‘If it’s going to be the last room I ever see, Herbert, I want it to be perfect.’
Maureen drew up her bed covers. Her bedroom was getting colder by the day. Brochures from private hospices, all thumbed and dog-eared, slid off the bed to the thick carpet, making dull thuds. She coughed into a ball of tissue paper. No blood this time. But her chest burned. She imagined jacks, their sharp points digging into her lungs.
‘We’ve looked at thirty hospices in the area,’ said Herbert. He didn’t mean to come over as flippant. She was, after all, his wife and deserved nothing but the best. And if she wanted the perfect room, that’s what he’d get her. ‘I’ll have a look in the book,’ he said, wondering where the yellow book was. ‘Get us some more brochures. Do you want anything else?’
‘Not yet,’ she said. ‘Get Robin round,’ she said. Robin, their eldest son, never married, lived thirty minute’s drive away in a large cottage. He was the senior lecturer in Medical Law at the local university. ‘He might know some places.’
Herbert smiled. ‘Do you really want to go a place Robin’s had to talk about?’
Maureen contained her laughter. It hurt to laugh nowadays. ‘Alright then, ask him about the ones he doesn’t talk about.’
The day inched on. For Herbert it was a circle of telephone calls and attending to Maureen’s needs. For Maureen it was unending morning television and the need for accompaniment to the bathroom. Robin arrived after four. He kissed his mother on the cheek. Maureen’s eyes twinkled with a tear. Her eldest; he’d become man at some point and remained that way for his entire life. The other two she’d always see as “her babies” but Robin was “her grown-up”. Of course, she’d never tell him that.
‘How’s my baby?’ she asked as he helped her sit up. Herbert was downstairs warming some soup.
‘I’m fine, mum,’ he said. ‘Dad told me you weren’t happy with the hospices? Why don’t you just go and visit them, you might feel different when you see them.’
‘No I won’t,’ she said. Maureen knew that if they got her to one of those places, she’d never leave. ‘I’ll know the right one when I see it.’
Herbert fed his wife, and then father and son went downstairs to talk about the football and the movies Robin went to see. Maureen wondered when Robin would find the right woman. She never worried about it before. He always had plenty of time before. But now that time was withering away.
The next day Robin was called back to the house. Herbert opened the door. Robin had never seen his dad cry before. Abject sorrow withered Herbert’s seventy year old face, tears flowed down gullies of wrinkles.
‘She passed out,’ he sniffed. ‘During the night. Her breathing stopped. They took her to St. Jude’s.’
Robin nodded. His own tears were pushing their way up from this stomach like geysers. He pushed back; dad was the one who got to cry now. He took his father out to his car, plotted the sat-nav for the local hospital, and they set off. On the way, he called his sisters, Margaret and Harriet and told them to come down as quickly as they could. Both conversations ended with more tears, more sorrow. Dad, in the passenger’s seat now, no longer in the driver’s seat, sucked in the grief. Robin wiped a tear on his cuff: must watch the road.
The oncology ward of St. Jude’s hospital was blue. Walls, floors, ceiling, everything down to the uniforms of the nursing staff was blue. The astringent smell of urine, death, and cleaning fluid permeated Robin’s nostrils. Herbert had blown his nose before they entered the ward and stared to regret it immediately. They were taken to Maureen’s bedside, in a semi-private room. She was still, mercifully, unconscious, but the doctor assured them she was sleeping. The man in the second bed was reading his paper, unconcerned that the light of the world was slowly diminishing in the bed opposite him.
‘I’ll come back in half-an-hour,’ he said, leaving the two men watching wife and mother.
Herbert held her hand, cold and fragile. ‘She’s so thin,’ he said. Then, humour as a defence, he added, ‘Forty years earlier she might have killed for a figure like this.’
Harriet arrived first. She and her husband and two girls, all now in primary school, lived an hour away up the motorway. Hugs and whispered assurances that things would be ok were exchanged. Even Geoffrey, her often quiet and uninvolved husband, put his arms out for Robin and Herbert.
‘I lost my mum a year ago,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘She’s waking up,’ said Georgina, one of the children. ‘Hi Nanna.’
‘Geogie?’ Maureen croaked. Robin went to get a nurse. ‘Harriet? Is that you?’
‘We’re all here, mum,’ Harriet said.
‘Where am I?’ Maureen asked. Herbert brought her a cup of water and answered as she sucked on a blue plastic straw.
