‘I’d rather not at all. I’m sorry. I know I promised I wouldn’t say that. But this is surreal. I can’t believe in this.’
‘The coffee’s good.’
Penny did not meet her eye. They were sitting outside at a café table. Opposite, trees around the perimeter of a park. There were other cafés, other people sitting at tables. Traffic. The world going by. The sun shone. She knew what Penny was thinking. But just now, when she had tried to pick up her own cup, she had not been able to grip the handle, her finger and thumb had not obeyed her brain. She had almost sent it crashing onto the tabletop. Penny had grabbed it and set it down. ‘You see?’ she had said. ‘Don’t try and hold it for me. Have you ever seen people holding cups while someone sips. Like a toddler. Like a baby.’
A couple of teenagers glided by on roller skates, arms folded, graceful boys with caps of dark hair, their bone structure not yet settled into adulthood.
She watched them.
Penny was right. It was surreal. They were a couple of tourists. They were on holiday. They were having a City Break. The coffee was so good. The cake was rich and moist with almond and butter.
My last cake, she thought. Last coffee. Last.
People say, there’s always a first time but that is not true. There may not be one at all. But a last time. Yes. That is true. There is always a last time.
The appointment with the Swiss doctor was in an hour.
‘I’d like to see a bit of the city,’ she had said.
Penny had said nothing. Had not needed to, it had been written on her face.
‘But why not? You’d like to see it, wouldn’t you?’
Now the cake on the plate in front of Penny was barely touched.
‘This is madness. This is insanity. Mother, what in God’s name are we doing here? Come home. Get the next train. Come back home.’
‘No,’ Jocelyn said.
She was surprised at how calm she felt, how certain that turning back, going home, as Penny wanted, giving the idea up, was not an option. She had almost fallen that morning in the small hotel room, which had had a rug beside the bed. The rug had moved slightly and she had not known what was happening to her legs, they had splayed out and she had grabbed the end of the bed to save herself. Now, it was the cup of coffee she could not hold. The previous week she had not been able to swallow a spoonful of cereal, her throat had constricted, frozen, the muscles had seized up. She had managed to reach the kitchen and spit her mouthful into the sink.
It had not happened again. But it would. There was no time.
All the same though. All the same. She looked across at the trees in the park. The shaven grass. The glittering glass of the shop windows. A bus slowed. Stopped a few yards away. People got off. Others got on.
Life, she thought.
A normal day in life.
In an hour she would see a Swiss doctor who would listen and take notes and prescribe phials of lethal medicines. They would wait. They would be given an address. A taxi would drive them to the clinic.
But then … she took a deep breath, knowing, picturing it. Understanding fully that this beautiful place would be her last. She knew about Swiss clinics because when she was a girl, a friend’s mother had come to one for tuberculosis treatment – though that had been in the mountains. Her own mother had visited and described the place. A terrace set out with chairs and loungers, so that patients, well wrapped, could be outside in the glittering sun and air, breathing it, breathing it, healing their lungs. The rooms had had plain simple furniture of pale wood. Soft white curtains. Crisp white sheets and pillows and covers on the beds. Sunlight. A wooden crucifix on each small chest. A picture on every wall of snow, mountains, rivers, trees, waterfalls, green grass – some beautiful, tranquil landscape. That had been the word. Tranquil. ‘It was so tranquil,’ her mother had said over and over again. She had brought a postcard back, a watercolour painting of the clinic in the mountains, and Jocelyn had gazed at it for days, when it had been propped up against a lamp on the dresser, taken it down and imagined herself into that impossibly white landscape, touching that sparkling snow, breathing in the ice-cold air.
That was why she was perfectly calm today, she realised that, calm and – no, not happy. Of course not. She would rather be at home, rather never have had to come here, rather be getting on with her life. But that was the point, wasn’t it? There was to be no life, not life as she had known it and hoped it would be for many years into the future. There was to be disability, clumsiness, the closing down of everything – movement, speech, swallowing. Breathing. One by one, it would all go and she would be a flickering, panicking mind trapped inside a dead shell.
