‘Mrs Jocelyn Forbes.’ She cleared her throat.
The intercom buzzed and the door moved a few inches.
‘No,’ Penny said again. ‘This is a terrible place. You can’t go in.’
Jocelyn went in. The hallway was not well lit. To the right was a lift. From above a voice called, ‘Press for first floor.’ A door slammed. Penny’s face was ashen. They did not meet one another’s eye.
On the first floor, the lift doors opened onto a landing. Two doors, both with chipped blue paint. Marks on the doorpost, as if someone had been chiselling.
A dog barked somewhere above.
The door immediately opposite them opened.
‘Ah, yes. Come in please.’
The girl had short blonde hair. A pale green tabard like those worn by dental nurses. Jeans. She held the door open for them.
‘Wait for a moment here.’ She indicated a bench set against the narrow corridor wall, then went away.
Jocelyn did not look around. Not at the walls or the light or the floor or the ceiling. She looked at her own hands. Her own hands. In an hour, several hours, minutes – she did not know how long – they would be dead hands. She would not be able to lift them, move them. The blood would lie flat and motionless inside her veins. Her hands would change colour. How long would it take …?
Penny sat as if she herself were already dead, barely breathing.
Someone coughed. A tap was turned on. Off.
A man stood in a doorway. Older. White-haired. His shirtsleeves were rolled up.
‘Come this way please.’ His accent was barely noticeable.
Now, she thought, now is the moment when we leave this place and go to the clinic itself. They should have a better – what? Reception area? Shop front? More like the private doctor’s. Flowers on a desk. Pale painted walls. Pictures. Magazines. The clinic would lead off here. The clinic with the pale walls, pale furniture, the crucifix, the tranquil white pillows, the soft music, the rug beneath your feet, the air of calm. Of reverence even.
It was a small bare room. There was a high couch covered in a plastic sheet. A sink. A wooden chair. A draining board with a cupboard beneath it. Kitchen cupboard. She thought, is that where they keep the tea, the coffee, the mugs. Or …
‘You have your identity paper, please, your passport?’ He held out his hand.
She fumbled at the front pocket of her bag but her fingers would not grasp the zip.
Penny sat, still motionless. Still barely breathing.
It took a lifetime. He did not offer to help her, simply stood, waiting. In the end, she got the pocket open, her passport, her identity papers that had come in the post.
He took them. Read every word. Turned the pages of the passport. Looked at her face. Then her photograph. Her face again. The photograph. He nodded. Put the papers and passport on the draining board.
‘Mrs Forbes, yes. Now. I will tell you what will happen. I will go through this step by step and you must indicate at every point that you understand me.
‘You will take off your coat and shoes, and lie down. We will make sure you are comfortable. You will be propped up on the backrest. The pillows. I will then mix the medication in front of you, so that you see everything I do. Your witness … your companion sees. It will be a glass of mixture. And I will unwrap a square of good sweet chocolate. I will hand you the glass and then I will say to you this. “Mrs Forbes, you have indicated your wish to commit suicide. If you drink this, you will die.” You will tell me that you understand. Then you will hold the glass in your own hand and your own hand only. I cannot help you. Then you will drink it all and as it is bitter to taste you will eat the chocolate square. You will then lie down and after a moment you will feel drowsy and you will go unconscious. After some more moments, which you will not know anything of, you will die. You will be dead. I will not have killed you. You will have committed suicide with the medication prescribed for you. That is all. Do you understand all of this?’
‘Say yes, please – the tape is to record this.’
Like the police then. The arrested person interviewed. ‘For the benefit of the tape please state your name.’
‘Yes. I understand.’
She realised how cold the room was.
The man had his back to them and was opening the cupboard, checking her paperwork again.
The young woman came in and spoke to him quietly. He nodded. She too looked at the papers. Picked up Jocelyn’s passport and turned a couple of pages. Put it down.
That was not a check, Jocelyn thought, that was nosiness. How dare she flip through personal items like that.
Yet in a few moments, twenty, thirty, personal items would not matter. They did not matter now. Her passport would be obsolete. The passport of a dead woman. Dead.
