When Winnie woke Sila was in her room playing and I was cooking dinner. She staggered into the kitchen and sat at the table and poured herself tea from the pot that I had left out for her. I looked to her and she looked back and then down at the cup in her hands, then I looked back to the hob and continued stirring the stew. She didn’t make a sound but for the occasional supping of her tea. And now and then Sila would laugh or knock something over upstairs.
“I told her that you would be staying with us for a few days. She insisted on making you a card. I told her that she had to wait until I came and got her, in case you wanted to go back to bed. I said that you had just gotten back from a long trip away. If you don’t mind… ”
“… of course. She is so sweet, James. You’ve done such a great job with her.”
“It’s all her. I just supervise. She runs the show.”
“Thank you, James. You’ve saved my life. I owe you so… ”
“… you don’t owe me anything, Winnie. Not one thing. You deserve help.”
“I never thought I’d be anything but alone, James. I’ve never even been with a man. Except for, well,… ”
“… Jesus! Winnie, a real man is loving. A real man never takes by force and never hurts his woman. You’re still pure, Winnie, don’t ever confuse the two.”
“… no, Winnie. Trust me. Someday if you have a man you’ll know the love in those moments. Now sup your tea there, Sister. Will I bring Sila down to say hello?”
As I passed her to walk upstairs I rested my hand on her shoulder and gave it a little squeeze but said nothing. Then I brought down Sila and we all ate dinner together. The girls insisted on sitting beside each other and I took great pleasure in seeing them both smile and whisper and giggle together before Sila tired herself out nattering and dancing while Winnie and I washed the dishes. I think the sense of family that had seeped into the walls of our home gave Winnie some measure of comfort. She had grown up in luxury and ours was just a three bedroomed council house, but she seem genuinely at ease laughing with Sila and tidying up with me. It warmed my soul to be able to provide that measure of assurance for her. She had been through so much and we were all she had. That night Winnie put Sila to bed but when she hadn’t returned in twenty minutes I checked on them and there they were cuddled up and sound asleep. I just closed the door over and sat up to have a drink.
I hadn’t felt the full warmth of our home since Ola died so I poured a glass of whiskey and sat back thinking about the day. I still didn’t know how Winnie escaped her captors or why she hadn’t sought refuge in her convent. In my heart I was just glad that she had come to me. I supposed that she felt safer with me and while I sat and thought about everything that had just happened I nodded off. Around three in the morning I woke and walked upstairs to my bed. Without putting on the light I kicked off my shoes and lay on my bed fully clothed. As I closed my eyes I felt breath on my ear me and heard the gentlest whisper from Winnie, “… put your arm around me.”
My heart all but broke with the sadness in her tone. She needed comfort like a wounded bird does and when I reached my arm over her she leaned forward and put her face in my chest. I hadn’t realised that she had been facing towards me and when she sighed and coiled in under my chin I wept for her suffering. She was so honest and kind. She deserved to be safe.
I remember staring into darkness. Winnie breathing on my chest. My eyes were not fixed on anything and my mind was blank. But my heart was in awed turmoil. I was lying in my wife’s bed with another woman. A woman that I cared deeply for. That first time I felt guilt even though I had let Ola go. I didn’t sleep a wink that night.
The next morning Winnie slept in and I was home from the school run for over an hour before she came downstairs. She looked like a different woman. She was smiling with a meek charm of content on her lips.
“Good morning, James.”
“Are you hungry?”
I didn’t know if she joking at first but she chuckled and came over and stood next to me, pushing her shoulder against mine. She looked up at me and I saw a calmness in her that I had never seen before.
“Thanks for last night. I hope you don’t mind me moving to your bed. You never said where to sleep, so I… ”
“… it’s ok. I was just as glad to hold you as you seem to be with me keeping you warm and safe.”
“I do feel so safe when you hold me, James. It’s a strange feeling to me but it feels so good that I never want you to stop.”
“Good. Just remember that I’m here for you, Winnie. Whatever you need, I’m here. Just ask. I’ll always say yes. Ok?”
She didn’t speak but smiled up at me again with that openness in her eyes.
“So what would you like to eat? Fry? Cereal? Scones and jam?”
“Oh, it’s like that is it?”
“Ok, you can have anything you want. And as much of it as you want. If we run out I’ll go to the shop and get more.”
“Hehehe, I love you, Ja… ”
We both paused with a start, she looked at her feet and then back at me and shrugged her shoulders. And I chuckled and nodded like shy boy.
“Come on, let’s start. You get the frying pan from there. I’ll get the bacon and eggs. And I’ll meet you at the hob. Deal?”
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey