The euphoria vanishes with the realisation that we have to go and tell our mother that our father, her partner of 49 years, has died.
Marina offers to drive us to Dartford to the mental health wing, euphemistically called The Jasmine Unit. There is nothing sweet, cheery or delicate about this place. It would be better named The Deadly Nightshade Unit. Mother is still officially detained under the Mental Health Act, so we have to phone ahead to say we are coming. They guess the reason and put up no resistance.
We are let in through the locked doors and Marina leads the way to Mum’s soulless room. The contrast with the room in which Dad has spent his last hours could not be more marked. No aura of calm here. No gentle floral furnishings. No kind-faced quiet nurses. The staff have unreadable pent-up expressions etched into their features. There are cries and shouts from unseen rooms. A woman comes up to us, chuntering about how she needs to get out. She presses her face up against the glass of the locked doors. The walls are painted a harsh, institutional cream, the doors are covered in cheap pale wood veneer. Everything is functional. This is not a home, not somewhere to live. It is a holding chamber from which the in-mates will be expelled into who knows which circle of hell.
Mother gets up from her plastic armchair. She looks ancient. Mad. Her once carefully coiffed hair is white, wild and woolly. Her chin sprouts a beard of white. Her eyes are wide and staring. She totters backwards and forwards, making unsettling whooping noises. We should be used to this by now. We are not. We want to hold our mum and weep with her for the loss of our father, her husband. We want to console her, to reassure her that we will take care of everything. Instead, as soon as we start to talk, she sits down, is quiet and it goes like this:
‘Mum, we are so sorry. We have to tell you that Dad has died.’
‘Mum, you know Dad was very ill. But he’s at peace now.’
‘We were with him. It was very peaceful. He wasn’t in pain.’
My sister and I look at one another, at Marina. We start to cry. The nurse who is with us looks sorry for us all.
‘There is a taxi coming,’ Mum says.
‘No, not now,’ says my sister. ‘Dad has gone. There’s no taxi.’
‘You’ll have to leave. There’s a taxi coming to get me. There’s a taxi coming now.’
We cannot reach her. In truth, we have not been able to for some time, so why should today be any easier? Today, when death has finally parted what no man shall put asunder: a lifetime of love.
Eventually we do leave. There is nothing we can do. Nothing left to say.