"There you are Mum - wrap that around you, it'll keep the chill out".
Holly nodded patiently at her daughter as she fussed about with the fleecy blanket. She knew that Meredith was only trying to help, and was grateful to have someone to look after her in her declining years, she'd been relying on Meredith ever since her husband Richard had died some two years earlier.
At first it had been frustrating. She couldn't help but remember back to the days when Meredith was a child and she was the centre of her world. In those days she was the problem solver, the one Meredith went running to for help; it was hard now to ask her for the help she herself needed. Holly, however, had long ago learnt that the old adage 'pride comes before a fall' was true. She'd lost the greatest love of her life by being proud, and he in turn had lost his life by thinking he knew best. She wished sometimes, in that quiet time just before the world springs into life each morning, that she could go back those sixty years and warn her younger self of the future. Of course, every time she thought this, she realised that she would be wishing away her family: her wonderful daughter, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. She could never do that. She loved them all so much.
"Better?" Meredith asked, settling herself down on the bench next to Holly, and pulling the sleeves of her jumper down over her hands for warmth.
"Much, thank you love" Holly smiled, the lines around the corners of her mouth creasing deeply as she did so. She reached out frail hand, and patted Meredith's gently. "But you don't have to fuss about me like this. Go over with the others, you won't see anything from over here."
Meredith glanced up to the sky and knew in an instant that her mother was right. Trees shaded the bench at the bottom of the garden, and the rest of the Scott family had disappeared through the back gate and into the field beyond twenty minutes ago. They'd get a good view of the comet from there.
"I can't leave you Mum! Besides it's only a great lump of ice and dust, nothing special. I'm fifty-seven, I've lived perfectly well for long enough without seeing Halley's comet, I can't see what the big deal is."
Holly squeezed Meredith's hand as tightly as her weak body could. It was typical of her daughter's nature to boil everything down to its most logical components. She was just like her father in that respect. Always caring, always dependable, and never did anything without analysing it three times over first.
"Halley's comet only enters the Solar system approximately every seventy-six years. You'll never get another chance to see it with the naked eye".
"Honestly Mum, I don't mind…"
"I missed it when I was a child because of a case of Chicken Pox. Such a long time ago…" her soft voice drifted off as she reminisced about her childhood. About all the dreams she'd had, and about how many had come true.
Meredith allowed Holly to sit in silence for a few seconds before interrupting her to ask if she was all right.
"A little tired, that's all."
"Maybe I should take you inside then?" Meredith suggested.
Holly slowly, wearily shook her head. "Tonight is a beautiful night, and I feel more at peace here, now, than I have for a long time".
Relaxing back against the solid wooden bench, Meredith sighed contentedly. "It certainly makes a difference from the office. You know, everyone I've spoken to for the last week has been trying to get a glimpse of this comet. Half of Britain is probably out tonight staring skywards!"
"It's such a shame".
"Sorry? I don't follow, Mum?"
Holly brought her hand up instinctively to clasp the small silver St. Christopher she always wore on a chain around her neck as she began to speak. "It's a shame that people feel the need to have an excuse to look at the stars. Why do we need a load of astronomers telling us when it'd be a good time to appreciate the stars?"
"Mum, are you sure you're alright?"
"I am fine, you don't have to keep asking that. I just realised that it's been a very long time since I sat under the stars and felt so peaceful…"
"Really? When was that?"
Holly let her imagination drift back to the days when she was only a medical student. A poor medical student to be precise, and one too proud to let her boyfriend pay for all their nights out. So she'd taken him down to the coast one night, a clear and still night, and they'd sat wrapped in each other's arms until the sun came up.
"Hmmm? Oh, long before you were born. It was just a little romantic trip I took".
Holly's energy for laughing was limited, but it didn't stop her eyes twinkling with mirth. "Your father was many things, Merri, but romance wasn't his strong point. To be truly romantic you have to be spontaneous, and you know that your father was never that!"
"So who was it?"
"Ah, his name was Patrick. He was my first proper boyfriend, and the first man I fell in love with. He always tried hard not to show his romantic side, but it was there if you knew where to look. That night, under the stars, he'd said that he didn't see what was beautiful about a load of balls of gas millions of miles away, and he was freezing, and wouldn't I rather just go for a curry somewhere? But when I said we could leave if he really wanted, he said he didn't mind staying. For my sake, obviously, because he wasn't enjoying himself at all". Holly wheezed at little as she chuckled. "He could be a right misery sometimes!"
"What happened?" Meredith asked, seeing how Holly seemed to shine with happiness as she spoke of this strange man, this man that she'd never mentioned before.
"We split up over a misunderstanding. We were both too stubborn to try and work it out. Even when I knew the truth, and realised what a cow I'd been I still couldn't quite put it behind us. There were times when I was so mean to him. I made it difficult for him at work. When I realised all this, and that he did still care for me despite it all I felt so rotten that I left him. I couldn't bear knowing what I'd done, and rather than apologise and tell everyone that I'd been wrong I tried to save face by running away and pretending that I felt nothing for him." She could feel her eyes become warm with tears, and her grip around her pendant grew tighter as she concentrated on keeping control of her emotions.
"And that's when you met Dad?"
