Brian's rear view reflection was unrecognisable. The last few weeks had taken their toll and the heavy rings under his eyes were testament to nights of broken sleep. The flecks of fresh blood on his cheeks and the collar of his shirt were testament to a broken mind.
Mary just sat there, her head resting against the window. She looked awful and Brian felt a dry sob rise from his gut. He had never felt so hollow. Her pallor rendered her virtually unrecognisable.
It was still dark, but the morning was threatening to arrive. Conscious of his speed, he slowed the engine, desperate to avoid attention. At just six in the morning there had been no one around, as he pulled away from Lavender Cottage. The Hospital grounds were virtually deserted. However, as he approached the main entrance, the volume of activity increased, and he was forced to come to a stop behind a blue Peugeot in front of casualty.
The emergency department was aglow, and several ambulances stood sentry outside its doors. People were milling around outside smoking or talking into mobile phones.
An Ambulance shot past them, heading back in the direction he had come. Its lights were flashing, and the siren sounded three times, urging the traffic behind him to move aside. He watched as it edged its way through the line of cars, and then took off into the grounds.
He glanced back at Mary again. Her once heavenly face scarred by the hell of the last year.
Brian would never confess this to anyone, but they were in love from the moment they met. What a summer that was. You could fry an egg on the pavements, it was so hot, or at least that was the consensus in the city at the time. Brian was ten, Mary was nine and it was as if the sun had fused their lives together in the heat of that year.
They first kissed as teenagers, and were married five years later. Life wasn’t great but it was good enough. There were no riches (he had his army pension) and no children, but they got by. Neither could imagine being anywhere else.
The cancer came as the cruellest of blows. It had been just last summer. This one had been a pale imitation of the scorcher of their childhoods. Mary had begun to lose weight, and she had developed a nagging cough that had lingered for months.
At first they both tried to ignore it, even when it began to invade their sleep. Brian even joked that finally she had seemed to find a diet that worked. Mary had pretended to find it funny, but she was worried. They both were, but at least publicly Mary was maintaining a bubble of denial, that Brian couldn’t or wouldn’t burst. He had however lectured her relentlessly about her smoking; she would have none of it.
He had always feared there would be a price for her addiction. She had promised she would quit in time, but she never did. Time plays tricks on those who procrastinate, promising days it can never deliver.
Mary always believed there would be time. However, as blood began to appear in her tissues time had already begun to run out, and from then on darkness had set up home between them.
It was getting light now, as the morning sun did its best to part the black clouds. His car drew up outside casualty, and Mary’s ashen expression began to attract attention from a Paramedic, who was stood outside his ambulance smoking a cigarette.
Paranoia began to set in, did he know? Was he about to come over and yank the car door open? Brian stared intently at the car in front willing it to move. It didn’t. He looked to his right; the ambulance guy was staring straight at him. Waves of panic crashed over him, and he felt his respiratory rate rise. He couldn’t stop now. He had to get her home.
Instinctively he jammed the gears into reverse, his foot hitting the accelerator, narrowly avoiding a collision with the car behind him. He slammed the breaks and Mary lurched forward. From far way, it seemed, he heard shouting, and angry voices.
“I’m sorry love, I’m so sorry. I will get us out of this I promise.” Mary just stared, her eyes full of accusation.
Three cars back he noticed the unmistakeable yellow of a police “caught on camera” van. Brian’s chest was pounding now, sweat bathed his face. It’s just on a routine patrol; a voice scolded him, this time from inside his head. They won’t know yet. He had heard that voice before it was his rational, often sarcastic subconscious, but this time it was vying for attention along with his more confused and frightened thoughts. So, when the police van sounded its siren it sent his mind into meltdown.
What he did next made no sense at all, but then neither had much else he had done that morning. The gun felt heavy in his lap. He had brought it with him for effect. It was a ‘just in case’ prop he had reasoned. ‘Just in case’ he met resistance. The gun would convince people to see things his way. He wouldn’t need to use it, but he had.
He swallowed hard remembering the ‘crack’ as it went off, and the spittle hitting him in the face, as the bullet tore through flesh and clothing. He had held a gun before, and fired one in anger; although that seemed to have been in another lifetime. The intervening years had only served to dull his memories. Now they were in sharper focus.
