They were married on a Thursday, the day after he had been paid. It had been exactly nine months since he had downed the last of his pint, taken a deep breath and asked the girl in the red polka dot dress to dance. By the end of the song she had stolen his heart.
He had borrowed his father’s suit, pinched a tie off of a market stall and wore his best mate’s shoes with newspaper stuffed in the toe. He had never been short of words in his life, but standing in front of the altar, with his future mother in law’s eyes boring in to him, his mouth had gone dry, his tongue felt like sandpaper.
Geoff leans back against the green plastic chair and smiles at the 69 year old memory. Today has been long; she didn’t recognise their great-grandson today. She stared at the boy as if he had wondered into the wrong room and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t leaving. It was distressing for everyone, especially Mary and in the end their grandson had to take the little boy away, sobbing in his arms.
He sips his tea out of polystyrene cup and grimaces at the taste of the UHT milk. When they were first married, living in a room in a shared house he would take a couple of milk bottles from the back of a float now and again, just until they sorted themselves out. The war had stolen his teenage years so he didn’t have a trade or a skill, just a limp from a piece of shrapnel embedded in his leg. He became an odd job man, taking whatever work came his way.
It seemed odd to him when he retired as retiring had always seemed like a milestone, marking the end of an illustrious career with the promise of a comfortable retirement having religiously put money aside for a pension. Except Geoff had never had a career and he certainly never had a pension. It had been anti-climatic in many ways, although he had looked forward to spending more time with Mary, however poor they might be.
But that wasn’t to be either. At first Alzheimer’s pick pocketed certain memories leaving holes where there had once been her 40th birthday party, the time they had made love on the kitchen floor after their youngest child left home, just because they could, or how much she loved playing bingo with her girlfriends on a Friday night.
After a few years, the disease started to steal bigger and bigger portions of her mind and it wasn’t just happy memories anymore but necessary ones, like where she left the front door keys, who the man was that pushed mail through their letterbox and that water from the hot tap will burn your hand.
A nurse walks into the room, jolting Geoff back into reality. She looks at the monitor that Mary is connected up to by what seems like dozens of wires and scribbles on a clipboard before smiling sympathetically at him. She tells him that Mary isn’t in any pain and that they are making her as comfortable as possible.
The nurse seems nice enough and Geoff doesn’t want to argue, instead he inwardly questions the definition of pain. While the morphine may have dulled any physical pain, she had definitely been hurting this afternoon when she realised she was supposed to know the little boy.
They had been in the hospital for three days now and doctors had told him it was unlikely Mary would leave. She had contracted pneumonia and was now too weak to fight it off. What they didn’t seem to be able to tell him was how long he would have to sit here and watch her suffer.
Would it not be kinder to inject a few more milligrams of morphine into her arm? Let her drift off peacefully in her sleep. Geoff licks his chapped lips and tastes the salt from the tears streaming down his face. He needs to push these dark thoughts from his mind. He wipes the back of his hand across his face and then rests both hands on his knees before pushing himself up, staggering slightly before regaining his balance. He enters the corridor and sighs deeply as he notices the rain hammering down on the window opposite. He resigns himself to pacing up and down the long white passage.
The last time he had done this was the night Lewis was born. Mary had been in labour for 16 long hours and Lewis didn’t seem to have any intention of making an appearance. Of course, they didn’t know it was a boy at the time, in fact they had been hoping for a girl. They already had William and Mary desperately wanted a daughter to dress in beautiful pink frocks, pass on pearls of wisdom to about teenage crushes, and help plan an extravagant wedding. She wanted a daughter to bond with in the way Geoff had with William. In the last few months of her pregnancy he had begun to worry that she would feel robbed if the little girl that was so vivid in her mind didn’t materialise.
Three hours later the nurse had finally called him in and Mary was cradling the tiny bundle in her arms. He could still remember the tightness in his chest and the sting in the corner of his eyes as he witnessed the unbreakable bond forming between mother and son. He felt as if he was intruding on a private moment, stealing a forbidden glance. He had hesitated by the door for what felt like an eternity before she had called him over and introduced him to his son.
Lewis turned 62 last month but here in this corridor it feels like yesterday. He realises Mary probably doesn’t remember that moment anymore. Something once so precious, now floating further and further out of her mind’s reach.
A voice jolts him out of his thoughts. An orderly is trying to get past him with a trolley full of bedding. Yellow tinged pillows that look like they have seen better days wheel past him. How much pain would she feel if he lowered a pillow over her beautiful face and held it down until her body went limp? What would he want Mary to do if the situation was reversed?
He tries to imagine the fear of not recognising your surroundings, or the faces around you or even yourself. Mary, a woman, who didn’t even finish school, had been fiercely intelligent. She had talked circles round some of their more educated friends at gatherings. She was interested in everything from politics, to gardening, to history to baking. Every other Wednesday she would come home from the library, laden with books, ready to drink up the knowledge within them. Alzheimer’s wasn’t just stealing her memories, it was destroying her essence, her soul, what made her who she was.
But if Geoff stole her life from her now, would it mean that she won? She would go peacefully, still knowing who Geoff, William and Lewis were. That was surely the best they could hope for now.
