With or Without You
We promise ourselves to remember…always. Sometimes memories can eventually be washed away like sandcastles on a beach…
Dan Foley had waited for this all of his life. It’s said that a cyclops can see the day it is destined to die from birth. In Dan’s case, he had lived and now it was time that he didn’t. There had been stuff in-between, though. In-between childhood and now. He had existed. He had loved.
He reached forward and grabbed the bottle of vodka once more. Pouring another tumbler, he placed the Smirnoff back on the coffee table and took a long slug from the glass. The thing about this particular spirit was that it was easy to drink. There was a time when he would take it with orange juice but those days were long gone. He leaned back and slumped into his soft, lilac-tinged, patterned sofa, staring into the gloom. The room was in darkness and shadows danced on papered walls with no lights on. The alcohol brought warmth as his head gently swam in the shallow sea of consciousness. He remembered; he recalled better times.
He had met Janine when aged eight. Childhood sweethearts they had been married by age twenty. So many happy times. From playfully pulling her hair in the school playground to slow dancing at their wedding reception to their favourite song. Just dancing, rotating slowly, aware of everyone watching and then oblivious; just caught in the moment; a moment in time.
Then the cancer came. Sitting in a Spartan office one day, opposite a white-coated doctor, Dan could see himself looking down at the medic’s desk. When he looked up it was obvious there was bad news. It was – advanced lymphoma. Dan remembered….
Janine bore it well. She turned to look at Dan as her partner stared back, eyes wide, panic stricken. Things hadn’t been right for a while but nothing prepares you for a prognosis that includes the big C. They had gone home and cried into each other’s arms. Eventually they had learned to live with it. As Janine’s blonde hair fell out and her new headscarf became a disguise, they found moments to laugh. Innocuous moments that made life worth living. Like the time their German Shepherd was suddenly staring at them as they were canoodling on the settee and fumbling about for another bottle of red wine on a Saturday night. He could picture her hazel eyes, her soft smile. All was well in the world when Janine smiled at him….
Dan broke the reverie and slowly rose, shuffling towards stairs. He glanced at the ornate mirror that sat astride the fireplace. He always thought it belonged in a scene from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” with its elaborate, carved swirls that bordered the glass. Dan glimpsed his unkempt features, a beard that had sprang up from his unwillingness to shave anymore; his sunken eyes from lack of sleep and his curly black hair that made him look older than his forty-four years. Just for a second he thought he saw a woman’s face from the corner of his eye moving in the back of the mirror itself but when he looked again she was gone. He took each step one by one, mournfully slicing through any solace he felt. He had left a simple note on the kitchen table which read “Please ensure my dog is cared for by my sister.” He wasn’t one for speeches but he did love his canine “Bruce Almighty”.
Janine had been gone for five years now. He had dealt with it at first but as time wore on, things had got harder. He drunk more and more in the evenings, drifting aimlessly from one room to the next. Work at the office had become a pointless chore. His memory had gradually got worse and worse and arguments with his boss, Jim McIlvenny, at the power plant had become all too frequent. Dan knew that he was the one in the wrong making silly mistakes but he defended himself when there was no sensible defence to be had.
And now he was taking clothes off in the bathroom. Watching them drop to the floor. Noticing a random stain on his cheesecloth shirt as it crumpled in a heap. Getting into the aqua-marine coloured, ceramic bath he had filled ten minutes earlier; using elbows to gently ease into the warm water. Lying back, eyes staring at the ceiling. Thoughts drifting. The brown bottle of barbiturates sitting on the rim between hot and cold taps, screw cap guarding the contents. A sense of overwhelming grief. Memories. So many memories. Thoughts of sleep. Endless sleep. Like the final time he had visited Janine in the hospice. Watching her close her eyes and slip away. Hearing her final words whispered as her eyes closed “I love you. I will always love you…”
From being alive to being dead - so fleeting, so cold. The dark welcoming like a warm blanket. No more pain. Forever. He sat up, leaned forward and reached for the plastic container, his left arm spanning the length of the bath. Twisting slowly, the cap came off and he raised the contents above his mouth, tipping his head back. And swallowed. The bottle of vodka had made the journey upstairs with him should he need lubrication for the intended rush of pills.
