It’s two years since my Misery Memoir blogs but before I throw that slice of my life into the greasy pizza box of discarded crusts and start sharing all the new stuff, here’s the unpublished beginning of my novel, written on the MA Professional Writing at UCF.
I’m thinking http://www.unbound.co.uk/ ?
It was entitled Dear Life until Alice Munro got there first…
Brighton March, 2008
She had woken early and known that her husband was dying. She had turned on the bedside light and stared at him in wonder, lying beside her, his head deep in the pillow, his face almost covered by the white duvet, one arm outstretched towards the side table, as if reaching for his gold-rimmed reading glasses. So this is what they meant by ‘slipping away’. Thirty-one years together and he was buggering off on his own. She gingerly touched his forehead, slinky with sweat. His dark hair, threaded with grey, was matted into swimming pool curls. His breathing was cavernous. He never slept deeply; he was always the one who heard the child cry, the phone ring, the cat chirrup, as it presented a dead bird on the bedroom carpet. If Helena did nothing, would he never wake again? She leant over and stroked his hand. He didn’t twitch. She pulled back the covers and laid her ear to his chest, against the hot cotton of his grey Gap T-shirt. What this told her, she didn’t want to know. She lifted his arm a few inches into the air and released it. It fell heavily. Still he slept on.
Edward was never ill, had never been in hospital. Fags, booze and the occasional recreational pursuit hadn’t helped his constitution but he was only 52, for God’s sake. He rode his mountain bike over the South Downs every weekend. As long as it wasn’t raining.
The clock radio glowed 5.18am. She pulled herself up and looked at him. A sharp breeze from the open window billowed the cream damask curtains and chilled her shoulders. He hadn’t moved. How fast was he leaving her? The cat jumped on the bed and nuzzled its small, black skull firmly against her side, arching strongly on its back legs. Early awake was early breakfast. He padded over to Edward and sniffed his ear, the back of his neck. His purring resonated through her like Edward’s breathing.
Helena would call the doctor.
London June, 2010
‘A hot drink, dear?’ The orderly’s nails were a miracle construction of gel, varnish and diamante. How did the woman manage to wash anything up?
‘A biscuit?’ She pointed at a plate layered with Rich Tea and Bourbons. Great British comfort food.
‘No, no thank you.’
For the last two years, when Edward had been in hospital having treatment, Helena had stopped eating. His deprivations had become her own. She had existed on Diet Coke and Tuc biscuits. And a bottle of red wine every night.
Plasma cell leukaemia, rare, treatable but probably not curable. The medical team at Kings College Hospital had announced this with great gusto and the glint of research papers and additional funding in their eyes. Brighton had transferred him by ambulance to London when the local options had run out. She hadn’t told the kids all the details, just answered their questions, all of them knowing that in the unspoken, lay the awful truth. Jack, the sensitive one, was into his last year at Falmouth doing Graphics and surfing and Rosa, the intelligent one, was at a boarding school they couldn’t afford, tackling her A levels and the local male peasantry.
They’d done the will. The first week he was admitted, after GP’s blood tests confirmed her private diagnosis, she stood at the nurse’s station in the General Admittance Ward and with a borrowed, cracked red Biro wrote out like a penitent’s confession, the legal requirements, as directed by her solicitor over the phone.
‘Helena? Are you OK? Do you understand?’ he asked, at the end of his dictation.
Oh yes, I’ve been told my husband’s got a week to live but thank God the pound’s rallying against the euro. Now all I’ve got to do is get back into his room and explain why he’s got to sign this.
Helena wandered down the corridor to the isolation ward, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest as if to hold in her heart. She could feel her rib cage across her back; it would be so easy to crack, to break apart. Outside Edward’s room, she washed her hands and wrists and put on a disposable white plastic apron. Surprisingly, her face in the mirror was the same one she’d had yesterday. Same auburn, shoulder-length hair and untidy fringe, with only a few discernible grey hairs that definitely couldn’t go another day without a wash. Thank God for dry shampoo. Same skin that needed a week in the sun and a quick reversion to the five-a-day regime. She hated vegetables and fruit, there was something about their clean, wet ripeness, about their blatant health benefits and self-righteous ‘goodness’ that made her feel sick. If Edward wasn’t healthy, she couldn’t be either. She’d worn the same plain, long-sleeved merino wool sweater and jeans for over a week. Every day the jeans got looser and slipped further down her hips. Sometimes she slept in them, unwilling to expose her body. Who knew where the next attack was coming from? The top was Jack’s; he’d left it in the dirty washing when he’d come home at Easter. It afforded some sort of mystical protection. As did the masculine watch with the brown leather strap on her left wrist, a present from Rosa three years ago. Her silver laurel wreath Wright & Teague earrings, engraved with Vivat Amor and necklace with heart shaped pendant were presents from Edward on subsequent birthdays. Edward was good at presents; his stylish eye knew exactly what would suit everyone. With all of these totems, this armour, she would enter battle and survive.
