by Chrissie Gittins
I lie here and look out of the window mostly. Can’t seem get to the dining room for meals these days. I’ve watched that lawn being mown countless times since I got here. They really do look after the grounds. There’s always something to see. Snowdrops, crocuses, then daffodils. The wallflowers are just going over. I asked one of the nurses to bring me in a stem so I could smell it. She cut a whole vase full. They can’t do enough for you.
By rights I should be in my greenhouse now. Propagating seeds. Sweet peas, marigolds, nasturtiums. Some can be little blighters to germinate. But when you see that touch of green showing above the soil—that’s what makes it all worthwhile. The excitement never goes away.
I think about Lily most of the time. How worried she’ll be. Sat at home, not knowing what’s going on.
My wife Joan will be here soon. She makes it in most mornings. Matron thinks there’s been a reconciliation. That’s what she wants to believe. Not that we ever separated or anything. We just lived separate lives. I was poorly at home for weeks. She’d call upstairs before she went out. ‘Have you got your tablets?’ That was it. She wouldn’t come upstairs. No sign of affection. Hard-faced. Nothing like Lily. You can see every feeling she has flicker across her face. If I smile, she smiles.
Joan doesn’t know about her. I hope she never does. I had to think of the children, the grandchildren. Lily’s husband knows. He’s never kicked off. I used to meet her at the end of her street. I was standing there waiting one afternoon and he came out of their house and walked up to me. I’d seen him around, knew who he was. I think we even had a drink together in the same crowd years ago.
‘If you’re going to see my wife,’ he said, ‘then have the decency to come to the house to pick her up.’
So I did. I’d park outside their front door and ring the bell. If Lily wasn’t ready he’d leave me waiting in the hall. There were always fresh flowers on the hall table. Sometimes their spaniel would push its nose out of the kitchen and come and sniff my shoes.
That was twelve years ago. We’ve had twelve years of being together. Walks in the woods, picnics on the moors, whisky from a flask with our buns or Battenberg. Weekends away when we could. Never a cross word. Always something to talk about. But she can’t visit me here. There’d be hell to pay.
One of the nurses pops her head round the door.
‘Harry—your wife’s on her way.’
I can hear her voice in the corridor.
‘How is he today?’
‘He’s comfortable, Joan,’ says the nurse.
What else can they say? There’s only one way out of here.
She appears at the doorway.
She sits in the chair under the window.
‘You don’t look too bad.’
‘I don’t look too good.’
‘I brought you these.’ She holds up a carrier bag of grapes and bananas.
‘Put them over there will you?’ I point to the window sill. I’ve still got her apples and oranges from last week.
‘How’s the family?’
‘Oh, you know.’
‘No I don’t know. I’m stuck in here.’
‘They’ll be in to see you soon.’
‘And in the meantime?’
‘Phil’s had a row with his boss.’
‘Fallon’s front tooth has fallen out.’
‘Good—she can’t fiddle with it anymore.’
‘Laura’s got to have a hysterectomy.’
‘I thought she wanted more kids.’
‘She does. But she can’t.’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘You don’t want to know the details.’
‘She could always adopt.’
‘She won’t adopt.’
‘Well that’s it then—no more grandchildren.’
‘Nothing for you to worry about.’
By which I suppose she means I won’t live to see any more grandchildren anyway. The week before I’d heard a nurse call me ‘The Inch-a-Day Man’. I was dying an inch a day. There’s no point in thinking otherwise.
‘Have they altered your medication?’
‘No. It’s settled down now. I’ll stick with it as it is.’
We look at each other then away from each other.
‘I’ll go and have a smoke.’
She likes to chat to the other smokers. Ten minutes later she comes back.
‘I hope you don’t mind—I’ve given all your plant paraphernalia to Phil.’
‘What plant paraphernalia?’
‘Your seed packets and pots and propagators.’
‘Give him the whole bloody greenhouse if you want.’
‘Well I’m not going to use it.’
‘Do what you like.’
She is never less than five feet away from me.
‘Alright. Well I’ll say cheerio for now.’
She waves from the doorway and I wave back.
If only I could see Lily. But we couldn’t risk it. She’d want to touch me. She’d run her fingers along my cheek, hold my hand, stroke my hair. We’d be alive to each other. How must she feel knowing I’m in here and she’ll never see me again? We knew this might happen. We talked about it. I just kept telling her that I’d be thinking about her. All the time. And I am. I think about her cupid’s bow—how I’d trace it with my finger. The roses in her cheeks. The way her hair curled at the nape of her neck. Her always uncomfortable shoes. Her tiny hands. Her violet eyes. The most beautiful violet eyes.
Would I have changed anything? You don’t know who you’re going to meet and when. If I’d married Lily would I have been happier? Probably. We had the time we had.
The lawnmower is coming out again. I like to see the cloud of grass following it up and down. There’ll be primroses and cowslips on the moors soon. The larks will be singing, even if you can’t see them.
Chrissie Gittins’ first short story collection is ‘Family Connections’ (Salt). Her second, ‘Between Here and Knitwear’ (Unthank Books), was shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards, selected by Helen Dunmore as one of her top two 2015 collections, and described by the Sunday Times as ‘exceptional’. Her stories have been broadcast on BBCR4 and published in The Guardian, Fictive Dream, The London Magazine, Wales Arts Review, The Lampeter Review, Litro, Every Day Fiction, Unthology 6, Lunate, Mono and Postbox.