A Greater Love
What can you give when you have nothing?
The crowd at the school gate fell silent as she approached. Pamela Morris, village rumour monger and gossip-in-chief regarded her slyly. ‘Hi, Jane, you not driving today? She barely concealed a smirk. The two mothers Pamela had been gossiping with looked down at their feet, embarrassed.
Jane’s nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed ‘It doesn’t take long for bad news to spread around this village, does it?’
Pamela forced a pained smile, ‘whatever do you mean Jane?’
Jane’s fists balled and her face reddened as she took a sharp pace towards the woman, pushing her face to with inches of her antagonist’s. ‘You know damn well our cars have been repossessed you two-faced bitch’ she spat, well, not to worry, we won’t be around long enough to embarrass you and the golfing set, our house is being repossessed, too.’
Pamela Morris recoiled at Jane’s vehemence; her eyes shocked as she took a rapid pace backwards to form a protective huddle with her cronies.
Jane turned away as she heard Daniel call ‘Hi, Mummy.’ The seven-year-old was running towards her waving a painting he’d done. One stocking was down around his ankle, his shirt tail hanging out and his cap was awry. ‘Sally’s coming in a minute mummy, she’s talking to miss Walburn.’
Jane focussed on adjusting Daniel’s wardrobe, praying her daughter would hurry, she was acutely aware of the stares and whispers her outburst had provoked. Two long minutes dragged by before Sally came, her face serious. ‘Miss Walburn gave me this note for you Mummy, she said it’s important and could she have an answer tomorrow, please?’
Jane quickly pocketed the envelope; she knew what it contained, and she wouldn’t give Morris and co any more fuel for gossip. She hurried away clutching her childrens’ hands to walk the half-mile home. It came on to rain heavily then, and she had forgotten her umbrella, compounding her misery.
This was all Peter’s fault, him and his ambition to strike out on his own. She stifled a sob and held back the angry tears that threatened to show her distress in front of the children. This could not go on.
That night, the children in bed, they sat in the lounge, Peter despondently sorting through a mound of unpaid bills. ‘Put them down, Peter, we have to talk.’
Peter looked up his eyes red-rimmed from lack of sleep ‘I’m sorry, Jane, truly I am.’
‘Sorry won’t do Peter, I’ve come to a decision. I’m leaving you.’
Peter’s mouth fell open, ‘leaving? Where would you go? What about the children, their school, their friends?’
‘I’m going to my parents and taking the kids, Peter. I’ve had enough of your dreams. We’re so broke I got a note today from the school asking to pay the children’s dinner money. If we can’t pay by next Monday, they will have to stop them. Or we can apply for free school meals, but we’ll still owe the arrears.’
Peter’s face crumpled ‘Oh, Christ! Has it come to this?’
An angry tear rolled down her cheek ‘Yes, it has come to this, she shouted. ‘This is all your damn fault, Peter. You and your strike out alone bullshit. This village needs a coffee shop, blah blah.’ She let go an involuntary sob. ‘You were a regional sales manager for God’s sake, with the national sales manager’s post practically in the bag when old Davidson retired.’
‘That wasn’t certain, Jane, not certain at all…’
‘That’s beside the point, Peter. You gambled all our futures on that damn café, you insisted we extend the mortgage, used all our savings, and even borrowed from my parents.’ She beat her fist on her knee, bitter bile rising in her throat. ‘Just like your other wild dream that cost us a fortune, it came to nothing.’ She sat rigid, clenching and unclenching her hands, her breath coming in gasps. ‘It’s me and the children paying the price for your bloody-minded obstinacy.’
‘That’s not fair Jane, I couldn’t help Covid, no one saw that coming. Everybody’s in the same boat.’
‘Everybody being in the same boat is no comfort to me, Peter. It was the same with your ambition to be a writer. You got yourself sucked in by those vanity publishers. All our savings for the Disneyland trip were squandered, the kids disappointed, and for what? A garage full of useless bloody books you can’t sell.’