‘I’m sorry, love,’ he said, heartbroken he couldn’t give his wife her one last request. ‘You stopped breathing last night, I had to call…’
‘You’re in St. Jude’s, mum,’ Harriet finished for dad.
‘St. Judes?’ asked Maureen. ‘No, but…’
The doctor and a nurse came and checked her medication and readouts. Her morphine was increased but otherwise everything appeared as it should, they said. The nurse took Maureen’s order for dinner that night, a choice between salmon in white sauce and ham in white sauce. She chose the ham.
‘I don’t like fish,’ she said. Herbert began again to apologise again but she hushed him with a look. ‘Georgie, Hannah, come give your nanna a cuddle.’
The family stayed there for another hour. Visiting time went but the nurses let them stay. They talked about how the girl’s school was going and Hannah showed off her latest papier-mâché masterpiece, a bowl with colourful flecks of paint on it. Robin and Hannah discussed Robin’s last unsuccessful blind date with one of her friends and Hannah arranged the next on her mobile.
‘Are you allowed to use those in here?’ asked Herbert. He had sat in a stiff plastic chair all day, clutching Maureen’s hand like he could stop her slipping away if he just gripped hard enough. Whether it was the morphine, or if she liked it, she never told him to stop and let go.
‘Yes, dad,’ said Harriet with a shake of her head at Robin. Dad had given up keeping up with the times in the early part of the century.
A baby’s giggle swam down the ward, and a new mother and father cooed at it. Margaret had found the man of her dreams three years ago and now they were married with child in a house in London. He was a respectable jeweller and she was a Permanent Under Secretary for the Ministry of Defence. They had met when she was buying her last, scum-bag of a fiancé a wedding band.
‘Marge’s here,’ said Harriet. ‘With little Thomas by the sounds of it.’
The girls surrounded Margaret when she came in like they were the suckling babes. Margaret and Peter, her husband, smiled as Hannah and Georgina let Thomas’ wrap his matchstick size fingers round theirs.
‘Hey mum,’ said Margaret. She brought Thomas over. ‘Here’s your latest grandchild.’
‘Oh, Margey… he’s gorgeous,’ said Maureen. Margaret held the gurgling baby close to her mother so Maureen could stroke the fine coating of brown hair on his head. ‘Isn’t he lovely?’ she said to Herbert.
‘Yes, he’s beautiful,’ he said. ‘Just like his mum. And his dad of course.’
‘Herbert,’ said Peter, shaking the old man’s free hand.
Dinner arrived. There were square chunks of ham, square chunks of potato with chunks in, and square peas. The entire meal could have been stacked up like a tower. Herbert scooped up small mouthfuls on a plastic spoon and raised them to Maureen’s lips while the others quietly spoke amongst themselves, the two girls alternating between chasing each other up and down the ward and playing with baby Thomas. With each swallow she needed some water. The soft potato even felt like daggers in her throat.
She shook her head at the fourth spoonful. ‘No more,’ she said.
‘Oh, love,’ said Herbert, thinking it was the quality of the food that was putting her off. ‘I’m so sorry. I should have got you to one of those nicer places sooner. That one place, with the lake. You liked that one.’
Maureen nodded. ‘Yes, that one would have been nice.’ Her voice was becoming softer and softer. Her lungs had barely enough air to keep her awake. Talking was becoming a chore. She smiled at her husband, hoping he’d stop chastising himself. She looked at the foot of her bed, where Robin was talking to Peter about fatherhood and she hoped that Robin would follow Peter’s advice and stop being so picky, a trait he got from her she thought, and settle down. Next to them, feeding Thomas, were Harriet and Margaret. Maureen was glad she’d met the little one, even if he would never remember. She thought of all the wonders that lay in store for him, would his generation by the first to live on the moon, or cure the cancer that was ravaging her? Down on the floor, sharing a colouring book and being watched over by their father, the two girls laughed and argued over what colour a giraffe was, and who lost the black crayon. Maureen thought of Hannah’s painted bowl and wondered if it was the first sign of artistic talent in the family. If she had her glasses she would have seen Hannah’s meticulous colouring of a parrot, all the right colours, all in the lines. She hoped that those two girls would bring their dad out of his shell. He was a nice man that deserved better than his office job.
Last, her eyes drifted back to Herbert. The man she’d spent every day of the last fifty years with. And she never regretted a single moment. Not the honeymoon, the times when he had let dinner go cold because of work, the lovemaking and the arguments that preceded it, and not now.
‘This is the perfect room,’ she said, her lovely smile filling her face. And then breathed no more.