Peter gazes numbly at his son’s corpse. He finds his way slowly out of the morgue and towards the hospital waiting lounge; Diane is sipping coffee from a styrofoam cup, staring vacuously ahead. An empty seat by her beckons him; he lowers himself onto the edge of the hard plastic seat and perches elbows on knees, hands clasped as if in prayer. The seat groans under his weight; it is the only sound in this air-tight space. The metallic odour enveloping him is acutely pronounced today. When John passed, the air was clinical; his nose detected only the whiffs of astringents and syringes that day at the hospital.
The stench of death clings to the air; the air freshener scatters a spray of chrysanthemum although the packaging says rose. The funeral parlour is packed; John had led a full life with many friends coming from afar to celebrate him.
At John’s funeral Peter cried like a baby; Peter can’t help himself; he is 85. No turning back now, he mumbles as they lowered the coffin; his better half is gone forever and his heart is stone. Alice, Peter’s wife, has Alzheimer’s; she doesn’t attend the funeral; she can’t attend. It doesn’t bother Peter the least; he wanted his last moments with John to be private, like the many times they had played golf together or had chatted over a pint at the bar – just John and him.
“You’re not ready for me,” Death soothes, tucked up in the lower corner of Peter’s bed; he likes the right corner, especially. He is not cloaked and doesn’t carry a staff. He has no shape or form. His presence is electric. Who said that Death has to be personified? Was it Shakespeare or Garfield?
George Eliot made a statement once but Peter can’t remember it now, he thinks it has something to do with parting; it’s been some time since he’s taught a literary criticism class. It was Browning who had said ‘shun death’, John had said, but look where he ended up.
“Am I to feel grateful?”
“Gratitude serves me no purpose.”
This obscenely inane conversation takes place nightly.
The disease makes her forgetful. One day, she remembers Peter and the next, he eludes her, becomes a stranger. On good days, she calls him John, the love of her life. On bad days, she screams like a banshee and paces the carpeted parquet.
“Take me,” she screams at Death.
“Not yet. He still needs you.”
This utterly desperate conversation occurs nocturnally.
Peter’s children take turns daily to help out. His daughter, Diane, the eldest and single, brings them The Mail and the milk. Susan comes with the dinner, cooked fresh from her own kitchen. She is a chef and runs a restaurant in town. Tonight, they will have Spag Bog and Spotted Dick for afters. Alice loves her meat sauce; Susan cuts up the spaghetti and feeds her mother like a baby; Peter can’t wait to douse the pudding with whisky. James, the vet, takes their dog for a walk and makes sure that the alarm is turned on when he leaves – the gypsies need a deterrent – and the log fire is put out – “can’t have it burning all night, it’s not good for the environment,” his eldest reminds him. James is afraid that with nobody tending the fire, an accident might occur.
They don’t talk about death. No need, they know He’s lurking there.
James cycles to and from work; the suburbs make for good living. Good for his heart and his climbing cholesterol. Doctor’s advice. He doesn’t drink; seen his father pass out too often. He doesn’t smoke; recoils at his mother’s breath on greeting . Would she know how to light one now?
“Give me more time.”
“Afraid?” Death teases, flashing his naked teeth. “Ah! You’re still a babe.”
This necessary begging is a nightly affair. The answer comforts him, reassures him that his daily trudge on the bicycle is meaningful and productive.
James is late. His sisters have come and gone and the fire is slowly dying in the fireplace. Alice is all tucked up in bed; her bedroom door locked. Peter is sipping his night cap – single malt whisky.
When he awakes he is still in his armchair. The fire has died and his whisky glass has slid from his hand to the floor. It’s not broken. Murano glasses are made well and can sustain damage, even half a bottle. Where is James?
Peter draws the curtains and the living room brightens. The glare cleanses his soul. Alice is pacing the floors above. He’d better go upstairs to see to her. The nurse will arrive soon enough. His mobile buzzes in his pocket. It’s Diane. She’s at the hospital, she says. They found James keeled over on the road this morning, he’d fallen off his bike and hit his head on the pavement. The coroner said, rigour mortis had already set in when two cyclists found him.
photo credit: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.
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