‘Silencio.’ Her last word, exhaled in a whisper before she shut her eyes for the last time. I laid my head on her chest, the satin nightdress smooth to my cheek. I could feel the curve of her breast on the tip of my nose and she was warm. How long before she lost heat? That heat I sidled up against in bed every night. Silencio; and what did that mean? 'Silence' I presumed, some sort of Spanish or Italian. This would be the silence of her passing, of her death. I kept my head on her chest and strained for beats that I knew I would not hear.
It took a while before I noticed the goose bumps forming on her arms and mine. The open window brought in a light breeze that drifted around the room. I wanted to get up and close it, shut the curtains and the world from this moment. But I couldn’t move. I lay there and waited for the warmth to disappear from her body.
Her hands were at her sides, orderly, with her fingers slightly bent as if waiting for mine. I used to stroke these hands, soft, everyday. She would be driving, one hand on the gear stick, and I’d trace my finger along her skin, tickling the little hairs that rose to my touch.
A knock came at the door. It was Jennifer, her sister. I tried to say that I’d only be a few more minutes but nothing came out. I hadn’t the strength to move my jaw muscles or my tongue to speak. She came in, peeping round the door, her glasses reflecting the light from the candles.
‘Sorry, how’s she doing?’
She always started her sentences with sorry it seemed, especially these last few months.
‘She’s gone Jennifer. She’s gone.’
That was enough for her. She ran out of the room, her hand to her mouth, breathless noises, then shrills echoing the hall, emphasising the silence. Silencio. I turned the word over in my mind and slept on her chest.
Only two hours earlier she had kissed me on the nose. A small peck in slow motion, strained. I could smell her lipstick; she insisted on wearing her make-up even towards the end. I didn’t want to wipe away the mark she left, as I normally would.
I thought about what would happen after this ended; the visits that would come, no doubt, from family and friends; all those who had never stepped a foot into this room over the last six months for one reason or another. But now she had gone, it would be safe for them to strap on their masks of compassion, pat my hand and tell me things would be all right. Well, I would have none of that. I locked myself in the room with her. I read her our favourite passages from the bible; I prayed for her safe journey to the next life; I ignored the banging on the door; I squeezed her hand tight and sang our song and cried until the candles flickered out.
The door burst open and I saw Dr. Greendale and Jennifer rush in to separate us. I was weak and drained and struggled to hold onto her as the Doctor grabbed my shoulders and Jennifer pleaded to let go. I gave in and fell to the floor sobbing. The Doctor checked for her pulse and shook his head then turned his attention to me
He felt my forehead and asked questions. How long had I been in here? What time did she go? Had I eaten today? I couldn’t reply. Instead I took deep breaths to steady myself then vomited over the Doctor’s shoes. Jennifer ran out again shouting for a bucket and mop, and I fainted.
I woke and saw the flash of an ambulance through the windows. I was on her bed, alone in the room. They’d taken her. I clenched every muscle in my body for as long as I could and held my breath until my head felt ready to explode, and then let it go and relaxed. It was over.
A few nights later, after Jennifer had gone and I’d signed this form and that, I went back to her room for the first time. We normally slept upstairs in the master bedroom. Only for those last six months, when she was too weak to climb the steps, when I felt too stupid to carry her all that way, was the room, her office in the good days, converted into a bedroom for her. A room where she could work when she wanted to and rest when the Cancer became too heavy, too much. Whenever I picture that word in my mind, I see it with a capital C because it is severe, demanding and merciless. It spread through her until the end; a plague, a virus, a wave of mutilation with no compassion or thought for its actions. Although she had kept her mind active until the end, it had worn her down so much that it was a struggle for her to talk or stay conscious for any length of time and I hated to see her in that condition.
I couldn’t sleep in our bedroom. I was an amputee; ghost limbed where she should be on her side of the bed. I could still feel, imagine I could feel, the silent S of her body under the sheets; hear the light breathing she used to make, the sound of snow falling on wood at night. Her room was untouched. There was still that sick smell of phlegm on tissues and of ointment in the air. Her desk still there in the corner, crumpled paper on the floor, piles of books at her elbows and that natty old typewriter sat waiting for those fingers that would never again clack-clack the keys.
I never gave it a thought to clear anything away or move it all to another room. It was her stuff, her work. She had been writing up until the end. She had made me promise not to read the manuscript until her editor Daniel was present. He was due to arrive the morning of the funeral and would be staying a few days. The day after she passed away, I had to make the call to him. He was unreachable and the person I left a message with didn’t seem all that upset at the news. In fact they seemed relieved and I had an image of a group of marketing experts shaking hands and popping champagne corks at the news, happy they could sell her as a dead writer, her work now worth reading, worth selling.
