Mortality, by Fran Read

They lie side by side, sheets pulled up tight to their chins. Twin butterbeans, their skin papery and wrinkled. In the failing light of the previous afternoon, she had listened as her husband's breathing rasped and clicked and eventually, painfully, stopped. She had knocked the receiver to the floor in her haste to dial for help, fingers fumbling on the old-style twist dial. Again and again she'd wound in the numbers until it had sunk in that the receiver was dead, the dim burr of the tone curtailed. And then she remembered that she hadn't had a call for, what? Days? Weeks? The phone sat ugly and useless, plastic gleaming balefully in the gloom. If she'd had any strength left she'd have gone to the window and cried for help, although she knew she was too weak to lift the heavy sash. Maybe someone would have seen her, pale against the dark, mouthing guppy-like and frantic. A madwoman, they'd have thought.

How long was it since she'd ventured out of the room? Out of bed, even? Her hands fluttered at her neck, brushed nervously at the covers. Once neatly tucked and folded they hung loose and heavy over their bodies. She'd ridden the polyester wave, sparks and all, and had been grateful to sink back into the cool clutches of cotton. She remembered going down to the kitchen to heat some soup and she'd tripped on the step carrying the bowls back up. She'd fallen and she couldn't get up, and the glutinous liquid and spattered and scalding. Her husband had been calling to her but he'd been fading then, and she'd lain on the spongy carpet in the hall listening to his complaining and growing fright. It had been all right in the end � she'd hauled herself to her feet, gripping the banister tight and tottered up the stairs. She'd intended to go and clear up later but somehow she'd never managed. A bruise had flowered on her hip where she'd hit the floor and spread like a wine stain down towards her knee. It was still a virulent blue-back and it ached to move. Even when she lay still and quiet she could feel the tenderness. That must have been the last time she'd gone down. The stairs frightened her: her son had promised he'd install a stairmaster to carry her up and down, up and down in relative ease, but it had never appeared. Now she couldn't imagine scaling them, the idea was absurd. Her fingers were crooked and swollen with arthritis and the rail was varnished smooth. She saw herself falling, light as a feather, floating gape-mouthed down the narrow stairwell, tossed and turned by the current of her passage. And the crash and crush at the bottom, bones as frail as a bird's shattering, snapping like kindling. No, for the moment she would stay here, calm and cold and alone.


She was still waiting for him to come back, the son. He'd come round with the fat lump - what was her name? Janet? Sue-anne? Her memory was fading. A Christian name. One of those virtues, she thought. Hope, Faith, Charity. She couldn't remember, so she stayed the lump in her mind. Florida, he'd said. We're going for a holiday, mum. A couple of weeks. While we're out there, we'll have a look at places for you and Pa. You'll like it out there. Hot. Lots of sun. Alligators. And he'd grinned and did a waggling jaw thing with his arms that had made them all laugh. The lump had relatives out there, some from England, some native. They all loved it too. She hadn't been too keen, she thought, as she'd hugged her son goodbye and the lump had dutifully pecked at her cheeks, missing by inches. She was glad of that, actually. The thought of her glistening, pouting lips pressed against her dry old skin made her quaver. Be back soon, she'd murmured. She'd known her husband had been ill but hadn't wanted to spoil things. Her son and his wife, they were so buoyant. She couldn't remember seeing them so happy, fizzing over with excitement, their future writ large in front of them. And they were doing it for them, weren't they? Sacrificing their holiday to go hunting for retirement homes. So dull. Her husband had gripped him by the elbow. Have a great trip, son, he'd said gruffly. He'd looked him right in the eye then, and their son had smiled slickly and patted his father's hand. He'd bounced out the door, the lump mincing behind him. As she'd peered through the distorted glass after them she'd caught glimpses of them loading luggage into the taxi in the son.

There had been a few phonecalls at first, enthusiasm ringing in the voices, brochures sent back detailing the luxe accommodation they could expect. For weeks her dreams had been full of villas and swimming pools and she talked to her husband of golf and the beneficial effects of the humid climate as he wheezed in his old chair, and later in bed. They'd trickled out though, less and less frequent, her son's smooth tones echoing as if from a great distance. He was holding himself back she thought, and castigated herself for being a silly old woman. But in the end they had petered out completely, and a while after that the phone had gone dead. She'd never paid a thought to the finances, to be honest. Her husband had done all that and, when he couldn't manage anymore, with the shiny new accounts and top deals and unlimited credit, the son had taken over. By that time they were both too weak and too proud to ask for help. He'll come back, they told eachother over and over, until she lapsed into silence and he lost heart. She'd counted herself lucky that they kept the cupboards well stocked with cans of soup and beans and various vegetables and tins of sardines. The fresh food had gone, of course, eaten or thrown away once it started to grow thick with mould. The lady who came to do the shopping hadn't turned up and she hadn't had her number and anyway, now the phone was obsolete.


A slash of cool sunlight cuts through the dusty curtains, throwing the dusky pink tea-rose wallpaper into sharp relief. She is still lying there, pressed against the bulk of his cadaver. An electric fire heats the room and intensifies the cloying, sickly smell that she imagines to be decay. She tried to get up the other day. All her pride had drained away and she thought for a moment she could make it out into the street and seek help from her neighbours, from people walking past, from strangers. As she swung her legs stiffly round and hauled her failing body upright she was overwhelmed by a sudden nausea and a wordless horror. Slowly she lay back and closed her eyes, red veins against the frail blackness. Now she lies still, silent. Her eyes are wide and she stares blankly at the ceiling, blind to the damp patches and the spider building its web in the corner over the curtain-rail. From outside floats the faint sound of children playing and laughing and the insistent thud of a ball. Her feet are cold and she rubs them together, repetitive friction and fidget, but the chill remains. She huddles closer, closing in on herself and sinking into the embrace of her husband.