The door is open, but I am afraid to pass through it. Painted white, it belongs to a room on the fifth floor at the end of a long corridor. Inside, the patient’s name is written on the wall behind the metal bed. There’s a TV suspended above the blanket. A private bathroom and toilet. The view from the window is of another wing of the new hospital.
Touch his cheek and take his hand – the face and arm of the tall man met fifteen years ago. He cannot move or eat unaided but he can speak, on and off, through all the drugs, can even make me laugh, as he always could. We talk of our travels, of happy parts of the past. The afternoon passes into evening. The ward is very quiet, except for the occasional rumble of a trolley. Promise to return. As I leave, a nurse appears with breathing apparatus and starts to close the blue curtains around the bed.
Retrace my steps – the visitor who can walk away – then descend in a large lift called Schindler, as if it matters. It’s dark now, nearing the end of Monday. From the first of three trains back, the lights of Liverpool shine in the distance.
Late on Wednesday, put a chair next to the phone, then sit and wait for the call to tell me what I already know.
Two weeks later, head north again, to Wigan. The hotel booked online wanted to know if my two night stay was for ‘business’ or ‘pleasure’. Left it blank.
Another lift to a higher floor. There’s no key to this room either; insert a rectangle of plastic into a slot and wait for a little green light to signal sesame. We stayed in places like this all over the country, so the room is familiar. Spotless white towels, open shelves, pinch-proof hangers. A view of a car park. A wide unframed picture of trees that could be clouds. The coverlet on the bed promises ‘a good night’s sleep, guaranteed.’ Lay out a few personal effects: toiletries in the ensuite, leopard on the pillow, then fill the kettle.
Next day, the cab to the crematorium gets me there so quickly I’m just in time for someone else’s service. The door to the chapel is still open…..Instead, retreat to the Garden of Remembrance, which has no graves. It’s a beautiful day, with birdsong and spring sun. A flash of light overhead is only a reflection from the wing of a passing plane – not for the man who once flew a Shackleton.
Still too early, so sit in the Waiting Room, as if for a train. It’s overheated, but comfortable.A water dispenser called Eden Springs stands in the corner, facing a picture of poppies that could be red butterflies, in a field. A leaflet on a rack features a range of ‘handcrafted personal memorials’ – like paperweights or pendants – that seems to involve ‘fusing ashes into crystal’. Put it back.
The long box carried into the chapel has a cross on it, but the service itself is simple, short, non-religious, in accordance with his wishes. So it’s not long before the curtains close to screen the box from sight. I sit at the back and keep on my coat. Grey, not black, with a corsage of daffodils – for my professor, once my partner, always my friend.
Later, raise a glass or two with others. The family thank me for coming. Will keep in touch.
Back at the Inn, the room is the same, but different – seems smaller and narrower than before, but it can’t be. The bed’s been made, the rubbish removed, the tiny tubs of milk replaced.There’s a faintly clinical smell, which soon disappears. When I leave, no trace of me will remain. Maybe a few skin cells on the carpet or a hair round a bend.
It’s a new hotel, so not many previous guests, but hundreds more will pass through this place en route to somewhere else, in continuity. Before then, as this day ends, it is my hand that must close the purple curtains, draw down the blind –
In the morning, get my things together, which doesn’t take long. Softly, the door locks itself behind me. Then it’s time to eat, to shop in the Arcade and head down the old hill to the station.