Marketa stands on one side of me, Catriona on the other. Marketa is Czech and my carer. Catriona is my new wife. I’m lying on my back in dove gray flannel pajamas.
At seven I’d woken to the most excruciating pain. Where the pain is located exactly I’m not sure. It is among my various lung and upper skeletal tumors, I’m guessing. Shoulders. Shoulder blades. Ribs. Lungs certainly.
Once an hour I am permitted to press the morphine button at the end of the cable for pain relief. It goes beep — a jolly noise! After the second go, however, I have no pain relief and I’m counting the minutes to the next one. But shortly after I’ve pressed the button for the second time, nurse Marketa arrives to wash me and change my incontinence pad and pajamas. So begins another day of this headlong physical decline.
Sixty-six is my age; the day I was born, sixty-six was the life expectancy
The mental decline has been rapid, also, I think. During the night, for example, I looked at the bedroom door and wondered where it led to. Were we on the first floor, for example? Odd that, not knowing where previously familiar bedroom doors went, even at night time. Treena was wide awake, as usual, a guardian angel. “So where does that door lead to?” I said, pointing. Mme. Clarke looked at me as if my question were a trick one. I’ve been showing other signs of memory loss, true. Names. Dates. Events. But not doors or where they might lead. “The Winter Gardens, sweetheart,” she said. And neither did it bother me not knowing where a once familiar door led to. Not really. Kinda fun, morphine.
So I’m lying on my back between wife and carer, naked except for my new nappy. We are all very much hoping that the mess, when they roll me over and get a glimpse of it, isn’t extensive. If it isn’t, or it’s absent, the rotten business can be left until the noon visit. Marketa stoops and tentatively lifts a corner of the nappy. It is at this delicate moment of truth that I blow off. A fart. Purely accidental. Honestly.
Marketa waits a moment before giving us all a laugh by apologizing for it, even though it wasn’t her. She’s a wonderful woman in every way. And now here she is raising everyone’s spirits by giving us all a laugh and taking a hit for the team. Catriona knows it was me. She recognized its subtlety. She waited for the gentleman responsible — her new husband — to own up. But instead of owning up, the gentleman responsible lays the blame squarely at the door of Marketa, by nonchalantly waving away her apology, saying she was not to worry about it.
Marketa, however, also knowing full well that it was one of Mr. Clarke’s, wants to know the true extent of Mr. Clarke’s gallantry and she waits for his confession. However, Mme. Clarke’s suspicions are immediately aroused by the smile lightly flickering around Mr. Clarke’s mouth. She tests her suspicion by giving Mr. Clarke a cuff round the chops and threatening a second unless Mr. Clarke owns up. Naked in his nappy, Mr. Clarke cowers before Mme. Clarke’s assault in an unseemly, ungentlemanly and, it must be said, cowardly fashion.
And so begins another long summer’s day in Mr. Clarke’s astonishing and (in Mr. Clarke’s opinion, at least) tragic resignation from life’s feast.
Sixty-six is my age; “clickety click” to any bingo caller worthy of the name. The day I was born, sixty-six was the life expectancy. Today it’s up in the eighties. But I’m not complaining about clocking out early. It’s a shame, that’s all. Among other things it’s a shame that here I am being soaped down by my wife and a Czech lady with raspberry hair, and with not the slightest suggestion of eroticism or intimacy or even of being outnumbered.
When Marketa leaves, Treena supervises the cleaning of my gob. On the bed table she lays out a hand towel, a tooth mug with warm water in it, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste and three paper towels to spit into. She also places upon the table an anti-fungal mouthwash. Mouth fungus, apparently, is an inevitable side result of these cancer treatments. Unfortunately, by kissing her too frequently and too passionately, and vice versa, I have passed mine on to Catriona.
But I’m sorry. Wouldn’t you kiss passionately, deeply and often the lady who loves you so much that she is willing to care for your each and every need, as Catriona does with mine, twenty-four hours a day, instead of packing me off to a hospice, and let them do it all? Yet this amazing woman does it and kisses me deeply and passionately, no matter what the consequences for her own health.
When I read out that final paragraph to her just now, however, she says: “Early doors yet, as they used to say.”
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.