I ran into Accident and Emergency. I had to ask three times before someone pointed me in the right direction. I finally swung open the doors to Ward C12, breathless and gasping, and there, in the corridor, was Nathan, sitting reading a newspaper. He looked up as I approached him.
“How is he?”
“On oxygen. Stable.”
“I don’t understand. He was fine on Friday night. He had a bit of a cough Saturday morning, but…but this? What happened?”
My heart was racing. I sat down for a moment, trying to catch my breath. I had been running pretty much since I received Nathan’s text message an hour earlier. He sat up, and folded his newspaper.
“It’s not the first time, Lou. He gets a bit of bacteria in his lungs, his cough mechanism doesn’t work like it should, he goes down pretty fast. I tried to do some clearing techniques on him Saturday afternoon but he was in too much pain. He got a fever out of nowhere, then he got a stabbing pain in his chest. We had to call an ambulance Saturday night. Sorry—should have called you, but Will was insistent that we shouldn’t bother you.”
“Shit,” I said, bending over. “Shit, shit, shit. Can I go in?”
“He’s pretty groggy. Not sure you’ll get much out of him. And Mrs. T is with him.”
I left my bag with Nathan, cleaned my hands with antibacterial lotion, then pushed at the door and entered.
Will was in the middle of the hospital bed, his body covered with a blue blanket, wired up to a drip and surrounded by various intermittently bleeping machines. His face was partially obscured by an oxygen mask and his eyes were closed. His skin looked gray, tinged with a blue-whiteness that made something in me constrict. Mrs. Traynor sat next to him, one hand resting on his covered arm. She was staring, unseeing, at the wall opposite.
“Mrs. Traynor,” I said.
She glanced up with a start. “Oh. Louisa.”
“How…how is he doing?” I wanted to go and take Will’s other hand, but I didn’t feel like I could sit down. I hovered there by the door. There was an expression of such dejection on her face that even to be in the room felt like intruding.
“A bit better. They have him on some very strong antibiotics.”
“Is there…anything I can do?”
“I don’t think so, no. We…we just have to wait. The consultant will be making his rounds in an hour or so. He’ll be able to give us more information, hopefully.”
The world seemed to have stopped. I stood there a little longer, letting the steady beep of the machines burn a rhythm into my consciousness.
“Would you like me to take over for a while? So you can have a break?”
“No. I think I’ll stay, actually.”
A bit of me was hoping that Will would hear my voice. A bit of me was hoping his eyes would open above that clear plastic mask, and he would mutter, “Clark. Come and sit down, for God’s sake. You’re making the place look untidy.”
But he just lay there.
I wiped at my face. “Would…would you like me to get you a drink?”
Mrs. Traynor looked up. “What time is it?”
“A quarter to ten.”
“Is it really?” She shook her head, as if she found that hard to believe. “Thank you, Louisa. That would be…that would be very kind. I seem to have been here rather a long time.”
I had been off on Friday—in part because the Traynors insisted I was owed a day off, but mostly because there was no way I could get a passport other than by heading to London on the train and queuing up at Petty France. I had popped by their house on Friday night, on my return, to show Will my spoils and to make sure his own passport was still valid. I thought he had been a little quiet, but there had been nothing particularly unusual in that. Some days he was in more discomfort than others. I had assumed it was one of those days. If I’m honest, my mind was so full of our travel plans that I didn’t have a lot of room to think about anything else.
I spent Saturday morning picking up my belongings from Patrick’s house with Dad, and then I went shopping in the high street with Mum in the afternoon to pick up a swimsuit and some holiday necessities, and I stayed over at my parents’ house Saturday and Sunday nights. It was a tight squeeze, with Treena and Thomas there as well. On Monday morning I got up at seven, ready to be at the Traynors’ by eight. I arrived there to find the whole place closed up, the front and back doors locked. There was no note. I stood on the front porch and rang Nathan’s phone three times without an answer. Mrs. Traynor’s phone was set to voice mail. Finally, as I sat on the steps for forty-five minutes, Nathan’s text arrived.
