"Not long now, George. Not long."
Susan's voice is soft as down, her words wrapping themselves round any jagged edges of concern.
"I'll leave you now."
George doesn't hear her footsteps, hasn't looked up. Just quietly strokes the hand he holds, listening to the near-silence.
The music loops on the portable CD player, starts again. Drums patter as unheard as the faintest spring rain against a window, as the pulse of seasons changing. A Song of India’s muted trombone sings out, high and clear as a distant muezzin's call to prayer. Far away at the very edge of hearing. Their song, when there was still a ‘they’ to share it.
She is as far away as history, as petticoats and first dances, first glances. As the feather-light girl in the Hammersmith Palais with the jade green eyes. As the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and lily-of-the-valley talcum powder.
She’s as remote to him now as pea-soupers and ration cards, as black-outs and litters of puppies in boxes under the stairs. Back in a Battersea backyard, hiding liquorice allsorts in her knicker-legs from her brother’s thieving fingers.
"Not long now, Mary. Not long."
Only he can catch his words, thrown so lightly now. The girl is long gone. Grown first old, and then far away in time. A girl again, slender and unsure. Too far away to hear or to see. To recognise him even if she still knew to look.
Years have passed without sight of her now, passing as he stroked the warm, dry palm. Her skin is waterless as parchment, its words indecipherable.
One by one, she has taken leave of her senses. Sight, hearing, taste, smell… they are all gone now. All gone but unresponsive touch and the scent of lavender. The hand sips in the perfumed cream, a branch taking the last rain before leaf-fall.
Not long now, Mary. Almost there.
Almost there, after the days, the months. Climbing the mountain, a feather cupped in his hands against each gust, each passing squall. Something so weightless feeling more substantial at every step, despite all the flotsam she discards. The days she wouldn’t talk, and the nights with the broken plates and the slamming of the kitchen door. The never painted nursery and the unmentioned scent of aftershave on a stained lace collar. The dreams unlived in the waking hours and the never spoken thankyous, regrets as heavy as marble statues.
"Not long now, George. Not long," he whispers.
His words are inaudible now, even to himself. One step at a time. Almost at the crest. She holds onto her last breath, a little girl clinging to the string of a balloon. When she no longer has the weight to tether it, it floats up and away. Gone.
The melody tiptoes back to its final refrain, the pulse fading to nothing louder than the faintest gasp of conclusion, the exhalation of memories. The muezzin falls quiet, everybody called to prayer.
He rests one hand on the pillow as he bends forward, watches a barb of down float free on the breeze of the fan, whatever its quill inscribes in the air too faint to read.
His voice finding strength, he can hear his own words now.
"I'll leave you now."
He makes no sound as he leaves the room save the touch of a finger on a button, the far-off response of the bell.
Susan takes each tread carefully, straightens the blanket, tucks it respectfully around. Her fingertips lift away the feather, gently close the eyelids to pack away the jade, turn off the lamp. Everything done now.
Through the net curtain, she sees George, alone in the hospice courtyard’s misting spring rain. He brushes a hand through his damp hair, slicking it back dark and shining. Straightens his jacket, pulls back his shoulders.
She can hear no music, but he's dancing, old limbs newly light and graceful. Weightless. Smiling like a young man, rehearsing his steps in anticipation.
Above his head, the buds of the apricot tree are clenched before opening, nodding their approval as his voice grows stronger. She can hear him now, clear and confident.
"Now, George. Now."
London raised, Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, poetry librarian, and editor in locations as disparate as Bucharest, Notting Hill and Milton Keynes. His writing has appeared in Ambit, Fictive Dream, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Prole, Shooter, Token and Truffle Mag, amongst others. One of the organisers of Milton Keynes Literature Festival, he lives in Buckinghamshire with his husband and too many books, CDs and guitars. He tweets as @theverbalist