That was why she was here.
She looked up. Penny was crying, the tears on her cheeks not wiped away, just left to gather. Her hand was palm upwards on the tabletop.
‘No,’ Jocelyn said, covering it with her own. ‘You promised me you wouldn’t do this.’
‘That was before we got here. Mother, please …’
‘How can you sit there drinking coffee? I don’t know this person you’ve turned into.’
‘Yes, you do. Of course you do. I’m the same person.’
‘You don’t seem to have anything to do with me. You’re a million miles away already, you’re –’
‘Stop it. Oh, do look, that sweet little white dog. What do they call them? I can’t remember.’
‘Shut up, shut up, shut up!’ Penny stood. She had raised her voice. It was not yet a shout, but it might turn into one.
‘I think we should go now,’ Jocelyn said. ‘Will you pay while I flag down a taxi?’
‘All right, I’ll do both.’
‘I can’t do this …’
Jocelyn faced her calmly. Behind them, a couple of young men took their vacant table, pushing the empty cups and plates to one side, talking hard as they did so. The small white dog was sitting beside its owner while she too talked, talked.
This is normal life.
The words ran like ticker tape through her head.
‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I understand. I do understand. It’s harder for you and maybe I shouldn’t have let you come. But you came and you’re here. So, you can come with me, or we can … part now. You can go home. I’m fine. But decide now and stick to that, Penny. I’m fine but I don’t think I can cope with … you changing your mind, changing it again. Not knowing if you are going to be with me or not. That’s harder than anything.’
‘And what you are asking me to do is the hardest thing possible.’
‘I don’t think you do. I have to live with this. Hear what I’m saying. I have to live with this.’
‘Whereas I don’t.’
They stood looking at one another and each saw the horror of realisation on the face of the other.
Then Jocelyn stepped forward and raised her arm and the taxi that had been spinning towards them stopped.
They could have walked. It was five minutes away from where they had had their coffee, one of the older apartment blocks, like private consulting rooms anywhere. There was an entrance hall. Reception. Telephone. Computer. Vase of flowers. Bland pictures. Waiting room. Plants. Low table. Magazines of a neutral kind, in German, French and English. General Interest. Cream paint. Double glazing, muffling the traffic sound.
The receptionist had hair piled up high, tied round with a black band. Formal smile. Perfect, accented English. Neutral, like the magazines, Jocelyn thought. Trained expression. Sympathetic but not involved. No. Never involved.
How many of us come here? Of ‘us’? Plenty of people must come for other reasons but how many of ‘us’? One a day? One a week? A month? More? Dozens more? Hundreds?
Her appointment was at eleven thirty and at eleven thirty she was ushered into the doctor’s room. High ceiling. Tall windows. Wide desk. Photograph of a wife, two children. Plants. The room of consultants anywhere.
It took perhaps fifteen minutes, and of those, he spent several reading her notes, turning pages to and fro with a soft sound. He asked her about her symptoms. Movement. Speech. Throat. Hands. Grip. Touch. About changes. Then about thoughts. Mental attitude, she thought.
She expected him to try and persuade her against, to talk about hope and symptom control, about home and disability and care.
He said, ‘It is one of the worst of many. Perhaps the worst.’
He riffled through the papers once more. Then turned to his computer. Typed briefly. Wrote on a sheet of paper and handed it to her in an envelope.
‘You take this with you to the clinic. They now have the medication approval. You know what is to happen next?’
‘I go to the clinic?’
‘Return to your hotel and wait for the taxi which will call. It will ask for you by name and you go in that. They will check your details first, then take you. I am not sure exactly when.’ He stood up and put out his hand.
She felt as if she were in a television play. The receptionist came in and ushered her back to the waiting room. It was a play. Penny stared at her, looking into her face for some sign, some answer, some relief.
‘We go back to the hotel and wait,’ Jocelyn said.
How long would it take? They were in the city centre and the clinic would be in the country somewhere. She had expected everything to take longer but was glad that it had not. She asked Penny if she wanted to have lunch in the hotel bar. An open sandwich. A salad. More coffee and cake.
