Lethe (Originally published in Tricksters, Knaves and Mountebanks, 2003) 5,000 words
By the time the confirmation had come from the test results, they already knew. The hospital staff were exemplary. They were kind and gentle in every way. The practical details were explained in the simplest form possible, yet avoided brutality through sheer kindness and an overarching need to help. Neither patient or family was lead to believe there was any hope of respite, either through vague suggestions, or by having the lights dimmed on the least palatable details. From now on, it was strictly palliative.
They went home, made tea and sat quietly in the pleasant sunshine in the back garden. There were fresh biscuits – he’d brought them from the bakers that morning, large, crumbling shortbread squares – delicious. The late summer roses, clambering here and there, unruly, over the fence, the gate, the trellis, mingled their scent drowsily with that of the moist earth.
“After all”, she smiled at him, “what is life but palliative, from the word go.”
He inclined his head in acquiescence.
There was, admittedly, a certain finality brought on by the interview at the hospital. Like so many events they had seen through together in the past sixty odd years, it ripened into fruition – the possibility, the probability, the inevitability, and then the accomplishment. It was the final exchange of contracts on a house, the arrival of a new child, the first day of a new job. The small detail that the emotions attached to the event were different did not change the sense of natural progression.
Already, the majority of their friends had gone before them. Oh, they had younger associates, good companions, not to mention a wonderful family; and one can hardly complain at being long-lived and having enjoyed conviviality. But it remained: death was no stranger. They both knew that it was often welcome – possibly in this instance too. Probably in this instance.
They sat enjoying the taste and texture of the tea and biscuits, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the earthy perfume of the roses. The days were closing in already, best soak up as much ultraviolet as possible whilst there still was some left.
She was still sitting there, in the comfortable deckchair, an hour and a half later. Her husband had gone to water the front garden. As quite often these days, her mind had been wandering quietly back to events in the past. Not necessarily well-documented or important events: small exchanges of words, that lead nowhere in particular but somehow lodged themselves with a firm footing in her memory. Recollections of this nature were becoming quite a source of entertainment; she found that age was not diminishing her grasp of the details at all. In fact, the more she retired from the daily hustle of life, the clearer she could recall the precise light, the intonations, the very smell on the breeze that wove the memories together and held them in their niches. Where was the harm in that? At her age, she could do as she liked. About time, too.
Suddenly, she caught a smell of burning. It was wafting through the open kitchen window. The stew!
She’d left it uncovered in the oven so the sauce would thicken. But that had been ages ago! It would be burned to a crisp. She hurried into the kitchen, scurrying past her husband who was carefully taking off wet boots at the back door. Grabbing the oven gloves, she whipped open the door, expecting a furnacy blast of hot air and acrid smoke to come rushing out at her. Her eyes were narrowed to slits in anticipation.
There was nothing. It was stone cold. And empty. The surprise was so complete that she actually peered further into the oven to see if the stew were hiding in the back, somehow. Nothing.
He had changed into his slippers and came up behind her. He sounded a little surprised, too.
“What are you doing?”
She wasn’t sure how to reply.
“I… I thought I smelled burning. I could have sworn… Where’s the stew? The stew I put on, I thought I smelled it burning.” She looked into the oven again, as if it would have grown there in the meantime.
He looked at her closely. It took him a second before he could say, very gently,
“But darling, we had stew yesterday. It was yesterday you made us stew, and it didn’t get burned at all. It was delicious. We’re going out tonight, remember?”
She looked straight at him, and her brow furrowed with concentration. It was true. Perfectly true. She remembered it perfectly. But where had that smell come from? She could still almost taste it on the back of her tongue, though the memory was fading swiftly. She felt as if she’d missed the last step of a staircase whilst going down in the dark – it was unexpected, startling, and very concrete.
Death may be a part of daily life, a familiar face at the dinner table, but this does not alter the singular isolation it commands. It is the one arena that precludes companionship. Friends may die together, but they do no derive ease from contemporaneity. There may be a unifying comfort in a cause or a religion, but these would be so without the event of death. Even before the event, the mere knowledge of it eats away at the rope holding up the delicate bridge between person and person: it will soon be of no use.
He was looking at this bridge weakening. While she was there just as before, visible, accessible, there was a gulf of isolation that cleaved and was ever widening. There was nothing he could do. He could not write letters, as he’d done when they had been forced apart (decades ago now) for two long years. There was no gadget he could buy to solve the problem, no dragon to fight and conquer. There was no phone, no e-mail, no semaphore, no touch, no whisper of friendship and company that could get through to that piece of certain knowledge.
