Devotion

Another short story, all fictional. This is just less than 1700 words.

Rebecca and Gregory had been together since they met at university. There had never been anyone else for either of them, after that first date. It was unusual enough to be studying microbiology with a speciality in bacteriology, and difficult to get to know many others with the same interests. To meet your soul mate on the same course, was really beating the odds.

Rebecca could never have been described as attractive, at least during the era that gave us The Beatles, the mini-skirt, and Jean Shrimpton. Gregory was a fan of Trad Jazz, and she liked classical, so neither of them were in the least bothered about the craze for pop music. They were interested in what happened to microbes and bacteria in different situations, and how they caused epidemics, pandemics, infections, and disease. The love for these microscopic organisms developed alongside a love for each other, and they married soon after their post-graduate studies. Even after marriage, work was their life, and when they were told that it was Gregory who couldn’t produce children, neither of them really minded.

Good careers followed, though they often meant separation. Rebecca followed her interest into the study of tropical diseases, and Gregory was seduced by government budgets and modern technology, to the secret and sinister world of Porton Down. He was in Wiltshire, and the love of his life was globetrotting for the World Health Organisation. By the time he completed his doctorate, Gregory had spent less than two years with her, in the small cottage they had bought outside Salisbury. Rebecca attended conferences, worked herself almost to death in Africa and India, and fought hard to find cures for diseases that had existed since Biblical times. For his part, he worked just as hard, finding ever more sinister ways to eradicate whole populations. When they got together, their discussions were non-specific, but always genial. They did not have a television, took no newspapers, and spent their time catching up, and reading journals.

Theirs was a love that needed no explanation, at least as far as they were concerned. They had few friends- their jobs made that almost impossible – and most of their respective families had departed long since. As the years passed, they gave truth to the old saying, that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Their marriage did not lack passion, but they were happy to relegate their needs to the proper time and place. Mutual respect was far more important to both of them, and their trust was rock-solid. After distinguished but generally anonymous careers, they settled into a retirement of guaranteed comfort. They both had generous pensions, good health, substantial savings, and few needs. The same small cottage was paid for long ago, and perfectly adequate for their old age. For the first five years, life was perfect. They continued to study, just for pleasure, and they read extensively too. There were occasional holidays taken in Britain; a canal boat one year, a cottage on Lindisfarne the next.

Gregory couldn’t really remember exactly when things started to change. Rebecca had always been so peaceful at home, and outwardly happy. She was approaching her sixty-eighth birthday when he noticed the difference in her, but he later thought that it had been gradual, leading up to this. She had stopped reading as much, and was no longer interested in cooking. When he suggested that they do some housework together one day, she snapped at him, and went back to bed. The next day, she refused to get up, and for two days after that, she stayed in bed, refusing to eat, and only drinking the tea that he brought her. By the weekend, he was aware that she had not washed or changed for nearly four days, so he went into the room to talk to her about it. She screamed and swore at him, telling him to leave her alone, and to not come back. Gregory phoned their doctor. They had hardly had reason to see her over the years, so she sensed something was wrong, and agreed to a home visit that evening, after surgery.

After she chatted to Rebecca upstairs, the doctor talked to Gregory over a cup of tea in the sitting room. Rebecca was undoubtedly suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, the doctor told him. They could do more tests, but she was sure that the diagnosis would be confirmed, and the prognosis was not good. She touched his hand and looked concerned. Then she checked her watch. Another call, some way off. She would be in touch. He received a letter the following month. It contained leaflets about getting help with care, information about Alzheimer’s, and the offer of a further appointment, to discuss their options. But Rebecca had got better, he was sure of that, and the distressing episode had been forgotten by them both.

The next few weeks saw a rapid deterioration in Rebecca’s mental state. She now failed to recognise Gregory most of the time, and screamed at him to get out of ‘her’ room, asking what he thought he was doing there and saying that she would call her husband, to throw him out. Gregory hated to see her so distressed, and left her alone more. He still took up the trays, but she would only drink the tea, and threw the food on the floor. When he could tell that she was asleep, he would go in and clear up. One afternoon she screamed at him that she wanted cake, After that, she ate the cakes he supplied for her, but nothing else. He had to lock the bedroom door to go shopping, or anytime he went outside the house. One day he was gardening at the front, and had forgotten. She ran out of the door screaming for help, and he had to wrestle her to the ground, and fight to get her back into bed.

He knew that the old Rebecca would have hated the indignity of helpers in their house, or worse still, confinement in a care home. He would have to manage as best he could, and look after her as he had always promised he would. On the days that she was calm, he managed to sometimes get her to agree to change out of the filthy tea-stained and soiled nightdresses. He laid towels out on the bed at the same time, as she rarely used the bathroom now. His life seemed to be a constant round of washing and drying, and he had to fight to stay awake in the afternoons. He could no longer sleep in the bed. Rebecca would wake up terrified by his presence, screaming, lashing out at him with all the strength she could muster from her diminished frame. It wasn’t that she hurt him physically, but inside, he felt his heart would break. He dozed in the chair downstairs, living on sandwiches, no longer bothering to cook just for himself.

