Margaret sat by the bed holding her husband’s hand. It felt cold and bony, the skin dry to the touch. Or was that her hand, wrinkled and dry despite the potions and lotions rubbed in over the years? They had both changed so much over the course of their seventy three year marriage. How had the time passed so quickly? Margaret thought back to the day they had met, of how he had smiled at her and eagerly held out his hand as her friend Betty had introduced them. That hand had felt warm, soft and strong. The hand she held today felt as though it would break if she squeezed it too hard, even with the limited strength that she possessed these days.
His face, pale and deeply lined, looked peaceful; the few wisps of hair that remained lying soft against the pillow. They reminded her of a baby’s although the liver spotted scalp belied the comparison. Could this old man ever have been a baby? Margaret struggled to imagine her long dead, fierce mother in law cradling an infant. Yet she had raised seven children, five of whom had made it through to adulthood. None but Alfie had ever shown Margaret any kindness.
His family had considered her beneath them. Her refusal to accept their offer to pay for her children to go away to the good school had never been forgiven, perhaps because the children had done just fine anyway. She and Alfie had been determined to raise their children in love, not the fear that he had suffered. They did not need a big house or a fancy car, although Alfie had sometimes looked wistful when he mentioned the holidays that his siblings felt were their due.
Margaret wondered if it was this tendency to hanker after what he could not have that had caused his affairs. The other women had cast an unmentioned shadow over the middle years of their marriage. It had been hard for her to remain silent and stoic whilst offering him a welcoming and peaceful retreat at home, hoping that he would get over whatever melancholy it was that drove him to seek solace in the arms of another.
And he had, eventually, come back to her. They had never talked about that period in their lives; she had never told him that she too had found comfort outside their home. She wondered had he known and also chosen to look the other way.
The unspoken decision to stay together had been the right one. As their children had married and produced her adored grandchildren there had been none of the bitterness that she had witnessed amongst her divorced friends. Alfie may have liked to have seen more of the world than they had managed but, in his later years, he appreciated that they could live independently because they had each other and their children close by. Unlike his siblings they had not been consigned to the depths of a care home, visited perfunctorily a few times a year by offspring who had been raised at a distance as their parents travelled the world and lived their lives for themselves.
Of course, it was never that simple. Margaret had not seen the son who had emigrated to Australia in over twenty years, had never met his grandchildren. She had already outlived two of her five children. It was the grandchildren that she had helped to raise who now did most for her. Even their little children were no longer little.
Margaret wondered at the length of time she had lived, at the changes she had seen. Alfie had tried to embrace this new world, buying a computer that he struggled to understand, carrying a mobile phone that he never used. Their small, assisted flat could not accommodate many possessions yet he had wanted to feel a part of the time in which they now lived. This seemed to require the purchase of so many new and unnecessary dust collecting gadgets.
Margaret was content with her memories and the company of her family, at least one of whom would pop in each day to check that she had everything that she needed. She wondered if they kept a rota and smiled to herself to think of the discussions this could generate. If nothing else, it ensured that they looked out for each other as much as for their aged dependants.
Margaret realised that the sun was rising and checked the time on the small, bedside clock. Another hour and she would call her closest granddaughter to pass on the news. It would not be unexpected, Alfie had been poorly for some time.
Margaret sighed at the thought of the fuss that was to come. She would miss his company but they had lived a long and satisfactory life together. He had begged her not to let the doctors drag out his days just because they could, to relieve him of his pain when the time came. She had done as he had asked and sat with him as he fell into his deep and final sleep. Her only fear was that she would not now have anyone to grant the same favour when her time came.