“Years of This, Now”: a short story by Jon McGregor

Fiction from the author of the award-winning If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.

She sat beside the bed and watched him breathe. She pulled her chair closer, the metal legs scraping across the floor. She'd been here barely ten minutes and already she wanted to leave.

She should be praying now, she supposed. But she didn't know what she would be praying for, if she were to pray honestly; whether she would be praying for his healing or simply asking not to have to be here at all.

The machines beside his bed did what they needed to do. His chest rose and fell.

She tried to remember when she'd last prayed for anybody. The thought of it seemed almost ridiculous, now. She reached out and held his hand. It was warm. She held it between her two hands, and she thought she felt some small pressure in response. Was that possible? She closed her eyes. She opened her eyes and looked around. The door to the main part of the ward was open, but nobody was watching. She could hear the nurses talking in their little side-room further down the corridor. She could hear a television beside one of the beds in the ward. She turned back to Michael and closed her eyes. Keep him safe, she said, silently. It was all she could think to say. Keep him safe and well. Keep him on this road to recovery. Or, no; keep him.

She opened her eyes, shocked at herself.

She leant forward and smoothed the hair away from his forehead. It was getting long again. And he needed a shave.

She wondered whether the nurses would do that. She pulled the sheet a little higher up his chest. She watched his breathing, his stillness. It was a long time since she'd seen him as relaxed as this. Even his sleep had seemed restless and tense of late; his arms wrapped round himself, his jaw clamped shut, his fists clenched. The doctor had warned him, in a way; if not of this exactly then of something. You're too busy, the doctor had said, too stressed. You're in need of a break, in need of some exercise, in need of a better diet. In need, also, of being able to pay attention when someone who knew what they were talking about said something like that, rather than thinking he was too young or too strong or just too bloody blessed for it to apply to him.

No, that wasn't fair. Michael had paid attention, but he'd had no idea what to do with the information. I can't have a break, he'd insisted. How can I have a break? How would the parish go on without me, at a time like this? There wasn't a time when it hadn't been a time like this.

She wondered whether it was a male trait, this notion of being trapped by one's own indispensability, or if it was something exclusive to Michael.
She shouldn't be angry. It wasn't fair. He was dedicated to his job. That was a good thing.

The world needed people who were dedicated to their jobs. That church needed a vicar who was dedicated to the parish, finally. But she was tired of it now. She was tired of being left alone while he did these things. This new parish was supposed to have been a chance for them both to take things a little more slowly. It was supposed to have been a refreshing change after the urban pressures of the last parish; a nice quiet country church to see them both into retirement. Long walks. Coffee mornings. Ladies seeing to the flowers. The occasional trip into the city to go to the gallery, the cinema, the restaurants.

Whereas instead he'd managed to find a country parish that had years of problems stacked up, where the church had to be kept locked and the congregation was unwilling to lift a finger and all the hard-luck stories from miles around still managed to find their way to the vicarage door.

She pictured him being alone when it had happened, laid out on the vestry's cold stone floor. He'd managed to reach his mobile phone, it seemed, with one side of his body numbed into sudden immobility and a terrible fear clouding his brain, and when he'd fumbled for the redial button her work number had been the first to come up. It was the secretary in her department office who'd called the ambulance. I could hardly hear him, she told Catherine afterwards. It wasn't even a whisper.

And stroke was such a strange word for someone to have given this thing. It was misleading, underhand. Not that she could see much of the violence that had been done to him. There was nothing of the awful drooping grimace she'd seen on others who'd suffered strokes. Perhaps that would come later. For now, he just looked rested. As handsome as ever, in fact. He'd always been a handsome man, his looks seeming only to deepen with age instead of sagging and softening the way hers had done. She had been beautiful once, she thought - he'd told her often enough that she'd believed him, eventually - but that was mostly gone now, her figure rounded, her hair dulled, her skin marked and lined by the years. It felt as though their pairing had grown more uneven over the years, not less. And now there was this.

Because there would be years of this, now.

If she stayed. His frailty, his dependence, his doing the things the doctors had told him not to and then looking to her to stop him. Everyone looking to her. People asking her gently how he was, when he would be back at work, whether he was thinking about early retirement. Adding, And how are you? only as an occasional afterthought.

She heard the low hum and squeak of a floor-polishing machine moving along the corridor. Whoever was watching the television in the main ward turned it up a little to compensate.

Somebody leaned through the doorway, apologised and disappeared. The machines beside Michael's bed did what they needed to do. His chest rose and fell. She tried to imagine being somewhere else. Being contacted after the fact by his sister, or a doctor, or even by some other woman. Having to decide whether to visit. Having that choice. She found it impossible to actually picture not being here with him. To picture being with someone else when, as would surely happen again, the telephone call came. Somebody saying, It's Michael. Somebody passing on the news of Michael being in a hospital bed once more, with wires taped to his chest and an oxygen mask across his face. She wondered how that would work, when it came to it. Whether this someone else would give her a lift to the hospital, whether they would wait downstairs or come up with her, whether there would be some residual awkwardness, still, or only concern, affection, love. Would they all be friends, in fact? Is that how these things worked? Would they have, what was it called, moved on?

The someone else was the hardest part to imagine. Some other woman. Some other man. It seemed impossible, now. And what was all this in aid of, anyway. Where was she going with all this. She should just be praying for him to get better. Instead of all this speculation. All this might be and could be. Why was she even allowing herself? Hers wasn't the sort of life where choices presented themselves, and held equal weight, and remained dangling within reach. Other people had these lives, it appeared. Other people were able to choose not to live with regret.

* * *

This would be the most selfish thing she had done, by far. She wasn't sure, now, whether she would be able to go through with it. But it didn't need to be anything she was going through with, really. Not initially. She was just going on a retreat. It had been booked for months. Nobody would think badly of her for going. Michael might not even know. Michael might not know anything again.

She wondered how long his sister would take to get here and whether Michael would be awake by then. She imagined his sister reading the letter she was going to send once she got there; what her reaction would be, what she would tell Michael. She wondered whether she and her husband would move into the vicarage for a time, or whether they'd persuade Michael to move in with them.

She wondered whether anyone would forgive her for this, whether they would understand. She doubted it. But doubt no longer seemed like a good enough reason for not doing something.

The machines did what they needed to do. His chest rose, and fell.

She tucked his hands back under the sheet and stood up to leave, putting on her coat and picking up her suitcase and pouring him a glass of water from the jug on the bedside locker, in case he was thirsty when he woke up.

Text © Jon McGregor, 2012
“Years of This, Now" is taken from the book "This Isn't the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone Like You" by Jon McGregor, published on 2 February by Bloomsbury (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama