matched the design of her wedding dress. “At least this dream managed to get something right and I didn’t even have to go to the salon to have them done,” she laughed to herself as she tested the water and stepped in, letting the warmth ease the stress from her shoulders as she circled her head to take the knots from her neck. She was finally going to have the wedding she and John had planned. In a few hours she would be married and beginning a brand new chapter of her life. She smiled contentedly to herself as she poured shampoo into her hand and began to soap her hair, unable to contain the flutter of excitement that bubbled inside her.
Twenty minutes later Ilona entered the lounge with her hair wrapped in a fluffy grey towel. Sitting on the sofa were an older couple who looked quite at home and Cassy was busy piling the hair on top of a younger woman’s head in an elaborate mass of curls. The woman looked up when Ilona entered the room.
“Hi Ilona, I’m Jackie,” said the woman as she introduced herself. “We were just wondering where you’d got to. Cassy decided to start on me first so there wouldn’t be any last minute hold-ups. You don’t mind, do you?”
Ilona stopped, wondering what on earth was going on but also noting that for the second time that day she was confronted with an incredibly beautiful woman, though rather more unconventionally so than Cassy. Where Cassy had a small snub nose, Jackie’s was long and slim. Cassy’s eyes were wide, round and clear blue, whereas Jackie’s were the darkest brown and sloped down at the sides, giving her a sleepy look. Cassy was fair skinned but Jackie was brown as though she’d spent a month on an exotic beach somewhere. Ilona’s eyes darted back and forth between the two women as she made the comparisons before remembering the older man and woman who were sat on the sofa, watching her intently as she gazed at the two younger women.
Ilona swept her gaze over the couple, a puzzled frown on her face as she found her voice. “Do I know any of you?”
“Sheena and George couldn’t make it today. Neither could Jocelyn so we’re standing in for them. I’m Celia and this is Edward,” the elderly woman said as she waved her hand in the man’s direction.
“Sorry, but who are you? I don’t mean your names, you’ve already told me that, but who are you? Where have you all come from?” Speaking more to the older woman than anyone else, Ilona’s voice was barely a whisper as she became more alarmed. She wasn’t about to get married with a bunch of strangers filling in for her parents and Jocelyn. Gasping with one hand at her throat she reached backwards to steady herself on the arm of a chair.
“What’s going on?” she managed to squeak out as she stumbled backward and sat down heavily. “I can’t possibly get married without my parents and Jocelyn here. Why would they abandon me on the most important day of my life?”
“It’ll be fine sweetheart, you’ll see,” Celia said as she rushed over and took Ilona’s hand, stroking it gently as she did so.
Ilona took a few deep breaths trying to calm down but the panic she felt only heightened as she gulped in air. Her skin felt prickly all over and she could feel beads of sweat running down her temples.
Ilona sat up in the bed with a jolt. Gasping for breath and disorientated, it took her a few moments to realise she’d just awakened from a dream that wasn’t quite a nightmare but certainly came close. Once she’d calmed down a little and had managed to regulate her breathing, she turned to look at the alarm clock on the bedside table which told her it was five past three in the morning. She pushed her fringe back from her forehead and looked at the palm of her hand as she withdrew it. It was wet; not just damp but very wet. She flopped down onto her back, then immediately jumped up again. The pillow was soaked through, as were the sheets, the duvet cover and even the pyjamas she was wearing. Groaning, she dragged her shivering body from the bed, pulled fresh covers from the drawer underneath and set about the task of changing the bed linen before putting on fresh pyjamas and climbing back in. Staring at the ceiling, she ran over the dream in her mind. Very weird, she finally concluded, not least because of the state I was in when I woke up. It wasn’t as if the dream was particularly frightening but clearly it had upset her. She turned onto her side, determined to try and sleep soundly for the rest of the night, but despite feeling so drained and exhausted she tossed and turned for ages before finally drifting off to sleep and slipping straight back to her dream exactly where it had left off, causing her to rustle around under the duvet as her emotions were once more thrown into turmoil.
Ilona stared at everyone in turn, wondering if she’d suddenly lost her marbles. Then somewhere in her mind a little voice reminded her that this was a dream and dreams didn’t make sense very often. Relaxing a little, and after a few moments contemplation, she decided to go with the flow. Everyone was staring at her expectantly and she felt obliged to say something.
“Okay, so what’s the plan for the morning? It’s now twenty to nine,” she quipped, glancing at the television screen. “Less than two hours to go until I marry the man of my dreams.” Ilona rubbed her hands together as she spoke, deciding that if she couldn’t make the dream go away then she could at least try to manipulate it so that it felt like less of a nightmare. And, she surmised, if everyone else is different, chances are that it’ll be a different man as well. That will be a whole lot easier to deal with.
“C’mon, you and I will go get everything laid out ready for you. That’ll give Cassy time to finish Jackie’s hair. Then when you’re getting your hair done, Jackie can get dressed and I’ll go get myself and Edward organised. How does that sound?” Celia said, looking relieved.
“Sounds like a plan to me. Let’s do this.”
Ilona and Celia headed up the stairs, chatting as they went. Ilona had decided to speak to Celia exactly the same way she would have spoken to Sheena since it was clear Celia was doing her best to play the mother of the bride role. As they entered the bedroom where Ilona had spent the night, Ilona stopped.
“I don’t have any of my clothes here,” she said nonchalantly. The truth was she didn’t really care that she didn’t have a wedding dress. The dream would seem all the less real if she was getting married in her pyjamas, and, she pondered, much less upsetting.
“We took the liberty of bringing everything here for you. I hope you don’t mind.” Celia said as she headed over to the built in wardrobe that ran the full length of the room they were facing and slid one of the doors open. “Oh, and the flowers should be arriving just shortly. Ivory roses with just a little greenery in the bouquets. That’s right, isn’t it?”
Ilona’s mouth slackened as she saw her dress hanging in the wardrobe underneath a transparent dress cover. Beside it hung the duck egg blue bridesmaid’s dress that Jocelyn had picked out, a choice that Ilona had wholeheartedly agreed with.
“Are you okay, petal?” Celia enquired as she walked across the room and put her arm around Ilona’s waist. “You’ve gone very pale.”
Slowly, Ilona turned her head and looked down at the much shorter woman who held on to her. Celia had beautifully styled, short, white hair that curled around her slightly rounded face perfectly. Every strand of hair was visible, as were the wrinkles around Celia’s eyes and mouth. To Ilona, Celia looked to be around sixty years old. Studying Celia’s face intently, Ilona marvelled at the pores in her skin, the high cheek bones and the slightly sagging jowls. This was a dream after all, but everything was amazingly detailed.
“I’m fine. Just wondering how dreams can seem so real sometimes,” Ilona replied as she walked over, unhooked the hanger from the rail and took the dress over to the bed while Celia watched her without saying a word. Pulling the cover free carefully, she admired the dress again as she had many times since she bought it. It was a simple style, sleeveless, long and slender with a small train at the back. The material was ivory lace over silk with silver diamante’s covering the bodice and around the hemline of the train. Walking back to the wardrobe, Ilona took Jocelyn’s dress from the rail and removed the cover, laying it beside her own. It was also of simple design, very similar to Ilona’s but without the lace and the train at the back. Ilona remembered the day they’d all went shopping for the dresses. It had taken them hours to find them but she’d been so excited she couldn’t even remember having sore feet. As soon as Ilona saw the elegant wedding dress, she’d fallen in love with it and decided to buy it instantly. There was no going back to other shops for a second look, no swithering or dithering. She’d tried it on and walked out of the dressing room feeling on top of the world. The dress was definitely the one, just like John.
“That’s one of the most beautiful dresses I’ve ever seen and I’ll bet it looks even lovelier on you. It’s so simple and you’re so pretty. The combination will be stunning.” Celia smiled at Ilona as she stroked the shoulder of the dress.
“Thank you. I just knew it was the right one the moment I saw it. I felt as though it was made just for me when I first put it on. I didn’t even need to have it adjusted. It fitted perfectly and those little diamantes sparkled as though they were smiling at me. I know that sounds silly but that’s how it felt. I just fell in love with it and luckily there were no arguments from anyone else. They all agreed it was perfect.” Ilona smiled wistfully, wishing things had turned out differently. She’d so wanted to walk down the aisle and see the look on John’s face – and later, the look on his face when the dress was removed and he saw the underwear she’d taken weeks to find. She wondered if John would have liked the ivory lace underwear as Celia retrieved the various packages they were in from a drawer and laid them on the bed beside her dress. It was more for his benefit than hers, after all, but she’d known wearing it would add to her feeling of beauty on the day, even if no-one else but John would have seen it.
Fetching all the other accessories she’d bought; the matching white gold and diamond bracelet, earrings and necklace, the four inch heeled, ivory stilettos inlaid with a smattering of diamantes across the toe and down the heel and the silk stockings with tiny horseshoes all over, Ilona laid them all carefully on the bed still in the packaging and stood back, surveying them all appraisingly. Everything was beautiful and she hoped that once she was fully dressed it would all look amazing on her. It was simply a dream, Ilona reminded herself, but she’d made up her mind to enjoy it. Smiling, she wallowed in the pleasure of the moment that should have happened all those months ago before she was so cruelly cheated out of what should have been the best day of her life.
Celia looked at the array of items on the bed, mentally checking that everything Ilona would need was there. Satisfied it was, she turned to Ilona who was still smiling.
“You’re going to look so beautiful. It will all just be perfect. John is a very lucky man. Ready to get your hair done? Cassy should be finished with Jackie by now I should think.” Celia walked over and linked her arm through Ilona’s before gently steering her toward the door.
On hearing John’s name mentioned, Ilona had been jolted. She’d been half expecting the dream to end with her marrying someone else entirely. To hear his name out loud was a bit of a shock. Allowing herself to be led down stairs by Celia, she wondered if her dream would change John any. After all, it had been six months since she’d last seen him.
An hour later Ilona was standing with Edward in the lounge, fully dressed in all her finery with her hair piled on top of her head in a large bun. How Cassy had managed to get all her hair up like that was a mystery to Ilona but when she’d looked in the mirror earlier, she was impressed with the result. Jackie and Celia had gone in the first car a few minutes ago and the old, but immaculate, white Rolls Royce that would transport Ilona and Edward to the church had just arrived.
“This is it, petal. You ready?” Edward smiled at her, taking in the beautiful young woman that stood before him. “He’s a good man, your John. You’ve made a good choice,” he added as he took her arm and led her out to the waiting vehicle.
Ilona smiled and let herself be led out the door. This dream is not so bad. They’re nice enough people whoever they are, she thought as Edward helped her into the waiting car, tucking her dress in behind her. The door of the car was caught by a small gust of wind just as Edward gave it a push and it closed with a bang. That was when Ilona woke up for the second time.
Ilona was glad to see it was eight in the morning and even more relieved when she remembered she didn’t have to go to work. Normally she didn’t like the weekends much and would have preferred to work seven days a week to keep from thinking too much about John. Her job as an I.T. consultant in ‘Info Tech’, a large I.T. company in town, gave her plenty to think about and kept her so busy that her mind seldom wandered into unpleasant realms, but at the weekends she struggled to keep the disagreeable thoughts at bay. Jocelyn was always phoning to ask if Ilona wanted to go shopping or to a night club or some such thing, but Ilona only took her up on the offers occasionally. She still struggled when she found herself in crowded places. Her confidence had taken such a battering six months ago and she was nowhere near returning to her happy go lucky self.
With a shake of her head to bring her back to the present moment, Ilona sighed as she walked back to the kitchen, checking out the window as she passed for any sign of Red. Looking around she decided that the house needed a good clean and it would be a good way to keep her mind occupied for the morning with hopefully no more unhappy reminders of being rejected all those months ago. She loaded up the C.D. player and set to work, singing at the top of her voice as she polished, hoovered and loaded up the washing machine. She even did all the corners with a feather duster, a job she hated doing as she was always convinced she’d end up with a spider landing on her head.
