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What Shall I Take With Me

seashell - horseshoe - feather

By Stephanie GingerPublished 6 months ago Updated 3 months ago 22 min read
Runner-Up in Word Hunt Challenge
What Shall I Take With Me
Photo by Filip Urban on Unsplash

What Shall I Take With Me?

“Did you come by car?”

There was a rather long pause while Gwen tried to think. After a while, she managed to visualise their little red car but not here in the car park, at home in the garage. This wasn’t much help. “I’m not sure,” she said and returned to gazing out of the window at a row of twiggy roses in the hospital’s Garden of Remembrance.

“Not to worry,” Doctor Davison said thoughtfully and leaned back twirling his Parker pen. “We'll try another tack.” He took a breath. “Would you say that you’re a happy person? Not now, of course, that goes without saying – but before?”

Gwen glanced at him, surprised. Happiness wasn’t something she’d ever really considered. It seemed rather a self-absorbed sort of question. “You just get on with it, don’t you?” She said eventually.

Another long pause.

At first glance it was a palette of grey nothingness; just a blotter with a page of notes in spidery writing, the pen and his elbows. There was also an old-fashioned telephone - on top of a boxy thing with switches - the type you get in hospitals where you flick a switch and get put through to Reception or the X-Ray department. Or the Mortuary.

Then she saw the seashell. Set apart, to the left of the telephone. With its shiny pink whorls and the weak sunlight from the window lighting up its yellow frills, it looked incongruous. It looked like a Clonk… that big fairytale shell you can hear the sea inside; the one they blow like a trumpet in the Caribbean to announce the fishermen coming home with a good catch. Or was it Clench? No, that was what her dentist said she'd been doing with her jaw since Tom had been in hospital. Well whatever it was, it put a whole different complexion on the doctor’s personality somehow? It seemed almost romantic. Not right at all.

Doctor Davison twirled his pen and wrote something down. Gwen tried to read his scribbled notes upside down but really, without new glasses she hadn’t a hope and since Tom’s collapse and perforated whatnot, her optician’s appointment had vanished into his tablet.

“Under fifty quid at Tesco’s and does everything it says on the tin” Tom had declared proudly when he unloaded it with the shopping... It seemed like yesterday, but it couldn’t be. Tom was... No. She mustn't think about where Tom was right now. Anyway, without Tom to manage things, there it would probably stay.

Without Tom.

The thought brought her out in a cold sweat. She’d just have to do without the glasses for the time being. It occurred to her that maybe she could kill two birds with one stone and enlist Paul to break into the tablet when he brought Joshua and Linda for a visit this evening. That sort of thing was just up his street. And then he could write everything on the hall calendar for her in black pen. That’s what Tom would do. Although… Two hours up the M40 on a weekday evening. Really? Either Linda had had a personality transplant or they were really worried.

Tom would laugh at that, Gwen thought. But the memory of his laugh escaped her; was just out of reach, like the dots on her last eye test.

Not long ago he'd sat her down in his study as if she was at school to teach her how to do an 'online shop'. “You’ll need to be able to hold your own,” he explained, “in case, perish the thought, I can’t get to the shops or the bank”. She'd felt exactly as she had as a twelve-year-old when her father attempted to get her to understand fractions. Unlike her father, Tom had tried to be patient. “Remember the palaver I had getting a shopping delivery during that business when we all had to stay indoors for weeks at a time?” But she didn’t, not really and she’d felt that familiar hard knot in the pit of her stomach. He went on about ‘browsing'’and ‘surfing’ and for crying out loud, something called ‘twitter’.

“Why on earth would I be wasting my time twittering?” she’d asked him. “I’ve enough to do with tying in the climbers and ramblers, getting the pots sorted and the herb bed started.” She hadn’t meant to be dismissive, but they ended up having a row.

