Once they’d heard the diagnosis, the rest of the day became strange and flat. Odd how it was almost a relief. At least they now knew: cancer, inoperable, untreatable, terminal. George was dying and would probably last no more than a year.
When they arrived home from the hospital appointment – George insisted on driving and they listened, as normal, to the dry tones of the car radio – he asked if there were anything for lunch.
‘Oh,’ Eileen said, taken aback. She hadn’t been thinking of food or of eating. She hadn’t been thinking of anything much. ‘Um,’ she said. ‘Cheese. Bread, a bit stale.’ She opened the fridge and looked in, seeing little, shaking her head.
‘We could go to a restaurant,‘ George said as if there were something to celebrate.
‘No,’ Eileen said, frowning, ‘we need to talk.’
‘I fancy Chinese,’ George said and Eileen thought of the months he’d been complaining of not feeling well and then the weeks of tests and now this. She looked out of the window at the grey clouds scudding across the sky, fast, as if worried they’d be late for something.
‘All right,’ Eileen said. She was longing for the moment when she would lean into George and he would hold her and they would sob out their love for each other. She’d thought it might take place as they’d left the doctor’s room, then when they were outside the hospital and neither could remember where exactly they’d parked that morning. Finally, she’d been sure it would happen as they arrived home, either in the car or once they were in the house.
‘Not if you don’t want to,’ George said, considerate. Not like him, Eileen thought.
‘No, no… it would be nice,’ she said, lying. She hated the salty sameness of the dishes served in George’s favourite Chinese restaurant, Friendly Fortune. The one he ate in when she went away without him. Usually that was when she took a few days to visit Celeste, their only daughter, who lived at the other end of the country. Ah, Celeste, Eileen thought and wondered if she or George would tell her.
‘Somewhere else,’ George was saying. ‘Not Friendly Fortune. I know you don’t like it.’
‘I don’t mind,’ Eileen said, wondering if she would start to scream, sitting in a place with such an inappropriate name. George had turned to her, his face faded and strained. Surely now was the moment. Eileen leant against him and felt him patting her shoulders as if she were an awkward dog.
‘George,’ she said, allowing her voice to quiver.
‘It’s not happened yet,’ he said and pushed her away from him, gripping her arms with his hands. A little too tightly, a little too desperately, Eileen thought.
That night George made love to her, although they rarely did during the working week, and afterwards they lay in the dark, their limbs entangled, holding hands. When he fell asleep, his breathing came soft and rhythmical. All that long, flat, odd day – or at least since just after half past ten when the doctor had cleared his throat in a clichéd way and given the verdict – Eileen had imagined that once in bed, once George was asleep, she would cry. She didn’t. She stayed awake as she often did, thinking about all the everyday things that needed doing and wondering if tomorrow she should phone work and tell them she was taking extended leave. She turned onto her side and, as her eyes closed, she remembered Celeste, remembered that they had not told her. Sighing she turned again, preparing for a sleepless night.
The next morning Eileen was woken by the alarm (George must have set it by mistake, she thought) and lay on her back with her hand on her breast, feeling for her heart. All night she had been dreaming: dreams of death, illness, fear and loneliness. They still lingered, heavy and sad. How unsubtle is our unconscious, she thought, and wondered how today would be. She felt George stirring and then watched as he climbed out of bed.
‘Are you getting up?’ she asked.
‘Don’t want to be late for work,’ he said.
‘Work!’ exclaimed Eileen. She sat up.
‘It is a weekday,’ George said. He turned his back, rummaging in his drawer for clean underwear and then heading for the bathroom.
‘What did you expect?’ Nancy asked. ‘He’s still George whatever else has happened.’
‘When I knew he was dying I imagined all sorts of romantic scenes…’
‘That’s not him,’ Nancy said, shaking her head; adamant, as good friends should be.
‘I know.’ Eileen sighed. She’d envisaged George telling her how much she meant to him, stroking her hand, becoming maudlin and devoted. Becoming another man, in other words. It was a fantasy. The reality was different. George had become increasingly bad tempered. Or maybe that was how he had always been but now Eileen noticed it more.
‘But sometimes, sometimes, he’s very polite. Thanks me when I bring him tea… or says I can have first shower… That’s new.’ Eileen stared at Nancy, who shrugged. ‘And then, he can be loving.’
‘As he’s always been.’