Four hours later she was finished and surveying her handiwork in the lounge, thankful that the house was not too big. Whilst she found housework therapeutic to a degree, particularly on days like today, she didn’t like it so much that she would want to spend a great deal of time on it. Looking down at herself, she decided it was time for a shower. She was still in her pyjamas and dressing gown with her furry leopard print slippers on and she hadn’t even taken the time to brush her hair this morning. Heading upstairs, she entered the small en-suite and leaned on the sink, staring into the mirror above it. Her hazel eyes stared back at her before they roamed over the interwoven mess that was her hair. Groaning, she picked up a brush and began to gently pull it through the ends of her hair, silently wishing she’d tied it up before going to bed last night. It fell down past her waist and for the millionth time she pondered having it cut considerably shorter, but, also for the millionth time, decided against it. As far as Ilona was concerned it was her best asset; long, thick and a very unusual reddish toffee colour. Her eyes began to roam over the rest of her face, taking in the freckles that covered all but a few patches of skin. Her body was the same. In the summer time they seemed to join up, giving her skin an odd tinge of gold which she hated. Apparently, according to the other kids at school, Ilona was a freak. Not only did her skin look gold but her eyes also took on a strange hue in bright sunlight. It had been the cause of much teasing for Ilona then but when she’d first met John he’d been mesmerised by her eyes.
She’d gone for a walk to the park that day as the sun was out in all its glory, though she had to make sure she was covered in sun cream. Freckles and sunshine didn’t mix well. Sitting in the shade of a large tree reading her book, she’d been hit on the side of the head with a football. John and his mates were having a kick about just off to the left of her and it was John who came to apologise and retrieve the ball. He’d picked up the ball first before turning around to apologise but his apology froze on his lips as he caught sight of her. He stood stock still, just staring for a few moments until the frustrated shouts of his friends pulled him out of his trance. Ilona had blushed profusely at the man openly staring at her like that and stared at her book, wishing he would go away – but he hadn’t gone away. Instead he’d thrown the ball over to his friends and yelled to them that he’d be there in a minute as he edged his way closer to her.
“Sorry about that. It went a bit astray. Are you okay?” he’d asked her.
“I’m fine thanks, but maybe you and your friends could move a little further that way if you wouldn’t mind,” Ilona replied, indicating an open grassy area to the left and behind her.
“Sure, no worries, I’ll tell them. Has anyone ever told you what amazing eyes you have. They look gold. I’ve never seen anyone with eyes that colour before,” John said before he realised his manners had deserted him for a moment. “Sorry, sorry, I’m being rude, aren’t I? Your eyes just made me forget myself for a minute there. My name’s John. What’s yours?”
“A beautiful name for a beautiful woman. Pleased to meet you,” John walked over to her with his arm outstretched and she felt obliged to shake it.
“You too, and thanks for the apology.”
“It’s the least I could do, but since I’m here, how about I buy you an ice cream? The van’s just over there. What’s your favourite?”
Ilona had laughed. The man in front of her was handsome with sandy blond hair and clear blue eyes, although he was a little red in the face from his exertions but she immediately liked him. Her eyes followed him as he ran over to the ice cream van to buy her a plain vanilla cone with strawberry sauce, taking in his broad shoulders and the muscles that were defined but not overly so. He’d returned shortly with two cones and sat beside her. They remained there for the rest of the afternoon despite intermittent protests from his mates. Several hours later when the sun began to set, Ilona said she would have to go home and feed Red. John had offered to walk with her, an offer she accepted readily. They continued to talk non-stop on the way, discovering a multitude of things they had in common. When they reached Ilona’s house, John had refused her offer of coffee but asked if he could take her out to dinner the following evening. Ilona had jumped at the chance and from then on they had been inseparable. If only it had stayed that way, Ilona wished again as she stepped away from the mirror and into the shower.
Feeling better than she had earlier now she was freshly showered and her hair was tamed into a long plaid, Ilona checked the time on the clock in the kitchen. It was nearly one o’clock. Realising she hadn’t eaten anything so far today, she took a microwaveable mac ‘n’ cheese out of the freezer and put it on to heat. The microwave pinged to let her know the food was cooked just as she finished sorting out cutlery, dishes and a drink for herself. Sitting at the small kitchen table, she blew each forkful and wondered absently why everything came out of the microwave as hot as molten lava. She gave up trying to eat for a few minutes to allow the food to cool down while she pondered what to do with the rest of her day. There was an office do next Friday as Charlotte, the receptionist who had been there since the dawn of time, was retiring and Ilona wanted a new outfit to wear. The thought of busy shops and streets would normally have been unappealing to her and today was no exception but she decided it was the lesser of two evils. Sitting around the house would only give her time to think. At least if she went into town there would be distractions all around.
Polishing off the last of her meal, having a last look in the garden for Red and checking her purse to make sure she had her keys and credit cards, she grabbed her coat, scarf and gloves from the pegs behind the door and headed out to the car. Parking in town would be a pain on a Saturday but she wasn’t in the mood to walk ten minutes to the bus stop and stand waiting for anything up to half an hour before the next bus showed up. Besides, she told herself, this way I won’t have to carry heavy bags on the way home.
The journey to town was uneventful other than Ilona being surprised at the lack of traffic on the roads. She found a parking space in one of the multi storey car parks without any trouble and vaguely wondered if everyone had decided to go on a weekend break while she headed over to the lift that would take her down to the shopping centre below.
She spent quite a bit of time wandering around Monsoon before eventually heading for the changing rooms with an armful of dresses, tops, skirts and trousers. Despite the fact everything was labelled as a size twelve, she could barely manage to fasten some things while others were decidedly on the baggy side or made for people with extra-long arms or legs. She finally settled on a classic fitted black dress that was plain at the front and V shaped at the back with horizontal bands of material sewn in. Her figure was curvy enough to make the dress look less plain than it actually was. As she was returning the other items to the assistant at the door of the changing room she decided to take a pair of black fitted trousers and an ivory silk blouse with mother of pearl buttons as well, reasoning that she needed cheering up today. As she stood in the queue for the checkouts, her thoughts turned to shoes and handbags as she tried to decide where to go next. When she reached the front of the queue, she handed over her items to an exceptionally happy looking assistant, a young, blonde woman that she’d never seen before.
“A couple of honeymoon outfits are they?” the assistant asked cheerily.
Ilona’s face took on a look of horror for a split second before she composed herself enough to answer. “No, just a night out at a fancy hotel next week. I’m not the marrying kind.”
Ilona could have sworn she saw a look of puzzlement cross the young woman’s face but it disappeared again and was replaced with a smile while the assistant scanned the labels and told her the total. Ilona was glad when the transaction was done and she could get out of the shop into the bright December sunshine.
Once outside, Ilona stood for a moment taking a few deep breaths as she wondered why anyone would think she was buying honeymoon outfits. Then she remembered she was still wearing her engagement ring. She knew she should have taken it off long ago but she hadn’t yet managed to bring herself to do so. It was a reminder of her former life when she was happy and the future looked bright. Now every week was the same with no-one to come home to and share the trials of her day. Jocelyn was great and had been so supportive. Ilona knew she was lucky to have such a good friend and her parents had shown endless patience too, but Ilona’s heart was still broken. It was tough trying to get through the day sometimes especially ones like today, what with the dream and the shop assistant making casual remarks about honeymoons. Ilona lifted her shoulders and let out a big sigh. Shoe shopping time, she decided as she began to walk in the direction of Deichmann’s. Having already decided on something very elegant, she doubted she’d get what she wanted there but their very reasonable prices made it worth a look, not to mention the one thing guaranteed to take her mind of things was shoe shopping.
As she walked along the pavement, Ilona breathed deeply through her nose and out through her mouth, savouring the smells of the town, looking around her as she went and listening to the sounds of the people. Some were laughing, others chatting or arguing as they passed her, some with children running around their feet and some with babies in buggies. Ilona wondered if she would now be an expectant mother with her first child growing inside her, had things gone according to plan. She and John had planned to start a family straight away. They’d both wanted children, or at least John had said he did, and neither of them could see any point in waiting. John had a good job and would have been easily able to support a family if Ilona had wanted to give up work, but Ilona had said she would rather keep her job on as it would give her outside contact. It had been a choice then as to whether she would continue to work when their family came along, but now it was a necessity. Her bank balance had taken a severe pounding and it was taking some time to recover from having lost the deposits on everything, although John, John’s parents and her own parents had made a substantial contribution, but her wedding dress alone had cost over five thousand pounds, which Ilona had paid for from her own savings. She’d wanted it to be perfect and decided it was too much to ask her parents to pay such a large sum of money for a dress. The dress still hung in her wardrobe. There was nothing Ilona could do with it except leave it where it was. She supposed she could sell it but she knew she wouldn’t get anywhere near the price she’d paid for it and besides, she still wasn’t ready to let it go if she was honest with herself.
Annoyed with herself as she realised she was once more immersed in thoughts of what might have been, Ilona lifted her head high and determined not to think of John for the rest of the day. She began to march along the High street, frustrated at her lack of ability to bury the past but she’d only gone a few steps when she stopped dead in her tracks.
The High Street in the centre of town was long and straight, giving clear views along its length. About a hundred metres from where she stood was a man walking in the same direction as she was. The brown leather jacket, the faded stonewashed jeans and the beige coloured shoes were all very familiar looking. She watched the way the man walked, swinging his arms as he went, very upright and confident. He looked so familiar; the sandy blonde hair was an exact colour match and the way he walked was so like John’s easy gait. Ilona felt a crawling sensation cover her skin as a surge of adrenalin spiked through her.
Ilona was frozen to the spot watching for any sign that it wasn’t John; a small difference in the way he swung his arms or bent his knees, but she found none. She began to hurry after him but the man was around six three, the same height as John, and Ilona’s short legs were no match for his lengthy stride. She broke into a jog as she attempted to close the gap, cursing the fact that she was wearing ankle boots with three inch heels. Just as she was managing to make some progress, the man turned into a pub on the corner of High Street and Constitution Street. Ilona stopped running and walked the fifty metres or so until she reached the door of the bar, panting and slightly out of breath. Dithering outside for a few moments, unsure of what to do next, she finally decided she had to go in for curiosities sake if nothing else. If it was John, she had no idea what she would say, if anything, but she figured she could easily walk back out again without saying anything. She just had to know.
Taking a deep breath, Ilona hesitantly pushed through the green double doors that led to a dimly lit interior. Once inside she paused and looked around her, taking in her surroundings as she searched for the man she’d seen in the street. There was dark wood everywhere with dark green leather upholstery on all the seating and a panel of the same material running the length of the bar. Its gloomy appearance didn’t seem to bother the groups of customers sitting in the booths alongside the window and around the tables in the middle of the floor. Their chatter was lively and interspersed with laughter. Ilona noticed they were mostly men, with the exception of three women who had clearly stopped for lunch during a shopping trip. They sat in the booth closest to the door, their feet surrounded by shopping bags.
After a good look at all the customers, Ilona decided there was no-one who remotely resembled the man she’d followed in so she approached the women and asked for directions to the ladies. Two of the women carried on talking to each other while the third pointed Ilona toward the far end of the room, telling her it was along the corridor behind the partition. Trying to look disinterested as she scrutinised the mish-mash of people around her, Ilona walked in the direction the woman had indicated but she couldn’t see a partition. She could see two booths at the far end of the room which were partially obscured from her vision. Glancing repeatedly over at the booths at the same time as trying to figure out where she was going, she nearly walked into a dark wood panel that jutted out at the end of the bar. Ilona hadn’t realised that it wasn’t part of the wall. Turning to the right behind the panel, she headed along a corridor toward the toilets figuring she’d get a better look at the booths on the way back without looking so obvious.
The ladies loos were as gloomy as the main bar, dimly lit and decorated in a dark red colour with the same dark wood doors and panels under the sinks. Oh well, at least they went for a change of colour, and it smells nice and clean, she mused as she walked toward the sink and turned on the tap. She gave her hands a wash and opted for the paper towel method of drying while surveying herself in the mirror, critical of the dark circles and bags under her eyes. Her poor sleep the previous night was very apparent. Straightening up and pulling down her top she took a deep breath and headed out the door, hoping that if the man she’d seen had been in the gent’s loo would be out by now.
Walking along the corridor, Ilona had a clear view of the first booth, which was decidedly empty. As she came round the edge of the partition she saw that the other one was the same. She walked toward the main door trying to look as natural as possible but her head was turning in all directions as she tried not to miss anything and one or two people stared at her, clearly uncomfortable with her nosiness. There were no men in the bar that looked even remotely like John. Her head continued to swivel and her eyes darted around as she tried to make him appear. She so wanted it to be him, but no amount of scrutinising made that happen. Whoever the man was, he’d pulled off a pretty good disappearing act.