They didn’t row often. Tom was, as a rule, too much of a gentleman to rise to her bait. Negotiation was more his style. “Soft,” her father would have said, a sneer curling his lip. But for Tom, she could tell, this puzzling relationship with a secret world that baffled her, was different. Different from his bond with his pipe before he gave up smoking, or squash, twice a week until his knees gave out. Even chess. Not so much a game for Tom, more a way of life. Even so, he packed that in when he began losing to the youngsters at the Chess Club more often than he won.

Or maybe it was Gwen who was different? For some reason, this unfathomable liaison – with a 'machine' for pity’s sake – infuriated her. It had driven a sort of wedge between them. Like when Tom tried to mend her father’s old weeding hoe too quickly by driving the only nail he could lay his hands on into the polished ash of the handle, leaving it fractured. Split. Not his fault, but still.

So Gwen had left him to his blasted tablet and blocked her ears to the swear words that ricocheted off the roof-lights in his study and stomped off across the stepping-stones to the shed in her wellies. The old dog – his dog, mind you – heaved himself to his feet and followed, nudging the back of her knees.

The musty chill of the shed always did her good. By the time she’d sorted the clay pots from the plastic and rubbed the rust off the forks and trowels with some of Tom’s old flannel shirts dipped in WD40, her own spring thaw was beginning. Observing the dog stretched out, snoring and twitching in his sleep, she felt a half-smile hover at the corners of her mouth.

Then through the window she saw a pheasant browsing amongst the bluebells under the silver birch and heard the sparrows twitter as they dunked and shook their feathers in the bird-bath Tom had made out of an old washbasin. Her smile settled, taking root.

By Sergio Otoya on Unsplash

Stepping over the dog, she turned to make a start on the bigger tools, spades, hoes, rakes and whatnot, unclipping them from the clever little clamps Tom had fixed on the far wall. The old rusty horseshoe she’d hung on a nail had slipped so she took that down too and propped it on the table. It wouldn’t do to have all their luck trickling out. As the years went by, luck seemed more important than ever.

A shaft of light arrowed through the window. Gwen squinted at the darkened shiplap. It was like looking at a negative fixed into the pine. There they all were: Tom’s axe-head, the long curve of the handle, her father’s ancient pruning shears, his spade and border fork, the tines outlined clear as anything, spirited from the shape of the tools that usually hung there. Gwen had wondered then, if they were never replaced, how long their ghosts would remain?

Doctor Davison’s splayed fingers bounced gently against each other pad to pad. Gwen noticed that under the desk he’d slipped off one of his mole-coloured suede shoes and swung it from the tip of his toe in time with his fingers.

The intensity of his stare made her uncomfortable. Gwen wasn’t sure where she was supposed to look. These days looking people in the eye was like negotiating a minefield without a map or – more likely in her case – the narrow aisle in Tesco with the trolley with a wonky wheel. So she inspected the bit of smooth cheekbone just below his eyes. Near enough eye contact to be sincere but… Gwen swallowed a sigh. There were rather too many buts in her life right now.

The name plate she’d seen on the door suited him, she thought. Classic brass with Dr R. Davison, MRCPsych, Consultant Psychiatrist in straightforward black letters. Nothing about the decrepitude of old age and what people now politely referred to as mental health, both of which were his speciality apparently. Perhaps the association with – dare she say it – Dementia was a step too far and put people off? There was nothing to worry about, she’d been told more than once. But she did worry. Everybody skirted around the thing beginning with A… It’d come to her in a minute… but it put the fear of God into everyone, she knew that much. It wasn’t that she was going crazy as feeling as if she was going crazy. Or that the rest of the world was crazy which was almost as bad.

He was younger than her by a long chalk, possibly even younger than Paul - the kind of doctor who might have turned her head when she was a student nurse. Gwen wondered what the R stood for? R-whatever-his-name was-Davison might be a consultant psychiatrist but it struck her that his cheek would be smooth to the touch all day – unlike Tom who’d always had to do a quick ‘prune’ to smarten himself up for an evening at the Officer’s Mess. “Take as long as you need,” said Mister Smooth. How long have you got? Gwen thought. And what was happy, exactly?

