Authors: Angela Lambert
âI am afraid your wife is not at all well.'
Reginald Conynghame-Jervis and Roy Southgate had just been given the same news in the same words, although in separate interviews. Reginald had looked at the doctor and thought, Stupid blighter; I could have told him that. Roy Southgate had understood correctly that his wife was dying. Now both were in the small ante-room that served as a visitors' waiting-room while their wives were being âtidied up', as Sister had put it with a twinkle.
The view across the lawns that sloped up the side of the Kent & Sussex Hospital showed that there was no money to spare for the garden. The grass was neatly trimmed, but there were no flowers, no borders, no shrubs. Only the black railings of the fire escapes relieved the expanse of incandescent midsummer green. In a far corner stood a small circular temple crowned with a green dome, like a folly from some rich man's estate. God knows what it's doing there, thought Reggie Conynghame-Jervis. He stubbed his cigarette into an overflowing ashtray and said, âRidiculous! Giving them dinner at five-thirty! It's just for the convenience of the nurses. No one seems to think about the
any longer. So much for your ruddy NHS.'
The other person in the room - it was on the late side for afternoon visitors, and too early for the evening batch - was a small, mild bespectacled man whom Reggie had seen several times previously. âOh, I don't know. They're wonderful, really. Angels. Just young girls. Some of them aren't yet twenty. They go off at six, you see. Best to get tea over before then.'
âThat's what I said. All done to suit the staff. You smoke?'
âNot for me, thanks all the same.'
Reggie snapped open a square silver cigarette-lighter,
inhaled, and coughed irritably. âNever used to have this trouble with the old Player's Navy Cut. God knows what kind of rubbish they put into them nowadays.' He sat down, and his guttural breathing filled the silence.
Ten minutes later a nurse, older and more senior than the angels, came in, beckoned the smaller man to follow her, and swished away towards Sister's office. She handed him in and closed the door behind him.
âSit down, Mr Southgate,' Sister said. âMake yourself comfortable. Now then.'
Roy Southgate looked at her with docile expectancy.
âYour wife isn't eating. We've done our best to tempt her. Special diets. Soft food, but nourishing. She must eat, you know.'
âWell, to keep her strength up.'
âBut it tires her to eat, and then she mostly just brings it back up, and that tires her even more.'
âYes. Well. We could try intravenous. Feeding her through a tube.'
âBecause she's got to
. Look, Mr Southgate, your wife isn't getting any better.'
âShe's receiving very powerful medication.'
âShe's not in pain though, is she? Not any more?'
âNo, she isn't in any pain.'
âI'd better go and sit by her, then. She knows I'm there. She can tell it's me.'
âI'm sure she can.'
Grace Southgate had shrunk and curled and become almost transparent, like a fallen leaf; and like a leaf, she quivered with each breath. Her lips were the colour of water, but dry and flaky. Her eyebrows jumped and fluttered nervously, as though she were dreaming.
âLet me try and peel a grape for you, dear,' said Roy. âThen I'll put it between your lips and perhaps you could just suck it. They're nice, these grapes. Very sweet.'
He held the glistening grape against her mouth, but she only turned her head fretfully.
âNot for now, eh? All right then, dear. I'll not force you.'
âI'm going off now, love!' called a cheerful black nurse. âSee you tomorrow, eh?'
âI'll be here,' Roy Southgate said, and turned back to the husk on the bed.
On the other side of the corridor, in a small side ward, Reginald Conynghame-Jervis fidgeted, stood up, sat down, looked at his wife's Patient Record, hooked it back over the end of the bed, and thrust his hands into the pocket of his tweed jacket to touch his cigarettes and scratch his balls covertly.
âBetter slip out before the hospital shop closes,' he said. âGetting a bit low on fags.'
His wife smiled tiredly and murmured something.
âWhat?' said Reggie, leaning closer. âCan't hear. What d'ye say?'
âBe some in the pub â¦'
âDare say you're right. Do with a drink. How's the time?'
Mary Conynghame-Jervis closed her eyes and shifted slightly on the hot pillow. She could feel the hair in scrawny tangles at the back of her head. She opened her eyes again and looked at her husband.
âReggie,' she whispered. âReg â¦'
âWhat is it? Anything you need? Call a nurse, shall I?'
âShirts. Still got plenty of clean shirts?'
âLook after yourself properly â¦'
âManage till you get back. Won't be long now. You just get better.'
He shifted the vase on the bedside table an inch and then moved it back. The fruit bowl was overflowing with grapes, stout red apples, spotty pears and something exotic the greengrocer had urged on him. Its sweetish, over-ripe smell filled his nostrils. He rummaged for a cigarette again.
âYou want the wireless? Shall I put your headphones on?
IT MA? Forces' Favourites?'
She smiled, with an effort, for an instant, and shook her head.
âDo go now,' she said. âBit tired.'
Reginald Conynghame-Jervis and Roy Southgate found themselves walking through the main entrance of the hospital together, just as other visitors were arriving in family groups.
âAll well, eh?' said Reggie. âThings looking up?'
