The moment passed, if in fact it had ever been established as a moment and Shirley continued with her embroidery and her talking. “That was the hard part about Van dying. I was sorry that he was dead but I was glad at the same time because I was free. I kept wanting to smile all the time, even at the funeral, when everyone expected me to be miserable. You probably think that’s terrible?” Shirley looked at both Monique and Jennifer in turn and each in turn shook her head in denial, both of Shirley’s question and of their own real feelings on the matter. They did of course think it was terrible, but they were not about to say so.
“It was odd though, because I was miserable,” Shirley went on, “but I was also happy … both at the one time. It wasn’t that I hadn’t loved him because I had, absolutely, and still did. It wasn’t that I didn’t miss him because I missed him terribly, it was just that there was this other part of me which was elated, almost hysterical with the thought of being absolutely free, able to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted to do it and with no thought for anyone else. It sounds selfish I know and it probably is…” At this point she stopped, both talking and sewing, with needle and her final word hanging lightly in mid-air as if considering the joy of total freedom where one may plunge in any direction, at any speed, in any form, landing at last upon a point which is absolutely of one’s own choosing. Such places do not of course exist since the embroidery needle to be at all effective must land somewhere sensible upon the cloth in hand and the words must also be received if they are to leave any impression.
“Yes,” Shirley continued, with a quick jab of the needle, “it was selfish but the fact was I couldn’t do anything about it. I mean I didn’t ask to feel that way, I just did. Anyway, Van would not have minded. He understood how important it was to freel free which is why he always did what he wanted when he wanted. Men can of course, society allows it and women allow it … in fact we encourage it, fools that we are. I didn’t mind though, following along behind him. He was fun to be with and kind and I never felt strongly enough about things myself to challenge him. But then we probably weren’t married long enough for it to become an issue. Perhaps that was why it worked so well, because it was so terribly brief.
“But when it was over, done with, when I was free I was glad, even though it would not have bothered me one bit if he had lived for another thirty years. Perhaps if he had, by then, I could not have cared less about freedom. I would have been a different person anyway if we had been together for that long. When people are married they change each other. It’s inevitable.”
She stopped speaking for a time, as if reflecting, watching the careful movement of her needle through the fine linen, the shine of steel and the colourful trail of red silk which wrought a magical transformation upon what had once been no more than plain white fabric. The trail of scarlet roses had been carefully planted around the borders of her cloth; three were complete and the final border was more than halfway done. It was a beautiful piece of work and no small surprise to Jennifer, amazed as she was that such delicate stitchery could issue forth from such large, workmanlike hands.
“You know,” Shirley said, “in a way it was good that he went when he did. But then Van always was considerate, especially when he was getting his own way.” These last few words came out with a sigh and she leaned back in her chair. She sat for a moment, the embroidery spread in delicate prettiness upon the fullness of her lap and then she carefully finished her stitch, tied it off and returned the needle to her pink plastic case. As she folded the cloth, she sighed again and then, with a final wrap, put it back into her tapestry sewing bag, saying: “I do miss the silly old bugger though! That’s the trouble with freedom. Sometimes it is better to think about it than to have it.”
She stood up with the required grunt necessary to drag her body from the chair. “Time for tea. That will cheer us up. Always does. You two chat among yourselves. I won’t be long. I think Gerda made a cinnamon tea-cake before she left. We’ll all be in that, won’t we?” A large, all-embracing grin was directed toward both of them, along with the question and each found glad acceptance.
When Shirley left the room, it seemed as if a source of energy went with her for Monique sighed and closed her eyes, saying as she did: “I feel so very tired, but the pain, could I have something for the pain?”
Jennifer moved to the small table beneath the window where the morphine, both tablets and liquid were laid out in readiness, along with a small notepad and pencil so that a record could be kept of how much was given and when.
“You can have some of the liquid, Monique,” she said. “Shall I give you that?”
Monique nodded and sighed again, but this time it was a sound which carried with it the hard edge of pain. When Jennifer turned around, she could see that her mouth and eyes were tightly shut as if to forbid the release of any sound which would reveal the truth of her suffering. When the medicine cup was placed to her lips she drank slowly, almost sucking, as if that too was something which caused pain.
“Is it very bad?” whispered Jennifer, frightened more than she dared to admit by the suffering of her friend. Monique opened her eyes and prepared a wan smile which she did not have the energy to complete.
“It is nothing,” she said. “You must not worry. Pain is my old friend, my very old friend.” Her eyes dropped shut, tissue-lids of papery ivory-blue closed out the world and yet as Jennifer moved away to return the medicine cup to the tray, she heard the soft drift of words behind her: “You are so kind to me, so very kind.”
For some reason which she could not understand, they touched her, those frail and mournful words, crept in to those hidden depths where secrets lie, where feelings live whether wanted or not. Jennifer felt the warmth of tears brimming at the border of her eyes and she kept her face to the window, her back to her dying friend. She did not want Monique see her cry and yet she did not know why it should be so. At a time like this what could it matter? How could one care about such things when one lived in the presence of death? Something told her that it did not matter, it could not matter and yet, there was some other power, far stronger, who held tightly to the reins of control and insisted it did matter. It was this other self who kept her turned toward the window, facing the bars of fading light which filtered through the outside slats until each and every tear had been dried and wiped away.
