‘I wish.’


‘Why not?’


‘You know why not, Simon.’


He sat down next to her. ‘It would only be a day out.’


‘Not easy.’


‘This is a day out.’


‘No, it’s an hour or two. But that isn’t the point, is it?’


He was silent. Rachel stood up and turned away from him.


‘I don’t know what’s happened,’ Simon said. ‘How or what or why.’


‘Oh, there’s a word for it.’


‘Yes.’


‘The French put it well.’


‘I don’t know what – what to do with it either. Sorry, that sounds crass.’


‘No. I’m the same. What do I do? I’m not a free agent. You are. It’s very different. A different place.’


‘You could be.’


She turned. ‘No. No, Simon, I couldn’t. That is the one sure thing.’


He said, ‘I only know about one sure thing.’


‘Yes. But …’


Now he was the one who turned away, and started to walk out of the crown of trees and back down the track. He didn’t trust himself to speak or to look at her. His mind was a swirl of thoughts and words, things only half said but wholly felt.


He heard her footsteps behind him, soft on the grass, and paused until she was beside him, but he did not take her hand again.


They found a window table at the pub and sat with plates of soup and salads in front of them but not eating, saying little. Simon wanted simply to look at her, see the light change her eyes from pale to deep violet blue, with the darker rim around the iris, to look at the curve of her lower lip and the way her hair curled into the nape of her neck.


He put his hand on hers for a second but she slid it away and picked up a spoon.


‘I shouldn’t have come.’


‘Why? Why do you say that?’


‘It’s not sensible.’


‘Sensible.’


‘Or – fair. Not fair to you. Not fair to either of us. Or to –’


‘Oh, Rachel, what’s “fair”? What’s “sensible”? What kind of words are those?’


‘Useful ones.’


‘Are you happy as you are? Just tell me that truthfully. Because it isn’t enough. This isn’t any sort of life for you.’


‘Ken doesn’t have any sort of life either.’


‘I need to see you.’


‘Need.’


‘All right, want. Need. Anything. I’m in love with you.’


She looked straight at him. ‘Yes.’


‘What does “yes” mean?’


‘It means … it means I know. And … yes.’


‘If I can’t … I don’t want to say all this here. We need to be on our own.’


‘It’s good that we’re not. We’re in a public place and it prevents us.’


‘I can’t do that. Stop – stop saying things to you, stop myself wanting to say them. That’s a warning, I think. Yes.’


‘I can’t let this happen. I won’t let there be any more.’


‘So why did you come? What are you doing here?’


‘Don’t interrogate me like that.’


‘Sorry. I’m sorry. But I don’t understand what you’re doing. You say this but you’re here. You rang me. You sent me a text. You came to the hotel. All that. But you seem to be telling me you want – well, what? I don’t know.’


‘Friendship?’


‘Is that what you’re offering me? Is that what you want? Because all right then, yes, if that’s all I can have, I’ll take it because I can’t have nothing. I’ve just realised that.’


Rachel got up without a word and went across the bar to the cloakroom. She had long legs. Long, slender legs in smart jeans with a creamy linen jacket, hair tied loosely back.


I’ve blown it. He almost said it aloud. Telling her he would have friendship because he couldn’t bear to have nothing had made him sound desperate and desperation was never attractive, desperation repelled. She could walk out now and never return a call or a message, simply avoid him from this moment on. It would be easy enough.


They hardly knew one another.


He had asked Judith if that mattered. No, she had said. But had warned him, all the same.


‘Simon, I’m not being judgemental, I’m being realistic. You’re not talking about a relationship which could go somewhere. She isn’t free. I don’t even mean “she’s married”. It’s more than that because of his situation. Isn’t it? How long you’ve known her is neither here nor there, is it? Not set against that.’


He could see her as she had said it, hear the words. More than a marriage.


Thirty-four


THIS TIME IT was half past nine in the evening. Jocelyn was sitting with a cup of milky coffee and a couple of buttered crackers on the side table, watching the last episode of a historical crime series set in the Victorian underworld, but the violence had become so sickening that she was relieved when the phone rang.


‘Mrs Forbes?’


Not a cold call, surely. The voice was older than most call-centre operators and more … she couldn’t think of the word.


‘Yes.’


‘Good evening. I hope this isn’t an inconvenient time to have a word with you?’


‘Who is this?’


‘And I don’t want to intrude, so perhaps you would just hear what I have to say for a moment, and if you feel that I am indeed intruding then please say so, and I promise I will ring off at once.’


‘All right,’ she said carefully. Educated. That was probably the word. A well-spoken, educated man, and an older man, not a twenty-something insurance salesman.


‘Is this a convenient time to have a word with you?’


‘Yes … yes, this is all right. But … are you the police?’


‘Emphatically not.’


‘Or some sort of lawyer?’


‘Again, I am not. No.’


‘Because –’


‘I am a doctor.’


‘Oh God, are you from them? From the clinic? Bene Mori?’


‘No. I am most certainly not and let me reassure you that, in my view, Bene Mori should be closed down. Their methods, the way they run their operation – those are despicable, beyond disgraceful. The whole place, the whole organisation, brings shame on the movement.’


‘The movement?’


‘The movement to make assisted suicide legal, to help those who wish to end their own lives with dignity at a time of their choosing … those of us – and I am one – who want this to be properly and very strictly regulated, but to be legal in this country – frankly, we are all ashamed of this Swiss operation. But unfortunately, what happens in another country with different laws – well, we can bring pressure to bear on their medical authorities, even on their governments, but we can’t actually have them closed down. If they were in this country, of course, it would be a different matter.’


‘Doctor …’


She waited but he did not reply.


‘Why exactly have you rung me?’