She would be alone. She was alone now. He sat for hours, holding her hand, trying to break through and keep her company in spirit. He could not.
It distressed him more than it did her.
Several months passed. He was doing many more of the daily chores these days, it was getting hard for her to exert much force in any way. She would try to help, more as a token gesture than as a real contribution, and would brandish a duster over already spotless surfaces while he would do the real cleaning and cooking. They would smile and chatter, as the weight of duties shifted.
He was determined that all would be made as comfortable as possible. There would be no squalor here. He’s seen it before, either at friends’ houses or in hospitals, nursing homes. She would be loved and cared for to the end, there would be no remittance on that. That small dereliction of a customary comfort that becomes a tacit habit. The denigration of the individual to a lower level of importance, to one whose needs come second, as they are not of a permanent nature. Above all, the smell of sickness, permeating through and through, seeping into the very plaster and bricks of a house, relentless.
So he pampered her to extremes. She could not even think she might be a little cold before he was piling on the finest blankets. If she as much as looked at a recipe in a book, he had already bought the ingredients and was preparing it, hoping she might eat a little more this time. He surrounded her with flowers, with pretty ornaments, and diverted her by any means he could devise. She had new books: thick ones to keep her occupied at first, then more with beautiful pictures of exotic lands, castles and antiques, when it became harder for her to read for long periods. Later, he brought her more music, and tapes and tapes of recorded novels, poetry, songs, even old news tapes once, after a chance comment she had made.
And he could not stop cleaning. He hired a professional to begin with, as the most sensible and expedient method of dealing with the new situation. But he found that the cheerful, diligent maid (although she would have satisfied the most pernickety of customers) could just not meet his standards. It was not that he could do it better, but he found to that handing the process over to a stranger was unbearable. He’d never had a great love of tidiness, but now that it was somehow connected with keeping her alive it was of the utmost importance, and not a subject suitable for or open to discussion. So her sheets were constantly flower-fresh, the rooms were aired and perfumed, surfaces were shining, all items were in their place and ready for use at all times, and all things had but one use – prolonging her existence. She herself felt quite weary of how immensely clean her person was kept. He would not suffer the slightest morsel to soil her clothes, and she felt she’d never seen so much water constantly laving, cleansing, washing, washing, washing.
He sat at the edge of her bed, attending to the slight dryness of an elbow. She was quite capable of moisturizing an arm for herself, but he had insisted, so she quietly extended it and enjoyed the soft massage. He took care on the fingers, making sure the cuticles were not left out. He rubbed the forearm, and noticed the tracery of an old scar that was just visible. It was more a discoloration of the skin of an unusual nature.
“I can’t remember, what was this from?” he asked.
She had to look carefully at the shape of it, but then she recalled.
“It was were I dropped that kettle of hot tea, and splashed myself. Remember? We’d just moved house, goodness, years ago.”
He did remember. Morning tea, more than twenty years back. The skin was very unforgiving not to forget an offence caused such a long time past. But then it was quite a bad burn. It had been a hot summer that year, and somehow he remembered a bothered feeling to it, of frayed tempers. He even remembered she’d been particularly out of sorts that morning. She’d received some letter, obviously short, which she’d read and thrown straight in the rubbish. He could almost hear the drone of the crickets, up and running even though it was only eight in the morning.
“My hands were wet, and somehow I let the kettle slip. I was lucky it wasn’t worse.”
“You were. I knew I should have insisted you had it looked at, but no, you’d be fine. I bet if we’d gone to get it seen to you wouldn’t have that scar now”.
She was most amused. “And a fat load of good it would do me too! I ran it under that freezing water till I thought the whole arm was dropping off. What more could they have done.”
He shrugged, and rubbed in extra moisturizer.
The time came, of course, when he could no longer keep her at home. She had been hoping that somehow it would stop before this point. It came on quite suddenly – one week she was able to carry on after a fashion, and the next, death had sneaked ahead and she was just too frail and in too dangerous a condition. His sense of responsibility would not allow him to keep her with him, in case he should slip up on something, miss something. He himself was finding the more strenuous aspects of her care difficult to manage, but he would have persevered gladly. He would have lifted her fifty times a day, if there was not the terrified doubt that one day he may accidentally let her slip.
So she was checked into the hospital. He tried leaving her there at night but the solitude was unbearable. When he got back to their house he stumbled around and turned on all the lights, turned on the television, turned on the music, fighting the silence for all of an insane fifteen minutes. And then he gave in. He admitted she would never be coming home again. He extinguished the lights, and the noises, one by one, and sat down. The only sound left was the steady ticking of the ornate clock they had been given as a ruby anniversary gift. He got up, and slowly took out its batteries.
After that, he had a bed made up at the hospital.
It was a kindly place. Well monied and with the resources to look after the patients with all care. The design was modern and airy. The floors were in all places gleaming white, the walls diverse cheerful colours. Even the cooking was carefully designed to be attractive as well as nutritious. He had more occasion to sample the cooking, though, than she did.
The hospital sheets were not as soft as the ones at home. These were always a little too starched, and they rubbed up a bit on the frail skin. She lay musing dreamily, stroking the coverlet. Those peculiar sheets (and so many of them!) they had been given when they were married! Well, they weren’t peculiar, but quite the ‘best’ – finest linen, but oh so dreadful for creases. They were never comfortable, and had retired almost immediately to the loft. They were probably there now, she couldn’t remember ever having got rid of them. Why did people feel compelled to give sheets as wedding presents? They had had absolutely no need of them, having long since been plentiful in furnishings of all types. But the sheets had come pouring in, along with copious well-wishing.
She was falling asleep. The memory of the sheets was pulling up those days from just before they were married, like crockery from long-dead ships, miraculously preserved, pristine as the day they went down. Ming china from an ancient trading vessel.
She was looking, anxiously, at a nearby field. It was late autumn, and it was burning. The yellow stubble was fast being consumed, and a black and smoking field left behind. The smoke was the thing that worried her – it was drifting over towards the house, and the wedding was tomorrow -would it be still smoking then? She didn’t want her salmon kippered. But whom could she ask? She didn’t know who owned the field, and couldn’t think of a way of finding out.
Finally, after hovering indecisively for a full five minutes, she told herself that it was only a small patch, there was nothing else in the vicinity that needed combusting and it would surely be all over by the morrow.
“They’ll be throwing ash instead of confetti”, she thought, and the image of showers of cinders descending on them and the guests in all their finery was enough to set her chuckling. They should try it – it would put a stop to that tedious custom.
In the event, the next day was glorious blue and entirely smoke-free. She had even gone to take a peek round the corner at the field, after the reception when the guests were happily inebriated and taking good care of themselves. The field was behaving itself in an exemplary fashion, not one wisp of smoke.
The voices of the guests had taken on that replete and secure tone that denotes a good gathering. Some were a little louder and more secure than others, and she’d never seen a bigger pile of bottles than that which was mounting up at the back of the house where the caterers were. There was a posse playing a strange form of cricket with champagne corks and bottles – the groom was ‘bowling’ (ought to be called corking), and her father was supine in a deck-chair behind them, umpiring.
Just out of cork-range, three of her nieces had discovered a young colleague of the groom’s. A charming, fresh-faced young man who inevitably found himself the target of hopeful young female affections, today being no exception to the rule. His worried glance caught her eye as she passed, and she was unable to suppress a burst of laughter as she saw him shrug despondently. The nieces didn’t know that he would rather be having an intimate conversation with the athletic (if unsteady) batsman, but as he was congenitally disinclined to disappoint, he couldn’t disillusion them, despite their quite transparent intentions. Let them dream; it was only an afternoon.
Waiters with trays of drinks wove their ways continually across the lawn, stopping at all the little knots and clusters, being discrete with couples in corners, meshing the gathering together in a sunny alcoholic haze.
Just inside the marquee a table had been moved to where there was a good view of the external proceedings, and it was being occupied by four middle-aged ladies. Aunt Mildred was a little stout, and despite her customary strict propriety had gone so far as to take her hat off, and was fanning herself with it. She looked like a large blue bird, fluffing out its feathers after a rather arduous bath.
“Oh, my dear!” she exclaimed to her as she drew up a chair.
“Pretty bride like you, you ought to get out of the sun! You can’t get burned on your wedding day! It’s far too hot, look, I was only on the lawn for twenty minutes and look at that!”
She exhibited a plump and very rosy arm. It was certainly glowing in an unusual manner – it even smelled vaguely toasted. And it was burned in a peculiar round shape at the top, not in the least in keeping with the little sleeves on Aunt Mildred’s smart summer suit. It took the bride a second to realize that this must have been the giant shadow cast by the huge blue hat, now passing in a blur in front of her face.
“Excuse me. Excuse me!” She could hear someone calling, but couldn’t quite place it.
“Could someone open the window, please, it seems to be stuck.”
The hat must be getting closer, it was almost brushing her face. And something seemed to be pulling her. She felt heavier all over. She tried to lift an arm to test the theory out, and indeed found it would barely move.
Gradually the hospital room shimmered back into being. It was indeed very hot. Her husband was dabbing her with a damp blue face-towel, and a member of staff was struggling with the window.
“Thank you- that’s enough” she said. All that had come out was a whisper, but he understood and leaned back. He looked to check that the window really was open, and gave a small “Oh!” of disappointment and annoyance.
“Those nice flowers from Bunny. They only came in yesterday and look! They didn’t bother to put them in a proper vase and they’ve drunk up all the water. They’re toasted!”
It was indeed the case. The pretty hydrangeas had crisped up remarkably, and the leaves were brown-rimmed and curling upwards at the edges.
It was late summer again. They had hired a small outboard boat for the day, loaded her up with cheese, wine, bread, and poetry, and were drifting downstream to the chirping of the swifts and swallows that dived and sped along the river. The French countryside trickled by at a slow walking pace on either bank, and the grasses and sedges were golden at the tips with loaded, ripe seeds, bobbing and swaying in the hot air.
She lay back luxuriously in the bottom of the boat and watched the sky rocking gently above her, like a private canopy. Oscar was pouring over the map and explaining that at this rate, they ought to reach the next village in about 30 minutes. She stretched her legs out a little further, and curled and uncurled her toes: they had been dancing late into the night and her feet were still aching with the exertion. Well worth it, though.
He put down the map and poured some more wine. This was a much more sensible course of action. After all, they could hardly go far wrong – the river only flowed one way.
“This has been the best holiday ever”, she said with complete contentment. She sat up a little straighter, carefully balanced her glass and took her shoes off. She was in danger of tipping the boat over but she just managed to lean far over enough to dip her feet in the cool water up to the ankles. Heaven. Now all she needed was the glass… “Ah, thank you.”
Nothing better than river water to revive over-danced feet. That and wine.
She was too lovely, sitting perched on the edge of the boat, a slender slip in a red shirt, the warm treacle-gold of her hair turning into translucent fire in the afternoon sun. He reached out and pulled her down back onto the cushions, and held her there, a delicious captive, as the boat made its own way down the next few miles of river. The universe must have shrunk to a glorious pinpoint of delight, and was nestled up with them there in that warm conclave. His chest was ready to explode with sheer astonishment at being loved by such a creature.
The miniature eternity of paradise was interrupted, eventually, by a loud flapping noise, as of something taking off, and then a ‘Plop!’. They looked up to see that the map had got bored of being neglected for so long, and taken the opportunity of a small gust of wind to depart for shore, but had not quite made it and was now sinking slowly in their wake.
She looked around. There were no fields around them any longer – it was getting slightly chilly and the banks were bordered with woods and shrubs.
“Oh, no.” Oscar realized what had happened. “We must have taken the wrong branch. This one doesn’t go past any village at all, not for another 20 miles, at least.”
“Well, let’s start up the motor until we get back to the fork. Can’t take too long.”
So they had tried. And tried. But for some reason the motor would not start up. It would cough, chug, and burp but still after exhaustive efforts no life. There were not even any oars in the boat for them to try rowing back. They finally gave up, and lay back and chuckled at the ridiculous situation.
They did eventually, later that night, reach the next village, but the map was lost for ever, drowned in the sunny stream.
It was a dreary, cold day, and even the sunny corridors of the immaculate hospital couldn’t keep the touches of fog from spreading their influence over the population. Some of the wards had cheerful music playing in them, in an effort to dispel the damp influence.
Not this room. It was quite silent, as he sat and watched her sleeping. She was always asleep. Waking seemed to be too much of an effort. Even when she seemed conscious, the words she used seemed to have nothing to do with reality, though they made theoretical sense. Yesterday he’d had a perfectly lucid conversation with her about a non-existent picnic the day before. Sometimes he remembered the events she was talking about, and sometimes not. He wondered just how far back she was going. Occasionally he felt a little as if he were listening in to thoughts, eavesdropping on something he had no business to be.
In later years, she had always been a little rotund. It was no bad thing to have a few more layers to meet old age with. But in these last months those same layers had come peeling off, and her frame (carefully turned on its side to avoid bed sores) under the white sheet had become slighter and slighter. It looked positively girlish now, with tiny hips and even smaller waist, and the very folds of the sheet seemed to accentuate its fragility.
She was leaving.
It was pouring with rain. They were out in the small hours of the morning, she in her flimsy dancing shoes and scant dress and he little better off in a dinner jacket. They had abandoned all hope of any dryness or of any form of transportation. They’d missed the last bus, the last cab, the last everything. It would be another twenty minutes at least before they reached shelter.
At least, torrential as it was, it was not too cold. A bit fresh, certainly. They had met again that evening after an absence of more than seven years. They had been neighbours as children, spent a great deal of rough-and-tumble time together, and continued their separate ways. They had both come back for the 21st birthday party of a mutual friend, and had over the course of the evening discovered in each other, with growing amazement, a source of indefinable attraction. They had stayed talking and dancing to the last strains of music long after the rest of the guests had either departed or slumped unconscious into corners.
Finally, he had insisted he would see her safely home. He was determined to carry out this threat, though nonplussed as to how to achieve it, as (as aforementioned) there was no transportation.
“I could carry you,” he suggested hopefully.
She laughed, and seized on his hand.
“Come on!” she said, splashing out into the darkness. He felt the light pressure from her fingers lead him with a force stronger than titanium, out to nowhere. He scarcely recognized the path as the same he’d known for years. Everything had been changed into something wild and dangerous. And irresistibly delicious.
Within minutes the downpour was so intense it stung on contact with bare skin. The road gave up and disappeared beneath a hurrying stream of muddy water, laden with twigs and leaves. It swirled around their ankles with gathering force, and she stopped to slip off her shoes: she was about to lose them in the flow. The storm built itself up to quite spectacular proportions; the thunderclaps were coming closer and closer on the heels of the lightening. The night was almost as bright as day.
The situation was deplorable enough to be comic. They couldn’t stop giggling, splashing about in the ex-road, executing little snatches of dances from earlier in the evening. They looked at each other through the brilliance of a spear of lightening, and she wrapped her arms around him and abandoned completely any hope of existing without him. She could not do without, could not leave, and resistance was worse than useless. As she clung to the soaking shirt under the jacket, all the noise of the storm, and the even louder clamoring in her mind, the water round her ankles, all vanished. It was a warm, clam bed of shallow seas, where the sounds of gently heaving, living ocean surround and buoy. It was the safest, most comfortable place on earth. She would never leave. Surely, she could never leave.
The figure under the blankets was sparrow-like. Her face looked so different he could scarcely recognize her. She looked so oddly young and innocent.
There was a steady stream of friends and relations. It was visiting hours, and they were making the most of it. It was doubtful if she knew they were there, but at least it did them good, to have seen her for the last time, to have paid their respects. The smell of the flowers was heavy in the air. He opened a window.
The hospital staff were always thoughtful, and took special care in presenting things as nicely as possible. The small complex of tubes and wires leading in and out of her were discretely covered with a drapery of sheets, to what extent was feasible. He knew they were there, though, and it seemed more than ever today that they were draining what little there was left of her away.
She was sitting on the pebbles, being lapped by the warm wavelets of the diamond-laughing sea. She had just flung back (in high indignation) a star-fish Oscar had pulled out and had left to dry on the beach. It was still just about moving when she found it, and it smelled like – well, nothing she’d ever smelled before. Not very pleasant at all. It was the first time she’d touched a star-fish, and she was still wondering how it was that the skin was so rough and strange-feeling. She’d always imagined them to be smooth, like the inside of shells.
She dug her small heels a little into the shingle. She liked the lap of the water, and the stroke of the sun. Besides, the sea was pretty, if a little hard to look at in this brightness.
It was a good thing that the starfish was back were it belonged.
He sat on a bench in the hospital grounds, alone.
He’d not been able to stay inside, but had to wait a little for some paperwork.
It was over. She had left him. And suddenly, with all the strength he’d put into trying to keep her with him gone, the pity he had felt at her lone journey turned into black envy. Why, how could she be so cruel, how dare she leave. Alone, alone, alone.
Eventually, an orderly came out looking for him. All the arrangements had been made, her possessions were ready for him to take away, and all that was left was for him to sign the papers. The hospital would help even with arrangements for the cremation.
He went to the front desk, where all was laid out for him, and picked up the pen and signed her departure-slip. “Louis Charles Bennett”, in clear, schoolchild loops.