They were rehearsed homilies, all the things he had said to Aimee. As he walked back along the common, he realized that he trotted out such blandishments – ‘I thank God for the time we had’; ‘We all have free choice’ – because he knew that they were expected. They were mandatory. They protected everyone, including himself, from more disturbing and pernicious reckonings.
But in the solitary dark he’d often asked himself exactly the questions that Aimee had raised. As the moon crept across the bay-window of the bedroom, he had tried to conjure some beneficial use for the happy memories, the remembered years of contentment – but he could find nothing there except a mocking counterpoint to the loneliness and the pointlessness with which he now shared an empty house.
And it had started even before Pru had died. In the slow years of her gradual derangement, he had felt powerless and victimized. He was ashamed to admit that he believed he had suffered more than she – because he was aware of her situation, as she was not. He was confronted daily by loss and disappointment and plans denied. He couldn’t bear it.
As he walked along the common, he felt a lurch of giddying admission in his stomach, and he staggered from the pavement to a bench beside the Old Pond. He sat down and blinked, not sure whether to follow his thoughts where they seemed to want to go.
It was Pru’s birthday – the tenth of June. She was still sleeping when he woke up. The sun was on her face, and he could almost have convinced himself that she would open her eyes in a moment and look at him, smiling as he pulled on his dressing-gown and asked her if she fancied a cup of tea. But she slept, her hair curled around her face.
He padded downstairs and put the kettle on. He unlocked the back door and walked out into the garden in his bare feet. The wet grass was cold and fresh between his toes. Birds chirped and trilled in the apple trees. The roses that Pru had planted and tended were glistening with moisture, each bead of dew silvered in the low morning rays of the sun. On the wrought-iron table at the bottom of the garden there lay a pair of secateurs. Pru would have a fit if she knew he’d left them out in the open overnight. He picked them up, and walked to the trellis-arch, where the Gloire de Dijon was flowering with more promiscuous fervour than it ever had before.
Ken selected a full, open bloom, on which the dew nestled between the petals like the substantiation of some secret holy passion. He snipped it from the branch, taking a long stem with it, careful not to disturb the moisture or the casual intimacy of the petals. Carrying it inside, he placed it neatly in a narrow glass vase, which he set on a tray beside the teacups and milk jug. He made a pot of tea and put some biscuits on a plate.
Carrying the tray upstairs, he imagined Pru’s face lit by happy recognition, her mind coaxed out of the thickening fog by the sight of a bloom she had brought into being with years of tireless, delighted attention. Dear God, surely it couldn’t be too much to ask that she might be restored to him, whole and perfect, as the flowers of the rose were reborn each summer after frost-bound months of seeming dull and dead.
“After all, it’s her birthday,” Ken muttered, as if it were the clinching convincer of a contract negotiation.
Pru was awake, sitting up. She looked at Ken as he came in, and her expression was serene, unfathomable.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart,” he smiled, and put the tray on her lap. She gazed at it – at the teacups, the milk jug, the moist pink-edged yellow bloom of the rose. He poured milk into the cups and topped them up with strong tea.
“Would you like a biscuit?” he asked.
Pru reached out her hand and lifted the rose from the vase by its stem. Deliberately and with precise care, she dunked it bloom-down into a brimming teacup, and then mashed it into her open mouth, her eyes expressionless and blue.
“No! Pru – no!” Ken wailed, and snatched the dripping, stained rose from her. A thorn had punctured her palm, and bright blood trickled to her wrist. She yelped and kicked her legs up, the tea things scattering across the bed as she fell back, whimpering, her mouth full of petals.
Ken gathered her in his arms, pressing her to his chest, and he wept as her limp hand bled onto the white pillow, and her eyes looked out vacantly on the chirruping summer garden.
That evening, when Dr Ross came downstairs, Ken was in the garden, sitting at the wrought-iron table. The doctor sat down too.
“A sad business, Ken,” he said.
Ken nodded, not looking up.
“But a mercy, perhaps, considering, hm?”
Again, Ken nodded.
