I approach the garden with a certain amount of trepidation. The grass, which is usually trim, hasn’t been cut in a while. At the bottom of the garden there is a copper beech tree whose branches droop almost as far as the ground, creating a secluded canopied area underneath.
“Through there”, she says pointing to the tree. I make my way in gingerly, pushing the branches aside with one hand and holding the spade with the other. The earth here is dry, unaffected it would seem by the recent diluvial weather. I examine the body: in surprisingly good condition considering it has probably been here for a week, when he was first reported missing.
I half-heartedly begin to dig but this is not the kind of work that accommodates half-heartedness, and the arid ground refuses to yield. Why now, I think aggrieved by recent events. His stubbornness and refusal to respond to reason is quite exasperating. For someone who spent his entire life regularly exercising and eating healthily, why would he give up so easily?
“I am my own doctor”, he had said, clearly irritated by our concerned badgering. People in their sixties, even their seventies, are not considered old anymore, and yet at the first sign of trouble he expects the worst. Confronted with the headlights of a potential death sentence delivered by a doctor decades his junior, he becomes paralysed by fear.
“Doctors are young and would have no interest in treating someone my age. If I went into hospital, I probably wouldn’t come out alive”, he had said looking emaciated like a prisoner of war. His distrust of doctors seems to stem from his belief that they are directly responsible for his wife’s death nearly fourteen years ago, when she had slipped into a hepatic coma. The doctors, having given up on her, withheld food and water, which, although counterintuitive since the liver is an organ capable of regeneration, is apparently standard practice in England.
I look up at her through the leaves. She is standing on the concrete path that surrounds the house, arms anxiously folded across her chest. I didn’t know her when her mother died. Despite her unflagging cheerfulness, I have often noticed a well concealed sadness in her eyes and an almost imperceptible quiver of the lips, disguised by a solemn look of remembrance, particularly whilst relating a recurring dream: in it her mother is still alive, having made a full recovery from her coma, and life has once again returned to normal. But her narrative ends there. She doesn’t speak of the pain that each time she awakes to realise it was only a dream must cause her. Now expecting her first child, our first child, this. I stab at the soil with renewed vigour, bitten again by the untimeliness of events.
The hole looks deep enough (how deep is deep enough?) and I gently scoop the animal up. He is lying on his side in a languid stretch and disconcertingly has his eyes open, staring unseeingly ahead. It must have been one of those cases often told in cat-lore in which the poor animal, sensing his time was up, decided to make his way to a secluded spot to accept his fate. Apparently he was around fifteen years old. Had he shown signs of illness, I wonder? Even if he had, it is unlikely his owner would have taken him to a vet, no doubt worried that they might put the animal to sleep.
My job here is done and I walk back across the long grass to where she is standing. In the distance the accusing whirr of a lawnmower is cranked into life as we leave the garden in a silent embrace.