Peter’s jaw jutted, ‘they are not vanity publishers, Jane, they are a small cost-sharing publisher who worked damned hard on my behalf, they even got me an agent.’
‘And what bloody good has it done you, eh?’ Jane’s voice rose to a screech. ‘She’s sat in London with successful authors on her books, she doesn’t need the likes of you, idiot.’
‘Keep your voice down Jane, you’ll wake the kids and…’
‘Keep my bloody voice down? You spend six grand on three editors and another seventeen hundred on proofreading, God alone knows how much on supposed publicity and for what? One hundred and two books sold, mostly to sympathetic friends and family.’ She sniffed, wiping her eyes on a tissue. ‘You’re a loser, Peter Ogden, a bloody loser.’
‘It’s a damned good novel, Jane, well-edited, well-produced, and with an outstanding cover, everyone says so.’
‘You’re a fool, Peter, there are a million authors out there as good as you and some much better who are struggling to sell their books.’ She paused to dab her red-rimmed eyes on the now soggy tissue ‘I’ve had enough. I used to love and respect you, but you’ve killed that.’ She sank back into her armchair utterly spent. ‘Enough.’
Peter rose and started pacing up and down the room his hands shaking. He turned his back to her facing the curtained window, raking his fingers through his hair. ‘God, Jane, even JK Rowling couldn’t sell Harry Potter for ages.’
‘You’re no Rowling, Peter, don’t kid yourself. And as for this bloody coffee shop dream…?’
‘I was stifled in that sales Job, Jane, and you know it.’
‘Stifled? Jesus Christ!’ She leapt up, her energy renewed by a surge of adrenalin, pushing him violently in the chest ‘How the hell do you think I feel you selfish bastard? You gave up a damned good salary, company pension, car allowance, and expenses simply because you felt stifled? For a damned coffee shop? God almighty!’
Peter’s face tightened, ‘you must share the blame, Jane, wanting to live here, wanting a four-bed detached house and village life. A three-bed semi in town would have been adequate but no, Jane had to have her sodding dream house. Jane’s dream was fine, but Peter’s dream? Hell, no! His voice rose as his frustration spilled over, the strain of this last year boiling to the surface.
‘Mummy, daddy, why are you shouting?’ Sally had come down unheard and was standing at the door clutching her Teddy bear. ‘Is it because we have no money?’
‘No darling Daddy is just a little…’
‘Yes darling, it is, but there’s no need for you to worry, mummy will take care of you.’
They each hugged their daughter and promised to stop arguing. She eventually went back to bed, a sad-eyed little girl.
Chastened, Jane said quietly ‘she’s nearly eleven, Peter, and she’s bright. She’s not asked why she can’t have dancing lessons anymore or go pony riding. She’s worked it out for herself. The poor kids can’t see half their friends after school anymore because we have no car.’
Peter sat down again, his head falling into his hands, despair threatening to overwhelm him. He loved Jane and his children to distraction and their situation was tearing them apart. Jane was right, it was all his fault, but what could he do? It was three weeks to the end of the month, three weeks until this beautiful house, their home on which they had lavished such love and care, would be snatched away. The bank would auction it off to the highest bidder. What little money was left would go on their debts, and he would be made bankrupt. If only Covid hadn’t happened. Raw pain pierced his heart as silent tears flooded his lined face.
Life was so unjust. He had done the hard work this time, the spreadsheets said his profit margin was excellent, his catchment area was great, the bank OK’d everything then wham! As soon as he had signed the lease, and installed all new fixtures and fittings, the Government imposed the lockdown. The family was soon struggling, hanging on by their fingernails even with the government’s financial help. Jane’s jewelry went along with his Rolex watch, a salesman of the year award. His golf clubs and membership subscription quickly followed. And now no car meant no job and no job meant no car. Catch22.
Jane left with the children the next morning, despite his pleading. She used the last of her credit card for their train fares up to Inverness.
Peter wept in the empty house; dry sobs wracked his chest as he sat in his underwear almost all day, staring bleakly at the wall. He remembered his late mother. He could always turn to her for advice in times of trouble. She would always know what to do, though he doubted even she would have a solution to this disaster.
