The doctor came to the reception area to meet me.
“I’m sorry, what was your name again?” she asked.
I told her, though I thought she should have known it as I’d called ahead.
“Well, Ms Peters—”
“Jean, please. And you’re Doctor Sinclair, is that right?”
“Yes, but you can call me Dorothy.”
“So … Dorothy. I understand my uncle’s doing okay.”
“Yes,” she said, leading me down a corridor. “He seems to have taken … it … surprisingly well.”
“That is surprising. I mean, they’d been married for, what, 58 … no, 59 years. And they’d never been apart for a single day in all that time.”
“I know,” she said, shaking her head gently. “It was lucky that they could spend those last days together here. All but a few of them, at least.”
“Very lucky. You don’t normally allow couples, do you?”
“Actually we do have two suites for married couples, but they’re very much in demand.”
I kept pace with her as she walked briskly along, her rubber shoes squeaking on the polished floor. The corridors were bright with natural light coming in from the glass ceilings, reflecting off the white walls. That and the smell of disinfectant gave the place a sterile feel, though there was an occasional faint suggestion of urine or vomit as we passed the open doorways to the guests’ rooms. Despite this, the overall impression I had was of cleanliness and order, which reassured me that Aunt Phyllis and Uncle Albert had been well looked after.
“I suppose my uncle will have to make way for another couple now?”
“I’m afraid so, but we’re giving him a few days more before we move him.”
We carried on without speaking for a while. The corridors seemed to go on forever. I sensed the doctor looking at me as we walked.
“You know, you have some of your aunt’s features—the nose, the eyes.”
“She was my mother’s sister. I was the spitting image of my mother.”
“And you’re the only relative they … your uncle has left?”
“Yes. You know, I live and work in Spain—that’s why I couldn’t get over for the funeral.” I felt a little guilty about it and wanted to pre-empt any criticism from her.
“Was it … quick?”
“Well, she was fine, then she had a fall—she was making coffee in the kitchen, actually.”
She pointed it out as we passed.
“Yes. She just deteriorated very fast from that moment on.”
We walked on in respectful silence for a few moments.
“And when was the last time you saw them?” the doctor asked.
“Two or three years ago, just before they came here. They were doing so well looking after themselves, then almost overnight my uncle got too weak and poorly to manage at home. They could have got someone to live in, I suppose, but I think they decided things weren’t going to get any better, so this was the best place for them. And as they could afford it …”
“Yes, that’s a definite concern normally. It isn’t cheap.”
I was surprised at her candour.
“But tell me, doc—Dorothy, how is he really?”
“He’s doing well, all things considered. And he seems in good spirits generally.”
“That’s reassuring to know,” I smiled.
“Excuse me a moment,” the doctor said, stopping to speak to a man in a suit who opened a folder to show her something.
As they talked, I poked my head in one of the bedrooms, which had the curtains closed. Classical music played softly on a radio in the corner. A shape in the bed moved.
“I want my lawn mower back,” came a slurred voice, a man’s. “Then ice-cream. Here boy! Good dog.”
I shuddered. I wouldn’t wish that state on my worst enemy, I thought.
“I’m sorry about that,” the doctor said, taking my arm. “Admin! Can’t live with it, can’t live without it! Now, it’s just along here.”
We came near the end of a corridor. Through the emergency doors ahead I could see the impeccable garden, bathed in autumn sunlight. On the left, a door was open and we entered.
Uncle Albert was looking out onto the garden, the movement at the doorway causing him to turn towards us. His face was almost as white as the pillows and bed-sheets.
He smiled faintly—a reflex smile.
“Look who’s here!” announced the doctor cheerfully, guiding me towards the bed with a gentle hand on my back.
Before I could say anything, Uncle Albert’s smile broadened, genuine now.
“Oh, how beautiful you are!” he said. I must admit it made me blush.
I went to his side and took his cold, thin hand. His eyes—grey, indistinct—were filling with tears and something else, which I now know was love. Eternal, unwavering, unconditional love.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “What if I do the living room first? That way it’ll be ready for Christmas. I can do the other rooms in the spring—no rush. And I’ve finished off the garden—look.”
He pointed out of the window at the vast lawns and flower beds.
Then he squeezed my hand and winked.
“But where’s that coffee, Phyl? Didn’t you say you were going to the kitchen?”