“Gwendoline is a happy, cheerful girl,” Miss Tennant wrote in her school report; so many years ago, it didn’t bear thinking about. Time did this more and more, she found, collapsed into nothing like a Japanese paper fan. The years – decades sometimes – folded together into two or three razor-sharp memories.

The school report was written shortly after her mother left. At the time, Gwen – cheeks raw from weeping into the pillow, throat lumpy with swallowed sobs – neither recognised the description nor cared. She wondered now if her parents’ separation might have had something to do with her life-long obligation to appear happy at all times. Even then, Gwen had realised the responsibility of being happy was the lot of a child caught in the searchlights of divorce. After all, hadn’t there been enough blame attached to her mother after she’d mustered all her courage and fled to the South Coast?

To everyone else Arthur Floyd was an unyielding leftover Victorian who taught mathematics to earnest boys in woollen sweaters somewhere in Cardiff. To Gwen, he was always "Father". Nothing more, nothing less.

He bred rabbits. She recalled him stooping to tickle their ears as he passed their cages to water the cabbages, picking them up by the same ears and a second later their lifeless legs hanging, toes pointing down like ballet dancers.

She remembered him pressing the air out of her mother’s natural effervescence with a certain kind of silence at the dinner table. Sometimes, when she sneaked a look at him across the Sunday best tablecloth dotted with sauceboats, mustard pots and silver cruet like buoys marking treacherous rocks and hidden obstructions, Gwen found it difficult to breathe.

But it was Gwen who was left behind to watch him take his pruning shears and subsequently the tree saw, to the wisteria that covered one complete side of the house. He didn’t speak until he was waist high in a fragrant mountain of blue; had cut it down to one small nub. Then he cleaned the saw and pruning shears and put them away, saying “Well, that’s that then, Girl. Just you and me!”

By Annie Spratt on Unsplash

When you get to my age, Gwen thought, it’s not easy to unpick the kind of person you are. Was it misplaced loyalty that had made her stay with him? Fear of change perhaps? Or just plain selfishness? Whatever it was, Gwen the thirteen-year-old who stood by, numbed with misery and guilt as she watched her mother’s taxi disappear down Cyncoed Road was not the same Gwen who at twenty got a standing ovation at the Officer’s Mess for the cha-cha. Part of that, of course, was down to Tom. Precious, infuriating, beloved Tom. Her Tom. With eyes the colour of the North Sea.

Her mother wasn’t allowed to come to her wedding. "Too late for sentimental claptrap, Girl," was all her father would say. "If you’d cared that much, you should have gone with her." Perhaps he was right? Perhaps it had been for the best? After all, she wouldn’t have met Tom at all if she’d been living in Bournemouth with Mummy.

Father was long gone, of course, and Mummy too. Just as Gwen, Tom’s fledgling wife –at once delicate and luxuriant with their first baby – was also now just a fuzzy memory. She sat under the Monkey Puzzle tree for an entire summer knitting a layette. She knitted very badly, which is why it took the whole summer, and Paul turned out to be her only child. Just as well, perhaps, given her knitting.

“It’s easier to be happy when you’re young,” Gwen said at last. “You don’t have so much time to think about it.” She glanced down, mesmerised by the shoe. It was still swinging. She held her breath, expecting it to fall off. “

Joshua’s happy,” she said.

Doctor Davison’s eyebrows raised a trifle.

“My grandson.”

“Ah,” he said.

“He’s three.”

Doctor Davison nodded.

Yes, Joshua’s happiness was palpable; a living thing. It radiated from his small solid body like sonar waves and preceded him up the motorway so that on the appointed day of a visit, whatever afflictions beset them, both Tom and Gwen awoke and turned to smile at each other.