As the first tablet slid down his throat he stopped and straightened his head, tipping the bottle upright and holding it away from his body. He could hear music. There was a muffled sound coming from below. He recognised the thrumming of heavy bass and the reverberation of guitar. From the low drone of the introduction to the high pitched scream of later notes. He recognised strains of U2’s “With or Without You” emanating (he imagined) from the turntable in the lounge – the song played for his wedding day, bride and groom dance.
Dan tried to process this. Maybe there was a burglar in the house but, if so, why put a record on? Maybe someone was playing a trick. He considered carrying on with what he had started but curiosity gnawed at him like a cat smelling a mouse. Maybe he was hallucinating. He had drunk enough, after all. He needed to investigate. He skipped out of the bath, water flowing over the side and onto the bathroom mat in the process. Dan quickly dressed and made his way down the stairs, pacing stealthily.
”Who’s there?” he called out.
He reached the bottom of the stairs and clicked the lounge light on. His eyes swept the room looking for intruders as the song played on. He drifted past the settee and now loomed over the wooden-cased record player perched in the corner of the room by the bay window. There was no vinyl disc spinning under a needle. Just nothing. He looked back over his shoulder confused as the music had now drifted away quietly. It had been a ghostly sound; strangely ethereal. Distant. Maybe it was coming from outside. If it was next door then it must have been on full blast to overcome the gap between detached houses. Instinctively, he knew it had emanated from inside the house even if that didn’t make any sense. Dan didn’t believe in ghosts. He couldn’t rule out that he had imagined the whole thing. He felt like a latter day Ebenezer Scrooge about to encounter the spirit of Jacob Marley. Except his undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard or a crumb of cheese was more of a dry vodka founded in Moscow. He hadn’t eaten since lunch time.
He crept into the kitchen, still alert and half expecting someone to jump out from behind a piece of furniture. Passing by the note on the table, Dan opened the door to the utility room. Curled up on a rug was Bruce the dog. Now stirring, the animal shifted onto all fours and padded up to his master, his furry ears pricked, his rusty, brown eyes glistening with expectation, his tongue hanging out.
“It’s two in the morning. Bruce. Sorry to disturb you. It’s way too early for breakfast, though.”
The dog looked up at Dan and pushed his head into his owner’s dangling hands. There was history there. Through it all, Bruce had been the common denominator in their lives. They had decided against having children which had made Janine’s illness all the harder to bear. He felt a wave of love ripple through him. Turning, something made him return to the note sitting in the centre of the wooden table. He picked it up and scrutinised the brief message.
“Please ensure my dog is cared for by my sister.”
He read it again then screwed his eyes shut so that he could open them once more. What would his sibling make of all this? He couldn’t think about that right now. Dan’s thoughts were scrambled. This had felt like the end of the line but there was something not quite right now. There was something gnawing at him. It was as though there was somebody there watching him. He felt uneasy.
Dan looked up and back at Bruce once more. The canine was sniffing around the tiled kitchen floor looking for crumbs. “I think someone is trying to tell us something, Brucester.” Dan sounded confused; far away. His memory wasn’t what it was and had deteriorated over the last few years. He just couldn’t remember stuff anymore. Maybe it was because he just didn’t care.
Dan scraped one of the table chairs back and sat down. He thought about what he had planned to do and what had happened over the last few minutes. He glanced back at the utility area and at the back door. It was dark outside but the security light blinked on from to time. Bruce yawned and wearily trooped back to his sleeping spot. His owner watched as the dog circled a couple of times before curling up again. Dan stared at the note once more. He dredged Janine’s final words from the murky depths of a faded recollection. It had been five long years ago. He could see her once more in his mind’s eye. He was sitting on the edge of her hospital bed, holding her slender hand, face close to Janine’s as she quietly spoke, eyes drifting shut “...look after my dog. I love you. I will always love you.”
He shivered as the room felt cold all of a sudden and remembered. How could he have forgotten? Those four words echoed in his head “…look after my dog.” He had been asked to look after the very thing that had given them the most pleasure. He looked up and took a step towards the wooden cupboards at head height. He opened one and took a tin of dog food out and placed it on the counter. A tin of Chappie with a picture of a hound on the wrapper looking all smiley, full of good health. Then he realised it was simply too late to feed an animal. He put the can back in its place.
As tears welled he wandered back into the living room and stood in front of the mirror. He stared and thought about what he had become and closed his eyes. He decided to live.
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