I will not see any of this again, she thought. The thick lushness of the leaves, the shady green, the sunlight filtering through here and there. I will not see an autumn or a winter either.
And it occurred to her that she was glad, that however much she had wavered in Switzerland and immediately after coming home, she now felt the old calm resolution returning, the sense of decision, of having a choice and making it.
She did not want to go on.
‘Mrs Forbes?’ The voice was familiar, though the appearance was not and took her aback slightly.
This was a light room too, with a high moulded ceiling, a recent partition across one end.
He had a sheet of notes in front of him on the desk but he did not look at them, he looked at her, leaning back in his chair, calm, still, waiting.
‘Something happened, just this morning,’ Jocelyn said, and began to talk. He listened, as she had rarely known anyone listen, listened, without interrupting, looking at her steadily, his eyes thoughtful and full of sympathy. She talked about the onset of her illness, the symptoms, the fears, the creeping dread of becoming dependent, the terror of dying in the way she might have died this morning. She recounted everything about the visit to Switzerland, told him about Penny, told him about her own changes of mind and heart. Until now.
‘Now,’ he said when she had fallen silent at last. ‘Now, today. Where do you find yourself?’
‘Decided. Absolutely. If I could only be sure that there was somewhere even a little like that place in my mind. The one I imagined.’
‘Not like a shabby apartment in a suburb of Switzerland where the bed was more like a none-too-clean examination couch.’ His voice was filled with disgust. ‘That is a complete scandal and a disgrace and I cannot tell you how many of us would wish to have the place closed down. The whole organisation closed down.’
How many of us. Who? What did he mean?
‘One of the few things we are managing to do in this country is rescue people such as yourself once they have fallen into – and, thankfully, out of – the clutches of these criminals – because that is what they are, I assure you. We have some efficient ways of tracing their victims – I don’t use the word lightly, Mrs Forbes – and offering an alternative to at least a few.’
He put his fingertips together and glanced down at his desk. ‘Let’s just say there are people prepared to pass on information. But the point is, as I know you are aware, for the time being we have a legal problem in the UK. All of this is strictly against the law – in short, it is criminal. That is a crime in itself, in my view – a crime against common humanity and an infringement of basic human rights. One day, we’ll win the battle, I have no doubt about that. It’s a moral battle, not merely a legal one. But in the meantime, we have no alternative but to be very careful, very circumspect. Before you leave here today I will ask you to sign a statement which will not only help you but will be essential to me and to my staff should there be any future legal challenges or problems. Do you understand? I’m sure you do.’
She thought of Penny. Penny could not know.
‘For this reason, among others, if I do offer you an appointment in my clinic, you will not be allowed to bring anyone with you – no relative or friend. It is better to involve no one else at all. I have staff who will look after you and be with you every step of the way to the final step – who will take the place of that relative or friend and are specially trained to do so.’
‘Are they not at risk of prosecution?’
‘Yes in theory, but they believe as passionately as I do in our work, so they are prepared – brave enough – to take the risk. And we are very, very careful indeed. Now, you’ve told me about your condition. It’s plain that it is deteriorating and you’re right to fear some of the things you do. But I would urge you, even so, that care for motor neurone sufferers, in hospices for example, as well as in hospitals, is increasingly sophisticated. There’s no cure but there are many ways in which symptoms can be controlled. You should leave no avenue unexplored, you know.’
‘I haven’t. I appreciate what you’re saying to me but I am very clear now about what I want to do. Very clear. Going to Switzerland put me off in one sense. I would never go back there and I’d deter anyone else from going, with the last breath in my body. It was a terrible experience. But you assure me that you have something quite different to offer.’
‘I like to think that my small facility is as – well, yes – as perfect – I won’t be afraid to use the word – as I can make it. As peaceful, as calm, as tranquil, as spiritual, as beautiful – and as professional. All those images you had which you have called “fantasies” of a place of great peace and acceptance in which to die with dignity – all those images are true. You will see.’
‘So I would be able to visit in advance?’
