Her toast was cold by the time she sat down in front of it, having arranged his cutlery in his feeble hands, and putting his small cup of tea in the plastic baby mug, within easy reaching distance.
- It’s cold, isn’t it?
- No, it’s fine.
- Janet, do yourself some more.
Having not taken a bite, she pushed back from the table, picked up her plate, and tipped the toast smoothly into the bin. Dropping her plate into the sink, she turned to glare at him. He sighed her name, and she felt herself relent a little.
- Janet, I wish –
- Don’t wish, Daniel. Don’t.
His blue eyes, always watery, stared dumbly at her from his skeletal face, and she longed to reach out and touch him; to run her fingertips from his temple to his chin and restore life, through her love, to his flagging skin.
- Marry me, Janet.
On the day they had first heard the news, she had taken him home and then made her way quietly to the church. The building had been still, though far from empty as today was Tuesday; an angelic young girl was changing the flowers with her mother at the end of the church. Looking around her, Janet knew she couldn’t breathe here anymore, she could not belong anymore. But, for the first time in fifty years, she sat down on a pew, crossed herself, and began to pray. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. But she knew it was foolish to try and reach an understanding through prayer, through reason, through medicine. She could not begin to understand the outcomes of this small seed, planted within him so many years ago – five years before they met – that had only now decided to grow and flourish deep within him, and was slowly taking him away from her. Perhaps it was the poison of his first marriage, perhaps it was the poison of hers. Perhaps it was their punishment for their fifty years together, outside marriage – for their decision so long ago to risk the Father’s anger, and be happy, and free in each other. Maybe the risk had not paid off, and now they were paying the awful price. She asked him, when she returned home, angry with herself for her tears, for her fruitless prayers. He frowned when she got home –
- Do you wish we’d done things differently?
She’d pursed her lips, shook her head.
- No, we’d resent each other if we’d married.
And now, he had asked her; she had no warning, no preparation. She was shocked, but not surprised – there was little now, that she could not know.
- Marry me, Janet. If we don’t marry, Seth could take everything, he could destroy you – he would. If we marry, the house, the money, it’ll all be safe. It’ll be yours.
- I can’t marry you Daniel. You know I can’t.
- Yes, you can.
He’s pleading now, his cocktail – stick fingers twisting together, and she’s afraid they may break.
~ ~ ~ ~
That night she dreamt of blood flowing from his eyes and mouth, blue light flashing against his skin, and when she awoke she mistook the alarm for the bleep of the life-machine. But he was laid beside her, his skin papery and loose, though still whole and as soft as it had been when they had first met. But now she could imagine the nightmare, now she knew, that before the year ended, he would no longer be there in anything other than the ring that had been placed on her hand the day before, fifty years in the making.
They had spent ten minutes before lunch in the registry office, signing away their lives to each other. She had signed herself to him, and the irony did not escape her, that it was only now, when she knew he was leaving her, that she would, could, commit – until death do us part. He had, of course, been unable to get up from his wheelchair, so she too had sat, and as his hand trembled, so did hers. She watched him recite the words, the loose skin dead and swaying; his hair, thinned almost to the point of non-existence; his hand, unable to grasp hers. She knew that when she spoke, her voice would be even quieter than his, for he was taking her breathe away with him.
She cannot cry. For what would they do now with their tears and with smiles? Catalogue them as a reminder? A reminder that would be too painful to forget. No, the easiest thing was to ignore the lessons they’d learnt, to pretend they were two strangers, sharing a bed only from necessity.
Perhaps in the day, amidst the washing, ironing, cooking, gardening, visiting, that still needed to be done, she could do this. Perhaps she could pretend in the daylight hours, that she was a devoted wife, caring for her dying husband. Pretend that she was the nurse, and he the patient. Isn’t that what this marriage should be? But at night, when he was feigning sleep, she could not force herself to become the caring wife, as the darkness illuminated her memories and she once again became the lover. For they did not have a marriage, they had a love affair; something passionate, something consuming, something forbidden. And yes, their love affair was played out on their bed, but it extended further than that, deeper, it extended to who was doing the washing up, who was going to Sainsbury’s, why couldn’t he ever manage to put the washing machine on the right cycle so that it didn’t shrink everything, and why was she never honest about how much money she spent every week? It extended to the mortgage, to the electricity bills, to the decorating and extensions, to the theatre tickets, and he had even tried to extend it to paying for his funeral.
- There’s enough there. Use the joint account to pay for everything.
- No. It’s your god – damned funeral, you can bloody well pay for it yourself.
- Janet –
- That account pays for us, Daniel. And there won’t be an us.
- But there’s a lot of money, you can’t just leave it there!
