- So what about Cal?
- What about him?
- Anything happening? Didn’t see you this weekend.
- We went down to London.
- See his friends?
Ellen rubs her fingertips along her temples, straightens her dove grey wool coat. She turns down Whinside – the houses lose a story, the tidy row of auburn trees ends at the corner.
- He wants to fuck other people, Ellen says.
- What? Break up?
- No. He loves me. To the moon and back. But he doesn’t see why that should stand in the way of him fucking other people.
- I’m going to think about it. 37?
- No, eight. Other side, says Sarah.
Ellen is already parked at 37 Whinside. It is overcast, threatening a sheeting October afternoon. Ellen quiets the car, takes a brick-hued lipstick from her pocket and carefully applies it to her thin lips in the mirror. She plucks several pieces of dead skin from her lower lip – one of them sprouts a drop of blood that she smacks away. Sarah steps behind the car and lights a cigarette. Ellen slings her stethoscope around her thin neck, straightens her badge and nametag. A stone sits in her gut – she wonders briefly if she is sick, but knows she isn’t.
- I’m sorry, El.
- He’s a shit.
Sarah flings the cigarette into the gutter, rubs her fingertips along her slick hairline, then puts her arms around Ellen’s shoulders for only a moment. Ellen squeezes her arm and has a sudden surge of what she thinks might be joy, or perhaps devotion.
They ring the bell of 38.
- Oh, it’s you girls.
- Thank you for having us, Mrs. Baines, says Ellen. She follows Sarah into the house.
- Of course, of course, come on in, no need to worry about your shoes, we have five grandchildren of course you know. Can I get you both a cup of tea?
Mrs. Baines has the masculine voice of a golden-age actress and Ellen wonders if there was ever a time when she was beautiful, when her voice didn’t sit so uncomfortably against her diminishing, time-worn body. She feels vaguely threatened by Mrs. Baines, by the funereal smell of camphor and white lilies in the house. Ellen rubs her abdomen through her delicate silk shirt, sucks in her breath, feels along the skin pulled tight from her belly button to her bladder.
Sarah arranges her long limbs over the couch. Ellen picks at a hangnail and thinks Sarah looks like an insect, her arms and legs stiff and ungainly. She knows this is an uncharitable thought. Ellen is trying to be better about having uncharitable thoughts, and quickly thinks of Sarah’s embrace outside, how nice it is to have a friend to call her boyfriend a shit.
Jeremiah Baines sits hoisted upright in his red chintz mechanical chair, wrapped in a yellow bathrobe tied loosely at his waist.
- Morning Mr. Baines, Sarah says brightly, and how are we feeling today?
- Jerry, Jerry, Mrs. Baines yells, it’s the girls, from the doctor. The student nurses.
- The student nurses, Jerry. You remember, they came before to see us, in the summer when it was so hot and the train tracks were melting in London.
- We’re actually…
- Oh come Jerry, of course you remember. Not that we go anywhere anyhow, do we Jerry. You know, girls, we don’t get to leave the house very often, because I’m the only one here, and Jerry can’t manage on his own.
- We’re actually student doctors, not nurses, Ellen says.
- Sorry dears, so sorry, of course you are. The student doctors Jerry.
Jerry hangs his yellow head forward against his chest. A smear of thick congealed milk dangles from his chin. For a moment, Ellen thinks she might vomit – the cloy of the white lilies sits heavy in her throat.
- How are you feeling, Jerry? Sarah asks again.
- Feeling today…muzzyheaded…
- He’s not been too bad lately, says Mrs. Baines, he really hasn’t been too bad lately. We were in hospital last month, in September, you know he had a pneumonia. But he’s a bit brighter, now.
- That’s good to hear, Ellen says. Mr. Baines, perhaps you could tell us…
- Of course, it puts a strain on me, him being a bit brighter.
- Yes, of course it…
- It puts a real strain on me, because you see, the problem is, well, what people think. They come round here, the kids and grandkids, neighbors, they come round here, and they see him a bit better, they think, well, Sheila’s making it all up, isn’t she? She’s just complaining about nothing. There’s not much wrong with him, is there?
- Right, says Sarah, nodding along.
