They have been together for sixty years, the Vicar and his wife.
They are in their eighties, they met in their twenties. He proposed very quickly, she accepted without hesitation. They both knew what they were looking for.
They raised four children. The children raised their own children, and the next generation wasn’t that far away. Serious relationships seemed to run in the family and two of the grandchildren were already courting.
As well as the four children who survived, there were two who didn’t. One died after a year, having been born with a heart defect. Another died aged four in a tragic accident. So the couple had known both joy, and dreadful sadness.
They also took in several foster children over the years, all of whom without exception had kept in touch and still sent Christmas cards and presents every festive season. Their home had also been populated by a variety of dogs and cats, and once a noisy parrot, although only a lonely goldfish remained now, as a sad memento of things past.
They had never been rich. They had never been poor.
They survived the war, they struggled through illness and turmoil.
Overall, they had more good times than bad times.
Above all, they stayed together.
The Vicar is a tall, slim man. He wears hearing aids and limps a little, but is otherwise in good health and able to look after himself.
He has a wide circle of friends and parishioners and acquaintances, all of whom respect and admire him.
He is unfailingly polite, unceasingly kind. He treats virtual strangers like his own family; he always has some astonishing memory to recount, amazing people with the amount of detail he is able to recall about so many individuals.
“Do you remember, we went for a walk together that time,” he will say quietly, referring to a visit over twenty years ago. “And you were wearing a fur coat, and that strange coloured dog followed us along the promenade.”
And you found it was something you hadn’t remembered, but once reminded, did remember very clearly, and would never forget the incident again.
On giving or sending him a gift, you will always receive a delightful, personal thank you note. “The book you sent continues to give us pleasure,” he will state. So proper, so charming, so gracious. Though it might well be that the book had never been opened, nevertheless he has thought to acknowledge and thank you for it.
It’s no wonder that no-one has an unkind word to say about him.
He takes a walk, still, every day, through the churchyard he has known since childhood, and along the waterfront where he and his wife first met, so many years ago.
He sits in the spot where they first held hands and where he later proposed, and has no regrets and only good memories.
He stops at the local shop on the way home, buying some soft fruit, and some newspapers, and always a few sweets, to offer the various children who still call in regularly to visit him. The shopkeeper greets him kindly, and at least half a dozen other people who he knows will hail him as he walks and exchange a kind word.
The little town in which he and most of his family live is very definitely his long term home, and he has no wish to leave it.
He returns briefly to his flat, but then takes the fruit and the papers, and heads for the nursing home next door.
For it is in this rambling place – dreary and cheerful at the same time – that his poor wife now lives, and has done for many years, suffering as she does with a range of physical and, more recently, mental afflictions.
He greets her with affection, as he does every day, and helps her to sit up in her bed, and attempts to cheer her up with local tales and gossip.
Four or five years ago, she would have joined in, asking questions and maybe even telling jokes. But these days, the conversation is all one way.
At some point, all trace of the mind which his wife once possessed faded away. Her memories are now gone, everything they ever shared together erased or buried so deep as to be inaccessible.
She never recognises him, if she ever speaks it is to babble nonsense – sometimes to shout aggressively, occasionally to cry as if her heart is breaking but she doesn’t understand why.
Of course it breaks his heart to see his beloved like this, to understand that the woman he loved for all those years is no longer with him. But for the sake of that love, he continues to care for her body, for what remains. How could he not? For she has been his very life, his dear companion for so, so long.
He has come to terms with it now, and no longer hopes that she will return to him. Time and illness have ravaged her too much, and he hopes only for her time to come, so that she may wind up her partial existence and be at peace.
Only sometimes, when he sits feeding her berries or holding her trembling hand, does it plague him to wonder, when exactly the moment had come, when she was no longer there.
Was it one of those times, those many times, when he had sat with her by the window downstairs, when she had still be able to move down to the lounge? Had there been one instant when his wife had been there with him, aware of his presence and loving him still – and in the next instant had she been gone, dissolved in a softening of synapses, lost to the world? And had he missed that crucial moment? Had he sat through it but not recognised it? Missed his last ever chance to say goodbye?
He sits with her again now, stroking her hair, pointing out a bird outside the window, while she stares blankly past him at a picture on the wall, an expression of vague confusion on her face.
I don’t believe in heaven, but if there is one, I think the Vicar – and his wife – will deserve a place in it.