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Open Features: The Red Dress

...“Col’s coming home,” she said. He’d been away somewhere - nothing unusual in that - he was an actor and went where there was a part. It was the way that she shivered as she spoke that I remember. Rosie in a red dress on a spring day. A red velvet dress the colour of cherries, not a dress for walking on the common, but a dress for greeting her beloved, and chosen, perhaps, by him. No, she wasn’t cold in the wind; it was a shiver of delight, of joy, of anticipation, and the look on her face was of pure ecstasy. I see her still in my mind’s eye, and the little cameo is as bright and clear as it was then...

Sylvia West tells the happy-sad story of Rosie and her actor husband Col. In this one column there are greater riches than can be found in many a novel.

For more of Sylvia's unforgettable articles please type her name in the search box on this page.

I remember the day I saw Rosie in a red dress. She was out walking on the common, coming down the track pushing a little pram; not a big, bouncy Norland-nanny pram - a little, bouncy useful pram, easily pushed over the humps and bumps of the common. She greeted me with a wave.

“Hello, Sylv,” she said, and we stopped there in the sunshine and the gentle wind. It was a real common, looked after by a Common Keeper, and there were pine trees and sweet chestnut, gorse and heather, and toadstools everywhere.I had walked a good way, recharging my batteries, and I was not far from home, a bit further down the track. Rosie was going the other way to the ’Hansel and Gretel’ house where she lived with her husband, her baby son and a golden Labrador.

We clucked over the baby for a while, then I said, “I love your red dress. What’s the occasion today?”

I thought it might be her birthday or an anniversary.

“Col’s coming home,” she said. He’d been away somewhere - nothing unusual in that - he was an actor and went where there was a part. It was the way that she shivered as she spoke that I remember. Rosie in a red dress on a spring day. A red velvet dress the colour of cherries, not a dress for walking on the common, but a dress for greeting her beloved, and chosen, perhaps, by him. No, she wasn’t cold in the wind; it was a shiver of delight, of joy, of anticipation, and the look on her face was of pure ecstasy. I see her still in my mind’s eye, and the little cameo is as bright and clear as it was then.

When Rose was expecting, she would come down the track to our house from time to time - to see me and my babies, or so I thought, but she told me later that Colin had insisted she come in case anything untoward happened. Nothing to do with my charm and charisma, then! Nothing unexpected did happen, and in due course another son came along and the little family was complete.

I was asked to be Godmother to the first one, but I felt afterwards that I shouldn’t have said ‘yes’: they were such a close-knit little unit that another person could feel like an intruder. Or so I thought at the time. I wonder if I was right.

As the years passed and family life became established - in both our homes - we would sometimes have dinner together. It worked both ways - sometimes they would walk down the track and sometimes we would walk up. The arrangements for babysitters have disappeared into the mists of time, but they must have been in place. And so all our children grew, laughed and cried, played and fought. They changed schools, Brownies blossomed into Guides and Cubs metamorphosed into Scouts. There were months when our different paths never crossed, and the time came when they either went to university or made another choice.

This was over twenty years ago, and the ‘Gap Year’ had not yet been thrust into life. Walking up the track and over the common had become a way of life for my family; there were fallen logs to be dragged home and pine cones to be collected for we had a big open fire. Sometimes we would pass the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ house, and even though our friends lived there we never intruded: never knocked on the door uninvited. There was always an invisible curtain of privacy, an ‘aurora borealis’ of spirit if not of colour, and even now, after so much has come to pass, I would not dream of knocking on the door; I would not think of parting the curtain.

When you are watching your own children come and go, rise or fall, other people’s affairs tend to stay in the half-light. So I can’t tell you exactly when we learnt that Rosie was ill. Rosie of the red dress and dark brown eyes had developed multiple sclerosis. She wasn’t out on the common any more. Sam, the dog, had plenty of space to run in, but he wasn’t taken out on a lead any more. There was only a small amount of energy available for her to use each day, and she disappeared into a world of bed-rest and drawn curtains, while Colin became carer as well as husband.

