I sit rigid on a plastic chair, watching his chest rise and fall. How can this be the man who used to live for the adrenalin rush of bungee jumps and white-water rafting?
I’ve been told to talk to him, but so far I’ve only managed, “Antony, it’s Trish.”
His right hand is lying limp on the bedclothes. I want to reach out, but I fear the merest touch might set off an alarm and bring medics running.
“Don’t be a twit, Trish.”
I can almost hear him lingering over the long vowel in “don’t”, hopping quickly over “twit” to show he was joking, and then… Oh, what I’d give to hear him say my name again.
If only I could be the one to wake him up. However, I can’t even think of anything to talk about. Maybe I should focus on a happy memory.
And suddenly I recall the sensation of being woken by chilly drops of water falling from the tips of his hair onto my bed-warmed skin, his freshly showered body above me, his breath minty as he tells me how quickly he completed his twenty laps around the block.
Confined in this sterile room, I’m embarrassed at how readily my body has responded. I blush, and search for something more appropriate.
All those parties we went to. One of the best was the superheroes-themed Halloween do, where we dressed up as Batman and Cat Girl. Do you remember when that candle set light to the edge of Superman’s cape and you grabbed a bowl of water and threw its contents at him? Only they’d set it up for the apple bobbing, so you pelted him with apples too.
There, those words flowed quite well in my mind. Now I have to try and say them out loud. I clear my throat, but can’t utter a single syllable.
I lay my hand on top of his. His skin is paper dry.
Is he awake in there? I hope not. My heart lurches, knowing what torture it would be for him to be trapped inside an immobile body. I realise I’m gripping his hand tightly. I let go, frightened I’ve hurt him, and he has no way of telling me.
“You silly sausage.” There it is again. His voice in my head.
I doubt squeezing his hand would even register after everything he’s been through – the accident, the emergency surgeries. I can’t let myself dwell on all the details I’ve been told. I have to help him.
I take a deep breath and look out the window for inspiration. I’m rewarded by the sight of a plane; its contrail a diagonal white line across the sky.
“Do you remember the flight to India after our second year at uni?” I blurt out, then pause, waiting for a response.
His lips and his beautiful brown eyes remain closed.
I plough on. “That mum kept telling her little boy to stop wriggling in his seat, and you were being so fidgety, I was saying the same to you.”
A short bark of a laugh erupts from my mouth. I glance over my shoulder towards the door, as if someone is going to come in and tell me off for bringing levity to this desperate situation.
“I could do with a laugh, Trish.” I hear him again in my head.
I smile as another memory, this time from a few years later, surfaces.
“And what about the time a bunch of us got dressed up for a day at Ascot racecourse? Your friend bought four instead of five tickets. I drew the short straw and had to clamber into the car boot with only a tiny torch to stave off the claustrophobia. I’ll never forget how you lifted me out in the car park and set me down as if it was the most normal thing in the world. You flashed everyone your charming smile, then fiddled around with the fascinator thing I had on my head, declaring, ‘You’re a little askew, darling.’ We dined out for months on that story.”
With a sigh I reach out to touch his undamaged cheek. It’s smooth. Someone must be shaving him.
I smile, recalling how he’d never bother with a razor when we went travelling, and I’m there on the beach. I can almost feel the soft sand between my toes.
It’s dusk and he’s standing in the warm light cast by the glowing embers of the fire we’ve used to barbecue two fresh fish. His dark brown hair and beard are the longest they’ve ever been. He gives me a wink before putting a bottle of beer to his lips and taking a swig. Hunkering down beside me, he finishes his meal in seconds. I bite through the thin, crispy skin, burnt almost to a cinder, flakes of hot slippery fish filling my mouth.
“Such a wonderful night,” I whisper to him as though he’s been inside my mind, sharing those memories.
More images follow, leading inevitably to our last trip. A story I know I have to tell.
“It started so well, didn’t it? Pootling along in our little 2CV up the east coast of Australia. Then the darned thing broke down and we had to stay put until we made enough money to get it mended.”
I notice a photo in a small frame on the cabinet beside the bed. I don’t want to see who is in it. Not yet.
“We both got jobs in a local bar and lived in a little shack beside a perfect paradise of white sand and turquoise sea, but you acted as though I’d trapped you in some sort of purgatory. You were always complaining about the job being boring and the shack being too stifling, but what you really meant was that I was boring and that I was stifling you.”
My last words come out as a wail, and I try hard to look anywhere but that distracting photo on the cabinet. I lower my voice to continue.
“Then came the weekend when I was working and you had two days off. One of the other barmen lent you his bike and you left with little more than a wave and a mumble about returning on Monday. Saturday night, Eric came into the bar…”
I have to force myself to go on. I don’t know if this is catharsis or punishment for me. “I didn’t even leave you a note to say goodbye.”
Blinking back my tears, I finally look at the photograph. Antony and his stunning bride are arm in arm, grinning at each other. I have to glance away; their happiness is hard for me to witness.
“Eric and I, we’re still together. I, um, haven’t told him about this visit. I gave you a bit of a bad press, so he sees himself as the man who rescued me. But you and I, we only went wrong in those last months, didn’t we?”
My tears fall.
“I feel so ashamed of how I left you. How I ran… I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” I stare at his handsome, injured face, willing him to respond.
“Sometimes I wonder if we might still be together if…”
I let the words hang in the air.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have come. I wouldn’t have, but your wife begged me to sit by your bedside in the hope that my words, our memories, would succeed where hers have failed.”
She must have been desperate to even think of tracking me down based on some traveller’s tales Antony had shared with her.
“Please, for your wife’s sake, come back.” I lean over and kiss a patch of undamaged skin on his cheek. “Goodbye,” I whisper.
I hurry out of the room and pause by a window in the corridor. Outside, the wind is blowing russet and gold leaves from the trees. They shimmer. Using my palms I wipe away my tears.
Sensing someone behind me, I turn around to see a woman opening the door to Antony’s room. I catch a brief glimpse of a broken version of the woman in the photo. Her hunched shoulders announce her fragility, and her face is stained with worry.
The door swings shut.
I linger in the corridor, wondering whether I should introduce myself to her. No, I’d only be intruding. I take a few steps towards the exit.
A woman’s voice calls out: “Nurse, nurse!”
Then I hear: “Nurse, he’s waking up.”
I know I have to walk away.