He went to bed that night and lay awake thinking what would mother have advised? How would she cope with this situation? He could find no answer.
As dawn crept around the edges of his bedroom curtains, five strange words came into his head, “Greater love hath no man.” He fell into a deep exhausted sleep.
Peter awoke in bright sunshine. The November rain and wind that had battered most of the leaves from the trees had abated. The world looked bright and clean. He felt a deep sense of peace for he now had a solution.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.“
A quote from the bible. Peter hadn’t been near a church since Daniel was christened and he had never been a bible reader so why did that occur to him now? They had only had the children christened to meet their families expectations.
He didn’t ponder on the reasons why, for now he had a solution to all his problems. His mind was calm and clear as he sat with his morning coffee planning. If he died of natural causes or as the result of an accident, the mortgage would be paid off in full. He also had a policy taken out by his old employer on his behalf that was still in force. That paid £100,000 on death or double that if death was accidental. That set him thinking.
Walking in front of a bus was out of the question. He knew he lacked the courage to do it and if he did and somehow survived it would have been for nothing. No, this had to be an obvious accident, that way Jane would inherit the house debt-free and £200,000. That sum should set her on her feet again. Their dire situation was all his fault, and he must pay the piper.
He made some toast and more coffee, his mind working placidly. Yes, that’s what he would do. Now, what would he need? Oh, yeah, some money.
Peter rang a house clearance company; the bloke came that same day. He got a pittance for the furniture, fixtures and fittings, but consoled himself with the thought that it was enough to make his plan work. He rang Jane, his voice upbeat. ‘Hi, baby, do you remember when we were courting? That summer we went to the Glastonbury Festival, and it poured down the whole time?’
Jane sounded suspicious, ‘if this jolly voice means a charm offensive, Peter, forget it.’
‘How could I ever forget it?’ We zipped our sleeping bags together and went at it like rabbits while listening to great music. Did we even stop to eat?’
‘What’s got into you Pete? You sound happy. Are you that glad to see the back of me?’
‘God, no, I miss you and the kids like crazy. It’s just that I’ve been planning. It’s only half thought through but it’s not a dream. I’ll tell you about it when I see you. Look, Jane, if I don’t do something positive, I’ll go mad. I’m coming up to see you, but I’m not rushing. We both need some space. I’ve sold the furniture; I’m buying some camping gear and I’ll walk or hitchhike while doing a bit of wild camping.’
‘Are you crazy? Camping at your age and in late autumn? You’ll freeze to death you silly sod.’
‘I’m only forty-two Jane, hardly in my dotage. I reckon it’ll take about a week to get up there, it’ll give us both time to consider our future. If you decide to divorce me, I won’t oppose it. I only want what’s best for you and the kids.’
He heard her gently weeping on the other end of the phone ‘I don’t know Peter; I’m so confused now. My parents are staying out of it. they’re upset because they both love you.’
Peter felt his lips trembling, he was welling up; he had to keep his act up. ‘OK, I’ve got to go, Jane. I just want you to know I’ll be switching my phone off; I don’t want bailiffs and the like ringing me while I’m travelling.’
He hung up, taking a deep breath. Stage one complete. Her last call from him would be remembered as upbeat.
Stage two, write my travel journal full of the joys of life. Your writing skills will come in handy now Peter me boy, everyone will think you have resolved your issues at least in your own mind.
The sign in the window of the outdoor equipment shop read “Now is the winter of our discount tents” Peter was cheered by it. He bought a big rucksack and a lightweight tent. His camping gear was state of the art, and he negotiated an even bigger discount than they offered. He stocked up with freeze-dried food to avoid using cafes.
He caught a bus going to Bolton and started walking north. That night he camped on the moors and filled in his journal: “Day One: off on a grand adventure to sort out my problems. They will not defeat me. Great day, I saw a fox and some deer on the moors, my new walking boots are comfortable and I’m a day nearer my beloved family.
