OK ... back to Debbie's perspective, again ...
It was an old building, but it had been looked after with some care. In fact, as hospitals go, it had a sort of reassuring solidity, Edwardian brickwork providing a sombre background to the constant bustle of staff and patients, and the technology and infrastructure more recently bolted on. And there was a lot of technology around ... a ventilator, portable ultrasound, more beeping machines that I could not begin to identify.
Even as I surveyed the scene, sipping a plastic cup of too hot, bitter coffee that someone had given me, I found my detachment disconcerting. Of course, I had always known it would come to this ... known that at some point I would find myself in a hospital, surrounded by technology and trying not to get in the way of staff who were ...
Staff who were trying to save the life of a man I loved.
We had had, that detached inner self told me, a wonderful few days. We'd gone to Rye, in East Sussex, where we'd first spent a weekend together (Phil joking that the hills would give his wheelchair a proper work out) and then on to Ribblesdale, where he'd been a boy scout. Climbing trees and crags, I thought, running and playing with other fit, healthy young people. I wanted to give god a good kicking, I wanted to ... I wanted to roll back the clock, for this not to have happened, for this not to be happening.
But it was. Phil's tumour had finally broached the last healthy bit of his spinal cord, more abruptly than anyone had predicted. He was alive, conscious, to an extent, might even have been able to speak if it weren't for the tubes. I'd given the staff a copy of his Living Will - he had no desire to live on machines only until his autonomous functions gave up the ghost - and what they were now doing was, really, pretty much palliative care. He knows what's going on, I thought, so just give him the coup de grace But that, of course, would be illegal. So I stroked his hair, tried to keep in his field of vision - could he still see with the drugs he'd been given? No one could tell me. I tried not to break down completely.
Finally, a nurse and a doctor took me to one side, the nurse experienced and kindly, the doctor young and frightened. It was the nurse who spoke.
"I'm afraid, Ms Jensen, that its over. Mr O'Hare is dead."
For a moment, I stared aghast at Phil - at his corpse, some part of me put in - not recognising the change. But, no, there it was - there was no light in his eyes. The man I'd loved, the man I'd wanted to father my children, the man ... was dead. I put the coffee cup down somewhere, looked around a room grown suddenly strange ... and didn't cry.
I felt, in fact, entirely vacant. I felt like a large part of me, the feeling, sensitive, caring part of me had been removed with a scalpel. I dealt with some official stuff almost routinely - Phil had been a committed supporter of organ donation - then I found myself outside, roll up in hand, with no clear idea of where I was, how I'd got there.
I think I sat there for some time. Actually, I know I sat there for some time. A nurse came and sat beside me after a while, gave me a roll up, didn't speak, just sat there with me. I don't know how he knew that that was what I needed.
Eventually, I got up. I couldn't face going back to the hotel I'd been staying in with Phil, so I wandered into town, found another, checked in. I was carrying a lot of Essentials - incontinence pads, skin salves, all the accoutrements of life with a paraplegic - so maybe my lack of other luggage didn't raise an eyebrow. Or maybe it was the platinum card that smoothed the way. Whatever, I got a room, collapsed on the bed fully dressed ... and fell soundly asleep.
I woke feeling smelly and crumpled but in control, somehow. I knew I had stuff to do - give Phil's family the news, get in contact with Work, sort out where I went next. What I did was eat a really bad hotel breakfast - I was ravenous, I discovered - and then sit on a park bench for a while. Realistically, I needed to head for the station and the London train; in the interim I was quite content just sitting there in the late autumn sun. I knew I needed to phone people, though, so I fished out the mobile and stared at it. Somehow, it just didn't feel appropriate to call Dave - and in any case I could easily imagine just how busy he must be. So I stared at the thing for a while.
And then I called May from CareSpan.
I know I went back to our hotel, picked up luggage, paid the bill, did stuff in town and finally got on a train, changing, I assume, in Leeds, and eventually got back to London. I don't remember any of it. Not a thing. Except that I found myself walking down a platform at Kings Cross, even then only vaguely aware of the crowds of people amongst me, the various obstacles and obstructions that always seem to be scattered about ... I was moving on autopilot, most of my mind having simply switched off for the duration.
A hand touched my arm, gently, then more assertively as I seemed to fail to notice ... or to stop, as I apparently should have done. I looked around, startled out of my reverie ... and found myself looking at May, looking at me with kindly concern. For a moment, I didn't recognise her, then I found that I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I must have stood staring at her for a few seconds, as people jostled and shoved past us, and then I began to cry, very softly. She took me in her arms and hugged me.
