The Shadows

Tranquil surroundings for the end of a life.

After a minute, I reached a two-story building with lush swathes of ivy covering its blackened walls. The car tires crackled over a sea of neatly turned pebbles. When I killed the engine, the only noise was the gentle trill of birdsong, the silence behind it heavy and profound.

I lit a cigarette and sat for a moment.

Even now, it wasn’t too late to go back.

It had taken four hours to drive here, and I’d felt the presence of Gritten growing closer the whole time, and the dread inside me had increased with every passing mile. The sky might have been bright and clear, but it had felt as though I were driving toward a thunderstorm, and I had half expected to hear rumbling in the distance and see crackles of lightning at the horizon. By the time I was driving through the ramshackle streets and flat industrial estates, past the rows of weathered shops and factories and the forecourts scattered with litter and broken glass, I was feeling so sick that it had been an effort not to turn the car around.

I smoked now, my hand shaking.

Twenty-five years since I’d been here in Gritten.

It’s going to be okay, I told myself.

I stubbed out the cigarette, then got out and walked across to the hospice. The glass doors at the entrance slid open to reveal a clean and minimalist reception area, with a polished black-and-white floor. I gave my name at the desk and waited, smelling polish and disinfectant. Aside from the sound of cutlery clinking somewhere away to one side, the building was as quiet as a library, and I felt an urge to cough, simply because it felt like I shouldn’t.

“Mr. Adams? Daphne’s son?”

I looked up. A woman was approaching me. She was in her mid-twenties, short, with pale blue hair, numerous ear piercings, and she was dressed in casual clothes. Not an orderly here.

“Yes,” I said. “Sally, right?”

“That’s me.”

I shook her hand. “Call me Paul.”

“Will do.”

Sally led me up a set of stairs, and then down a warren of quiet corridors, making small talk along the way.

“How was your journey?”

“Fine.”

“How long has it been since you’ve been back to Gritten?”

I told her. She looked shocked.

“Actual wow. Do you still have friends locally?”

The question made me think of Jenny, and my heart leaped slightly. I wondered what it would be like to see her again after all these years.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I guess the distance makes it difficult?” Sally said.

“Yeah, it does.”

She meant geography, but distance worked in other ways too. The car journey today might have taken four hours, but this short walk inside the hospice seemed longer. And while a quarter of a century should be a span of history with heft and weight, I was shivering inside. It felt like the years had dropped dangerously away, and that what had happened here in Gritten all those years ago might as well have occurred yesterday.

It’s going to be okay.

“Well, I’m glad you could come,” Sally said.

“Work’s always quiet over the summer.”

“You’re a professor, right?”

“I teach English, but I’m not that high up.”

“Creative writing?”

“That’s one of the classes.”

“Daphne was proud of you, you know? She always told me you’d be a great writer one day.”

“I don’t write.” I hesitated. “She actually said that?”

“Yeah, totally.”

“I didn’t know.”

But then, there was a lot about my mother’s life I hadn’t known. We might have spoken on the phone every month or so, but they were always short, casual conversations in which she had asked after me, and I had lied, and I had not asked after her, so she hadn’t needed to. She had never given me a hint that anything was wrong.

And then three days ago I had received a phone call from Sally, my mother’s care worker. I hadn’t known about Sally. I also hadn’t known that my mother had been suffering from steadily advancing dementia for years now, and that over the last six months her cancer had become untreatable. That in recent weeks my mother had become so frail that the stairs were difficult for her to climb, and so she had been living almost entirely on the ground floor of the house. That she had refused to be moved. That one evening earlier in the week, Sally had entered the house to find her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.

Because, either out of frustration or confusion, it seemed my mother had made an attempt to reach the landing above and her body had betrayed her. The head injury she suffered was serious rather than fatal, but the fall had goaded the rest of her afflictions into attacking more swiftly.

There was so much I hadn’t known.

Time was short, Sally had told me. Could I come?

“Daphne’s mostly sleeping,” she said now. “She’s receiving palliative care and pain relief, and she’s doing as well as she can. But what will happen over the next few days is that she’ll sleep more often, for more prolonged periods of time. And then, eventually, she’ll…”

“Not wake up?”

“That’s right. Just pass away peacefully.”

I nodded. That sounded like a good death. Given there has to be an end, maybe that’s all any of us can hope for—to drift steadily off. Some people believed there were dreams or nightmares to come afterward, but I’ve never really understood why. As I know better than most, those things happen in the shallow stages of sleep, and I’ve always hoped that death would be a much deeper state than that.

We stopped outside a door.

“Is she lucid?” I said.

“It varies. Sometimes she recognizes people and seems to understand vaguely where she is. But more often it’s like she’s in a different place and time.” She pushed open the door and spoke more softly. “Ah—here’s our girl.”

I followed her into the room, bracing myself for what I was about to see. But the sight was still a shock. A hospital bed rested against the nearest wall, with wheels on the legs and controls to elevate and change its position. To the side of it, there was more machinery than I’d been expecting: a cart with a bank of monitors, and a stand of clear bags with tubes looping out, connected to the figure lying beneath the covers.

My mother.

I faltered. I had not seen her in twenty-five years, and, as I stood in the doorway now, it looked like someone had made a model of her from wax, but one far smaller and frailer than the old memories I had. My heart fluttered. Her head was bandaged on one side, and what I could see of her face was yellow and motionless, her lips slightly parted. The thin covers were barely disturbed enough to suggest a body beneath, and for a moment I wasn’t sure she was even alive.

Sally seemed unperturbed. She walked across and then bent over slightly, checking the monitors. I caught the faint scent of the flowers on the table beside the machinery, but the smell was corrupted by a hint of something sweeter and more sickly.

“You’re free to sit with her, of course.” Sally finished her examination and straightened up. “But it’s probably best not to disturb her.”

“I won’t.”

“There’s water on the table if she wakes and wants it.” She pointed to the bed rail. “And if there are any problems, there’s a call button there.”

“Thank you,” I said.

She closed the door behind her as she left.

And then silence.

Except not quite. The window nearest the bed was half open, and I could hear the peaceful, soporific buzz of a lawn mower coming from somewhere in the distance. And then, beneath that, the slow, shallow breaths my mother was taking. There were long stretches of empty seconds between them. Looking down at her, I noticed the pink floral pattern of the bedsheets for the first time, and the sight of them delivered a ghost of memory. They weren’t identical to the ones I recalled from childhood, but close enough. Sally must have brought them from the house to make my mother feel more at home here.

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