Next of Kin

by Elizabeth Ashworth

 “He’s going to be fine,” said Janet reassuringly as she came out of the nurse’s office with a smile of relief on her face.

“But what did the doctor say?”  I asked, angry and frustrated by the petty ruling that had forbidden the doctor to speak to me personally about John’s collapse.

“He said that Dad has had a mild heart attack, but they’ll be giving him some treatment and he should be home within the week.”

I glanced back up the corridor to where John was lying on the hospital bed – his face almost as white as the stiff sheets, his hand resting on the mustard yellow bedspread with his finger clamped into a device that played out his heart rate across a small monitor, reminding me of one of the grandchildren’s computer games as it beeped and dipped across the screen.

“Shall we go back in?”

Janet shook her head and slipped her arm through mine.  “He’s resting.  I think they’ve given him a sedative.  Anyway you look exhausted,” she added, genuine concern in her saddened voice.  “Come home with me and have something to eat.  Come back tomorrow, when you’re both feeling better.”

I nodded.  Now that I thought about it I was tired out – and surprisingly hungry as well, until I realised that I hadn’t eaten all day.

I’d just filled the kettle to make an early morning cup of tea when I’d heard the thump on the floor of the bathroom directly above.

“John?”  I’d called and getting no response.  “John?” louder and increasingly worried as I hurried up the stairs as best I could with my arthritic knees and found him grey faced and rubbing his left arm as he slumped against the side of the bath. “John what on earth’s wrong?”  I’d asked unnecessarily.  “I’d better call the doctor.”

So we’d spent most of the day in Accident and Emergency.  John on a trolley, wired up to various machines and me on a hard chair, feeling helpless.

“Are you Mrs Cotton?” the nurse had asked.

“Well…”  I began, staring down at my ringless fingers, unsure of what to say.  Even after twenty years I still hadn’t found an easy, unembarrassing way to explain to strangers that even though John and I lived together as husband and wife, we weren’t actually married.  “I’m…I’m John’s partner,” I explained using the currently acceptable term for people who co-habited.  The nurse almost kept her face expressionless but I didn’t miss the slight twitch of surprise that flickered across her eyebrows.  Older people like us were not supposed to be so unconventional.

I was married once, I wanted to explain, and so was John.  You see I was a widow and he was a widower.  My husband died with debts.  John on the other hand was fairly well off and I was thrilled that he even wanted to be my friend, never mind wanted me to move in with him.  But it was difficult, you see.  He had a daughter and she found it hard to accept me at first.  She was only young, just turned twenty-one and she didn’t like to think that her father could replace her mother so easily.  But she was a nice girl, really, and I didn’t want her to think I was a gold digger, only interested in John for his money.  So when John asked me to marry him I refused.  No, I said, not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t want to alienate Janet.  So he’d agreed reluctantly that the time wasn’t right and we’d decided that we could always get married later.  But somehow the years passed – and we were happy and comfortable and there didn’t seem any need for marriage.  In fact most friends and acquaintances presumed that we were married and I was known as Mrs Cotton and it was only in situations like these when I had to fill in an official form that it became awkward.

“So who is his next of kin?” asked the nurse, kindly.

“His daughter Janet.”

“Have you contacted her?”

“She’s on her way.”

“Good,” said the nurse.

John was feeling better when Janet arrived.  The painkillers and the oxygen had restored his face to a healthier colour and he was breathing more easily.

“I’m sorry to be such a nuisance, sweetheart,” he said as she leant over and kissed his damp forehead.

“You’re never a nuisance,” she reassured him, hugging him as best she could through the tangle of wires.  “How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” he reassured her.

“And are you all right, Margaret?” she asked, turning to me.  “You’ve had a rough morning.  Shall I try to find you a cup of tea?”

I’d nodded gratefully.  So glad that she’d come.  So glad to see her familiar face.  So glad that there was someone to take charge and look after us.

Now Janet drove nose to tail through the thronging tea-time traffic and onto the new estate, to the imposing detached house where they lived.  Mike was in their huge dining kitchen peeling potatoes; the grandchildren were round the table, busy with their homework, unusually quiet.

“Is Grandpa going to be all right?” asked Ellie, the youngest.

“Of course.  He’s just fine.  He’ll be home again soon,” she said, hugging her small daughter who looked so much like John.  “Come and sit down Margaret, dinner will be ready soon.”

She took my coat and ushered me into the sitting room like a guest, turning on the lamps, lighting the gas fire, asking if there was anything I needed.

