“In the bed opposite the kitchen door. I’ll get it.”
“There is always a window of wonderful weather around now—quiet weather.” Judith took the bunch of thyme from Cat, and lifted her hand to smell its muskiness on the stalk. “If he wants to stay here at home, he should,” she said. “You know I’ll help you as much as I can. And Richard of course.”
“I couldn’t manage without you. It’s the children …”
“Don’t try and hide everything from them.”
“Sorry, Cat—that was patronising. Any parsley?”
“I’ll get it.”
Mephisto followed her, padding carefully between the rows and pushing his face against her outstretched hand.
“Having the nurses twice a day is brilliant, though they treat me like Chris’s GP not his wife. I don’t want to be his doctor, Judith. I want to talk to him as a husband and see him as a husband who is dying, not as a patient. I know I can do medical stuff if I have to, especially in the middle of the night, but I’m struggling to get them not to think of me as the doc.”
“He doesn’t though.”
“True. You’re very good at seeing things in perspective, did you know that?”
“You’re very good for Dad too.”
“Thanks,” Judith said, pleasantly but in a tone that Cat recognised as one barring further discussion. Well, that was fine. She wasn’t about to start probing. Judith was happy, the relationship seemed good, her father was less uptight. She didn’t need to know any more.
They stood for a few moments—Judith leaning awkwardly against the sink, Cat in the open doorway—looking at the spinning leaves as they caught the sun.
“I want this to be over,” Cat said. “I can say it to you. I want it to be over for Chris because it’s terrible but I want it to be over for me. I never understood this before—patients whose family said it. They couldn’t bear them to die and they couldn’t wait for them to die. I understand it now. The other thing is I can’t say any prayers about this—it’s what I’ve always done and suddenly I can’t.”
“Doesn’t matter. Let the rest of us do that for you. I think it’s probably quite normal.”
“I don’t know what you believe … It’s not something one asks, is it?”
“What, you mean is it isn’t PC?”
“I’m a Catholic. Not a very conscientious Catholic but I am one. I get a bit fed up with the Pope. Still, the Pope isn’t God, whatever he may believe to the contrary. Now, I need to finish this casserole.”
As Cat helped Judith to sit at the kitchen table, Chris was calling and Felix had woken from his sleep.
“Give me Felix, you go to Chris,” Judith said, covering the casserole against Mephisto.
As Cat went into the bedroom she knew. Chris was lying on his side facing her, his eyes closed, but when she touched him he opened them and said, “I’m so cold.”
She hesitated only for a second, then she lay down beside him and pulled the quilt over them both, and moved closer, to hold him to her as well as she could. He was shivering.
“I love you,” Cat said. “I love the children but I loved you first.”
He coughed suddenly and took several short, rapid breaths, coughed again. “Cold.”
“I know. It’s cold. Winter’s coming. Darling, Sam and Hannah will be back from school in a minute. Do you want them to come and see you?”
He muttered something she could not make out.
“Dad has gone to fetch them.”
His limbs began to jerk spasmodically. Then they were still again. He coughed several times. Stopped coughing.
“Yes. Judith has made their supper.”
“I know. You’re not hungry.”
He moved his head and cried out.
“Let me check the pump.”
But he clutched on to her hard so that she did not move. His body was cold. His body was unbelievably thin. She could feel bone beneath skin. It seemed as if there were no flesh.
“Stay … here …”
From the kitchen she heard Felix’s chatter. Judith’s calm voice. Their sudden laughter.
“Sam,” he mumbled.
His legs jerked again. Were still. She lay holding him as the sky outside the window faded from bright to silver blue and then flared golden and red as the sun went down. Autumn, she thought. His last autumn.
They lay still together. The car came into the drive. The children ran into the house. Doors banged. Her father’s voice on the stairs calling her name. Then he entered into the room quietly. She had not put the lamp on. The wall opposite her was flushed rose red in the last of the sun. Richard came over and bent down to Chris, touched his forehead, lifted his wrist gently and felt his pulse. Cat turned her head to him. He nodded.
“I’ll help out downstairs,” he said and went out.
After a moment, Cat asked, “Would you like to see the children for just a second?”
But Chris’s arms jerked and then he was still again, his head turned away from her. Cat touched the back of his neck and then his head very gently.
“Poor old boy,” she said, “poor head.” She bent nearer and kissed it.
The sun slipped further down, off the wall. The sky darkened to violet and grey.
In the kitchen, Richard and Judith sat at the kitchen table with Sam and Hannah, tea, juice and toast.
“What’s for supper later?”
“Beef casserole and fruit crumble.”
“Can I have the crumble and not the fruit?”
“I’ll eat her fruit, she hates fruit and you should eat fruit, shouldn’t you, it makes you not get things. Illnesses and things.”
“Hannah likes some fruit, don’t you, Hanny?”
“See? That’s not enough, is it?”
“Bananas are OK, Sam. Do you want some more toast?”
But Sam got up and pushed back his chair. “I’m going to see Daddy.”
“I don’t want to see him in bed, I only want to see him when he’s better,” Hannah said.
“Oh, you are so stupid, stupid, stupid, he isn’t ever getting better, don’t you know that?”
Hannah dropped her toast on the plate and howled. Felix stared at her over the lid of his beaker. Sam went through the door like a shadow and fast up the stairs. Richard got up.
“Let him be,” Judith said. “Cat knows what to do.”
Richard frowned but then sat down again, and after a second, put his hand on Hannah’s arm.
Upstairs, as Cat lay beside her husband, Sam came quietly to the doorway, but sensing that it was different now, that there was something in the silence and the stillness that he had never known before, he stopped just inside the room.