We are at county hospital. Will has pneumonia. Ward C12.
Once I arrived at the hospital, Nathan left, and I sat outside Will’s room for a further hour. I flipped through the magazines that somebody had apparently left on the table in 1982, and then pulled a paperback from my bag and tried to read that, but it was impossible to concentrate.
The consultant came around, but I didn’t feel that I could follow him into the room while Will’s mother was there. When he emerged, fifteen minutes later, Mrs. Traynor came out behind him. I’m not sure if she told me simply because she had to talk to somebody and I was the only person available, but she said in a voice thick with relief that the consultant was fairly confident that they had got the infection under control. It had been a particularly virulent bacterial strain. It was lucky that Will had gone to the hospital when he had, or…
That “or…” hung in the silence between us.
“So what do we do now?” I said.
She shrugged. “We wait.”
“Would you like me to get you some lunch? Or perhaps I could sit with Will while you go and get some?”
Just occasionally, something like understanding passed between me and Mrs. Traynor. Her face softened briefly and—without that customary, rigid expression—I could see suddenly how desperately tired she looked. I think she had aged ten years in the time that I had been with them.
“Thank you, Louisa,” she said. “I would very much like to nip home and change my clothes, if you wouldn’t mind staying with him. I don’t really want Will to be left alone right now.”
After she’d gone I went in, closing the door behind me, and sat down beside him. He seemed curiously absent, as if the Will I knew had gone on a brief trip somewhere else and left only a shell. I wondered, briefly, if that was how it was when people died. Then I told myself to stop thinking about death.
I sat and watched the clock tick and heard the occasional murmuring voices outside and the soft squeak of shoes on the linoleum. Twice a nurse came in and checked various levels, pressed a couple of buttons, took his temperature, but still Will didn’t stir.
“He is…okay, isn’t he?” I asked her.
“He’s asleep,” she said reassuringly. “It’s probably the best thing for him right now. Try not to worry.”
It’s an easy thing to say. But I had a lot of time to think in that hospital room. I thought about Will and the frightening speed with which he had become dangerously ill. I thought about Patrick, and the fact that even as I had collected my things from his flat, unpeeled and rolled up my wall calendar, folded and packed the clothes I had laid so carefully in his chest of drawers, my sadness was never the crippling thing I should have expected. I didn’t feel desolate, or overwhelmed, or any of the things you should feel when you split apart a love of several years. I felt quite calm, and a bit sad, and perhaps a little guilty—both at my part in the split and at the fact that I didn’t feel the things I probably should. I had sent him two text messages, to say I was really, really sorry, and that I hoped he would do really well in the Xtreme Viking. But he hadn’t replied.
After an hour, I leaned over, lifted the blanket from Will’s arm, and there, pale brown against the white sheet, lay his hand. A cannula was taped to the back of it with surgical tape. When I turned it over, the scars were still livid on his wrists. I wondered, briefly, if they would ever fade, or if he would be permanently reminded of what he had tried to do.
I took his fingers gently in mine and closed my own around them. They were warm, the fingers of someone very much living. I was so oddly reassured by how they felt in my own that I kept them there, gazing at them, at the calluses that told of a life not entirely lived behind a desk, at the pink seashell nails that would always have to be trimmed by somebody else.
Will’s were good man’s hands—attractive and even, with squared-off fingers. It was hard to look at them and believe that they held no strength, that they would never again pick something up from a table, stroke an arm, or make a fist.
I traced his knuckles with my finger. Some small part of me wondered whether I should be embarrassed if Will opened his eyes at this point, but I couldn’t feel it. I felt with some certainty that it was good for him to have his hand in mine. Hoping that in some way, through the barrier of his drugged sleep, he knew this too, I closed my eyes and waited.
Will finally woke up shortly after four. I was outside in the corridor, lying across the chairs, reading a discarded newspaper, and I jumped when Mrs. Traynor came out to tell me. She looked a little lighter when she mentioned he was talking, and that he wanted to see me. She said she was going to go downstairs and ring Mr. Traynor.