It was about half an hour later, by which time I was sitting on the sofa at May's home, sipping from a cup of camomile tea, before things began to coalesce into some semblance of normality. I'd stopped crying in the taxi - it was never really a big thing, more a way to relieve the pressure in my skull rather than any outpouring of grief. I knew that would come - I had been preparing for this for months, of course - but I didn't know when. For the moment, I was aware only of that horrible sense of detachment and an odd hyper sensitivity to the taste of the tea ... which was vile, of course, being organic and caffeine free ... and the light touch of May's hand on my thigh. What I was supposed to do, what was expected of me ... I hadn't a clue.
I felt that I could have sat like that for months, but May gently pulled me out of my self-absorption, quietly but firmly reminding me that there were practical things I had to do. Which included, of course, phoning Phil's family - his brother and his parents - and apologising for giving them the news so belatedly, then contacting the Hospital to let them know that his parents would be making the funeral arrangements and would be in contact to arrange collection of the body, and to formally register the death. I had a number of Phil's friends who needed to know, too, but May took the phone away from me and simply asked me to tell her who they were so that she could call them.
"Debbie," she said, almost in a whisper, "you look terrible ... which is OK and not exactly surprising ... but why don't you take a rest ... have a shower, maybe get some sleep ... there are clean sheets in the spare room..." I nodded dumbly ... I was, I realised, exhausted.
"I don't have any clean clothes, I'm afraid ... I couldn't face bringing all Phil's clothes back here so I gave most of them to a charity shop before I got on the train ... and then I realised that all the clothes I had with me were ones he particularly liked - or had bought for me - and I couldn't imagine wearing them again ... so I gave them away, too." I felt a sudden wave of despair sweep over me, but May just hugged me briefly, said reassuring things and finally manoeuvred me towards the bedroom.
"You get undressed, I'll find you a robe and a towel, then sort out some of my stuff that might not look too ridiculous on you ... even if you are twenty centimetres taller than me. Then later on I can go over to your place, if you like, pick up whatever you need from there."
This sounded sensible to me, as I let myself be sat on the edge of the bed, May busying herself with removing my shoes, and there was a definite relief in not having to contemplate going home myself. And I was utterly exhausted ...
I woke a few hours later, I guessed - it was dark outside, anyway - and lay listening to May bustling around elsewhere in the house. I thought she was cooking - it certainly smelt like she was cooking - but I simply lay and stared at the ceiling for a time. I knew there were loads of things I had to do, some of them quite urgent, but I couldn't face any of them at present. I might have lain there for ever, I thought, but for the inevitable biological necessities ... which got me up soon enough.
My own clothes were nowhere to be seen, but I found that May had left me a robe of thin pale grey silk beside the bed, so I wrapped that around me - it was warm enough in a pleasantly heated house - and went in search of a toilet. Which turned out to be just across the landing and, in the English manner, absolutely bloody freezing. Like, really, really cold. Even my very brief visit left me shivering, goose-pimples all down my arms ... I pulled the gown more tightly around me, and ran into May, bearing a cup of tea, as I crossed the landing.
"Ah, you're awake," she said cheerfully. "I thought you might be hungry, so there's food ready when you are ... and of course a cup of tea ... you look like you could do with warming up ..."
I was still shivering slightly, but I didn't think it was all that noticeable ... and perhaps it wasn't: I realised that May wasn't quite looking me in the eye ... and in fact was clearly taking in the sight of my cold hardened nipples, only too visible through the thin material. Which was a little disconcerting ... but I was the guest ... and well trained by years of corporate life ... so I ignored it, thanked her for the tea and followed her downstairs to eat.
She'd prepared a lamb casserole (had I really been asleep that long, I wondered?), which was excellent, and we drank some wine with it, helping me at least to relax. I was still feeling numb but I was at least more observant ... my clothes - obviously freshly washed - drying in front of a radiator, for one thing, and May's not overly subtle checking out of my breasts as we ate for another. Live and let live, I thought, quite consciously deciding not to get upset by it ... it was hardly the first time I'd been ogled, though rarely by another woman ... and never at all by another woman in her own home while dressed in little more than a silk sheet. Maybe it was the wine but I began to feel more comfortable with the situation ... and to get less careful in keeping the robe (bought for May's more ample figure) entirely closed as I helped gather the dirty dishes and as we moved through to the sitting room.
Another glass of wine went down well and I began to feel tired again. I knew I should call Dave - let him know what was happening, that I was going to need more time away, if only to sort out the practicalities - and the even more organised side of my mind was already making lists of things that needed to be done with banks and building societies, probate lawyers and similar. At the moment, though, what I really wanted was a shower - even in that iceberg of a bathroom - so I asked May if that would be OK.
"Of course," she smiled, "But use the en suite one in my room - it'll be a hell of a lot warmer than the main bathroom."