Why? Why had the guy tried to stop him? He had been just a kid, and those eyes, those young eyes……Brian feared the look in the lad’s eyes would haunt him to the end. He was a porter, or security, he wasn’t sure. He looked to be in his twenties, and as the gun went off he had worn a look of almost comic surprise. The expression held there for a moment, and then nothing, it just melted away.
Maybe he had thought the gun was a fake. It was old. Brian had served in the Falklands. He had liberated it from a young Argentine conscript at Port Stanley, and had stowed it away as a souvenir. Perhaps his assailant was just flushed with the type of bravery young lads of that age possess in abundance. The type of futile valour the ‘Argie’ soldier had displayed on the battlefield all those years ago.
Now Brian feared he had left behind another dead man, though he couldn’t be absolutely certain. The kid had still been breathing hard when he and Mary left him, but the blood, so much blood. He couldn’t dwell in that place right now. His thoughts were passing from past to present, and struggling to focus on the future. Through the fog only one desperate fact was clear to him. He would not be taking Mary home.
To his right was the hospital multi-storey car park. He pulled out of the line of traffic he was in, and mounted the grass verge in front of it. There was just one way in and one way out of the building, but Brian’s mind had switched to automatic. He could not stay in that line of traffic, every molecule in his body was screaming ‘get me out of here’. Inside his head the words reverberated over and over again, ‘how has it come to this? Oh God, oh God what have I done.’
“How frank would you like me to be?” The oncologist had said. The memory random and disconnected, surfaced without warning taking him back.
It was the fag end of last summer once more. They were sat in that Spartan grey room, across from one very serious looking Doctor. Standing off to the side was a Nurse looking on, her face the very expression of compassion. Brian marvelled at that look. She must have worn it several times already that morning, and yet it didn’t look tired. Mary had just asked ‘how long?’
‘How frank would you like me to be?’ his words dropped like stones. Brian knew what they meant. They were an escape clause. This is bad news, really bad news. Are you sure you want me to answer you honestly? That’s what the ernest looking man in the shirt and tie really meant.
Brian had imagined that upon hearing those words, many a newly diagnosed patient would take the opportunity to dive headlong back into the comforting embrace of denial. He could never imagine Mary doing that though.
“How long?” She repeated determined.
She was gripping the sides of the chair. Brian noticed her knuckles were white. He also noticed the water beginning to well in her eyes, but he knew it would never wash away the determination he had also seen there. It had been her determination that had cost her, or rather her stubbornness as he saw it.
That was back when Brian was angry with her, angry for doing this to herself, for doing it to them. Now that anger had turned to guilt, and he hated himself for thinking those things, but back then in that grey drab room, the fire of that anger somehow sustained him. It provided an alternative to despair.
The back wheels spun in the mud, and the present spun back into focus. He turned the wheel dramatically, aiming the car at the barrier that controlled access to the parking spaces. The engine raced, and Brian gripped the wheel as he ploughed into the barrier.
There was a loud snap, and he was aware of the wind shield disintegrating around him. Something heavy bounced off the roof of the car, and the engine made a loud whining noise as the car veered first right then left, before finally coming under control.
Brian quickly checked the mirror to see if Mary was ok. Still held in by her seat belt she looked broken. Her head lolled forward, her arms splayed to her side. As the car jerked one more time before finally coming under control, her head bobbed, and her face turned toward him, her eyes still unforgiving.
“Six to eight weeks.” The doctor had said, before adding the almost obligatory “I am so very sorry.”
“Thank you.” Mary had said.
Thank You! Brian had thought. Thank you for what? Gratitude was the last thing he could give at that moment. His life, their life was ending right then and there before his eyes and ears, and she was thanking the man who delivered the news. The man who was telling them they were powerless to stop it from happening.
That was four months ago, and here they were now, the madness of his situation slowly sinking in. He actually began to laugh. However, the sound he made owed more to delirium than amusement, and soon turned to tears. He was increasingly conscious of the gun in his lap.
