"Babe, is all this really necessary?"
It's 9:00 pm on Good Friday night, small coloured eggs litter the dining room table, bags of sweets at their feet. Vanessa is like a machine. She takes an egg, breaking the plastic in two and places the bag of sweets in the middle. Quickly shutting it closed before it springs back open. Charity had gotten bored halfway through, choosing to help herself to the stash of sweets.
"I just want to make memories for the kids. I want them to have happy memories of me just in case I don't, we can't..."
The words get stuck in her throat and tears sting her eyes. Charity reaches across the small space, running her thumb along her cheek. She shifts her chair closer to Vanessa wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
"Every memory these kids have of you will always be happy. I mean you're the one that buys Noah sneaky packets of crisps on the way to school. You let Sarah raid your makeup bag. And you're the only one who will let the boys watch Toy Story on a loop. And this time next year when all this is said and done. We'll book a little cottage somewhere just me, you and the kids"
"But what if there isn't..."
"There will be a next year. Because you're stubborn and a hot head and if any one is gonna beat this it's you."
Vanessa nods slowly, a small smile appearing on her lips. She's starting to believe bit by bit that she will beat this. The cancer that slowly took over her body. She believes Charity's rallying speeches and the doctors who tell her that things are looking good but thinking that far ahead is too hard to stomach just now. Vanessa leans forward and kisses Charity softly, her lips barely pushing against hers. She moves back, passing her another plastic egg a smirk on her face.
Charity snatches the blue plastic, raising her eyes to the ceiling. Vanessa gets her own way again.
Saturday night had been spent making maps for the boys. Vanessa stands with her back against the kitchen unit, taking in the sight of Charity sitting at the table. Trying to commit every feature to memory. The way her brow creases in concentration and how her tongue darts between her lips as she follows the lines on the paper. Her thoughts are broken as Charity holds up one of her finished maps. Vanessa momentarily gasps.
"I never knew you could draw like that"
The A4 piece of paper is alive with colour. Jacobs fold has been recreated on the page, in amazing detail. The shoes by the door, the boys toy boxes, the bedrooms have all been drawn in miniature, the boys' names in gold cursive at the top. Charity starts to roll the paper up, tying blue ribbon around the middle.
"Taught myself when Bails had me in his flat, was a good way to take my mind off things, creating dream worlds or getting my thoughts down on paper".
Vanessa places a steaming mug in front of her, kissing the crown of her head and holding her close until she's sure the memory has left her.
"I might take this up to the bath, my back's killing. You coming?"
"You go up, I'll lock up, leave a little space for me yeah?"
Charity leans over taking the yellow mug in her hand and starts her journey upstairs, side stepping the creaky ones as she does so. Vanessa peaks her head around the bannister, listening for the sound of running water. The taps sputter into life before she moves into the kitchen. She takes a yellow plastic egg, reaching into her jeans pocket she takes a small object, running her thumb along the outline. She places it in the middle and snaps it shut. Hiding it at the back of the bread bin.
It is 6am when Charity stirs. It's far too early for a Sunday morning, the house is still quiet. There's a warmth against her back an arm slung lightly across her middle, fingers softly playing with exposed skin. She carefully turns to look at the sleeping body next to her. This is one of her favourite parts of the day. Vanessa looks so peaceful. There's no worry across her brow and no tension in her shoulders. That seems to be their new normal. In these early mornings she's transported back to their old normal. Just for a little while.
She brushes a blonde hair out of her fiancées face, twirling the strand around her finger. She runs her pad lightly over her features, laughing slightly as Vanessa's nose scrunches up. A hand flexes against her hip coaxing her closer. She takes one final look at the face in front of her. Before falling back to sleep.
Two little voices scream as they run down the hallway as both women wake. The lazy smile Charity gives Vanessa makes her heart clench, a similar smile appearing on her leans over kissing her fully when the door opens with a bang. Both boys scramble to get onto the bed. Once up there the boys bounce excitedly shouting the same statement over and over again.
Charity puts her fingers in her ears, causing Vanessa to chuckle, throwing a wink her way. Vanessa throws her hands up, shouting above the noise.
Both boys stop, smiling cheekily.
"Why don't you go an wake Noah and Sarah up, then we can go an see what he's left"
The boys jump off the bed with force. Landing with a thud. Charity buries her face into Vanessa's neck and kisses her pulse point.
"You owe me one for this"
The house suddenly bursts into life. The sound of Noah shouting at the boys to get off fills the air, followed by the thud of his bed frame banging against the wall. Another door slams open. Signaling that they have made it to Sarah's room. A high pitched scream leaves her, as they throw themselves on her bed. They thunder down the hallway, standing in the doorway of their mothers bedrooms.
"There awake, there awake. Come on, come on".
The older teens have come to stand behind them, wiping sleep from their eyes. The smile hasent left Vanessa's face. The family she always dreamed of in front of her. She throws the covers back and places her feet on the floor. Stretching upwards, pain ripping threw her body. Charity notices her body shuddering and immediately comes to stand in front of her. She offers out her hands and a smaller pair take them gingerly. Charity pulls her up to stand, grabbing her housecoat and wrapping it around the small body. Vanessa catches Noah's eyes as she turns, the look of fear spread across his features. She gives him a smile that he returns widley.
