‘I was never in a war of course’ I said as conversationally as possible. ‘Obviously I can’t know what it was like...’
‘I suppose we’ve been very lucky really, my generation...’
It was too humid to sit in the sun so we’d retreated to the reading room. No one else was there. It was dark and cool and he twirled a slim red volume between his index fingers. I’d been subtly trying to get more information about his past out of him. Partly it was just plain curiosity on my part. I just hadn’t had the chance before to talk to someone who had seen so much life. Everybody I knew had been so very young. Dad would have been the one to ask but he was never very forth-coming.
Partly though I was concerned. There was always something preoccupied, or absent about Trevor, something seething, with just a thin crust of urbanity to conceal it. Actually he reminded me a great deal of my father. Perhaps that’s why I persisted. For his part, I don’t think it was that Trevor didn’t want to talk about himself – he just wanted to be sure that I wanted to listen – not just to be polite.
‘It wasn’t the war’ he said, wearily. ‘The war was fine. I mean, it was terrible...’ He shakes his head – shaking out a memory. It settles. He moves on. ‘But it’s never given me nightmares...’
‘So what is it then?’
‘Who says it’s anything?’
I raise my hands in surrender. ‘Ok’ I say. There seems to be no point pushing. I rise to go.
‘It was cancer’ he says.
‘What sort?’ I sit down again.
‘Not the quick sort. Not the painless sort.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
We sit in silence a while. I know there’s more coming. He’s put down his book. I wait.
‘It seems selfish’ he says. ‘I was at the liberation of Belsen but I got over that. I can still see it, but I got over it. It doesn’t affect me, not really. You asked me a while back when I died. I’m actually not sure how to answer you. I want to say 13th of January 2015. That was when I knew it was terminal. My life sort of ended there. I didn’t handle it well. I didn’t... make the most of the time I had left, as they say.’
He puts his head back and his eyes sparkle. He bites his lip and leans forward.
‘The thing is’ he says. ‘The thing is I didn’t believe I should have to go through all that... time. It seemed... it still seems, so unfair, pointless.’
I want to ask why he thinks death should be fair. People always do though don’t they? They ask ‘Why? What did I do to deserve this?’ It seems as if some malign being is deliberately (or worse perhaps, negligently) putting them through hell. I suppose the natural impulse is to blame someone but I never did. I nearly died several times but I always knew it was either a meaningless accident or my own stupid fault. But I know better than to tell him this and so I sit quietly and try to look wise.
‘The trouble is I can’t forgive her.’
‘Johanna. My wife, and my sons. Sorry, I’m not making much sense.’
‘Forgive them for what?’
‘And the bloody doctors. The medical council. All the bloody bureaucrats and priests... interfering busybodies...’
‘So what was it? Some sort of medical negligence?’
‘Hah. You could call it that.’
‘It’s the betrayal’ he says. ‘That’s what gets me – the simple absence of loyalty.’
I look at him and try not to let on that I’ve completely lost track of his story.
‘It’s the... I mean, ok, we weren’t that close. We grew apart, as they say, my wife and I. But we’d talked about this. Christ knows we had plenty of time.’
‘Sorry – to talk about what exactly?’
‘My wishes. My living will. I was sick for years before the final prognosis. We went over it and over it. I knew though. I knew, when it came to it... they’d chicken out. I knew they’d just... fail me. Just some ridiculous excuse of a religious conviction, and they threw their hands up and just let it go on. Total abdication of responsibility. I couldn’t speak by then, couldn’t even hold a pencil. Not that they’d have been paying attention. I was just a vegetable to them, might as well have been, except vegetables don’t feel pain. They could see my eyes moving. They knew I was still in there but they chose to ignore my wishes. They thought they had it all under control. Palliative care my arse. They knew. It should have been my decision. All they had to do was flick the switch, and they couldn't bring themselves to...’
‘They kept you alive.’
‘Bloody right they did. Kept me a-bloody-live, for six years. Can you imagine?’
I hang my head. I can’t even begin to imagine.
‘All because a few unscrupulous individuals might take advantage - might exert undue pressure on the vulnerable.’
He’s standing, shouting at the room, tears streaming over his face. I sit back and let him.
‘Thousands of us condemned to years, no, decades, of unspeakable torment. Why couldn’t they just switch the bloody machine off?’
A guide appears in the doorway. I shoo him away politely. He nods and leaves. Trevor turns and slumps down.
‘You had an easy death’ he says to me. ‘A very easy death.’
‘I’m not disagreeing.’
‘How could they do that to me? I had my kids praying over me. Praying! What a time to get religion! But it was cowardice. Pure cowardice on their part. There was a will, a written will and they just chose to ignore it. Because they loved me – supposedly. It’s unforgivable. I’d have done anything for them.’
We sit a while longer. The sun is moving away. It’ll cool down soon. We can go out on deck and maybe... I don’t know what we can do.
‘I’m not going back’ he says. ‘I never want to see them again, ever.’
He opens the book, sighs and tosses it aside.
‘Thank you’ he adds, ‘for listening’ and holds out his hand. I take it and shake it and he stands and smiles, says something about checking on Bryony and heads for the door. I’m left wondering if I should go after him.