- Oh, can’t I? Well once you’ve left, I’ll be able to do what the hell I want with it, won’t I? I can leave it there to rot if I want to then, can’t I?
She had been repentant later, and had gone to him, kneeling by his chair. He had taken her head in his fragile hands, and had kissed her, and told her that only when she had stopped yelling at him, would he feel he had died. You’re dying. That was all she could say, for what else mattered, really. And he had kissed her again, and again, and again.
She looked at him now, his head nestled to the pillow, and although she knew he wasn’t asleep, she appreciated the gesture, allowing her to watch him and think, and remember, and attempt to imagine the future. It was not that she could not see how it would be like without him – she could. There had, of course, been a time without him, a time when she had been happy, ignorant in the knowledge of his existence, but now she knew him, now she loved him and hated him and revolved around him. It was foolish to think she’d find a happiness again that did not involve him, that did not have her laughing with him, and taking his face between her hands and kissing him, silencing him. But what she could not bear was that although she knew she would manage without him, she was not being given the choice. If this test, if that’s what it was, was meant to make her repentant, it did not, it made her sick and angry, and more and more in love with the thing that was slipping away from her. Like a selfish chid she was clinging to her most – loved toy, whose body she’d broken with too much love, and who was now being taken away from her, for he was no longer of any use.
Her fist clutched the pillow as she watched him.
I hate you Daniel.
He opened his eyes, looking directly into and through and within her, and she repeated herself.
I hate you Daniel. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you so much I can’t breathe. I hate you, I hate you more with each day. I hate you like I’ve hated nothing before. Daniel. Daniel. I hate you.
She knows that he knows, that he’s known from the moment they met, that he’s never questioned it, and that he will die knowing it without a single doubt.
I hate you. I hate you so much it hurts. I hate you.
He had cradled her in his arms the night they had first made love, and told her through his tears, that no matter what, no matter what life threw at them, he would never leave her, and that he loved her. He loved her so much he couldn’t breathe. He loved her so much it hurt.
~ ~ ~ ~
The funeral was forgettable, smooth even. She did not laugh, she did not cry. I can’t without him. She sat, a dry stone teetering on the edge of a stream, managing to hang back simply due to a situation she was far from controlling. But the following morning, she fell.
Seth stood on the doorstep, defiant and beautiful. So like the man she loved, with his wavy chestnut hair and watery blue eyes. But this man lacked Daniel’s warmth, Daniel’s love; her husbands love for her had sucked all love out of his son, had left him an angry shell, bitter, alone in a trap from which he was now screaming. He smirked at her, scouring her with his eyes, dissecting her for her faults.
- I’m here to get Dad’s things. My things now.
- There isn’t anything. In your father’s will, he –
- Forgot something. Now, if you’ll excuse me.
She hated him. She hated the way he made her skin crawl, the way he made her want to hide her eyes. She hated how he made her remember Daniel, her Daniel. Daniel, aged twenty five, winking at her across the staff room, the day he first came to the school, promoting his university to indifferent sixth formers. He’d winked, and chuckled kindly at her blush. She’d seen his wedding ring, of course she had, and he’d seen hers. But that could not stop their smiles. That Sunday she dreamed about his laugh and his soft hands during Mass, and left knowing she would not return to the church whilst she was with him, whilst she belonged to him, and he to her.
She had first met Seth six months later, when both their divorces were cleared. Neither had been easy; he, a father, leaving his baby boy, and she, a Roman Catholic and forbidden to divorce. She had gone against her God, he against his only son. Would he have done it, if we’d known I couldn’t have our children? It didn’t matter. Seth made it impossible for her love for Daniel to spread to his son – he had hated her, resented her. He scared her. He stole from her, he screamed at her, he tricked and teased her. Once, he’d touched her. She told Daniel, tearfully, revengefully, and he’d sent him from the house. Then, he had led her to the bedroom, undressed her, and taken her hand in his. Tell me Janet, tell me where he touched you. She had taken his hand and laid it on her breast, and then ran it down her body. His fingertips pressed into her skin, hurting her, reminding her. This is me, not him. Let my bruises erase his – remember me.
But he was not here now, he’d left her for the cold earth, and in that moment, she hated him for it more than ever. Seth walked through the house into his father’s study.
- He didn’t leave you his books, Janet.
He tipped them, haphazardly into a bin bag, tearing their covers, creasing them into a crumpled, unreadable heap. Don’t, don’t, don’t. Daniel’s books. His books. Take the house, take the money. Leave me his books. But she couldn’t say this, she knew she couldn’t live without this house. She stayed silent. He emptied the shelves, turned and walked out of the house. She walked into the kitchen, picked up a duster, and returning to the study, she ran the duster along the empty shelves. She passed it over the polished wood, pushing into the grain, bruising it. Remember me, Daniel. Remember me.