There was no mistaking the whoop of pure joy, as Joshua, released from his car seat raced across the gravel to hurl himself at Tom, whose “mind the vegetables, old son or our lives won’t be worth living…” was tossed about in the approaching whirlwind and lost on the air.

Joshua was an uncomplicated child. His eyes were huge, sliding glass doors, behind which all his feelings were scarcely contained: excitement, misery, anger. They were all there in front of you, fizzing and glinting.

There was no mistaking the whoop of pure joy, as Joshua, released from his car seat raced across the gravel to hurl himself at Tom, whose “mind the vegetables, old son or our lives won’t be worth living…” was tossed about in the approaching whirlwind and lost on the air.

Which is more than you could say for his mother. Gwen sighed again, her fingers feeling for the catch of her handbag, which was still perched on her lap like a small dog. It just wouldn’t do to have everything spilling out all over the place, in front of those penetrating eyes.

Gwen’s daughter-in-law Linda never said she wasn’t happy, but she exuded disappointment in all sorts of ways. From the little downward creases round her mouth that deepened a little every year to all the unuttered recriminations that remained clamped behind her teeth. It almost seemed as if she’d swallowed sour thoughts like medicine, now trapped as bitter vitriol in her chest. Occasionally one would escape like a small animal making a bolt for freedom, usually in response to what Gwen thought was an innocuous comment about how things were when Paul was a boy.

“It’s not like that now,”Linda would say in a tight, envious voice, which was odd because she was always saying how wonderful things were in London. “Solid cherry-wood flooring throughout, view of the river, good neighbours. Brilliant schools! We couldn’t possibly walk Josh to Kindergarten, could we Paul? It’s only the other side of the bridge but you’d be taking your life in your hands!”

Sometimes Gwen yearned to ask what was wrong, but you had to be so careful not to interfere. Perhaps it was to do with marrying late? Paul didn’t discuss his problems with his parents as a rule, unless it was a lawnmower or something mechanical. In which case he brought it in the back of the estate, Tom fixed it, they had a long discussion about carburettors and governor springs at the pub over a pint of real ale and then he took it home again. Until Tom’s latest episode, that is.

Suddenly, Gwen was breathless and felt her head going woolly. It was probably the anxiety again, blast it! She would have to go to pieces just when Tom needed her most.

Doctor Davison’s voice startled her. “Try to think of a time when you were really happy.” He’d said take as long as you like but she saw him take a sidelong look at his watch.

I’d better get on with it, thought Gwen.

It must have been the moment when Tom took her in his arms for the first time. He was wearing a sarong. Gwen smiled. Very David Beckham for the 1950s. He had just arrived home from the Malayan jungle.

He had just arrived home from the Malayan jungle. “Not a war, Sweetheart,” insisted Tom before the battalion embarked on the ship that was to take him away. “An emergency!”

A few months into his tour, she heard rumours that he was going to marry a girl called Miriam, the daughter of family friends – his parents were all for it, apparently.

The young subaltern who told her this arrived at her door at the nurses’ home, flourishing a bouquet of woody chrysanthemums and a harvest of nervous pimples. He stood too close and pressed the flowers, wrapped in damp tissue, into her hand. They had the odour of musty socks. “Tom said I should be sure to look after you,” he added, with a hopeful smile.

She was going to put them in water and take them to the ward – they were quite colourful after all – but disappointment squeezed up against her ribcage and she gave the stems an extra whack with a mallet. In the end she lost the heart for flower arranging and dumped them head first into the bin. After all, who knew what Tom was up to? He hadn’t said anything about love or marriage before vanishing into a war zone, whatever he chose to call it, and now this!

When he got home, Tom was adamant. “The blighter took a fancy to your photo on the hut wall. He was just trying it on.”

Gwen didn’t tell him of the nights she’d wept over it, particularly after she bumped into those same friends of his parents at Lyons Corner House.

“Lovely to see you again, Miriam,” they trilled, dividing a custard slice between them. “Thank goodness Tom’s back from Malaya. Dreadful business! When’s the big day?”