So I did. And by this time, I wasn't entirely surprised that May followed me upstairs, again, fussing around her bedroom finding towels and things, a process that seemed to take an inordinate amount of time, given that they were - as I'd have expected - all neatly stored in a drawer. OK, I thought ... so this is not just about her being helpful,any more than her choice of a particularly clingy robe for me was utilitarian - I could see a couple of much less revealing (and warmer) robes hanging in the bathroom. So I decided to take the bull by the horns, so to speak. I'm not usually so assertive, nor had I drunk enough for that to be an excuse. Maybe I was still in some sort of shock from Phil's death - well, undoubtedly I was, but maybe that also meant that I needed to keep things OK with May more than I might normally have done. In any case, I don't have a problem with my body and don't have a problem with being looked at - providing I have a choice about it.
So I stopped her rifling through the towel pile, took the perfectly adequate one that she'd just put down from her and sat her down on the bed.
"Stop fussing," I said, "I may be taller than you but not so much so that I need a special towel for god's sake." She started to apologise, reddening as she did so - OK, confirmation, I thought - but I went on. "Anyway - I couldn't help but notice that you've been paying quite a lot of -umm - visual attention to me in this rather diaphanous gown and now you seem to be planning on following me into the shower." Again, she started to protest, again I stopped her. "Which is OK - well, maybe not the shower bit, I actually want to get clean rather than provide entertainment - but if you want to see me naked, that's OK ... I don't mind. You just have to ask, OK - I'm not into girls myself but you're a friend, you've been very kind, its no big deal."
Her reaction came as something of a surprise ... she went an even deeper red, sitting there with a look on her face I hadn't seen since I'd said something similar to my first boyfriend quite a few years ago. Which is to say that she stared at me with a kind of rapt attention ... and then jerked her head almost involuntarily. Odd behaviour in a forty something woman, I thought ... but I guessed I could take it as a compliment ... and as an implicit request.
So I took the robe off.
I did get the shower, incidentally, leaving May sitting on the bed in a sort of catatonic state while I did so - I swear she hadn't moved when I came back into the bedroom, wrapped discretely in a bath sheet. She sort of jerked into motion when I asked if I could borrow a hair drier, found me one and then continued to sit and watched me as I went through the process of drying my hair. In fact, she continued to watch me so avidly that before long I let the towel fall to the floor and finished the process sitting naked in front of her. I'd never really thought of blow drying your hair as an erotic experience, before, but I had to admit that I was enjoying the attention. Or was it the power?
Hair done, I picked up the towel as I stood up but May looked so disappointed that I threw it at her rather than wrapping it around me again. Instead, I looked down at her, still sitting at one the bed, still not saying anything ... but at least looking at my face, for a change. I laughed at the absurdity of the situation, told her about the boyfriend and how comparable her reaction had been to a fifteen year old boy's.
"Although," I continued, "at least you haven't started wanking ... or immediately asked me to put on various strange items of clothing. On the down side, though, you haven't attempted to ply with me drink and if I'm going to stand here stark naked all night I might as well have another glass of wine. Its thirsty work, this."
Another advantage of adults over spotty youths, of course, is that they are more able to take a hint and so May scuttled off downstairs ... interestingly, leaving me alone in her bedroom. Somehow I didn't think I was expected to follow and, anyway, I couldn't remember how exposed her sitting room was - and I had no intention of posing for any random passers by in the street. Instead, I sat on the bed, idly reaching out for a magazine from the pile on her bedside table.
Which meant that May returned with a fresh bottle of wine and a couple of glasses, muttering something about not being able to find the corkscrew ... to find me flipping through the pages of some highly explicit lesbian porn. Which was educational, I felt - hell I didn't know you could physically do some of those postures - but might have been embarrassing ... if I hadn't been sitting stark naked on a bed, waiting for a woman who was clearly highly aroused by my being in such a state. I smiled sweetly at her and she blushed again, handing me a glass of wine and whipping the magazine away in almost a single motion. I took her hand, sat her down beside me and looked her in the eye.
"Are you OK about this? I mean, you know I'm not going to have sex with you, don't you, so while I have to admit that I'm quite enjoying this - its sure as hell a distraction - I also don't want to be some sort of clit teaser ... so ... I'll get dressed now if you'd prefer."
She shook her head, violently - that fifteen year old, again, I thought - and literally stammered a response.
"No ... please don't ... I think you have a really beautiful body ... you know you have a really beautiful body ... and I really like being here with you, like this, looking at you like this ... But also I don't want to take advantage of you ... you must know that I'll be masturbating about this experience for ages to come and frankly it wouldn't take much to make me rip my clothes off and start right now, right in front of you."
She looked frightened that she'd gone too far - I certainly had no idea how to react to what she'd just said - but then recovered herself enough to smile sheepishly. "On the other hand, I think I can guarantee not to produce lingerie or hosiery for you to try on any time soon ..."
