Two months from now, Marcus will be dead. Alex stands, looking out over the garden, running her hand along the receiver, carefully replacing it, before allowing her mind to pick over the short conversation.
In three hours, Drew will return from school. He knows his father is ill. But not this.
In two hours, she will listen to her client trying to distract himself from the inevitability of growing old. Death is a certainty which he tries to evade. She will school herself to track the feelings which accompany the words. If thoughts of Drew or Marcus intrude, as they will, she will push them away. Alex tells herself she can do this. She will be cold. Her eyes will not flicker when Drew's sobs grow louder in her head, threatening to spill into the session.
The curtain brushes the edge of her face. Pushing it aside, she moves closer to the bedroom window. Her gaze travels the garden: the forsythia needs cutting and the badminton net needs tightening. A glove, stuck on one of the poles, gestures with a thumbs-up sign.
A dream from many years ago comes into her head. She has her back to the woods. She doesn't know who her partner is and, racket raised to serve, she pauses. Something is behind her. There is no sound, but all her senses say that whatever it is, she needs to look. Slowly, turning round, she sees it: a lion, magnificent, padding towards her in the sunlight. It is smiling. She is too. She has always known it was there.
Why has she never pursued this dream? And why, when she has just learnt that Marcus will die, does she bother to think about it? Perhaps this is shock. That's it. Objectifying herself -- a professional response: yes, this is shock. There are five stages of terminal illness. And this is the First Stage: Denial and Isolation. Necessary to maintain distance between herself and the pain.
But this is not right. Death should come cloaked, disguised in the night. This finality deserves a sense of occasion, not mere information for an ex-wife from an ex-mother-in-law on a June day.
It was not always like this.
It's in the bag. She's just phoned. They've drawn up the contract. I start a week on Monday. Yes! Marry me.
I am married.
Marry me, Puss.
The acceleration to the Second Stage: Anger. Her lion no longer pads. It thrusts forward, just as Marcus was unable to contain the anger and resentment festering his life. Cancer cells will mince flesh from bone, strip words from tongue, render him finally helpless.
He has always believed in his invulnerability. Perhaps that comes with the ability to live fully in the present. No ruminations or unease over action. Supreme confidence. The certainty remains. Only now it includes his death.
Her breath comes fast. He was good at leaving. He left her, the same as he had left every other woman. Frances, her predecessor, was left holding his house keys dropped through the letter box. Alex was left holding the baby. Marcus didn't see Drew for six months.
Let's start our family sooner, rather than later. Come on, Puss, say yes.
He is leaving again. The familiar twist in the gut. But this is about Drew. Only now, Drew is twelve.
She leans against the wall, pushing, willing it to yield. But it is a solid force. She sees Drew's three-month-old eyes following her around the room, up the walls, across the ceiling and right into these, her middle years.
They won't ask her to write his obituary. Her mouth curls. Then she remembers this is real. Marcus is dying. The smile sets, her mouth is frozen, but her lip wobbles; it pushes through the death mask. She steps back from the scream, before comprehending it is her own voice.
His words. He who was so good with words. Give her the words to tell their son that he is finally leaving.
Words. Twelve words. One for each week of Drew's life. The night she returned home to the empty house. The note in the typewriter spelled it out.
The marriage is over. My solicitor will be in touch with you.
She needs to focus on calming herself. Closing her eyes, she inhales deeply. But with each breath she sees her hands reaching into the flabby body, nails skewering lymph glands, wrenching secondary growths, prising cancerous cells. This is not for Marcus, but for Drew, who faces this final abandonment.
It hits fast. The hop from First Stage: Denial, on to Second Stage: Anger, the skip to Stage Four: Depression - what happened to Third Stage: Bargaining? Sinking onto the bed, she looks dully around the room. He was good at bargaining. Didn't see any difference between business and the emotional stuff. How long will it take for him to broker a deal with whoever -- but he doesn't believe in God. She is suddenly really angry. Can't he believe in something, apart from that ego? Give himself some hope. Remember his response to her father dying, when she asked him to look after Drew? Do you realize how you've fucked up my week?
