The woman at the front desk smiled at him sympathetically, and he thought nothing of that, she smiled sympathetically at everyone. But as he walked down the corridors to his wife’s private room even the nurses were at it, and one or two of the doctors, they were nodding at him in acknowledgement and offering good mornings. He didn’t question it, didn’t think about what all that might mean. But when he opened the door and he saw Helen sitting upright on the bed, and she was fully dressed, and her eyes were sparkling, and she looked so healthy and happy and young, he supposed he had guessed it, he supposed this is what he thought must have happened.
“Oh God,” he said. And, “No. No.”
Helen spoke to him then. “Hello, baby,” she said, and she hadn’t spoken to him in months, not properly, not with any real understanding of what she was saying or who he was, any words she’d said had come out like staccato grunts. And now she was calling him baby, just as she’d always used to, and he burst into tears, he couldn’t help it.
“Hey,” she said. “Hey. It’s all right.” And she got up from the bed, and came towards him, as if movement was no problem at all, as if the exercise of limbs wasn’t some slow torture. She stood close, she didn’t touch him, he didn’t know why.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s a shock.”
“It is a shock,” he agreed. “Yes. Wow. Yes.” Yesterday he’d sat beside her, and he’d talked to her about nothing in particular, and he’d stroked her hair, and he’d held her hand. And she’d done nothing, not a thing, save grasping on to his finger when he tried to leave.
“I love you,” she said.
He didn’t even think about that just yet. “It’s too soon,” he said. “They told me you had ages. Another year, even. I haven’t. I haven’t had time to prepare.” And he was crying again, Christ. And he was angry with himself for that – and still Helen towered close, and it seemed as if her arms were itching to put themselves around him and give him some comfort. He realised at last why she hadn’t hugged him – she was shy, and that was so ridiculous, they’d been married forty-three years! So he put his arms around her waist, and held her instead, and she hugged him back, tightly, gratefully, and on he cried but he felt so much better.
“Do I look all right?” she asked.
“You’re beautiful,” he said, and she was.
She was taller, and plumper, but plump in all the right ways. Her balding white hair was now thick and brown and down to her shoulders. She had hips and long legs and she had breasts. She seemed altogether much bigger than he remembered, and that was the greatest surprise, how over the years she must have shrunk in on herself and he’d not thought to notice. The room around her now seemed small, like a box; it was just a box; it was the best room he’d been able to afford, and it was pretty enough, and she was on her own here, and the wallpaper was pink and there was a television in the corner and flowers. But now it was a box, and she’d been boxed up here for nearly two years, that was long enough.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said.
Now they walked down the corridor together, and the doctors and nurses were all smiling at the sight of them, but they were sorry too. “Take care, Mrs Marshall,” said the woman who had used to turn her bed. “We’ll miss you, Helen, you’ve been lovely,” said the woman who’d inject her each morning. And Helen smiled back at them all, and nodded, and looked a bit awkward, as if she didn’t really know who all these people were.
Doctor Phillips was waiting at the exit, he must have been informed. He shook Helen Marshall firmly by the hand, and told her that she’d been a kind patient, not many of his patients had been so kind. He shook Mr Marshall’s hand too, and called him sir, and told him to be brave, and that he was sorry for his loss.
“We thought we’d have longer,” said Mr Marshall. “You told me we’d have longer.” And Doctor Phillips just shook his head, and offered his hand once more.
The woman at the front desk with the sympathetic face smiled at them both sympathetically, and asked Mr Marshall how he wanted to settle the final bill. Mr Marshall handed her his credit card, and she swiped it.
Mr Marshall wasn’t there to witness his mother’s last day. Dad was still alive back then, and he’d said he wanted her to himself. That seemed fair enough, and Mr Marshall made his farewells to his mother every time he visited her, just in case he never saw her again. One day his Dad called and said that his mother was gone. Mr Marshall didn’t know what to say. Was it peaceful? “Yes,” his Dad had said, “it was peaceful.”
For his Dad, it had been another matter entirely. There was no one else left for Dad. He’d driven out to see him at the old family house, and there was his Dad waiting for him, in the front driveway, all teeth and muscles, and wearing a flannel sports jacket. “Hey hey!” Dad had said. Dad wanted to spend his last day at a cricket match, so that’s what they had done. His Dad seemed fit enough to play cricket himself if he wanted to, and Mr Marshall knew he’d he played in a team when he was younger, wouldn’t he rather do that? “No, no,” said Dad; spectating would be just fine. Mr Marshall had never much enjoyed cricket, but they sat there together in the crowd, and Dad would tell him at which points he should be excited and whether anyone was playing well or not. Afterwards they went to the pub and drank beer and talked about girls, and it was easy to forget that the man ogling the barmaids beside him who was stronger and bolder and wittier than he had ever been was his old father; more than that, it was easy to forget they had anything in common at all. At the end of the day Mr Marshall had driven his Dad back home; “Thanks,” said Dad, “that was perfect, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” and he really seemed to believe that. He left his Dad there, then; he asked him whether he’d like some company for the very end, and Dad said no, he’d be all right. It had been such a good day, why risk spoiling it? And sometimes now, when the cricket played on the television, Mr Marshall would sit down and watch it, and think of his Dad, and almost enjoy the game for his sake.
