The Good Samaritan

Page 21


It was my fifth candidate, Eleanor, who’d told me about it. She’d lifted her feet from the asphalt where I was standing now, clambered over the railings and dropped to the ground below. Now I’d occasionally use the location to check if I was still needed in this world. I’d lean forward against the rusty railings, and if the metal bars were to bend and snap, it’d be fate deciding my time was up, not me. If I remained where I was, it meant God still had a plan for me to rid the world of the terminally unhappy.
There were some occasions, especially after Henry was taken away from me, when it wouldn’t have taken much for me to have leaned a little too far until gravity won out. Eleanor had allowed me to hear her final gasp of breath before she died on impact. The only thing to prevent me from doing the same was my anchor, and the knowledge there’d be nobody to hear my final exhalation. What a waste that would be.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve thought the most beautiful sound in the world is a person’s last breath. It’s a singularly unique noise that marks the transition from this life into the next. To have spent time working with a candidate, encouraging and reinforcing their decision to die and then to be rewarded with their final breath is intoxicating. It’s something that can never be replicated. The first time I heard it, it came from my mother’s lips.
The inherited cancer gene that came close to killing me years later took her life when she was just thirty-two and I was eleven. For days, it had been just her and my dad alone in their bedroom, with twice-daily visits from Macmillan nurses.
Dad wanted to keep the inevitable away from me and my younger sisters, Sara and Karen, for as long as possible. So we’d been uprooted and landed on the Mabbutt family’s welcome mat further up the road. But every so often I’d sneak back home to visit Mum, even though she was asleep much of the time. On her final day, I hid in the living room of the bungalow and waited until Dad was in the bathroom before I crawled under their bed. That way I could be close to Mum without having to look at her skeletal frame and sunken face.
Her body barely made a dip in the mattress above me, but I traced where her outline might be with my fingers. Her breath was becoming heavy and laboured, then suddenly she gave out a thick gasp like she was being suffocated before there was silence. I heard Dad flush the toilet just as Mum exhaled one last time. It was a long, drawn-out and delicate breath that I imagined being as soft as cotton wool. I felt it inside me, like something lighting up my spine and making each of my nerve endings tingle. I thought that if I could push my lips out as far as I could and breathed in, I might capture that last breath and hold it inside me forever.
But our shared moment was all too brief, because when my father returned and discovered she was dead, he fell to his knees and sobbed with guilt for allowing her to die alone. I didn’t admit I was there and remained motionless until he left to call for help.
Without his soulmate by his side, Dad didn’t know how to function as a father or a human being. Even his body seemed to shrink under the pressure of grief. It wasn’t enough for him to see her image live on in his three daughters. And over the following year, as his depression escalated, I took on Mum’s role around the house, washing dishes and clothes, cleaning bathrooms and reading the girls their bedtime stories.
By day, Dad rarely washed, changed his clothes or left the house. At night, I’d lie in my bed listening to him aimlessly pace or watch the television way into the early hours until he finally fell asleep.
Sometimes, when the bungalow was quiet and I was alone, I’d close my eyes and remember the sound of Mum’s last breath, and it brought us closer than two people could ever be. How I longed to hear something like it again.
Gradually, a divide opened up between my younger sisters and me, because while I attended school during the day, they got to spend time at home with their remaining parent. And then for a while, it was as if they were accomplishing what I couldn’t by lifting him out of his dark place with their imaginary tea parties and garden picnics.
‘What are you doing, Daddy?’ I asked him one Saturday afternoon. He was in the kitchen, crushing something on a breadboard with the back of a spoon.
‘Would you like to help me?’ He smiled warmly and passed me a rolling pin. I’ll never forget that smile, because it radiated from his eyes, too. It was the first time I’d seen it since Mum died. ‘I need you to turn these tablets into a powder, put them in that jug and then stir it really well.’
He gave me a handful of pills. I was too buoyed up by his need for me to ask the purpose of what we were doing. When I finished, he popped more tablets from another blister pack, like the one he kept by the side of his bed to help him sleep, and we turned them into powder, too.
Quietly, we worked together, me with the rolling pin and him with a spoon, neither of us saying a word but me sensing everything in our world was about to change for the better. I was being rewarded for my patience; my dad was coming back to me. When we ran out of tablets, we brushed the small powdery mound into a jug. He added a pint and a half of semi-skimmed milk, heaped in tablespoons of sugar and squirted some strawberry-flavoured milkshake syrup inside.
‘Girls, come and get your milk,’ he shouted, and Karen and Sara skipped in from the garden to join us, squishing their bottoms on the same wooden seat at the kitchen table. He poured out three glasses and I pushed my empty glass towards him.
‘You’re a big girl now,’ he told me. ‘Why don’t you get some cola instead?’
‘This tastes funny,’ complained Sara, but Dad ignored her and grinned at me. I liked being in on the joke even if I didn’t understand the punchline.
‘Can we go and play in the garden now?’ Karen asked, draining her glass.
‘Why don’t we all go and lie down for a nap?’ he replied.
‘But I’m not sleepy,’ Sara replied.
‘Well, let’s play a game. We’ll all keep our eyes closed for half an hour and if we don’t fall asleep then we can go to the park for ice creams instead.’
My two excited siblings skipped towards Dad’s room and jumped on the mattress as he and I followed. But as I was about to enter, he stretched his arm across the door.
‘It’s just us today, sweetheart.’ He leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. ‘You’re stronger than us. Once you find your anchor, never let go of it. No matter what.’
Before I could ask what he meant, he gently closed the door and turned the lock. I didn’t know what was going to happen in that room, but I had a strong sense that I needed to hear it. So I remained with my ear pressed to the door, straining to decipher their muffled chat. Eventually I slumped to the floor with my back to it, waiting for the thirty-minute deadline to pass. I hated closed doors, because closed doors meant secrets and I didn’t like being kept out of secrets.
Gradually their conversation petered out into silence as they drifted into sleep. I guessed that we wouldn’t be going to the park and crossed my arms in an exaggerated sulk. I was ready to walk away when I felt my body tingle. A few moments later and it happened again. Then a longer time passed before I felt it once more. It was the same warm feeling I’d had on hearing Mum’s last breath.
Only then did I understand what a wonderful gift my father had given me. He’d loved me with such intensity that he wanted our family to live on inside me, the strongest member of our unit. No matter where I was or what I did with the rest of my life, his act had allowed me to hold them all inside me where they would never have to suffer loss or pain.