“I thought she had a little while yet, but you can never tell,” the doctor said. “Unpredictable, these things.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes, watching the bees doing the rounds of the rose bushes.
“Would you have me give you something to help you sleep?” Dr Ross said. And then he added, “Ah, no – you’ll still have plenty of pills left from the other week. Won’t you?”
Ken lifted his head sharply. “Yes. Plenty,” he said.
“Ah, that’s good. So, in three or four weeks’ time, you’ll have used them all, will you?” the doctor said slowly and precisely. “And then you’ll want some more. But not before. Am I right?”
Ken held the doctor’s gaze for a second or two and then dropped his head. “Yes. Not before then.”
The doctor got to his feet. “Often there’s an autopsy – but not necessary in this case, eh?”
Ken swallowed and rubbed his eyes with his fingertips. “No. Not if you can avoid it, George. Thank you.”
The doctor nodded. “As I say – it’s a mercy. You look after yourself, Ken. You’re a good man.”
“It wasn’t a mercy, though,” Ken murmured
Sitting on the bench by the Old Pond, just down the road from the Hospice, Ken watched the carp mouthing the water’s surface, and the yellowflag irises sway and nod.
“It wasn’t a mercy at all. It was selfish.”
If he was right that Pru had not known what was happening to her – and the constant reassurance he allowed himself was that she hadn’t suffered, she hadn’t understood – then there was no mercy at all in releasing her. She was in a state of grace, having no knowledge of good and evil. She was as ignorant as new-made Eve. But he, a fallen Adam, had free choice. And he had chosen to liberate himself from the capricious and tyrannical treachery of her illness, in order to accept the steady and comprehensible misery of bereavement. And he had lied about it.
“Michael, there’s something I have to tell you about Mum.”
After the funeral they had sat together in the garden, both in their dark suits and black ties. Michael was drinking Scotch – Pru’s favourite – and Ken had a vodka and lime. Ken had explained, in a faltering murmur, how they had made a pact, he and Pru, that if either of them were incapacitated, beyond hope, then the other would help them escape the suffering. And he had kept to that pact. He couldn’t renege, however it hurt him to carry it through.
And as he said it, his eyes fixed on the house in which Michael had grown up, Ken believed it was the truth. Not, he knew, a factual truth, but an emotional one. A truth about his marriage that transcended any considerations of documentation or literal accuracy. He turned to look at his son.
“You do understand, Michael, don’t you?”
Michael’s face was wet with tears. “I wish I could have said goodbye to her, that’s all. I just wish…” He shook his head. “It was very brave of you. I couldn’t have done it. You did the right thing, Dad.”
Ken put his arm around Michael and accepted the offered approval which, he was grateful to admit, vindicated him. He was brave. He had done the right thing. Even his son said so. And could God himself contradict such an assertion?
But if what he’d done was self-serving and cowardly, Ken was defenceless against God’s indignation. He was an open-and-shut case. The only hope then would be that there was no God, and therefore no judgement. The ultimate recourse of the guilty - to deny the power of the court.
As the office workers took lunchtime strolls around the Old Pond, Ken gazed up to the infinite sky, and blinked at the sun until his eyes streamed. And when he lowered his head and looked out across the water, he could see only shimmering blue and smudges of shifting yellow – there was no form to the world, no shape and no composition. Just colour, random and nonsensical, and the rustle of the empty wind in the reeds.
Michael and Linda lived in a smart modern house that was not really to Ken’s taste, although he and Pru had always been impressed by the garden, which was informal and exuberantly colourful, full of hidden little corners and twisting paths shadowed by overhanging branches.
“Little Dan is going to love this when he’s a bit bigger,” Ken said, as he and Michael took a stroll in the evening sun after dinner. “All these secret places to hide away and play.”
They walked back to the patio and sat at the wooden table, lit by perfumed candles as the dusk came down. Linda brought coffee, a bottle of port and a vodka for Ken. She sat down and took a mint from the bowl.
“I think the little devil is asleep at last,” she said.
“Oh, he’s a good boy really,” Ken said. “Just like Michael was.”