Edward was asleep on top of his bed in T-shirt and checked M&S lounge pants, hooked up to a drip, not a hair on him. Puffed up by steroids, he looked cherubic and nothing like the man she had married. Cancer had adopted him and made him her own. In the dim light of his room, she quietly pulled the folded Guardian out of her bag and sat back gently in the royal blue wing armchair by the side of the bed, waiting for the day to decide what else it would offer up to her. When friends talked about plans for retirement or a daughter’s wedding in two years time, her stomach churned and she derided them inwardly for their audacity. What idiocy, who could possibly know what the next week would bring? Her iPhone vibrated, deep in her canvas shoulder bag. She dragged it out. It trembled like a kitten. It was Linda. She went back out into the shiny, bright corridor to speak to her.
‘Yes, can I? Tonight as well?’ Helena sighed, ‘If that’s OK? Sorry, yes, should be there about six. Yes of course, chicken’s fine, I’ll get the wine. Damn, got to wash my hands again.’
When Edward was diagnosed, some friends headed for the hills unable to discover the appropriate language to discuss death, when first they had bonded in NCT classes or playgroups. Vaginal deliveries and breastfeeding were acceptable subjects for public consumption but mortality and impending widowhood were terrifying reminders of their own limited life span. Shocked and unsettled, a lot of Edward’s male friends took out all manner of health and income insurances. She’d seen them, across dinner tables, staring at him, tears in their eyes. One of their own, cut down. A lot of Helena’s women friends ditched plans for girlie walking holidays in Tuscany with hunky male guides and clung closer to their men at home.
Linda and Rob Davidson were their oldest and closest friends. Helena had gone to school with Linda and, as so rarely happens, Linda had married a man Edward liked as much as Helena loved Linda. Their children could stand the site of each other for longer than twenty minutes and over the years they had successfully celebrated Easters in damp cottages in Cornwall, summer holidays in mosquito infested villas in Crete and alcoholic, gastronomic Christmases in draughty, uncomfortably furnished farm houses in Brittany. Edward had been an architect. Had? Edward was an architect. He hated the way he had evolved socially into ‘Edward who has leukaemia’ in the same way that she had become his ‘poor wife’ and the children ‘those poor kids’. Go on, why don’t you? Why not ‘that poor cat’ as well? Edward’s practice had done well with Russian oligarchs and Chinese bankers and he would regularly spar with Rob, also an architect, over his devotion to Urban Regeneration and Eco-build projects. Linda, a GP, would often hold Helena, who had worked in the fashion business all her life, personally responsible for the exploitation of child labour in the far Eastern garment industry and the rise of anorexia and heightened sexual awareness in her young female patients. All four children were encouraged to join in and dispute or support any point of view and debates would often roll on into the early hours with children falling asleep on sofas or rolled up in duvets on cushions on the floor. Thirty years had seen the two families grow closer than brothers and sisters and Edward’s diagnosis and frailty had hit them all.
Helena had soon realised Linda’s true worth as a hospital visitor the first time she turned up to see Edward with not just a bunch of blowsy, sweet-smelling white roses from their garden but also a jug to put them in. Over the last couple of years, whenever he’d been in hospital, Helena had camped out on the snug office floor of their Victorian terraced house in Mile End, a straightforward commute, north over Tower Bridge from Kings on Denmark Hill. A few times, tears or aggressive white van drivers had obscured her vision and she’d ended up entangled in traffic in Holborn or Old Street but usually she managed to stick on one of Linda’s unfamiliar classical CDs she had borrowed, and plough through the rush hour. Classical orchestral music, devoid of the lyrics of love, loss or yearning, was her new co-driver. Her iPod was a tear-jerking catalogue of shared memories. Radio 4 was a cruel daily reminder of their previous family life, both jettisoned for self- protection in her new reality. The former, slightly irritating, predictability of Linda and Rob’s middle class life, their routine established over twenty years in the same house, in the same marriage with the same two high achieving, academically able kids, had now become her salvation. On her single foam mattress, late at night, she’d stretch out her hand, stroke the wispy pile of the soft sisal carpet under Rob’s Ikea desk and remember the fine hairs on Edward’s calves, as they sat together on blue and white striped plastic sun loungers drinking lunchtime Mythos lager straight from the bottle, last summer in Crete. The consultant had triumphantly pronounced that Edward was in remission and for a short while, even she had hoped for the impossible. She dreaded going home to her nights alone in the house in Brighton; the one cup, one plate, one glass, one bottle. The bread that went mouldy in the bread bin, the vegetables that rotted in the fridge. She hated the houseplants and refused to water them – how dare they survive? Every room laughed at her and flaunted Edward’s absence. The abandoned drawing office on the top floor with his smart new Mac, colour coded reference books, neatly arranged collection of tin toys. His painstakingly constructed, red and yellow balsa wood and tissue classic model aeroplanes, that hung from the ceiling on dental floss like exuberant Carnival decorations. Everything now covered in a fine layer of dust. The drugs, swabs and dressings under the bathroom sink. One towel on the rail. Their bed mussed up only on one side, the thermometer in handy reach. Just in case. A raise in temperature signalled a possible life threatening infection and a race up the M23 to hospital in London. Many times, as Edward slept in the passenger seat, his head lolling awkwardly into Rosa’s bright pink velour neck pillow she’d bought for an overnight coach trip on a school ski-ing trip to Italy, Helena would drive through the night at 100 miles an hour, willing the police to flag her down so she could scream out her mission. But it went unnoticed, unreported. The journey was hers alone to deal with. Friends continually sent flowers ‘Thinking of you.’ They’d given up on the Get Well cards.
Edward stirred, opened his eyes and heaved himself up. He coughed wheezily, gripping his chest, his bottom lip twitched. He rubbed his eyes; with no eyelashes his eyes watered constantly.
‘Oh hello, have I been asleep long? Did you manage to get hold of Jack about his dissertation?’ He eased himself back on the pillows. The trace of the Hickman line in his jugular lay like a leech under his T-shirt.
‘Jack’s fine,’ she said, stroking his cheek, so soft, so smooth, so hairless. She could smell his chemo breath. Creamy and sweet. He didn’t even smell like Edward anymore, never needing deodorant, the drugs had sanitised and emasculated him. ‘He got all his stuff in on time and did those fliers and posters; he liked your idea of the howling dog. That rose we got is doing really well on that wall, you were right…’ Edward rolled over onto his side and winced. His broken collarbone and fractured ribs had never healed, the bone marrow eaten away by disease. The first X ray she’d seen had shown a framework of bones polka dotted with black cancerous holes. Helena pulled a large square invitation card out of her bag.
‘Jack’s Degree Show, Truman Brewery, Brick Lane. It’s next week, I told him we’ll both go.’ Edward smiled,
‘Love you Helena. Hasn’t our boy done well?’
‘Love you too, he sure has, who’d have thought it when he was getting arrested at three in the morning for graffing trains? Now, shall I go and get you a Calippo? Orange or strawberry? ’ The ice lolly soothed his sore mouth, ravaged by chemotherapy and the incongruity of him sucking on it, like a fat toddler in a buggy on the sea front, never failed to amuse them both. Helena stared at the nails on Edward’s toes, the biggest ones were missing on both feet.
‘I did a few ideas for the bathroom. Want to see?’ He searched in the bedside cabinet for his iPad. ‘Ah, and the white coats came round this morning with the Prof, said they’re going to try a stem cell transplant after Christmas if this goes OK. Doc Ling’s not happy but Ling’s never happy. Did that plumber phone back?’ He swung his legs off the bed jauntily and executed a little shuffle; searching with his feet for his holiday flip flops under the bed. Dragging the drip stand beside him, he went off for a pee in the en-suite.
‘Shall we watch the news?’ Rob emptied the last of the Casillero di Diablo into her glass with a flourish. Linda was hunched over the sink, scrubbing the roasting tin until it gave up.
‘You didn’t eat much, Helena,’ she remarked over her shoulder, ‘there’s some Picos Blue from Broadway Market in the fridge or I think there might be some of that Roskilly’s left in the freezer. Can’t have you wasting away. I put Ed’s clean stuff on the bottom of the stairs for you to take in tomorrow. I resisted the urge to iron it.’
‘Or shall we open another bottle as it’s not a school night?’
‘Robert!’ Linda exploded, ‘remember Doctor Anwar!’
Rob grinned, put his finger to his lips and theatrically tip -toed off to the cellar.
‘Did you speak to the consultant today, Hel?’ Linda wiped her nose with the back of her hand, wiped her hands on her blue and white striped apron stained with years of creative family catering, and sat down at the long wooden table. ‘What did he say?’
The phone rang in the hall.
‘I’ll get it,’ shouted Rob.
‘Rosa! My dear girl, how are you? Oh good – yes, we’re fine. You know the Davidsons, nothing changes. I’ll get your mother. Helena, for you- hoo.’
Helena’s mobile juddered on the table.
‘Tell her I’ll call her back, Rob. It’s Edward. Ed, this is late. What? When? Why? Yes, yes, of course, I will. Love you too.’
Helena emptied her glass in one gulp.
‘They’ve taken him down to High Dependency. He wants me to go over.’
‘You can’t drive, Helena. And neither can you,’ Linda looked at Rob, standing in the kitchen doorway with a bottle in each hand and shirt un-tucked. She loosened her apron and took the band off her ponytail, shaking out her thick, long grey hair. Every six months she would trim the ends with the kitchen scissors, in front of the bathroom mirror. ‘I’ll take you, I’ve only had one glass. Come on, it’ll be quick this time of night.’ Helena felt Rob’s warm hands on her shoulders,
‘It’ll be all right, Hel, I’m sure. They’re just being extra careful.’
Only five hours before, as she’d left Edward’s ward, she’d cornered Ling and Prof Sharouf in the busy corridor by the lifts.
‘Tell me, how long has he got? I want to know’, she’d demanded.
Sharouf had stared at his senior registrar, who’d carefully adjusted his glasses on the bridge of his narrow nose with a long, well manicured finger and peered down to inspect the scratched and stained caramel linoleum.
‘Mrs Hallam, you see it’s…’
Helena’s throat had constricted. ‘Christmas?’
It was June.
‘Yes,’ they had chorused, ‘let’s see if he gets to Christmas.’
Whitechapel Road was still open for business as they sped down towards Aldgate. Helena pressed her forehead against the passenger window and pulled the collar of her padded jacket up around her ears, breathing in the peppery perfume of the horrendously expensive Noir Epices that Edward had given her last Christmas. The evening was cold, it had rained all day and now the skies were clear, a few determined stars fighting for prominence against the steel blue lights in the high-rise office blocks. The market stalls had been packed away but the curry houses and Happy Chickens barked insistent primary coloured messages. Turkish barbers and Caribbean hair salons ignored British standard opening hours and flaunted their custom with strip lighting and prominent musical accompaniment.
‘And now on Radio 4, Book at Bedtime. Sian Thomas reads Please Look After Mother by Korean novelist Kyung-Sook Shin.’
‘Mind if I turn it down, Linda? I should try Rosa.’
‘Gosh no Hel, sorry.’ Linda pulled the Prius to a silent stop at a red light, leant over and switched off the radio. ‘You OK? Ed seemed fine when you were in this afternoon, didn’t he? He didn’t have a temperature or anything then? Maybe they’re over reacting, you know what Ling’s like. Typical Hong Kong Chinese.’
A BMW drew up beside them. Blacked out windows, revved up engine and pulsating with a gut thumping bass line. Helena searched for Rosa’s number but another call came in.
‘Mrs Hallam? Good evening, it’s Dr Ling, I believe you’re on your way. I think you should contact your children.’
Christmas. He said Christmas, where were her six more months?
Rosa’s phone went straight to answerphone. At eleven o’clock at night she was probably in a noisy pub or in bed but that seemed unlikely on a Friday unless she had a ‘friend’ round for a sleep over. The senior girls’ boarding house had lax rules and a handy supply of duplicate keys for gentleman callers, ‘Rosa, it’s Mum. Please can you call me when you get this message. I’ll text you as well.’
