Louise’s assigned seat on the 787 that took her home after her father’s death and its aftermath was in her least preferred position, the middle of the middle: 34E. She boarded about halfway through the process, and as always she foolishly hoped, when she saw the vacant place to the left of hers, that there might be some spreading room to compensate for being boxed in.
The woman Louise had to disturb in order to squeeze into her seat wore her reading glasses on a bright beaded string and was studying what looked like a modern translation of the New Testament. Louise extracted her own book, stuffed her laptop bag under the seat in front of her and buckled herself in. Her neck already ached; her skin was tacky. She closed her eyes and tried not to think about running out of air or water, or being hemmed in during an emergency, or of the sombrely dressed crew who had come, just after dawn so as not to encounter other residents, to collect her father’s body from his room in The Beeches and take it to the research hospital in Bristol. He had left it, just as her mother had hers, for purposes of scientific research (but also to avoid funeral costs). She tried not to think of how shrunken and tiny her father had been, nor of the way he had greeted her when she arrived at the care home and went to see him in his room: Hello, dear. Please, pull the plug. She tried also to avoid thinking of her sister Val, who had this morning driven her to the airport and had said, when they clung to each other tearfully outside Security, Well, fellow orphan, it’s your own darn fault for moving so far, or of her worries about her middle child, Elly, whom she had not seen for three weeks and who had been sometimes skipping school.
So long as she stopped thoughts of such things in their tracks and pushed them gently aside, then emotional exhaustion and insomnia, along with a herbal sleeping pill, should put her to sleep once they took off… Indeed, she was on her way to it when the address system startled her back into the still-grounded plane with a message about baggage; she opened her eyes and saw a tall young man in sunglasses wrestling a backpack into the luggage rack—destined, it was clear, for the seat beside hers.
‘Sorry! So sorry!’ he said, putting Louise incongruously in mind of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit as he levered himself past a frowning older man in hiking gear. Ignoring the hiker on his other side, he removed his expensive-looking sunglasses and turned to Louise.
‘I’m Amir,’ he said, smiling delightedly, as if they already knew and very much liked each other. He seemed half-boy half-man, his face pleasantly plump, his skin smooth, teeth large and white, his black hair and modest beard carefully cut so as to emphasize his jaw. ‘Security was packed! Thank goodness I got on as I have a very important meeting tomorrow evening. But here I am. May I know your name?’ Louise’s instinct was to withhold the information; she hesitated, but then dismissed her reaction.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. The seat-belt signs went on. The plane lurched then lumbered along; the safety announcement began and she closed her eyes again.
Their older sister, Lily, had been too sick to travel. Val had rushed to the hospital for their mother last year, and couldn’t bear to witness another death.
I said goodbye on Tuesday, she said.
The thing is, Louise explained to her on the phone, there is no plug to pull. And at first her father, drifting in and out of sleep, had not seemed to suffer terribly. The medications worked. There had been smiles and kisses, even laughter in the light-filled room looking out over the square. She had shared memories; she told him how she loved him, what a wonderful father he was. But then, after several days, a new phase began. Tiny and emaciated now, lying on his side in a foetal position, he jerked and twitched; he groaned, his face set in a grimace, aghast. He fixed Louise with horrified, pleading eyes.
According to The Beeches’ manageress, Sandra, this kind of ‘restlessness’ was a part of the dying process. Louise did not like the word restlessness, which seemed to minimize what was occurring; she felt that while Sandra, as the witness to many deaths, could certainly make that generalization, it was not helpful. It did not address her father’s pain and terror. How long would it continue? Was there nothing more they could do? Her voice shook as she asked. The doctor might prescribe a morphine pump, Sandra said, if Harry wanted it. Louise phoned both her sisters to explain the situation, then sat with her father, rubbing the sore places and telling him that what he was going through would not last very long; she was afraid to promise anything definite.
In the morning, a young, slim doctor who wore the kind of frameless glasses normally worn by a far older person, knocked quietly on the door. The physical examination was quick, but upsetting: there was not much of her father left.
The doctor leaned in close so that his face was within a foot of Harry’s. ‘Harry, we could move to a pumped delivery of medication to relieve these discomforts,’ he said. There it was again: discomforts! But at the same time, his voice was gentle, and she had managed to keep quiet. ‘But doing so will shorten your life, Harry. Do you understand? Is it what you want?’
