For a moment I think he’s died and fallen on the floor, but no; he’s on his knees – head and chest on the sideboard. ‘What are you doing?’ I straighten the antimacassar and punch his cushion back into shape. Pick his teacup up off the floor. The clock chimes the hour with a ting. With a sigh I fetch a cloth from the kitchen.
I press the cloth hard on the carpet, watching it soak up the tea.
‘When’s Lily coming? She should have been here by now.’
I look round. He’s still on his knees. ‘Get up, Richard.’
‘She said she was coming.’ He heaves himself up, gripping the edge of the sideboard. ‘Are you sure she’s not coming?’ His sweater is sprinkled with crumbs. There’s a wet patch on his trousers where he’s spilled the tea.
I wonder if he’s scalded himself again. ‘Look at the state of you.’
He starts on a doddery walk towards me, but I don’t reach out to steady him.
‘What time is it?’ His words tumble out in a low mumble.
I don’t need to look at the clock. It’s only just nine. Before he falls, I take his hand. ‘Let’s get you changed.’
‘What are you doing?’ says Richard.
‘Nothing. I’m just dusting.’
I look at the carriage clock in my hand. A ruby anniversary present from Lily. Richard loves it. ‘Do you want another cup of tea?’ I put the clock back on the mantelpiece.
‘Aye, love.’ Richard rests back in the chair and closes his eyes. For a minute I watch the slow, endless rise and fall of his chest. Counterpoint to the quick tick of the clock.
Over the noise of the kettle I hear him shuffling down the hall. Listen to him trying the door handle. The noise of the rattling chain is swallowed by the growl of the kettle. I wait till the water boils.
‘Open up. I’m going to be late for work.’ His voice is rough, like the old days.
I fill the teapot before I go to him. It’s cold in the hallway and for a second I think he’s opened the door, but the lock has held.‘Come and get your tea, Richard.’
He turns and looks at me and I know what he’s going to say.
‘Come on.’ I grab his arm.
‘Someone’s locked the door, Lil.’
‘Pick your feet up, Richard.’ I steer him by the elbow back to the lounge. I think it must be the fourth time this morning.
‘Here’s your chair.’ On automatic pilot, I straighten the cushion. ‘Sit down and be quiet for five minutes.’
The teacup chinks on the table. There’s dribble on his chin that I scrape away with a tissue. ‘Now drink your tea.’
The carriage clock chimes. Ten o’clock. Shopping. I watch him for a moment, sipping his tea. Tiny, baby sips. It won’t take long.
‘Will cheese and pickle do, Richard?’
I glance round, checking he’s still sitting at the table. He’s twisting the edge of the tablecloth.
I slice off the crusts and cut the sandwich into four small squares.
‘There you are.’
He begins to pluck at his napkin, finding a loose thread before I have to take it off him. Then his hands flit about, skimming the table until he comes across the plate and picks up a sandwich.
I focus on the tablecloth, counting the roses that repeat themselves over and over, trying not to hear the chunks of pickle fall onto his plate or the clicking of his jaw or his loud and raspy breath. The sugar-sweet chime of that damned carriage clock carries through from the lounge. He coughs and sprays me with crumbs.
‘For god’s sake, Richard.’
He looks up and his face is slack, empty. A slime of pickle sits on his chin, trapped in the cut from when I shaved him this morning. His jaw works like a gormless puppet, but he says nothing.
I feel a bit sick and push my plate away. ‘Just eat your lunch, Richard.’
He's been asleep for almost an hour. I’ll make a start on the tea, put the chops in the oven. Peel some spuds. It’s nearly dark.
I have to dig out an eye. Deep and almost black.
‘Lil?’ He shuffles through the kitchen door, looks around the room. ‘Where’s Lil?’
I slice the potatoes into chunks. The knife lands hard on the chopping board, sending judders up my arm.
He takes a step towards me. ‘Joan?’
My name sounds strange coming out of his mouth. Stale. Sour. He doesn’t form the word properly. I start on the carrots.
‘Joan?’ He stands close and I can smell him. Toothpaste and talc. I turn my head away. The water’s boiling. I drop the potatoes into the pan.
I focus on chopping and slicing. My muscles quiver with the effort.
He grabs my free arm.
I can see his warped reflection in the blade of the knife. ‘What is it?’
I look at him. His eyes are wet. His lips move silently as he tries to speak. Saliva pools in the pouch of his bottom lip.
‘For god’s sake, Richard, I’m busy.’
He leans closer, tightening his grip, and looks right into my face. He sucks in his spittle and swallows.
I try to pull away. The stupid carriage clock pings.
‘I...’ He swallows again and turns his head. ‘I can’t remember.’
It’s still dark. A few seconds pass before I realise what’s wrong: Richard is up. I lay still and listen to him banging around downstairs. I know I’ll have to get up, but it’s cold and I stay a bit longer.
As usual, he’s put on all the lights. I follow his path and switch them all off again. I know he’ll be in the lounge. As usual, he’s on all fours, emptying the sideboard. Photo albums and the telephone directory are laid on top of my best placemats. A box of chocolates I’ve been saving is crumpled under his knees.
‘Richard. It’s four in the morning.’
He continues to search, pulling out old knitting magazines that I never look at anymore.
He must be cold. He’s forgotten to put on his dressing gown. I never know if he’s sleepwalking or if he’s really awake.
I reach down and shake him. ‘Richard.’
‘Where is it? I can’t find it.’
‘Richard, you need to come back to bed.’
He sits up and looks round. He’s forgotten his glasses too; I can see he’s struggling to focus on me. He looks at the sideboard, then back at me. ‘Where’s Lil?’
‘She’s dead, Richard.’ I’m cold too and want to get back to sleep. I grip his elbow and yank him to his feet.
‘No more nonsense now.’ I look at the mess he’s made. It’ll have to wait till morning. I shiver.
‘Get a move on, Richard.’
I push him on to the first step. My wrists crack as I shove against his back. He’s heavy. Too much for me.
It takes me ages to get him to sit him down on his bed. ‘Get your legs in. You'll catch your death.’ I have to press him back into his pillow. ‘Go to sleep.’
He gropes my hand. ‘Joan?’
In the half-light I see tears run down his face. It’s his medication does that.
‘What is it?’
His grip tightens and my wedding ring presses hard against my finger. I hear his knuckles grinding. ‘Please...’ He sobs and it makes me think of Lily as a child, her heart broken over a lost toy.
I purse my lips for a moment. Then I’m all right. ‘Go to sleep, Richard.’
I release his grip and put out the light.