Roy Southgate could not bring himself to nod. âHow is your â¦?' he asked.
âWife? Oh, fine, fine. Right as rain soon.'
A week later, in the small hours, Tunbridge Wells was in darkness. Only the street lights outlined the tracery of its town plan, the curving roads sloping steeply downhill to the old, cobbled heart of the town; the brighter lights along the railway glinting on the sweep of track as it looped towards the centre and out again. Among the sleeping houses a few illuminated windows showed where, behind drawn curtains, young mothers bent over their infants; lovers enlaced; and workaholics lay awake worrying.
High on the hill above the town a crossword puzzle of lighted windows outlined the hospital buildings. At the central desk in Number 3 Women's Ward a student nurse drooped over her notebook. The sound of groaning, deep-drawn breaths roused her. Her head jerked upright. She stood up, and walked fast to where Mrs Southgate lay in bed 7. She was drawing long, slow, excruciating gasps of air, her face contorted with effort. The young nurse hurried back to the desk and picked up a telephone. âDoctor! Can you come, please. It's Mrs Southgate in Women's 3. Acute respiratory and cardiac distress. I didn't want to disturb you, but â¦' Her voice trailed away as she realized that the houseman had already put the receiver down.
Minutes later he appeared, still tousled, but purposeful and clear-headed. The nurse led him to where Grace Southgate lay. The harsh jugular wheezing had stopped; instead, she was trying to sing to herself in a tenuous voice, frail as a cobweb:
âSleep, my baby, sleep so softly,
While your Mummy watches o'er you â¦
Dum dum dum de dum and harm you -
Slee-eep, oh sleep, my son.
âFreddy,' she murmured. âGo to bye-byes, there's a good baba.' She looked up at the doctor as he stood over her, his hand cradling her pulse. âOh doctor, I'm ever so sorry. I got you out of bed, didn't I?' she said.
âShush-sh. Not to worry. Just checking you over,' said the doctor. âQuick listen to your chest, hmm?'
He bent over her as the nurse swished the curtains shut around the bed. Mrs Southgate undid her nightdress obediently to reveal the grey and bony bosom that only her husband and children and a few other doctors had ever seen. The skin fell away in fine pleats, the breasts were long, almost empty folds from which pale blue nipples hung limply. Beneath her skin the tracery of veins ran its gnarled course, and beneath them curved the skeletal shield of her ribcage.
â¦ and out,' said the doctor. âAnd again for me.
â¦ and out. Once more.
â¦ and out again. Good. Not too easy, is it? Would you like some oxygen, or do you think you could sleep now?' She nodded, and he buttoned up the front of the nightdress and folded the bedclothes gently back in place.
âLike another little pill to help you?'
âI'm not -' Mrs Southgate was seized by racking, primeval gasps which rose to a crescendo of extraordinary noise. Her eyes were squeezed shut by the violence of her struggle for air. âOxygen!' snapped the doctor, and the nurse hurried off, her shoes squeaking rapidly on the highly polished vinyl floor. Other patients muttered querulously, half woken from sleep. With the deep instincts of women who have once been mothers, they struggled towards consciousness. Somewhere, it seemed, a child needed seeing to â¦ oh not now, not again, let me sleep, I'm so tired â¦ I'll come in a minute, my poppet. A bell buzzed for attention at the nurses' desk, but
they were short-staffed and it was a while before anyone had time to answer it.
By the time its source was traced and the tall Irish nurse had gone to the side ward she found that, quietly, considerately, not wanting to bother people when they had more important things to do, Mary Conynghame-Jervis had died.
Reginald sat in a different waiting-room wearing a plain white shirt and his funeral black tie. He had to see the senior social worker at the hospital (âIn your day she would probably still have been called an almoner,' Sister had explained patiently). He also had to collect the overnight case with his wife's last few possessions from the hospital: a flowered pink sponge-bag containing Elizabeth Arden's Blue Grass toilet water, a still-damp face flannel and the soaking solution for her false teeth; a couple of limp nightdresses; and the old lizard-skin handbag from Mappin & Webb that he'd given her for Christmas fifteen years ago.
Sitting in the same waiting-room was the little man who'd been hanging around the ward all week. Reggie snapped open his
, folded it back under itself and stared at it. Index, it said; Appointments; Weather. The words ran together in a nonsense jingle. Indexa pointmen swhether. In sex disappointment ever. In depths miss the point forever.
The Irish nurse who had probably been the last person to see Mary alive had passed him no comforting message, no tender last words. She had asked him whether Mary knew someone called Cecil.
âYour wife had been dozing on and off, and in her sleep she seemed to be talking to Cecil Tushing - that's who it sounded like. “Cecil,” she was saying. You know who that was, I expect. Family member, would it be?'
âWe don't know anyone called Cecil,' Reggie had told her crossly. âYou must've heard wrong.'
âI dare say I did,' the nurse had agreed tiredly. âAfraid I can't be any more help, then.'
âI'm ever so sorry.'
Reginald looked up. The chap in the corner must have spoken.
âAbout your wife. So sorry.'