‘Not just the polite stuff,’ Eileen said.
‘Oh well,’ Nancy said, ‘it was probably all there, lying dormant.’
‘But I don’t know how he feels… We can’t even work out what we’re going to do when… he gets close to the end.’
‘Anything can happen to relationships under your circumstances, or so I’ve heard.’
‘I’d like to… I’d like to get to know him more before he dies,’ Eileen knew it was a mistake as she said it, she hiccuped and sniffed, rummaged in her bag for tissues.
Celeste, with her daughter, Millie, came to stay for a week. She’d cried over the phone when eventually, in the evening of the day after they knew, George had indicated that it would be best for Eileen to impart the news to their daughter.
‘Are you sad for you or for me or for Dad?’ Eileen asked as she heard the wailing sound.
‘All of us,’ Celeste snuffled back. And as soon as she’d been able to arrange it, she arrived.
‘You wouldn’t know there was anything wrong,’ Celeste complained late on her first evening after Millie had gone to bed. ‘No… nothing special in the way he… talks to us. It’s been like a normal day.’
‘It is for him.’ Eileen tried to explain, although she, herself, was disappointed at the lack of something extra she’d been expecting in this last year of life with George. There were changes. His anger, once slow to rise and then tenacious and complaining, was now mercurial, a sharp burst of determined aggression that caused Eileen to shrink and shudder. And he’d become courteous in their daily life, as if asking if there was anything he could do for her and giving grateful thanks for a meal or an unasked for slice of cake, could somehow keep daily life running so smoothly there would be no need to look below the surface. That was how Eileen interpreted it. There were none of the tender moments that she’d envisaged for them, as they’d been sitting, numb with shock, listening to the doctor’s diagnosis. They did make love with a little more ardour, and afterwards George held her for a little while longer. Of this she was almost sure. But there was – Eileen found it hard sometimes to express, even to herself, what she’d been hoping for – there was no… extra closeness, no talk of love, no moments of exquisite and painful intimacy.
‘You know your father,’ Eileen said.
‘The point is, I don’t. Don’t think any of us do.’ Celeste was bright-eyed with sadness and with anger. Eileen sighed and looked down. She realised that at this moment she had little sympathy for her daughter. There was only enough unhappiness for herself and of course for George.
A few years ago George’s father had died. When Eileen first heard he was dying, she was pleased. Later she felt sorry, not for him, but because of the misery he’d managed to generate during his mediocre, moan of a life. She was especially sorry for the way he’d passed his pessimism on to his son.
‘What upsets me the most is this, Celeste. It’s that your father hasn’t had a good, contented life. If he had, then you could say it’s a pity he’s dying but look at the lovely times he’s enjoyed.’ Eileen swallowed, trying to stop the tears. This had been her first feeling about George’s illness, even before they knew its full extent. When the tests had started and then carried on, she’d begun to consider that the results were going to indicate something serious, dramatic, and sorrow swelled inside her, a deep regret that George might have to die before he’d learnt how to live happily.
‘He’s got you, Mum. A good marriage, a daughter, a lovely granddaughter.’
‘We’re not talking real things here, Celeste, but how he is in the world. Or as the French say, in his skin. Your father is not a man who has been happy in his skin.’
‘Bit late now,’ Celeste huffed.
‘Yes, it is, sadly,’ Eileen said. Strangely, she longed for Celeste and Millie to be gone, so that she could be alone with George. She wanted to concentrate on these last months she would have with him. She wanted the final year of his life not to be wasted.
Eileen wondered how she could stop the eruption of anger and regret that was spurting from George and pouring over her like molten lava. She opened her mouth, but the words she wanted to say were not strong enough to battle against this strong, hot flow.
‘I can’t believe that you don’t remember. Sitting on the garden wall, both of us looking at the front door, which was open. That moment. It was… important. I turned to you and said: “This is it,” and you, in the exact same second said the exact same thing.’
‘You cannot remember the instant when we both decided, independently but at the exact same time, to buy this house. Our home. Our only home.’
‘Of course I can,’ Eileen said as George turned to look at her, his eyebrows raised, his eyes a wide, shocked blue.
‘But you don’t remember. Sitting on the wall. The front door open. Both of us saying the same things.’ George emphasised each item that had embedded itself in his brain and for him had defined that moment of decision. Eileen understood that all these years he had assumed that she had carried the same memory, the identical memory, in her head. Discovering that she didn’t, he felt betrayed.