Now Marcus is dying. He has not only fucked up her week, but their son's life. Now he is going to fuck up Drew even more than he already has. But maybe that hasn't hit him yet in his hospital bed, as he lies there mourning his greatness. But don't worry -- all his old comrades will cite his morality and social justice. Maybe if he's too weak to bargain, too stunned, a plea could be entered on his behalf. But she always took responsibility for him. And here she is again. Only -- what's it going to be? What does he submit? Humanitarian? His tireless investigative work on behalf of the underdog, while his wife and child languished on Social Security? Libertarian? Freedom from censorship, maximization of individual rights, while he sought to exercise state power in the home? How might he defend himself?
He'll try being angry with whomever he thinks responsible for this: in the beginning, the Creator -- his errant father, long dead, crucial model of absenteeism. Marcus would skip that one and get on to her of the miserable, sunken mouth and breasts: mother, she who saluted Aryan ideology. Then those women intent upon pinning his freedom, thwarting his grand vision. Not forgetting the lesbian who stole his girlfriend in the final year -- fucked up his First.
Is there a theme of female culpability in this? That's okay, he will barricade himself behind Stage One: Denial and Isolation. Numbness is a useful defense mechanism, even though he would be eager to get to Stage Two: Anger will fortify him against any self-doubt. He will be able to project it on to those silly nurses. Or even that damn consultant who doesn't understand his importance.
She needs to be grown-up about this. Say he's finally made it out of Stage Two: Anger. He is now on to Stage Three: Bargaining. Make the most of this one. It's only for a brief period. Okay, what does he have to swap?
No -- first - what will he want? He'll want more. More life. More life without discomfort, without pain, without syringes, scissors, forceps, morphine. He'll want to abandon the whole archive of pain. As readily as he abandoned their shared history. Is that possible? What will he have to bargain against time?
All the time in the world. No. Time off for good behavior? No. He doesn't want time off, he'll want more time. And what might the good behavior be? He can't take back walking out on Drew. What might he swap? Body parts? His liver is done in -- and his kidneys. His heart is made of stone. Nobody would want that. She knows -- his corneas. Man of vision, they'd queue up for those.
But she forgets how squeamish he is. One of the few things they had in common. He is unlikely to barter organs. Careful, time is running out. What can he offer?
Her watch says fifty minutes left before the client arrives. He is always on time. Ten minutes to catch up on the notes, make sense of preoccupations, hold on to the facts. These will stop her slipping into despair, bounding into rage. Stop her shouting out, frightening the genial face.
She thought she'd dealt with it. Cut it out. Cut out the cancer in her. But all she'd done was pack it more tightly away. Oh, God, how is she going to tell Drew?
Her fingers fret at the pillow. It's not he who needs to buy time, she does. And how does she unravel the years of contempt, unpick the bitterness? But those were his. She tried to be friends. She should have tried harder.
He has the winning hand; elevated to sainthood, exempt from criticism. Here she is crying -- twelve years later. But she's crying for him when she should be crying for Drew.
She's crying for herself, too. Trudging to the window, she sees how the sun has gone. The grass, brown fringed scrub, needs cutting. The badminton net sags like a threadbare dishcloth. The amusement in Marcus's voice is in her ear: It's gone home. As if home was the refuge of the useless or uninspired. The glove is a sick joke with its thumb stuck up. It would appeal to him. Maybe he hides behind one of the trees, smirking, watching for her reaction.
Damp creeps into the room like the dread that fills her. What is her part in his downfall? What will they say: she was a bad sort? He died before his time? He was good at making her feel guilty. She's even using the past tense when he is not dead. But he has been dead to her for years. Now she see the horror of it. He's not going to lie down. It's some bloody nightmare, with him jumping up, grinning. Like that money box he had, the Sambo with big white teeth. She said how offensive it was. He laughed. He keeps on laughing. She sees his teeth chattering. She hears him rattling and groaning. Like he did at Drew's birth, when he ran out of the room.
The light is fading. Back to the window, leaning against the sill, she peers towards the corner: maybe that shadow is him, microphone in hand, interrogating victim and sinner alike. Question number one: Do you know where your husband might be? The man from Social Security was kind. Assured her they would hunt him down. Question number two: Why did my Dad leave --because of me? Question number three: Was there somebody else -- some bint flashing her radical politics?
No. No. No.
