Thursday, 24 July 2014

In Fear of the Void, a short story by Tom Kilcourse

The following is a biographical piece originally written on Tom's Facebook timeline ...

In the darkness I listen to the laboured breathing and am touched by dread of life becoming a void. For half a century we have melded, each surrendering self to an emerging wholeness, so that the loss of one is not simply a separation of individuals, but the destruction of an entity. Such is the price of unreserved union.

We have journeyed far together since meeting in 1964, a meeting so unlikely that for it to have occurred suggests the existence of a guiding hand. She arrived in Oxford from her job with UNESCO in Paris, while I had travelled only from Stockport, where I drove a bus for a living. The distance between us was not merely geographical. If we are all the product of our experience, then we appeared to be of different species.

Raised within a family in the London region, she left England in her late teens and settled in France, first as an au pair in Normandy, and later as an office worker in Paris. Thereafter she held several positions with international organisations, working in Vienna as well as Paris. Her circle of friends included highly educated people coming from various nations. She was at ease in such company. She was 32 and single.

By way of contrast, I was at home in the company of manual workers, and with northerners in particular. My occupations had been in a Manchester back-street garage, underground in a coalmine and working on the buses of Stockport Corporation. My circle did not include a single university graduate and I had never been abroad. My childhood had not been spent in the bosom of a conventional family, but under the care of Victorian grandparents who had rescued me as an infant from the gutters of Harpurhey in East Manchester. I entered Oxford aged 27 and married, with children.

Our friendship began within days of the first term opening when I helped her with a minor academic problem. I fell into the habit of having coffee with her in her room, sometimes with another student, but sometimes alone. The conversation occasionally centred on our studies, she was reading economic theory in the first term while I read politics. More often though, we exchanged information about our experience of life: from vastly different perspectives.

Throughout that first year our friendship was entirely platonic. She appeared to me to epitomise self-assuredness and what I took to be sophistication. After the first term I visited my home in Stockport on most weekends, being given a lift by a fellow student also from the Stockport area. Vacations were spent at home too, driving a bus. During those working vacations my mates on the Corporation were keen to hear about Ruskin College and Oxford. Their curiosity contrasted sharply with my wife’s complete lack of interest.

As the year progressed I slowly became aware of a growing urge to get back to Oxford at the earliest opportunity. In the summer vacation I actually returned to College a week before the second year began. To my astonishment and indescribable pleasure Rita was the first person I met. I had believed her to be in Paris. We went together to a little teashop to exchange anecdotes of the vacation.

Subliminally, I had during the preceding year been drawn into a world that was new to me, a world of ideas in which my views were discussed, if not shared. I had drifted away from my life in Stockport with its entirely parochial focus. Friendships had developed with a number of people from different backgrounds but with a common love of exploring and sharing ideas.

Of those friends, Rita had become the one with whom I most enjoyed discussion. It had not occurred to me that she would countenance a deeper relationship, but a few days before we were due to leave for the winter vacation in 1965 she came to my room and spoke of her feelings towards me. To say that I was surprised would be an enormous understatement. We became lovers on the very last night of term.

During the remaining two terms our relationship deepened, yet it probably would not have endured beyond our spell at Ruskin College had the ‘guiding hand’ not again intervened. In the final term I was offered a job in London with the Transport & General Workers’ Union, who had funded my studies. However, when I was awarded a State Mature Scholarship, I chose to go to Hull University rather than work in London. By pure chance, Rita was also accepted by Hull.

I divorced while at Hull, and a year after graduating we married in Manchester where we found jobs and set up home together. In the following decades we moved several times, usually because of my career, with an uncomplaining wife always prepared to change her own job. Notwithstanding the occasional verbal punch-up, we remained devoted to each other.

Now, she is 82 years old, while I am 77. Whereas I could once recognise the clickety-click of her heels as she approached, the brisk step has been replaced by a shuffle, aided by a stick. Her back is bent because of osteoporosis and she is in constant pain since suffering spinal fractures last year. Where once I would reach across the bed to arouse her, I now do so to ensure she is alive. I do it reflexively should I waken in the night and do not hear her breathing.

I have never been a churchgoer or follower of a particular faith, but I do pray to some unidentified god. I give prayers of thanks for the wonderful life I have had and the love I have known. I also express my gratitude that the ravages of ageing have been entirely physical, with her intellect being as sharp as ever. I give thanks too for being fit enough to continue caring for her. The only thing I ask for in those prayers is for it all to last just a little longer.


Mancunian Tom Kilcourse is an ex-miner, ex-bus driver, ex-Ruskin College & Hull University student, ex-management guru, and at 77 nearly expired. He writes for fun because he can’t make it pay. He has self-published two short-story collections, a brief autobiography, and three novels with a fourth in preparation. He retired to France in 1998 and returned with his wife last year to live in Cheshire.

2 comments:

  1. Very honest, very touching. At first, I thought it was fiction. I like the 'guiding hand' aspect.

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  2. Tom! That 'guiding hand' must have brought me to this page. How wonderful to see you and Rita 'changed but still the same' 50 years since we were at Ruskin together. Can you get in touch? I'd find a note here or you could rearrange 'erlendlee' and '@' and 'Hotmail.com' into a well known phrase or saying and we would have contact. Erl

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