‘For this reason. I know what a dreadful experience you had. Believe me, I’ve met others in the same situation. You aren’t the first and, sadly, you won’t be the last. I want to advise you and give you every possible assistance – but only if that, at some point in the future, is what you yourself want. If not, then you tell me so and you will not hear from me again. I want to help you.’


‘Help me?’


‘First of all, I’m offering my services as a fully qualified doctor, to counsel you in the aftermath of the trauma you went through at the Bene Mori clinic. I can listen to everything you have to tell me and try to put it all out of your mind, help you recover. If you’re having stressful thoughts, panic attacks, nightmares. Anything like that. I can help you deal with it. And then we could look at your medical condition, reassess it, and if, at any point you wish to consider the route of dying with dignity at a time of your own choosing, then I can help you there too.’


‘But that isn’t possible in England. It’s illegal.’


‘There are ways we can help, nevertheless. I am in the business of helping people, Mrs Forbes. I became a doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, it’s what I’ve spent my working life trying to do … but in these later years of my career I have decided to concentrate on this one area of therapy. It is so essential, and yet we have no proper way of handling these situations here. Travelling to a country where it is not illegal is a stressful, miserable, lengthy, expensive and often very shocking way to proceed. As you discovered.’


‘Oh, I did. I can’t tell you … it was the most awful, horrible shock – to find out that the whole thing was … Not that I have had experience of one, but I imagine it was like backstreet abortionists used to be and probably still are in some countries.’


‘Exactly right. That is how they conduct their business, in spite of the smooth, shiny, reassuring front they present. We don’t want that here. I’m trying to ensure that people in this situation – your situation – are able to experience something very, very different.’


‘It’s so necessary … what I saw, what that place was like … I wake up shaking sometimes, to be frank, I can’t get it out of my mind.’


‘Have you talked to your GP?’


‘I haven’t really … I wasn’t sure … well, how she’d take it. I’m not sure she approves. I did try to bring the subject up with her – when I first … when I was contemplating … you know? But perhaps I should.’


‘If you feel you can talk to her, I think you really ought to do that.’


‘She’s a very good listener, that’s not in question.’


‘No … But she has a duty to preserve your life, to help you deal with your illness, to give you every sort of pain relief. That’s her job. Is that what you want?’


‘Well …’


‘If you find it difficult, you can come and see me and talk about this at any time, you know.’


‘The thing is … I haven’t quite gathered … well, you say you’re a doctor …’


‘I do apologise. How do you know I’m a doctor? I could be anyone. Of course, of course. I assure you I am a fully qualified doctor, but the way to check is this – I am going to give you a phone number. Call it whenever you like. That’s my consulting-room number, and if I’m not there my secretary will answer. She will make an appointment and give you the address. If you’re not happy, please, do nothing. I want to help you.’


‘Is this …?’


‘A scam? No. Is this someone from Bene Mori? No.’


‘I was going to ask if this would be – a professional consultation. You understand?’


‘You mean, do I charge? Not for the initial consultation, no. That is entirely free. After that, if you wish to make a full hour’s appointment, then yes, I do charge. And if I feel you are coping well, then we go no further. If in my professional opinion you would benefit from a further counselling session, then I set out a plan – a treatment plan and, indeed, a payment plan. But once we’ve met and talked, if you’re not happy about anything, please just don’t come again, don’t even make contact with me again. I’ll respect any decision you may come to. I’m not in the business of persuading anyone to do anything, Mrs Forbes. That would be unethical and immoral.’


‘That is reassuring, I have to admit.’


‘Good. There is one thing which I know you’ll understand as you’ve already taken some steps along this road … What we are discussing …’


‘I understand.’


‘You know that it is against the law in the country and I will ask you to sign a short statement that you are fully aware of this. It’s for your protection and mine – I hope one day it won’t be necessary but at the moment …’


‘Yes. Yes, I understand. Can I ask you …?’


‘Ask me anything at all.’


‘It seems … well, I wonder how many people come to see you. I mean – it isn’t an everyday situation, is it?’


‘Ah, this takes up only a small part of my professional time, Mrs Forbes – I see patients for quite different reasons as well. Though having said that, you might be surprised at the number of people in your situation who want to discuss this – and the numbers are increasing. People aren’t prepared to put up with the present situation in this country, they want to take control of their last days and hours – they know it is possible elsewhere, so why not here?’


‘I agree. I think you’re right, Doctor …’


‘Goodnight, Mrs Forbes. Sleep well. And think about what I have said. And, if you want to see me, please make a note of this …’


He gave her a Lafferton area telephone number before wishing her goodnight again.


She went back to the television but the programme was over. It was news time and she had made a point of not watching the news since returning from Switzerland. Everything presented a crisis or an emergency which was distressing but which she could do absolutely nothing to solve, everything cast her into despair, every item was war and pestilence, famine and drought, floods and espionage, corruption and incompetence, sickness and death. She had always felt under some sort of social or moral obligation to watch the news and current affairs, but now her own state of health and peace of mind were paramount and she put those first.


She switched off and sat in the quiet room.


She had liked his voice. It was courteous. It invited her to confide. It was charming but not over-familiar, educated but not over-refined. A consultant’s voice, she thought, the old style of consultant.


She would not tell Penny. That was a given. But whether she would do as the doctor had suggested and talk to Dr Deerbon she could not decide. Her gut feeling was that she would not, that her GP would try to persuade her to put the whole euthanasia question from her mind and focus on the quality of life she still had and the possibility that she might have a remission from her symptoms.


Jocelyn knew that her end would be every bit as terrible as she feared, with every aspect of her dying and death way beyond her own control. Dr Deerbon was a wonderful GP but she could not work miracles. Talking to her would lead only to a bed in the hospice.

***

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