The next day, after a ten-mile hike, he got a lift in a lorry to the South lakes. He found some dense rhododendron bushes by the side of lake Windemere and pitched his tent among them. Early the following morning he swam in the lake. The water was like liquid ice, should he go on swimming until hypothermia claimed him? No, best stick to his original plan. The swim left him glowing, feeling more alive than he’d done in ages. He cooked breakfast on his gas stove and struck camp.
At the end of that day, Peter found himself at the top of Shap Fell puffing like a grampus after the long climb. Jane was right, age and a soft lifestyle were catching up on him.
He filled his journal again with expressions of love for his family and vivid descriptions of the scenery and wildlife he’d seen along the way. The pages were filling up nicely, all evidence of a man in his prime enjoying life to the full. Quite the opposite of a suicide note.
He was fortunate the next day, a man in a pickup truck stopped and asked where he was heading. He dropped him beside Loch Lomond where the weather turned foul. It rained heavily and he crouched under a magnificent Scots pine to cook his evening meal.
The next morning dawned bright but freezing cold, the frozen rain on the tent made it difficult to fold but he persevered and was soon on his way.
Stopping to rest around noon, he sat on the garden wall of an isolated cottage. A voice called to him ‘coo-ee, young man, have ye got a minute, please?’
He turned to see an elderly lady waving from the top of the path. She looked around eighty, slim with smooth skin and bright blue eyes that sparkled.
Peter left his rucksack and went up the path. ‘How can I help you?’
‘Come away in will ye?’ she said waving him through the door into her immaculately clean house.
‘What can I do for you, ma’am?’
‘My bathroom light bulb has gone and my son’s away on the oil rigs. I can’t reach, and I’m not allowed to climb step ladders.’
‘No problem, I’ll have it done in a minute.’
‘I’ll make you a cup o’ tea while you’re here young man and maybe some hot soup?’
She scuttled off before he could answer.
The bulb proved a tougher job than expected due to a high ceiling and the constant bathing in steam that had made some of the fittings rusty, but eventually, the job was done.
‘Sit ye down son, sit ye down.’ The soup was a thick homemade one with loads of vegetable and thumbnail size chicken pieces floating in it. A huge chunk of fresh bread lay next to it. ’You look half starved, laddie, get stuck in.’ She smiled revealing a sturdy set of teeth. ‘What’s your name, by the way?’
He swallowed a mouthful of the scalding soup, feeling it burn his throat ‘I’m Peter, Peter Ogden, and you?’
‘I’m Mary McKay, Peter, but folks call me May.’
‘Pleased to meet you May, do you live here alone?’
‘Aye, that I do since my man passed away these four years ago.’
Peter found the soup delicious and the bread divine. When he told her so she glowed with pride. ‘Thank you, Peter, I bake every other day and cook all my own meals from scratch, it passes the time. In the summer I do the garden, too, but there’s no need just now.’
‘You’re very active if I may say so.’
‘Aye, well, I have to keep myself occupied, I’m ninety-six now and the good Lord is showing no sign of calling me home just yet.’
Peter’s eyebrows went up at this revelation, she was the best-preserved nonagenarian he’d ever encountered. ‘Is there anything else I can do for you while I’m here, May?’
‘No, son, but you can tell me what’s troubling you if it helps.’
Peter’s eyes widened ‘there’s nothing troubling me, May. I’m on holiday and having a wonderful time.’
‘Aye, if you say so, but I was near fifty years on the stage, Peter, and know acting when I see it. It’s in your eyes son, it’s in your eyes.’
Peter knew he was on dangerous ground; he didn’t want even the possibility of a witness testifying that he may have been depressed. He told May he had split from his wife, but he was travelling to be reconciled and that all the signs were good, but of course, they still had things to sort out.
May gave a gentle smile ‘you should try the power of prayer Peter, ask and you shall receive.’
‘Peter pushed away the empty soup bowl and rubbed his forehead to buy thinking time. He didn’t want to offend this kind woman with his beliefs.
