Mavis, I love you. I remember being drunk on your scent. I remember how you shone across my world like a beacon lighting the way to everything I ever wanted. For fifty years you held my heart in your two hands.
Arthur walked stiffly around the side of the bulky, mechanised hospital bed. He pinched his baggy trousers at the knees and gingerly lowered himself into the harsh serge chair by the bed. Leaning across to push the button that would raise his wife’s shoulders upright, he made a mumbling, half-formed gesture at an apology. “Sorry Mavis, up you get, more comfortable…”
You used to lie in bed at dawn and watch me. I’d wake up and see your hair like roughened silk across your breasts. What are you doing? I’d ask, laughing, catching you to my chest and holding the curve of your cooling hips to mine. Learning you, you said. Oh Mavis, you learnt everything about me, and I need you to remember how much we loved. I can’t bear to be the only one who knows.
“Jim and Hetty send their love. Hetty, from next door, remember? You used to chat with her when you hung out the washing. She knows it’s my day for coming.”
And then, just three short years ago now, you just… stopped. You stopped learning and loving and shining, and you let my heart drop from your hands like it was a bit of rubbish. Dementia, they said, but all I know is your blue eyes glazed over and locked away everything we’d shared. And I swore I’d never lose you. I promised I’d be your memory, I promised I’d keep you with me forever. And I was a liar or a fool, because now you’re gone and everything good about me has gone with you.
Arthur sighed, his breath catching in his congested lungs. Jim and Hetty hadn’t sent their love. They didn’t even know that he still visited Mavis. Since she’d slipped into her coma he’d lost touch with all of their friends, realising too late that of course they’d really been her friends all along. The only person he spoke to at all now was Mavis’ allocated nurse, a fair-haired lass named Jenny who strode competently around the wards in her sensible shoes.
“I’ve been keeping busy. Going for my walk in the mornings. And I’ve been doing some gardening this week. The lemon tree’s doing well.” He paused, then jumped as a sharp knock sounded at the door.
“Good morning, Arthur. Good morning, Mavis. How are we feeling?” Jenny came in with a smile, professional and unfailingly polite. I wish, Arthur thought sadly, she’d talk to me about something other than nursing sometimes. That ring on her engagement finger, for instance, that’s new since last week. I gave a diamond to Mavis when I proposed, too. I’d like her to know that.
“I’m sure Mavis can still hear, you know,” Jenny told him. “She squeezed my hand yesterday in the last round of electrical stimulus therapy, and that’s a good sign.” She raised her voice and smiled cheerily at the immobile figure on the bed. “One squeeze for yes, two for no; isn’t that right, Mavis?” She paused and glanced at Arthur. “Why don’t you stay for today’s session to try her?”
“No thank you, my dear.” Arthur would never stay for any of Mavis’ therapy, which Jenny administered tirelessly each day. It wasn’t decent, he’d told her firmly, all this poking and prodding. His wife was gone, and even though he understood the doctors still had to do all they could, he made it clear he didn’t approve of these undignified experiments.
Jenny watched compassionately now as Arthur heaved his creaking body uncomfortably out of the chair. She would have liked to talk a little, to ask how he was, to tell him about how Paul had proposed by moonlight on Saturday. She wondered how he’d proposed to Mavis, and immediately scolded herself for being unprofessional. You’re here to be a nurse, she thought sternly, not to pry into people’s lives. She doubted he’d want to tell her anyway. He never had much to say for himself, and it was clear he’d lost whatever connection he’d had with Mavis quite some time ago. She wondered if they’d ever talked, really talked.
We had days of wine and roses, Mavis, and now all that’s left is a bare flowerbed outside your hospital window. And Jenny pretends that you’re here inside that darkness of age and oblivion, but you aren’t. You aren’t here and you aren’t anywhere and I can’t breathe for the pain. You learnt everything about me once and now there’s nobody left who knows anything. Without you I’m disappearing each day.
“Shall I let you get on with it?” Arthur watched her out of bleared, cataract-filled eyes as she lowered the bed again. The drip attached to Mavis’ arm began smoothly to suction medication into the bag and he glanced away uneasily.
She slid the door open for him to shuffle into the hospital grounds and he paused just outside, his first footprints sharp against the dew. “It’s hard, visiting her. I’m not very good with words, you see. And there’s not so much to tell her.”
Inside, Jenny sighed as she watched him walk away, unyielding and reserved. She switched the therapy machines on and squeezed Mavis’ hand, sure that she could feel a faint answering pressure from that parchment skin. What would Mavis like to talk about, if she could tell Jenny anything she wanted? She paused and an idea, new and butterfly-frail, came whispering to her on a breeze from the open door.
“Tell me about Arthur,” she said softly. “Did he love you very much? What was your wedding like? Did he like to read poetry?” And in halting questions and half-imagined responses, looking out at the fading footprints, Jenny began to learn.
Cathie Menon lives and works in the United Kingdom. She writes across all genres, but prefers everything leavened with a touch of humour.