I visit to see if the illness has wiped her last memory of me.
A flicker of recognition. She’s in the room, but she doesn’t see me. When it started, before the kids decided I was unfit to look after her, I would rest my hands on her shoulders and lean into her. I’d try to get through. Now I realise, it doesn’t work like that. The disease chooses when she can say hello. Sometimes it’s tempted by quiet conversation, so I go on.
‘Drizzly out there. Miserable.’
Her eyebrow lifts slightly. It’s impossible to tell until it lets her speak. Whatever comes out of her mouth determines if she’s really with me. Even then, I’m not always sure.
There’s a nurse at the other side of the communal room, trying to talk to someone in another armchair. The armchairs are arranged in a vast semi-circle. You can see the tele from every armchair, they’ve made sure of that. But it’s not a living room. It’s a not-living room. Have you noticed they prefer the word resident to patient? Maybe they’re trying to trick the illness into leaving. When I turn back to her, she’s allowed to talk.
‘Horrible.’ She moves her mouth slowly. ‘Looks miserable.’
This is all I need. Tomorrow will be too late. It’s now or never. My love won’t wait. I take my wife by her wrist. Out of the room. We’re in the corridor. Her room is there. Number six. They put her on the ground floor. Mobility issues. I push us out of the building through the fire exit. A sharp intake of breath. I lift her. It’s a fireman’s lift. I stay fixed on the car parked on Whitegate Drive, and don’t look right or left, in case someone tries to stop us. ‘There we go,’ I say, fastening her seatbelt. I start the car, and she opens her gooey mouth to speak.
‘How about a ninety-nine?’
I drive us to Market Street. I park illegally. The weather cleared during our great escape. The sun pokes its little finger through the clouds. She walks slightly ahead, excited, ready for her ice cream. She babbles on. ‘What’re you laughing at, mister?’ Nothing, I tell her, I’m just happy. I wonder if this was always the solution. She’s been in her coop for a year, battery farmed, and I did nothing about it until now. Guilt doesn’t cover it. ‘Are you getting a flake?’ she asks. She slows. We’re nearing North Pier. I tell her, no, I just like the ice cream. ‘Of course,’ she moans, ‘like always. Some things don’t change.’ I get my small, black wallet out as we close in on the kiosk. She’s already talking to the vendor. She asks for one ninety-nine and another Mr. Whippy with no flake. We walk onto North Pier with our ice creams, and sit on one of the benches, at the very edge of the world. There’s a pause in the conversation.
I put a hand on hers. She stops licking her ice cream for a moment and holds my eye. I look down to our hands, both wrinkly, more aged than I ever thought they’d be. ‘I just want you to know, I’m sorry.’ She leans in to kiss my cheek. We go back to our ice creams. The sun pokes another finger through the clouds. I’m about to tell her about the kids when she spots something on the beach, far below us. ‘Look,’ she says. ‘A whale.’
For a second, I think the illness has regained its grip on her. But I see it too. She gets to her feet. We’re walking to the beach, down those broad steps, below the Comedy Carpet, and finally we reach the whale. We’re the first people to it. We stand back. She leans on me. A big, black membrane. It’s dead, that’s obvious. I take a step closer to it. So close I could touch it. My wife stands a few paces behind, like a sentinel on Crosby Beach, as I inspect it. I notice a hole where its belly meets the sandy floor. There’s no blood. A clean cut. I bend down, touching my back, which has caused me gyp for years, and slide my head into the hole, to get a good look, to see what we’re dealing with. I hold my breath on entry, but there’s no need. I inhale. The smell is salty, almost pleasant. I recoil as a swarm of flies rush to me. I fall out of the whale’s stomach. My breathing is unsteady, frantic. I scramble to her, but she’s gone.