‘I do remember,’ Eileen said lamely. She wanted to explain how the past is structured differently for all of them, that George remembered certain things because for him, they were significant. For her, other aspects of that decision were meaningful. It had been for her a wonderful day, too. She tried to say this, but George shook his head. He stood up to put more wood on the fire and then he poured more wine, sloshing it a little, spilling a few bright, red drops on the table. He was upset. Eileen saw in the jerky way he moved how brittle he was feeling. She knew that he felt that he had lost a moment in his past, one he’d believed he’d shared with her, and how now, because of that, he felt alone.
He sat down heavily on the sofa, leaving a gap between them. Reaching for his glass he looked at Eileen and shook his head, sorrowful, dismayed. She had let him down.
When she found that George had been searching the internet for information on euthanasia, Eileen cried. She leafed through the little pile of printed articles sitting on his desk and felt despair. Here and there were comments in George’s neat handwriting, one or two exclamation marks and a few underlined sentences. She put down the papers, blew her nose and carried on with dusting and vacuuming the study.
‘I did mention it to you. You just don’t listen, Eileen,’ he said that evening when she challenged him. She said nothing, swallowing her anger as she had done so often. Maybe he had said something and she’d forgotten. Maybe he hadn’t but thought he had. He often did this; believed that somehow Eileen, because she had lived with him so long, knew what was going on in his head.
‘And,’ he continued, ‘I don’t want to suffer days of pain, that’s all. I’m not planning on anything just now. Not till I’m really ill. What concerns me is that I’ll be beyond helping myself then. So, I want to see what I can set up in advance. It’s not sinister.’
‘Well,’ she said, deflated.
The months were passing and now there were days when George phoned work to say he would be taking the day off. Once she stood in the doorway to the kitchen watching him staring at his bottles of pills. He picked one up and threw it back on the bench; picked it up and threw it again. Eileen trembled, sucking in George’s anger and despair. She made a small involuntary noise and he turned to look at her. He shook his head, swept all the bottles onto the floor, where they spun and clattered. Then he pushed past her and she heard the front door banging as he left the house. But yet, most of the time, they carried on as if everything was normal and that death was a concept and not a reality soon to make its presence felt. Eileen set time aside to imagine what would happen once she was alone. She built scenarios and tried them out. Sometimes these images of the future made her cry, but not always. She also thought about the period when George would be dying and the moment when he would cease to be. She wondered how they would manage that. She thought about saying goodbye to George.
Sometimes she told herself: ‘I won’t have to put up with George using a toothpick after he’s eaten. I won’t be woken by his midnight snoring, or have to argue when I want new plants for the garden. I’ll have the bathroom remodelled as I’ve wanted to do for so long, with a power shower and nice new shiny tiles. I’ll be able to eat scrambled eggs for dinner whenever I want to. And I won’t have to listen to him moaning when the car needs cleaning.’ She said these sorts of things in her head, when she was feeling angry with George and, apart from the first time, when she frightened herself with how hard-hearted she could be, she rather enjoyed thinking like this. It made her believe in some strange way that there was nothing wrong, that she and George were living as they had done for years and would continue to do so. But even while she felt this, she knew it was false.
At other times, she’d think with anguish of all the lonely times there would be, weekends on her own, evenings watching TV and going to bed by herself. Holidays, spontaneous lunches out, trips to the cinema, Sunday drives to the sea or up into the mountains; without George these would become sad, solitary affairs. She thought of sitting in a restaurant on her own, a single glass of wine in front of her, the waiter bringing her food, an extra special smile on his face and a little spring in his step designed to make her feel welcome. No, she thought, those are things I will no longer do when George has gone. And opened her mouth wide in a silent wail. She wondered who she felt more sorry for, herself learning to live on her own, or George who was to die before he was old.
Nancy wouldn’t look at her, kept staring out at her garden, messy now from winter. Her hands were wrapped around her coffee mug, as if she needed to keep it safe, but she hadn’t yet drunk from it.