It was, however, not the end of the story. A combination of the right drugs, the right diet and acupuncture gave Rosie a great deal of her life back, and we would see her driving the jeep again, carefully utilising her reduced supplies of energy but always looking as though she was winning. The prognosis for MS is extremely variable, so perhaps she was winning. I would see her late in the afternoon, catching the Post Office just before closing time, or buying her vegetables at the farm shop - always towards the end of the day when her well-planned rests had given her the strength to go out. Colin didn’t drive so it was always Rosie behind the wheel, juggling with the steering as she lurched and bumped up and down the track. Still, if you choose to live in a story-book cottage in the woods, you have to take the consequences.

One day I met Rosie in the newsagent’s and we had a hug and a chat, as usual. She was looking pretty good, all things considered, and she told me she was in a remission period. I was about to say how glad I was for her, when she said: “It’s Colin now. They say he’s going blind.”

What do you say. What is there to say. Here am I, active, healthy, taking it all for granted that this is my birthright, and I meet a friend who had not one, but now two impossible heavy crosses to bear. I did say something, of course I did, but when we went our separate ways, I felt great anger: one great misfortune was surely enough. Why must they have two? He would have to stop work, that was certain. There is no place for a blind actor. I went home and told my family, and for a long time I avoided any path across the common that led to the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ house. It was too painful to think about. How on earth would they manage if the positions were reversed, and Rosie had to be the carer for Colin? But then again, Rosie had found the means to improve her own situation, so it was unlikely that they would leave any stone unturned in their efforts to solve the problem of Colin’s eyes.
Some years later as I was driving home, I saw a familiar figure walking - nay, striding - along the sunken footpath beside the road. Tall, upright and elegant - it was Colin, with neither white stick nor Guide dog, dark glasses nor any kind of aid to vision; just a perky little flat cap -his usual trademark.

It was a couple of weeks before I saw Rosie. It was excellent news - one eye had indeed almost failed, but the other one was doing reasonably well. Once again, visits to the acupuncturist had proved invaluable - as I can indeed verify. A few days later I saw Colin in the surgery, and after a long moment of fixing his focus on me, he smiled and said, “Hello, Sylv, how are you?”

Don’t you sometimes feel ashamed to say “Oh, I’m fine thanks.”

*

We’ve had a funny winter: warm and cold spells in all the wrong places, spring flowers coming up and then freezing to death. About a month ago as I walked through the village on a particularly sharp day, I saw an elderly couple coming towards me: two people dressed in khaki and mustard, with identical windcheaters and warm hats, trousers and shirts. Only they weren’t really an elderly couple. They just looked that way. They held hands and walked in step and leaned in to one another as they pushed against the cold air. They both stopped and greeted me with such warmth and gladness.

“How are you both?” I said, and “how are the boys?” And they gave me the news about this and that, all the grandchildren and who lives where, Rosie said a bit then Col said a bit more, and they asked about mine and on we went, and on again, for so much water had gone under the bridge since we had last spoken. It was really a cold wind that day, and all the time I was thinking that they didn’t have enough on.

They were parchment people, pale and parchment coloured, and it was their first outing for a while because Rosie had not been well. Colin was still using one eye, so between them they were as strong as they had ever been. Their words, not mine.

“We help each other,” they said, and they laughed, the kind of laugh that is honed over the years when two people love each other beyond words. We said good-bye and they walked slowly away at half my speed. After a few yards I turned to watch them.

The parchment people were there no more. The sun came out from behind a cloud and shone on a young girl in a beautiful red velvet dress. She was holding the arm of a tall, handsome man, and as they rounded the corner I could see the girl’s face shining in the sunlight.

Only once before had I seen such joy, such happiness.

Nothing had changed. Nothing at all.
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