It's too much. They expect me to handle all the redundancies. I might be the union leader, but my own head is on the block. I'm fucked. Then there's Drew and you. I just can't keep the show on the road any more. Can't do it, Puss.
She sees his hands striking the air, his restless figure pacing backwards and forwards. The voice holds despair and something else -- frantic need for survival at any cost. She needs to confront him.
Drew's bedroom floor is strewn with Lego; Alex picks her way through, noting the painstaking assembly of the pirate ship on the bed. Above it, in front of the mirror, the Dream Catcher hangs, a cradle dressed with feathers and beads. On the shelf below, is the castle with its drawbridge down. A blue T-shirt lies twisted on the floor. She crouches, holding it to her, breathing in the young animal smell.
The pinboard is a mosaic of tickets and photographs. Next to the press pass are tickets for a U2 concert and a football match. Drew's excitement, only six months before, had spilled over the house. Then the rows about the neglected homework. Alex clutches the T-shirt. The guilt is starting again: parental worry about academic success -- or envy that she couldn't enter this Boys Own world?
Most of the photographs show Marcus relaxed. He grins up at the camera, fixing guy ropes, clowning as he waves the griddle over the fire or in more serious, instructive mood, pointing towards the horizon. She stares at a photograph of an orange tent -- the same one that they curled up in all those years ago.
The nausea is worse. Lunch irrelevant. Her stomach is bound to rumble through the session with the client. He will look at her with concern, ask how she is, winking conspiratorially when she leads him back to why he has come to see her. Perhaps today she will reverse the seats and roles. Unburden herself and watch alarm spread over the bemused face.
Straightening the pinboard, Alex hears the late night typing, sees the thin fingers, nails neatly bitten, splayed over the keys. She listens for the pause, the sound of the carriage swinging back, and releases her breath.
Just a minute. This is going out tomorrow. The bitch keeps sending back my stories - and she hasn't given me any to-camera work in over a month.
Her mouth is sour; on her tongue, the Polish vodka she swigged the night he ran off, twelve years ago.
The most recent photograph shows not the playful father, but that other Marcus; the large, unsmiling man sitting at a desk. He had put on weight. Fat cat in his newspaper office. A copy of The Times lies on the desk. Beside him stands Drew, smiling awkwardly. The scene is stately. Father and son, aware of the occasion, squaring up to the camera.
The cup next to the newspaper says: 'Number One Dad.' The numbers game. He was good at that. Especially when it came to the maintenance money. Number one. That was him. God of the Old Testament. And his name, apt for one born not to be king, but emperor. Her misfortune was to see into the soul of Caligula. 'Little Boots.' With his size eleven Doc Martens.
She pries the tack from the photograph and stares at his face; when he looked in the mirror, what did he see? The body had grown slack, like his politics. The heavy jowls made the leonine head more pronounced. The slate green eyes had dulled with the years of joints and junk living. The one constant -- the Rizlas, the match hovering over the hash, the long, slow drag, the burning throat. The distancing of pain and uncertainty. Safety in illusion. That was what he dealt in.
Yet she only need look at Drew to get that catch in her throat. In his otherness there is a closeness that Marcus, with his need of a clone, can't achieve. Look at their son. See the awe on his face. In admiration lies his father's sorrow; it is the distance between himself and every other human being.
Hand trembling, Alex pins the photograph back on the board. When Drew comes home she needs to find words. Words. Marcus was -- is so good with words. Give her his words.
It is almost half past three on the clock in the counseling room. Too long spent in the past. But how does she make it to Fifth Stage: Acceptance? How long before she can let go? How does Marcus get to this stage? There he is in his hospital bed, shouting into the telephone, raging at incompetent minions, ordering his world. He would laugh at acceptance, view it as cowardly. Yet the harder he struggles to avoid it, the less chance he has of reaching this final stage and be able to die peacefully.
He has two months. How long will it take their son to accept that he no longer has a father?
Closing her eyes, concentrating, Alex breathes in deeply, holds it, then exhales. That's it. Establish the rhythm. Relax the muscles in the face and neck. Progressively relax all the muscles in the body. Feel the calmness. Feel the confidence. Know that calmness, relaxation and confidence will remain. When ready, slowly, silently, count from five to one. Open eyes.
The client's file is next to the appointments diary on the table. Glancing at the clock, she reaches across, finds the page and begins reading.