The man had a glass vial in his hand and read out something in German to the girl. She took the vial. Read the label.
A second vial.
The two vials were on the worktop together.
The girl bent and opened the cupboard beneath the sink. Stood up again with a pack of small plastic beakers and slit the wrapping. Took one out.
Beside her, Penny seemed to be frozen. Her hands did not move, but were folded on her bag, white. Her face was stiff and without expression, but when Jocelyn glanced, she saw that her daughter’s eyes had sunk inwards, and the hollows beneath them were deep.
For a second time stopped. Everything in the room stopped. There was a streak of sunlight on the far wall, like a patch of child’s paint. The air was dense and thick so that she could hardly force it into her lungs. There was no sound. The two figures at the worktop were waxen and neither moved nor breathed.
The young woman. Short hair. Fair hair. Pale green tabard. It shone faintly. Polyester then. Not crisp cotton. Jeans. And plastic clogs. Terrible acid-pink plastic clogs.
‘If you will stand now please?’ She held out a hand. Long fingers. Bony fingers. One ring. ‘And take off your coat.’
Penny was still frozen.
For a second, Jocelyn had an image in her mind again, of the quiet room. The sunlight filtering through half-drawn curtains. A candle flickering, sending a slightly moving shadow onto the wall. The blonde-wood table. Cross. Bed. White pillows. White sheet. White coverlet. Music perhaps. Tranquil music. She had thought of bringing a CD of her own. It had been mentioned in the literature.
Music to die to.
The image flickered too and before it faded completely she had a surge of longing for it, longing to lie down on the white sheets and rest her head on the soft pillows. Look at the cross. Look at the candle. Look at the light sifting through the cotton curtains. Look at Penny, sitting quietly beside her. Penny holding her hand. Penny smiling.
The light went out and the room in her head was in darkness.
Jocelyn stood. The girl was still holding out her hand. The thin hand. Pale skin. One ring.
Jocelyn took a step back from the hand. The edge of the chair pressed against her. She looked round. The man had come to life. He had a bar of Swiss chocolate in his hand and was breaking off a section. Snap.
‘No,’ Jocelyn said.
‘I DON’T HAVE good news,’ John Lowther said. ‘The director, the medical officer and I have gone through everything. We have tried to identify any hidden reserves we can free up. There are none. Savings? We’re still in the process of identifying any more we can possibly make but frankly it’s unlikely. Everything has been cut to the bone and beyond the bone. A couple of support staff have taken redundancy, one nurse is leaving and not being replaced. another is due to retire next month. We can’t lose any more without compromising patient care and even endangering patient safety, which obviously we would never do. We have no other option. We have to close C ward – that is eight beds – and mothball it for an indefinite time. If we do that we can keep going, just about, for another three or four months, without an absolute financial crisis. The bank is being relatively accommodating – which in these days is quite something, you’ll agree. The PCT is not. They have no more money for us and they cannot bring any forward. Indeed, they’ve told us informally that we’re likely to have our support from them cut by 40 to 50 per cent next year. Cat drew in her breath and John Lowther nodded. ‘I can’t argue with your reaction,’ he said. ‘Other than that, we’re cutting the opening hours of the day care centre. Looking at either two full or three half-days.’
‘That’s completely inadequate,’ Cat said. ‘Given the health and safety and staffing level limits on numbers already, we can’t cater for much more than half the patients who would benefit from day care, which in itself saves us money. Quite a few people we manage to treat by a combo of day care and home nursing would have to become inpatients. Oh, for heaven’s sake, what are we doing here? Limping along. This isn’t anywhere near a proper hospice facility.’
‘I know.’ John Lowther sighed.
‘I’m sorry, John.’
‘Please.’ He raised a hand. ‘Feel free to vent your feelings in here. I am as angry as you are. I hope none of us ever has to hold back what we really think and feel, around this table at least. But, let’s look at something a little more hopeful. Leo Fison has begun his task. I am not going to speak for him but I feel a bit more optimistic about our finances now he’s in charge of raising some emergency funds. Leo.’