After a pause of several seconds, her father had opened his mouth enough to clearly signal yes. Louise’s chest ached and burned; her stomach filled with lead. He had given clear instructions, but her hand shook as she signed the paperwork.
She was awake again and a voice asked her to choose between chicken or fish ‘for yourself’. The bible-reading woman to her right was unpacking her meal and, to her left, Amir was already halfway through some kind of special dish that smelled of spices and looked far nicer than either chicken or fish. He had tucked his paper napkin into the neck of his designer T-shirt.
Louise said she did not mind and took what she was given.
A special nurse, Amy, had come to Harry’s room to set up the morphine pump. When it was ready, she read from a card a short speech about what was to happen, explaining how Harry’s body’s own resources would cooperate with the drug to produce a feeling of well-being that would override any sensations of hunger, thirst or pain. She wished him well. A sequence of beeps signalled the pump’s readiness, and then a small whirring sound announced the first dose. It was miraculous: as promised, Harry grew peaceful, ecstatic even, his glistening eyes fixed on Louise.
‘Were you in England for business or on holiday?’ Amir asked.
‘Seeing family,’ she said.
‘Ah, family. But now you live in Vancouver?’
‘Yes.’ It was not exactly true, but near enough.
‘We came from Bangladesh when I was ten, to Montreal. A shock at first! And of course, I have an even longer journey than yours to visit relatives. But I love it here. Not the plane! Canada. And now that I’ve finished my studies—I studied economics and history, then business—I must hurry up and choose a wife . . . I expect you are thinking “Does she not get to choose?” and the honest answer is perhaps a bit, but probably not so much.’ He smiled and set down his plastic fork. ‘I want to be a good husband. I like to think I’ll pick well for both of us. She can be educated and have a career, so long as there are children, at least two. Also, I would like . . .’
Every ten minutes, the morphine pump had delivered its dose. That night, they had listened to Classic FM, and Louise had read to her father a short poem by Siegfried Sassoon that she chose for its images of birds set free and winging wildly across the white/ Orchards and dark-green fields; on–on–and out of sight.
She had felt so very close to him. Now he was gone, and in the plane, Amir paused, wanting an answer to a question she could not recall.
‘Well,’ she said, hoping for the best, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing my kids. Three. One six, the others in their teens . . . I had them late and I did get to choose who with. My husband does some of the housework. And I have at least half a career. It works pretty well.’
Amir nodded and wiped his fingers on a paper napkin.
‘Very good. As for me, I’m already thirty, and—I know you will not believe this—I have never had sex. Truly! It’s not what you think, not at all. I love women. I respect them, and I will respect my wife, otherwise I will not be able to respect myself. I want to be both traditional and modern at the same time. The best of both worlds!’ Louise stared back at him, aware of how tired she was, how incapable of a response. Perhaps she stared too long: he shifted in his seat, leaned forward a little, to the point that she caught a whiff of natural musk lurking beneath some expensive manly fragrance. ‘I’m not coming on to you, Louise,’ he said, ‘I promise. But may I just say that you keep yourself very trim! What’s your secret?’
Was he just entertaining himself? Could he be an acting student, playing some complicated game? Or worse: was the whole chat a tissue of lies designed to attract vain, lonely, older women? Impossible, in her current weakened state, to tell.
‘This conversation suddenly seems quite peculiar,’ she said.
The flight attendant was passing so Louise held up her unopened meal, narrowly avoiding the bible woman’s face.
‘Sorry!’ Amir said. ‘I’m just curious. Most of the mothers of teenagers I know are very different. It is probably a cultural thing.’
Louise folded away her tray.
‘No problem,’ she told him, reaching for her book. It was required reading for her current project, and interested her a lot, but almost as soon as she had opened it, her eyelids descended and even though the lights were still bright she plummeted gratefully into nothingness.
She was woken by Amir’s hand on her arm. ‘We’re here,’ he said, before disappearing into the departing throng on the far side.
Rick stood by the exit, looking for her as hard as she was looking for him, and as soon as she saw him, she began to cry. He pulled her aside, not minding one bit about his soaked shirt. The stream of people parted around them.
‘Sorry. It’s a huge thing,’ she said, lifting her face to look up at him. He’d deepened his summer tan since she left. His hair was freshly cut.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘I’m just so glad you were able to be there. And I’m even more glad you’re back,’ he told her as they re-joined the stream of passengers, he pulling her big bag, his other arm around her back. ‘We’ll easily make the ferry.’
