Part 4 of 4.
She was ill last night. Kneeling on the bathroom floor and head down the porcelain like some drunk teenager. She called Ada around 2am, between the second and third vomiting fit. She thought about calling Simon, but what was he going to do, it would take him nearly an hour to get across the city and he had work tomorrow. Ada was given a key a month ago for this very purpose. So she called the neighbour, who came running and tried to make her comfortable, but the vertigo did not subside and Ada called an ambulance when Nita started bringing up bile.
She can’t remember how they got her back into bed. They gave her something to stop the nausea. She didn’t have to go to A&E. Ada finally went home at six in the morning.
In the afternoon, groggy from her drug-induced sleep, Nita calls Simon and tells him she’s all right. ‘I’ll come over,’ he says, ‘I’ll call in sick.’ But she wouldn’t let him. She’s fine now. She’s got Ada.
‘God knows I should be the one taking care of you,’ he says.
Don’t be stupid, she tells him. She had already thanked Ada profusely once the paramedics had gone. You’re the daughter I never had, she remembers saying, I’m so lucky to have you. Ada gave her a bleary-eyed smile. Was it just Nita’s imagination that it stretched tight across her lips, a smile that spoke of a dawning realisation that things would only get worse from here, that these midnight calls would come again, and more frequently?
‘I’m old and useless,’ she mutters into the receiver. ‘Better off dead.’
Her son emits a long sigh. ‘You don’t mean that.’
She meant it when she said it. But later, after she hangs up and sits back in her armchair, watching the leaves outside dance red and gold against the bright blue of the sky, she can feel the void hovering over her shoulder. It grows bold; it gets closer. She is careful not to turn her head too fast and catch it in the eyes. She’s fallen into that trap before, letting it grab hold, spewing the terror of non-existence into her like she’s spinning on black ice. Sometimes she thinks she should be better at all this, but she isn’t. The old don’t have any more practice at it than the young. Everyone dies only once.
Friday morning it happens again. She stumbles out of bed and staggers half-crawling down the hallway, leaking out of both ends. She makes it into the bathroom but not the toilet bowl. She cannot bear calling Ada again, cannot face her while sitting in this stinking puddle of brown water. She pushes the red button around her neck.
The phone rings in the living room, shrill in the silent night. Eight full rings and then it stops. Her bowels chafe and growl and she is too weak to stand. A cramp as violent as giving birth and she expels another stream of muck, feeling it seep through her nightgown and onto the tiled floor. She shivers violently, pulls the hand towel from the rack and wraps it around her shoulders, trying not to let the ends trail in the shit water. That’s how the red button people find her twenty minutes later. They call the paramedics and this time she’s taken away in the ambulance.
She is taken to the Royal London, given a bed and tests. She calls Simon and cannot stop him from coming straight away. She calls Ada who says she will clean the bathroom and Nita doesn’t want her to do it, doesn’t want anyone to see what a mess she’d made, she would clean it herself even if it takes her hours in this state. But the doctors haven’t said how long she needs to stay here. She finally acquiesces and tells Ada she’ll pay double. She calls Becky and Lena, who both promise to visit tomorrow.
Her breathing is laboured. Each in-breath rattles in her chest, and each out-breath feels like she isn’t exhaling enough, like there is too much air trapped inside. Her ribcage aches with the pressure. Doctors come to read her chart and converse in hushed tones. More tests, they say. Keep her in for observation.
‘You shouldn’t have to wait around,’ she says to Simon in between wheezes. ‘How long can you take off work? They won’t like it. Maybe you should go back. I’m fine. I don’t want you to lose your job.’
He is by her bedside, holding her clawlike hands in his big moist ones. ‘It’ll keep,’ he says simply.
The rims of his eyes are red. He was talking to the doctor earlier; does he know something that she doesn’t? The maw over her shoulder opens and cackles. You don’t have to ask, it tells her. You know.
She isn’t ready, she thinks, there has to be more time. It seems that only yesterday she dipped her little-girl toes in the cold river of life, squealing in surprise and delight, contemplating how she could possibly submerge herself in the icy rushing stream. She finds herself on a dry riverbed now, turning over pebbles one by one, touching the last drops of moisture to her parched fingertips. Outside a cold wind blows, and the trees are nearly bare of leaves, their branches like bony arms clasping the sky.