Throughout all of this murder had never been on his mind, had it? No, no of course it hadn’t. His thoughts were so discordant now, was he losing his grasp on reality? He became aware the car was now stationary, its engine idling it didn’t sound healthy. From far way he heard the rumble of a heavy vehicle approaching. Further in the distance – sirens.
Of course he was in a hospital car park, but he guessed those sirens were meant for him. He drove the car forward. The noise from the motor grew louder, a clanking that suggested it was taking its last gasps, but it was at least moving. Anyway, it mattered little now. He didn’t have far to go, and the fight would soon be over.
Mary had fought for a while, or at least until the ever increasing doses of morphine sapped her will. The drugs would change, then dosages would go up, and then down again, as her medical team sought to strike a balance between pain and consciousness. For a while they managed it, but all too briefly.
Then they had suffered a crisis. It was just three nights ago. The pain had been so bad, and nothing the nurses had left behind for them to use would sate it. Brian had insisted on calling an ambulance, not that Mary was in a position to argue any more. The discomfort had robbed her of her faculties.
Brian despaired that something as intangible as pain (intangible at least to him) could wreak such havoc on her ability to reason. He couldn’t see it, touch it. There was no way for him to feel her pain to measure it for himself. Yet it was there, with them all the time. The pain felt to them both like an intruder, and worse of all to Brian it represented a wall between them.
The nurses had asked Mary to score her pain out of ten. In the early days of her illness they had both found the concept amusing. They had imagined judges sat in the room with them, and as each wave of discomfort flowed over her, the imaginary panel would hold up score cards. When the pain abated they both found the strength to laugh about it.
On the night he had called the ambulance, the judges were holding up ‘perfect 10’s’. The hospital ward was nice enough, but it was cold. He had always known he wouldn’t be able to leave her there, or anywhere else in this place. It wasn’t home, wasn’t their place. These people, well meaning as they were, didn’t know Mary or him for that matter, and he had after all made her a promise.
The moment Mary arrived in her hospital bed he felt the regret hit him like a train. When she was transferred to Lavender Cottage, that regret met guilt and was almost overwhelming. He hadn’t been able to get much sense from her in the days leading up to her admission, but he knew one thing, she wanted to be at home when the end eventually came. He had wanted to give her at least that.
As he pulled into the parking bay on level four, he glanced back at her one more time.
“I’m so sorry sweet heart.” She didn’t respond, she couldn’t, and then he was hit by the most painful realisation of all. He had failed her. He hadn’t been able to deliver the one thing she had asked for, and again he felt her accusing stare, her voice a whisper ‘you promised me.’
There were cars either side of him, but they were both empty, thankfully. He knew there was no where else to go. He could hear the sound of vehicles, plural now, moving slowly up the levels of the car park from below him. They were searching for him. Soon they would be here. He could hear their voices calling out, and the tin sound of their radios. By now they must have found the body.
He climbed over the seat and into the back of the car, and sat next to Mary. Tenderly, he stroked her cheek, and kissed her gently. He realised that this was the first time their lips had touched since she had died. Somehow it hadn’t seemed right in the impersonal surroundings of the hospital ward.
He hadn’t wanted them to take her away – he had wanted her home. However protocol trumps all, and after being allowed a few hours with her, he was gently ushered out of her side room. They gave him all the necessary paperwork, and said what an honour it had been to care for Mary, but the words just washed over him. Then politely they ushered him out, so that she could be prepared for the mortuary, Lavender Cottage.
The sound of the police cars grew louder, as they approached his level. Brian straightened Mary’s shroud. There were so many things he couldn’t say. He wanted to tell her that he no longer blamed her for this, for leaving him. He touched his head to hers. Tears escaped his eyes, and he mouthed a silent ‘I love you’.
Above all he desperately wanted to say sorry, but she would never hear. Placing his right hand in hers, he caressed the handle of the gun with his left. He could still feel the warmth of the barrel. It hadn’t long been fired.
After all they had been through together he couldn’t be separated from her now. They’d be here soon, and jail was not an option. The thought of spending his remaining days in a cell, without her was unbearable. He had just wanted to take her home so they could be together there. The tears were in free flow now, as he realised their journey was at an end. He couldn’t let her go alone, what would he do without her anyway? He lifted the gun for the last time.
“I’m coming now Mary love, I will be with you soon.”