More from Emma B. In which water, and other things, flow.
The darkest hour is just before dawn, cried The Mamas and Papas in a hit that Donald had not played at his legendary fortieth bash. Yes it is, she thought, as she made the calls to her children. Richard was icily dismissive with a tinge of irritation. He had not seen his father for ten years and saw no reason to make a change. Must run – Lizzie was launching her citrine line and needed a lift to the station.
Vanessa cancelled her workshop, bought a roadmap and drove to the hospital.
When Paul had left, she and her children had been swept without warning, into a tsunami without a life raft. Within 24 hours he had removed all his possessions and had decamped to a new house, secured on the sly whilst she had been fighting the General Election campaign in Fengrove.
The Crier had led from the front, presenting her as a heartless hussy who had immolated her domestic duties on the pyre of ambition: He was forced to do his own washing and cook the Sunday roast, opined one ‘family member’, whom she strongly suspected of being Gillian. But within weeks, a truer picture emerged, in the form of Meriel, complete with fringed boots and pet cockatiel, who assumed her place as chatelaine, concubine and custodian of The Collected Works of Basil Bunting.
This had devastated the children, who at 13 and 15 were sentient beings, unlike Nicola’s brood in 1977. Richard had smashed crockery, with particular attention to a Port Merion dinner service, and Vanessa had used a Swiss Army Knife to lacerate Reckoning by The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. But then Vanessa had turned her hand to the plough in the form of GCSEs, A levels, a degree and a career in theatrical design.
Richard had renounced education and with it, any recognisable participation in society. There had been minor tiffs with the law; worrying at the time, but in retrospect well within the bounds of normality for an adolescent who had woken up one day at the apex of Middle England and had gone to bed as a statistic in the figures for family breakdown in the later years of the 20th century. But then, just as dramatically, he had undergone reincarnation as a successful manager of a boutique hotel and partner of Lizzie, a spirited designer of avant-garde jewellery, with a catalogue, a website and a workshop.
All this, she suspected, was maintained at the cost of tempering certain family relationships. He saw nothing of his father, lots of Vanessa and little of herself. His reaction to the news about Paul was just as expected.
Not so Vanessa, who had made her own break with Paul after chancing upon his diaries, artfully sandwiched between The Tiejans Trilogy by Ford Madox Ford and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Revolted and fascinated in equal measure, she discovered that Meriel was merely the last in a troupe that numbered Camille from the gift shop; Lesley from the garden centre and Frances, her own godmother. Dates, times, practices and preferences were detailed, alongside prompts for the renewal of car tax and scraps of tawdry verse. The sum total had produced the effect of feasting with panthers, and she had severed all contact with Paul forthwith.
Now she had plunged into the vortex, with an eighty-mile trip twice weekly and regular encounters with Meriel, Ursula, Donald and Gillian that were neither courteous nor cordial. The purpose of such visits remained a mystery. A pattern emerged whereby she herself would be the recipient of calls from Vanessa on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with updates on Paul’s condition. These were markedly peculiar, being entirely devoid of emotion and sharing a similarity of tone with The Shipping Forecast. Meriel had screamed at the first sight of Vanessa and had attempted to have her forcibly ejected from the ward. But she had been overruled by the male staff nurse and Vanessa was allowed to remain, provided there were no disturbances.
Paul’s immediate family had a history of heart disease (the last to succumb being Eric in ’96), and the initial assumption was that Paul’s illness had been predetermined. But a blood test had given a more sinister indication and a barium meal succeeded by a full body scan had provided a conclusive diagnosis of colon cancer with secondary tumours in the lungs and lymph glands. This was the reason behind a past year of stomach disorders; the condition was advanced and prognosis terminal.
Paul’s decline had been rapid. He had been discharged from hospital, but the less than professional nursing skills of Meriel made a hospice place a necessity. Ursula had proved equal to the task and had located a private establishment just outside town overlooking the golf course. Paul had been treasurer of the club and it seemed appropriate. According to Donald, who spoke to Vanessa if nobody else was looking, Paul had not wanted to go and there had been an affecting scene as he bade farewell to his study, home to Bunting, Joyce and the nuggets of cannabis he had secreted behind these volumes for use at leisure. At the time of the attack, he had been in the midst of an article: Moby Dick – Mind over Matter – for the main competitor of Brodie’s Notes and insisted on completing it from his bed in the hospice with Meriel a less than able scribe.
But the hospice was accommodating and the nurses were kind. All in all, it was the best possible choice – especially as it would not be for very long.
She had listened to these bulletins from Vanessa with a peculiar combination of fascination and repulsion. She felt no sympathy for Paul and no compassion for his sufferings. But she became increasingly reliant upon her twice-weekly updates, and experienced the type of irritation akin to missing a key episode of The Archers if for any reason, the bulletin was not forthcoming.
One week, Vanessa was laid low with a dose of flu and was unable to visit. The tension was quite unbearable and her relief unbounded when the phone rang again at 9pm on Wednesdays, 6pm on Saturdays with the resumption of the bulletins, delivered with all the emotion of a boa constrictor. She was a presence at the death bed by proxy and experienced all the frisson of a particularly licentious adulterous affair.
Vanessa did not report the nature of her conversations with Paul – if indeed any took place. But she had developed a wonderful eye for detail; Gillian’s pea green trouser suit; Meriel’s hair extensions and the visible discomfort displayed by the family party at the unexpected arrival of yet another unknown woman visitor and a handful of strange men. But her senses were most keenly aroused as Vanessa described the weekly deterioration of Paul to a state where he could no longer feed himself or visit the toilet in safety. There had been a particularly interesting account of his last attempt to take a shower, when he had clung to the walls in his nightgown, drenched with hot water and unable to stop the flow.
Thereafter he was cleaned in bed behind closed curtains.
He had died on a Monday evening – and Vanessa had made the trip, although it was outside her regular visiting schedule. He had lost consciousness on Saturday.
Vanessa had been present at the end, as had Donald. Gillian and Ursula were in the guest suite with Ursula’s toddler and the baby.
Meriel had gone to the toilet.
Vanessa had phoned with the news on her return. She had extracted every tiny piece of information from the call, like squeezing the juice from a lemon.
When it was over, she felt slightly sick.