And then, as if she couldn’t quite help herself, she added, “Please don’t tire him.”
“Of course not,” I said.
My smile was charming.
“Hey,” I said, peeping my head around the door.
He turned his face slowly toward me. “Hey, yourself.”
His voice was hoarse, as if he had spent the past thirty-six hours not sleeping but shouting. I sat down and looked at him. His eyes flickered downward.
“You want me to lift the mask for a minute?”
He nodded. I took it and carefully slid it up over his head. There was a fine film of moisture where it had met his skin, and I took a tissue and wiped gently around his face.
“So how are you feeling?”
A great lump had risen, unbidden, to my throat, and I tried to swallow it. “I don’t know. You’ll do anything for attention, Will Traynor. I bet this was all just a—”
He closed his eyes, cutting me off in midsentence. When he opened them again, they held a hint of an apology. “Sorry, Clark. I don’t think I can do witty today.”
We sat. And I talked, letting my voice rattle away in the little pale-green room, telling him about getting my things back from Patrick’s—how much easier it had been getting my CDs out of his collection given his insistence on a proper cataloging system.
“You okay?” he said, when I had finished. His eyes were sympathetic, like he expected it to hurt more than it actually did.
“Yeah. Sure.” I shrugged. “It’s really not so bad. I’ve got other things to think about anyway.”
Will was silent. “The thing is,” he said, eventually, “I’m not sure I’m going to be bungee jumping anytime soon.”
I knew it. I had half expected this ever since I had first received Nathan’s text. But hearing the words fall from his mouth felt like a blow.
“Don’t worry,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “It’s fine. We’ll go some other time.”
“I’m sorry. I know you were really looking forward to it.”
I placed a hand on his forehead, and smoothed his hair back. “Shh. Really. It’s not important. Just get well.”
He closed his eyes with a faint wince. I knew what they said—those lines around his eyes, that resigned expression. They said there wasn’t necessarily going to be another time. They said he thought he would never be well again.
I stopped off at Granta House on the way back from the hospital. Will’s father let me in, looking almost as tired as Mrs. Traynor did. He was carrying a battered wax jacket, as if he were just on his way out. I told him Mrs. Traynor was with Will again, and that the antibiotics were considered to be working well, but that she had asked me to let him know that she would be spending the night at the hospital again. Why she couldn’t tell him herself, I don’t know. Perhaps she just had too much to think about.
“How does he look?”
“Bit better than this morning,” I said. “He had a drink while I was there. Oh, and he said something rude about one of the nurses.”
“Still his impossible self.”
“Yeah, still his impossible self.”
Just for a moment I saw Mr. Traynor’s mouth compress and his eyes glisten. He looked away at the window and then back at me. I didn’t know whether he would have preferred it if I’d looked away.
“Third bout. In two years.”
It took me a minute to catch up. “Of pneumonia?”
He nodded. “Wretched thing. He’s pretty brave, you know. Under all that bluster.” He swallowed and nodded, as if to himself. “It’s good you can see it, Louisa.”
I didn’t know what to do. I reached out my hand and touched his arm. “I do see it.”
He gave me a faint nod, then took his Panama hat from the coat hooks in the hall. Muttering something that might have been a thank-you or a good-bye, Mr. Traynor moved past me and out the front door.
The annex felt oddly silent without Will in it. I realized how much I had become used to the distant sound of his motorized chair moving backward and forward, his murmured conversations with Nathan in the next room, the low hum of the radio. Now the annex was still, the air like a vacuum around me.
I packed an overnight bag with all the things he might want the next day, including clean clothes, his toothbrush, hairbrush, and medication, plus earphones in case he was well enough to listen to music. As I did so I had to fight a peculiar sense of panic. A subversive little voice kept rising up inside me, saying, This is how it would feel if he were dead. To drown it out, I turned on the radio, trying to bring the annex back to life. I did some cleaning, made Will’s bed with fresh sheets, and picked some flowers from the garden, which I put in the living room. And then, when I had gotten everything ready, I glanced over and saw the holiday folder on the table.