‘Nancy,’ Eileen said, not understanding. She wondered if she was talking too much about George. ‘Am I saying the wrong things?’ she asked: just lately she felt she’d begun to forget – if she’d ever really known – the rules about what you spoke about in public. Could you tell close friends about your pain, or where you supposed to keep it all inside where the only one it hurt was you? Was it acceptable to talk about loss and death, fear and loneliness? Or should you prevaricate and pretend, not wanting the agony to spill out and spoil the equanimity of others? Did you talk to a friend about your sex life with a dying husband, or rather lack of it, as she had just now?
‘No, no.’ Still Nancy kept her gaze on her unkempt garden. Eileen wondered if she was working on plans for summer, was thinking about what she would plant when spring came and the weather was warmer. A surge of bitterness rose to her throat; by summer George would, most likely, be nearing death.
‘What is it, then, Nancy?’
And now her friend turned to her, lifted her face and blushed. ‘It’s… I think… Have you thought he could be having an affair?’
Eileen shook her head. ‘He’s ill…. He’s not got long. It wouldn’t make sense.’
‘When has sense ever had anything to do with sex?’ Nancy asked. Her face was a deep, flushed pink.
‘You know something,’ Eileen said.
‘Not for sure, but… I’ve heard. He was seen…’
Eileen started to laugh. ‘That would explain it,’ she said. ‘Life goes on. It goes on, cheatingly, even to the bitter end. The very bitter end. What a joke. Life’s a joke.’
At first, when Eileen told George that she knew about his affair, she spoke to him calmly and watched as he sheepishly looked down, saying nothing. When, riled by his silence, she shouted, he looked up at her, slyly, from the corner of his eye as if he wished he were not there. He looked away again, moving some crumbs around the table with his forefinger and Eileen started to breathe deeply as her anger rose and rose.
‘You bastard,’ she shouted at him. ‘I hate you. I…’ she stopped, listening to the words she’d been about to say, echoing in her head: ‘…wish you were dead. I’m glad you’re dying. I hope it happens soon.’ She sat down, gasping, put the tea towel she’d been clasping, over her head and wept. Still he did not react and that night Eileen lay in the spare room bed. She fell asleep as morning was coming, overwhelmed by exhaustion and confusion as to how, even with death so close, George and she could continue to live in the kind of way many men and women did, with fights, resentment and even infidelity.
Within a few days it was over. George came home and told her: ‘I’ve ended it and I’m sorry. It was just that…’ He didn’t finish his sentence and that night they made love. Eileen wondered about the woman, though. She wondered if George had told her he was dying. She wondered if she was beautiful or just available. She wondered if she was upset when George finished the affair. All these things she thought about but did not mention to George. Eileen would stop as she was going about her daily life: doing housework, or the accounts at the office where she worked, shopping at the supermarket. She would stop and think about George’s imminent death and how she’d imagined she and George becoming closer, living his last year in harmony, comforting each other. Instead, it had become what? Oddly normal? Both excessive and normal? She couldn’t decide. She didn’t even know what George felt about it.
On a warm Saturday that felt as if spring had arrived and decided to stay, Eileen was baking bread. She loved the hard physical work of kneading, loved the yeasty smell as it filled the kitchen, and loved watching George as he cut the first warm slice, spread it thickly with butter and bit into it, closing his eyes with pleasure. There were things that George enjoyed, some of them very much, in spite of being surly and given to complaining.
As she was putting the loaves in the oven, she heard the sound of a motor. She turned to look out of the window and there was George, dressed in his gardening clothes and boots, mowing the lawn, the first cut of the season. He walked to the end of the garden, back again and then away again. Halfway there he stopped and leant over, peering at something in the grass. This time next year, Eileen thought, tormenting herself, he will not be here, he will not be mowing the lawn and she would not be making food he loved to eat. George stood up and started to push the lawnmower again. Eileen, looking at his long back, his thin neck, his silly battered straw hat and the slow movement of his legs in their baggy trousers, began to cry: he seemed, out there in the garden, to be so vulnerable and so alone.
Later, when George had gone to the pub to join some friends for a couple of beers before lunch, Eileen thought about the chorus of old ladies that she remembered from her childhood. Women who lived on their own. She thought about how alike they had been; hair grey and permed, bodies stout with swelling bellies in tweed skirts, shoes sensible, stockings thick and often wrinkled, and for company, grumpy little dogs. They were the widows. And she, a little girl, had thought that was their role in life; that was how they had always been, would always be. Soon she, too, would be a widow, and then some years later, she, like those elderly ladies from her childhood, would be gone. ‘I’m catching George’s pessimism,’ she thought and it almost made her smile.