Ilona pushed the heavy door open as she took a last look over her shoulder, still not willing to give up her search even though it was blatantly clear that John was not the man she’d seen in the street. Disappointment weighed her down and she no longer felt like shoe shopping, or any other shopping for that matter. After deciding she just wanted to go home and shut the world out, she headed in the direction of the car park. John, it seemed, was not as far away from her thoughts as she would have liked. She wondered why she seemed unable to move on from that wretched night six months ago. To be seeing him everywhere she went was more than she could bear. This wasn’t the first time her heart had stopped at the sight of someone in the distance who had the same hair colour or way of walking, but this time it hadn’t been just one thing or another. Usually she’d spot the hair colour and then watch the way of walking or look at the clothes or shoes. This had been enough to persuade her in the past that she was mistaken, but not on this occasion. If only I’d been able to get a glimpse of his face, she silently wished, before reprimanding herself for being so desperate. She really wanted to get over it but it seemed that every time she made some progress something else would happen that set her back again. Between the dream last night and now this, all she wanted to do was get home to the comfort and security of her sofa.
Ilona was surprised to hear the familiar beep as she automatically pressed the button on her key to open the car doors. She’d walked all the way to the car park and even gone up in the lift without really being aware of her surroundings because she was so deep in thought trying to solve the problem of how to move on with her life. Staring at the car key in her hand she realised she felt raw, emotionally drained and physically exhausted to boot. Making up her mind to call her mum when she got home, she slipped into the driver’s seat and leant her head back, closing her eyes for a moment in an effort to relax before tackling the journey home. She wondered what she would say to Sheena when she called her but then decided just to tell her everything. As much as she would have liked everyone to think she was putting things behind her, she couldn’t expect anyone to give her the help and advice she needed if she didn’t tell the truth. As she reversed out of the parking space she began to feel a little better knowing that Sheena would have some good solid advice after listening carefully to everything Ilona wanted to tell her.
So much for that, Ilona thought as the phone rang several times before going to Sheena’s voicemail. Sheena hadn’t said she was going out anywhere, but Ilona wondered if maybe she’d just nipped out to the shop, so she left a message asking Sheena to call back. She tried dialling Jocelyn’s number but was once again disappointed as he heard Jocelyn’s grainy, sexy voice say that she was unavailable. Ilona left another message and set the phone back on its base before dejectedly walking through to the living room. She really needed someone to talk to – now – but she resigned herself to the fact that she was just going to have to wait. Switching on the telly, she flicked through the channels until she found a detective movie that looked quite promising, but even though she tried to concentrate and stay focused on the film her mind kept visualising the man she’d seen earlier in the day. Finally, unable to settle, she headed back to the kitchen, deciding to make something to eat even though the stress of the day had depleted her appetite. Red’s food and water were still in the dishes on the floor, untouched.
Looking at the time on the kitchen clock she was surprised to find it was half past seven already. Even though her shopping trip had been cut short that afternoon she realised that it must have taken longer than she thought. “Probably because I went chasing after strange men,” she said out loud. Deciding to try calling her mum again while waiting on the frozen ready meal she’d put in the microwave, she was disappointed when there was still no answer so she left another message. Just typical, when I need someone to talk to there’s no-one available, Ilona fizzed as she replaced the handset, but as quickly as the thought entered her head she pushed it away and berated herself. She knew that her parents and Jocelyn had been there for her constantly throughout the last six months, listening to her repeated questions; why this and why that, and hugging her all the time when she was simply unable to stop crying in the first few weeks after the numbness had receded. They had been there for her every time she’d needed them and she knew she was being unfair. She decided to settle herself in front of the telly for the evening after having her dinner, knowing they would call her back as soon as they could.
It was ten thirty when Ilona next looked at the clock, just as the film she’d been watching ended. She was half lying, half sitting with her legs curled up beneath her. Stretching out, she wondered at the distinct lack of phone calls before deciding they must all have gone out for the evening, or in her parent’s case, most likely forgotten to check for messages but it was too late to phone them now. They went to bed around ten and on a Saturday night and Jocelyn would most likely be in one of the town’s three nightclubs and would never hear her mobile. Oh well, I’ll catch up with them tomorrow no doubt, she told herself, trying to lighten her mood even though she felt somehow betrayed by their lack of contact.
Rising from the sofa, Ilona had another futile look for Red before eventually climbing the stairs with a slight sense of dread. Even though she told herself not to be silly, that the tiredness she felt due to last night’s restlessness would mean she would fall into a deep, dreamless sleep and wake feeling much more refreshed tomorrow, she still dragged her feet, reluctant to submit herself to another possibly restless and fitful night. She wanted to enjoy at least one day of the weekend before going back to work on Monday.
After brushing her teeth and changing into her nightwear, Ilona slid under the duvet, aware of the tired feeling in her muscles, particularly her right leg, and making a mental note not to wear high heels next time she went shopping. She picked up the book she was reading; yet another in a long line of self-help books she’d bought in the last six months. Some had helped; some not so much, but she so wanted to start living her life as normal again without feeling sad all the time that she bought a new one every other week. Even though she didn’t think about John quite so much as she did in the beginning, she still felt heavy all the time with the weight of sadness pressing down on her. Turning onto her side she held the book at arm’s length and turned to the page she’d last been reading.
Half an hour later, Ilona put the book back on the bedside table as she felt her eyes begin to droop. Snuggling down under the duvet, she savoured the warmth that had built up whilst she’d lay reading. Five minutes later she was fast asleep and an hour after that she started dreaming again of her wedding day that never was. Remarkably, the dream began again exactly where it had left off the previous night and was so realistic that Ilona felt all the old familiar feelings of love and contentment she’d always had when she was with John, even during the times when things were not going so well for them.
As the wedding car wound its way through small narrow streets barely large enough for the car to drive through, Ilona gazed out the window at the unfamiliar buildings. They passed an old warehouse that had been subjected to some major renovations and was now expensive, trendy apartments. Right next to it were some old, quaint little cottages which had probably housed the workers from the warehouse at some time in the past. Wondering how she could be imagining so many different streets that she’d never seen before with such clarity, she turned to Edward who was sitting beside her on the back seat. Edward turned to look at her and smiled.
“Everything okay?” he asked her.
“Fine. Will we be there soon?”
“We’re here,” he said as the car slowed.
Ilona turned to look out the window again as the driver stopped the car outside a tiny church that looked as though it had been transported straight from a fairy tale. A winding pathway led through lush green lawns edged with winter flowering plants in all colours. At the end of the path were steps leading up to arched double doors made of golden oak. Surrounding the doors and encroaching on them in some parts was some sort of flowering climbing plant that Ilona didn’t recognise. The blooms were large and purple, similar to clematis but with more petals. In the sunshine they looked stunning. There was a large yew tree standing just off to the right which Ilona could only see the top of from her sitting position in the car. She heard the other door open and close as Edward practically leapt out in his hurry to come round and help her. He looked as proud and happy as she imagined George would have if the real wedding had gone ahead as planned. Edward opened her door and offered his hand for Ilona to steady herself with as she alighted. Taking his hand, she carefully stepped out into the lovely December day, trying to make sure she didn’t step on the train of her dress as she linked her arm through Edwards and smiled at him. He grinned back at her, looking just as proud as any father would be.
“Ready,” he asked.
“Absolutely,” Ilona grinned, feeling little butterflies of joy flit around in her stomach.
They walked up the colourfully lined pathway to the church where Jackie was standing by the doorway with a young girl of about eight who wore a long ivory dress with a band of the same duck egg blue as Jackie’s dress around her waist. As Edward and Ilona reached them, Ilona bent to speak to the blonde haired, blue eyed girl who was every bit as beautiful as Jackie and Cassy. Ilona would have felt inferior but for the fact that when she’d surveyed herself in the full length mirror once she was in her full regalia this morning, she’d been taken aback at what she saw. It was still Ilona, but her beauty had seemed much more pronounced. She’d decided that it was just as well Fiona had sent Cassy in her place. As good as Fiona was, Ilona doubted she could have performed the miracle Cassy had.
“Hi, what’s your name?” Ilona addressed the girl who smiled up at her with an open face.
“Miranda, do you like my dress?” the girl said.
Ilona laughed. “Well, that’s straight to the point. It’s the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen.”
“I think yours is better, but that’s okay because you’re the bride. Jackie told me.”
“She’s adorable,” Ilona laughed as she turned to Jackie. “Shall we go in? Are they ready for us?”
“Ready and waiting. That man of yours has been here for nearly half an hour. He’s clearly anxious.”
“Okay, let’s do this,” Ilona said taking a deep breath and straightening her back as she tried to convince herself everything was fine.
The ushers opened the doors and Ilona walked through with her arm still firmly linked in Edwards. Jackie and Miranda followed behind. The traditional wedding march began to play and the entourage walked slowly up the aisle to where John stood. Ilona was mesmerised when he turned to look at her. There was no strange man in his place as she had expected. It was definitely John. Still holding Edwards arm, they walked up to where John stood at the front of the church. Ilona couldn’t rid herself of the excitement she felt, even though she was torn between loving him and wanting to strangle him at the same time. It was only a dream, she told herself, so she could afford to be nice even though a big part of her wanted to kill him for what he’d done. She smiled at John and watched his face transform from worried frown to cheeky grin in an instant.
“You okay,” he whispered.
“Yes, perfectly okay, apart from everyone keeps asking me if I’m okay,” she whispered back to him.
Managing to drag her eyes away from John’s face, she turned to the minister, an elderly man with a full head of pure white hair. She smiled at him too. For some reason she felt very serene and calm even though the man standing beside her had caused her so much pain and heartache these last few months. The minister smiled back at her and then at the others gathered round him before asking the guests to stand for the first hymn. Ilona and John sang quietly, neither of them confident enough of their singing ability to want anyone else to hear them. The hymn finally ended and the minister began the most important part, the wedding vows.
“Who gives this woman to be married to this man?”
Edward stepped forward. “I do,” he said before walking backwards to take his seat in the front row beside Celia who was already dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. As Ilona handed Jackie the bouquet of ivory roses, she realised she’d been gripping them tightly and considered whether she really was as calm as she thought. As the wedding vows progressed, Ilona felt like laughing. This was all so ridiculous. She knew it was a dream but the way she felt seemed so real. Her emotions were running high and even though she knew what John had done, the love she felt for him at that moment was beyond anything she’d felt for him when they were together.
“Will you love, honour and keep him, forsaking all others, for all eternity?” the minister asked Ilona who was surprised at the choice of words. She was sure he was supposed to say ‘as long as you both shall live’. Oh well, never mind, it doesn’t have to be exact. It is just a dream after all, she told herself and replied to the minister with an ‘I do’ which came out a little louder than she’d meant. John repeated the same words, staring into Ilona’s eyes as he said them. Ilona never got tired of looking at John’s eyes. They were the most clear blue colour. It was as though he didn’t mind anyone looking straight down into his soul; they were so transparent. She’d thought she knew what a good soul he had until that horrible day on the eve of their wedding.
But this isn’t real and I can enjoy what might have been, she reminded herself as the minister proclaimed them husband and wife and told John he could now kiss the bride. John leaned forward and she met him half way. The kiss was gentle and loving – and short.
Ilona ended the kiss rather abruptly. It brought back so many memories of all the kisses she and John had shared, thousands of them, some gentle, some passionate, some friendly, some little pecks when one or other of them was in a rush, but all of them sincere and warm, just like this one had been. Wanting to touch, wanting to feel the warm softness of his mouth pressed against hers once more. It was all so familiar that it had taken her by surprise just how realistic this dream was, even to the extent that John’s kisses felt exactly as they always had and brought a rush of loving feelings to the fore. Tears began to run down her face, silent tears for all that she’d lost. John reached over and thumbed them away, smiling at her as he did so.
“It’ll all be okay, Ilona, please don’t cry,” he pleaded. “It will all be fine, I promise.”
Ilona smiled at him through the tears, inhaled deeply through her nose, and dropped her shoulders.
“I loved you so much, still do. Why did you go and make such a mess of it?” she whispered.
“I didn’t mean to. Please, I really didn’t mean to. Don’t cry,” he begged her again, on the verge of tears himself.
“What about Gayle, you know, the woman you were with the night before you were supposed to marry me?” Ilona whispered more fiercely this time as the tears began to flow more freely.
“It’s not what you think. I’ll explain it all to you later. For now, all these people are here. Let’s put a smile on and make the most of the rest of our day.” John said, trying to calm Ilona down.