She rang Jack. Straight to answerphone. She repeated her message. Fuck.
‘What do I do now?’
They parked the car in the deserted hospital car park, sharp gusts of wind rattled McDonald’s shake cartons and fries boxes across the tarmacked wasteland.
‘How long shall I do?’ Helena shouted, feeding the machine then searching for more change in her purse.
‘Let’s see what the situation is, I can go always go home once we know and come back again and collect you later.’
‘I didn’t bring his clean clothes, Linda. I left them on the stairs.’ Linda put her arm around Helena and guided her towards the hospital doors.
‘Come on, let’s go and cheer up the poor old chap.’
In the porticoed entrance, an emaciated young guy in hospital issue pyjamas with shaven head and a drip in his skull, sat hunched in a wheelchair, pale green blanket round his shoulders against the cold night air and a glowing cigarette between his fingers. On a wooden bench, a heavily pregnant young girl in short satin nightie, pink dressing gown and fluffy slippers was shouting into a phone.
‘He never fucking told me, the bastard. Never fucking told me. I fucking hate him.’
Without the daytime throng of staff, visitors and patients, the hospitable corridors seemed like marble walkways in a neo classical temple. Echoing, light reflecting, pastel coloured pathways to locked doors, dark offices and dimmed wards.
‘Second floor, doors opening.’
Linda pushed the button on the intercom outside the High Dependency Unit.
‘Helena Hallam for Edward Hallam.’
Inside eight beds were arranged with their heads against the walls, each with a battery of flashing lights above them like the control deck of an airliner. Each with a pool of light from an adjustable lamp on a long metal arm, like an insect reaching out for its prey.
‘Mrs Hallam?’ A nurse touched her arm. ‘Your husband is over here. He’s comfortable now. I’ve beeped Dr Ling; he’ll be down to speak to you. ’ Helena’s phone rang. It was Jack. ‘I’m sorry, Mrs Hallam, you’ll have to take that outside.’
‘Shall I speak to him, Helena? You stay with Ed.’ Linda took the phone and the nurse led Helena over to her husband.
The ward looked like a perfectly organised Playmobil set. When younger, Rosa would spend hours on her bedroom carpet, arranging and re-arranging the small plastic figures with their claw-like hands. The stretcher carriers, the ambulance, the girl nurses and boy doctors. Acting out all manner of death and disaster scenarios.
Edward slept, propped up by the raised end of the bed; both arms lay flat on top of the neatly folded cream cellular blanket. He didn’t stir when she sat down beside him.
‘Ed? I’m here, it’s me,’ she said gently.
It was during the second year of his illness that Helena had realised he would leave her before he died. Physically he was still Ed. He wore the same clothes, liked the same dinners. Admittedly after his first bout of chemotherapy, his taste buds traumatized, the only wine he declared that he enjoyed was champagne. Helena was happy to accommodate this, sometimes substituting Cava or Proscecco if she was feeling grumpy but it was his spirit that had changed. This new Edward had an internal consciousness that had evolved without her, without the children. Often, she saw in his eyes an awareness of something that he could not share. She was jealous of this secret lover that had taken him away, sucked him dry, bled him with her desire for his very being. This lover would win him, of that Helena was sure, her hunger was too great for Edward to resist.
‘Mrs Hallam?’ Ling had arrived with a nurse. His white coat was immaculate, pale blue shirt expertly pressed, dark blue tie knotted tightly and neatly. ‘We believe the infection has responded well to the antibiotics but his blood pressure and heart rate are concerning us a small amount.’ Ling tried to smile. ‘Obviously, Mr Hallam is a fairly young man and was always in good health. That will help us. Did you manage to contact your children, Mrs Hallam?’
Helena was transfixed by the red light readings on the heart rate monitor on the wall above Edward’s head. Blink blink blink.
The blood pressure cuff on Ed’s right arm purred into action. 80/60. Blink blink blink.
‘He didn’t move.’
‘The drugs will make him sleep more deeply; it is not of too much concern for us at the moment. I will come back straight away if I am needed.’
Helena’s eyes filled with tears. Don’t bloody fool me.
Linda returned and put the phone in Helena’s hand, wrapping her fingers around it.