- That really is the hardest part of it, how much he varies. One day, he’ll be so bright, sitting up in his chair, he’ll eat all his food. And the next, poof, the next he’s asleep all day, and I can’t rouse him for anything. Not for anything.
As Mrs. Baines speaks, Ellen thinks about whether she wants to fuck people other than Cal. She only brought up whether they were exclusive because she thought she already knew the answer. She wishes that she hadn’t said anything at all.
- They said, all my friends said, when the diagnosis first came through, after the first heart attack, well my friends said to me, Sheila, it’s going to be harder for you than it is for him. And they were right. People see him now, they see him a bit brighter, they think, there’s nothing wrong with him, Sheila must be making it all up. And that’s the hardest bit of it, isn’t it?
Jerry shifts slightly in the red chintz chair. He raises a thin yellow hand and wipes the saliva from the grooves of his chin. He coughs and it sounds like the sea.
November is crisp in Cambridge, a bracing chill after the searing rot of summer. Ellen dislikes the heat – she prefers the months when the sun sets at three o’clock and the bare trees line the river like spires.
Cal walks a step ahead of her down King’s Parade. A line of tourists wait outside King’s – others lay white flowers at the gates of Caius, in memoriam to a prominent academic who has just died. Cal weaves so easily through the people that Ellen keeps losing sight of him. He is thin and charming, unafraid to lay his hand on a woman’s back and softly murmur excuse me. They slip down St. Mary’s and onto the cobbles of Rose Crescent.
- You think about it? Cal asks.
- About what?
- Yes, says Ellen.
- You know I don’t want to.
- Thought you’d say that, Cal says.
- Did you really think about what I said, though, babe? It doesn’t mean anything about how much I love you.
- I thought about it a lot. I don’t have any interest in sleeping with other people – just you.
- You’ve got a lot of internalized misogyny.
- You realize you’re going to be on the wrong side of history. Love is progressing.
Ellen opens her mouth to speak, then closes it again. She wants to say something for her own satisfaction, but knows it will be no use. She reaches up and picks a piece of dead skin from her lips, then looks at Cal in profile. She wonders what it is like to be a man – if Cal has ever felt that urgent, dense dread that she does when she thinks of him pressed against someone who is not her. They walk in silence along the black loops of the river.
- I never come to yours, says Ellen.
- Open invitation, babe.
- Yeah, fine, but you never actually invite me.
- Tonight? We can stay at mine tonight babe, he says, hugging her shoulders to his chest.
Something in Cal’s voice makes her feel like he’s doing her a favor.
His room is small, holds nothing but a bed, a wooden crate he uses as a bedside table, a wardrobe and a small bookshelf full of medical textbooks. He says he’ll be right back and disappears into the bathroom.
Ellen takes off her clothes, folds them neatly, and places them in a pile on top of the bookshelf. She gets into his bed. It’s cold in his room, and it smells strongly of stale coffee.
Ellen listens to the rush of him urinating. She rolls over. She wishes she hadn’t insisted on coming. She reaches down under the single brown blanket and absentmindedly touches herself while she inspects the wooden crate. A small green alarm clock, two surgical handbooks, an old mug of coffee now growing a pearlescent film, a few balled grey receipts.
A lacquered red hair clip in the shape of a pair of lips.
She doesn’t touch it. She does not move. It does not belong to her. She stares at the hair clip where it has fallen between two slats of the crate.
The sink runs, then stops. Cal stands in the doorway and takes off his shirt. She pulls her hand out from under the blanket and rubs it across her eyes, over her top lip. She nearly chokes on the thick salt smell.
Ellen remembers this time that it is 38. The fence is wrapped in Christmas lights, and a faded plastic fawn stands on three legs in the concrete courtyard. Sarah wraps her coat all the way around her – she has lost weight recently, and Ellen can’t help but think she’s only doing it to show off.
Jerry Baines sits in the same position in which they left him on their previous visit, wrapped in his yellow robe tied loosely around his waist. Mrs. Baines gets up and wipes a line of saliva from his chin.