"Yes. Your father was everything that Patrick wasn't. He was shy, and sweet natured. He made me feel completely safe. He was a good husband and an excellent father. I'm not sure that Patrick would have been. I loved Richard, Merri, truly, but ours wasn't a great romance. We never connected. He didn't understand me and I didn't understand him".
Meredith reached around her mother's shoulders, pulling her close into a warm embrace. She'd wondered as she was growing up, and more so when she'd come to marry, how her parents had ever got together. They'd seemed so ill suited. Holly was a loving mother, but she had a fiery temper and a zest for life that Richard lacked. Sometimes she'd sit at the top of the stairs and listen to Holly shouting something, only for Richard to immediately capitulate and apologise. This always seemed to infuriate Holly more. She appeared to need a good fight every now and again to get it out of her system.
"Do you know what happened to him?" Meredith asked softly, stroking a stray strand of her mother's whitened hair from her cheek.
"Patrick? He died. He was doctor like me; he tried to save some teenagers in a car accident but got injured in the process. I got a call from a mutual friend - Spencer, his name was - telling me what had happened. He'd been too stubborn to get himself checked out back at the hospital. If he had have done they might have spotted he had an intra-cranial bleed. They might have been able to operate and save him."
"You never got to say goodbye then?"
"I said goodbye when I left him. He gave me this" She indicated the St. Christopher to her daughter. "It's the patron saint of travellers. He wasn't particularly religious or superstitious but he knew that I'd like it. I like to think that it's protected me all these years. Or perhaps Patrick has."
"I can't believe you've never told me this before Mum. You've been wearing that pendant for as long as I can remember but you've never mentioned him, this Patrick guy".
Holly took a deep slow breath, an exercise that was becoming increasingly difficult to do. Talking about Patrick again after so long was like lifting a burden from her heart, but it wasn't an easy load to shift. It dredged up so many 'what ifs', so many questions about the love she'd been stupid enough to lose.
"It didn't seem right with your Dad around. And besides I knew that Patrick had moved on with his life. He was engaged to someone at the time of his death, I figured that I had to do the same. Now though, I'm old, I can take a moment to look back, everything's clearer. The more I come to terms with my life, with my mistakes as well as my successes, the more I think of him. I can't explain it, but I can feel him near now more than ever before."
Meredith shuddered slightly. "Sounds spooky".
"It's not. It's the opposite. I feel at peace with the world".
Meredith took time to stare intently at the old woman beside her. Perhaps she'd been too caught up in her own life to notice it before but her mother had an air of tranquillity about her. It unnerved the younger woman in a way she couldn't quite explain even to herself, but somewhere deep within her she knew that there was something important happening, something that Holly was ready for, even if she was not.
She was trying to form a coherent explanation of it to ask Holly about when she heard the hurried footsteps of her grandson Jamie approaching.
"Granny and Great-granny Holly! You've gotta come see! The comet, we can see it, come on, come see!" His big brown eyes were wide with wonder, and couldn't even stand still to deliver his message; he bounced from one foot to the other with unconcealed enthusiasm.
"Oh, Jamie love, you go back and watch it. We're fine here" Meredith replied, as her hand was lifted from her lap and Jamie began tugging on it.
"Oh please come see Granny, please, it's really… really… wow! Dad says that we won't see it again for ages!"
Holly turned to her daughter. "You'd better go with him, he looks like he'll explode if you don't! I'll be OK".
Meredith frowned slightly, but obediently removed her arm from around Holly's shoulder and stood up, noticing that Holly was clutching her St. Christopher tightly once again, as if she were about to start some great journey and needed to pray for luck.
"I'll be back in a minute Mum." She leant down and kissed Holly's soft cool cheek.
"Take your time. And Meredith, you know I love you, don't you?"
She laughed gently. "I love you too Mum. Now come one Jamie, where's this comet?"
Holly watched Meredith and Jamie as they left the garden, the little boy practically dragging his grandmother along by the hand. It was a sight that brought a lump to her throat. She had imagined what it might be like to be a mother and grandmother even but to see a third generation of her offspring was beyond her youth's imagination.
She closed her eyes, trying to keep that picture in her mind, and store it along with so many others of her family, of her life. Inevitably she started to think of Patrick once more. He had been a physical presence in her life for such a short time but even so he dominated so many of her thoughts.
Bringing the St. Christopher up to her thin, dry lips she kissed it one final time, and closed her eyes. "I'm ready" she whispered.
"About time!" A strong and oddly familiar voice replied. Holly opened her eyes to see Patrick standing in front of her, the young man she remembered from so many years ago. "Do you have any idea how long I've been waiting for you Miles?"
His voice was deadpan, but his expression betrayed his true feelings. He held out both his hands, and she took hold of them, pulling herself effortlessly to her feet. For the first time in years she stood up straight, her joints not resisting the movement. She felt young again, as she left her aged body behind.
He pulled her close, into the embrace that they'd each waited so long to share.
"I shouldn't have left" Holly told him, not quite daring to relax her grip on him for fear he might vanish from her.
"I shouldn't have let you" he responded, kissing her soft, brown hair. "But then you always have been stubborn!"
She punched him playfully on the arm. "So what now?"
"Now, I show you around. There's quite a lot to see you know, and I thought we could start with that comet…"