Our eldest lad wasn’t there for our first anniversary, although he made his presence felt. I struggled with the extra weight in the summer’s heat and boy could he kick. Walter carried the picnic basket, blanket, pillows and anything he could think of to make me feel more comfortable. The contractions started before we finished our adventure and we had to dash to the General. That was thirty years ago; our pearl anniversary is proving to be an entirely different celebration.
“Morning, Mrs Williams,” says Mr Bennett. “How’s your old man doing?”
“You know Walter,” I say, smiling. “Loves his stomach.”
“I’ve got some lean minced beef for him and our herb sausages are on a special.”
I always said food would be the death of him. Whatever I conjured up he enjoyed: plates of pasta, bowls of Bolognese, lashings of lasagna; followed by hearty portions of tiramisu made with rich soft cheeses soaked in Tia Maria, followed by roasted Italian coffee and an occasional brandy or two. He’d wolf it all down like there was no tomorrow.
Walter had been an active man in his prime, but since his accident he’s lost that edge. I never thought he’d hang up his boots by choice. Seven years have passed since he retired at fifty and he’s come to embrace a sedentary existence.
His injury changed everything. The dodgy right knee was an excuse. It was his ego that took a battering. He couldn’t bear the thought of being out-run by anyone, and the idea of engaging in ‘walking-soccer-for-seniors’ was anathema to him. Dribbling a ball past geriatrics wasn’t his style. It never will be. Even at fifty, Walter never ever accepted his age as an obstacle. Walter would spar with the best of them. He never shied away from a physical challenge or a hard tackle.
“I hear your hubby’s having a spot of bother, Mrs Williams,” says Mrs Dawson.
“You know my Walter,” I say, smiling. “Always thinking about his stomach.”
“I’ve got your order of mascarpone and two tubs of full fat cream cheese.”
He loves my tiramisu. Bless him. Fading away wasn’t on his agenda. He visited the surgery straight after the accident, and the doctor told him to put his leg up or he’d never play soccer again. The old Walter didn’t have a lazy bone in his body. He worked hard, played hard and wanted to go out with a dynamic bang. It was his teammates who persuaded him to slow down. Walter succumbed to their pleas however, six months later his doctor put him on a strict diet. He told Walter if he carried on overeating, he’d achieve his life’s goal and explode by accident. That’s easier said than done. Walter was never one to be told what to do. I couldn’t insist he changed his ways. He could be obstinate when he was of a mind.
“Happy anniversary, Mum, did you guys get my card?”
“You’ve caught me in the kitchen, love,” I said, craning my neck to cradle the receiver. “I’m up to my elbows in chopped onions and fresh oregano.”
“How’s Dad doing,” he asks and clears his throat. “I’ve tried calling but---”
“Oh, you know your father,” I say. “He doesn’t like surprises.”
Walter stopped answering the phone about six months ago. He never had much interest in small talk. Getting to the phone had become a chore. I answered it on most occasions. I’d cover the receiver and say to him, “It’s for you.”
He’d shake his head and mouth out, “Tell them I’m indisposed.”
The excitement of playing for the team has become a memory. He missed the push and shove of match days at first. Now armchair sporting pursuits have replaced the weekend match fixtures and training nights. He invested in a satellite dish and discovered endless channels of soccer; live, recorded and archived. There were interviews with current players, biographies of former stars and documentaries featuring former managers talking about cabinets of silverware and trophies ad nauseam. His passion for his beloved sport now knew no bounds and allowed him to indulge his appetite at the same time.
I recall how he used to badger our lads to get some fresh air. He’d grab the RC, switch off the TV and drag both of them outside. During your school holidays he’d run circles round them for hours. He was so competitive that even when they’d got bored and sloped off, he’d carry on. They wouldn’t recognise him now.
It’s funny how ‘putting your feet up’ can become a habit. The slow decline was an incremental process subject to occasional tectonic shifts of consciousness. Five years ago he’d hobble about on a crutch and get under my feet in the kitchen, and then as his eating pattern evolved he helped less often. In the meantime I fixed, mended and cleaned the house and he got used to me getting things done. The household continued as ever; I made it all appear to be effortless and little changed.