Ilona wiped her tears with gentle fingers trying not to smudge her make-up before reminding herself it didn’t really matter. No-one was real anyway. Not really knowing what was expected of her next; she took John’s arm and gave him a watery smile as they both turned to walk back down the aisle. She looked around at the guests as she tried to take in the sea of faces. Some of the women were dabbing their eyes with hankies while others just smiled at them. Ilona didn’t recognise anyone at first. They all seemed to be strangers until she spotted a couple in the middle pew at the far side. They looked like her Aunt Peg and Uncle Harry. Ilona stared at them. It had been a long time since she’d seen either one of them but it was definitely them. She smiled over at them and they smiled back, her Aunt Peg waving as she did so. She looked at the rest of the guests, wondering who else might be hiding among them, but she and John reached the door of the church before she had time to have a good look at anyone else. The doors were opened by the ushers, none of whom she knew, and they stepped outside to find that it had been snowing heavily despite the bright sunshine earlier. The church looked even prettier with a thin film of white covering the bushes and trees.
Ilona shivered as the cold air enveloped her. John saw her shudder and put his arm around her, pulling her toward him and planting a quick peck on her temple as he did so.
“The photographs shouldn’t take too long. Can you stand the cold until then?” he asked her.
“Maybe I could borrow a jacket in between shots. Anyone willing to lend me a jacket?” she asked the small crowd that had gathered behind them on the steps at the doorway. A man stepped forward and Ilona instantly recognised him. He’d been her first love; Brian was his name. He’d moved away years ago, when they were still at school. She’d thought her heart would never mend, but as with all young love, it did. She had fond memories of him but nothing more than that now.
Brian put his jacket over Ilona’s shoulders and smiled. “Nice to see you again Ilona; glad to see you’re doing so well. John’s a good man. I hope you’ll both be very happy.”
As Brian stepped back he put his arm round the shoulders of a pretty brunette who was holding the hands of two children, a boy and a girl who looked as though they were twins.
“Is this your family?” Ilona asked as she looked up to Brian.
“It is indeed,” Brian replied, puffing his chest out a little further as he spoke. “Meet Jenny and Callan, and this is my wife Louise.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ilona shook Louise’s hand. “What beautiful children and they look like both of you in a way. Are they twins?”
“They are,” Louise said. “They’re our pride and joy. We weren’t sure we were ever going to be able to have children, but here they are, eight years old now. Oh, they’re calling you.” Louise pointed over to where Jackie was standing under the yew tree.
Ilona felt a tug on her arm and turned to find John waving to the photographer to let him know they were on their way.
“You’ll need to take the jacket of for a minute,” John said, reaching to remove it from her shoulders before handing it back to Brian who seemed to have the role of being John’s best man.
Originally, Frankie, John’s best mate, was to be his best man. Frankie had been another rock for Ilona when John had decided to take his unexpected leave of absence. They had become great friends even though Ilona hadn’t been too keen on him before, but she’d had to change her opinion. Frankie had comforted her patiently and still phoned her every week to see how she was doing, even popping round on occasions and spending the evening with her, his sense of humour making her laugh whether she wanted to or not. He’d patiently answered all her questions as best he could since he’d been with John that night, but he’d been unable to tell her why John had left with Gayle. Frankie didn’t know; nobody knew. Not knowing, Ilona had long ago decided, was a whole lot worse than anything she had managed to dream up in the last six months.
The photographer took his time, making sure everyone was posed to his liking before taking his pictures. Ilona was sure she didn’t look like a happy bride. Even though somewhere in the corners of her mind she knew this was only a dream, she still felt abandoned and sad and wondered what John’s account of why he was with Gayle that night would be as she put on a plastic smile that never reached her eyes. Probably one of the many scenarios I’ve already thought of myself, she mused. This is my dream after all.
“Okay, that’s all folks. Time to party with the happy couple.” The photographer’s shout broke through Ilona’s thoughts and she felt herself being pulled toward the waiting car.
“Where are we going now?” Ilona asked as she stopped and wriggled her arm free from John’s grasp.
“Our wedding reception. Are you okay?” John said as he looked at her with a puzzled frown as though he expected her to know already.
Ilona stood where she was. The thought of this dream going any further was more than she could bear. She willed herself to wake up and when that didn’t work she tried to switch the dream to something else, but to no avail. It seemed she was stuck with this one no matter how hard she wished it to stop.
“I’m fine,” she grumbled as she walked reluctantly toward the waiting car, her forehead creased as she tried to figure out a way to end her nightmare.
The journey to the hotel passed quickly and, after the short drive, Ilona found herself standing in the grounds of a mansion that was probably once a stately home. The gardens were landscaped with perfectly pruned, round shrubs in pots, grass so green that it looked artificial and immaculate pathways with not a weed in sight. It was nothing like the small, homely hotel they had chosen, with its slightly wild gardens and cosy feel. This one felt cold and she hadn’t even stepped inside yet. The rest of the wedding party began to head toward the doors after a few minutes discussion. It seemed Jackie knew where she was going and led the way. Ilona tagged along at the back definitely not feeling like a new bride about to have a wonderful evening with the man she loved.
Once inside, Jackie veered off to the right. She reached two large glass panelled doors and pulled them open. Entering the beautifully decorated function hall, with its ivory linen table cloths draped neatly over round tables, ivory roses in little vases and duck egg blue napkins shaped like fans decorating the table tops, Ilona noticed the wedding cake near the corner of the room. It wasn’t the one she’d ordered but it was beautiful; ivory icing with sugar flowers that matched the bridesmaid’s dresses and a delicate lace design piped around the top of each of its four tiers.
The other guests had begun to arrive and were seating themselves at various tables. Following John, Ilona sat beside him at the long table clearly meant for the V.I.P’s. and looked around, once again trying to find anyone she knew. Seated beside Brian on John’s left hand side were a man and a woman Ilona had never seen before. She nudged John and whispered discreetly, asking him who they were.
“That’s my Aunt Samantha on my mother’s side and my Uncle Raymond on my father’s side. They’re filling in for my mum and dad since they couldn’t be here today,” he replied, whispering in return.
Ilona said nothing. It was all a bit weird in her opinion. Her own wedding and she hardly knew anyone. She would have expected her own parents and John’s to be in the dream, as well as a few others such as Frankie but then dreams were like that, she surmised. There was no sense to them and anything could happen but she was still amazed at her minds ability to create so many different faces and places she’d never seen before.
Ilona danced the first dance with John to the tune John had insisted on; Roberta Flack’s ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’. He’d said the line in it about the sun rising in someone’s eyes was perfect as that’s what Ilona’s eyes had looked like the very first time he’d seen her. She was surprised to find there was something else in the dream that they had originally planned but she would have preferred it not to be such an emotive song. Ilona struggled to keep the tears at bay as John pulled her close, nuzzling her neck and causing shivers to race up and down her spine while they moved around the dance floor. All eyes were on them and she didn’t want to fall apart in front of everyone even if they were just figments of her imagination. When the song ended Ilona was grateful to the D.J. for immediately playing something much more upbeat. The dance floor filled up with other people as they headed for their seats and a much needed glass of champagne.
The D.J. kept the dance floor packed for the rest of the evening, playing a mixture of old and new songs to suit all tastes. It should have been a band playing but Ilona had to admit the D.J. was first class. She danced until her feet were sore, partly to avoid being with John for any length of time and partly to try and get rid of the pent up tension she was feeling, not to mention that the music was good. When her feet told her they could take no more she removed her shoes and wandered over to a table where Brian and his family sat. She flopped down in a chair and chatted to them for a while to let her feet recover, enjoying the antics of the twins as they attempted to copy the adults dancing. She was still happily chatting when John appeared at her side and whispered in her ear that it was time for them to leave.
“Where are we going now? Ilona asked wondering if she was about to be whisked off to some exotic location.
“Well, tomorrow we’re off on honeymoon,” John said as though reading her mind, “but tonight I thought we’d go back to my house. You’ll have time to pack in the morning. We’re going to have such a wonderful time. Meantime, that’s such a beautiful dress, but, no offence, I can’t wait to take it off,” he whispered in her ear.
The breath caught in Ilona’s throat at the thought that this dream would take her to a place she definitely did not want to go. As memories flashed through her mind of the times they’d made love before, passionate and fulfilling in every way, she knew couldn’t go through that experience, even in a dream and especially not in a dream as vivid as this one was. Pulling herself together, she slipped her shoes back on and stood up, trying to steady her nerves as she did so. She felt John’s arm go around her waist, which only served to unsettle her all the more as she felt butterflies take flight inside her at his touch. Closing her eyes, she pulled in a sharp gulp of air, and then opened them again to find she was staring at her own bedroom ceiling.
Disorientated for a few seconds, Ilona quickly scrambled herself up to a sitting position and looked around the room taking in the familiar surroundings before resting her head on the headboard as she tried to bring her pounding heartbeat under control and focus her eyes on the alarm clock. When her blurred vision finally cleared she saw it was five twenty in the morning. Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she sat there with her head hanging down for a few minutes until her breathing began to return to something like normal, not trusting her legs to carry her weight yet. As she waited she wondered why she was able to recall so much detail about the dream. Normally she could only remember little snippets of dreams which disappeared from her memory shortly after she woke up, but these dreams were not so easy to dispel and she could clearly see everything with absolute clarity in her mind’s eye. Thinking that it was probably because she was dreaming of something so significant in her life, and still so raw, she decided to go and make herself a cup of tea and take a little time to try and think things through before attempting to go back to sleep. As she descended the stairs she wondered whether she had any decaffeinated tea bags, but then changed her mind. In fact, she decided, I’m going to have an extra strong cup of coffee. At least then I won’t fall asleep and end up in bed with John.
Ilona finished her first coffee in ten minutes, having burnt her tongue trying to drink it so quickly. An extra-large yawn just before she’d taken the first sip had given her another little panic attack at the thought of falling asleep again. As soon as she finished the first one she decided another wouldn’t do any harm since it was almost her normal wakening time anyway and, hopefully, she’d get a chat with her mum or Jocelyn, or both, today which would help her sleep more restfully tonight. It was Sunday now and she didn’t want to go to work tomorrow looking as she had done for the first few months after John’s betrayal when she’d barely slept or ate or did anything other than cry. Her eyes had been constantly bloodshot and red and her lack of ability to concentrate on anything had resulted in a meeting with her boss, Lucy. Lucy had been kind, suggesting that Ilona take some time off but Ilona had refused. The idea of sitting around the house all day with nothing else to do but think of what had happened and what might have been had filled Ilona with fear, but it seemed that she was being forced to think about it now anyway.
As she sat staring into space and sipping her second extra strong coffee, Ilona yawned again, not so fiercely as the first time, but a yawn nonetheless. She’d unconsciously pulled her legs up and lay on the sofa with her head resting on the overfilled corner cushion, wondering what would have happened in her dream if she hadn’t woke up, when she felt her eyelids start to droop. Afraid that she might fall asleep again, she straightened herself up quickly and lifted a magazine from the pile she kept on the bottom shelf of the coffee table. She flicked through the pages and finally settled for reading an article about a woman who had fled from Iran as a child and now went back there to help others caught up in the violence. Ten minutes later, she didn’t notice her eyes closing again. Her head slipped to the side until it was resting on the cushion once more and she began to mutter in her sleep as she said her goodbyes to numerous people on the way out of the hotel. She was once again thrown back into the nightmare she had so desperately been trying to avoid.
Ilona and John walked toward the waiting taxi amidst various shouts of good wishes from the crowd that had followed them out. Once inside the car, Ilona sat back with her head resting on the window, resigned to the fact that she was going to have to see this dream through. John sat beside her and gave the driver an address she didn’t recognise before turning to speak to her.
“What a great day. Did you have a good time, Ilona?”
“Yeah, lovely,” Ilona answered without much conviction. She was thoroughly fed up with this dream. It was as though it was haunting her, teasing her with all that could have been. She didn’t want to think about any of this anymore. It was emotionally draining and her mind was tired of it. All she wanted was to get over John and start getting on with her life but it seemed her mind had other ideas.
“Ilona, I love you.”
John broke into her thoughts once more. Her stomach jumped and fluttered, not only at the words he’d said but, at the way he’d said it too. It was exactly the way he always said it, with sincerity and meaning. She’d never been in any doubt that he’d meant it until that horrible night when her world had tumbled around her. Everything she’d thought she was sure of was swept away that night and replaced with feelings of uncertainty and mistrust.
“Love you too,” Ilona heard the sound of her voice and thought she sounded like an automaton. Her voice was devoid of emotion and sounded flat and meaningless to her ears.