In the last few weeks of her life she had philosophised slowly yet frequently on life and death and the illness. I was sure these thoughts would find their way into her writing and I stood in front of her desk ready to read her last work. I didn’t want to wait for Daniel. I wanted to be alone when I read it. I had to see what she’d been writing. The manuscript was lying in the bottom drawer of the desk. I took it out and on the front page sat the word ‘Silencio’, the title of her new book. I took a few steps back and sat down on the bed. I’d wondered what she meant by that last word to me. This work would be her last word to the world.
I turned the page and was met by a block of black marker pen struck through each line. I looked closer and saw there were words underneath that I could not make out. The whole manuscript was the same. Three hundred pages of the same black strike-through; I didn’t know what to make of it.
Daniel arrived in the early morning while I was still getting dressed. I answered the door in my dressing gown and found myself dwarfed by him. He always had an imposing physique, his muscular baldness and bear-like posture made me a little wary of him. He shook my hand with those ginger-root fingers of his and said he was sorry for my loss, for our loss. I showed him to the guest room and got ready for the funeral. I didn’t want to bring up the manuscript at that point; I’d wait until the evening or the day after to tell him about it.
The funeral went well; as well as any funeral can go. All our friends and family were there, patting my hand and asking if I was ok. I sat by the grave with everyone around me while the priest warbled on. I wasn’t listening as such; I had begun to sweat and felt the world tilting a little to the left. I concentrated on the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. Part of me wanted to jump in after her and let them bury us both, another part of me wanted to rip open the lid and save her, drag her out and take her back home and make love to her one more time. And another part of me was content. Glad that it was over, that she was at peace and would suffer her illness no more.
The wake was at our house but I only lasted an hour before I had to get away from everyone. I sat in our bedroom staring out across the fields. It was early afternoon and a young girl skipped through the heather, almost floating, with her dog. I watched her chase the collie and laugh and call after it; it ran ahead then waited for her to catch up then ran on ahead again. I stayed there a little while longer until I noticed a figure reflected in the window. I turned to see it was Daniel.
‘People are asking where you are,’
‘I can’t face them anymore.’
‘No, me neither. Look, I don’t want to bring it up so soon but there’s something I need to…’
‘Yes I know. I was going to talk to you about it later, when we are alone.’
‘Ok, I understand. I’ll start to tell people…’
I went downstairs to say the goodbyes, there wasn’t that many people left, just my cousin James, a few of her relatives and a few friends who were actually mild associates. Jennifer was there and was talking to a man I didn’t know. I circled and apologised and they understood and if I needed anything…yes, thank you.
I hadn’t eaten all day so I made myself a sandwich in slow motion. I thought back to the day we met. It was Christmas, fifteen years ago and she was buying gifts from the store I worked at. I was helping her pick out a scarf for her mother and we both reached for the same one and touched hands and smiled. I became embarrassed and she asked me out for a drink after I finished. Her Mother hated the scarf; she was always an impossible woman to please. By the New Year she had pinched the scarf from her Mother’s drawer and kept it for herself. Over the next few years, when we had argued over nothing and had fallen out and she wanted to make up, she would make an excuse to leave the house and put on the scarf and I would look at her and smile and fall in love with her all over again.
I felt better for having some food inside me and walked through to the living room where Daniel was tidying up. I told him to leave it and come with me to the office. I sat in the chair and after hesitating he sat on the bed. I took the manuscript from the drawer and handed it him. He held it and stared at the front page.
‘So, what’s your verdict?’
‘Just see for yourself Daniel.’
‘Silencio. Beautiful word.’
He turned to the first page, saw the blacked out text then flicked through the rest of it. He looked up at me then back at the manuscript.
‘What have you done to it?’
‘That was how I found it.’
‘Really? I mean, why…why would she do this?’
‘That’s what I’ve been trying to work out. I don’t know. All I’ve had to go on is the title, Silencio.’
The previous night my mind had been a wet rag flapping on a clothesline in a strong winter wind, going through a hundred different reasons why she had done this and what it meant, and settling on none of them.
‘I think Silencio is an Italian or Spanish word isn’t it.’
Daniel ignored me and stared at the front page.
‘Did she say anything to you about this?’ he asked.