“I’m fine,” I lied.  She hurried off upstairs to get changed and I sat alone and reflected on the day.  I couldn’t get the image of John with his lips parted and blue, struggling for breath and his eyes closed tightly against the pain, out of my mind.  Neither could I rid myself of the nagging selfish thought that had no place in my head on a day like this.  But it just wouldn’t be dismissed.  What would happen to me if John died?  I had no idea if he’d made a will.  I didn’t know if he’d made any provision for me.  All I did know was that if there was no will I would have no right to stay in our home, or receive any money to live on – even though I’d cooked and cleaned and cared for him all these years.

Tears welled at the corners of my tired eyes as scenes from my marriage to Keith returned to taunt me.  I remembered the police calling at the house after the accident.  I remembered the funeral.  I remembered the concerned phone call to say that the cheque I wrote to pay for it had been refused.  I remembered my puzzled call to the local branch of the bank and the girl who asked me to call in to speak to the manager.  I remembered my astonishment, disbelief and final outrage that there were debts – the bills, the creditors, the repossession of my home, my anger that the man I’d trusted could have done this to me.

I remembered how I’d got a job in a local jeweller’s shop.  How I’d rented a small bedsit and tried to keep myself solvent.  I remembered John coming to buy a gift for his daughter’s twenty first birthday and asking for my advice, and how he’d sent flowers and an invitation to dinner to the shop the next day to say thank you.

“Are you all right, Margaret?” asked Mike, opening the door to the kitchen and allowing the delicious aroma of grilling lamb chops to come wafting through.  “It’s about ready?  You don’t mind eating in the kitchen do you?”

“Of course not.  Don’t be silly,” I said, hastily blowing my nose on a tissue.  Mike smiled sympathetically.  I felt guilty because he thought I’d been crying over John when I’d actually been crying for myself.

“Will you stay the night?” asked Janet.

“No.  No.”  I shook my head emphatically.  “I’ll sleep better in my own bed.”  Whilst it was my own bed, I thought.  So Mike drove me home.  He unlocked the front door with my key, turned on the lights and checked the rooms, closing the curtains and asking me if I’d be okay a dozen times before I eventually persuaded him to leave.

But I couldn’t sleep.  I drank tea and wandered the house in my dressing-gown, stroking the furniture and studying the paintings and ornaments that John and I had chosen together.  I strayed into John’s small office near the front door.  I usually only went in there to take him a cup of tea when he was busy at his desk, with his papers.

I pulled down the blind before turning on the table lamp, glancing over my shoulder, as if someone was going to discover me.  I opened a few drawers and glanced inside.  I tried the bureau but it was locked.  There was nothing there to reveal any secrets or ease my pain.  Eventually, ashamed, I came out and closed the door softly.  I went to bed and slept fitfully, dreaming, images of John on the bathroom floor transforming into images of myself in pyjamas, begging on the street.

Visiting time was two ’til eight and Janet came for me at half past one.  “Did you sleep?” she asked as we drove in bright sunshine to the hospital.

“On and off,” I said.

She took me up to the ward in the lift.  I was grateful.  I was terrified of them and if I’d been alone I would probably have struggled up all the flights of stairs and my knees would have throbbed and ached for the rest of the day.

John was sitting up in bed.  His eyes gleamed and crinkled as he smiled his pleasure at seeing us.  Janet stood back and allowed me to kiss him first.

“How are you?” we asked.  He dismissed our concerns with a wave of his hand.

“You don’t get rid of me that easily,” he joked.  “I’ll tell you what though, I could do with a Financial Times.  The newsagent chap who came round didn’t have one – though I probably shouldn’t be surprised.  Janet, be a sweetheart and see if you can get one from somewhere.”  She looked doubtful.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere around here…”

“Please?”  She smiled and stood up.

“I’ll try,” she said.

“Margaret.”  He turned to me and took my hand in his as soon as she’d gone.  His hand still felt cold and I gently tried to rub some warmth into it.  “That was a close call,” he said.

“No…”  I began, but he held up his other hand to silence me.

“Hear me out.  There’s something I need to say before Janet comes back.  It was a close call.  And I’ve been lying here awake all night thinking…realising that we might not have as much time left as we thought.  Margaret, do you remember soon after we first met, I asked you something and you refused me.  You said the time wasn’t right – and it probably wasn’t.  But it’s different now – I think the right time has come.”

I’d been watching our hands, both older and frailer now, blue veined through paper thin skin and misshapen joints, but still intertwined.  I looked up and met the blue eyes that had entranced and rescued me twenty years ago.  They were about to do the same again because I realised with enormous relief what he was going to ask.

“Margaret, I’m sorry I can’t get down on one knee this time, but believe me the thought’s there.  Margaret, will you marry me?”

Slowly I raised his hand to my lips and kissed it gently.

“Yes,” I said.  “I’ll marry you.”  And the output on the heart monitor began to race so much that the nurse came briskly down from her office.

“Now what’s caused all this excitement?” she asked.


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