Throughout their forty-two years together, Austin and Emily had been inseparable and when she died he no longer wanted to live.
In the months that followed, the sorrow of his loss and sense of failure became almost unbearable, and each day seemed endless. He was unable to cry. He went to bed only when the whisky bottle made sleep possible, and he awoke reluctantly to each day.
He took less and less pride in his appearance, and as the days shortened into winter his large, old-fashioned house became progressively more untidy. He ate from tins, and in spite of the efforts of his neighbours he became more and more of a recluse.
But one bleak morning in February, he raised the blinds of his kitchen window and found the back yard swimming in greasy water from a blocked drain; he knew that he would have to stir himself.
In the cupboard under the stairs he found an old pair of paint-stained jeans and a tattered woollen jumper. The jeans were stiff and cold, and his numb fingers had difficulty drawing them over his thin shanks. The fly buttons were stubborn, and the rough material chafed the skin of his thighs. He drew the woollen jumper over his head, scraping his nose in the process, and struggled to find the sleeves. Finally he tightened the old leather belt, jabbing his finger on the buckle prong.
He opened the kitchen door to the raw morning and stepped carefully onto the broken tarmac, conscious of the greasy moss that covered the surface and made his footing precarious. He went to the garden shed, which had not been opened for many months, and struggled to push the key into the lock.
He had to tug hard before the door scraped open to reveal a jumble of garden implements. He fought the coils of a stiff garden hose and finally found a pair of mildewed wellingtons under a clutter of plant pots. Holding on to the rough wooden door, he stood on one leg and struggled with his shoes, not bothering to undo the laces. He then thrust his cold feet into the damp rubber boots. Next, he forced his way through the junk and retrieved a pair of rubber gloves from a back shelf. He brushed the cobwebs off; the frost had perished them, but hed manage. He emptied half a carton of caustic soda into a rusty enamel bucket and half-filled it with water from the rain butt, using a jam jar. Then, taking up a second bucket, he went to the blocked drain.
The coping around the drain grid was full of greasy water. He squatted on his haunches and thrust his fingers down into the icy liquid, finding a purchase on the edge of the round iron grating. The sleeve of his tattered pullover went into the water, and the soaking wet wool clung to his wrist and lower arm,
He paused and sighed, remembering his warm bed, and began to regret not turning on his storage heaters, But even a cold house would be better than this.
He dismissed the thought and, with a swift jerk, finally released the grating; its slits were blocked up, and its lower side festooned with black, evil-smelling tendrils. The sharp edges of the iron grating tortured his fingertips, and he dropped it into the rusty bucket. The grating entered with a splash, and a drop of the caustic liquid caught him below the left eye. Automatically reacting against the burning pain, he wiped his face, leaving a smear of drain dregs across his cold cheek. He grimaced at the discomfort but rolled up the wet sleeve of his pullover, took the jam jar, and began to bail the foul liquid from the drain into the second bucket.
As the level of the water fell, he changed his position and knelt at the drains edge. The gravel of the tarmac dug painfully into his knees and the palms of his hands, and the icy dampness soon penetrated the cloth of his jeans.
It was then that he almost gave up. Why am I doing this? he thought. What use is anything now? But some vestige of his self-respect still remained, and he carried on.
Abandoning the jam jar, he plunged his hands down into the drain and prised lumps of stinking filth from the sides. He scooped up fistfuls of dripping, solid waste and dropped them into the second bucket. The stuff oozed through his fingers and dripped down his arm; the smell made him gag. Soon he had to thrust the whole length of his arm into the drain. His rubber glove was filled with water and the sleeve of his pullover was smeared with the foul stuff.
At last the bucket was full and the drain clear. He took a piece of garden cane and carefully fished out the clogged-up grating from the caustic solution. With the cane and an old scrubbing brush, he spent some time rubbing, poking, and probing until the slits in the grating were free from filth. He emptied the caustic solution into the open drain, filled the bucket with water from the rain butt, and swilled the clinging muck from the drains surrounds. He then replaced the grating and picked up the bucket.
As he emptied the contents onto the compost heap, a cold watery sun pierced the gloom of the morning. It picked out a small gleam in the foul mess as it poured over the compost. Stooping swiftly, he retrieved a ring and rubbed at it. Could it be?
He stood motionless for a moment and then went back to the kitchen, holding the ring carefully between thumb and forefinger. He put it down on the draining board, then tugged off his wellingtons and went to the sink.
As he cleaned the sewage away, the small diamond chips shone. It was Emilys eternity ring, whose loss had caused so much extra heartache. Standing there, he forced himself to think of those last terrible weeks.
Emily had not been well for some time. Although she never complained, Austin knew that the pains had suddenly become much worse. She hated doctors"Im fed up with them poking me around," she would saybut Austin finally persuaded her to go once more. This time the doctor sent them to a specialist, who diagnosed cancer of the bowel and arranged for an operation.
Those few days waiting were terrible. And it was then that Emily started to touch the ring. She had lost weight, and the ring was loose. Time and again she would slide the ring from her finger and sit gazing at it in the palm of her hand before replacing it. It seemed to have taken on a special significance.
On the morning she was to go into hospital, the ring was gone. And for the first time Emily broke down. "We must find it," she sobbed. "We must find it."
They searched everywhere but she had to go without the ring. And somehow there was something ominous about its loss. During the next few days, when Austin was not at Emilys side, he turned the house upside down, looking everywhere, but to no avail.
When Emily was able to speak after the operation, her first words were, "Have you found it?" but Austin could only shake his head.
On that last day, she took her wedding ring and gently placed it on Austins little finger. "Try to find the other," she whispered before closing her eyes, and Austin bowed his head, feeling a bleak sense of failure.
But now the ring was found again. A ring for all eternity. He turned the tap full on and watched as the clear, cold water poured down the sink and into the drain, washing away all impurities.
He slid the ring onto his finger until it touched her wedding ring. "Its all right now, lass," he murmured. "Its all right now." And at last he allowed himself to hope.
Then gradually the all-embracing sorrow of the past months overflowed and he began to cry.
Editor's note: These poems are associated with Ron's two poems--please go read them if you haven't already.
Another editor's note: There is a third poem related to "Catharsis": "To My Love."
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.