1951, Chapter 1
“Come on, sweetheart, up you come.”
Though she weighs next to nothing, and he is as gentle as can be as he gathers her into his arms, she gasps in pain as he eases her up from the pillows. Gently, oh so gently, he persists, moving her little by little until she is sitting on the edge of the bed.
“I’m sorry, love, so sorry.” He brushes away the beads of perspiration on her forehead and upper lip with his fingertips. “I’m trying not to hurt you, but you know I have to get you dressed and downstairs.”
Her clothes are already laid out: underwear, petticoat, tights, her smartest, warmest dress, cardigan, her favourite low-heeled shoes that she’s always worn for going out somewhere a bit special. Tenderly he places each garment on her tiny frame, hiding his distress at how nothing fits her any more. Even the shoes are too big. He brushes her hair, so fine now her scalp shows through the strands of white in narrow lines of shiny pink.
“I think we can do without make up, eh, love? I don’t think I’d do a good job. Smear your lipstick and get more powder over me than on you, most likely. Anyway, you’re beautiful as you are.”
He steps back so she can see him. “And look at me, in my best suit and tie. I’ve even pinned on my medal and my shoes are so shiny you can see your face in them.” He lifts up his right foot, but her gaze doesn’t leave his face. She starts to slip sideways and he has to dash forward to catch her.
“OK, my darling girl, we’re ready as we’ll ever be. Let’s do this.”
Carefully, slowly, acutely aware of the sharpness of her bones and the sweet-sour scent of her skin, he raises her to her feet and wraps the thick quilt from the bed around her. She manages a few shuffling steps and it’s obvious she cannot make it on her own.
Can he carry her? He has to, despite being old and weak, with probably less than half the strength of his youth.
“Well, my love, we’re going to have to do this the hard way. Remember how I carried you over the threshold on our wedding night? I nearly took a tumble and you grabbed hold so tight you almost wrenched my neck. Remember that? I’m sure you do.”
He can’t risk the extra weight of the quilt or the possibility of tripping over a trailing piece of it, so he removes it from her body and tosses it on the bed, still talking all the while to distract her.
“It’s like yesterday to me, our wedding day. You looked like an angel in your white dress, you know. Fair took my breath away. And that little suit you wore afterwards, showing off your tiny waist. A hat, too, I remember, perched on your shining hair, which was all pinned up at the back so fancy. I thought I was a lucky, lucky man that day, and I’ve thought it every day since. Can you put your arms round my neck, love?”
He pauses, making sure the weight of her, slight as it is, is securely balanced against his body. Her head rests on his shoulder, and her feet dangle so that both her shoes slip off and land on the floor with a dull thud, thud.
“I’ll come back up for your shoes, don’t you worry. And the quilt. We must keep you warm, now, mustn’t we.”
He’s at the top of the stairs now, already nervous about how he’s going to make the descent safely.
After each downward step, shaking with effort, he has to pause and steady himself before taking the next one. He almost smiles at the bitter irony of not wanting to trip;
What if she were to survive the fall and he didn’t? It didn’t bear thinking about. He had a huge responsibility here, and he couldn’t afford to mess up.
“I have to be very careful, my love. I know this is uncomfortable for you, but you need to hold tight. Now, then, let’s take it really slow and steady.”
The narrow stairway means he has to turn slightly sideways to get them both down. He can’t hold onto her as well as the banister rail, so must take it one step at a time.
Right foot down.
Shift her weight a little to keep his centre of balance.
Left foot down onto the same tread.
Pause and breathe.
Down and down, step by step, until he is at last standing on the hall floor. His breathing is laboured and his arms tremble with the effort he’s made, but he has to carry her just a few more steps to the kitchen.
Once there, he lays her down on the thin mattress he’d placed on the floor earlier. Her skin gleams with sweat and has a ghastly yellow hue. He knows bruises are already forming on her arms and thighs where his hands have so firmly held her.
“I’m going back up for the quilt and your shoes, love. I’ll be very quick.”
When he returns, she is shivering and weeping, mewling like a newborn kitten. Quickly he covers her with the quilt and with a clean handkerchief wipes the tears from her sunken cheeks and kisses her forehead. His own face is wet, his throat tight, but he must not waver now. This is something he must do, a promise he must keep.
A promise he wants to keep, with all his heart.
His voice just above a whisper, he tries to reassure her as he once more puts on her shoes and covers her with the thick pink and white quilt. “It’s alright, sweetheart, it’s alright, my love. Very soon now you won’t be suffering, I promise, and everything will be wonderful again. For both of us. Just wonderful.”
Her huge, once-beautiful eyes fasten on his face and his throat catches to see the tears well up again and tremble on her sparse lashes. She has no voice now, hasn’t been able to speak for quite a time, but everything she is thinking shines from those eyes.
“Now, now, don’t you be worrying about me. My mind’s made up, and there’s no changing it. Since the day we met, you’ve meant the whole world to me, and I couldn’t go on without you. You know that, love, I’ve told you often enough. And this way I won’t have to.”
Satisfied that she is warm and as comfortable as he can make her, he bustles round the tiny kitchen, checking for the hundredth time that the sash window is securely taped up. It is so cold, ferny fronds of frost pattern the glass on the inside.
“Just got to do the door now.” His words plume in the freezing air.
From the wooden draining board, he grabs the roll of duct tape and the large knife he’s had since his army days.
In minutes, the door is sealed to his satisfaction, and he puts the tape and knife away in a drawer, wanting the kitchen to be tidy. He has spent the past few days cleaning every nook and cranny of this house to be sure that it is immaculate.
There’s a warning note taped to the outside of the front door and the letter to his sister-in-law, their only living relative, is propped against the clock on the mantelpiece. There’s hardly any money for her, but Mavis can have any of their possessions she wants, including a pearl brooch that he knows she admires. He’s sorry, though, that she will have to deal with the fallout on her own, and that plays on his mind constantly.
She’s been so good, helping out, has Mavis. Many times he’s wanted to confide in her as they sat drinking cups of milky tea after she’d changed the bed linen and done some
baking so he’d have something wholesome to eat. But feeling sure she wouldn’t understand, would certainly try and talk him out of it, he’s kept silent and, he is sure, has put on a good act so she has no suspicions.
Besides, what possible alternative is there to the plan he is determined to carry out this day? He would be nothing without his wife. Nothing. Only war has ever separated them, and on either side of those terrible times they haven’t spent a single night apart. He has no intention now or ever of sleeping without her by his side.
So this is the way it has to be.
He kneels beside her, croons softly, “Just one more job, my darling, and I’ll be right beside you. It’ll be just like we talked about; we’ll simply drift off to sleep. Yes, we’ll go to sleep and then we’ll wake up on the other side, and everything will be wonderful.”
Grabbing two corners of the mattress and trying not jolt her fragile body any more than he has already, he positions her so that her head is a little closer to the open oven door.
He turns all the gas jets full on and quickly burrows under the thick quilt, stretching himself out beside her, his beloved, his dearest friend, his soul mate.
Wraps his arms around her and tries to still her shivering body, even though his own hands are numb with cold.
Plants a gentle kiss on her dry lips.
Puts his lips close to her ear, and whispers. “Breathe deep, my love, and if you get there first, wait for me.”
(This is a revised version, the ISBN number is 9780956795410)