“You are not my wife. I don’t think you should be in my bed”: a dementia romance by Jan Pryor
“I’m still up for it.” Rachel flushed as she spoke.
“Me too,” Barb said.
Rachel’s eyes followed the swing of the waiter’s buttocks.
Rachel didn’t have a husband. Barbara had Kevin. Their bedtime routine was an unvarying sequence. She cleaned her teeth in the bathroom; Kevin put his pyjamas on. He climbed into bed and turned his back to her. Sometimes he said sleep well Barb.
Some nights she undid the top buttons of her nightgown so that the valley of her cleavage was visible.
She had tried taking the initiative. She stroked him through the stuff of his pyjamas. His body moved so that he was lying on his front.
In the mornings he brought her tea. She wished he would sit on the bed beside her. He sat on the chair, his dressing gown closed by a decisive knot in its cord.
Until Wednesday. He came into the bedroom, looked at her and dropped the tea on the floor.
“What are you doing in my bed?”
“Who are you? I think you should leave my bedroom. Now.”
Barbara went to him. He took a step back from her.
“Come back to bed, dear.” She pushed him gently under the duvet.
“You are not my wife. I don’t think you should be in my bed.”
Barbara stroked his arm. They dressed and had breakfast. He was like a trapped cat; he flinched when she touched him.
“You’re very kind,” he said. “My wife will be back soon and then you can go.”
The psycho-geriatrician’s questions were gentle. He asked the nurse to take Kevin to check his blood pressure. Kevin trailed the nurse like a puppy following a food bowl.
“He has dementia I’m afraid Mrs. Wilson. Probably been coming on gradually. Have you noticed anything?”
“He has trouble remembering our grandchildren’s names, and he sometimes forgets to get dressed.”
“It’s not uncommon to appear suddenly like this. He will remember who you are less and less. It’s like the development of a child going backwards.” He leaned forward, touched her hand.
“He can be at home with you for now. Just remember that essentially he is a little boy and he will become infantile. When you can’t cope we’ll look at other options.”
As they walked toward the carpark Kevin took her arm.
“It’s good of you to look after me. My wife will come home soon.”
Their routines remained. Kevin read the paper after breakfast, shaking his head. They ate lunch in the sunroom. Dinner was on their TV trays while they watched the news. Kevin’s eyes followed her, though he stopped asking her who she was.
One night Kevin turned his body towards her.
“I’m so glad you’re here Eileen.” His hand stroked her stomach.
Eileen. Her best friend at school.
Barbara and Kevin had been dating since they were fourteen.
“You’re lucky,” Eileen said, “to have a boyfriend. Boys are scared of me.”
When they were 16 Barbara and Kevin started doing it – in the back of his car or, more thrillingly, in her bed. One night they were nearly caught when her parents came home early. Kevin squeezed through her window into the back garden.
“Too risky, Barb,” he said the next day. So they returned to the back seat of the car. The road to the river changed from tar seal to gravel just past the cemetery; the dust on the windows made her feel safe. The burbling of the river was music for their love-making.
Kevin became an apprentice with the construction company in Main Street. She worked as a corsetiere in Mrs. Carlisle’s shop in George Street. Mrs. Carlisle showed her how to judge the fit of the bra on their clients. She urged them to lean forward into the cups, and tired breasts flopped into place. Mrs. Carlisle herself was upholstered in an astonishing garment that uplifted breasts and flattened tummies.
She and Kevin used condoms. They felt like rubber gloves inside her and sometimes she pulled him into her without one.
It happened. Or rather it didn’t happen.
Her period didn’t come. She waited three weeks then she told Kevin.
“Are you sure?”
“No,” she said. “I’ll wait another week and go to the doctor if it hasn’t come.”
She didn’t see Kevin that week. She was tired, more than usual. On Friday she told Kevin she wasn’t up to going out. As she walked home she glanced into the window of the café on High Street. A couple sat with their heads joined across the table; for a moment it looked like Kevin and someone who resembled Eileen. Barbara blamed her exhaustion.
The doctor’s surgery was small and grey. It smelled of sadness.
“My period is late Dr Carter.”
“There could be several reasons for that. Let’s test your hormones to check for imbalance.”
“I might be pregnant.”
“Oh.” He looked at his watch. “Well, you’ll need to, ah, put a urine sample in a jar.” He waved at a door at the side of the surgery.
“How old are you?” He scanned her notes. “Seventeen. We don’t need to tell your parents if it’s positive then.”
Her stomach staggered. Can’t be the baby yet, she thought.
Kevin phoned her on Thursday.
“What’s the verdict?”
“I’m pregnant, Kevin. We’re pregnant.”
“What should we do?”
“The right thing, Barb. We’ll get married.”
She chose a wedding dress that softened around her midriff. She asked Eileen to be her bridesmaid. Eileen said she had to leave town for the beginning of term at training college; she sent them a tablecloth. Barbara’s sister carried her veil as she walked down the aisle of the Presbyterian church. Their mothers wore brave hats, the guests threw confetti.
Paul was born, small and late. He might just have been conceived on their wedding night.
“You know it should have been you, Eileen.” Kevin’s voice was velvet as his hand moved across her stomach. “If it hadn’t been for Barb and the baby…”
Barbara could feel his eagerness through his pyjamas. She felt a flare between her legs. It propelled her body toward him so they lay face to face. They made love with the energy of the seventeen-year olds they’d been once.
In the morning Kevin loaded his toast with marmalade.
“I knew you’d come back to me. Where have you been all these years?”
Eileen and Barbara kept in touch after she and Kevin married. They exchanged Christmas cards, and met occasionally when Eileen came back to town.
“Come to dinner with us,” Barbara had suggested. “Paul’s three now and Christine is one. You’d love them and Kevin would like to see you.”
Eileen had never taken up the invitation.
“Sorry I can’t make it Barb. Give Kevin my regards.”
“I went to Sydney,” Barbara said. “I came back when Dad was sick, and worked in Wellington.”
“Who did you marry?” Kevin’s hand shook as he poured his tea.
“I didn’t,” Barbara said.
Kevin squeezed her knee. “An unclaimed treasure, Eileen, that’s what you are. I’d have married you if it wasn’t for Barb getting pregnant. I wonder where she is? Gone to see Christine and the kids, perhaps.”
Eileen’s hair was dark. She wore it long back then, its curls framing her cheeks. Barbara’s hair was fair. Now it was bleaching at her temples and she supposed Eileen’s was too. She bought dye from the chemist, a colour that promised to transform her into a brunette. She pulled her hair forward so that it looked longer. She found a skirt that held her hips close. She bought two tops that silhouetted her breasts and the hummocks of flesh that ringed her body between her bosom and hips.
Night life with Kevin bloomed. He held her in his arms, and they made love on Saturday nights. His face was alight with love – for her old school friend.
“I don’t know where my wife has gone. She’ll be back I suppose but for now you and I are together Eileen, as we were meant to be.”
It was easier to be Eileen. Kevin touched her shoulder in the kitchen, he kissed her cheek as they sat down for dinner. “Here’s to us,” he said.
“Where’s Barb?” Kevin hit the TV mute button.
“I don’t know Kevin.”
“It’s all very well having you here but it’s not right, is it. Maybe you should go back to your husband.”
“Perhaps.” Barbara left and took off her skirt, changed into trousers. She pulled her hair back so that the streaks through the brunette were visible. She went back to Kevin. His body tensed in his chair, then relaxed.
“How about a cup of tea, Barb?”
Next week’s short story is “Picking Out Dahlias” by Hawke’s Bay writer Shelley Burne-Field