‘Ah, no – I’m afraid not. That is part of our having to be so private and secure – it’s a risk we couldn’t take. Not at the moment. You can imagine … word would only have to get out after an unscrupulous person decided to “visit in advance” … I hope you understand. I wish this were not the case, I really do.’
‘What should I do?’
‘I can’t tell you that, Mrs Forbes. This is your decision. Your illness. Your life.’
He looked directly at her without any embarrassment.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It is. You should go home and think everything through. Think it through again, from every point of view. Make the decision – to remain alive until death takes you in its own time. Work your way through that in your mind, looking at every possible outcome, every sort of care you might opt for, every medical help. The positives and the negatives. Then do the opposite. Make the decision to come to the clinic and take your death into your own hands. See how you feel about that. Look at that from every point of view.’
‘Should I talk to anyone else?’
‘That’s up to you. My own feeling is that you should not – this is your decision, no one else’s. In any case, as the paper you will read and sign makes clear, you should under no circumstances talk to anyone about this consultation, or our clinic – this has to be totally confidential. Do you understand that fully?’
She understood. She understood that he was protecting himself, his staff, his clinic, that he could be prosecuted, struck off the medical register, imprisoned – she did not know exactly. But it occurred to her that if she were to go out into the street now and telephone the police, she would be able to prove nothing.
She read the statement, signed it. He gave her a card with his telephone and email contact details. The telephone number was not the same as the one she had had previously. ‘I so dislike this cloak-and-dagger,’ he said, ‘and roll on the day when it is no longer necessary.’
But it did not feel like cloak-and-dagger, she thought, walking out of the consulting room to her waiting taxi in the bright sunshine. It did not feel sordid, or backstreet. Illegal. Wrong. It felt right. She felt right.
She almost tripped, climbing into the back of the cab. She could no longer trust her body. It was time to leave it.
FRANCES CADSDEN CAME out of her front door wearing a tracksuit and carrying a sports bag as Simon stopped outside. She looked slightly annoyed.
‘It won’t take a minute.’
‘It’s just that I go to a fitness class and then I meet a friend for coffee. But of course, come in …’
‘No need. It’s only a couple of questions.’
‘She was musical. Played the piano, played the clarinet.’
‘Oh yes, and loved them both, really did … she loved her music. Right from when she and Katie were first friends.’
‘Was she very talented?’
‘That’s hard to say. I’m not musical, Katie didn’t play any instrument so …’
‘Do you remember anything about her parents trying to stop her playing the piano?’
‘I do actually. You’d better come in, hadn’t you?’
No neighbours were about, no one looked out from behind net curtains here. It was not that sort of road. But he had Frances Cadsden down as a dignified person who would not want to chat to anyone at all on her doorstep.
‘Yes,’ she said, putting down her sports bag, and closing the door, ‘we had talked about this – probably during the summer term. Harriet had been staying the night – it was a Saturday, she was only allowed to stay on Saturdays during term – and she was saying there was a concert coming up and she had been asked to play her clarinet in part of it but she wasn’t sure she could because she didn’t have enough time to practise. Then she spilled it out about wanting to learn the guitar, wanting to do more music, wanting to go for Grade 8 piano, but her parents were against it. She got quite upset and Katie was telling her to go for it, I was saying no – not just that, but at least maybe have another chat with her parents. It seemed such a pity. Don’t you think so? It still seems a pity to me. She was so good at music, so keen, and then to have them be so negative.’
‘Did they want her to give her music up?’
‘No, I don’t think so. But they said she was doing quite enough music, she had GCSEs coming, she had to concentrate on her schoolwork, not on extra stuff. I think they saw music as “hobbies department”. A lot of parents do, don’t they? Sport, art, drama … all that. Nice hobbies, nothing to do with getting A grades and a good career.’
‘I know Katie didn’t play an instrument but is there any chance that you or she could remember who taught Harriet music?’
‘I wouldn’t know, I’m afraid. I don’t suppose I ever knew. Katie might. They were pretty close at that age. Try asking Katie. All I know is that the whole subject was a bit of a bone of contention in the Lowther household. Poor Harriet.’ She looked down silently at her sports bag, and the bright, neat hall was filled at once with the memory of a blonde girl carrying a tennis racket.