Helen had been dying for such a long time. It had crept over her slowly. She had been the only woman he had ever loved, someone who had never failed to make his heart race, someone who always made him feel lucky and proud – and death had crept over her, so slowly, so carefully, it took away her looks, it took away her memory, it took away her self. Mr Marshall had tried taking care of her for a while, until it became clear he really didn’t know what he was doing, and his wife stood a better chance of happiness if he put her away in a home – and if not a chance of happiness, then a chance of comfort maybe, or at least a chance of a few months’ extra life.
And the only consolation Mr Marshall had allowed himself was that he was being given lots of notice. So that when her time was up, he could have everything ready. He’d have tickets for a London show, a musical, Helen liked those, the very best seats in the house, they could watch it in a private box if she wanted! He’d take her out to some fancy restaurant, and they’d stuff themselves with everything on the menu. They’d go to the seaside, maybe. If the weather was nice. They’d go to the seaside, and walk along the beach, and kick at the sand, and they’d hold hands, and stare out at the sea, and stare out at the horizon, and they’d wait for the sun to go down.
He’d give her back everything the disease had stolen. Just for a little while. Just for as long as they were given.
“I’m taking you to the seaside,” Mr Marshall told his wife, as they went out into the hospice car park.
“That sounds nice,” she said.
She got into the car beside him. He wished he’d tidied it up, the passenger seat was strewn with empty crisp bags; sometimes after he visited Helen he’d stop at a service station and buy bags of crisps and eat them parked on the forecourt. He pushed the rubbish on to the floor, he hoped she wouldn’t comment, and she didn’t.
“Oh God,” he said. “Nothing’s prepared. I wanted everything prepared.” And just for a moment he gave in. He lent forward, he pressed his head upon the steering wheel in despair.
She stroked the back of his neck. “It doesn’t matter.”
“No,” he said. “You’re right. You’re with me now.”
“I’m with you now, baby.”
“And we’re going to the seaside!”
“Yes! Let’s do that!”
“Could you pass me the map?” he said. “It’s in the glove compartment.”
“I’ll need to go home first, baby,” said Helen. “I need to change.” It was true. She was bursting out of her clothes. And besides, they were old lady clothes, even Mr Marshall could quite see they didn’t suit her.
They drove home. Oh, he wished he’d tidied up the house too. He said to her, “You rush in, I’ll wait here in the car. Don’t be long, we don’t have a minute to lose. We want to miss the traffic.”
She said, “Baby, I’ve got to go through my things. I can’t remember what I have to wear, I threw so much out! I’ve got to go through it all. And I want to put on some lippie, I feel naked without it. I won’t be too long, come indoors with me.”
“No,” he said, “it’ll be quicker if I wait in the car.”
She took his keys, and left the car, and let herself into the house.
He waited twenty minutes, then decided to go in after her.
She took nearly three quarters of an hour, and he paced up and down in the kitchen, and he fretted. When she appeared he forgave her at once. Her hair was done up the way he’d always liked it, her face was full of colour, and she was wearing a red dress that made her look so pretty it took his breath away.
“I hung on to this for years,” she said. “You know. Just in case.”
At first they made good progress on the A23. Helen said that when they’d gone on outings they’d sung songs along the way, did he remember? And Mr Marshall did remember! Though he couldn’t necessarily remember what. So she taught him Summer Holiday, she sang it over and over again, and the words came back to him, and eventually they stuck. It was fun, although it was hardly summer yet, it was only May.
They didn’t talk much. When she’d been sick he’d talked to her non-stop. He’d found a way of filling the silences even though he’d had nothing to say – because there was never any news to share with her, all that he was doing with his life was visiting her in the hospice every single day. He’d talked, though; and he’d supposed she might be listening, he’d hoped that even if she weren’t able to understand what the words meant that the sound of his voice would be a comfort. But now, side by side in the car, he felt embarrassed. Still, they sang. And as he reached for the gearstick his hand brushed hers, she’d been lying in wait for it, she caught hold of it and grasped it tight. All the time looking ahead out of the windscreen quite innocently, as if she were doing nothing at all, just enjoying the scenery and singing Cliff Richard. And she tickled his palm with her fingernails, and he felt happy.