‘Don’t accuse me,’ George shouted.
‘I…’ Eileen just shook her head.
‘You’re always… interfering, bossing, telling me what to do.’
‘Just asking a question.’ She’d said: ‘when is your next hospital appointment?’ She’d wanted to know, to make sure that she was free and able to go with George.
‘You only ask so you can make a comment afterwards.’
That was true, Eileen thought. When he’d answered, she’d have said that she’d come with him, if he didn’t mind. It was true she would have had something to say, but what was wrong with that? Eileen swallowed; remained silent; didn’t even ask her question again. The words: ‘this is becoming silly,’ formed in her head, but stayed there. George, just now, could only hear what he thought she was saying. She could feel bitterness swelling inside her and wished that she were alone so that she could cry without him staring at her with uncommunicative eyes.
As time passed, George gradually seemed to diminish. They still made love, but less often. Sometimes he was unable to finish the food she’d prepared for him. And now he was going to work only occasionally.
‘Shall I stay at home with you?’ Eileen would ask and he’d tell her no, he’d be fine on his own. He seemed to want to be alone, doing little, lying on the lounger on the patio, taking in the warmth of this, his last summer, as if the sun and the long hours of daylight could, somehow, make things better. So Eileen would leave him and in the car, driving to her office, she would watch the normal city life going on around her: a group of school children at the bus stop, a young mother pushing her buggy, a man on a step ladder cutting his hedge, two women with shopping bags talking to each other outside a house, a dog with a mission sniffing his way eagerly along the pavement. The simple ordinariness of it all made her want to cry.
She had a strange yearning for the homes she and George had had when they were younger; their first room together in a shared house, the tiny cottage, which they’d rented for the months before they married. But most of all she imagined them back in the year they lived overseas, their honeymoon year when they travelled in Europe, struggling with foreign languages, taking whatever jobs they could find and delighting in the quaintness of the various odd places they found to live in; usually small, often rundown, but always, for them, somehow exciting and exotic. Eileen could almost smell the dusty odour of hot Mediterranean sun on brick and see the bright reassurance of red geraniums carelessly growing in earthenware pots. She breathed in deeply, almost believing that if she tried hard enough, this past she shared with George would reappear and obliterate the painful present.
When George turned to look at her, Eileen knew that they were moving to another stage. In the greying light of the end of the day, his face was taut, pale, shadowed. The deep blue of his eyes was faded. It is time, she thought, to understand that he is leaving me. She felt the acid pinch of tears beginning and felt the warmth of them in her eyes.
‘George,’ she almost shouted. ‘I am so scared.’
He looked at her, his face expressionless. ‘So am I,’ he said.
There was silence. They both sat on the patio that edged their garden, waiting. Eileen thought of all that she could say, all that she could do. She wasn’t sure what the right words, the right gestures were.
Finally: ‘I don’t want you to go,’ she said, quite simply.
And: ‘I don’t want to go,’ he replied, softly.
In that moment Eileen realised, not through what was said, not through what was done, but because the weight of lives that they lived together hung heavy between them, that George could only die as he had lived. He would not change, and she could not change him. All she could do was to be the way she was and give that to him. There were, she felt, no more choices.
And so, ‘George,’ she said, ‘this is the unhappiest time I have ever known.’
When they both started to cry and were hugging, their arms holding on to each other so tightly it almost hurt, Eileen thought: finally here is the moment that I’ve waited nearly a year for. She started to laugh through the tears, but the sadness was too strong. It was a relief, almost, to feel this sadness, this anticipation of loss. It was as if there’d been a hard lump inside her that was beginning to melt. And the pain of it was not good, not at all, not at all. But at least she and George were in this together. At last, Eileen thought in her misery, at last.
JANE SEAFORD’s novel ‘Archie’s Daughter’ was accepted by Really Blue Books (nothing to do with porn)and e-published in 2012. It has received excellent reviews. Several of her short stories have been placed, highly commended or short-listed in international competitions. Many have appeared in anthologies or magazines. Others have been broadcast on Radio New Zealand. As a freelance journalist she had a column in a magazine called ‘Bonjour’ and sold pieces to the Guardian, the Independent and other British publications. And she is the assistant fiction editor for Takahe, a New Zealand literary magazine. Her website is janeseaford.com.