They’d put Grandad into one of the separate rooms in the ICU, which I took as a bad sign, given that the glassed-in front could be curtained off to allow a family privacy. We were all there round the bed, Maureen and I, the twins, Aunt Jessie, and Grandad’s brother Geoff; there weren’t many of us left. A nurse poked her head through the curtains. They were splendid curtains, embroidered with basilisks. The way the heavy black velvet fell around her, the nurse’s head looked as if it was floating in space.
‘Doctor’ll be with you soon,’ she said, ‘is there anything you need?’
‘No, no,’ we smiled, but not broadly, ‘thank you, thank you.’
‘Elsie’ll be round with a cuppa.’
The nurse looked at the machines hunched and humming over Grandad’s bed. Her eyes sharpened, head tilted. She nodded at them with what might have been agreement and disappeared.
Fluorescent light bounced off pristine linoleum. The twins started jumping back and forth across a red line painted on the floor, their new black shoes squeaking.
‘I can’t bear it!’ shrieked Aunt Jessie.
‘Stop it,’ I said, ‘you’ll bother Grandad.’ They’d been like this all day; Maureen never has them under control.
The twins clunked onto the floor and started playing knucklebones.
‘Good boys,’ said Maureen.
Aunt Jessie pulled her fur stole tighter around her shoulders, and gazed at a vacant corner of the room. I stretched my thumbs and the inner edges of my forefingers into right angles and held them up, forming a frame through which to view her; she appreciates it when we do that. Geoff, sitting in the largest armchair, opened his mouth as if to speak to her, but closed it again. He long ago acquired the habit of thinking better of it.
The tea trolley was an old-fashioned contraption, made of dark wood, with legs shaped like helixes, and wheels held in carved lions’ paws. It was pushed by a woman who seemed to rattle as much as the trolley did. Her grey hair was straight and short, but her voice curled comfortingly around the ears.
‘I’m Elsie. Would you like some tea?’
Elsie’s trolley held a silver urn for hot water, and an assortment of tins and china. She made a pot of Earl Grey, then poured me a cup, sweeping the porcelain teapot up into the air as the stream of liquid fell. I was certain she would spill it, but every drop tumbled unerringly into my cup. The teacup had a design of a beetle inside it, which looked as though it was swimming in circles. I poured some milk into Maureen’s tea. The milk sat like a white frog within the amber liquid, wavering and nodding until it spread its limbs and dissolved. Geoff insisted on English Breakfast, so Elsie made a separate pot for him, pouring it from the same reckless height into a large green cup. Aunt Jessie declined, shaking her head while leaning awkwardly against the edge of the bed. Two mugs of sweet and pale chocolate interrupted the low clinking of the twins’ game. Elsie clattered off to the next room.
We listened to the machines and watched Grandad’s chest fall and rise. His profile was noble in this light, eyes fixed on the ceiling. His beard was as dazzling as Ashurbanipal’s. I was glad we’d had him sculpted in marble; a fine profile like that deserves to be remembered. I hoped the twins would think to do the same for me.
After a while the doctor came. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he said, ‘there’s nothing more we can do.’
We weren’t sure how sorry we should be. We had waited for a long time.
‘Very well,’ we said. Aunt Jessie stared out the window.
‘We’ll need to … erm … when you’re ready … take your time,’ said the doctor. He took a seat in front of the black velvet curtains.
We understand,’ we said, ‘we won’t be long.’
Maureen gave Grandad a kiss on the cheek, and smoothed the curls of his beard. The twins crouched on either side of the bed, and in tandem told him about the trick they’d played on their new teacher, which made her scream and scream. Geoff stood, drew his creaking body up as straight as he could manage, and saluted him. I told him that he’d been a wonderful Grandad, and we were profoundly grateful. It was all done very nicely until Aunt Jessie flung herself on his falling and rising chest, sobbing. Maureen and I managed to pull her off, leaving a smear of red lipstick across the crisp hospital sheet.
Where the machines were plugged into the wall, there was a large red switch, with a hinged clear plastic cover on it. We looked across at the switch.
We looked at the doctor. He put down his newspaper and pushed his glasses up his nose. He looked at us.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘oh no, I don’t do this part.’ He smiled reassuringly.
Elsie rattled into the room behind the tea trolley.
‘Ready?’ she said.
We nodded. She took off her mask. Aunt Jessie fainted.
Elsie reached up, clicked back the plastic cover, and flipped the large red switch.
Everything went black.
The twins run out of the room, shoes clattering across the glossy linoleum.