Jenny looked down at Rob’s sleeping face, his open mouth dribbling peaceably onto the pillow that supported his head. She was dressed, breakfasted and ready to go. She was ambivalent in the mornings. Her husband could not win, although he did not know it. She felt resentment if Rob didn’t get up to mark her departure to the office. She needed him to fuss over her a little, and pay attention to her comfort: a reward for her stalwart commitment to the daily grind of work? On the other hand she valued quiet and solitary mornings when he overslept, listening out for signs that he was stirring and willing him not to. She planted a light kiss on his forehead and tip-toed out of the bedroom.
As Jenny drove her Ford Ka along the M6 she listened to BBC Radio 4. She treasured this period of sanity during the daily commute to work. The interviewer, John Humphries was interviewing a retiring prelate of the Anglican Church. Humphries asked the bishop for a nugget of wisdom for the listeners. His Lordship replied:
“Live each day as if it were your last. You’ll find that the hours round out into real time, your priorities change, your decisions will change. If you have ever been close to someone at the end of life who is dying well, you will find that they can teach you how to live. Watch and learn from those who’ve gone before.”
Normally Jenny felt a stiff resistance to clerical insights, ever the humanist with atheist inclinations. But today these words struck home and lodged in her mind. She switched to Radio 2 to try to shift the incense of seriousness that was getting up her nose. This was to no avail as it happens.
As she arrived at her office at the NHS Trust (Corporate Services) site, she considered her own life. It was a confusing picture of respectable predictability, prodigality and a painstaking attention to priorities that were not really her own. To top it all she realised that she’d not used her deodorant after showering that morning. She raised her arm and sniffed deeply for give-away smells. “Not too bad,” she muttered to herself just as Mrs Willamson her boss, (Wily for short), walked past her car and looked straight at her. Wily’s eyes widened with disbelief. Jenny might as well have been masturbating in public; she felt caught out and exposed.
It was 10.30 and Jenny looked up from her desk, her brow creased with irritation. Everyone else in the open plan office seemed to be getting on with their work, but all that she was aware of was the spring sunshine outside the window to her left. Why was it that she alone could not concentrate. She longed to escape and walk in the hills. Many folk these days would give their eye teeth for a job, any job; and here was she on £35,000 a year but wanting to get out.
Her nearest neighbour, Sally, thirty years old going fifty, turned and saw Jenny day dreaming, again.
“Jenny, you’ll need to get a move on. I’m waiting for you to draft out the report. I have to type it and get it through to Mrs Williamson by three this afternoon.”
“Sorry Sally, it’s just such a lovely day. Human beings were never made to sit down all day inside, don’t you think?”
“Jenny, my motto, as you well know, is why run if you can walk, why walk if you can stand still, why stand still if you can sit down. Would you like a Brownie, my mum made them last night, they’re gorgeous?”
Jenny glanced across at the greasy, brown square of cake. She shook her head slightly, then accepted the offering anyway.
“Your mum’s very kind Sally, thank you.”
After she’d eaten it she felt bloated and tearful. Each morning of every working day she decided she was going to do better. She was going to have a positive attitude to her work, and she was not, repeat not, going to stuff her face with comfort food just because that was what everyone else in the office did. Each and every day she failed. Lately her will power had all but deserted her.
Grimly Jenny faced the fact that if she did indeed make a break for the great outdoors she’d be out of breath after just a mile on the flat. Granted she was sixty years old, but her sister Liv still walked the Three Peaks every year. She was sixty-eight and showed no sign of slowing down. Age, she concluded, was not the problem.
“Anyone for coffee, tea?” asked Jenny, rising to her feet.
Fifteen faces tore themselves away from their screens with varying degrees of ease. A couple of women on the management trainee route looked up and registered annoyance at the interruption. They returned to work silently with cursory shakes of their glossy well cut hair, one a page-boy bob and the other a head of cascading curls. Amy, the apprentice, asked for a cup of hot water for her green tea and jasmine teabag, the rest gave orders for their regular brews. Jenny realised she knew every detail of their preferences, no wonder her brain seemed to have lulled into limbo land. As she walked down the fusty corridor towards the communal kitchen her bladder, shrieked, “Toilet, now.”
She put down the tray of cups on top of a rickety shelf unit and stumbled over to the loos. She made it just in time: thank goodness for Kegel exercises. All this coffee drinking made urgency an occupational hazard, especially when moving from sitting to standing.