“Mostly, yes,” Linda nodded. “But do you know what he did yesterday? He pushed a slice of bread into the VCR, the monster.” She poured the coffee. “He knows he’s not allowed to touch the VCR.”
Michael chuckled. “But he doesn’t know why he’s not allowed to – that’s the problem.”
“Well, just knowing it’s naughty should be enough,” Ken said. “You shouldn’t have to reason with a two-year-old.”
“This is what I keep telling him, Ken,” Linda agreed, nodding towards her husband.
Michael gave a little shrug and a glance to the side – a gesture of Pru’s that meant, Try to stay with me here – it’s really not that difficult. “There’s a big difference between being naughty, when you know why something is wrong, and being disobedient, when you break a rule that seems to have no rhyme or reason to it.”
Ken frowned. “That’s not a good attitude to teach a little boy, Michael.”
“Dad, I can’t get as exercised about him posting a sandwich in the video – which must be an irresistible adventure when you’re two – as I can about – I dunno – putting his hand in the fire, or running off in the mall. What I’m teaching him is a sense of perspective. If we go similarly bananas about everything he does, how is he to know which really matter and which don’t?”
Ken swirled ice around in his glass, watching the syrupy vodka climb the sides.
“Well, have it your way. But I warn you – you’re encouraging him to question your authority,” he said.
“Dear God, I hope so,” Michael laughed, and downed his port in one swift shot.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
In the warm gloom of his own garden the scent of roses still lingered, and the trellis-arch was framed against the penny-bright moon. Ken sat at the wrought-iron table, leaning forward on his elbows, his hands clasped under his chin.
“Michael says we needn’t obey rules that seem arbitrary to us. I don’t know where he got that idea. Not from me or his mother, I’m sure.”
But children grew in unexpected ways, Ken knew. They rarely turned out as replicas of their parents, embodying every taught value and demonstrated attitude. They had free choice.
“You see, I don’t understand why you made Pru ill. She didn’t choose her terrible sickness. Why would you do that to her? It seems arbitrary to me.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose between the tips of his forefingers, thinking. He considered people who break laws, who defy authority because what is right doesn’t seem to them to align with what is allowed.
“And I didn’t choose my course either. You placed me and Pru in a situation that was unbearable – and from that point, my choices were limited and horrible.”
If an oppressed people, for instance, refused to comply with the governing regime, no one would accuse them of selfishness or cowardice. The dehumanizing misery of their lives justified rebellion.
“Lord, the suffering I prevented was largely my own – but didn’t I have the right to end the horrors you visited upon me? What was the purpose of that? In what possible way was your will being done?”
From the corner of his eye, Ken saw a movement in the bushes. He kept quite still as a fox trotted out onto the grass, eyes mirrored in the moonlight. In its mouth was a moorhen, held by the neck, trailing loose feathers. The fox dropped the bird in the middle of the lawn, where it fluttered brokenly, not yet dead. The fox gave a little mewing shriek - and from behind the shed scampered three cubs, falling over each other to get to their mother. They nuzzled against her and she pushed them with her snout towards the flailing bird. After a few moments of confusion, they got the idea. They backed off and pounced; they nipped and growled; they tormented the crippled prey, stalking and biting and pulling, blood in their nostrils and flesh between their teeth.
Ken watched in breathless fascination. The cubs were being taught how to survive – it was a vital part of the cycle of life, and it had always been so. Nature made provision for the education of little foxes.
But, Ken noted, it must have seemed pretty cruel and arbitrary to the moorhen.
“You were brought up a Catholic, weren’t you?”
“For my sins,” Aimee nodded. “Convent education, bible class, missionary school – all that.”
She was looking paler today. Her hair seemed thinner and her skin was dry and taut across her cheekbones. She sat in the chair by the window with a blanket on her knees, and she was tapping her fingers on the armrest, as if she was impatient for something.
“So it must have been difficult for you to come to the point of not believing in God. After everything you’d invested in your faith, I mean.”
She shrugged. “He didn’t keep up His end of the payments.”
