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She takes a cup, just one, from the cupboard above the kettle. The routine has changed and she has had long enough to get used to it now. It has been a long day. It is twenty past one and it has already been a long day.
The kitchen is ordered. Drawers and cupboards are filled. Outside the window the grass is short and the flowers are pruned. A few cherries lie under the tree, the morello variety, too sour to eat. Sheila sees a blackbird dancing across the lawn, as if the sunlight has made the grass too hot to stand on. She drinks her tea. Relief? No, that is too strong a word, too denigrating to their love. But Charles has been dying for so long. The hospital staff know her too well. “I’ll write them a letter,” she thinks. “Not a thank you card but a letter. What is there to thank them for in such a glib way?”
The blackbird bounds under the fir tree and pulls out a fallen cone. It flicks it around on the ground, shaking and spinning it, pauses to glance quickly for danger then repeats the lifting and dropping procedure to loosen any insects lodged inside. The action annoys Sheila. Signs of life. A fervent continuation. She takes her tea and tiredness to the lounge and stands by the window, hearing the clicks and ticks of cooling metal from their car in the driveway. Or rather from his car, his choice of practical hatchback. It’s a staleness she hasn’t noticed before, on the drives to and from his bedside. His death has been coming, has been known and accepted. The future has been hers to consider for weeks, months. A different car, then? How would she go about it? She has blood underneath her fingernails from scratching at bites from mosquitoes and midges.
There are other letters she must write, to banks and savings providers, to the mortgage company, to the gas and electricity companies, insurers, all including a copy of the certificate. It doesn’t intimidate her. She has always been involved with such things. She is ready too for the logistics of death. At the lounge window, with its pelmet and tie-backs, its sill of model tractors, she realises she has been thinking of children: not an old longing but the thought that she could have handed over some of the mundane necessities.
It had been her choice. Charles said he wasn’t bothered, either way. “Those tractors can go,” she thinks. “Was he lying?”
Her clothes smell of the cleanliness of hospitals, as usual. It had become a ritual of bathing, a way to glide in the evenings with an untaxing book, a lack of attention. “Charles is dead,” she thinks. She washes her cup and leaves it on the drainer to dry by itself.
It is too early for a long bath, or too late. She turns on the shower and undresses, inspecting herself in the mirror for indicators of his absence. What marks do sixteen years of marriage leave on a woman? Are there signs in the shapes and curves of her body, in the lines of her arms and shoulders, in her breasts, her stomach, her hips and thighs? Do her eyes and mouth show love, the intertwining of lives, or are they as they would be had she and Charles never met? There is dried blood on her ankles. The bites are ripped, exposed.
The steam makes her feel even more tired. She has been waiting, preparing. Sorrow, if that’s what it is, has passed her by. She finds some trousers from the third drawer down and a loose sweater, loose enough to shake the tiredness off in defiance. A call to action long delayed.
For three hours she storms their castle. First to be exposed is the drawer in the kitchen: his drawer, full of batteries and pens, old takeaway menus, assorted screws and washers, radiator keys, wore for the strimmer, chopsticks, instruction manuals for electrical equipment, matches, coins. As she tips the entire contents into the bin, unsorted, she sees two citronella candles tumble beneath pins and buttons, staples, paperclips.
In the lounge she takes down two paintings of the harbour at Brixham and a photo of Cary Grant but leaves the picture of the windmills of Zante, where they had spent their honeymoon. Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton film collections go into a box for the charity shop, along with the rows of Alistair McLean and John le Carré novels. The dining room yields ornamental figurines of wild animals she had collected, two vases she had once thought pretty, and his briefcase, which she empties into another large box, saved for the occasion. The contents could be collected by someone from his office, if they still wanted them. She nips into the kitchen to write ‘work’ on her list of letters to write, in case she forgets.
The large chestnut dining table he had bought at auction after she fell in love with it still bears his other work papers, a spread of files waiting expectantly for him to return to them. They do not know. Sheila hasn’t told them yet. “You can’t be that urgent,” she says out loud. The sound of her voice surprises her. A home dismantled so quickly, as if she had been a blackbird shaking a fir cone.
She eats. She listens to the radio. She puts an armful of towels in the washing machine, ashamed of the chemical smell of the ward which she seemed to have transferred to them. She rings her mother to tell her the news, wondering what she will do in the morning now that she no longer has the need to drive for forty minutes in her husband’s car.
“For weeks, for months, every night has been the same,” she says. “Is tonight different?”
There is no answer. They say their goodbyes.
She goes to the kitchen to make her bedtime cup of coffee, pours just the right amount of milk into her evening cup and puts it in the microwave. “Charles made this perfectly,” she thinks, “eventually.” She has been preparing for his death for a long time. Without knowing why she ignores the warmed milk and rummages deep in the bin, avoiding drawing pins and fuse wire to find one of the citronella candles. A further search provides a book of matches, The Russian Palace Restaurant, Helsinki. Their anniversary, seven or eight years ago.
The candle smell mixes with the scent of weak coffee. A helicopter flies close overhead. Sheila hears its blades slice the air, pushing and pulling, maintaining altitude in spite of the forces working against it. The sound passes and fades. She wonders where the blackbird is sleeping, whether there are more insects waiting to be shaken free.
As she changes for bed she looks at herself again to see if her skin has altered in the hours since her shower. Was she right to claim with certainty so many times that no one would ever see that skin again, except her doctor and mortician? She strips the bed, throws the extra pillows Charles relied upon and the brown blanket folded at the foot of the bed into the spare room. The morning has hours for them to be discarded more permanently.
Clean sheets. A cream duvet cover with small blue stars and peonies on it. Two cornflower pillow cases. She turns the main light off and lies on her hip facing the lamp, on her usual side of the bed. Her book is easy to read and easy to fall asleep with in her hand. She turns the page with her thumb, rubs her head deeper into the pillow, and reaches down without thinking to scratch at the bites of her widow ankle.