The whiskey slipped down with hardly any taste at all. The first one had burned and set his mouth afire as he had swallowed it in a single gulp. The second had been easier. Now, his — what was it, eighth? ninth? — seemed like water.
“Another,” he demanded, pushing his glass across the bar. “Make it a large one.”
The barman gave him a considering look, but poured the drink anyway. “Maybe you'd better make this one last a bit, sir,” he said, as he took Mark's money.
Maybe he should. It might have to last a very long time indeed. Nine years? Fourteen? Those were the likely minimum terms for a life sentence: the amount of time spent locked away before being eligible for early release. Less for good behaviour; more for showing any lack of remorse. He hadn't wanted to draw attention to his plans by enquiring too closely. Would he regret it? He hoped not. What would be the point, if ultimately he regretted it?
He sipped the golden liquid, trying to savour it, trying to pick out the nuances of flavour and fire, but his mouth, like his life, had grown numb under the assault of experience. Still, the barman's advice was sound; he'd need a clear head to carry out this night's work.
He checked his watch. There was still time; it would be out of character to come home too early. He mustn't do anything to make it seem that this was anything but a normal evening; mustn't do anything which would raise questions later. Of course, he should have gone down to the Queen's, had a pint and a natter with the regulars as usual, but his play-acting wasn't up to it. He'd needed this time alone, in the peace and quiet of his own head, to think things through, make sure in his own mind that he was no longer prepared to mark time, to let each separate tick and tock of the clock scrape on his nerves as he waited for the torment to end. Well, he'd decided now; it would soon be over.
How had it all started? They'd been a normal couple to begin with, much like that pair in the far corner: her with a mischievous grin and busy hand under the edge of the table, him with his eyes half closed. He and Barbara had been like that once, hot and eager for each other's bodies, leaving unfinished drinks in their urgent need to get home or even, on one memorable occasion, slipping into the toilets together. They'd ignored the whistles and crude jokes as they'd banged around in one of the cubicles and accepted with self-satisfied smirks the laughter that had greeted their return to the bar.
After a while, urgent lust had mellowed into something more: a steady reliance on each other's presence; the comforting knowledge there was always someone to turn to, someone who cared. He had trusted her implicitly and had believed she had returned the feeling. He had looked forward to growing old in her company, secure in the warmth of love.
But then had come the changes. Subtle at first, then less easy to write off, as she had first slipped away for the odd lunchtime drink with old school friends, then an afternoon visit to her sister's. Even when she had, more often than not, complained of a headache, or not been in the mood, he hadn't taken it personally. He hadn't suspected a thing until one day she had sat him down and confessed everything. The news had been devastating.
Still, they had stuck together. Five years it had been now, but they couldn't continue, and tonight was when it would end.
He tossed back the last of the whiskey and set the glass back on the bar with exaggerated care.
“Mind how you go,” called the barman, as he headed for the door.
The cold night air helped clear his head as he walked home. He passed homes with bright light seeping between the curtains of their windows. Inside, families fought and loved and argued and forgave. One way or another, they would be bound together for the rest of their lives. That was how he thought of families; webs of bonding and love that only death could pull asunder. But she was his only family. It had seemed, when they found one another, that they would build a fortress against the world and fill it with the laughter of children and that their joy would grow and expand evermore. But some fruit wither on the branch before they ripen.
He turned into this own front gate, and followed the path towards the house. The flower beds on either side lay neglected, swamped with the weeds he hadn't the energy to fight off, their tendrils catching at his ankles in the darkness and threatening to bring him down. The only light here was the pallid luminescence flickering through the blinds from the TV in Barbara's room. It had been the dining room until she had insisted on sleeping separately. It had torn at him to let her go, but what was the point? He knew she had been right.
He paused at the front door, steeled himself for the task ahead and walked in. She looked up, her eyes questioning and fearful. She knew what was in his mind.
There was a rustle as the carer appeared behind him, pulling her coat on over her dark blue uniform. “There you are, Mr Harper,” she said. “You're late.”
“Am I? Sorry.” He checked his watch. Two minutes after ten.
“Well, no matter,” the woman said, bestowing forgiveness like drops of her blood, “but I've got to go now. Anyway, we've had a quiet evening. Haven't we, Babs?” She raised her voice at the last and stretched her mouth in some vague semblance of a smile. “Just had a little bit of an accident, didn't we? Still, no problem; that's what I'm here for.” She lowered her voice, but only to what might be considered a normal level, and added, “I've changed the sheets and put the others in the wash for you.”
Over the woman's shoulder, Mark could see Barbara — not Babs, never Babs — redden and turn her face aside.
“Right. Fine,” he responded. “Thank you.” What he really wanted was to remind the woman to show a bit of respect, but he was tired of it, tired of trying to explain that inside this twisted body was the same person who had protested against the Iraq war, explained the Theory of Relativity to him and giggled uncontrollably as she'd locked him to the bed-post with a set of fluffy pink handcuffs.
And he felt a wave of shame too, because he forgot it himself sometimes.
The carer gave him a funny look, or perhaps it was just his own guilty imagination. “You'll be all right?” she asked, genuine concern for once tingeing her voice.
“Yeah, sure.” He forced a smile. “We always manage, don't we?”
Barbara made a moaning sound, but he understood her well enough.
“What did she say?”
“She said, 'Yes. We always manage.'”
The woman looked back and forth between them, perhaps unsure as to whether he was making it up, but a car horn sounded from outside. “That's my lift,” she said. “Got to go. I'll see you again next week. Bye, Babs. Don't do anything I wouldn't do.”
Barbara made a low sound and Mark said, “She says goodbye too,” which was, at best, a very loose interpretation of the actual message.
Still, the woman gave a cheery wave and was off, the door snicking closed behind her, leaving them in sudden awkward silence.
“Well?” Barbara asked. “Have you decided?” He could still heard the echo of her true voice in the slurred syllables.
He nodded, his throat too tight to say more, and she smiled at him, though it was only one corner of her mouth that twitched. “Thank you,” she said.
“You're sure? No second thoughts?”
“No more delays.” She spoke briefly, minimising the effort. “Should have done it myself. While I still could. When Dr Marsden first told me.”
“Don't say that.” He held her hand. “I just wish you'd been having an affair with him as I first thought.”
She grunted, and her grip tightened for a moment. “Now would be good,” she said. “The pain's getting bad again.”
Mark nodded and went to the drawer where he'd secreted the extra supply of pills. They were already counted out, had been for weeks now, while he agonised over the final step. He knew too that she wanted the deed done before he changed his mind again.
His hand shook as he tipped the pills across the coverlet beside her, and topped up her beaker of water. There was still time to stop. But he couldn't torture her like that. She deserved the peace she craved so badly.
He slipped the first pill between her lips and gave her a sip of water to wash it down. Then another and another till they were all gone.
“Thank you,” she whispered, then added, “I'm frightened.”
He leaned forward and brushed her forehead with his lips, then took her hand and held it, giving comfort as her eyes closed and her breathing slowed. He thought it had stopped completely when she suddenly drew in a painful, choking breath, followed a moment later by another. For one terrible moment he thought she had changed her mind, but it was only her body betraying her one final time as it struggled to remain alive.
Then she went still: truly still. The colour drained from her face, the energy from her body.
He cried a while: loss, relief and fear vying for supremacy. Then he went out into the hallway and picked up the phone.