“Look at you, you’re exhausted. I am too. It’s been one hell of a day though, don’t you think.”
John continued to prattle on about seeing various people he hadn’t seen in such a long time, none of whom Ilona had ever heard him talk about before. She was content just to let him ramble, no longer wanting any part of the dream and just wishing it was morning so that she could phone her mum and get some advice.
The taxi pulled up outside the house Ilona had happily spent the morning in getting ready for her dream wedding. The gardens at the front were a little unkempt, just like the one at the rear that she’d looked out on earlier and, like the house, they were stark and bare; just lawns and driveway with no colour. George would love to get his hands on this place, Ilona mused.
George had come round to do Ilona’s own garden almost every day for months after John had abandoned her. It was his way of making sure she was okay. She could talk if she wanted or stay in the house and let him get on if she wasn’t in a talkative mood. Unlike a lot of men, George was a good listener and easy to talk to. She’d poured her heart out to him and he’d listened patiently while he pottered around, giving a little nod or grunt here and there to show he was listening and hugging her every time she ended up in tears, which was practically every day, but, it seemed, none of George’s patience had been of any use. Here she was, still dreaming of what might have been and apparently still as much in love with John as ever, even though much of the time the love she had for him turned to hate when she thought of what he’d done. With a sigh she pulled at the door handle of the taxi, resigning herself to seeing the dream through but determined she was not going to dream of making love to John.
John paid the driver and exited on the road side, walking behind the car as it began to pull away. “C’mon, let’s get inside where it’s warm,” he said as he came up beside Ilona and draped his arm over her shoulder. “How about your favourite hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream? I wouldn’t mind some myself. I’ll make it. You can just put your feet up.” John said as he unlocked the front door. Ilona noticed the key ring he held in his hand. It was a little red Porsche that she’d given him not long after they met. They’d gone to London for a romantic weekend and John had found a car showroom full of Porsches. She’d had a hard time dragging him out of the place and she’d purchased the key ring from the sales stand as a joke. The memory of that day usually made her smile, but not this time. She was too weighed down with sorrow.
Ilona said nothing as she followed John into the house and through to the lounge. John switched on a table lamp. As soon as he did Ilona reached for the light switch. Setting a romantic mood was not something she wanted. With a flick of her finger, the room was harshly illuminated and John turned to look at her, blinking his eyes at the sudden onslaught of light.
“I’ll get the hot chocolate on. You just sit down and relax,” he said, looking a bit bewildered as he headed for the kitchen door.
“No, actually, I don’t want any. All I want to do is go to bed. Where am I sleeping? The same room as last night?”
“Umm, yeah. I hope you like the house. It could do with a few feminine touches, I know, but I didn’t expect you so soon so I just pleased myself in the meantime.”
“Is this your house?” Ilona asked in the same flat tone she’d been speaking in for the last half hour. She couldn’t muster up any enthusiasm for anything, nor could she care less about the furniture apart from to think that she’d been right about the masculine feel to it so it surprised her that she’d even bothered to ask the question.
“Yes it is. I was lucky to get it. The people who were here before had eight kids. They’d already bought another house so they wanted a quick sale. I got it for peanuts really.” John was talking for the sake of it. Something about Ilona’s manner was making him very uncomfortable. “Are you okay? Can I get you anything else instead of hot chocolate?” He walked over to her as he spoke and put his hands on her shoulders but Ilona shrugged him away.
“What I’d really like is to go to sleep in my own bed, in my own house, with Red curled up on the pillow next to me and to not have any more dreams about you ever again. That’s what I want. Is that too much to ask?” Ilona’s voice rose along with her arms as though she was pleading for the ceiling to help her out.
“Why don’t you go up to bed? I’ve some things to do down here. You look as though you could use a good night’s sleep. Maybe things will feel better in the morning.”
Ilona said nothing more. She simply turned and headed up the stairs without saying goodnight. She didn’t want to go near him or give him any sign that might be misconstrued. She couldn’t handle the thought that he might try to kiss her again or make any kind of physical contact. Her emotions couldn’t take any more upheaval.
Ilona hoped that if she went to bed in the dream and fell asleep it might put an end to this nightmare. Wearily she climbed the stairs and stood staring at the en-suite door trying to force herself to take her make-up off and brush her teeth but in the end she decided it didn’t matter since she was only dreaming and wouldn’t really be doing any of it anyway. She stripped of the dress, hung it in the wardrobe and then discarded the lingerie before putting on the same pyjamas she’d used the night before. She decided looking sexy wasn’t called for either since nothing was going to happen – definitely – absolutely – nothing. Sliding under the duvet and wriggling a bit until she was comfortable, she felt her muscles aching with exhaustion as though she hadn’t slept for days. As she closed her eyes her mind turned to Red.
Ilona was beginning to get worried, even though she knew Red was prone to disappearing like this every so often, but Red wasn’t getting any younger. She was nearly fourteen years old and although she wasn’t showing much sign of old age, Ilona knew she wouldn’t have her for much longer. She’d watched the cat get stiffer every morning, no longer able to run and leap on Ilona whenever she opened the door. It was nearly three full days since Red had disappeared. Hoping that Red had simply decided to go on holiday to the neighbours again and would at least be warm and fed, Ilona decided to print out some posters in the morning and post them through every door in the street. Whichever neighbour had taken Red in would surely come forward if they knew Red was missed. Glad she had a plan that would hopefully see Red back where she belonged, Ilona finally drifted into a dreamless sleep.
Several hours later, Ilona stretched her legs as she felt consciousness returning. Her muscles still ached and she felt groggy and unrefreshed. Squinting at the clock on the bedside table she couldn’t quite comprehend why she couldn’t see it at first until she realised she was still on the sofa and quickly became wide awake. Standing up a little too quickly, she headed for the kitchen to find out the time. The clock told her it was twenty five minutes past twelve. Ilona hadn’t slept this late in the day since she was a teenager. “No wonder my body feels achy,” she muttered as she filled the kettle and clicked its switch on. “I’m bound to be stiff from sleeping on the sofa so long”.
Ilona curled her legs up and cradled the warm mug of fresh coffee while she stared at the flickering T.V. screen. Finally feeling much more refreshed than she had yesterday, thanks to her incredibly long lie in, she felt safe enough to allow her thoughts to roam to happier times when she and John would talk on the phone every morning unless they’d had a night together at either his house or hers, in which case, they would be touching, kissing and cuddling up together in the mornings, chatting about anything and everything. Now, she had a different routine; get up, go to kitchen, make coffee, curl up on sofa, watch T.V. and talk to Red. Every morning was the same, even at the weekends.
John and Ilona had never lived together like most couples do. John had asked her to move in with him quite early on in their relationship but Ilona had explained that she didn’t want to live with anyone until that person was her husband. Her logic was that marriage was the start of the biggest adventure of her life and it wouldn’t feel like that if she’d already been living with her husband beforehand. There wouldn’t be so much to find out, she’d argued. The following week John had taken her out to dinner at the new restaurant in town and proposed, going down on one knee in front of everyone. Ilona accepted his proposal, even though they’d only been seeing each other for a little over three months. She’d known from the start, just as John had, that they were meant to be together ‘until death do us part’. As she sat there reflecting on happier days, she wished now that she hadn’t been so stubborn and agreed to live with him when he’d first mentioned it.
Ilona suddenly stopped moving, the mug she was holding half way to her mouth. The remainder of the dream she’d had the night before came back to her in a rush. She’d forgotten about it until she remembered John’s proposal. Her head pounded as she leant back and stared at the purple lamp shade hanging from the ceiling, involuntarily recalling some of the details; when he’d said he loved her, the way his kiss felt after the minister pronounced them to be married and the way he’d looked at her when he told her he couldn’t wait to remove her dress.
The pounding in her head began to subside after a few minutes and she made a conscious effort to push thoughts of John from her head, berating herself once more for allowing him back into her life, even if only in her dreams. With renewed resolve, she stood up and headed for the phone. A chat with her mum was essential, she decided as she punched in the numbers with more force than was necessary. Her plan was to invite herself to Sheena and George’s for Sunday dinner but all she could do was leave a message again as she heard the automated response telling her no-one was available. Banging the phone down in frustration, she stomped back to the lounge muttering under her breath until she realised it was Sunday and by now her mum would be out doing her weekly shop. Fine, she decided as she fell heavily into the sofa, if I haven’t managed to get hold of them by the time I’m showered and dressed I’m just going round there and I’ll wait until they put in an appearance. Anything’s better than sitting here on my own. At that moment she felt much as she had the day after John’s cruel abandonment and silent tears rolled down her cheeks while she stared into space.
A loud knock at the door brought Ilona out of her trance. She wasn’t sure how long she’d been sat there crying and feeling sorry for herself. Her brain struggled to register the noise she’d heard until another loud knock galvanised her into action. Bolting to the door, hoping it would be Sheena or Jocelyn, she forgot she was still wearing brightly spotted pyjamas at almost two in the afternoon. Pulling the door inward quickly and ready to throw herself into the arms of her mum or her friend, she suddenly found herself rooted to the spot. Her knees went weak and her legs turn to jelly as she struggled to comprehend the sight that met her in the open doorway.
“Hi Ilona, can I come in?” John hesitantly asked, his voice wavering with uncertainty.
Ilona simply stared at him as she felt her legs buckle underneath her. She tried to hold onto the wall as she crumpled toward the floor but the wall was no help at all. The last thing she remembered thinking before her brain forced her into blissful oblivion was that she must still be dreaming.
“Hey, Ilona – Ilona are you okay? Please say something.”
To Ilona it sounded as though someone was calling her name through a tunnel. She struggled to open her eyes and had to blink several times before they decided to follow her command, although she still couldn’t see clearly. She was on the floor of the hallway in a crumpled heap and John was leaning over her, his forehead creased with concern. Struggling to sit up, she eventually managed it with a little help from John before leaning against the wall and putting the palm of her hand against her forehead. For the second time that day she didn’t trust her legs to hold her up, nor would her mind co-operate as she tried to force herself to think clearly while staring intently at John’s face, taking in all the creases and laughter lines, the little furrows on his forehead and the dimples in his cheeks that always deepened when he smiled. Still too dumbfounded to speak, she continued to study his face; the tiny lines at the corners of his mouth and the blue colour of his eyes which were flecked with pale brown. One of his ears stuck out a tiny bit more than the other and Ilona’s eyes wandered to each side of his head to check. Sure enough, his lopsided ears hadn’t changed. His hair had one or two white strands, not enough that anyone but Ilona had noticed but they were there, still in the same place they’d always been.
“Okay, I know this is a dream but I could have sworn I woke up earlier.” Ilona muttered to herself as she put a hand on the wall and tried to stand up. John held her arm at the elbow to help her and then took her face in his hands as she finally made it to her feet and steadied herself with one hand on the wall for support.
“This isn’t a dream, Ilona. I am really here and I’ve come to beg you to let me back into your life. I love you, always have and always will. Please say you’ll at least think about it. The past six months have been unbearable without you. I know I was a fool and if I could turn back time I would, but I can’t. Please?”
“I’m just going to look at the floor and walk back to the lounge. I’m not going to play this dream game anymore,” Ilona said to herself as she walked on shaky legs, opened the door and made it to the sofa before flopping down. “My mind is playing tricks with me today, cruel tricks,” she whispered to herself.
“Ilona, this isn’t a dream, believe me. I have to tell you something. It’s going to upset you but would you please hear me out before you say anything?” John pleaded as he followed her and seated himself in the chair.
“I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming, I’m dreaming,” Ilona chanted as she covered her eyes with her forearm.
“Ilona, please. Just hear me out. It’s not what you think. I told you last night I would explain later and I’m here to do that.”
Ilona covered her ears with her hands and squeezed her eyes shut but a corner of her mind tried to comprehend what John had just said. In her dream he’d promised he would explain later when she’d asked him about Gayle and she so wanted to hear that explanation, but reason and common sense came to the fore and she reminded herself that his promise had been made in a dream. None of it was real.
“Wake up Ilona. Wake up Ilona. Wake up Ilona,” she chanted again before slowly opening her eyes. John was kneeling on the floor in front of her and took hold of her hand.
“Please Ilona; I’ve something to tell you.”
Ilona felt anger rise in her throat as she wondered what the hell was going on. This dream was turning into a never ending nightmare. She’d tried to go along with it but this was just too much. Following that thought, she immediately had another. She realised she had no choice.