When she did turn around it was to find Monique sleeping peacefully. There was a calm to the washed, drawn shape of her face, an ease which was unexpected amidst the ruinous evidence of disease. For a moment, Jennifer thought she was dead, but then, almost imperceptibly, she became aware of the measured rise and fall of her chest; a slow drawing in and letting out of breath and life. She did not look like Monique, but rather like some mummified copy. It was as if someone had cast her in pale, yellowed leather, staying true to the shape of the bones, but laying no more upon the skeleton than was necessary to cover the form. Death was wrapping her ever more firmly in her own dull, dry embrace and the skin, weathered by pain and polished to the shine which only comes from starvation, was no more than a crepe-loose drape upon the bones.
This was more skeleton than woman and it dismayed Jennifer because she could see in this mockery of life – this human degradation, the truth of life writ brilliantly clear. To die in such a way, with painful disintegration of body and perhaps mind, was the worst that she could imagine. There was no point to it and at times, it seemed there was no end to it. What little remained of the body of her friend seemed incapable of life and yet life remained, holding on tenaciously to the threads of breath, gripping the cooling embers of energy to maintain what was to Jennifer’s mind, a ridiculous state of being.
Monique was surviving on no more than a glass or two or fruit juice each day, and sometimes, on the good days, a cup of tea. It was enough to prevent the finality of dehydration, but that was all. It had been this way for the weeks that they had been with her and apparently for some time before although Monique had kept her illness secret, even managing to eat lunch from time to time, although not, as Jennifer had subsequently discovered, keeping it down beyond the hour.
When she looked back she could see that perhaps there had been an impression that her friend seemed thinner, more frail, but it had not made enough of an impact to be remarked upon. Now it was all too awfully remarkable and there was no chance of it remaining a secret. The cancer had won, gloating in a swollen victory which rose painfully from the wasteland of her body. It was now the only source of power and life. It had made its home in a lymph gland in her stomach and while she could still eat, the cancer prevented her from keeping anything down when she tried Jennifer could see the rise of her belly beneath the blankets. It rose higher than anything else, her breasts having shrunk to no more than the droop and fold of skin which had once given them form.
It was the belly which now grew tumescent, or rather the pulsating demon within it which suckled greedily on any nourisment which could be had, while all around the body starved back into itself as a slow, deadly fading. And yet, while it seemed odd to think it, Jennifer could see a strange, numinous beauty to Monique’s face; the skin milk-white with a creamy sheen, withered and yet soft, drawn back against the line of her nose and the high bones of her face and forehead. There was in a mystifying way something perfect about it, even beautiful, as if she had been reduced to the very essence of herself; as if all else had been stripped away, the flesh, the stuff of secrets, that which hides and distorts, leaving only the pure, bone-sharp shape which was absolute in itself and incapable of deceit. She was revealed in all her perfection, Christ-like in her drawn, dying suffering upon the cross of disease. There was nothing left to hide and no reason for doing so.
It was the remains of such thoughts which Jennifer quickly dismissed from her mind as Shirley came back into the room with the tea tray. For some reason she felt guilty and did not know why. Perhaps it was because one was not meant to find beauty in death, and to be sure, it surprised her that she did, but more to the point one was not meant to be so removed from suffering that one could separate the person from the experience and that was what she had been doing. She had separated Monique from the woman in the bed and that made it all so much easier. But now, with the return of Shirley came also the return of reality and when she looked once again at the sleeping form she saw now no more than the hideous shape of disease and death. She would be very glad when it was all over.
“She is sleeping,” whispered Jennifer.
“Good, good. We won’t wake her.”
Shirley put the tray down onto the small mahogany table which was always used for Father Hubier’s ministrations. He came every few days now, usually in the mornings when Shirley and Jennifer were busy about the house. Shirley called him the shadow, but such a name was too disrespectful for Jennifer and so she merely referred to him as the priest. They had different reasons for dismissing him, but the end result was much the same. Jennifer had little time for religions other than her own and the least time of all for Catholicism while Shirley had no time for religion at all. It was, she told Jennifer one morning after the shy and unsmiling Father Hubier had been ushered up the stairs, nothing more than a way of avoiding responsibility for one’s own life. People clung to religion because they wanted to feel safe, she said, and without it they felt naked, vulnerable. It was very uncomfortable not feeling sure about things and most people did not like it, would not put up with it in fact and so the easiest way out was to absolutely believe in something which said that no matter what happened to anyone else, you would be okay. Very selfish really, she added, but much more comfortable than not being sure.
“I wonder if the shadow would think this sacrilege,” Shirley grinned as she poured the tea. “I mean, here we are at his little table with tea and cinnamon cake instead of wine and wafers. ” Her words finished in a small, throaty chuckle.
“I don’t see why you have to make fun of it all,” Jennifer snapped. “It is important to Monique and perhaps she would not like us using this table. We should have thought of that. Just because you don’t believe in anything doesn’t mean everyone else is wrong. And especially now, at a time like this … it’s her only comfort really.”