I laughed at that, too, gave her a spontaneous hug, pulled her down onto the bed with me. Where we lay in a chaste embrace. Well, mine was chaste ... I was aware of her hand stroking my back, the other on my bum, fingers just lightly brushing the crack between my cheeks. Despite myself, I did find it erotic - it had been long enough since I'd been so physically close to another human being (well, one capable of actual movement, my mind put in hurtfully) and ... I'm human too. But not lesbian. Bit of a bugger, that, in the circumstances.
I rolled away at that thought, took a sip of wine, stared at the ceiling. May also sipped at her glass, looked at me closely and kept a tactful silence. I didn't take long to reach a decision - or for the decision to make itself - and so I suggested to May that she might be more comfortable naked, too. She looked at me quizzically.
"No ... sorry ... I haven't changed my mind ... I'm still not going to have sex with you. But I would like to sleep with you ... at least, I don't want to go and sleep on my own, not tonight ... but I don't think it would be fair to suggest to you that we simply ignore the fact that you're so obviously aroused ... so I think you should do whatever you need to do to calm down a bit. Which might involve you getting undressed, too - or at least the going to sleep bit probably will, I'd have thought, so ..."
She looked bemused, this time, lips moving silently as she worked through the implications. Finally, she said, "You want me to masturbate, here? Now? In front of you?"
I shrugged. "Well, it seems a bit childish for me to step outside for a while - or for you to disappear into the bathroom or wherever - when we both know what you're doing ... and both know that you'll probably be thinking of me when you do it. And I don't mind ... honestly. Anyway, I've never seen another woman do anything of the sort so ... you never know, I might pick up some tips."
I smiled my best reassuring smile, wondering if she could tell that I was also excited by the idea of watching her ... and by the power it represented. God knows I'd had men lust after me in the past, been the source of sexual fascination for lovers - and a variety of creeps and misfits as well - but I didn't think I'd ever had anyone this much in thrall ... simply by taking a robe off.
Sensibly, she didn't say anything at all, just sat up and looked at me. I switched the smile to 'encouraging' and nodded at her ... and she began to get undressed, sitting on the bed, then thought better of it and stood up, standing in the middle of the room facing me. As ever, she was practically dressed - a man's lumberjack shirt over a t-shirt, jeans - but she managed to make divesting herself of it all distinctly sensual, obviously sensing my excitement despite my strenuous efforts not to show it, and came back to the bed wearing nothing but a lilac bra and panties. They complimented her silver hair and pale complexion nicely, I thought, as she sat down beside me and asked if I was still OK with her continuing.
This time I gave the staccato nod - my mouth suddenly too dry to say anything - and she quickly unclipped the bra, pulled off the pants. She turned to look at me, staring straight into my eyes, daring me, I felt, to look away. Look away, of course, I did ... she had really nice breasts, I saw, a muscular midriff and ... a busily active hand in her pubes. I watched for a while, listened, too and then ... I joined in.
Which is to say, I shoved my own hand into my own bits and did what needed to be done, still intently watching as May reached a great, screaming, convulsive orgasm just beside me. At which point I reached my own ... a long, plateau like affair, terribly discreet, not so much a climax as an emotional release ... and started crying.
Really crying ... floods of tears, racking sobs, the works. Everything that had happened over the past few days ... weeks ... years ... came back and hit me like the proverbial brick. I was aware of May beside me, only too aware of what we'd just done together, but I was also in a world of my own, sinking into the well of grief that I knew had to come at some point, shuddering and sobbing as I began to realise that everything I'd known for years really had ended, that I was on my own ... had to face up to it.
Only not quite alone. May, presumably still in her own endorphin heaven, simply wrapped herself around me, said nice, reassuring things. My tears soaked her shoulder, tears, phlegm, mucus ... she held me tight, rocked me gently.
And so we fell asleep.
I woke with a sense of urgency sometime later, looked at the clock ... fumbled around for the mobile that was always just beside the bed ... realised that I wasn't at home. Sat up to find May looking down at me in the pale glimmer of the street lights through the thin curtains.
"You want a phone?" she said, simply. I nodded, explained that I needed to phone Dave - couldn't face having to explain again that I'd delayed an important phone call, make the excuses that I - a competent person, dammit - should never have to make ...
She smiled, knowingly, pointed out that he was in the Lakes, outside mobile coverage, gave me the number of the hotel he was staying at. So I phoned there - her phone - but no joy. He was away for the evening, they said ... would be back tomorrow ... would I like to leave a message?
I declined, a small part of me wondering whether there was some sort of problem ... whether the dickhead had managed to screw up in my absence, in fact ... but I put the thought to one side, phoned his mobile after all.
No answer, so I left a message.
"Hi, Dave ... its Debbie ... sorry to phone you so late, but there are things you ought to know ..."