‘I’ve turned it off, he’s on his way, he’s going to keep trying Rosa.’
Helena picked a piece of loose skin from the side of her nail. It started bleeding.
‘He got a mini-cab, I do hope it’s road-worthy, you never know with unlicenced vehicles, do you? Shall I get you a tea and try Rosa again? Yes, that would be a good idea.’ She took the phone back. ‘ You just sit there, Helena. I won’t be long, I’ll go and meet Jack downstairs, he’ll be here very soon, I’m sure.’ She pulled a hankie out of the pocket of her red Patagonia waterproof jacket. One thing Linda never resented spending money on was good outdoor clothing. ‘It’s Rob’s but I think it’s clean.’
Helena laid her head down on the side of Edward’s raised bed, took his limp hand and pressed it against her hot cheek. She clamped Rob’s handkerchief over her mouth, hid her face with her greasy hair and sobbed.
They sat and stared at Edward. Jack had arrived dishevelled and drunk. Someone had brought two more grey plastic chairs, someone had pulled the Aztec patterned curtains around them.
‘Mum, what’s happening, then? Dad looks fine. They’ve sorted it, haven’t they? Couldn’t we just come back in the morning and see him when he’s awake?’ He yawned, leant back in his chair and stretched out his long legs out under the bed.
But Helena noticed a change in Edward’s breathing and called a nurse. When she came and checked his pulse and his temperature, Edward opened his eyes but he looked at no one.
‘I’ll come back in five minutes. I’ll beep Dr Ling. There’s a visitor’s kitchen by the door if anyone would like a hot drink. Just put some money in the box.’
‘Jack, let’s just stay for a bit more, please.’
Jack sighed dramatically and reached forward to hold one of his father’s hands in both of his. Helena took hold of Edward’s other hand. Linda sat beside Helena and wondered what to do. Five minutes later, Edward’s heart stopped as gently as a penny rolling down a hill.
When people die, sometimes there is no noise, no fuss, no shouting of instructions between medical professionals. Sometimes they really do just slip away.
‘What do we do?’
Edward lay in exactly the same position as when they had arrived, only now his mouth and eyes were open. The nurse had quietly confirmed his death and gone to find the doctor. Helena looked around frantically, as if expecting someone to deliver a lecture in post partum procedure. ‘Can we try and shut his mouth?’ It was easy to shut Edward’s eyelids. They fell gratefully together. Helena put one hand under his chin and lifted his jaw gently. He was still warm. She let go and his mouth gaped, again. She tugged a plastic protected pillow from behind his head and tried to wedge it under his chin.
‘Mum, just leave it.’
She stared at Edward’s teeth, at the bridge in his top set, the four gold doubles at the back top right and left. She had threatened to salvage them from his ashes and make them into earrings. Would she find them after the fire? Shining like tin lids in the ashes of an autumnal bonfire?
‘Will he start leaking?’ She turned to a senior looking nurse who had arrived, in a navy blue uniform, ‘Will he make funny noises?’
‘Nothing strange will happen.’
‘Helena? I’d better go and phone Rob,’ Linda was shaking, she pulled on her jacket, ‘I’ll go outside, there’s better reception and… Hellie, Jack, I…’ She broke off, tears falling, nose running, suddenly disabled, ‘I’ll go and ring Rob.’ She searched for Rob’s hankie she had given away and found only an inadequate scrap of tissue.
‘Mum, what do we do?’
Helena still held Edward’s hand – soft, warm, pink, still flexible. When would he become a stiff? Stiff as a board? Rigor Mortis? Mortician, mortician’s slab, cold, grey, steel boxes, cold grey steel drawers, chilly, in the chiller, slice, knives, hacksaws. Helena’s mind ran in circles, like a rat in a box.
The nurse came back, this time accompanied by a woman in normal clothes.
‘Mrs Hallam, we need to fill in some forms. If you could come to the office?’
Helena could hear the roll, clip and flip of the drugs trolley announcing the new day.
Edward’s nose was now paler than the rest of his face. A faint blue sheen glazed his skin between his eyebrows, over his nose, around his lips. She gently touched his earlobe which still bore the indentation of the one piercing he’d had in the seventies. She stroked his soft dark hair, his short neat goatee and moustache. He looked so dapper. All dressed up and somewhere to go. He looked too well to die.
‘Mum, I don’t want to stay here. Sorry.’