‘Are the kids okay?’ she asked, even though he had told her so a day or two ago. She had had no idea when she left how long she would be away, and it had turned out to be more than three weeks.
‘All fine but missing you.’
‘Pretty good . . . She’s been invited up to Tofino with Marina’s family and some other kids so she’s excited about that. They’re off on Friday.’
‘For the weekend?’
‘Actually, a week. They always go then because they get the place free. School, I know . . . They’re taking work and it’ll be fine. We went to see the principal yesterday and that was the deal. A responsible absence, as opposed to skipping.’ Louise could have asked why she had not been consulted, but it was done now, and doubtless he had been trying to spare her from long-distance, wrong-time-zone decision-making when so much else was going on. There was food in the car, he said, and they could get coffee at the ferry. With any luck she would be able to stay awake till evening.
She felt absurdly happy to smell, before the exhaust fumes cut in, a whiff of pine or cedar in the air, and to see the thick layer of pollen and other dust that covered their car. It marked them as country-dwellers. There was no point in washing it.
The roads were busy but soon they were in agricultural land and within an hour they had passed the herons fishing on the shore and parked in the familiar tedium of the ferry line-up, the huge lot beaded with cars, and ahead of them the twin blues of sea and sky, a few wisps of cloud.
Rick went for coffee and Louise cranked the seat back, twisted her neck from side to side. Both of them now, she thought, had no one but siblings ahead of them. And yes, they were thoroughly middle-aged now: skin, hair, eyes, teeth, waistline, the lot, and yet it didn’t seem long since they had met. He had been in her community education class when they had both been living in London—‘The Good Life: an Introduction to Philosophy’—and she had known from first looking up from the register to see the clean planes of his face and the dark glitter of his gaze that something had to come of the encounter. They had their first date just before the end of the term. It was the first and only time she had to teach a philosophy course—she was barely qualified and only took it on because a colleague undergoing chemotherapy had to withdraw—and they later joked about how quickly they had moved from theory into practice, as well as seven thousand kilometres from where they began. And now, she wrote but still taught though it was a different, silent p, psychology. He drew plans and elevations for eco-friendly West Coast homes, and they were the relatively elderly parents of three school-aged children aged six to sixteen. They were island-dwellers and citizens of a huge country she was only gradually coming to understand. It had all happened very fast.
She watched her husband return from the cedar-and-glass building that housed the ferry shops and restaurants, a cup in each hand, eyes fixed on their car. Approaching, he signaled with a sideways nod of his head for her to open his door and then slotted the paper cups carefully into the holders. This was long before they got really strict about not using disposable cups, but he was already averse to plastic and was carrying the coffee without lids.
‘Dad had Mum’s photo on the table by his bed,’ she told him. ‘The one with her sleeping in a deckchair with her arm flung behind her head. He took it himself, before I was even born.’ She called it to mind for him; how, beneath their arched brows her closed eyes with their smooth, shadowy lids seemed huge and very sensuous, an open invitation to the gentlest of kisses. Add to that the full lips that lay beneath them, utterly relaxed: it was a stunning image, like something from the silver screen. This was the woman who in later life had shocked everyone by sending Harry to the care home and then dying before he did. Yet he had loved her right until the end.
‘Everyone was incredibly kind, and because I felt so very close to him,’ Louise told Rick, ‘in a way, being there was wonderful as well as terrible. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true . . . And this really won’t sound like the me you know—but I felt as if I was being lifted up by a tide of love. It filled the room and every cell of me. Of us. I’m as sure as I can be that he felt it too . . . It came in waves, on and on. Infinite. I’ve no idea whether it came from me or from him, or both . . . I feel like I’ve been in another universe.’
‘You have.’ Rick pushed his seat back and stretched out his legs. Various ligaments clicked and cracked as he did so.
They lay in the car, their faces turned towards each other. She told him that when her father lay perfectly still and no longer breathing, she had felt as if he was, while no longer inhabiting his abandoned flesh, still somehow in the room. Rick took her hands in his. She noticed the familiar plumpness of his lips, the deep furrows in his forehead that had been just ghostly premonitions when they first met. How could a face be so familiar, and yet so much changed, and changing? ◊