No-one saw Harry Fletcher reach the top of the stairs and lean heavily against the wall outside his door, a roar in his ears like the sea. He was relieved – with people would come questions, concern, misunderstanding, or sympathy. You never knew how quickly news travelled these days, how much time you would have to yourself.
He’d had to fight to convince the hospital staff to let him leave unaccompanied, but in the end they had better things to do than argue with a stubborn old man. The steps had been a challenge though; it would have been good to have had someone to lean on. It was several seconds before he had his breath back and could open the door, the lower lock turning anti-clockwise as you’d expect, the upper one clockwise, contrary. He scraped his feet twice on the mat and went inside.
The flat was quiet, warm, and empty. A faint stale, sweet smell lingered in the air; no-one had opened the windows. Harry shook off his coat and hung it behind the door, then took off his shoes. This proved something of an ordeal: first he bent as far as he could and lifted his leg, hoping his hand and boot might meet in the middle. When this was unsuccessful he trod on the rim of the sole and forced his foot out, leaving the shoes by the radiator, laces still tied.
His feet made no sound on the carpet. In the front room the airer stood with bedsheets still draped over it. They were too large, and dragged on the floor. He’d have to put them away soon, but not now – the room, the whole flat in fact, seemed suspended, and he wasn’t ready to break the spell. It would wear itself out soon: his return had already begun its decay. But for now he settled into the armchair facing the window and recited the answers to the questions in his head: When’s your birthday? What day is it? Who’s the queen?
The following days brought drifts of cards spilling through his letterbox. He let them pile up for a few days, then called Kate.
“Do I have to reply to them all?” he asked.
“Good. I don’t expect I will.”
“That’s OK. Has anyone been to see you?”
“No. Well, the woman next door came round.” She’d stayed for less than half an hour, during which time he had increased the television volume to unbearable levels while flicking through the channels.
“That’s nice of her,” said Kate. “And have any carers been? They said someone would, didn’t they.” She didn’t ask if Paul had been round. He probably thought he’d done his bit by going to the hospital, and if she suggested he pop round she’d only be met with unfair sneering about her living halfway around the world.
“No, there hasn’t been anyone.”
“Alright,” she sighed. “I’ll ring the hospital in the morning.” She hung up with a promise to arrange a flight as soon as she could.
As he was up, Harry went through to the hallway. The cards were still there. He looked around for something to help move them, then settled for shovelling them with his foot. He managed to get most of them close to his chair and sat down. From there he could just about pick them up one by one; he was glad he had left the letter-opener on the side table and not in the kitchen.
The first card he slit open had a picture of a lake surrounded by reeds, with a white border. There was no text – it could have been a postcard. He regarded this for a moment, then opened it. Inside it had originally read ‘Remember you have a friend who loves you’, only ‘loves’ had been crossed out and replaced with ‘is happy to help’. The others were similar, expressions of sorrow and shock, and he read them to note the names of the senders, each one lighting a tiny fire of memory.
‘If there’s anything we can do’, so many of them said. All of those offers of help, but how was he to know what help he needed? It seemed wholly unreasonable to expect him to assess his needs, yet they never made any suggestions. He left the cards stacked on the table and turned on the news.
Kate had called back later that day to say a carer, Elaine, would be there in the morning. “It took me nearly half an hour on the phone to get through to someone at the council. Honestly, it was awful, I’ve a good mind to – anyway, you don’t me rambling. I’ve got Libby with me today.” A shuffling sound, then Kate’s voice, further from the speaker now – Harry pressed the phone hard against his ear. “Libby, say hello to uncle Harry! Libby?” The shuffling again. “Sorry about that, she’s having one of her Days. Let me know how tomorrow is, and I’ll let you know once I’ve sorted things with work. Take care. Love you.”
Harry set the phone down and went to the kitchen. Libby was his brother’s grand-daughter, so why was she with Kate? The thought clung to the edge of his mind like knotweed. When she was born he’d insisted to Charlie that he would be called uncle – great-uncle never sounded right. Nor did great-niece: it was too frilly, and smelt of lavender.