“How long do we have?” he asked suddenly. “You know, before?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I’m sure we’ll get our full day. Everyone gets a full day.”
He said, “We can have fish and chips tonight! The fish is better by the sea. I’m going to have battered cod and mushy peas!”
She said, “And I’ll have the haddock, if there’s any fresh!”
A little outside Lewes the cars ahead began to slow. “This won’t be a traffic jam,” he reassured her, “don’t worry.” But it was a traffic jam. Pretty soon they were just inching forward. All around them the cars were honking their horns in frustration. He did the same.
“That doesn’t do any good, baby,” Helen said mildly.
“Bloody hell,” he said, and fumed.
“Well, there’s not much we can do.”
“We could have set out earlier, that’s what we could have done,” Mr Marshall said. “And who wears a bloody dress to the bloody beach anyway?” He felt sorry. “Bloody hell,” he said again, quietly.
She didn’t say anything for a while. He stole a look at her to see whether she was cross, or whether she was sulking. She didn’t seem to be either.
He said, “Are you frightened?”
She turned to him, frowned, tried to work out what he was talking about. Then she said, “Yes. A little bit.”
He squeezed her hand. “It’ll be okay.”
“I know,” said Helen. “I don’t know what’s waiting for me afterwards. But I’m sure there must be something. I believe God is kind. Because he has to be, don’t you think? He wouldn’t give us this. That before we die, just for one day, everyone gets to be young and happy again.”
“You think that’s proof of God?”
“Don’t you?” she said.
In all their years of marriage, they’d never really discussed God or anything like that. She’d never wanted to go to church, she’d never seemed the preachy sort. He couldn’t help wondering about all the other things that they had never got round to talking about, in all their forty-three years. There were still new things left to say.
“Yes,” Mr Marshall said. “I suppose I do.”
They sat in silence for a couple of minutes.
“Are you frightened, baby?” she then said.
He wasn’t sure what, frightened of his own death, or frightened she was about to leave him? “I’ll be okay,” he told her.
He knew how it was going to happen, of course. That at some point Helen would just start getting even younger still. She’d shrink again, but not this time with old age and disease, she’d become a little girl, then an infant, then a baby, all her memories falling away. And then she’d be gone. It would only take a few seconds, and they said it was painless and rather sweet. Peaceful.
Mr Marshall hoped it didn’t happen whilst they were stuck on a dual carriageway outside Brighton.
It began to rain.
“Let’s go home,” said Helen.
“No,” he said. “No. I want to give you a perfect day.”
“I like home,” Helen said. “I’ve always liked our home. Let’s go home. Baby. Let’s go.”
They turned around. The roads leaving Brighton were free and empty and they were back before they knew it.
Mr Marshall said, “We can still go out for dinner, there’s a new Thai restaurant that’s opened around the corner.” Helen said, “Let’s stay in. I’ll cook.”
Helen looked in the fridge. She looked in the freezer. She tutted. “Baby, this is all junk,” she said. “How are you supposed to take care of yourself with this stuff?”
“We’ll go to the supermarket,” she said.
He objected. He wasn’t going to take her to the supermarket. He had wanted to take her to the seaside, and to a West End musical, to special things. She said, “If I get to choose where we go, I choose the supermarket. Come on, it’ll be fun! We’ll make it fun!”
It was fun. Helen placed Mr Marshall in charge of the trolley, and she’d order him up and down the aisles whilst she picked things from the shelves, and he told her he wasn’t in the bleeding army, and she laughed and began to call him Corporal Marshall, and he called her his Sergeant Major. She was shocked at how expensive everything had got. “How long have I been away?” she said. “What, was I in a bloody coma?” They both found that very funny, and Mr Marshall laughed so hard he began to wheeze and Helen had to clap him on the back.
She cooked them spaghetti bolognaise. Nothing too grand, but she’d always done something clever with the sauce, it tasted better than any spaghetti he’d ever had eating out. “I want to look after you,” he’d protested. “You’ve looked after me for long enough,” she said, “now it’s my turn!” She said she didn’t want any help, but he could stay in the kitchen and talk to her if he liked. He didn’t find anything to talk about, but he stayed anyway, and kept her company.
They ate the pasta. It was really good. “Who likes Thai anyway?” said Helen.
Mr Marshall said, “I’ve been dreaming of this. That you’d be all right again. That things would be back to how they used to be.”
Helen said, “Oh, baby.” She took his hand. “Oh, baby, but I’m not all right. Am I? I’m really very very ill indeed.”