She shuffles towards the boys, hands outstretched , waiting for the pain to subside.
"Right you horrible lot, let's get this show on the road"
As they round the bottom the stairs. The younger boys stop in their tracks. There are no eggs, just two baskets with the maps in and a small letter. Johnny's eyes start to glass over, his arms reaching up for Noah. He schoops him up picking up the note. Reading it aloud.
Good Morning, Noah, Sarah,Moses and Johnny.
Your eggs are hidden all around the house, the maps in the basket will help you find them. Mummy and Mummy Charity can help you along the way.
Vanessa passes each of them a basket. Noah raises an eyebrow at Sarah and she rolls her eyes in response. Charity catches them, throwing them a warning look. Vanessa is helping the younger boys with their maps,answering their endless questions. Charity pulls the older two to one side, whispering between them.
"Look I know you're too old for this but Vanessa just wants to make memories for you all okay. We've got more for you upstairs but can you just go along with this for her. Please?"
They both nod solemnly. The thought of Vanessa one day not being here weighing heavy on their minds. Noah is broken out of his thoughts by a tug on his dressing gown, he crouches down so that he's eye level with Johnny. Johnny takes Noah's cheeks in his hands, a look of seriousness on his brow
"We had to use the map to find the eggs. Come on Nono"
"Okay,okay! Let me see the map then"
Sarah mirrors Noah's stance, beckoning Moses to join her. He toddles over, standing against her side as he points to the small stars that show where the eggs are hidden. Vanessa can't help but take out her phone, snapping a few pictures. The tears sting her eyes. And Charity is there holding her up, placing feather light kisses on the side of her head.
"We're gonna start upstairs" Moses shouts, leading the way, map in hand.
"Mummy come too" Johnny asks from Noah's hip.
"Mummy and Mummy Charity are going to stay down here and have a brew. But if you need help you just shout okay?"
Vanessa watches Noah whisper something into his ear. He chuckles softly, nodding furiously at his brother. He doesn't answer his mother as they go upstairs. The first stop is the bathroom, 4 eggs line the middle of the bath. They all take one in their baskets, consulting the map again.
"Mummys bed room next". Moses announcers.
Vanessa and Charity are sitting on the couch listening to the footsteps thud in and out of each room. Every now and again they hear Noah or Sarah dispel an argument between the younger two. Closely followed by a roar of laughter as they chase them, tickling them until they scream. The two women laugh and smile for what feels like the first time in months. The house being this loud is something that's been missing since the cancer. Charity and Tracey warn anyone in their path to be quiet and that Ness needs rest. But this is exactly what they needed. The hustle and bustle back in Jacobs Fold.
An hour later. All the eggs had been found. Including the three bigger eggs as a final surprise.
"Mummy chocolate please".
Moses holds out an egg to Vanessa. His face full of hope.
"Moses its only 11:00am and we'll be having our dinner soon and"
She stops. Her mind changes track. Does it really matter if he eats chocolate for breakfast? Does it really matter if he eats the lot in one go? She takes the box from his hands and opens the purple foil. She breaks it in half, his face lights up as she passes him one part.
"I have a better idea, why don't we put cereal and milk inside it? Then you can eat the bowl"
He throws his arms around Vanessa's legs as she smooths a hand through his hair. She catches Charity's eye, a questioning look sits there. This was so unlike Vanessa. She was the queen of health eating. Buying brown bread instead if white, hiding the crisp, making carrots sticks for an afternoon snack. Yet here she is making their sons a cereal bowl out of a chocolate egg.
Charity looks down at the boy cuddled into her side. His hands clasped around his bear.
"Whatcha say Johnny bobs. You want a chocolate cereal bowl."
He smiles widely, running at his mummy. His own egg in his hands.
Their Easter dinner had been eaten. Both boys had consumed more sugar today than was humanly possible. The sugar high has lasted all day, making them go at a million miles an hour. Finally it has started to subside. The older kids had gone to their rooms, one in video game trance, the other on the phone. Moses is snuggled into Vanessa's side, his eyes growing heavy as Toy Story played. Johnny mirrored his pose, snuggled into Charity's side. It's not long before soft snores fill the air. Charity schoops both boys and takes them to bed, chocolate residue still clinging to the corners of their mouths.
She rounds the bottom of the staircase. Her fiancée in the kitchen pouring two glasses of wine, she turns around and hands one to Charity.
"The kids missed an egg, fancy sharing it?"
She passes her the yellow plastic. Charity raises her eyebrow but places the glass on the side. Breaking it in two. What's inside renders her speechless. A ring she had seen in a shop window in Hotten stares back at her. Six small white diamonds sit either side of a medium yellow stone. When she looks up Vanessa is one knee.
"Charity Dingle. I really really stupidly and completely love you. Will you be my wife?"
Charity throws the plastic egg on to the kitchen surface, passing the ring to Vanessa. She holds out her left hand, shaking slightly.
"Of course I will"