by Maggie Davies
A cautionary tale – which won a Henshaw Press Short Story Competition a few years back – to mark Valentine’s Weekend. Perhaps it might inspire readers to write a competition entry of their own, and maybe get it printed in an anthology.
I wrapped my arms around Neil and kissed the top of his head. His hair might be the colour of fresh snow these days, but he was far from an old man.
‘We could die together,’ I said. ‘Fly to Switzerland. Make a holiday out of it. Then finish up at that special clinic they’ve got over there.’
‘Don’t be bloody ridiculous.’ He was cross. He’d always been short-tempered and the last few months had been a strain.
‘I’m serious, sweetheart.’ I moved to sit opposite him. ‘You know I couldn’t bear to go on without you.’
‘You’re insane, Beth. You’re still a young woman. In perfect health.’
‘You’re only sixty.’
‘I mean it, Neil.’ I put my hand over his. ‘I”ll throw myself under a train, if you kill yourself.’
‘Then I can’t do it, can I?’ He rubbed tired eyes. ‘I’ll have to turn into a vegetable and make both our lives a misery. Is that what you want, you silly woman?’
‘No,’ I said. That wasn’t what I wanted at all.
It started after Geoff’s wife died. Madeline had been failing for years and, living next door, we’d seen the hell they went through in her final months. Her deterioration had been particularly depressing for Neil, who’d been reading articles about dementia often being hereditary.
‘It’s like my Dad, all over again,’ he’d said, with a shudder. ‘If I ever get like that, I want you to finish me off. Take the carving knife to me. Promise?’
His father’s house smelled. The bathroom, in particular, stank. It took a while for Neil to find out why. The poor old chap knew where he was supposed to go to urinate. He’d just forgotten what to do when he got there and simply peed all over the carpet. It was humiliating for everybody. When he finally died it was a relief.
‘A meat cleaver might be more final,’ I said, trying to lighten his mood. ‘Though messier.’
It became a sick joke between us. Nothing serious. Then, over a few months, things changed dramatically. Neil had always mislaid keys and spectacles. I did myself, but he became incapable of finding anything. I put a wooden fruit bowl on the kitchen dresser and suggested he use that as a collection point, but whenever he went there for something, it was empty.
‘I’m losing the plot, aren’t I?’ he grumbled, after finally locating his house keys in the drawer where we kept the electrical leads. ‘Why would I put them in there? My brain’s turning to Swiss cheese.’
‘All sixty-nine-year-olds mislay things.’ I gave him a hug. ‘Tomorrow we’ll buy some vitamins. That might help.’
Several days later he accosted me in the greenhouse. He looked as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. ‘Why were my spectacles in the fridge?’
‘Whatever are you talking about?’
‘My bloody spectacles were in our refrigerator. On top of the Flora.’ He slapped the side of his head with his hand, as if to knock sense into it. ‘I am going bloody barmy. Aren’t I?’
‘Sweetheart, we all do crazy things. Remember when I started to reverse the car out of the garage? With the up-and-over door still closed?’
‘That’s true.’ He looked relieved, but not much.
However, days later, I glanced out of the kitchen window and said: ‘The bin, sweetheart. It’s Thursday. Didn’t you put it out?’
Neil glanced up from The Independent. ‘It’s okay, I did it when I got back from the newsagents. Before I raked up those dead leaves at the bottom of the garden.’
‘So where is it, then?’
He abandoned the paper and peered outside. ‘Damned if I know. Perhaps the bin men emptied it and stuck the thing next door by mistake.’
They hadn’t, of course. It was where it always was, behind the shed. Still full.
‘You meant to do it,’ I said, when he eventually came back inside. ‘Sometimes I mean to clean the oven, but then conveniently forget. Probably because it’s a chore.’
Neil paced up and down, like an animal in a trap. ‘But it’s not just the bin, is it? I lost my electric razor yesterday, and my credit cards the day before. Then I left the bathroom tap running last night when I went to bed. I’ve no idea what I’m going to do next. It’s like being in a nightmare.’