“Okay, how about you start by telling me why you went home with Gayle on the eve of our wedding? If you’re going to insist on invading my dreams then I might as well try and get some answers,” Ilona said furiously as her eyes bored into his.
“I was just taking her home, honestly. Gayle and I were over and done with long ago, you know that. She was just very drunk and I wanted to see she got home safely.” John’s tone was pleading again.
“You know what she tried to do to us. She tried to split us up on so many occasions I lost count. Why would you go and give her any kind of encouragement?”
“I didn’t see it that way, Ilona. She could barely stand up. I’m not even sure she knew it was me who was trying to take care of her with the state she was in. I couldn’t just leave her. Think about it. If it was you in that state I would hope someone would see you home safely.”
“Working on the hypothesis that I believe you, and I’m not sure that I do, why did it have to be you? Why couldn’t you have called her a taxi or something? What possessed you to take her home yourself?”
“I did try to call a taxi but couldn’t get one for another hour or more and she would have needed a stretcher by then. It was a Friday night. You know what it’s like. The taxis are booked solid after eleven. I couldn’t just leave her. It wasn’t right.”
“Okay, I can see that, but you had been drinking too and shouldn’t have been driving.”
“Well it was that or walk her home, which would have taken me a couple of hours given that she couldn’t walk on her own, although I wish now I had just walked. No-one else would take her. I asked Frankie but he refused and told me just to leave her to get on with it. You know he doesn’t like her, but I thought he would at least have driven her home as he was the designated driver. It would only have taken him ten minutes and I would have gone with him to help. We could have come straight back after that, but he refused point blank. Everyone else had way more than I’d had to drink so I felt I had no choice. I’d only had a couple of pints, maybe three. I know it was stupid. I could have killed someone on the way but I thought I would be fine. As it was I only managed to kill myself, and for that at least I’m grateful.”
“I thought you said I wasn’t dreaming, but if I’m not how come I’m talking to a dead person? God, please can this nightmare just stop,” Ilona wailed in frustration.
“Ilona.” John tried to capture Ilona’s attention again but she was humming with her hands over her ears and looking at the ceiling.
“Ilona,” John shouted this time but Ilona carried on making it clear she didn’t want to hear any more. He reached up and gently pulled her hands from her ears, holding them both in one hand while he eased her face toward his with the other until she made eye contact with him.
“Ilona, this isn’t a dream. You died on Friday. You were on your way home from work when a drunk driver knocked you down. You died instantly. I’m so sorry Ilona.” John stopped talking and stared at Ilona, giving her time to digest what he was saying.
Ilona suddenly jumped up and stomped toward the kitchen. “Don’t be so ridiculous. This is beyond belief. Why can’t I just wake up?” she screamed as she slammed the door behind her. Her hands shook as she lifted the kettle to fill it with water so she put it back down again. She didn’t really want any more coffee but she couldn’t just sit there any longer. Gripping the worktop and staring out the window for a few moments, she tried to gather her wits about her. Once she felt steadier she walked back to the lounge, bracing herself for what lay beyond the door. She knew she would have to see it through until she finally woke up; that it was only a dream, but she was still fearful of whatever was going to happen next.
The door swung open as she pushed it and tentatively walked into the room. Looking around in bewilderment, she realised that John was gone. She wandered around the room touching everything as she tried to convince herself it was all real. Silent tears made their way down her face as she tried to make sense of it all but she was utterly spent and unable to think. Flopping into the nearest chair, she felt her cheeks wet with tears again and wondered stupidly just how much tears one person could shed in a day as she was sure she was well over the limit.
When her tears finally began to subside, she picked up the box of tissues from the coffee table, blew her nose, wiped her eyes and resolved to make an appointment with a therapist tomorrow. Jocelyn had tried to persuade her to do just that soon after John had died but she didn’t like the idea of baring her soul to a stranger. Now, however, she recognised that she needed professional help. Clearly she had many unresolved issues and she knew she couldn’t go on like this. If only she could be sure that what John said about Gayle in her dream had been the truth it would at least give her some closure, but she still felt as though that explanation was missing something. She couldn’t understand why John would risk everything to make sure Gayle got home okay. He didn’t even like her very much if the things he’d told her about Gayle’s neediness were true. Gayle was an ex-girlfriend of John’s but their relationship had ended about a year before Ilona met him. Gayle was obviously still in love with him but he had told Ilona that when Gayle began to talk about marriage he knew she was not the right one for him so he’d ended it as gently as he could. John could never hurt anyone, Ilona knew that. He’d never hurt Ilona, not even once, until the day before their wedding. It was bad enough that he’d been stupid enough to kill himself, but the thought that he’d been carrying on with Gayle behind her back was too much to bear. She so wanted it to be the way he’d said. It was something she had thought about, and knowing John as she had, it was a strong possibility. He was always trying to help people out and he would have done the same with Gayle, even though Gayle had tried to cause trouble for them on numerous occasions, but to put his own life in jeopardy was taking it a step too far. There had to be something more to it in Ilona’s opinion.
Sobbing loudly now, Ilona remembered that horrible night when John’s dad had phoned to tell her that John had been killed in a car accident. It was several days later when Ilona had found out that Gayle was in the car and that John had been over the legal alcohol limit for driving. He’d driven straight into a tree on a narrow street. No-one else was involved. It had been a misjudgement on his part. Luckily for Gayle, she’d been sleeping it off in the backseat and John had managed to secure her in place with a seatbelt. She’d survived the crash virtually unscathed and knew nothing about it because she was so drunk that even the car running into a tree hadn’t brought her out of her unconscious state. On one occasion, about three months after the accident, Ilona had even confronted Gayle, wanting to know why she’d been in the car with John that night. Gayle had looked horrified when Ilona had asked her what happened and could only say she didn’t know, she couldn’t remember. Ilona had started screaming at her then, calling her a drunken murderer before Jocelyn had hauled Ilona out of the packed nightclub, hailed a taxi and took her home. She’d been very drunk that night, as she had been on quite a few nights in the months following John’s death. She probably would never have said anything otherwise as she wasn’t the type for confrontation.
Ilona’s mind wandered back to the dream and she recalled John telling her that Frankie had refused to take Gayle home, yet anytime she had asked Frankie about it he’d told her he didn’t know why John had Gayle in the car. She pondered this for a few moments before deciding to ask Frankie about it next time she saw him, then she pulled herself up, realising that she was considering calling Frankie a liar on the basis of something she’d been told in a dream.
“Oh for heaven’s sake Ilona, it was a dream even if the whole thing did seem extraordinarily real. That’s it, time to get a grip on reality again. One of mum’s Sunday roasts is definitely in order. Shower first, then I’m off. This nonsense has to stop.” As Ilona reprimanded herself she marched around the lounge straightening things up and punching the cushions before stomping up the stairs to have a shower. She was annoyed with herself mainly because she had just realised she was still grieving. I clearly haven’t even managed to get past the angry stage, she thought. Hell, I’ve not even passed the crying stage, obviously.
An hour later Ilona was showered, with her hair freshly washed and tamed into a sleek pony tail and wearing her favourite skinny jeans and cowl necked red sweater. She pulled on a pair of black ankle boots with a four inch stiletto heel and buckles up the side. Her boots with attitude, she liked to call them, and that was just how she felt now; annoyed with herself for getting upset over something she could do nothing about. It was time she moved on with her life and while she’d been in the shower she’d resolved to do just that. John wasn’t coming back, not ever, no matter how much she wished he would, she’d told herself. He was dead and that was that. He’d been a fool to drink and drive and whether there was anything going on with him and Gayle or not made no difference. He was still just as dead and knowing more about the circumstances in which he died wasn’t going to bring him back.
Marching down to the bottom of the stairs, she pulled her black leather jacket from the coat peg, grabbed her handbag from the hall table and was seated in her car pulling out of her driveway a few minutes later. The drive to her mum’s only took about ten minutes and she soon pulled into the driveway of the bungalow that Sheena and George had bought just after they retired. It was a pretty house and the gardens were well tended. George’s passion for gardening was evident even in the winter months.
Getting out of the car and slamming the door a little harder than she’d meant to because she was still feeling frustrated and angry with herself, she walked up the path to the front door. She could see Sheena and George through the window, standing in the living room beside the fireplace. They seemed to be talking to someone that Ilona couldn’t see. The curtains were in the way of her line of sight. Pulling out her keys and locating the one for her parent’s front door, she let herself in. She could hear them talking and what sounded like Jocelyn’s voice as well but she couldn’t make out what was being said as the living room door was closed.
“Hello,” Ilona shouted but there was no reply. She walked forward and opened the first door she came to on her right.
“Helloooo,” she said again as she peered round the door. Sheena and George were standing in front of the fireplace, just as they had been when she’d seen them through the window. Jocelyn was sitting on the sofa but Ilona couldn’t see her face. Sheena looked as though she’d been crying and George stood with his arm around his wife’s shoulders also looking a little puffy eyed.
“What’s the matter? What’s happened?” Ilona asked as she stepped fully into the room. As she turned to look at Jocelyn she noticed that she was crying too. “What’s going on, mum?” Ilona turned back to look at her mum and that was when she noticed a movement to her left. Turning fully around she was stunned to see John walking toward her.
“What the hell…?” Ilona froze as John placed his hand on her shoulder.
“They can’t see or hear you, Ilona. You really did die two days ago. They’re grieving for you.” John’s tone was very gentle and Ilona felt the room start to spin just before blackness overtook her for the second time that day.
Ilona’s consciousness struggled to surface a few minutes later but her mind was refusing to take anymore trauma. She tried to ignore John’s voice as he called her name, believing that oblivion for a while was the only way out of this hell. Someone gently shook her arm back and forth and patted the back of her hand. Her head was pounding and her heart felt as though it was going to burst; it was hammering so hard against her ribs. John’s voice grew stronger and Ilona realised she wasn’t going to be able to return to oblivion. Whether she liked it or not she was going to have to open her eyes and face whatever was there. Slowly she opened her right eye just a slit but she couldn’t focus on anything. All she could see were blurred shapes moving around her. She tried opening her left eye just a bit too but still she couldn’t make out anything. Finally she blinked rapidly and mentally tried to prepare herself for the next step in this crazy nightmare. She opened both eyes fully and was confronted with the sight of her Aunt Peg.
“Ilona, sweetheart, you’ve had a terrible fright. We thought John would be able to break it to you gently, and he did, but sometimes when people are killed so unexpectedly they carry on as though nothing has happened, just like you did. They’re not aware that anything has happened and we have to intervene to bring them some peace otherwise they’d be wandering around in the wrong place at the wrong time wondering why all their loved ones have suddenly started ignoring their presence.”
Ilona managed to push herself up to a sitting position and tried to look around but she was still dazed and her mind was hazy. Hanging her head down for a minute, she waited until the cotton wool cleared from her brain before trying to look again at the scene before her. Her mum and dad were now sitting down, her mum beside Jocelyn and her dad in his armchair. Sheena and Jocelyn had their arms wrapped around each other and both were crying. Not wailing or sobbing, just gentle little gasps full of sadness. John, Brian, Aunt Peg and Uncle Harry all stood around Ilona, looking at her with concern. John spoke first.
“Are you okay, Ilona? I’m sorry. I tried to tell you earlier but you insisted it was a dream so I had to let you see for yourself. I know it was harsh on you but there didn’t seem to be any other way. Honestly, this is not a dream.”
Ilona was staring at John as though he’d suddenly grown horns from his head. Her face openly expressed her absolute horror at what he was telling her. I am not dead, I am dreaming. I am not dead, I am dreaming, she repeated to herself silently before looking around her again and getting to her feet.
“I’m going to talk to my mum and dad and you are all going to disappear,” Ilona said, talking more to herself than anyone else as though if she said it out loud it would somehow become true. “I’m not dead because I would surely have remembered something about it. I have no recollection of having been hit with a car, none whatsoever. Mum, mum.” Ilona had reached the sofa where Sheena and Jocelyn sat. They’d stopped hugging one another and were holding hands instead. Jocelyn was telling Sheena that she couldn’t believe Ilona was gone. Sheena was weeping silently and nodding her head in agreement.
“Mum,” Ilona said gently as she leaned forward and put her hand on her mum’s shoulder. As she did so Sheena stiffened and looked at Jocelyn.
“You know, I can actually feel her all around me. I know that’s silly. When people are gone, they’re gone. I don’t believe in ghosts but I just have a sense of her as though she’s here somehow.” Sheena was looking around the room as she spoke, as though searching for some sign of her daughter.