‘Ah, I see you’re a non-believer’ she said shrewdly ‘well, no matter, Peter, God loves us all regardless.’
Peter looked her in the eye ‘I believe in the possibility of there being a God, May, it’s just organised religion and the holy Joes I can’t stand.’
‘That’s understandable, Peter, after watching the antics of some so-called churchmen. She placed her hand on his arm, smiling, kindness radiating from her beautiful old face. ‘I’ll no preach at you, Peter. I’ll just say this, if all else fails just ask him, OK?’
Peter’s smile was heartfelt, ‘thank you, May. How could anyone not be encouraged after talking to you?’ He left shortly after that, his feelings mixed but determined to see his plan through.
Late afternoon found him on a wild country road, the sky was clear, and frost sparkled on the trees. Tonight would be the ideal night, his last on earth.
He found a passing place on the single-track road bordered by a dry-stone wall. He threw his gear over it into the field. He would set up camp in the lee of the wall, sheltered from the wind. Enough of the tent would show above the wall to be easily visible from the road and anyone working the field couldn’t fail to spot it. He cooked and ate a meal crouched close to the wall out of the chill wind that was increasing in strength. He didn’t feel hungry now the time was upon him, but the contents of his stomach must be normal for the post-mortem.
Gazing up at the stars, Peter was stunned by their beauty. Away from the light pollution of towns, they looked huge and so bright as to have an ethereal quality. He wondered about eternity. Could there really be life after death? His Catholic upbringing said there was, but being asked to believe that people could be brought back from the dead, others walk on water, and virgins have babies? No, he concluded, fairy tales and myths designed to control the masses through their sense of guilt. Humans were microbes living on a grain of sand on an endless beach of stars and planets, he told himself. No matter what you did everyone died eventually, a few years here or there were not important. ‘Anyway,’ Peter said aloud, ‘if you are up there, God, I hope you understand what I’m about to do and not judge me too harshly.’
His meal over, Peter laid out his clothes for the next day. All the evidence must point to his expecting to be alive then. He lay in his sleeping bag thinking of May and her faith. If it brought her comfort that was all to the good. ‘Well, God,’ he muttered ‘if you are real, you’ve got a bloody perverse sense of humour, that’s all I can say. I mean, what great harm have I ever done that you to visit this on me?’
He dismissed his thoughts of God and took the photo of the family from his wallet. He looked at it, stroking their faces for a long time, tears running down his face. He was doing this for them. His life was the only thing left that he could give, and he would give it willingly but, like any human, when it came to the act he hesitated.
The voice in his head said, “if you’re going to do it, Peter Ogden, then get on with it,” but still he hesitated. He switched on his phone with shaking hands. Maybe a last call to hear Jane and the kid’s voices one more time? Fool, don’t lose it now. Think of them, not you. Despite this, his finger pressed the quick dial. A surge of sadness and relief washed through him when Jane’s phone went straight to voicemail.
Peter took a deep breath and forced himself to smile. His sales experience told him you can’t sound unhappy when you’re smiling. ‘Hi, Jane. My word, it’s freezing out here, tonight. I’ll be with you tomorrow afternoon sometime. Can’t wait. Kiss the kids for me. G’bye.’
He hung up realizing he’d just left even more tangible evidence that was he was about to do had been accidental.
Ok, one last journal entry.
“This trip has been a great revelation and my head is now clear. I want Jane back and when I see her tomorrow, I’ll do all in my power to tell her how much I love her. I’ll get a regular job and to hell with my dreams. I realise now what’s important in my life. It is Jane and the kids; all the rest is incidental. I just hope she’ll give me another chance.”
He lit the cooking stove and placed it at arm’s length near the tent entrance. He was replicating a mistake that novice campers had made in the past, trying to keep warm on a cold night. Death came quickly from carbon monoxide poisoning. The gas was colourless, tasteless, odourless, and lethal. He would simply fall asleep and never wake up. Already he was feeling drowsy. He placed the diary on his chest and let the pen fall to his side. A great sadness consumed him, and he let go a choking sob as his catholic past caught him unawares. He beat his breast three times ‘Mae culpa, mae culpa, mae maxima culpa’ he whispered. Sleep rapidly claimed him.