Mr Marshall swallowed. “Yes,” he said.
She reached over the plates and kissed him then. Her lips seemed so soft and big, and he knew his were just these awful cracked things, but she didn’t seem to care. He hadn’t kissed in such a long time, he thought he might have forgotten how, but it all came back to him like Cliff Richard.
“Let’s go to bed,” she whispered.
“Oh, Helen,” he said. “Oh. I don’t think I can. I can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Do I look all right?” she asked him.
“You’re beautiful,” he said. And she was, she was.
So they went to bed, and stayed dressed, and lay side by side, and held hands. They didn’t say much, and sometimes Mr Marshall would start, and wonder whether she’d vanished already, and he’d take a look, even though he could still feel her fingers stroking his palm.
No, God wasn’t kind. One extra day wasn’t kind at all. Why not a week, that might have meant something, he could have taken Helen away, to Paris, or Venice, or New York. Why not a year? Then they could have tried for a child, again, maybe. Why not twenty years, so they could see the child grow up? Why not forever?
He was crying again. He blurted out, “I don’t think I can go on without you.”
“Look at me,” she said softly.
“Look at me.”
He looked at her.
She said, “All day long we’ve been together. And you’re still old. So that means you’ll live through tomorrow. You can get through tomorrow without me. And if you can live tomorrow, you can live the day after that. One day after the other. You’ll be all right.”
“I’ll be all right,” he whispered, and she kissed him on the nose.
He felt so sleepy. This latest bout of tears had quite worn him out. And Helen was stroking at his hair.
“Of course you’re tired,” she said. “All you’ve been through. My poor love, I’ve quite put you through Hell these last couple of years. I’m so sorry. You go to sleep. Just for a little while. You take a nap, I’ll hold you.”
He wanted to say no, but his eyelids were drooping, and when he opened his mouth to answer a yawn popped out. “Promise you won’t leave without saying goodbye,” he said.
He slept through the night, and it was only the sunlight flooding in through the windows that woke him. He looked for Helen, he called around the house for her, but he knew she was gone.
He found her little red dress on the floor downstairs.
He also found a note.
You’re so tired, I didn’t want to disturb you.
Thank you. You have been the best thing in my life. You have been my life.
Take care of yourself, for me.
Mr Marshall wasn’t sure that he would ever forgive Helen for leaving him behind. But eventually he did.
He ate the healthy food she’d left him in the fridge, and when it ran out, he went to the supermarket and bought some more. He started to lose weight. He looked trim.
He tried out the Thai restaurant one night. There was a special deal on Thursdays. He had the lad nah with chicken, it was quite nice. There was a woman there eating alone, and he said hello.
He went back to the Thai restaurant a couple of months later, and this time he didn’t worry about a Thursday discount. The woman was there again! He supposed she was a regular, but it was only her second visit as well. They laughed at the coincidence. She asked whether he’d like to join her, and he said he would.
Her name was Claire. She was a widow. Her husband had died seven years ago. “I don’t think I said the right things to Helen that last day together,” he told her. “Oh, darling,” Claire said, “no one ever does.”
It felt odd to have a new girlfriend, though she wasn’t really a girlfriend, was she? Well, maybe she was. They’d meet a couple of times a week, and they’d kiss good night, on the cheek, and then one time they went for the mouths. She invited him in, and he accepted, and when she took him to the bedroom he got scared again. But this time he could, he could.
He felt guilty. He liked to think that Helen would have got on with Claire. But would she have, honestly? Claire said to him one night, “What was it you wanted to say to Helen? Let it out. Tell me instead.”
Mr Marshall said, “I love you too.”
It was a whole new year, the first year in which Mr Marshall hadn’t got a wife called Helen any more. Claire asked him to move in with her. He already spent so much time at her house anyway, wouldn’t it be simpler?
He went back to his home, began to sift through all his old stuff. So much to throw away. Still, so much to keep, too.
He took a deep breath, he at last boxed up all of Helen’s clothes and took them to the charity shop. He hesitated about the red dress, but it was just a dress, it wasn’t Helen – and he could never give it to Claire, Claire was seventy-four years old and fat, she’d never fit into it. And he would never have wanted Claire to have it anyway.
He cried for Helen that day, and though he didn’t know it, it was for the last time.
And in a dresser he found an old photograph album. He hadn’t even known Helen had kept one. He leafed through it, from the beginning, from their wedding day. He used to be so handsome, and Helen was so pretty. And as he turned the pages he watched himself get older, but Helen, Helen didn’t age at all, Helen stayed young and healthy forever and so so full of life. In every picture they stood together, and he looked so proud of her. And she looked so proud of him.