Cat had had a patient with alopecia a few months earlier, a man in his thirties who had been desperate to have a wig rather than show himself to the world entirely bald. Cat had tried to persuade him that many men now chose to shave their heads, that it was fashionable.
‘Bouncers and criminals,’ he had said. ‘I don’t care what it costs. I’m not demeaning myself by being a bald man before my time.’
She had wanted to mention the number of women, young women, sometimes beautiful, who had become bald after chemotherapy and who had refused to hide behind wigs. But she had kept her mouth shut.
Now she looked at Leo Fison and wished she could have introduced him to her patient. He did not have a hair on his head and yet he was handsome, strikingly so. Some women would even find him sexy. She did not, but only because she had found no man sexually attractive since Chris, and doubted if she would ever do so again.
There were five of them round the table – several trustees had sent apologies this time. Meetings were not usually so frequent and they were busy people.
‘I have to begin by stating the obvious,’ Leo Fison said. He had a good voice, a clear, warm tone. He inspired immediate confidence, Cat thought, and if he was asking for money that was an invaluable asset. ‘At the moment there are far too many good causes chasing a shrinking amount of charitable money. Everyone has cut back and these are straitened times. You know that but it bears repeating because I don’t feel I can be as bold as I might have been a few years ago. But that isn’t going to deter me. One of the avenues which has closed up is the business one – corporate giving. Firms simply do not have the spare cash. Those local businesses which already support Imogen House very generously are looking at the amount they donate and finding they may have to reduce this. One firm which was a principal supporter – Jameson Studley Hines – has gone into receivership, another – Cole Brothers – has said it can’t give us anything for the next year though they are adamant that this is a temporary situation. I have approached a few businesses which for one reason or another have never given to us, so far without success. They already donate to other local causes and they can’t take on anything else. One spot of sunshine, however. A large, upmarket insurance firm, Hinchley, have relocated to this area. I had lunch with their CEO who is Mr Hinchley himself, Michael Hinchley – his father founded the company and he now heads it up. They are going to give us thirty thousand a year for the next five years, and he also said that he would make that fifty thousand for this year only, to help us out of our present crisis.’ He glanced across at Lowther. ‘I kept that one back from you, John. I thought I’d bring at least one nice surprise to the table.’
John Lowther’s face, permanently creased into sadness now, lit up with a quick smile. ‘Good man,’ he said. ‘Good news.’
‘In addition – and I’ve got the list of names here, a copy for each of you – I’ve extracted another forty thousand, almost forty anyway, from here and there. A couple of trusts, someone I was at Cambridge with who’s made a fortune from biotechnology, that sort of thing. So we have all but ninety thousand in the bank, though we need a good deal more, as you know. It’s a very small start … but at least I don’t come to the table empty-handed. I have one or two other notes but perhaps you might want to say something at this point?’
One by one ideas were thrown into the ring and thrown out again.
Leo asked how many volunteers the hospice had.
‘It’s an ever-changing number but we can count on a core of about twenty-five to thirty people who are generally available and then maybe a dozen more who sometimes help out, depending on circumstances.’
‘So approximately thirty people we can call regular, committed volunteers?’
‘Yes, I think that’s fair.’
‘Then rather than going down the bazaar and coffee-morning route, the sponsored this and that – which takes up a lot of time and not always for a huge reward – suppose we have a meeting with the volunteers and ask if they would each be willing to try and raise a thousand pounds, in a limited time frame. Two months … three? Do it any way they like – whatever they want to organise. Is that an impossible challenge?’
‘Not at all, I’d have said.’
‘Some might struggle.’
‘Yes, but some would raise more so it would even out.’
‘That would be another thirty thousand.’
Leo straightened his papers together. ‘I think we must try. I’m going to London with John next week to see a few people. We have to knock on every door, frankly. No choice.’
On the way out, Cat caught up with John Lowther. ‘We need to talk.’
‘About having to close C ward. Yes.’
‘You announced it without consulting me.’
‘I know. I did mean to phone you yesterday, but I got caught up in other things.’
‘We’ve four patients in C ward now.’