“I feel like that too,” Jocelyn said. “Yesterday my phone made a funny noise, just a little beep as though it was about to start ringing but it didn’t and for some reason I thought it was Ilona trying to phone me. I know it couldn’t have been but the thought stuck in my head and even today I still have the feeling it was her. Weird, huh?”
“Who knows, Jocelyn. I suppose there’s a lot we don’t know or understand. Right now all I know is my daughter is gone and I’ll never see her again. I don’t know how I’ll ever get through this. My heart is aching.”
George chose that moment to come over and try to comfort his wife but as he reached for Sheena his hand stopped millimetres from Ilona’s. Ilona instinctively reached for him and took his hand in both of hers.
“Dad, can you hear me, or feel me even?” she whispered.
Ilona’s dad seemed to give himself a shake before sitting on the sofa and putting his arm around his wife.
“C’mon, love. We’ll just have to for Ilona’s sake. I’ll be with you all the way,” George said without much conviction. His voice was hoarse and cracked and Ilona could see him fighting back the tears.
Sheena turned to George with a watery smile. “You know, she chose a man just like you. John was every bit as kind and loving as you are,” Sheena told him as she stroked his cheek. “To lose them both in the same year is quite unbearable. I can only hope they’re together again just like you and I will hopefully be one day. You know I’ll be here for you whenever you need it, just the same as I know you will be for me.”
Ilona watched the scene before her, still convinced she was dreaming. She looked over to where John stood watching her. He beckoned her over to him but she hesitated. What if this is real? she asked herself. What if I’m really dead? What happens now?
John walked over to her and put his arm round her waist, guiding her back to the others.
“We have to go now, Ilona. We can’t stay here. They can sense our presence and it isn’t good for them. You’ll only cause their grief to last longer. I did the same with you when I died. I couldn’t let go and kept visiting you all the time but eventually I realised I was only causing you more heartache, making you think about me all the time because you could sense me there so I finally left you in peace apart from an odd visit to reassure myself you were okay. You have to let them grieve naturally and they can’t do that while you’re here all the time. It’s time for you to accept things. C’mon, we need to leave them in peace.”
Ilona had stood perfectly still, staring at John as he spoke whilst watching her parents and Jocelyn from the corner of her eye, half expecting one of them to jump up and yell ‘gotcha’ as though this was some sort of sick joke, but no-one moved. John, Brian, Aunt Peg and Uncle Harry were all staring at her expectantly. She was still convinced she was dreaming but the churning inside her felt very real. Arguing the point further was not an option as her energy levels were completely depleted.
John gently guided her toward the door and she made no attempt to resist as he led her out of the house and into her car. He opened the passenger door for her before going around the car and seating himself in the driver’s seat. Ilona pulled the car keys from her bag and handed them to him automatically as she looked over to her parent’s front door and saw the others walking out onto the path, leaving her parents and Jocelyn in the house. Ilona finally found her voice again when John started up the engine.
“If we’re dead, why do we need to go anywhere in a car? Why can’t we do something like the beam me up Scottie thing and just transport ourselves wherever we want to go?” she asked in a defiant tone realising she was asking a really stupid question but not being able to stop from asking it anyway.
“We kind of do but only between dimensions. We can’t go zipping around all over the place and I’m not even sure how we manage to move between the two worlds. I just close my eyes, wish to be here, and when I open them again, here I am and vice versa. Other than that we have to walk around, or drive, or take the bus or whatever. I know I keep saying we’re dead but I no longer really think of it like that. It’s another stage of life, just in a different place, but I don’t know where the other place is. Nobody does. All I know is that I can go back and forth between the two and they are remarkably similar. We have jobs, play sports, the grass is green and the sky is blue, everything is the same really.” John replied as he steered the car onto the road.
“So, you’re telling me I died and now I’m condemned to eternity in another dimension doing the same things I’ve always done?” If what he said were true then Ilona had a million questions that needed answering and John’s slow, deliberate and thoughtful manner wasn’t going to cut it today.
“People still die in this world.” John said patiently. “The older people tend to be here for around seventy five years, sometimes a little longer, sometimes less. It’s just the aging process that seems to slow down a bit, but then it’s not as if you see people of one hundred and fifty years old in the previous life, so maybe the aging process doesn’t stop. I just don’t know what ancient people look like. People still die young here too. It’s just the same as it was before we died, except we’re only born once and when we die we start over from where we left off in our last life. No-one here knows what happens when we die in this life either, but it’s easier this time to believe that we move on to yet another dimension. It seems that we do have everlasting life after all but that each time we die we see everything a little more clearly, as though we’ve learned a little more. It feels like a small sort of brain shift. More centred I suppose. Maybe there is a last life or dimension somewhere that we reach when we’ve learned all we can. I don’t know. All I know is my life didn’t end because I died.”
Ilona was staring at him intently, trying to process what he was saying when she suddenly had a flash of memory. She saw the accident that had killed her with frightening clarity. Her jaw went slack and her mouth gaped open as she witnessed a car come out of nowhere and mount the pavement, heading straight toward her as she was on her way to the small wine bar round the corner from her work. Her work colleagues were waiting for her there. They always went on a Friday for one or two glasses of wine to unwind after the usually hectic week. She was on her own as she walked because she’d stayed behind to clear up a few things, telling Sharon, the telephonist, that she’d just be ten minutes more.
The sight of a car driving along the pavement instead of the road and people jumping out the way was so bizarre that Ilona just froze and stared in amazement, never thinking that it was headed straight for her. She could see the driver clearly, a middle aged man talking on his mobile and looking down at the dashboard instead of where he was going. He was oblivious to the fact that he was no longer on the road. The whole thing happened so fast that when Ilona finally registered the need to get out of the way, it was too late. The car hit her, sending her crashing against the windscreen first before flying over the top and landing thirty metres away right on the broken white lines in the middle of the road. She remembered hearing the squeal of tyres as drivers stood on their brakes, then someone shouting about calling an ambulance. Various shadowy figures gathered around her and became even more blurred as her vision faded. She felt no pain at all, just someone pulling at her scarf and tugging at the neck of her jacket. The fuzz in her head increased as she tried to move her arms and legs but the connection between her limbs and her brain seemed to be lost. The effort was just too much and she closed her eyes for a few moments as she listened to the voices all around her fading into the distance until she could no longer hear anything at all. A smile pulled at the corners of her mouth as her body completely relaxed. She couldn’t ever remember feeling this happy. A floating sensation engulfed her, making her feel as though she was lying on a bed of marshmallows and she allowed the sensation to take over, enjoying the peacefulness that engulfed her.
A few moments later Ilona opened her eyes again and was surprised to find that she was standing in the road. A short distance away there were people gathered in a circle. Their voices, muted at first, became clearer as she stood watching them and she heard a woman say something about someone being dead. Walking over to the crowd, she peered through a gap to see what they were looking at, then gasped and took a step backward, her hand flying to her throat as she felt her heart leap. Even in the brief second she’d looked down on herself, she had a clear picture of the scene in her mind. She was lying on the road, eyes closed with her arms by her side. Some blood trickled from the left corner of her mouth and her left ear, but other than that her face looked just fine. The only other visible signs that told Ilona the body on the ground wasn’t simply sleeping were that her head seemed to be on backwards and her right leg was clearly broken beyond repair. It lay at an odd angle as though someone had taken it at the hip and pulled it upwards so that her foot was almost touching her back to front head.
The pounding in her throat made breathing difficult and she stepped further back, turning away from the crowd of people as she tried to dispel the terrible image of her own broken body lying in the road. Looking along the road, she saw the car that had careered into her further up the street. As she walked toward it she could see it had hit the wall of the shop on the right, smashing the windows above and to the left of it. The driver’s side of the bonnet was mangled, the windscreen shattered and the driver was sprawled out a little further up the road surrounded by another crowd of people. In the distance she heard sirens approaching.
Ilona felt giddy as she looked up and down the street. How was it possible? she wondered. A moment ago she’d been walking down the street looking forward to the usual banter with her work colleagues on a Friday night and now, just a few moments later, she was looking at a scene of utter devastation, one in which she was playing a starring role. Looking down at herself she was relieved to find that, instead of her body being broken beyond repair, her feet were facing the correct way. She patted her right leg and stamped it up and down a couple of times, glad that it appeared to be in good working order. Patting the rest of her body as she felt for any aches, pains or broken bones and found none, she remembered the trickle of blood at her mouth. Tentatively she put her fingers to the corners of her mouth before pulling them away and studying them. There was no blood on her fingers or anywhere else that she could see. Satisfied that she was all in one piece, she walked back to the crowd surrounding her lifeless body. My lifeless body, she thought. It really is true. For some reason I know this is a memory, not a dream. Her mind finally made the connection and the realisation brought her back to the present with a bang as she was once more left gasping for air. She was dead, really dead, and she had no idea how to cope with such a revelation.
Slowly, Ilona turned to look at John again. He was looking at the road ahead with concentration.
“John, I just remembered what happened. Someone ran me over while I was on the pavement.”
“Oh Ilona, I know. Are you okay? Do you want me to stop?” John asked as he took in her ashen face and obvious distress.
Ilona took a few seconds to think before shaking her head. “I’m in shock I think, but I’m okay,” she said even though new tears were saturating her skin.
“I didn’t see it happen but the man who ran you over told me. He’s really sorry for what he did.”
“He’s here, in this, this…” Ilona faltered trying to find the right word. “This place?” she finished lamely having been unable to think of anything more suitable.
“He died too, if you can call it that, but not so suddenly as you. He lived another day before his body gave up the fight. Head injuries.”
“Well I suppose there’s some sort of justice in that, but I hope I never have to see him. I’d maybe just kill him all over again.” Ilona huffed.
“You won’t have to see him if you don’t want to. I won’t even tell you who he is unless you want to know. You’ll only get to meet him when you’re ready to forgive but there’s no rule that says you have to forgive him.”
“Have you forgiven him? It sounds to me as though you have. Where’s your sense of loyalty?” Ilona almost screeched, so great was her sense of betrayal. John seemed to have forgotten what the word loyalty meant.
“Maybe it’s just easier for me,” John said hesitantly. “If he hadn’t ran you over you wouldn’t be here with me now. I can’t help it, Ilona, but in a way I’m grateful to him. I never wished for it to happen, but now that it has we can have the life together that we planned, always providing you still want me that is?” Fear was written all over his face as he asked the question.
“This is all a bit much to take in. My mind is buzzing and I’m really, really tired. I know now that I really am here with you and while that might be a wonderful thing, I’ve just lost everyone else in my life. I don’t know that I can manage to get over this. To lose them all at once is horrendous and unbearable. I don’t know how to cope. How did you deal with it?” Ilona asked him, more tears welling in her eyes for what felt like the millionth time that day, or was it just a day? She wasn’t sure. All sense of time was lost to her. She was no longer sure if she was awake, dreaming or – dead.
The word ‘dead’ rattled around in her head as true realisation dawned on her. Sheena and George would be devastated. Ilona was their only child; they’d never been able to have any more and Ilona’s heart dissolved at the thought of how they would be feeling right now. Jocelyn would be just as heart broken. And then there was Red. Who’ll take care of Red now that I’m gone? Ilona wondered and wished that Red was there at that moment. Her soft fur and warmth would have given Ilona some comfort and something to hold on to. Charlotte’s retirement party suddenly popped into Ilona’s head and she felt a ridiculous sadness that she wouldn’t be there to help give Charlotte a good send off. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over this, even knowing I can see them all again if I want to, but it’s not as if I can talk to them or hug them or anything. I didn’t have much in the way of plans for my future lately with – well, you know, – what happened between us and everything, but I wasn’t ready to die just yet, not even if it meant being with you again. The pain of losing everyone else is just too much,” Ilona sobbed.
John reached over and stroked her thigh gently, wishing he could take her pain away but he knew she had to deal with it in her own way and all he could do was be there for her when she wanted him to be.
“I was the same as you at first but then I discovered that I could go and have a little peek into their lives every now and then and see that they were okay,” he said, hoping his words would help. “At first I stayed with you all the time until Brian explained that I was holding you back. Even then I was reluctant to go anywhere else but I love you so much that I didn’t want to stop you finding happiness so in the end I left you alone apart from the occasional visit. All those times you thought about me; those were the times I came to see you were okay. The other thing that helps is that I know I’m going to see everybody again someday, even if I have to leave this life before they make it here. I know that at some point our paths will cross again. There also seems to be a real sense of calm that comes with dying first time round. It’s actually quite difficult to stay sad or stressed or any of that stuff for very long.”