The central ceiling lights had been turned on and daylight was starting to filter through the cubicle curtains. They danced in and out with every trolley, bed or stretcher that passed.
‘I don’t know what to do, Jack?’
‘I’m going out for a fag, Mum. Sorry. You got any Anadin?’ He grabbed his black jacket from the back of his chair, searched in the pockets and leant over and gave her a kiss, his breath warm and beery, his stubbly cheek wet against hers, his long dark hair brushing her face. Her other man.
Helena sat by her husband’s bed for 20 minutes. She tried to remember his final words. People would ask, it would be important to remember them.
‘They’re taking me to High Dependency, don’t know why, love you.’
Love you too, Edward. Love you too, my love. Her stomach rolled, her shoulders ached, her hands felt like the wings of a small bird, light and fluttering. She wasn’t sure she could control them. She scanned the form of his body under the covers. His chest, where she had laid her head so many times, where she had found such security. His round stomach, where Rosa had loved to rest her cheek: warm and full of Daddy. His hips, his cock which had given her two children and so much pleasure, so much sense of belonging. Often she would fall asleep at night beside him, cradling his softness gently in her hand, holding his manhood, his very essence, claiming her man. They had met when she was a naïve, virginal 19 year old and she had been scared of the size of him. Been so nervous of sex. She feared his cock and the pain she knew it could inflict. They’d lain together in his bed- sit in West Kensington and her toes had floated nervously on his shins. He had stroked her back, told her she was beautiful, that he loved her big nose and found it sexy, he’d gently placed himself against her, his heart beating like a magical metronome. They had learnt and grown together, teaching each other the wonders of their bodies and delighting in their perfect fit. Every moment of her adult life lay before her with this man. She knew every inch of his body, every fear and every hope in his heart. She had never known any other. Where had all his memories gone? She gazed in the air above his head. Had she seen a soul escape? Fly upwards to heaven? She was willing to believe in anything.
His hand in hers was growing colder. She wanted to tuck his arms under the blankets and sheet. Wrap them around his shoulders. But her husband had finally left her. Not like Evelyn or Sarah’s, off for a new life with a younger model, but for somewhere no one would ever be able to touch him. Helena reached her arms across his thighs, willing him to stay inside her forever, holding on to her husband for the very last time.
‘Hellie? Shall we go home now?’ She had fallen asleep and Linda, Rob and Jack stood beside her. Jack with his shoulders hunched, hands stuffed into the front pockets of his skinny chino’s. Linda’s eyes were red rimmed and told a different story to her smile. Rob had combed his thin grey hair, his side parting trying to take control of the general situation.
‘Mum, here’s your jacket. They’ve got stuff for you to sign, let’s go. I got you some water.’ Jack put his arm around her and helped her to her feet. ‘Come on, Mum.’ He pulled back the curtains and presented his mother, the widow, to the ward. Helena looked around, all these people still alive in the world. Men older than Edward. She caught the eyes of other relatives, busying around beds. Thank you, we’re finished now. It’s over. He’s dead.
‘But what about his stuff, Jack?’
‘They’ll put it all together. Said you can pick it up later.’
There was a pain in the base of her skull. What day was it? What time? What time had he died? Had anyone made a note? That was something else that people would want to know.
‘Rosa. What about Rosa?’
“I spoke to her, Hellie, Mrs C told her, organised the train. I’m picking her up from Paddington this afternoon.’ Rob reached out and touched her shoulder.
‘Oh Rosa,’ Helena sobbed ‘Oh Rosa, poor, poor Rosa.’
Without a shadow of a doubt, Rosa had been Edward’s favourite. The only time she had ever seen him cry in the last few months was when he talked about not being there to see his daughter married.
Jack took Helena to the office and left Linda and Rob with Edward. The cleaners laughed and chatted in the sluice room next door. They’re not dead, thought Helena. We’re not dead. Edward’s dead. But when they all left the hospital together, she was so used to leaving, to navigating her way automatically through the packed corridors that hummed with life and the clang and clunk of lift doors, swing doors and hospital machinery that it seemed as if Edward would still be there alive when they returned the next day. Yes, he had died, she’d watched him, she wasn’t stupid, but tomorrow he would be alive again as always. There had been crisis before and they’d got through it together.
