Winter Of Love

Entry by: macdonald

25th November 2016
Arthur’s stroke has been massive and there is no hope. He is transferred to the local cottage hospital for terminal care.
They prop him up on pillows and his hairless, liver spotted head, flops back. He has a shrivelled, scrawny neck and a hooked nose which reminds the nurse of the buzzard she’d seen on a nature documentary. His breathing is rapid and the bubbling sound of fluid soaking his lungs can be heard from the end of his bed. A pulse oximeter attached to his thumb bleeps so rapidly the sound is almost continuous.
‘Patient unconscious,’ she writes on the chart.
The hospital’s most popular doctor assesses Arthur. His warm bedside manner and natural humour are superfluous in the circumstances.
‘Not for resuscitation,’ is recorded formally in the medical record. All medicines are stopped except intravenous fluids and morphine as required.
His wife arrives in the afternoon, despite the havoc caused by an unexpected snowfall. Almost as old as Arthur, she leans heavily on a stick and has a curved spine, visible through her coat.
She knows where he is instinctively and reaching the bedside first pushes the wheeled IV stand back to the wall, then levers down the metal sides which have been raised to stop Arthur falling out of bed. She carefully places an orange plastic chair as close as she can to her husband’s head. Her flushed face, with its hurriedly applied lipstick has a yearning, anxious look. Perhaps it’s the scent of her lilac perfume but before she speaks she hears the bleep of the pulse oximeter slowing and sees his moist eyes flicker open.
‘I’m here now, love,’ she whispers in his ear, and his lips part slightly. As she tells him her news, she strokes his arm, then his temple and his face contorts into a lop-sided grin.
She accepts a cup of tea from an auxiliary and lifts out a few ‘get well’ cards and a photograph in a silver frame from her handbag. She positions these carefully on the bedside locker, then kisses his cheek and takes his hand in hers. The ward staff can hear her whispering and sometimes giggling nervously as she chatters to him. When the night staff come on duty she is persuaded to leave. As there are no buses running and she doesn’t drive she walks three miles home in the dark.
Next day she arrives when visiting time starts. From her hand-bag she produces a tape recorder and earphones. It’s a recording of the song they danced too on the night they met.
The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold
It’s obvious to Mary that he is enjoying the music. As she squeezes his hand, the bubbling sound from his chest quietens.
A commotion begins in the synapses of the deepest most primitive part of Arthur’s ravaged brain.
The smell of wet pavement, the sound of a cab door closing, the taste of a Woodbine on his lips. His half-closed eyes vaguely register the ceiling strip lights of the ward but what he sees are the flashing neon lights above the entrance to the Palais de Danse. Instead of hand sanitizing gel and over-bleached sheets he can smell Silvikrin hairspray and floor polish.
He inhales the cigarette smoke and races through the entrance ahead of his pals. Glitter-balls hanging from the ceiling light up a vast sumptuous cavern. At the far side of the oblong hall a burst of tuning emanates from the resident band, Harry Gold and his Pieces of Eight. He spins to his left and sprints up the staircase, selecting a table from which he can lean over the balcony rail to scan the maple floor below. A group of young women are dancing silently in a line, like footballers, warming up before kick-off.
When his mates catch up, he pulls out a comb and gives his dark, well-oiled locks another run through, then pulls at the turn-ups of his drain-pipe trousers.
‘You’re keen tonight, Arthur,’ one of them says. The Palais fills quickly, groups of unattached girls gathering downstairs to the left, couples mostly to the right, the boys upstairs, to buy drinks and spot the talent from above. By eight o’clock, when the band plays its signature tune, a Nat King Cole number, ‘Autumn Leaves’ two thousand young people are inside.
One by one his mates spot someone they like and disappear downstairs. Arthur is last to descend and joins in a Stroll with a redhead called Sadie, then approaches a petite, shy girl called Margaret, who turns out to be an energetic, Jitterbug dancer. He retreats back upstairs to buy another drink. The table top is sticky with spilt beer and the ashtrays are overflowing with cigarette butts.
The Saturday lottery is announced over the loudspeakers and everyone pulls out tickets. First prize is a trip for two to the new West End musical. His ticket is the wrong colour, but when second prize is called he yells in triumph and rushes downstairs. But a fair-haired girl is on stage already, clutching an identical winning ticket. After a moment of confusion, Harry Gold announces that Arthur and Mary have agreed to share the bottle of champagne. She and two of her girlfriends follow him upstairs and with much winking and grinning from his mates he and Mary are seated together at an empty table. As the others pair off and return to the dance floor, Arthur pops the cork and it flies over the balcony rail to bounce off a dancer’s head below.
‘I’ve never tasted champagne,’ Mary says, before sipping some of the bubbling liquid and giggling. When they dance a Cha-Cha together, the spotlight picks them out and his feet and hips move smoothly to the Cuban rhythm for once. Doing the Lindsey-Hop, stray wisps of Mary’s hair brush against his neck.
The lights are extinguished for the last dance. Arthur pulls Mary close and she doesn’t push him away. A smell of lilacs emanates from her skin as they glide together over the dancefloor. It’s Nat King Cole again.
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Mary is standing at her front door, still holding her champagne glass and she offers Arthur a sip. When he bends forward to kiss her, she responds, but he accidentally kicks a milk bottle and only just manages to stop it rolling off the doorstep.
‘You’ll wake my dad,’ she giggles. The first snow of winter has begun to fall. He picks a big flake off her soft hair and they watch it melt in his hand.
‘Can I see you again?’ he asks. Mary has the sweetest eyes he has ever seen and blushes when he looks at her.
She is looking at him now and there is a serious looking man standing beside her. He must have woken her dad after all. He is looking at a photograph in a silver frame, but Arthur can’t make out what they’re saying. He hopes she’s not in trouble.
‘What’s wrong with his heart, doctor? Can’t you do something?’ Mary says.
‘This is you and Arthur on your wedding day, isn’t it?’ he says and Mary nods as he puts the photo back on the locker top.
‘I recognise you both,’ he says. ‘Arthur’s lost some hair, some teeth. His skin and muscles have changed; everything is a bit different, a bit older, but it’s still him. His heart's changed too. Like the rest of him, it's older. Still his but not as strong as it once was, that’s all.’
Then her dad has gone, but Mary is still there, holding his hand, speaking to him. Although he doesn’t understand what she’s telling him he’s certain she’s said yes. He can see her again. He closes his eyes and begins the walk home. The snow is still falling.
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