He walks over to the window and studies the blurry reflection of the old man staring back at him. He gently touches the deep hollows under his eyes before raising them to his high forehead with just wisps of silver hair remaining above it. He swallows hard. They had never really thought about old age. It had always seemed so far off and there was always so much to do and never enough time to do it in.
They had certainly never considered death, or which one of them would go first. And what the other one would do when left behind on their own. Some people were amazed when they told them they had never spent a night apart in the 69 years they’d been married. He couldn’t remember a life without her in it. And now Mary couldn’t remember a life with him in it.
He was fooling himself. Taking matters into his own hands would make it easier for him, not Mary. She would have told him this as well. He could see her now leaning against the kitchen counter, one hand on her hip, the other holding a glass of wine, while he sat at the kitchen table. This was where they always had their serious conversations, away from the boys watching TV in the front room.
She would tell him that the world didn’t revolve around him and it was her turn to be stealing the attention from him for a change. His lips start to stretch into a smile, she had always had sass. He had missed that over the last few years.
Just as the rain starts to pummel the against the window pane with renewed zeal, he realises he lost Mary a long time ago. The body of a woman lay in the next room but his wife had left long ago.
He takes a deep breath and turns back towards Mary’s room. As he reaches the door he can hear whistling. A young doctor with thick black glasses like that Buddy Holly used to wear is scanning Mary’s chart, running his finger down and then looking up at the monitor.
He looks up when Geoff walks in and introduces himself as Dr Tate. He grins as he tells Geoff that his wife is tough as old boots and that she isn’t in immediate danger anymore. With any luck she’ll be able to return to her normal life very soon, he says.
Geoff watches as Dr Tate’s face begins to register that he’s said something wrong. His forehead creases with confusion as he glances back down at the clipboard in his hand. Then his body stiffens and red spots begin to appear on his alabaster skin and merge together until he resembles a sun ripened tomato.
He mutters an apology, squeezes past Geoff and strides out in to the hallway. Geoff stands rooted to the spot in shock. Then a small noise escapes his mouth and he begins to chuckle. His body starts to vibrate as his chuckle becomes a laugh. He laughs until tears stream down his face. He’s not sure when the laughs turn into sobs or when the tears of laughter mix with the tears of despair. He wraps his arms around his stomach as if it will stop the intense ache that spreads throughout his core and lets out a long moan that begins in the pit of his stomach and escapes out of his mouth.
He lowers himself onto the floor by Mary’s bed and curls up in the foetal position. He doesn’t move for 20 minutes. The hospital carries on as normal around him, accustomed to the howls of bereaved loved ones.
A tingling sensation in his feet forces him to move and using the adjustable bed rail for support, heaves himself up. He immediately starts to lower himself again but this time onto the bed where he stretches out next to Mary. He takes her hand and in a low voice recounts happy memories from the evening they met through to their retirement years. He imagines she can hear him and that she’s happy. The sun begins to fade and the room grows darker. Geoff leans over his sleeping wife and kisses her dry, parched lips. He moves his mouth along the pronounced arch of her cheekbone to her ear and whispers that he loves her.
He then gently lifts her head up, pulls the pillow out from under her before resting her head back down on the mattress. He takes three deep breaths and places the pillow against Mary’s face. He presses down on it with all his strength.
Her limbs begin to judder as her brain registers the decline in oxygen. He whispers, I’m sorry, over and over until she becomes still.
He hears a cry from behind him as a nurse enters the room and takes in the scene before her. She screams for security while grabbing Geoff’s arms and pulling him away from the bed. The next few minutes are a blur of white coats, raised voices and machinery as the hospital staff try to bring Mary back.
But she’s already gone.
He becomes aware of two security guards taking an arm each and manhandling him out of the room. He is left in an office at the end of a corridor and waits for the police to arrive. It’s bare apart from a desk in the corner, the chair he’s sitting on and a long forgotten waste paper basket. He stares at the white wall opposite him, his face expressionless.
Only now, in the silence that engulfs him, he remembers his sons. What will they think of him? Will they understand why he did it?
The door opens and two police officers and his sons walk into the room. William and Lewis wear identical expressions of shock on their aging faces. Lewis moves to his father first, enveloping him in a hug that takes Geoff’s breath away. William observes them for a moment, unsure of what to do before hesitantly reaching out to them. They stand in a three man embrace, united in grief, shock and anger.
The female police officer coughs loudly and deliberately, breaking the moment. The men part and Geoff sits back down, turning to face the woman. She asks him if he understands the gravity of the situation, that he had stolen a life. Geoff immediately corrects her and explains that Alzheimer’s stole Mary’s life. She sighs and rolls her eyes at her colleague. She asks him to tell them exactly what had happened.
Geoff tells her that might take a while. She leans against the wall and extends her arms away from her body, palms facing the ceiling and says they have all evening. He may not be an educated man but Geoff has heard Mary tell enough stories to know that to tell it well you need to start at the very beginning.
“It was the first dance of the New Year, and across the room I saw the most beautiful girl in a red polka dot dress…”
On 22 February I’m running a Writing Skills Masterclass – find out more on the All Things IC Masterclass website.