It’s Not the First Time I’ve Seen Him – Gail Owen

I’m so hungry the feeling wakes me up. There’s no food in the house except cheesecake. For breakfast, then, lemon cheesecake and coffee. Jake’ll like that.

My eyes haven’t opened. Behind my eyelids, my eyes strain, feel trapped, like my lids are sewn. In my lower back, to the right of my spine, is a spreading jellyfish of pain – it must be my time of the month. I don’t think there’s any painkiller in the house either. Apart from Oxycodone. In ever increasing strengths; Jake’s joke is that one day his pain will be so bad they’ll just give him an ‘OxyBlock’ to gnaw on. But I don’t want to take Oxy for menstrual cramps. Anyway, the kind Jake gets is cumulative, you have to take it a few times for it to work, which is why it’s so important not to miss a dose, and when did I last give Jake his pills? Rushing to him, brushing aside long black curls to see in his stunned face blinking eyelashes wet with hurt. I’m sorry baby, I’m so sorry, Jake, darling. He’ll be in agony, he’ll shout. At least I’ll get to hear his voice.

With a shudder I wake properly, and open my eyes to an expanse of empty bed. Jake’s not lying where he would be, ready for breakfast and an array of prescription drugs. Jake’s gone. While I was half dreaming I forgot to think of him in the past tense.

I sit up, moving slowly because my limbs are unwieldy, and brittle, like a china doll’s. My backache’s worse. The chemist, then. I can’t handle period pains on top of all this other…
I put my feet on the floor. Then rest. I’m wearing a t-shirt of Jake’s I’ve slept in for three days. Shall I bother putting a bra on? Bra, coat, jeans, shoes. Shall I bother brushing my teeth? No.

The pavement is empty. The sky is flat and grey. One car passes me. I want to get past this country town blandness but when I finally reach the closest chemist I almost can’t go in – it’s where I collected Jake’s prescriptions.

The girl behind the counter says, ‘I haven’t seen you for a while.’

And a phrase from the trash the TV remote’s been drip-feeding me slides up: You have got to be kidding. Little backwater gossip can’t fathom that if Jake’s Prescription Fee Exemption reason was ‘terminal’ then if I’m not collecting his drugs anymore he’s dead. No; she wants me to stand here and tell her – an irrelevant person, a nowhere-in-my-life person – that my husband, who knew me – I had someone by whom I was known – My husband has died.

Jake is much quicker than me. Jake would’ve come out with a line to make me laugh and leave her confused. But I don’t know what to say.

Shuffling home I think to myself, I can’t wait to tell Jake about that idiot girl.

When I reach our front door the phone inside is ringing – it might be Jake, it might be Jake. I bang my shin stretching to clutch at the receiver. It clatters to the ground.

I pick it up. ‘Hello?’

A woman is telling me she has Jake’s body, that I can arrange a time to see him.

‘Can I see him now?’

She says I can see him tomorrow.

I replace the handset and sit down on the sofa Jake and I bought six months ago – the only furniture we have that isn’t second-hand. The number for the coroner’s office is on a piece of paper by the phone.

Jake would approve of the coroner’s absence of euphemisms. My husband did not pass away, he died, of asphyxiation, due to the massive tumour in his left lung.

So now I know, it was not the fall.

I ring Jake’s best friend. Her voice is high and tender. ‘How are you?’

‘I’m wearing Jake’s t-shirt.’

‘Know we all think you’re incredibly strong, and send you lots of love.’

I have no idea what to say to that. ‘The coroner’s released Jake’s body. Would Thursday be a good day for everyone to see him? I’m taking clothes to the funeral home tomorrow, so they can dress him.’

She doesn’t speak. Then she says, ‘Of course, I’ll let people know.’ She pauses again. ‘I probably won’t see him myself; I want to remember him as he was, full of life.’

Bizarre thing to say, ‘full of life’. There are really only two states: alive or dead.

What does ‘full of life’ mean? People were shocked, though they tried to hide it – ‘But I thought he was… in bed? How did he fall if he was ill in bed?’ He wasn’t ‘in bed’. A dying man should be doing as much stuff, squeezing in as much living, as he possibly can. Some new expedition daily; hire a boat, a cliff road drive. Racing home through lime coloured twilight talking about Led Zeppelin II. Back at ours, he was too eager to play the record to wait for me to get his wheelchair out of the car. I tried to lift the heavy frame quickly from the boot. I didn’t call out for Jake to stop. It wasn’t clear what would happen if he lost momentum. From behind, it was like watching a scarecrow walk. Jake’s hips were rigid with cancer, his hands comically gargantuan they were so swollen with fluid. He was through the front door before I could reach him. I wheeled the empty chair pointlessly up our garden path, and found him on his side on the hall floor.

His bones, the cancer’s in his bones. When I tried to lift him, to slide a soft blanket underneath him, he was a rigid, impossible weight. He’d landed with his hair trapped under a shoulder, yanking his head back. His eyes were closed. He mumbled something and a shiver travelled along his throat. I didn’t call an ambulance; Jake signed a DNR the day before.

‘It’s best to let him rest.’ The GP stayed in the doorway. He was tanned and spoke smilingly.
‘Shouldn’t we move him?’