I would spend the following day going through all the paperwork and canceling every trip, every excursion I had booked. There was no saying when Will would be well enough to do any of them. The consultant had stressed that he had to rest, to complete his course of antibiotics, to stay warm and dry. White-water rafting and scuba diving were not part of his plan for convalescence.
I stared at my folder, at all the effort and work and imagination that had gone into compiling it. I stared at the passport that I had queued to collect, remembering my mounting sense of excitement even as I sat on the train heading into the city, and for the first time since I had embarked upon my plan, I felt properly despondent. There were just over three weeks to go, and I had failed. My contract was due to end, and I had done nothing to noticeably change Will’s mind. I was afraid to even ask Mrs. Traynor where on earth we went from here. I felt suddenly overwhelmed. I dropped my head into my hands and, in the silent little house, I left it there.
My head shot up. Nathan was standing there, filling the little kitchen with his bulk. He had his backpack over his shoulder.
“I just came to drop off some prescription meds for when he gets back. You…okay?”
I wiped briskly at my eyes. “Sure. Sorry. Just…just a little daunted about canceling this lot.”
Nathan swung his backpack off his shoulder and sat down opposite me. “It’s a pisser, that’s for sure.” He picked up the folder, and began flipping through. “You want a hand tomorrow? They don’t want me at the hospital, so I could stop by for an hour in the morning. Help you put in the calls.”
“That’s kind of you. But no. I’ll be fine. Probably simpler if I do it all.”
Nathan made tea, and we sat opposite each other and drank it. I think it was the first time Nathan and I had really talked to each other—at least, without Will between us. He told me about a previous client of his, C3-4 quadriplegic with a ventilator, who had been ill at least once a month for the whole time he worked there. He told me about Will’s previous bouts of pneumonia, the first of which had nearly killed him, and from which it had taken him weeks to recover.
“He gets this look in his eye…,” he said. “When he’s really sick. It’s pretty scary. Like he just…retreats. Like he’s almost not even there.”
“I know. I hate that look.”
“He’s a—” he began. And then, abruptly, his eyes slid away from me and he closed his mouth.
We sat holding our mugs. From the corner of my eye I studied Nathan, looking at his friendly open face that seemed briefly to have closed off. And I realized I was about to ask a question to which I already knew the answer.
“You know, don’t you?”
“About…what he wants to do.”
The silence in the room was sudden and intense.
Nathan looked at me carefully, as if weighing how to reply.
“I know,” I said. “I’m not meant to, but I do. That’s what…that’s what the holiday was meant to be about. That’s what the outings were all about. Me trying to change his mind.”
Nathan put his mug on the table. “I did wonder,” he said. “You seemed…to be on a mission.”
“I was. Am.”
He shook his head, whether to say I shouldn’t give up or to tell me that nothing could be done, I wasn’t sure.
“What are we going to do, Nathan?”
It took him a moment or two before he spoke again. “You know what, Lou? I really like Will. I don’t mind telling you, I love the guy. I’ve been with him two years now. I’ve seen him at his worst, and I’ve seen him on his good days, and all I can say to you is I wouldn’t be in his shoes for all the money in the world.”
He took a swig of his tea. “There have been times when I’ve stayed over and he’s woken up screaming because in his dreams he’s still walking and skiing and doing stuff and just for those few minutes, when his defenses are down and it’s all a bit raw, he literally can’t bear the thought of never doing it again. He can’t bear it. I’ve sat there with him and there is nothing I can say to the guy, nothing that is going to make it any better. He’s been dealt the shittiest hand of cards you can imagine. And you know what? I looked at him last night and I thought about his life and what it’s likely to become…and although there is nothing I’d like more in the world than for the big guy to be happy, I…I can’t judge him for what he wants to do. It’s his choice. It should be his choice.”