In the short story The Captive (recommended to be read first) I wrote from Mary’s perspective, except for the final three paragraphs where Frank gets a point of view. In order to challenge myself, I thought I would write a parallel short story from Frank’s perspective.
The challenge is that all of the dialog and actions that Frank did in Mary’s perspective, and the final paragraphs must remain exactly the same. (I have only just decided to do this; I haven’t purposely crafted in any plot-hooks into the original story).
Can I lock myself into these restrictions, and still make the story interesting?
Another creaking-noise from the main bedroom interrupted Frank’s shallow sleep, but this time it was a more distinctive sound. Frank had slept alone in the guest bedroom for years avoiding the difficulty of Mary waking on a ‘bad’ day beside a stranger. He heard the wardrobe door open. No more time for rest he told himself even though he was bone-tired. He dressed in haste: Mary might need me.
Frank walked across the hall and opened the bedroom door slowly so he wouldn’t startle her. She was sitting on the edge of the bed dressing, pausing as he came in.
“I thought I heard you up and about darling.” Frank said cheerily.
“Yes” Mary replied. Her response was clipped, tight, defensive. One of those days Frank thought, his hope vanishing. There were so few ‘good’ days now.
“You’re up early.”
“Yes.” Was her only response. She used to be such a talkative woman, but that was in another life.
“You can’t go out wearing that.” Frank said as diplomatically as he knew how. The green slacks with bright pink jumper clashed so badly even Frank could tell they weren’t meant to be worn together. She couldn’t go to the appointment like that. He went to the wardrobe and picked one of the combinations she used to wear, laying out the clothes next to her.
“Change into this.” he said, knowing that she would at least look like her old-self.
“I don’t need you to choose my clothing for me.” Mary snapped.
“No of course not, but it will make me happy to see you in this again.” Frank said. Please don’t fight me today: I don’t have the energy.
“Of course Frank.”
She started to change, turning her back to him. He watched her with a longing sadness. They were both much older now but she was still his wife, and he ached to hold her and be held by her. How much he missed the simple pleasures of a daily kiss. He was her companion, but she was no longer his.
“Why don’t you put on your pearls, you’ll look nice in them.” Frank suggested. She had always loved wearing pearls, and had treasured the 20th wedding anniversary present above all other jewellery. She began brushing her hair and wouldn’t make eye contact with him. A hundred wounds a day, all unknowingly. The perpetual loneliness grew heavier and Frank’s throat began to tighten.
“I’m going to get breakfast started, come down when you’re ready.” Frank said, leaving the room quickly. In the kitchen he braced himself against the sink and breathed deeply. Father God, give me strength his silent and frequent prayer. He set the table careful to do it in the same precise way Mary had liked it done.
He took out the frying pan to cook the bacon and eggs, their traditional Friday morning breakfast. Opening the cupboard to get the cooking oil he saw the letter he had hidden behind it the night before. In a burst of anger he let the pan drop into the sink with a clatter.
Reluctantly he picked up the letter, unfolded it as though it were made with razor blades and read it slowly. He felt the hot sting of tears impending and quickly thrust the letter into his pants pocket. Anger never solves anything he said to himself. He knew the truth and it was as unavoidable as it was unpleasant. This day had to come, it was only a matter of time.
After a few more deep breaths and another prayer heavenward, he picked up the pan, dried it off and then started to cook. Pouring in the eggs he put the old kettle onto another element, and flipped through the newspaper while the eggs grew firm.
“Mary, breakfast is ready.” Frank called. When she didn’t come immediately Frank instantly became concerned. She should have finished getting ready by now… what else could she be doing? Had something happened while he was distracted? Relief flooded through him as she walked in, even if she had a sulky demeanour.
“There you are,” he said, “You look lovely.”
They sat down together and he took her hand. He felt her flinch but ignored it; they had always held hands for breakfast prayers and some traditions were worth maintaining. After the prayer, Mary smiled at him and complimented breakfast. She never wanted her tablets but he made sure she took them. He talked to her about the current news hoping for some conversation but she ate in silence. He used to joke she had more than one opinion about everything, but she was seldom willing to speak anymore. Her spark had been extinguished, it was as though she was on life-support: breathing, but not living.
Frank realised she was about to say something and looked up in expectation.
“Please Frank, will you let me see Thomas today?” Mary blurted out. Frank’s heart dropped in disappointment. This is what you choose to ask? Despite answering the question what felt like a hundred times in the past he hadn’t yet found an honest answer that was acceptable. He just didn’t know what to say any more.
“Please Frank, I’ll be very good. I’ll do everything you ask me to. Just let me see him.”
“You can’t Mary. You can’t see Thomas. I can get you a photo if you would like?”
“I don’t want to see a damn photo of him, I want to see him.”
He didn’t know what to say or do. The sad truth was she was no longer even a shadow of her former self. Whenever he looked into her eyes he saw confusion or fear, neither of which he could save her from. Disturbed by the thought, Frank started gathering the dishes.
“You just sit there and finish your cup of tea darling, and I’ll do these dishes.” Frank said. She tired easily and it was best she saved her energy for later in the day.
“Shall we go and sit out in the garden for a while?” Frank suggested as he hung the tea towel up. “Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in the open air and listen to the birds?” The garden always seemed to sooth her. She should enjoy it while she could.
“Sure, the garden sounds nice.”
“Let’s go then.” Frank said cheerily and led her out the locked back door. There was a mud stain on the wall: Mary had used his shoes to try and knock the key off its hook. What if she had gone outside and fallen, hurting herself? What if she’d wandered off again? He turned to her with panic at what could have been,
“Mary!” he said in a pleading voice, “You know you have to ask me if you want to go outside.”
“Yes. Sorry darling.” She said. He momentarily froze as she used the affectionate term. He searched her eyes for a spark of recognition, willing it to be so: brief hours or minutes of blessed reconnection spread amongst months of separation. He smiled at her, but saw no glimmer of his true Mary.
Frank sat at the garden table and as he did he felt the folded paperwork in his pocket, pulling his mind back to the inevitable. He was crushed by the decision, knowing what it must be. Despite all his efforts he knew he could no longer care for her alone. He had done his best, but his strength was failing and each day was becoming harder. The constant care was a burden and her needs were only increasing.
He was incredibly thankful that she had been accepted into the high needs care centre but he couldn’t help feel that this was another opening of the chasm between them. He would spend each day with her, but have the respite of nights. He knew that she would have better care at the centre, but he was so used to being with her that to be alone…
Frank looked across at Mary: the woman that he loved. Decades spent together meant he could read her body language fluently. She appeared calm but he could sense the agitation and tension just below the surface. He would have to be extra watchful today.
Both widowers, they had found each other in their mid-thirties and re-married. They had enjoyed many good years together raising a family and cultivating this garden from seedlings. They had bonded in laughter and pain; like when they had lost their adolescent son Thomas in a car accident.
Frank had great memories of their life together and it deeply saddened him to know that she no longer shared those memories. Early onset Alzheimer’s had made her a captive within her own body, and a great love for her kept him captive by her side.