Curiosities of Literature

They were on the other side of the glass. I watched the consultant speaking to my son in the corridor outside my room. I lay with my face on the pillow, turned towards them. Nick said something, staring down at the floor. When he looked up I half closed my eyes so that he could not see I was watching. Dr Eason shook his head and made to walk towards me; my son stayed him with a hand on his arm, then dropped his hand away.

‘Have you had the scan result?’ I asked Dr Eason. He had not brought my files, and glanced briefly at the clipboard at the end of my bed.

‘Christine,’ he said, ‘how would you like to go home?’

Home. It meant no more drugs, no more nights under the hospital light, no more needles. It meant he could not treat me. Nick was silent, watching us from the doorway.

‘Am I getting better?’ I asked, as though to hide that I had been watching them.

‘We’ll give you something to make you feel better,’ smiled the consultant.

I moved my hand in a gesture of acquiescence.

‘Thank you doctor,’ I said.

It was a relief to get inside the front door of my own house, Nick holding me as I walked from his car, almost lifting me up the front step and over the threshhold.

’Steady, Mum.’

‘I remember the first time I carried you over that step,’ I said, ‘coming home from the hospital. You were a lot smaller then.’

He didn’t answer but busied himself, settling me in an armchair in the front room, fiddling with the central heating, opening letters, banging about in the kitchen.

‘There’s no milk,’ he said, ‘I’ll just pop out to the shops and get a few things. I shan’t get much, Anita’s here tomorrow.’

As I heard his car pull away I ventured up on to my feet, steadying myself on an arm of the chair. My legs felt shaky still, but my breathing was not too bad. It was easier moving here, on the carpet, amongst my own things, than in the hard, slippery strangeness of the hospital.

It was late afternoon and outside the blackbirds told me that dusk was coming. The garden needed doing. The withered brown heads of hydrangeas reproached me but I supposed that I would not see them flower again. I switched on the wall light above the side table.

On the table lay a book, which I had seen before. My reading glasses were on top of it. But how had it come there?

I was certain that I had not bought that book in the book dealer’s. Yet there it was with the others, with its embossed green cover, its pages stiff and foxed with age, its columns of tiny print. I had picked it up in the shop, opened and closed it and replaced it on the shelf: Curiosities of Literature.

I picked it up and eased myself back into the armchair. It was a strange Victorian book full of outmoded fancies and obscure myths. The kind of thing that Ted would have liked, in the day. Our shelves were still crammed with his ‘finds’. I had not had the heart to give them to the charity shop; disposing of his clothes had been bad enough.

Very quickly my eyelids started to droop and I sank back on the cushions, the book slipping from my jerking fingers.

I dreamed that I lay in my bedroom, my hands folded over my breastbone. Nick and Anita stood looking down at me. Anita touched my fingers but I felt nothing.

’Her hand’s so cold,’ she whispered. ‘Already.’ She turned to her brother and drooped her head on to his shoulder as his arm came up around her. Her beautiful fair hair tangled on his sleeve.

‘We never said goodbye,’ said Nick. ‘How do you know when to say goodbye? If only we’d known.’

‘What did the doctor say at the hospital?’

‘I told him not to say anything.’ Nick’s face was drawn with grief. ‘Not to upset her. I thought it might have been too much for her.’

I pitied them – my orphans – and yet I felt ecstatically happy. I felt as I had once felt, looking into my husband’s eyes, years before the children were born. He was close to me again.

‘Christine,’ I heard him say. ‘It will just be one more night. Just until the morning.’

And then I woke.

‘Ted?’ I murmured. ‘Ted? Were you there?’ But the house was as empty as usual. Nick was still at the shops. I was in the armchair and the book lay in my lap, open on a page. I felt weary, unable to move. I picked up the book again.

HISTORY OF THE SKELETON OF DEATH…
…The ancients contemplated DEATH without terror, and met it with indifference…Death was the daughter of Night, and the sister of Sleep; and ever the friend of the unhappy!

I closed the book and held it against my breast, its weight and density giving me comfort. Then I heard Nick’s car outside and rested the book on the arm of my chair before he came through the door.

‘I’ll just put the kettle on, Mum,’ he said. ‘And I’ve got all your tablets.’

‘You’re very good, Nick. Thank you.’

He was preoccupied with a large blister pack of pills.

‘Wednesday PM,’ he read. ‘I suppose you should take these. There’s three to take. I’ll get your cup of tea.’

I repeated what I had said but he had already gone into the kitchen. When he came back he spoke about having left sandwiches in the fridge and would I be able to get myself to bed as he’d told Sue he’d pick Annabelle up from gymnastics.

I told him I’d be fine. He’d made the tea a bit too milky but I sipped it down with my tablets, listening to him talk about my granddaughter.

‘You’re well provided for in my will,’ I said. ‘You and Anita. I want you both to have happy lives.’

‘Don’t worry about it, Mum,’ he said. ‘You just look after yourself. Get well soon, and all that, OK?’

‘OK,’ I said. ‘I’ll do my best. And Nick, the journey is more important than the parting.’

‘All right, Mum.’ His hand was in his pocket, on his car keys.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum,’ he said. ‘Bye now.’

I smiled and raised my hand in farewell.

‘Bye, Nick.’

©ChateauxEnEspagne 2019

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