- Well, Happy Christmas girls. You’re still on your placements are you? Perhaps you could just listen to his chest, he’s been so bad lately…
- Mr. Baines, we’re wondering if maybe you could tell us, in your own…
- He has been dreadful lately, continues Mrs. Baines, but you know in a way it is a blessing, it is girls, because people believe me now, they can really see something is wrong, and they understand, you know, that there’s something, that I’m not just making it all up.
- Sheila! Shouts Jerry suddenly.
Mrs. Baines jumps and shuts her mouth with a click.
- I’ve not been well lately, Jerry says, leaning forward slightly in his chair. I’ve not been well.
Jerry goes silent. He looks between his wife, Sarah and Ellen, then puts his hands up and settles back into his chair. A photograph of him as a young man sits on the mantle. He’s not smiling. He wears an army uniform. What was he like, as a young man? Ellen wonders if he was cheerful, if the solemn expression in the picture is a lie.
- And you know, now, I do everything for Jerry, Mrs. Baines starts in again. I cook for him, I clean him, I even take him to the toilet. Who ever could think a marriage would end up like this. And nobody looks out for me. You know, the system, they’re all focused on him, and there’s no support, there’s no support at all for the ones doing the caring, nothing at…
Jerry lets out an enormous gasp. He clutches a hand to his chest. He slumps forward in the chair.
Mrs. Baines screams and rushes toward him. She cradles his head between her hands and slaps his face again and again.
- He’s not breathing, Mrs. Baines shouts.
- Get him on the floor, says Sarah. Her voice is calm, authoritative. Ellen thinks that she never would have guessed Sarah would be so together in an emergency.
Ellen and Sarah heave Jerry’s limp body to the floor. Sarah puts an ear to his mouth while Ellen watches his chest. It does not move.
- I’m calling an ambulance. Mrs. Baines, do you have an AED in the house?
- A what?
- A defibrillator, for his heart.
- Yes, oh yes, we do, it’s in the bedroom.
Ellen nods, already holding her clasped hands over Jerry’s chest. Sarah stands up. As she does, something falls from her pocket onto the carpet next to Ellen.
Ellen begins compressions on Jerry’s chest. She counts them out to herself, holding her elbows rigid. A dark stain of sweat from her hands spreads over Jerry’s chest, and she thinks, absurdly, for a moment, that it looks like he’s been shot. Mrs. Baines continues to shriek from upstairs. From the kitchen, Ellen hears snippets of Sarah on the phone, patient of ours…cardiac arrest…not breathing…no pulse…seventy-four…Whinside.
It feels like she’s been alone with him for hours, pumping up and down on his chest with no result. She quickly reaches a hand up to wipe her forehead and looks down.
There, resting on the thick brown carpet, lies a lacquered red hair clip shaped like a pair of lips.
Ellen stops moving. She is perfectly still, kneeling beside Jerry. The voices of the two women continue from the other rooms. They mix and meld in her mind, a dreadful cacophony. It sounds as though a great bellowing animal is moving through the house. Ellen stares into Jerry’s yellow face. His eyes are half shut, his lips crusted with that same thick congealed mucus Mrs. Baines is forever wiping from his chin.
Ellen glances once more at the hairpin, then flicks it under a chair. She folds her hands in her lap. She does not pound on his chest. She does not press hot breath into his mouth. She does not resuscitate.
She feels a sudden rush of calm come over her. She feels fully contained within herself. She presses her palms together in her lap. From the kitchen and up the stairs, the shrieking continues, the great wave of sound presses in on her. She doesn’t blink. She doesn’t breathe. She only sits, completely still, for how long she cannot say – a minute, five, perhaps even ten.
A bell. The shrieking gets closer, circling in on her, until the sound presses from just in the hallway and she leans forward and once again presses her hands over Jerry’s chest, pulses up and down, her elbows lax. Mrs. Baines and Sarah burst into the room, closely followed by a stream of people pouring from the ambulance.
Ellen gets up and steps into the corner of the room. After a few minutes, Sarah comes over and puts a hand on her shoulder. She shakes her head.
Mallory Owen is a writer and essayist based in Cambridge, England. Her stories have been featured in several publications, and she won the Cavendish Chronicle Literary Prize for her story Fugue. She is currently putting the finishing touches on her debut children’s book about neuroscience, entitled Cerebella. In her spare time, she works as a doctor for the NHS.