‘It was her last word. I’m sure there must be something in these books about it.’
I took a handful of the books she had read up until she passed away and gave a few to Daniel. We started to look through them, searching for signs or traces as to what she had written. I ran my finger along every line, each word a potential clue. After ten minutes Daniel spoke up.
‘Sorry, I can’t do this anymore; I can’t keep up this charade with you.’
‘Charade? What do you mean?’
‘Silencio. I’m Silencio. Well, it was us. I thought she’d told you.’
I looked at him, puzzled, and watched a trickle of sweat squirm its way down the bridge of his nose. He looked at it for a second, cross-eyed, then flicked it away in one quick movement.
‘Ten years ago, on her first book tour in Spain, we stayed at a hotel called Silencio. We were excited about promoting the book, you remember, ‘The Girl with the Saddle’, well, as I said, we were together, and one thing…’
‘You mean to say you slept with my wife?’
‘Yes. We never meant to…I’m sorry, really,’
‘Sorry won’t make up for. Just that one time?’
‘No. It was more than once. I hate to say this. We went back to that same hotel, Silencio, every year. This manuscript is about us.’
‘And how long did this go on for?’
‘Up until the illness.’
I held my hand to my head and ran it through my hair. Daniel didn’t look me in the eye. I wanted to jump out of my seat and throw myself at him, strangle that tree-trunk neck of his until he spat out his last breath. Instead, I sat there and thought about why she would do this. Why would she want to taint my memory of her? Then it dawned on me.
Up until she was diagnosed we had been growing silently apart, as a married couple can. I never noticed it then; it was just how we were set in our ways. She would be locked in her office typing away for hours then out to walk the fields by herself. She went on book tours and readings, teaching sometimes too, while I would be out at work, odd jobbing and gardening at the weekends. We would see each other in the evening and ask each other about our day in a kind of formulaic way.
When we found out she had Cancer we started spending more time together, I went on a leave of absence from work; they understood. We fell into one another as though we had only just met. We talked more, had things to talk about. On those trips to the hospital we reminisced on the old times; how we got caught in the rain on May Day that time and about the strange lodger we took in one summer. You don’t realise how far you can drift away from a person until a thing such as Cancer hits you and brings you back together.
I think about the guilt she must have felt. I wiped the drool from her mouth; I struggled to carry her up the stairs and cooked her meals that she never ate. She saw how much I cared for her, deep down in a way that no other lover would or could. She had stopped writing for the time being and, thinking back, Daniel hadn’t been in touch or come to stay for the odd weekend as he had in the past.
I can see now why she did it this way. Daniel loved her. She knew that. He told me he had written to her a number of times over the last few months only to get no reply. The kind of person that she was, she would have wanted Daniel to confess on his own, and so he did, declaring that he was in love with her and despised me for no other reason than for being her husband and sharing a bed with her for all those years. He sat there and wept about how he had told her to leave me a thousand times and how each time she refused.
She would never have confessed herself. She would have wanted to. That’s why she wrote the book she did but blacked it out before anyone could read it. I think writing about it had given her the release she needed from the guilt she must have felt. She could have ripped it up or thrown it away. Instead, she made it so that we would come together, that we would sit down and talk. I had a thought that it would have been her aim for us both to share our grief, having had an intimate and unique connection with her, that somehow it would help us, be easier for us to cope with losing her. But it was hard.
Daniel carried on looking through the manuscript, feeling the marks she had left with the typewriter. We had fallen into a silent moment after the revelation. He was fingering the back of a few pages then spoke up.
‘You know, I think we could publish this. We could lift the words from the imprints the keys left. Would you want, I mean, would you mind?’
‘Daniel, you can do what you want with it. It’s just too much. I’m going to bed.’
With that I left him pondering. I didn’t care what he did with the manuscript. I went to bed with a dull head and slept soundly for the first time in weeks.
The next morning, downstairs, I saw that Daniel had left, taking the manuscript with him. There was a note on the fireplace saying sorry, again, and that we should talk more, he would be in touch. I couldn’t stay in the house so I got dressed and went for a walk. I didn’t have a destination; I just wandered around, trying to find the horizon, my hands in my pockets. It had rained lightly over night; I could feel the pure sugar of the morning and hear the short sad songs of the birds in the trees. The leaves glistened and shimmered as the sun hit them in the wind. I saw a female figure up ahead, walking amongst the heather. She turned and looked my way as if in recognition. Silence surrounded me; a falter between heartbeats. I took my hands out of my pockets and quickened my step.