The chopping board was still in the rack. Someone must have washed it up. Slowly he gathered together what he needed: bread, margarine, tomatoes, lettuce, ham. There was too much of everything now. On the side by the tea and coffee was a leaflet for some sort of hair product. Carole had read it aloud just two days before: “’Perfection can be so difficult to maintain’,” she’d read, before adding her thoughts on the slogan. “I don’t believe in perfection, not really.” But she’d looked pleased all the same.
He thought he was ready, having braced himself against the memory’s rush like a strong tide coming in, but it was too sudden. That was in the past now, all of it. Roiling surges of guilt and relief swallowed him whole then receded, leaving him cold and alone.
It was an administrative error, they’d said. The hospital and doctor had known about her DNR notice, but the paramedics hadn’t, so while he was being offered tea from his own cupboard they had pumped her chest and blown air back into her lungs, then had placed a defibrillator on her chest and delivered an electrical current through her heart.
“It’s alright,” they told him, “She’s breathing on her own again!” Then later, in the hospital, in their special soft-edged voices, “We’ll get you all the support you need.” They didn’t understand. “When I’m gone I’m gone,” was what she used to say. She would never forgive him. He sat by her bedside overnight, paralysed by fear that she might live.
She hadn’t. The droning beep of the monitor had woken him from his vigil and he had waited outside, the doctors this time adhering to her wishes.
He was up and dressed by seven the next day, although the carer didn’t arrive until nine in the end, long after the newspaper had thudded through the letterbox. The deliveries had been Kate’s idea, but they were useful. He sat with a mug of tea and dozed until the knock at the door. Her name was Eleanor. Or Elaine. Which was it? He felt dizzy, as you would if you looked through the slats of a high rope bridge.
“Hello, Mr Fletcher? I see you’re already dressed, that’s good. My name’s Elaine.” So that was it. “I’m just here to check how you’re doing. Can I come in?” She spoke loudly, which annoyed him even as he turned his good ear towards her to hear better. He followed her into the living room, where she was already leafing through a thick ringbinder.
“Flack, Flagg, Fleet… here you are.” She clipped open the binders and pulled out a plastic wallet. “Oh, I see – I’m very sorry about your wife. How are you managing? Do you have people who come round?” He said that he did, as a point of pride. It was the simpering he couldn’t stand, as if he were a child, or simple. He didn’t want this woman here. He didn’t tell her that he kept calling Carole’s name in moments of forgetfulness, or that things were not necessarily in the places he had left them.
She asked a few questions about his daily routine, making notes on a sheet of paper, then turned it over. “Now, it says here that you’ve been having some trouble remembering things. I’m just going to ask a few questions to check how things are, alright?”
Harry’s foot began to shake in his boot as he concentrated.
“Can you tell me when your birthday is?”
“Good. And what day is it today?”
Harry thought. The paper had been thick that morning. “Sunday.”
“Excellent. I forget that sometimes! I always think that one’s a bit unfair,” she laughed. “Last one. Who’s the queen?”
The only name that came into his head at first was George. But that was a man’s name, so that couldn’t be right. What other names? Kate? Carole? No. Libby? That sparked something. Not quite, but close. Libby, short for… Elizabeth? Yes! The answer flooded him with relief.
“Elizabeth the second.”
“Full marks!” She scribbled something then made a satisfied dot with her pen. “That’s all for today Mr Fletcher – someone will be back next week to check your progress. It might not be me, but nice to meet you, and look after yourself.”
“Right you are,” said Harry. He stood and insisted on opening the front door for her to see her out. As she left, she picked up the cards that were still on the carpet and put them on top of the bookshelf, in front of the photo of Bing Crosby. Harry decided not to open them just yet. He stayed in the hall until he heard the outer door close, then walked slowly over to the window and leant on the back of a dining chair. Outside were the lonely squawks of seagulls, and the cheers and calls of boys playing football, and the saltwater tang of the sea.