A Cautionary Tale for Valentine's Weekend
Till Death Us do Part
by Maggie Davies
I wrapped my arms around Neil and kissed the top of his head. His hair might be the colour of fresh snow these days, but he was far from an old man.
'We could die together,' I said. 'Fly to Switzerland. Have a brief holiday. Then finish up in that special clinic they've got over there.'
'Don't be bloody ridiculous.' His face flushed and he pushed me away. He'd always been short-tempered and the last few months had been a strain.
'I'm serious, sweetheart.' I moved to sit opposite him. 'I couldn't bear to go on without you.'
'You're insane, Beth. You're still a young woman. In perfect health.'
'You're only sixty. That's nothing these days.'
'I mean it, Neil.' I placed my hand over his. 'If you really mean to kill yourself, I'll throw myself under a train.'
'Then I can't do it, can I?' A muscle in his cheek twitched. 'I'll turn into a vegetable and make both our lives a misery. Is that what you want, you silly woman?'
'No,' I said. That wasn't what I wanted at all.
The whole thing started after Geoff's wife died. Madeline had been failing for years and, living next door, we'd seen the hell they went through in her final months. Her deterioration had been particularly depressing for Neil, who'd been reading stuff on the internet about dementia sometimes being hereditary.
'It's like Dad, all over again,' he'd said, with a shudder. 'If I ever get like that, I want you to finish me off. Take the carving knife to me. Promise?'
His father's flat smelled. The bathroom, in particular, stank. It took a while for Neil to find out why. The poor old chap knew where he was supposed to go to urinate. But he'd forgotten what to do when he got there and simply peed all over the carpet. It was humiliating for everybody. When he finally died it had been a relief.
'A meat cleaver would be more dramatic,' I'd said, trying to lighten the mood. 'Though messier.'
It became a sick joke between us. Nothing serious. Then, over a few months, things changed dramatically. Neil had always mislaid keys and spectacles. I did myself, but he became incapable of finding anything. I put a wooden fruit bowl on the kitchen dresser and suggested he use that as a collection point, but whenever he went there for something, it was empty.
'I'm losing the plot, aren't I?' he grumbled one day, after finally locating his house keys in the drawer where we kept the electrical leads. 'Why the hell would I put them in there? My brain is turning into Swiss cheese.'
'All seventy-year-olds mislay things.' I gave him a hug. 'Tomorrow I'll buy some vitamins. That might help.'
Several days later he accosted me in the greenhouse, looking as if he didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
'Why were my spectacles in the fridge?'
'Whatever are you talking about?'
'My bloody bifocals were in our refrigerator. On top of the Flora.' He slapped the side of his head with his hand, as if to knock sense into it. 'I'm going bloody barmy, aren't I?'
'Sweetheart. we all do crazy things. Remember when I started to reverse the car out of the garage? With the up-and-over door still closed?'
'That's true. There's still that scratch on the boot.' He looked relieved, but not much.
However, days later, I glanced out of the kitchen window and said: 'The bin, darling. It's Thursday. Did you forget to put it out?'
Neil glanced up from The Independent. It's okay, I did it when I got back from the newsagents. Before I raked up those dead leaves at the bottom of the garden.'
'So where is it, then?'
He abandoned the paper and joined me at the window. 'Damned if I know. Maybe the bin men emptied it and then stuck it next door by mistake.'
They hadn't, of course. It was where it always was, behind the shed. Still full.
'You meant to do it,' I said, when he eventually came back inside. 'Sometimes I mean to clean the oven, but then conveniently forget. Probably because it's a chore.'
Neil paced up and down, like an animal in a trap. 'But it's not just the bin. Is it? I lost my electric razor yesterday. and my credit cards the day before. Then I left the bathroom tap running last night when I went to bed. I've no idea what I'm going to do next. It's like living in a nightmare.'
'You're preoccupied, that's all. Though maybe you should see the doctor.'
'I'm damned if I want to be asked what day of the week it is.'
'And what day is it?'
'Thursday. September the 25th.'
'There you are, my love. You're fine.'
The days dragged on until Geoff wandered in through the kitchen door one morning, as he often did, with some runner beans from his garden.
'I could do with my mower back, if that's okay,' he said to Neil.
'You know. Mechanical thingy that cuts grass and makes a godawful racket? That you borrowed from me at the weekend?'
Neil's fists clenched. 'I was planning to come over and ask you for it. Tomorrow.'
'But you've already got it, old man. That's why I need it back.' There was am awkward pause. 'Okay,' continued Geoff, looking embarrassed. 'Tell you what, you hang onto it and return it whenever it's convenient.'
'But I don't have it,' Neil protested, looking at me. 'Do I?'
'It's in the shed,' I said, avoiding his eye.
There was a silence, before Geoff slapped Neil on the back in a not-very-convincing show of bonhomie. 'Not to worry. I missed the dentist last month. He still charged me for the appointment, though. Grasping bugger.'
The incident hit Neil hard. 'I told you I was getting like Dad,' he said. 'This proves it.'
I wasn't sure what to say, so I kept silent. Instead I put my arms around his waist, buried my face in his scratchy cardigan, and gave him a hug.
'I'd rather be six foot under than lose my dignity,' he murmured into my hair, sounding close to tears.
'At least get a proper diagnosis,' I urged. 'What if you're wrong?'
'What would be the point? There's no cure, is there?' He extracted himself from my grasp and looked me in the eye. 'I need to take matters into my own hands, while I still can. I could deteriorate rapidly. Like Dad. That's what scares me. Leaving it too late.'
'Don't talk like that, Neil. Please. I can't bear it.'
'You'll manage. People do. Look at old Geoff.'
'I refuse to talk about it.'
'But we must. Plans must be made.' He took my hand in his, and kissed it. 'I need you to understand, Beth. It would break my heart if you didn't.'
'I understand perfectly,' I said. 'I just don't agree.'
'Of course you don't. But you will support me? Please?'
'You mean, hand you a bottle full of pills?'
'And get yourself in trouble with the law? Assisted suicide is a crime. I couldn't bear to involve you in anything like that. And that Swiss clinic business raises too many legal questions, never mind the cost.' He kissed my hand again. 'But I've done some research on the internet. If I steer my car into that dirty great wall by the railway bridge, at speed, my worries should be over before I know anything about it. Especially if I choose a wet night and neglect to wear my seat belt. That way, the life insurance people shouldn't ask awkward questions.'
'Oh, Neil. Don't talk like that. I've got my pension. And it's you I need.'
'A fat lot of good your pension will do you. Just think of all the money I've shelled out over the years. They owe me.' He stroked my arm. 'You deserve some happiness after I'm gone. I refuse to leave you hard up, as well as alone.'
'Please, sweetheart,' I begged. 'Don't do this. I'll look after you, whatever happens. We promised, remember? For better or worse.'
'Not another word, Beth. My mind's made up. We'' go away somewhere for a second honeymoon. Then come home, and I'll do it.'
When the time finally came, Neil and I kissed goodbye at the door before he headed to the car. We were both crying. Then I watched him drive off at speed into the night. Losing him like this would be terrible, but he was right: life would go on.
I went back inside, made myself a mug of strong tea and picked up the 'phone to dial Geoff's number. It had taken us months of planning to get to this.
'Neil's just left, darling,' I said, when he answered. 'As soon as the traffic police knock on my door, I'll know we're free.'
This cautionary tale won the Henshaw Press Short Story award some years back and was included in their fund-raising anthology.