Runner-up: I promise

By Marion MacDonald

Marion says: I live in the West End of Glasgow with my husband Charlie. I began writing four years ago after enrolling on an Open University course and discovered that I loved it. Story ideas tend to come from topical issues but I am fascinated to find that characters and plot seem to evolve of their own volition.

I luxuriate in the warmth of the shower flowing over my body and think how lucky I am. When I was a girl hardly anyone had an inside toilet let alone a bath with a shower. My reminiscence is interrupted by the sound of your urgent hand trying to open the bathroom door. You’ve woken up earlier than normal. 

My mood dims like a candle running out of wax as I put on my dressing gown, slowly turn the lock and open the door. You stand there, your silvery white curls tousled from restless sleep and I can’t stop my heart expanding at the sight of you, despite what’s been happening.

 “Morning Johnny. Time for your shower. I’ve started the water.”

 “Who are yee?” you say in that soft Geordie accent of yours, that used to make me go weak at the knees.

“I’m Lizzie, your wife.”

“No way. She’s canny. You’re old and grey and scrawny.”

You always were direct. I smile and think that, like Elvis, our younger selves have definitely left the building.

You step into the shower wordlessly. Your old man’s body, with the deflated party balloon penis hanging shrivelled and wrinkled with no desire left for me, makes me want to cry.

“I’m just going to make the porridge. Come on through when you’re ready.”

“I don’t want porridge. Ah want bacon an’ egg Lizzie.”

You’ve remembered my name.

“Porridge is better for your arteries.”

“Not much point in worrying about ma arteries noo,” you say, with a rare spark of humour.

. . . .

When I come through with the bacon and eggs, you’re sitting in your chair gazing out of the window. You turn and look at me without recognition.

 “Who are yee?”

“I’m Lizzie, your wife.”

I watch as your eyes begin to burn and glint with malice and feel fear scrape at my insides like a rat caught in a trap, but I wait. You walk over to the table and look at the plate of bacon and eggs I’ve made you for breakfast. You pick it up and throw it at me and I feel bits of hot fat spatter my face as it makes its way to the wall and smashes.

“Ya bitch. Ya’s not ma Lizzie. Whit have you done wi’ her?’ you growl, grabbing my wrist.

I scream out in pain and pray silently to God to make this stop. Although I know it’s your illness, I’m terrified all the time. But I don’t tell anyone. I feel ashamed. It would be a betrayal to reveal to people how you’ve changed.

“It’s alright Johnny you’re right, I’m not Lizzie. She’s just away to the shops. Homes under the Hammer is coming on shortly. Sit down and I’ll get you a cup of tea.”

You let go of my wrist and I retrieve the broken plate and its contents in my trembling hands. You retreat to your armchair, docile now, and I see tears in your beautiful brown eyes. That’s what makes me think about that time we went to a meeting in a local pub of what was darkly called the Death Café

To the clinking of coffee cups and wine glasses, we’d discussed with other West End trendies the way we would want to die if we had a choice. There’d been a lot of discussion around legalising assisted suicide and after the meeting we’d talked more about it at home.

“It won’t be long,” you’d said, “til it happens. Margo’s started the process in the Scottish Parliament and wi’ all these court cases from people wi’ terminal illnesses the government just has tae give in.”

“I’m not so sure Johnny,” I’d said. “You might think just now that you would want to die but would you when the time came?”

“Listen pet, a watched your ma and da die a slow death in that care home and there’s no way a want that for you and me. Promise me you’ll help me to die if a get dementia or some other kind of illness that leaves me dependent on the kindness or cruelty of strangers for ma care.”

“Okay. I promise,” I’d said, hoping that I would never have to do it.

The faint familiar scream of an ambulance on its way to the nearby hospital brings me back to the present and I sigh as I look out of the window. A robin, bobbing about in the hedge, reminds me that Christmas is coming, but all I feel is despair and hopelessness. My eyes are drawn to our music corner where the guitars lie unused and forlorn. You forget how to play now, and I only sing when I go to my choir. That, and the two glasses of wine I allow myself each evening when you’re in bed, are what keep me going.

. . . .

I leave the house quietly in case you try to stop me. I also lock the door as you’ve wandered out in your pyjamas a couple of times recently and had to be brought back by the police. I want space to think; a walk in the West End should do the trick. The crisp winter air nips my face as I tramp through the copper, amber and russet of the fallen leaves rotted and damp now. At times, it feels like I’m wading through thick mud, my legs feel so heavy and slow. I pass the nursing home on Great Western Road with its Christmas lights twinkling invitingly in the afternoon gloom and wonder wistfully if it’s as cosy and safe as it looks. Then, before I know it, I find my mouth watering at the aroma coming from the Ashoka in Ashton Lane. I stop. It’s years since we had a curry.

. . . .

I put my key in the lock and sense you are standing behind the door waiting for me, so I push it gently and call out.

“Hello Johnny. I decided to treat us to a curry.”

Smiling at you, I hold up my steaming bag of lamb Rogan Josh, boiled rice and naan bread.

“You go and sit down. I’ll plate it up and bring it through.”

After I lay the plates on the table, I watch as you mix the rice and curry together and hold my breath when you raise the fork in your shaky hand. Time crawls on its belly like a snail as I watch you bring it to your lips. A dribble of sauce falls in slow motion onto your shirt, your mouth opens, and I see your false teeth part to let the food in. The first forkful, then another, and another. And then I relax.

‘Aren’t yee going to eat yours Lizzie?’

I realise I’ve been sitting staring at you instead of eating.

“Yes of course I am,” I say, lifting a forkful to my mouth. “Yum, delicious!”

Before long, you gaze down at your hands. They’re bright red, and I know it has started. Your face begins to blush with heat like a shy teenager and then begins to swell. Your tongue sticks out at me as if you’re playing some kind of grotesque game. You’re going into anaphylactic shock as you’re allergic to spices but, like lots of other things, you’ve forgotten. Your eyes lock onto mine and for a minute I think (perhaps I wish) I see you nodding at me saying I have done the right thing. Then you can’t breathe, and you grasp at your throat as if to open it and set your breath free.

My tears splash onto your shirt beside the spot of curry sauce when I put my arms around you as you collapse into unconsciousness. You’re still breathing and the EpiPen in my pocket presses against my side like an accusing finger poking me as I lay you down gently. My hands tremble as I dial 999 and it isn’t long before I hear the faint familiar scream of an ambulance on its way here now. But I know it will be too late.

“I’ve kept my promise darling. Just like you asked,” I whisper.