‘God’s gift to Emma is Darren and God’s gift to Darren is Emma’ the chaplain declared to his small congregation. Emma heard her dad blow his nose - you couldn’t miss his nasal eruptions at the best of times but the acoustics in here seemed to make his sniffles all the more pronounced. Emma smiled with mild embarrassment and looked at Darren but he was looking straight at the chaplain, giving a shuddering sigh.
Oh God, maybe it was all too much for him, I mean, she had kind of rushed him into it. She reached to take his hand and instead took a sharp intake of breath as the pain seared at her side.
Darren turned to face her, crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. That was what Darren did when he was nervous - make jokes or mess about. In that moment Emma panicked. It had been charming at first but, well, surely he should be taking this a bit more seriously? Is this how he was going to handle the really difficult moments in their life together, with a bit of japing about? That didn’t bode well, but then again, it was pointless to get wound up about things in the future.
Maybe it was Emma who needed to take things a bit more lightly - not so life and death about everything. That was easier said than done, she thought. The truth was, it had come to life and death. That was why they were here, with her mum and dad as witnesses as they betrothed themselves to each other whilst she was hooked up to these blasted machines keeping her alive.
Emma found herself drifting off as the chaplain spoke but when he asked if anyone knew why they should not marry she found her breath getting shallower. What if Darren spoke up: ‘Sorry, vicar, but actually, in reality all that in sickness and health stuff is a bit too much to ask any bloke to put up with, I’m off.’
Silence. No dramatic withdrawals, no one flying through the hospital doors to claim undying love for one of them either. Just the two of them declaring their undying love for each other - or so she hoped. Declaring any kind of love for Darren right now was tricky. The fluid on Emma’s lungs made it feel like she was trying to run up Mount Kilimanjaro. If she could just catch her breath to read out her vows. The vows that put into words the depth of gratitude for Darren, for his generosity; how he was just the perfect match for her.
The perfect match. Such a trite little phrase that had weighed so heavily on her heart for so long. Darren hadn’t been her type at all. She normally went for athletic guys - or skinny little runts – as her dad would call them. He was, well, solid would be an appropriate description; solid and stable.
She’d met him at the call centre where she worked. He had trained her and then sat with her as she did her first few calls. She was struck by his kindness. He didn’t run through things too quickly, nor patronise her, but he had felt like a pair of stabilisers as she had ridden out on her own in the call centre those first few days.
Then he’d given her a wink when he saw her in the canteen queue, asked how she was getting on and just made her laugh with his silly office practical jokes. It lightened her day and in the end she found that she was waking up each morning looking forward to seeing him at work.
Even how they got together had been at the root of a practical joke. One of his colleagues had hijacked his email and written a note to her asking her if she fancied seeing the latest rom com and how much he loved watching that kind of film to get in touch with his feminine side. The weird thing was, Emma didn’t see that as odd. She actually thought that it was great that this gruff rugby ball of a guy had a sentimental centre so she had typed ‘Yes!’ and then pressed send. He was let in on the joke before Emma and went along with it, cooing and ahhing all the way through the film until at the end he turned his coos into vomiting noises and came clean.
It was a slow burner; they were friends for about a year. In the meantime Emma had a couple of dates with lithe athletes but, God they were so self-absorbed. Spending time with Darren just felt so easy and relaxing, like slipping on a pair of well-worn slippers that have moulded to your feet over time.
They’d only been going out about six months when she started to go really badly downhill and it became clear it was serious. It was Darren’s selflessness that astounded her. No emergency appointment in the middle of the night was too much trouble to take her down to the hospital; he’d adjust her pillow with a deftness that allowed her to sink into battling the pain and not worrying about whether she was being too much of a bother.
Worry. Ha! She was so good at that and that was why Darren was so good for her. He was a real one day at a time kind of guy, carpe diem, whilst she was more ready to call DEFCON 1 in any situation. It came with the territory of having to have everything planned out, working a few days ahead so that she could make sure she could fit treatment and medication in around trying to have a life.
Emma just flat out didn’t believe him when he would say it would all work out. Disappointed so many times, she didn’t even answer the phone when it rang with potential hope any more. Well, in the end it didn’t even ring as she lay like a puppet on a string in the hospital bed. A puppet with swollen ankles, fluid retention and shingles.
Months of dialysis and no donor in sight. As time on the dialysis lengthened, their hope weakened. Darren’s usual light heartedness that would balloon up and raise Emma’s mood was now anchored with the weight of disheartenment. He spent longer adjusting her pillow, repeatedly wiping away invisible lint remnants after he had settled her down, not matching her gaze. She didn’t have the energy to ask.
It was a Friday morning when he came in with a skip in his step. She knew that because it was white fish for lunch. The days had drifted into an amorphous continuation of time, their only difference marked by the change in menu that would arrive.
He came in, sat on the side of her bed and gave her a match box.
‘Hi’ Emma whispered, her lips dry as she managed this small greeting.
‘Hi, hi’ Darren returned hurriedly. He looked down at the matchbox nestled on her starched covers and back up at Emma, gesturing towards the small package. ‘Open it’ he said, nodding like an eager puppy.
Emma raised her head, trying to haul herself up but collapsed back onto her pillow, shattered by the effort.
‘Don’t worry,’ assured Darren, as he reached over and slid the box open. Nestled within were an engagement ring and one solitary match.
‘Oh!’ Emma exclaimed. ‘Really? Are you sure? I’m not sure when I’ll get out of here, or if…’
‘Yes I’m sure!’ He said, grinning at her. ‘What’s your answer? And anyway, you’ve missed the best bit!’ He reached over, picked up the match, twirled it in between his thumb and forefinger and gave it to her. ‘Now, he said, ‘what have you got?’
‘What?’ She asked, not quite understanding. ‘A match?’
‘Yes - so say it…’
‘I’ve got a match…..I’ve…got…a…match?’ Now the confusion turned to disbelief and Emma laughed in watery relief. The stress of the last year, the worry, could it be that there was some light in this very dim tunnel?
‘Yep, turns out that all along your perfect match was right here. I asked them to check me out on the sly. I didn’t want to get your hopes up or anything - you know, if they checked me out and I wasn’t a match, then no harm done, but at least I knew. I’m not doing it for you anyway, I’m doing it for me - I’m sick of the bloody noise that machine makes!’ He winked at her, gave a small laugh and bent over to kiss Emma tenderly.
‘Yes’ she whispered. ‘Yes please - to being your wife and to you being my donor.’
And so here they were, Emma in one bed, Darren beside her, all prepped up to go into theatre next to her, with a priceless gift and the small matter of getting married in between.
Jacky Power, from Guildford, has been writing as long as she can remember, but this is her first competition entry.
Jacky read English at university and wishes someone had told her that studying literature was really about learning how to write. Instead, she spent many months agonising over the meaning of literary masterpieces.
She worked in retail and advertising before taking a break to raise her three boys. She then retrained as an addictions therapist which she has been doing for the past six years.
She has recently joined a creative writing group and hopes in the future to use her creative writing to shine new perspectives on important issues such as mental health, dyslexia and addiction.
You can find her on Instagram (jackylpower) and at www.jackypower.com