“Rubbish,” said Shirley. “We are her comfort … along with the morphine and both do a hell of a lot more for her than religion. Look, I won’t deny that some good comes out of religion but there’s a lot more rot than reason and that is what does the damage. People talk about how much comfort they find in religion but it’s all rot. Most of the things taught by religions are neither kind nor sensible. They have more to do with what people want God to be, or are frightened God might be, than what God really is.”
Jennifer was somewhat appalled at such heresy. It had never occurred to her to question the teaching of her faith. It was not that she was greatly committed to her religion, rather it was something which one had, which was part of a long and great tradition. It was particularly English and that alone was enough to make it sacrosanct. She did not mind Shirley criticising Catholicism in particular, but ridiculing religion in general was a different matter and cut rather closer to the bone than she was prepared to accept.
“I’m not sure just why you should feel yourself to be an expert on what God is or is not,” she sniffed in reply. “You don’t believe in anything.”
“I’m not an expert and I’m not saying I am, no more than anyone else although we are all experts on God in a way. We all know in our heads what we think God is and some people are lucky enough to know God in their hearts. And you misunderstand me, it’s not that I don’t believe in God, I just don’t believe in what religions say God is. I have a great deal of time for God, but very little time for religion. That’s where the trouble starts, with religion, because everyone, no matter what they believe or don’t believe, has an opinion on God. Even when we don’t believe in God, we still think we know what God is. That’s the trouble most of the time … what we think God is. It’s the thinking which does the damage. All the rules and regulations come from thinking about what God is and that then brings in the fear … fear of breaking those rules. Then comes the power which is used to make sure the rules are kept and before we know it God, or believing in God is something which makes us miserable instead of bringing us joy.”
“Well, I for one am most certainly not miserable,” said Jennifer in a voice which sounded both hurt and angry.
“No, but that’s because you don’t really believe in any of it. You carry it like a handbag. It’s just there, something which you have which is occasionally useful but not really necessary. You would give it away all together except that you wouldn’t feel dressed without it.”
“Well, I don’t see … how can you say such things? You know nothing about me. You do not have the right….” Jennifer faltered…she really did not know what to say. She was hurt because she felt that Shirley was attacking some important part of herself and she was angry that she presumed to do so. Without a ready reply there was nothing to do but leave the room, trailing behind her a few bruised and pitiful words: “Sometimes Shirley you are not kind, not kind at all. You should not say such things.”
“Such things… what things,” said Monique, her voice muffled by the covers, the morphine and the last moments of sleep. “What things? What have I missed?”
“Nothing dear, nothing at all,” said Shirley,” just a little difference of opinion. I seem to have upset Jennifer again. Never mind, she will feel better having a little time on her own. Would you like some tea?”
“Upset Jennifer, well that would not be too hard,” said Monique, struggling to raise herself onto the pillow. “I have done that so many times myself, so very many times. She is a strange woman, very sensitive… I do not understand her, but then she is English … so very, very English. But she has been good to me and I am grateful. What was it that you said… what was it that upset her?”
“Nothing important, just a difference of opinion about the meaning of life,” smiled Shirley, placing the tea beside Monique and straightening the pillows behind her. “We all see life differently, don’t we?”
Monique nodded, reflecting upon the fact that she now saw life very differently indeed. Life was now no more than a shadow upon the wall of death. It was a very different thing to what she had called life a few months ago.
As if reading her thoughts Shirley said: “Funny isn’t it how our perspective changes. We think things remain the same a way they do, it’s how we see them that changes. It’s not really what happens to us which matters so much, it’s how we feel about it.
Monique gave a small, cold laugh. “Does that mean that if I wanted to change my thoughts I could see this, this disease, this dying as the most wonderful thing which could happen to me.”
“Well yes, I suppose you could. I think there’s a saint or two who managed it. I suppose it can be wonderful if you believe that this life is terrible and the next one is perfect and that is what you believe isn’t it?”
Monique looked at her friend and her lips quivered as she said: “Oh Shirley, that is what I am meant to believe that is what I want so desperately to believe, but now, like this, now the most terrible doubts come to me. I did believe it, absolutely, for most of my life, but now I do not know, I simply do not know.” She began to cry, slow, dribbling gasps at first and then deep, racking coughs. Shirley took her in her arms, embraced the bony remnants and rocked her back and forth.
“There, there, my dear. At the end of the day, this is all there is. We have no guarantee of anything else. There is only now. Whatever else is to come, will come. I am with you now. You are not alone.”
Monique surrendered to the warm enfolding, to the acceptance of her seeming loss of faith, to the tear-drenched doubts which sought to tear her asunder and to the truth of the moment which was absolute unto itself, containing everything and containing nothing; the source of creation and of destruction. It was in that moment of tears and grief that she discarded the last of her dreams and along with them the lies and the rules. In the final days of dying she would be only as she was, only of the moment. She could promise herself that in the warmth of Shirley’s arms because she trusted this woman as she had trusted no other. At last she had found the safety of the true embrace.