THE LAST GIFT OF EMMELINE DAVIES
On the first day of his retirement, George’s wife had a stroke. It was December 27th, a day that even she didn’t work, and he was making tea for them both when it happened. As he pushed open the bedroom door, she seemed to be sleeping, an unusual turn of events but one that filled him with joy on this first of many new, different days. Perhaps, for once, she was going to sit for a bit while they drank their tea, instead of disappearing off to do something. Perhaps it was a surprise for him, to share this newness, if only for a little while.
He allowed himself a smile as he put the tray by the bed. Two cups of tea, the last of the mince pies. Her back was turned to him, her T-shirt, as ever from some conference or other, just visible. This one, he remembered, was from a place she had been every year that they had been together, a place he had never been.
‘You don’t want to come. It will be so boring for you,’ she had said. ‘I’ll be in work mode, standing around, clutching papers, and you’ll just feel like my caddy, trailing behind me. There’d be no point.’
‘You know I’d be happy to be your caddy.’
She pressed her forehead against his then, in that way that she did. ‘Oh George, you’re so lovely, so good.’
He’d said once, very early on, but the hotel is paid for, I don’t have to stay with you all day, it would be nice to meet your colleagues. She had smiled and nodded, said maybe, but she had not mentioned it again, not even as she set off for the airport that time. And neither had he. So he had never gone to Luxor or Mainz or Harvard. Never met the people she wrote papers with. Never seen anything that inspired her, except the British Museum and the books she brought home from her other office.
There was always a book by her bed. It was usually in her hands by the time he brought the tea, a pencil tucked into the spine. She would look up and smile as he came in, pushing herself back against the pillows, readying herself for tea. This time, though, the book was on top of the covers but slightly askew, as if she’d just put it down for a minute while she had a bit of a doze. He got into bed as carefully as he could, not wanting to be the cause of waking her.
She didn’t stir. Pleased with himself, he sat back, reached over for his mug and drank a little. When he noticed his tea was cooling down, he wondered if he should give her a gentle shake. Was it worse, he wondered, to end her doze, a doze that signalled a different tempo to their days, or to let her sleep until her tea was the wrong temperature and he would have to make another?
In the end he chose to wake her. On this day, on this day of all days, he wanted to drink his tea with her. It was selfish, he knew, more selfish than he usually allowed himself to be. But he knew she would understand. Eventually. She didn’t stir, though, when he put his hand on her shoulder. In fact, when he put his hand on her shoulder, she neither moved nor spoke, not even a murmur. For a last, beautiful second, he smiled. Sleepy Emmeline! One too many glasses last night.
But then his pleasure, his joy at this surprise drained away. He leaned over to take a
sneaky look at his wife sleeping in, such an uncharacteristic thing, and he saw that she wasn’t.
He spilt the rest of his tea. Spilt it as he was getting out from under the covers, which seemed to have wrapped themselves round him like a winding sheet, preventing him moving. Spilt it as he moved to turn her, to shake her, to see her. She was still breathing, but her face was completely still, one side swooping down to the mattress, eye closed, the other eye open.
Her phone was by her bed, but he didn’t know her password. He ran to get his, jumping down the stairs. The cable was tangled with the kettle’s and, as he tried to separate them, he dropped the phone onto the kitchen floor. He tapped 999 as he went back to the bedroom, feeling splinters of glass under his fingertips. Emmeline hadn’t moved. He’d hoped she might. That it might have been momentary.
Kevin, that was the first paramedic’s name. Kevin, and the girl, the woman rather, was Alison. They came up the stairs like aliens in their green jackets, bristling with stuff, bringing the cold air with them.
George was still in his pyjamas. Not even a dressing gown between him and these strangers. Just as there was only a T-shirt between Emmeline and them. He stood and watched. It didn’t take long. Minutes, probably. Though it felt like days. They asked questions, lots and lots of questions, and he wondered why they were bothering. Why weren’t they getting her into the ambulance?
‘What is her date of birth, George? Any allergies or regular medication? Any medical issues?’
Look at her, he wanted to shout, look at her, there’s your medical issue. But he wasn’t a shouter and, besides, he didn’t have the energy.
‘Can you hear us Emmeline?’ they said, as soon as he told them her name.
‘Emmeline, Professor Emmeline Jane Davies,’ George had said. The professor was important, he thought. And she wouldn’t forgive him if he forgot it. They didn’t use it though.
‘Emmeline, my name is Alison,’ said the young woman. Her hand was on the slope of Emmeline’s hip, a hip swaddled in the duvet. ‘Can you blink, Emmeline? Can you squeeze my hand?’
While Alison was talking, Kevin was beside her on the floor, getting out equipment. A stethoscope first. George was surprised they still used them. A blood pressure cuff. One of those pointed thermometers, digital, which Kevin flashed into her ear.
George wanted to do something, anything. ‘Tea,’ he said. ‘Can I get you some tea, or coffee? Perhaps it’s too early for coffee. I’m afraid there are no mince pies left.’
‘No, no, you’re all right George,’ they both said, not looking up. They had asked him his name first, his full name, George Henry Maybury, before they even went up the stairs.
His name took up more space, he sometimes thought, than he did.