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Elizabeth Preston – “The Sacrifice”

From Bohemian Bouquet, published 1980 by The Bohemians.

 

The Sacrifice

Mary sighes as she washed her supper dishes. The long winter evening stretched drearily before her – if only she had brought a few of her favourite books with her, and her portable radio. But she had come away in such a hirry. Aunt Sarah had a radio alright; but it was ancient, like everything else in the cold bleak Victorian house, and it crackled and faded out just when she found an interesting programme. Tomorrow she would go out and buy a pattern and some knitting wool to keep her occupied during the long lonely evenings while she was here.

As Mary put everything away as tidily as possible in the old kitchen cupboard, she thought longingly of her own cosy flat with central heating, the modern kitchen and bathroom, comfortably warm all the time. Since she arrived here a few days ago she hadn’t been able to pluck up enough courage to have a bath – it was so cold, and the bath so old and uninviting.

Mary had retired just one month ago – early retirement with a good pension. She had been well paid as secretary to Mr. Watson, the chairman of the firm. For twenty-five years she had held that position and when the chairman retired, Mary did not feel that she wanted to work for anyone else. So it suited her to accept the offer of early retirement. There were so many things she wanted to do: her painting – how lovely to be able to spend hours at a time on it without feeling guilty about the chores which normally had to be tackled after work. Time to browse in the library and second-hand book shops in the town and the joy of finding and reading some treasure; time to join in more activities at her church, to attend the mid-week women’s meeting, and take a Sunday school class. She had always refused when asked before, as she felt that she would not have time to prepare properly; but she was sure that she would enjoy working with the children. Perhaps for the next summer she would plan a trip to Canada. Anne and Mary had been school friends and had always kept in touch. It would be lovely to accept the often repeated invitation to spend a few weeks with Anna and her family.

So Mary had been looking forward to all these things as she started her retirement. She had spent the first few weeks catching up on various jobs in her flat, and was just starting to relax and enjoy herself when the telephone call came. Aunt Sarah, her only close relative, lived almost a hundred miles away. Mary visited her from time to time – but she was such a prickly old lady that the visits were not much pleasure to Mary, and she felt that probably Aunt Sarah didn’t really enjoy them either. Sometimes when Mary returned home after a week-end visit she vowed to herself that she wouldn’t go again. But Aunt Sarah was her father’s sister – her dear father, who himself had such a gentle nature. He would have been pleased to know that she visited the old lady and did what she could to brighten her life. Then a few days ago a neighbour telephoned – Aunt Sarah had fallen and was in her local hospital. So Mary hastily packed a case and went to see her. On completing her journey she went straight to the hospital, but the old lady was under sedation and did not seem to recognize Mary. She stayed for some time, just sitting by the bed; but there was nothing she could do and eventually the nurse suggested that she should go and get herself a meal. She could visit her aunt again the next day. So for the last few days her life had fallen into a pattern of doing a little housework and shopping in the mornings, visiting Aunt Sarah in the afternoons and spending the evenings listening to the crackling radio and trying to keep warm until she gave up and went early to bed.

This evening, after washing up, Mary switched on the gas fire in the sitting room, but the old radio was neglected. There was so much on her mind and her thoughts were chaotic as she huddled over the fire. During the past few days Aunt Sarah had gradually improved. She recognized Mary and expressed some pleasure at her daily visits – even though in a rather grudging way! But today had been different. Aunt Sarah was propped up in bed, her hair brushed, and wearing the pretty bed-jacket Mary had bought for her – but she looked even more unhappy than usual. At first she said very little, only answering yes or no to Mary’s enquiries, but gradually it all came out. A medical social worker had been to see her that morning. She would eventually be discharged from hospital. “They don’t want me to go home,” she told Mary. “She says it’s not safe there on my own with no-one to look after me. I said I’d been looking after myself well enough for years, but she wouldn’t listen.” Her face was flushed and she got quite agitated. “They want me to go into a Rest Home – at least for a few weeks, she said. I know what that would mean. Once I was in there, I’d never get home again.” Mary tried to calm the old lady. “Some of these homes are very nice places,” she assured her aunt. “You wouldn’t have to bother about shopping or cooking and you would be well looked after.” But although she knew what she was saying was perfectly true, Mary couldn’t sound enthusiastic. She knew that her aunt was one of the few elderly people who would not be happy living with strangers, as she found it difficult to mix with others.

Suddenly Mary felt very sorry for her aunt. Someone who had gone through life suffering disappointments and making sacrifices for others surely deserved some happiness at the end of her life. Aunt Sarah’s sweetheart had been killed a few weeks before the end of the first World War. Her brothers and sisters had married and had families, while she stayed at home looking after elderly parents and nursing her mother throughout a long illness. She had been denied the opportunity of a teaching career which she would have liked.

Impulsively, Mary took Aunt Sarah’s hands in her own. “You will go home, Aunt,” she said quietly. “I will come and look after you.” She said it and meant it but at the same time Mary felt an awful sinking feeling inside. All the plans she had made, all the lovely things she wanted to do in her retirement – she seemed to see them all floating away beyond her reach. Aunt Sarah was looking at her as if she couldn’t believe what she had heard; her eyes filled with tears. Mary managed a smile of reassurance. “You’ll have to keep warm when you get home,” she said. “We’ll get a nice new gas fire and a few other things to make you more comfortable.” She chattered on, partly to help the old lady over her unusual show of emotion, partly to cover up her own feelings of dismay at what her action would cost her. Eventually she left her aunt looking happier than Mary had ever seen her, in spite of her frailness. Tomorrow she would have to see people, start making arrangements; there would be so many things to do. But tonight she just couldn’t think about it all. After sitting there for a while Mary went off to bed, only to toss and turn restlessly most of the night. Had she made a mistake? Could she really ‘put up with’ Aunt Sarah day after day, week after week? Then she remembered her aunt’s face when she made her offer, and she knew that she had done the right thing. In spite of her misgivings she began to feel at peace with herself and managed a few hours restful sleep after all.

In the morning Mary took a good look around the house, thinking of it now as her future home. ‘I suppose it could be made quite a bit better with just a little money spent on it’ she thought. Her aunt wasn’t too short of money she was sure, and Mary could make a few purchases herself, as well as bringing some of her own possessions. She then decided to have an early lunch and do her shopping on the way to the hospital. She was just sitting down to eat when the doorbell rang.

When Mary answered, she found the minister from the church on the corner standing on the door-step. He came in at her invitation, saying that he had just come from the hospital. As there was no telephone in the house, he had assured the hospital sister that he would come round and tell Mary what had happened. He had gone to visit at the hospital and seen Aunt Sarah there. The nurse said that she wasn’t so well this morning, but he could talk to her for a few minutes. Aunt Sarah had been very weak but wanted to tell him something – that her niece was going to look after her in her own home so that she could stay there for the rest of her life. “She was so happy,” the minister said. “It meant so much to her. And then she just closed her eyes and slipped away into eternity.”

Elizabeth Preston

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