“Where are we going?” Ilona had just realised that they seemed to be headed toward her house which was now just a street away.
“We’re going to your house to pick up any mementos you want to take with you, you know, photographs, little things that mean something to you. For some reason that I don’t understand we can take material things with us. Anything you think might brighten up our house would be good. I know it’s lacking in that feminine touch but I never managed to figure out how to make it more homely. Now that you’re here we should be able to solve that problem.”
“What do you mean ‘we’? Are ‘we’ going to be living in the same place?” Ilona asked as she struggled to comprehend what he was saying.
“I did expect you would want to live with me now since we just got married but if you need some time to think things over I’ll understand.” John heard himself say the words but he wasn’t sure he would understand. He’d been given a second chance and had seized it with both hands. Now he was wondering if he’d rushed things too much. Maybe it would have been better to wait until Ilona had a chance to get used to her new world but he’d been so desperate to be with her again that he hadn’t considered how she would feel apart from convincing himself that she would want the same as he did.
Ilona slowly turned her head to look at him again. “Married? You mean last night wasn’t a dream or my mind playing tricks on me?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“So, I’m married, to you?”
“Is it so terrible?” John asked, his face showing his hurt.
“It is when I never had a choice in the matter. You should have waited until I was aware of what happened,” Ilona replied indignantly.
“If your heart was truly telling you it wasn’t what you wanted you wouldn’t have gone through with it. We don’t struggle so much with the choices we make in this life. It’s as though we are more aware of what we want, and even though you were not aware you’re now in another life, you would still have been able to choose. Or maybe I’ve got it wrong but that’s how it seems to work for me and everyone else here.”
“Where exactly is here, John?”
“I don’t know. It’s the same really, just in a different place. Kind of like a fourth dimension. It’s like the same place we’ve always been except that this is the life after the last one, or at least that’s the way I see it. Everything’s the same apart from the fact that we seem to be able to make better choices. Sorry, I’m not sure if that’s making any sense but there was a lot in the last life that we couldn’t explain and the same is true for this one.” John finished apologetically.
“I suppose I should be grateful I wasn’t resurrected as a beetle or spider or something,” Ilona sighed as she tried to resign herself to her fate. John was right, she did feel calm. Even after all that had happened and the realisation that she was dead; or should that be still alive but in another life, she still felt the tiredness and mental exhaustion beginning to leave her.
John pulled into Ilona’s driveway and turned off the engine. Turning to Ilona he asked, “Are you going to be okay going in here. We can come back another time if you’d rather but we shouldn’t really make a habit of dimension hopping. It can be quite tiring, which is probably why you’re so exhausted. You’ve been hopping back and forth for two days now.”
“This is just so weird.” Ilona sat in the car looking at her house. She’d bought it about ten years ago and had fallen in love with it the moment she’d seen it. Her eyes roamed around the garden that George had so lovingly brought to life for her, transforming it from and overgrown wilderness. “Let’s do this,” she said, taking a deep breath. She decided she’d rather do it now than have to come back in a few days and face all the memories again.
They both stepped from the car and walked up the path, Ilona automatically fumbling in her handbag for her house keys. John realised what she was looking for and held the keys up, jangling them as he did so. Ilona kept all her keys on one key ring, including her car key and she’d forgotten she’d given them to him earlier. He unlocked the door and Ilona followed him through to the lounge, trying to drink in her surroundings as she went since this was the last time she was likely to see the house in this life time, although would have liked to pay it a visit when it had been sold just to see what the new owners were like.
“Here we are, right where I thought she would be. She’s been looking for you.” John said as he walked over to the sofa and picked up Red.
“Red,” Ilona yelled as she ran to the cat, scooping her up and holding her aloft. Red responded by licking Ilona’s face with a rough, dry tongue.
“Can she see me?” Ilona said as she whipped her head round to look at John with a puzzled frown.
“She died on Thursday afternoon of old age.” John said gently as he walked over and put his arm around Ilona’s shoulders. He knew how much Ilona adored Red and how upsetting Red’s death would be to her. Ilona promptly burst into tears again and pulled Red close, kissing her on the head over and over again.
“She wasn’t in pain, was she?” Ilona sobbed as she stroked Red’s soft fur, not sure whether to be sad or happy.
“No, she just lay down under the shed, went to sleep and never woke up.”
“Oh you poor thing. You must have been frozen,” Ilona said as she cuddled Red closer. Then a thought occurred to her. “Does this mean I can keep her with me?” Ilona’s voice cracked with fear at the thought of leaving Red behind. She couldn’t face losing her a second time.
“Yes, she still needs looking after although she won’t be stiff and sore when she gets up in the morning for a while, at least not until she’s lived another cat’s worth of lives.” John smiled as he watched Ilona make a fuss of the cat until he couldn’t wait any longer.
“I have to ask you.” John nervously interrupted the reunion. “Are you going to stay married to me or should I just go and let you make your own way in this life? I don’t want you to feel you have to do anything you don’t want to. Maybe it was a mistake us getting married like that but I was just so happy we were going to get a second chance that I rushed everything. I’ve even made a start on turning one of the bedrooms in our house into a nursery.”
“A nursery?” Ilona exclaimed. “I hadn’t even thought of that. Will we still be able to have children?”
“Yes, we can. Like I said, everything’s the same. Brian and Louise were killed in a car accident ten years ago. They had their twins a couple of years later. Louise says she can’t wait to see her parent’s faces when they die and realise they’ve had grandchildren all this time.”
Ilona looked at him as he rushed to reassure her. He was still the same old John. His face hadn’t changed and his voice, always so gentle, melted her heart again but she still had a nagging doubt.
“What you said about taking Gayle home. I asked Frankie loads of times why she was in your car that night and he said he didn’t know. Was he lying to me?” Ilona looked at John for any sign that he was uncomfortable with the question, but he looked her straight in the eye as he answered.
“He was lying to you. I told him I was going to take her home and he said I should just leave her, that it was her own fault she was in that state and not my responsibility. I thought about it, admittedly, but I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t right. It was partly my fault for keeping my relationship with her going long after I knew we had no future. I stayed with her while I was waiting on someone better to come along. I realised eventually, when she started to talk about marriage as though it were a foregone conclusion, that I was being cruel and had to end it, but if I had ended it sooner she wouldn’t have been so attached to me as she was. I’m part of the reason she was struggling to move on and drinking so heavily. My guilt at the way I had treated her meant I had to see that she got home okay. I hope you understand.”
When John first told Ilona about Gayle he’d omitted to say that he was partly responsible but he hadn’t known Ilona very long then and didn’t want her to think badly of him. Now, however, he’d decided to come clean, reasoning that to start their married life with lies or half-truths would be worse. He hoped Ilona wouldn’t think any less of him for stringing Gayle along the way he had but he’d always known he would have to tell her the whole story one day. With everything that had happened recently, he could only hope that she still trusted him enough to accept that he was being completely honest with her.
Ilona stared at his eyes, looking for a clue that he was telling the truth and finally decided that he was. His eyes were as clear as they always were and she knew in her heart that she finally had her explanation. Her thoughts turned to the new life she was about to embark on and she wondered if she did want something else, maybe to explore this new world before making any major decisions, but then dismissed the thought as quickly as it had popped into her head.
“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather explore this new world with than you. It just adds another ‘dimension’ to the adventure we should have started six months ago. I love you and always will, even when one of us moves on to whatever waits beyond this life. I just hope that if you move on first you’ll be waiting for me when I get there because I know I would be waiting for you.” Shifting Red so that she could carry the cat with one arm, she linked her free arm in John’s and pulled him toward the door. “C’mon, let’s go and start our wonderful new adventure.”
“Hang on a minute,” John said as he stopped. “Is there anything else you want to take with you? Photographs, things like that?”
Ilona thought for a moment.
“Can we take the sofa? You know how much I love it and it will add a bit of colour to your black and grey house,” she pleaded, knowing John’s dislike of the thing.
“Umm, if you want, but, umm, normally people only take little things,” John stammered. “The sofa disappearing would definitely be noticed.”
Ilona’s eyes twinkled as she tried to stifle her giggles by pressing her fingers to her lips but it didn’t work. He really was hopeless at hiding his emotions from her.
“I’m joking,” she snorted, unable to keep the laughter in any longer as she watched the various expressions of horror and despair flit across John’s face. “You should have seen your face just then. It was a picture.”
John sighed with relief. “Thank goodness for that. I don’t know why you love that thing so much. It’s purple, I mean, who buys purple sofas?”
“Sorry, I couldn’t resist having a little joke at your expense. Under the circumstances I think you got off lightly.”
“Yeah, I suppose.” John smiled; glad to see Ilona was beginning to feel better although he knew it would take some time before she was back to her usual self. Dying was a difficult thing to cope with but he hoped the honeymoon he’d save so hard for would go a long way to helping her with that. “That reminds me,” he said as he checked his watch. “We need to be at the airport in about two hours and you still need to pack a few things. I’ve taken the liberty of buying you some clothes and we can go shopping when we get there for anything else you need.”
“Airport?” Ilona looked at him puzzled before realisation dawned. “Are we still going to the Maldives?”
“We can’t. There’s no such place here, but we are going to the afterlife’s equivalent – well, if you want to that is. It’s hot, sunny and has a beautiful beach. We should get moving. Is there anything else you want from here?”
Ilona remembered the outfits she’d bought for Charlotte’s party. “I’ll be back in a sec,” she said, handing Red over to him before dashing upstairs and pulling the bags containing the clothes from the bottom of the wardrobe, thinking they’d be perfect for her honeymoon but, as she walked back downstairs a thought occurred to her. She’d bought the clothes when she was dead and she wondered how that was possible. Walking back into the lounge with a puzzled frown, she looked at John fearfully, thinking that maybe she was still dreaming and if that was the case she was going to be devastated when she woke up.
“Are you okay? You’ve gone very pale,” John asked as he looked at her.
“I’ve just realised I bought these clothes from a shop in the High Street when I was supposed to be dead but that can’t be possible, can it? Am I still dreaming because if I am I’m going to be heartbroken when I open my eyes in the morning?”
John laughed. “A bunch of us have been following you around for the last couple of days trying to help you move on. You almost caught me at one point. I had to duck into the gents toilets in a pub and stay there until Emily gave me the all clear. She’s the woman you spoke to when you asked for directions to the ladies. Annabel, another friend I’ve made in the last six months, followed you into Monsoon and pretended to serve you at the checkout. Really, you shoplifted those things.”
“What? Oh no.” Ilona looked at the bags in dismay.
“I’m joking,” John said, still laughing. “Annabel did the credit card transaction. Hopefully no-one will notice it was the day after you died and the shop will get their money.”
“But how could I have picked the things up without them looking as though they were floating around on their own?”
“That’s not what happens. For some reason as soon as we touch things in this dimension they disappear from sight where the people who haven’t died yet are concerned. No-one could see you or the clothes you were carrying around. Sorry for laughing but it is funny. Anyway, we’d better get going.” John checked his watch again. “Are you sure that’s everything you want.”
“I’m sure but who’s going to look after Red while we’re gone?”
“Brian’s agreed to take her. She’ll be fine. The kids will spoil her rotten. Ready?”
Ilona looked around one last time. The things that had been most precious to her in her past life had ceased to have any significance the day she’d learned John had died. None of the material things she’d treasured so much had meant anything to her in the last six months. She looked into John’s eyes, those wonderful eyes that allowed her to look down into his soul and made up her mind.
“I have everything I want right here. It’s a new life and already we’ve started making new memories. We’ve got photographs of our wedding to come back to and we’ll have plenty more from the honeymoon,” she said as she squeezed John’s arm. “And maybe by the time we come back we’ll have created a new life too,” she whispered with a twinkle in her eyes. “C’mon, let’s go and make the most of however long we have left of this life together.”
Ilona Cameron’s ex-fiancé, John McLeod, jilted her on the eve of their wedding six months ago but he’s never far from her thoughts. She seems to be constantly reminded of him everywhere she goes. Not even able to forget about him while she’s asleep is the cause of much angst for her. Finally deciding to do whatever it takes to put the past behind her, she is dumfounded when, out of the blue, John arrives at her door begging her to give him another chance. That’s when she realises she has already moved on and life as she knew it will never be the same.