As Jenny washed her hands, according to the correct stat. mand. procedure in the NHS, she looked into the mirror. She didn’t look right, but she was unsure why. She checked her nose for stray bogies, nothing showing. Her eye brows needed waxing, note to self, make appointment. Other than that there were no obvious offensive extrusions or eruptions on her face. Her features were distressingly reminiscent of her mother’s, an old dragon who had died seven years ago. But those were there every day, what had changed? Then the sun came out and it struck her with force, a halo of down was backlit around her ears, jaw and chin. This fluffy, fuzzy sign of age was more than she could bear.
Back in the office Jenny passed her hand a goodly stroke away from the contours of her face, not making contact with her skin. Yes, the hairs took the message to her brain: approaching danger. She had not imagined the growth in the fluorescent glare of the Ladies. She was not deluded, old age had come and she was far from ready for it.
Sally was chatting excitedly into her mobile whilst Jenny conducted her experiment.
“Yes Bob, I saw it on the news. Shall we go and have a look tonight?”
For a moment Jenny thought that Sally was talking about the Aurora Borealis, flagged to be visible that week. But no, it turned out to be the new Ikea store that had opened six miles outside their northern mill town.
For some reason, that did it. Jenny had to go. She could not bear it for another minute. She logged out of her computer, “I’m taking an early lunch,” she announced with a brittle brightness.
Before Sally could remonstrate about the report Jenny was on her feet and away. She strode with purpose and got as far as Amy’s desk when her foot looped into the wretched girl’s rucksack’s strap and she went flying. Arse over elbow, traditional style. She landed on her front, face down on the mucky green carpet. With as much dignity as she could muster she refused offers of help and stumbled to her feet. Some of her colleagues were smiling with amusement, others looked concerned; within a minute they’d all resumed their duties. Jenny left the building and sat in her car for a moment, her cheek had been bruised in the fall and more contusions were likely to appear.
Without actually making the decision she drove her car home and parked up in the back lane between the rows of terraced houses. She let herself in and called to see if Rob was home. No answer, he must be out on the allotment she guessed. She went to the fridge and poured herself a large glass of Chardonnay, looked at her watch and laughed. Drinking at 11.30 in the morning: inexcusable but so what? She went into the hall and dialled her boss’s number. Rob came in quietly, covered in mud from digging potatoes. He stopped and listened from the kitchen, “Hello, Mrs Williamson, it’s me Jenny.”
“No, I can’t step into your office, I’m at home.”
“Yes, you did see me this morning, but I left.”
“Sally told me you needed it urgently.”
“I can’t. I was dying to leave. I’ve come home.”
“Yes I’m sure. I’m leaving, leaving to live one day at a time.”
After disconnecting Jenny whooped loudly, glass in hand, and returned to the kitchen. She stopped in her tracks when she saw Rob, white as a sheet, propping himself up on the breakfast bar.
“What’s happening Jen?” He asked quietly. His eyes rested on the open bottle of wine.
“Have you been to the GP’s? What haven’t you told me woman?”
Jenny’s steadied herself: of course he’d heard her talking to wily Williamson.
“Sit down Rob. Do you want to join me?” Jenny gestured towards the wine.
“No Jenny. Just tell me what’s going on, please?”
“Rob, I can’t piss the rest of my life away I may not have much time left, so I’m going to make the rest count.”
“What do you mean, ‘not much time left’?”
“I’d like to get some of the ‘Today’ programme up on I-Player. Would you listen with me? This bishop guy, he said something really important, I so much want you to hear it. It might help you too?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake Jen. Help me to what? Why?”
“To live for the day. To get things right. To make time count?”
“Look Jen, I’m starting to see what this craziness is all about. You’ve been dying to leave work for at least five years. But you needed to carry on earning to keep yourself in books, bags, theatre trips and holidays. Then you heard this religious dude and he spoke to you. You’ve had quite a ‘road to Damascus’ moment haven’t you? You’ve seen that you could be missing the point. Money isn’t everything: I’ve been trying to tell you that for years. I wanted you to retire with me, to spend time together, down and dirty on the allotment; lazing in bed in the mornings. You weren’t having it though.”
Jen blushed, how well Rob knew her; mostly that is. She took a deep breath and took a letter from her bag. She unfolded it quickly, before she could change her mind, as she often had over the last two weeks. The headed notepaper was from her own NHS Trust, the Department was Oncology, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital.
“Rob, read this.” Jenny’s voice was weak now, “I wish I‘d heard that programme years ago. We might have had much longer, but this is how things have panned out. We’ve got what we’ve got. I’m so sorry. If I can get on track with what’s facing me, us, then maybe we can learn to live for today, at last. We might still have time to change?”