Once the summer was over, Rebecca was no longer the person that he had known. But he still loved her, no less than he always had. They were a team, a pair for life. In sickness, and in health. He had taken his vows very seriously. He didn’t bother to contact their doctor again. She would be sure to interfere, to insist, to arrange things. He knew that Rebecca wouldn’t want any of that. The surgery was busy, and the Health Service short-staffed and under-funded. If Gregory left well enough alone, then their situation would just drop off the radar, and they could go on managing as best as they could.

Rebecca got out of bed less and less now. Her energy was all but gone, and he even managed to get some soup inside her now and again. She would still have her tea and cake, but had come to rely on him to help her eat and drink. She still didn’t know him, and would constantly ask when her mother was coming home, or if he knew her husband, could he please tell him to come. On a dark Tuesday morning in November, Gregory prepared her tray as usual, and trudged upstairs with a heavy heart. Rebecca was on her side, staring at the door as he walked in. She didn’t scream or shout, didn’t ask who he was, just stared. As he placed the tray on the side table, she reached out and grasped his wrist. Not the usual violent twist, followed by cries and yells. This time there was tenderness, the touch remembered from before. Gregory knelt awkwardly, and looked at his wife. Her eyes met his, and for a moment, he saw her in there, looking out. He understood.

Gregory went into the bathroom, and shaved. After that, he combed his hair, brushed his teeth, and went back downstairs. He changed out of the carpet slippers he was wearing, and put on some smart brown brogues. Opening a drawer in the sideboard, he found the Longines watch, received as a retirement present from grateful colleagues, and fastened the leather strap around his wrist. His wallet was on the top of their old record player, and he picked it up, sliding it into his back pocket; looking around the room for a moment, as if thinking of something he had forgotten. He walked back upstairs and into the bedroom. Rebecca was lying quietly on her back, looking up at the glass lampshade that had been there since the day they moved in. Gregory reached over her, and picked up the pillow from his side of the bed. Placing it over her face, he laid across it with his full weight. She threshed around for a moment, but her emaciated body offered little resistance. He left the pillow on her afterwards, not wanting to look at what he had done.

Back downstairs, he picked up the telephone and dialled 999. The voice at the other end was there very quickly. “Emergency, which service please?” Gregory spoke with a strong voice, and no hesitation. “Police please.”

As he waited for the connection, he began to cry, the tears flooding down his face.

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22 thoughts on “Devotion

  1. The ending reminded me immediately of the controversial 1986 French blockbuster, “37°2 le matin” (aka “Betty Blue”) starring Jean-Hugues Anglade (Zorg) and Béatrice Dalle (Betty). The unrated 185-minute director’s cut attained cult status on my VHS/DVD shelf many years ago. I’ve also read the original French language novel by Philippe Djian on which the film is based (a very faithful adaptation, I might add).

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    1. I remember seeing ‘Betty Blue’ when it came out in cinemas. It was considered to be pretty hot stuff back then. I had almost forgotten it, David, so thanks for reminding me.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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  2. Dear Pete,
    I was really moved reading your story. You tell it straight forward, linear, this clear style makes it even more moving. Of course, the reader expects that something will happen to this love. Well, if you love germs … You tell the horrible “matter-of-factly” and then a kind of happy-end in the end, at least one can see it like it. I find it well done that you save the reader long epic descriptions of developments.
    And now I will read your other stories as well.
    Love
    Klausbernd

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  3. Let me see, I think I like this best of all your short stories you published lately, the ending though is so sad. I remember the book I read a few months ago, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice which deals with Alzheimer’s.

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  4. Sad story. It reminds me of a French movie Amore I watched with my son a while back. We thought it would be a happy love story–boy were we wrong.

    The end of life is frightening alone or with someone.

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    1. I have that film on the PVR, ready to watch when I can face it. I have seen ‘Iris’ though, and that was sad. This was inspired by my Nan’s latter years, but in very different circumstances.
      Many thanks for your comment.
      Best wishes, Pete.

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        1. I just watched ‘Amour’ today. I wish I had seen it before writing this, as it now feels as if I have stolen some key elements of that story. The similarities are so abundant, I am in two minds whether or not to delete it from the blog.
          Regards, Pete.

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          1. I wouldn’t worry–great minds think alike! I liked your version better. Life is weird. maybe as the baby boomer generation ages we all wonder what we would do in a similar situation. Anyway, only people who like French films are even going to see the similar theme–English readers got the short version without the annoying actors. 🙂

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  5. Yet again, the emotional impact and sympathetic insight are enhanced by your understated, utterly believable writing. What is it about CAKE and Alzheimers? I’ve been told about that before. Apologies for not keeping up with your posts – I know there’s another short story to read – I’m flailing around in odd jobs & condo wars and must start boring everyone with audiobook promo…

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    1. No apologies necessary, I am well aware how busy you are, and wish you luck with the audiobook promotion.

      I think that the cake is a childhood regression, as well as a body craving sugar, but I am not certain. My grandmother would always eat some, or biscuits.
      As ever, Pete. x

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