She was so angry she nearly hadn’t given him a second chance, even when he’d explained that it was just wishful thinking on his mother’s part. But his mouth promised shelter and his eyes laughter. And they fitted so well together on the dance floor. So she put Miriam out of her mind, he wrapped her in the sarong and in its cotton weave she smelled the hot humid Malayan night, heavy with fireflies.

Happiness did not do justice to what she felt as they lay skin to skin on her single bed. It had been warm, like a cashmere coat on an icy morning. It soared and dipped like a choirboy’s voice. It took her breath away.

It was years before Tom told her why he hadn’t asked her to marry him before he left. Not wanting to extinguish her romantic notions of faraway lands, he kept his Malaya to himself; a stifling place of jungle swamps the sun never reached, bamboo that slit fingers as quick as a machete; the leeches, red ants, ticks, scrub typhus and foot rot. Every living thing it seemed – like the enemy – after your blood, your flesh. Whenever he thought of Malaya he said, keeping hold of her hand in the dark, he saw again Private Bobby’s silent burial in a muddy grave and the face of the teenage insurgent in the muzzle flash as he shot him. That was why he hadn’t asked her to marry him before he went. He thought he would die there. Simple as that.

But she wasn’t going to tell Mr Davison all that. It was private. It wouldn’t be fair to Tom to bring all that up now, saddled as he was with his colostomy, on top of everything else.


Gwen watches Tom sleep. Her handbag sits obediently at her feet. The Recovery Ward isn’t the calming haven its name implies, merely another step away from oblivion. The walls are drab green, the air frenetic with pings and bleeps. Fat leads snake across the floor, behind flowerless lockers and up through bed rails, rooting their patients to the machinery of life.

“It’s going to be a long road, Lovely,” says the nurse, adjusting the pads on Tom’s chest.

Not so long ago those pectorals had been swinging an axe, splitting logs – Tom likes to have a decent stack for winter – but now his chest looks pathetic under all those little suction pads dotted about like nipples.

Something nudges at Gwen’s memory like the dog’s nose at dinner time. In her mind’s eye she sees Paul’s delicate newborn ribcage arched and exposed, the first time she gave him a bath on her own.

The transparency of life, she thinks, is as mercurial as happiness. Carrying the weight of someone else’s is as uncertain as carrying melting ice in your cupped palm.

The dog!

Sudden panic makes her heart race. Who’s going to let the dog out?

Then she remembers there is no dog. They buried him near the bluebells – proper English bluebells, mind you – between the silver birch and the sweet cicely.

For some reason – never mind all the other stuff on her plate – it’s the image of Tom, leaning exhausted on the spade afterwards that gets her. The mound of freshly-turned earth amid snowy white flowers and feathery leaves. Great swells of sadness fill up her chest, crowding out the faint illusion that things might get better.

The nurse hums under her breath, tucking the sheet and blanket up under Tom’s skinny arms, all neat and tidy.

Like a burst from the flash-bulb at their wedding, Gwen sees herself all those years ago: sparky anthracite eyes, hourglass waist, nurse’s calves. Newly-married, she stands at the sink scrubbing Tom’s collars and cuffs, warbling along with Nat King Cole on the wireless. “When I fall in love ... it will be forever… “ She hears the thud as he drops his kitbag in the doorway and comes up behind her, his hands sliding around her waist. Neither is yet aware of the tiny bud of life within. Even now, if she closes her eyes, the sense of him stealing up behind her, the warmth of his hands is so acute it’s almost tangible.

She leans against him. Like spoons. “I wish you didn’t have to go,” she says. “I know it’s probably only an exercise on Salisbury Plain, but still.” She hums a little as they rock together.

“That’s what I’ll remember,” he says, his voice in her ear, clear and strong. “My own Welsh songbird; always singing. Always laughing. Wherever I am, that’s what I always take with me.”