‘Well, I’m not sure how we would.’ He closed the door on his way out.

That’s when it occurred to me to ask about pain, for an injection maybe. Only once Jake was dead did the doctor suggest there might have been internal bleeding. If my husband’s illness taught me anything, it’s that everyone in the world is a useless cunt.

I find myself in the kitchen. I’m so hungry. I take a spoon from a draw, grab the cheesecake from the fridge, shove the spoon into the cake and the cake into my mouth. I think about all the things I could do. I could make coffee. I could inform the DVLA the owner of two cars and two motorbikes is deceased. Jake would like being referred to as the owner of two cars and two motorbikes. I could bath. I do none of these things. I carry the cheesecake up to bed, grip the remote…

My eyes open. Mum is sitting on the bed, leaning on the hand that she’s placed on the far side of my outstretched legs. She is gently earnest. ‘Have you eaten today?’

‘I’m seeing Jake tomorrow, Mum. They’ve released his body.’

She looks at me, like mothers look at their daughters sometimes. ‘Are you sure you want to?’

My voice comes out nasty. ‘It’s not the first time I’ve seen him.’

‘I know.’

‘He died in the hall.’

‘I know.’

‘You’re sitting on the duvet, I can’t pull it up.’

She raises herself and I yank the cover. I don’t look at her. I study a yellow flower in the cheap bedding print.

As with everything, this makes me think of Jake. ‘Jake’s ex-girlfriend gave us this duvet cover. She was always giving us bedding, to help us, like the reason we didn’t buy sheets was we didn’t know how to. Who wants to spend money on sheets? Especially when some idiot ex-girlfriend gives you her old ones.’

I smile. ‘She left him when he refused to buy prefab shelves because he was making some out of wood he’d found in a skip. Jake asked me, “You wouldn’t leave me for using wood out of a skip, would you?” I said, “What kind of wood?” He said, “Oak, hard wood.” “Oh no, then definitely not.”‘ I stop gazing at the duvet and look back up at Mum. ‘I think that’s when he fell in love with me.’

She laughs, even though she’s heard the story before. ‘There’s a chicken in the oven, it’ll be about half an hour.’

I sleep, no longer hungry. Sleep pulls me down to the cold morgue where Jake lies alone with his pain. I want to hold him, like I finally could when he lay dead on his side on the floor. After months of not being able to touch him because it hurt him too much, I got to feel his sharp shoulder blade against my cheek, got to cup his potbelly. I should tell him that, how amazing it was to be able to spoon him again, he’d like knowing that.

I’m awake before my alarm goes off, change my clothes, yank a bra on and brush my teeth. I fill a bag with Jake’s favourite pants, socks, jeans, hoody, t-shirt – Honda Fireblade.

The woman at the funeral home has a local accent. She asks if I want to go in alone, or if I’d like her with me.

‘Could you come in with me, just at first?’

‘Of course.’

The little room has a claret carpet, claret walls and claret drapes. Jake’s body lies on a raised slab at its centre. A white sheet, a shroud I suppose – very biblical – covers him to his upper chest.

I thought he would look like those bodies that get pulled out of refrigerated drawers in detective programmes. I thought he would look the same as he had in our hall. He doesn’t. Gravity is dragging down the dead and slackened muscles in his cheeks so that his skin is slumped towards the slab, pulling back across his cheekbones, making them stick out, even sharper than usual. But his nose, his beautiful, long and with a bump, nose looks like Jake’s nose. His mouth is his, his thin lips, his almost girly pout. And his hair – rich, thick, dark curls piling onto his shoulders like a breaking wave.

Peeking above the top of the shroud is a knot of skin with spokes of wiry thread sticking from it. The coroner’s work. It looks like a plait of uncooked dough. Jake’s eyes are closed, his eyelashes fanned in neat semi-circles.

I say to the nice woman, ‘Can I touch him?’

‘Of course.’

When I step closer, I find it was only the nearside eyelid that was sewn so perfectly. The other is pulled into a gluey, sideways ‘S’ shape. It looks incredibly uncomfortable. I put my hand on Jake’s forehead. I knew it would be cold but the absolute cold, is shocking.

I say, ‘Hello, baby.’

The woman says, ‘Shall I leave you alone?’

‘Okay.’

I take a step back so I can see only his good eye. I kiss his forehead. I do not want to kiss his dead mouth.

As I’m leaving the woman says, ‘I think it’s lovely you want him in his favourite clothes, instead of a suit.’

‘He never wore a suit, not even at our wedding.’

That night I have a long bath. I change the bedding and find a clean t-shirt of Jake’s to sleep in. I click off the bedside lamp. In the dark room, the deeper dark behind my eyelids is soothing. Jake is not in pain. He was, but he’s not anymore.

I wake panicked – shit, I’ve missed his pills.

 

***

Gail Owen graduated from Royal Holloway’s Creative Writing MA programme with Distinction. She has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and Mslexia‘s Women’s Short Story Competition. She is regularly invited to read new work at Telltales. The opening chapter to her completed novel is published in Bedford Square Anthology 9 and she is working on her second. ‘It’s Not The First Time I’ve Seen Him’ is her first published story.

 

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