Early the next morning the sun hung low in its autumnal glory. The air was icy, and a strong wind blew, bringing the wind chill factor well into minus figures. A curious cow sniffed at Peter’s tent roof, mooing softly.
Hamish Brown, driving his tractor down the lane, spotted the tent in his field. Another damned camper, too rude to ask permission to camp. These folk annoyed him intensely. ‘Too bloody tight to pay me a fiver’ he muttered. Those were the sort that always left rubbish about the place, risking injury to his animals. He pulled into the passing place; this one would get a piece of his mind. He vaulted the wall and shook the tent. ‘Hey, you in there, show yourself.’ There was no response. He pulled the zip, opening the tent in one furious stroke. ‘Oh, my god!’Brown grabbed the sleeping bag and pulled Peter out in one swift move.
Peter stirred, his head ached abominably but he realised that he was still alive, how could this be possible? His plan had been faultless. The outer tent sheet was being buffeted hard. The inner compartment air vents were billowing like galleon sails, the airflow through them strong. The wind had turned 180 degrees, clearing his tent of the deadly gas. Now his head throbbed and his mouth was parched but his biggest pain came from the destruction of his carefully laid plan.
He became aware of a voice shouting, but he couldn’t make out the words. A ruddy face stared into his. The man’s look d to one of concern as he shook Peter.
‘Good grief, you look like death warmed up, mon.’ The man reached into the tent ‘Oh, God, you’ve not been trying to keep warm with this, have ye?’ he said, holding up the gas stove.
Peter nodded, too scared to talk in case his emotions ran away with him. The farmer carried him to the tractor. ‘We’ll get you to my place and get you checked out. You’re lucky to be alive, laddie.’
Peter was dizzy, his thoughts confused. No, I’m not lucky to be alive, what the hell am I going to do now?
He had only a vague memory of the farmer’s wife pressing hot sweet tea on him then the ambulance trip to A&E. he was treated and released with a stern lecture on the perils of lighting gas stoves in enclosed spaces. ‘From what you tell us’ the doctor said, ‘that canister must have been pretty depleted after cooking all your meals and the strong wind and your tent’s ventilation saved you.’
Leaving the hospital to make his way to Jane and the kids, Peter’s emotions were raging, what the hell am I going to tell Jane? He couldn’t make another suicide attempt now without calling his motives into serious question.
He took a taxi for the last few miles to his in-law’s house, his guts churning. Oh, God, what a total bloody mess.
Sitting tight-lipped in the cab he switched on his phone to discourage his driver’s friendly chat. There were two messages, one was from Jane the other from a number that looked vaguely familiar. To give himself thinking time he took the unfamiliar message first. ‘Hi, Mr Ogden, it’s Sarah Montague, your literary agent.’ She sounded excited. ‘Great news, Peter. I’ve been promoting your book and yesterday I got an offer from Netflix, they want to buy an option on your story to turn it into a film. They offered $300,000 for it. I negotiated it up to $450,000 plus royalties when they make the film, which they say will most likely be next year. I need your approval before I can give them the final OK. Please ring me as soon as you get this message.’
Peter sat in stunned silence for a moment, his emotions in turmoil, then tears of joy streamed down his face as he wept openly to the consternation of his driver.
Perhaps there was a God after all.
Copyright J A Milligan
Divine intervention, Tony, rather than the lucky chance of being saved by a few ounces of butane gas, perhaps from heating water for a second cup of tea, who knows? Well-written with good use of scene-setting descriptions and creating personalities. I like a happy ‘literary’ ending, perhaps here wishful thinking with your own endeavours methinks, after finishing your creative writing course? (Could be me, but I think the grammar needs to be looked at in the first paragraph, last sentence ?? No, ok on reading again, perhaps a comma efter ‘with’?). Enjoyable, and at readable length.
Thank you, my friend. It’s always nice to have feedback. Sorry I took so long to answer you.