Fear pools in the pit of her stomach. What if… even if Tom recovers… what if that thing beginning with A folds down her memories one by one into nothing at all? What then? What would she take with her to that foreign country?

Gwen takes Tom’s hand and studies his arm, blotched and invaded. “Would you look at those blue bruises,” she can’t help but mutter under her breath. “We may not have had all these fancy machines when I was a nurse but I was a dab hand at finding a vein.”

Doctor Davison, soft-shoeing past on his way to the coffee machine, comes to a sliding halt in the doorway and pops his head round. Upright, without the desk, he looks even more like a schoolboy. He grins, face crinkling. “Everything hunky-dory?”

Gwen smiles back before she realises he’s talking to Tom’s nurse, who teases, "Okay-dokey thanks, Doc.

“Call me Roger,” he says to the Nurse. “Go on."

She doesn’t blame Doctor Davison, but Gwen wonders when she became invisible?

The soft shh shh shhuuh of his suede shoes fades like the sound of waves on shingle as they drove away from Abereiddy beach. Was it last year, their mini-break in Pembrokeshire, or the year before... Or even the one before that?

By Nick Russill on Unsplash

Before the dog died.

Now, there’s another good reason to ask Paul to break into Tom’s tablet. She could show Tom all those photos from Abereiddy beach when he wakes up. The dog cooling his poor old paws in the water one last time and later, the rocky walk around and down to the hidden depths of the pool they call the Blue Lagoon.

She starts to hum... When I fall in love... but her voice is creaky, unsure, skipping over notes like an unused car engine. She gives up. Not much to sing about these days, it’s true. But still.

Linda’s clear voice cuts through the space like antiseptic. “Don’t run, Joshie. Good as gold, remember? Grandpa is very sick.” Her voice rises. “Paul, he's running down the corridor, catch him, for heaven’s sake!” Gwen feels a slight squeeze around her fingers and glances down at Tom, scarcely daring to hope. Their hands, curled together, have matching brown spots.

She can’t remember if she came here by car, what she had for breakfast or the name of the Prime Minister but she would trade it all – everything – for this.

At last, Tom opens his eyes, myopic maybe, but still slate blue as the lagoon on a cloudy day. He squeezes her hand again. In that moment, Gwen recognises with relief, that tiny flutter within her gather strength and take flight; something she thought she had mislaid with the past.

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About the Creator

Stephanie Ginger

Writer, screenwriter, poet, playwright, journalist. I love the drama of life: long, short, on the page or on the screen but always character-driven.

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Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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    Well-structured & engaging content

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    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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Comments (15)

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  • Naveed4 days ago

    🥉 Third Place Fabulous work! Keep it up—congratulations!

  • Thanks very much folks for all your congratulations! I’m very honoured by everyone’s comments and support. Onwards and upwards…

  • Catsidhe16 days ago

    Very touching! Congratulations!

  • Naveed17 days ago

    Great job! Keep up the fantastic work—congratulations!

  • Congratulations, Stephanie. Beautifully, intimately poignant.

  • Phil Flannery17 days ago


  • Cathy holmes17 days ago

    Beautiful story. Congrats.

  • Beautiful! Felt like I was taken on a really touching and tender journey. Such fabulous, emotive language and characterisation. I was so moved it made me cry. Well done! :)

  • T M Coppolo4 months ago


  • Rick Thompson5 months ago

    It's a beautifully written story, with the pursuit of happiness rooted in the everyday routines, complex relationships, and deep anxieties that many of us can recognise.

  • Caroline O5 months ago

    Beautifully written and very thought provoking

  • Judy Cohen5 months ago

    Fabulous story Stephanie, really enjoyed reading it. Gwenn's daughter-in-law sounds like someone I know 🤣

  • To all you lovely people who like my work - please consider subscribing to my page, sharing and reposting. Thanks so much. 🤗

  • Lucia Sales6 months ago

    Lovely story, I really liked it!!

  • I enjoyed reading your story. Beautiful and satisfying ending.

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