Not many men of his years still had a full head of hair, still stood straight and tall at over six foot. Some tended to stoop, making them look old. Up until a month ago he had neither felt nor looked his age and would declare to anyone who cared to listen that he had the physique of a man half his age. Then everything changed.
‘Ready, dad?’ her voice echoed through the empty house.
He looked at Kate waiting by the door, keys in one hand, plant pot in the other and over her arm an old woollen blanket. Her mother’s.
‘In case you get cold,’ she said as if he’d asked.
‘Not sure they’ll let me keep it, but, well, I ‘spose.’ He didn’t really know what to say. He needed a bit more time. There were still a few things to see to.
‘I’ll go put these in the car.’
Now, standing in the kitchen, wrapping the last of the cutlery, he found himself holding the little paring knife. Lilly’s knife. It had been her mother’s. He’d bought her one of those swivel peelers just after they’d married but she’d never got on with it. Turning it in his hands, feeling the years of wear from her fingers on the worn wooden handle, he could almost smell the freshly dug potatoes boiling on the hob. Closing his eyes he could still see her from the kitchen window, collecting runners in her apron pocket. She was beautiful.
Two weeks after she’d first clipped his ticket he knew for certain. His friends thought he was crazy. It took him another two weeks of rehearsing what and how and when he would ask. When he’d finally got up the courage to ask, things didn’t exactly follow the script in his head.
‘I can’t cook, Raymond. Mum says I’m a lost case.’
‘Lost cause,’ corrected Raymond.
‘Yes?’ queried an uncertain Raymond.
‘Yes, I’m a lost cause.’
By this time Raymond had almost lost his nerve and the floor beneath his knee was getting harder and colder.
‘I don’t care whether or not you can cook. I don’t need a cook. This isn’t a job interview it’s a proposal,’ he said, trying, but failing to hide the exasperation in his voice. ‘And I can cook, you can help. Will you help?’
Four weeks later they were married at the parish church and for the next fifty years he cooked and she helped. She peeled the spuds, sliced the beans and listened to the children, and later the grandchildren, retell the stories they’d learnt at Sunday school while he turned the joint and heated the goose fat ready for the roasties. It had been a good marriage.
For better or worse he’d vowed and the last two weeks were the worst of all. He’d spent every waking and sleeping hour in the chair next to her bed.
‘I didn’t want to miss one lucid second,’ he said when questioned later.
But lucidity came with pain, when the morphine pump needed changing or the dose needed to be increased. Mostly on these occasions Lilly would look at him wearily, but say nothing. The last time she spoke to him, it was words he hadn’t wanted to hear.
‘We have to talk, Raymond. You can’t keep avoiding it.’ she said. He didn’t reply for fear his voice wouldn’t hold.
‘You can put me under next year’s runners,’ she started very matter of factly. ‘And don’t go wasting money on some bench I’ll never see and you’ll never sit on.’ This brought a half smile to his lips, although her next words threatened to open the floodgates.
‘But Raymond, enough is enough, I want to sleep now. I just want to sleep,’ she murmured. ‘I love you. We had a good life. Please, let me sleep.’
The day of his arrest he had woken to find himself covered in Lilly’s old woollen blanket. Someone must have come in to check on Lilly and felt sorry for him sleeping in the chair. He reached out for Lilly’s hand to find it cold. His first reaction was to push the call button but he stopped. He didn’t know whether she’d gone but he did know what she wanted. That she had made clear.
Climbing into the bed beside her, he drew her tiny frame towards him and finally whispered the words he’d found impossible to utter, ‘I didn’t need a cook. I just needed you.’