‘You should have a drink,’ she said.
Penny did not answer. In the end, they sat in the room and waited. It seemed wrong to go among people in a busy bar. Jocelyn felt it would be wrong. She would be a bad omen. A death’s head.
They waited for three hours and twenty minutes. In the end she dozed. Penny simply sat. The twin beds had pale yellow coverlets. Sunny. The room faced a side street. Jocelyn got up and stumbled. Her left leg was numb.
In the street, a man got out of a car. Lit a cigarette at once. Walked away. A woman with a suitcase on wheels went towards a house. Rang a bell on the side of the door.
‘We didn’t decide … how stupid. We should decide.’
‘I can’t stand this.’
‘I brought so little but I do have … bits and pieces.’
Toothbrush and paste. Face cream. Lipstick. Foundation. Clothes. Underclothes. Nightdress. Diary. Purse. Phone. Bits and pieces.
‘Are you going to take them back with you? Home, I mean. Or … you can ask them to … downstairs. Ask reception for a bag and … leave them. Rubbish. There must be a bin. Or just take them home.’
‘It was a disgrace,’ Penny said. ‘How could that man tell anything from a few minutes?’
‘It was more than a few. And he had notes. A file on me.’
‘Did he read through them – every word?’
‘Of course not, he would have done all that ages ago.’
‘You think so?’
Penny stood up. Walked across to the bed and picked up her jacket and scarf. Bag.
‘It isn’t here yet.’
‘You said if I wanted to go … if I couldn’t do it … you said that.’
‘Yes. I did. So you should go. Go to the airport. Just get there, look up a flight, you’ll get one, surely. They’ll change your ticket. You may have to wait a few hours. Still, at an airport – you can buy a book … have a meal … coffee … there are worse places to wait.’
‘So, go now. I should never have expected you to do this for me. It was quite wrong. I know what you said but I should never have agreed.’
‘I thought I was … that I could cope with anything. See anything through. It seems I was wrong.’
‘You’re not wrong. You could see anything through.’
‘Not the one thing. Do you know what it is?’
‘Yes, of course. Fear. That’s all. Are you surprised?’
‘No. Not fear at all.’
The room phone rang.
‘The taxi,’ Penny said.
Of course she went with her. There was never any question. She got into the waiting cab before Jocelyn.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry.’
Jocelyn touched her hand.
She did not know how long the journey would be but the taxi was comfortable. It wouldn’t matter if it took an hour, which she supposed it could. This was a big city. They had to get out of it, through the suburbs, before they were anywhere near open country. She wondered if they would go as far as the mountains, though it would not be like the postcard, she knew that perfectly well; this was not winter.
But Swiss mountains were not only wonderful in snow.
It was not even half an hour.
They had driven through the beginnings of suburban estates, block after block of flats, business parks, industrial units. The taxi slowed and swung left off the main road beside a long row of concrete garages. At the end, two more low blocks of flats, sharing a short approach. Green rubbish bins stood to the right. A Portakabin was parked.
‘Thank you. Apartment second.’ The driver was pointing. ‘Ring top bell.’
He leaned over and opened the door without getting out, then faced forward again, as if he did not want to register either of their faces. As Penny closed the cab door the wheels were already turning.
‘Now … that bell? Yes. That bell.’
But Jocelyn did not move.
‘This is a terrible place,’ Penny said.
‘We can’t judge the clinic by the surroundings.’
‘Can’t we? I can.’
‘Inside it will be –’ She hesitated. Nothing here was as she had expected. Imagined. Remembered from the watercolour postcard, even while she had told herself that was irrelevant, that of course she had not expected to be up in the snow-covered Alps. Of course not.
The apartment block was grey. Functional. Three storeys. Metal window frames.
Jocelyn put up her hand. She saw that it was shaking. Why was that? It shook so hard she could not touch the bell. She turned to Penny.
She reached her hand up again and this time managed to press the metal disc. There was an intercom on the wall.
‘Yes … hello …’ Her own voice sounded husky. Not like her own voice.