“Sam?” She could hear him breathing. “Sam, do you want to come here? You don’t have to.”
“Daddy just died. A few moments ago. He was sleeping and then sleeping more deeply. And then he wasn’t … he died.”
“A little while ago.”
“Should I tell them?”
“I think I’d better do that.”
“Can I look at him?”
“Of course you can. Do you want me to put the lamp on?”
“No.” Sam did not move. “Not yet, please.”
“Fine. There’s some light from the landing.”
Slowly, Sam came to the bed. Cat reached out her hand and he took it and squeezed it tightly. After a moment, he climbed up and reached over her, his hand hovering and then finally touching Chris.
Cat held her son closely and put her hand over his.
In the kitchen a few minutes later, Judith, putting the plates and cups onto a tray, paused and looked at Richard. He held her gaze. Hannah had gone to feed her hamster.
“There is,” Judith said, “a different kind of stillness in the house.”
“What I don’t understand is where people get guns from. And I don’t mean field sports.”
Phil shrugged. “A lot of them are adapted from guns built to shoot blanks, some come from Eastern Europe.”
“But that’s gangsters.”
“You’ve been watching too many B-movies.”
“Seriously … I can’t understand how kids get hold of guns, kids on the estates.”
“Why are you worrying about it?”
“Because it’s worrying of course. Aren’t you worried? Don’t you wonder if the kids you teach are going to get hold of guns? Maybe they already have, maybe this lunatic is one of them.”
They had just watched the television news and what Phil had called a non-report from Lafferton about the gunman-on-the-loose.
“This guy doesn’t just have one gun—if it is a guy.”
“Oh, it couldn’t be a woman.”
“It just couldn’t … no. It couldn’t.”
“And if it is just one man and not two. Or more.”
“I don’t think I want to have this conversation.”
“Want to talk about weddings instead?”
“Yes. No. I think I’m too tired.”
“We don’t have to wait until you’re well, you know. We can get married next week.”
“I can’t plan a wedding in a week!”
“What’s to plan?”
Tom moved silently away, across the hall and into the kitchen, closing the door with care. But they hadn’t heard him. They were too wrapped up in themselves to be bothered if he had heard.
He didn’t like himself for listening at the door. He hadn’t meant to do it, but as he had come downstairs, they had started to talk and he had, somehow, started to listen.
How do people get guns?
He sat down and fiddled with the salt and pepper, changing them round and round.
How do people get guns?
Lizzie was out with a gang from school. He should have been at a practice for the chapel song group but he’d had a sore throat and his voice sounded weird.
How do people get guns?
Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be at the chapel. There was stuff in his head he needed to deal with and it was muddled with the last time he had been there, his conversation with the pastor, the nightmares he kept having.
“We can get married next week.”
They wouldn’t. They could. They might.
He pulled a small paring knife towards him and started to make a score mark in the wood of the table-top, a thin, mean little line, cutting it slowly.
How do people get guns?
Phil came banging in, whistling.
Tom nodded. Did not look at him.
“Your mother wants a word.”
Even Philip Russell, Tom reminded himself as he went, has an immortal soul. He doesn’t know he has. But he has.
His mother looked pale. She’d almost died. She hadn’t died but if she had, what would Phil Russell have done then? He knew what he and Lizzie would have done, which would have been just carry on, because that’s what they knew you had to do, that is what they’d done when their father died. It helps to know.
“Come and sit down.”
“I’m going out actually.”
“Two minutes. Where are you going?”
“Just out.” He sat on the arm of the sofa next to her. “In a bit. You OK?”
“I’m fine. Tired, that’s all. I wanted to ask you something.”
He waited. He could hear the kettle whistling.
“When we get married, I’d really like it if you would give me away, Tom.”
He knew what it meant now when it was said that someone went cold. You did. You did exactly that. You went cold.
“You don’t have to answer now. But there isn’t anyone else I’d like to do it.”
“I never see him. How long is it—three years? Has to be.”
“He’d do it.”
“I expect he would but I don’t want him, I want you.”
He got up. Still cold. How could this have happened?
“I’m going out now.”
She didn’t say anything but he knew that she was watching him, looking after him, he knew what the look on her face was and how her eyes were and what she was thinking.
He went out. At first he was going to take the Yamaha but then he decided against that. At the gate he glanced back at the house. Something clicked inside him. Odd. He felt odd. He’d never felt so odd.
It was cold. He zipped up his fleece.
Why should it matter? Being cold.
They reached the top of the Hill at last. It was steeper than she had remembered, took longer. After a while, no one had spoken. Simon got there first and put the cool bag down on the stone which had been there for thousands of years. Or since just after the last war, depending on who you believed.
It was, as always, the most amazing view.
“Three counties,” he said to Cat as she arrived. Hannah was with her, Sam, the best climber, walker, runner, swimmer, all-round athlete, trailed slowly up a long way behind.
“He’s all right,” Cat said, following her brother’s gaze. “Really. Quiet. But all right.”
“Can we have our picnic now?”
“Wait for Sam.”
“Why? I want a drink now, why do I have to wait for Sam before I can have a drink? That’s cruelty to children.”
They had left Felix at Hallam House with Richard and Judith. Simon unzipped the bag and handed Hannah a carton of apple juice.
“I wanted Ribena.”
“Please?” She sighed and sat down on the stone. Simon swapped the cartons.
The autumn sun struck warm on their faces, touched the flying angels on the four corners of the cathedral tower in the distance, and a white horse in a field.
“What have we come up here for?” Sam turned his back on them, looking down the grassy slopes.
“Because it was one of Daddy’s favourite places and I thought … we should just be here and … think about him.”