Ken had brought her roses from the garden. It was a habit he’d fallen into over the weeks. Now that the summer was coming to its end, the late-blooming roses were egging each other on to an explosive finale. Ken looked forward to getting up early and choosing the flowers he would cut. He’d decide on a theme – colour or shape or even some fanciful connection between the rose names – and he’d put together a bouquet of a dozen blooms. The first time he’d arrived with his floral offering, Aimee had thanked him dismissively and left the bunch carelessly on the bed. But he’d persevered, and now Aimee looked forward to seeing what he’d brought, and she allowed him to chat about that week’s choices, smiling a little as he explained the selection process.
“God has a plan,” Ken said. “What happens might seem arbitrary to us, but that doesn’t mean it has no purpose.”
He said it not because her comment had prompted it, but because it had become a silent litany for him – one which repetition might make credible, so that belief in it would allow him to be content. But as he heard it aloud, he realized how insulting a platitude it was to present to a woman dying. If a purposeless death was beyond acceptance, how much more incomprehensible and pitiless would it be to die for some unrevealed Divine purpose that would benefit only God knew who?
Ken spoke again quickly, as if he could leap in fast enough to drown out his own words before they reached her. “I don’t mean to say that there’s a good reason for your illness. I mean, it’s just rotten luck, that’s all. I mean...”
He expected her to be angry – he wouldn’t have blamed her – and he was ready for more spluttered yelling and flushed indignation. But she sighed, and pushed her lank hair from her cheek with thin, curled fingers.
“It’s not rotten luck. It’s my fault,” she murmured.
Still concerned to smooth over his monumental insensitivity, Ken protested at her suggestion. “No, no – it’s just bad luck. No-one’s fault. An infected transfusion – terrible thing to happen.”
“I had it already,” she said, and her eyes were filling with tears. “From a man.”
Ken gaped. He couldn’t find any reply.
“It’s a punishment, you see,” she continued “Mortal sin. Mortal punishment.” Silent tears were dripping from her chin now. She sobbed aloud all of a sudden. “…but it seems so harsh...”
She wept for an hour, her face against Ken’s lapel, her fragile shoulders trembling as he murmured infantile soothings. Eventually, like a child, she cried herself to sleep, and Ken lowered her back in her chair and pulled the blanket up to her chest.
It was early October. The roses were gone, and the trees in the grounds of the Hospice were the main feature, ochre and crimson against the clear cold sky. Ken stood on the path between the bare rose bushes, and looked up at the window of Aimee’s room. Had she been sitting in her usual chair, she would not have seen him – she was blind now. Her eyes had failed her, as had her kidneys, which were bypassed by a dialysis machine. The tubes in her nose supplied oxygen to her disinterested lungs, and her tissue-paper skin stretched grudgingly over her twig bones. Her heart, though, was still strong, so the doctors said. It might keep her going for months. She had a good heart.
Ken’s hands were deep in the pockets of his expensive but shabby overcoat. It still had a smell of Pru about it, and he couldn’t bring himself to get it cleaned and mended. He lifted his eyes to the fat red sun as it glowed dully above the maples.
Over the months, he had come to understand that God’s purpose was unfathomable. If Aimee’s illness was not at all arbitrary, but a punishment as she said, then it was out of all proportion to her sin, and beyond his understanding. And if Pru’s illness was not a punishment for some unknown sin, but was as arbitrary as it appeared, then it too was incomprehensible. In the end, there was no explanation that any reasonable man could accept. There was only suffering – random or ordained, it made no difference – just the suffering that God visited on his children, as casual and as unconcerned as a vixen might set her cubs on a wounded bird.
“He gets it from me, does little Dan,” Ken told God. “I won’t obey rules that I don’t understand. You may say that people must suffer, but I can’t see why they should. You gave me free choice, and you must expect me to use it.”
And he walked into the Hospice, up the marble stairs to Room 213, his hands still deep in the pockets of the overcoat that carried Pru’s smell. Inside the left pocket, Ken’s thumbnail rubbed over his wedding ring. And inside the right, his hand clutched the prescription that Dr Ross had renewed a few days before.