At first, Walter hated the notion of dependency, and then he got used to the attention. I remember one incident when the doorbell rang, and he grabbed his footstool to raise his damaged leg. His adopted posture surprised the visitors and drew an immediate reaction; he enjoyed the sympathy. Everyone decided he needed cheering up, and they returned with homemade cakes, chocolate cookies and candied fruit, to his delight and delectation. He’d offer pots of tea and sports anecdotes in return for a non-stop stream of sugary confections and pastries. Walter held court in our front room and I’d barely be acknowledged. As long as his guests had hot beverages, that was all that mattered. I could have gone out for an hour and they wouldn’t have noticed.
It was surprising to witness his change of behaviour, but shocking when his other knee developed an issue too. The lack of exercise and overeating put pressure on the left leg and as a result the problem doubled. His doctor recommended resting both legs, otherwise he’d struggle to walk again. Walter’s sporting life was becoming his distant past. A vicious circle was developing. The more Walter rested and indulged, the more weight he packed on and the worse he felt, which encouraged him to snack and put more pressure on his joints, and discouraged any further activity.
Thirty years have zipped past. It seems like yesterday when we exchanged vows and kissed on the church steps. Confetti filled the air. Everyone cheered and wished us a happy future. I was a lucky girl, and I knew it; he was quite a catch. Walter’s twice the man I married all those years ago. He’s doubled in weight in the last seven years. We can’t get away, which is why I’ve shopped for ingredients. He’s a creature of habit now. We’ll both take a deep breath and prepare for another thirty years together, providing today’s operation goes to plan.
Our lives haven’t gone as planned for a while. Tonight was supposed to be our special celebration; a candle-lit meal for two. I go through the motions and set two places at the dining table. I relish the opportunity to place out our formal cutlery. That was the eight-piece set we received from my parents. It came in a presentation box. A classic wedding gift designed to last forever. Alas, the best crockery’s not remained intact. It’s suffered a few mishaps and over the last seven years. Walter’s recent tantrums have got worse. I remember what he was like when his favourite team lost on a Saturday afternoon. He’d stomp about all evening and refuse his supper. Now it’s as though his side is losing every day, except now he’ll snack for Britain to cheer himself up.
“Walter!” I’d shout every night, competing with his TV sports shows. I always called twice in case he hadn’t heard. “Your dinner’s ready when you are, love!”
The house is quiet this evening.
The landline rings in the front room.
Walter hates the phone. He fears the worst.
The phone continues ringing.
I walk through to the empty front room and sigh as I lift the receiver. “Hello---”
“Is that Suzanne? Mrs Suzanne Williams?”
“Speaking,” I say. “Can I help you?”
“Nurse Cummings here from Gardner Ward,” she says. “It’s about your husband…”
There are shouts in the background, feet running past and harsh bleeping noises.
“Please be straight with me, nurse.”
“He’s recovered from the anaesthetic but he’s requested a DNR.”
“An DNR request after a knee operation?”
“He says his life’s not worth living, and he wants a Nil-by-Mouth instruction too...”
I press the button on the entry phone. They buzz me through and I head towards the reception and rest our old wicker basket on the desk. “It’s our anniversary, and he was so looking forward to a romantic night---”
“That’s fine, Mrs Williams,” says the receptionist.
I give instructions for microwave. I’ve adjusted the times for their industrial power settings. The dessert should rest in the fridge, if there’s room; it’s better chilled.
“Room six is third on the left.” She says, pointing to her right. “Mr Williams should be awake now.” She smiles and disappears with the food to the rear kitchens.
“So what’s this nonsense about a DNR?” I lean forward and plant a kiss on his lips.
“The food in here is dreadful, I couldn’t face another plateful.”
“Happy anniversary, love.” I open the basket and spread a tablecloth on his bed table.
“Don’t suppose you brought any snacks.”
I rest the wicker basket on the bed by his feet and bring out a bowl of cashews.
“You know me, Walter,” I say, removing the cling film. “But don’t get used to it.”
A broad smile spreads across his face as his stomach groans and rumbles for all to hear. “You’re a life saver, baby.”
“We haven’t started yet.” I shake my head and chuckle. “Just don’t get used to it.”