‘We’ll go home and make a good breakfast, shall we? We’ve got some organic bacon.’ Rob’s hair parting was now in disarray. Helena sat with Jack in the back of the car on the return to Mile End.
‘I know you’re not meant to say this, Mum, but it is a relief.’ Jack’s voice came from a place Linda didn’t recognise. ‘It was pretty shit for him, wasn’t it? He was just a bloody guinea pig. We knew he wasn’t going to get better, you knew as well, didn’t you? It was two years of shit for us all.’
Helena stared out the window and wondered how old the plane trees were on Camberwell Green. Older than Edward? There were buildings that had withstood two world wars. They were definitely older. How had they all survived? The early morning commuting traffic clogged the road, the car was hemmed in at the lights by cyclists, one foot on the ground, ready for the off. Helena saw a bike the same as Edward’s, ridden by an athletic looking guy in neon and black. He wasn’t dead.
‘Hey Mum, look I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you do know what I mean though, don’t you?’
‘Where will they put him, Jack? Now we’re not there? Do they take off his clothes?’
‘Oh Mum, come on.’ He slid across the seat and took her in his arms. Her shoulders heaved, her head fell,
‘Oh fuck it, Jack. Fuck, fuck, fuck it.’
Rosa arrived that afternoon with the beginnings of a cold. Linda had gone in for her afternoon surgery at the practice. Monday’s were Sexual Health Drop–In Clinic and she had campaigned long and hard for additional funding from Tower Hamlets. Jack had gone off to facilitate at his degree show and no one knew what to do next about Edward. Rob had busied himself in the kitchen making Rosa his special egg, bacon and secret ingredient sandwich and was carefully planning the evening meal with a pen, three cook books and a very long list. Rosa wiped ketchup and egg from her chin,
‘It’s not going to be in a church, is it, Mum? Dad liked churches but he bloody hated Christians. Do you know what he wanted? Did you ask him? Bet you did. He said after Nanna died that he didn’t want to be buried but scattered on top somewhere nice, like she was. But obviously, not in Eastbourne.’ Helena swallowed,
‘Do you want to go in and see him? We could.’
Rosa’s smudgy, black rimmed eyes filled with tears, there were already grey streaks down both cheeks, etched through her thickly applied concealer and foundation. Her long, backcombed, bleached blonde hair was piled on top of her head and secured with a dozen assorted hairgrips. She pulled the cuffs of her black lambswool cardigan, with enormous holes in both elbows, down over her hands like mittens, twisted in her chair and sniffed loudly,
‘ No. Wouldn’t be him, would it? Just what was left. The packaging and that. He wouldn’t be able to say anything or give me a hug.’
And so beganneth the final chapter in the life and death of Edward Arthur Hallam. Rosa, Jack and Helena argued and fought for three days about how to say goodbye. Helena went back with Rosa to Kings to collect Edward’s possessions. His iPod with music they could use for the funeral, his iPhone with numbers they could contact to invite, his iPad with drawings for the new bathroom and family photos, his leather bound Filofax that he had clung to for years, his Cutler & Gross glasses, his book, his clothes, his lucky yellow wooden star that Rosa had bought him in Italy, his wedding ring. To no one’s surprise, Edward wasn’t alive again after all.
They finally decided on a Humanist funeral in an East End Crematorium with a particularly interesting set of grandiose graves and mausoleums that would have amused Edward with their overblown, baroque extravagance. They would scatter his ashes in Crete, as he had requested. Rosa was right. Helena had asked him months before, in the cold, dark dankness of February when he was preparing for his first bone marrow transplant.
‘So, where are we going to scatter you, Mr Hallam, when you finally decide to pop off?’ she asked, as if it were as simple as asking if he wanted anything else from up the shop. ‘I want to make sure I get it right. Brighton? Cornwall? London?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Somewhere you and the kids like to visit.’
‘Crete?’ They had holidayed there together for twenty years.
‘Yes, that’s a good idea. You could come out every year and say hello.’
They would scatter him on the rocky limestone cliffs over looking the Mediterranean Sea, with the goats and sheep, the bright pink oleanders and the arthritic, windblown tamarisks and pines.
Rosa returned to school with one of Edward’s T shirts to use as a night-shirt, Jack got a part time job in a bar in Dalston and Helena returned to Brighton, stopped eating and took up drinking.