‘You’re preoccupied, that’s all. Though maybe you should see the doctor.’
‘I’m damned if I want to be asked if I know what day of the week it is.’
‘And what day is it?’
‘It’s Thursday. September the 25th.’
‘There you are, my love. You’re fine.’
The days dragged on until Geoff wandered in through the kitchen door one morning, as he often did, with some runner beans for us from his allotment.
‘I could do with my mower back, if that’s okay,’ he said to Neil.
‘You know, mechanical thingy that cuts grass and makes a godawful racket? That you borrowed from me last weekend?’
Neil’s fists clenched at his sides. ‘I was planning to come over and borrow it. Tomorrow.’
‘But you’ve already got it, old man. That’s why I need it back.’ There was an awkward pause. ‘Okay,’ continued Geoff, looking embarrassed. ‘Tell you what, you hang on to it and let me have it back whenever it’s convenient.’
‘But I don’t have it,’ Neil protested, looking at me. ‘Do I?’
‘It’s in the garage,’ I said, avoiding his eye.
There was a silence, before Geoff slapped Neil on the shoulder in a not-very-convincing show of bonhomie. ‘Not to worry. I missed the dentist last week. He still charged me for the appointment, though. Grasping bugger.’
The incident hit Neil hard. ‘I told you I was getting like Dad,’ he said. ‘This proves it.’
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I kept silent. Instead I put my arms round his waist, buried my face in his scratchy sweater and gave him a big hug.
‘I’d rather be six foot under than lose my dignity,’ he murmured into my hair, sounding close to tears.
‘At least get a proper diagnosis,’ I urged. ‘What if you’re wrong?’
‘What’s the point of a diagnosis? There’s no cure, is there?’ He extracted himself from my grasp and looked me in the eye. ‘I’m taking matters into my own hands while I still can. I could deteriorate rapidly. That’s what terrifies me. Leaving it too late.’
‘Don’t do it, Neil. Please!’
‘You’ll manage. People do. Look at old Geoff.’
‘I refuse to even discuss it.’
‘But we must talk about it. Plans have to be made.’ He took my hand in his and kissed it. ‘I need you to understand,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t bear it if you didn’t.’
‘I understand perfectly,’ I said. ‘I just don’t agree.’
‘Of course you don’t. But you will support me?’
‘You mean, hand you a full bottle of pills?’
‘And get you in trouble with the law? Assisted suicide is a crime. It wouldn’t be right to involve you in anything like that. And that Swiss clinic business raises too many legal questions, never mind the cost. But I’ve done some research on the internet. If I steer my car into that nice, solid brick wall by the railway bridge, my worries should be over before I know what’s happened. Especially if I neglect to wear my seat belt and put my foot down, on a wet night. That way, the life insurance people can’t ask awkward questions.’
‘Oh, sweetheart, you mustn’t think about money. I’ve got my pension, haven’t I?’
‘A fat lot of good that will do you. Just think of all the money those insurance companies have had from us over the years. They owe us.’ He patted my arm. ‘You deserve some happiness after I’ve gone. I refuse to leave you hard up.’
‘Please, sweetheart,’ I begged. ‘Don’t do this. I’ll look after you, whatever happens. We promised, for better or worse. Remember?’
‘Not another word. My mind is made up. We’ll go away somewhere special for a second honeymoon. Then come back and I’ll make a quick exit.’
When the time finally came, Neil and I kissed goodbye at the door before he went out to the car. We were both crying. Then I watched him drive off at speed into the night. Losing him like this would be dreadful, but he was right: life would go on.
I went back inside and picked up the phone to dial Geoff’s number. It had taken us three careful months of planning to get to this.
‘Fingers crossed, darling, but I think we’ve finally done it,’ I said, when he answered. ‘All we have to do is wait for the traffic police to come knocking on my door.’
Please note that my husband, both then and now, is very much alive.