Bevham General was like an airport, he sometimes thought, with the all-important shopping mall, the check-in desks, the lifts, the uniforms, the people, the muzak, the big windows and the general hum. And upstairs, the quieter areas, where people waited. He had grown familiar with it over the times when Martha, his sister, had been in and out of emergency rooms and he had sat with her for hour after hour, talking to her, holding her hand, drawing her. Waiting. She had always recovered somehow, always gone home, though home had not been Hallam House for years. But she had been happy in the nursing home, loved and spoiled. Until there had been one more crisis. Until their mother …
‘Is Katie Morris here?’ He showed his warrant card.
‘She’s in ICU. Is it urgent?’
‘Yes, but it will only take a minute.’
‘I’ll see. You may have to wait. Relatives’ room?’
Not his favourite place. He had been in too many with the shocked and the suddenly bereaved, the traumatised and the fearful, as they sat grey-faced, holding someone’s hand, cups of tea left untouched, the air thick with grief and bewilderment.
But this one was empty. He looked out of the window onto the main forecourt where the ambulances were pulling in, unloading, driving off. It was high up. The people walking about in white coats were like tiny figures on a child’s construction set, the cars toys.
His family had spent most of their lives here one way and another, his father in the old, small building long since demolished, an Edwardian house extended and expanded, with Nissan hut wards running at every angle. Cat had not trained here but had come back to do her house jobs, where she had met Chris; Ivo had trained here before heading off to Australia the minute he qualified; Meriel had been on every committee and board, in her day the strongest force to be reckoned with.
What would it have been like if he had trained here, worked here too, a cardiac surgeon, an obstetrician – a bench scientist researching into vaccines, say? He had started out, dutifully, on the family path, but always going against the grain, always feeling he was in the wrong place, among the wrong people, never enjoying a single day, a single aspect of it, always ill at ease, always looking round for his escape route.
‘Sorry you had to wait, I can’t spare you long.’
‘That’s fine. Thanks for finding a moment.’
‘What’s happened? You’ve found out something, haven’t you? I can see it in your face.’
Could she? How? He was startled, never expecting to be so transparent.
‘It’s very possible, yes. And you can help, Katie.’
‘Anything. I was thinking about her only this morning, you know? Where would she be now, what would she be like? Would we have kept up? I think we would but you can never be sure.’
Simon sat opposite her on one of the Scandinavian-looking chairs.
‘It’s this. Harriet was musical, played two instruments.’
‘Yes, piano and clarinet. I never quite got it, the music thing, typical Walkman-in-ears girl, me, but she liked playing more than anything. Piano best, but she wanted to try the guitar as well as the clarinet, only that wasn’t on, of course.’
‘Her parents weren’t keen, I gather.’
‘You could say. They wanted a little brainbox though they pretended to be laid-back, but you could tell. They should have let her follow her own star. All parents should in my view.’
‘And mine. Do you remember who taught Harriet music?’
Katie smiled. ‘Mr Winder, the wind, er, instrument teacher.’
‘I heard that one. And piano?’
‘Miss … God, what was her name, what was her name? I can see her now. She lived with another woman. She never taught me but Harriet got on really well with her because she was so good at the piano – star pupil. Yes, and I remember now – Harriet wanted to have extra lessons, you know, private ones, out of school time, but they wouldn’t have it.’
‘No. God, it’s all coming back …’
Keep it coming, Simon thought, keep it coming, Katie. But he said nothing. She would recall better without being pushed or prompted.
‘Harriet wanted extra piano lessons but that was no-go as well as the guitar – the Lowthers just put their foot down. But Harriet was one of those quiet people who can get quite stubborn, quite determined, and she told me she’d fixed up the lessons anyway. I think it was only one a week and she was going to the teacher’s house for them. She made me swear I wouldn’t say anything – sweet, really. That’s not the kind of thing you usually swear not to tell about – extra music lessons!’