“I’m going to die?” Grace smoothes her skirt over her thighs and raises her eyes once more to the man in the tie. His face is empty. No constructed expression of human compassion or generous empathy. Just empty. Poor man, Grace thinks, he must do this every day.
“Please tell me what information you would like.” he says.
Oh, good, I’m still making the decisions then. “Just tell me how long before I’m too sick to move.”
The man appraises her face for readiness. He sees the flush of life still in her cheeks, her bright eyes with the merest crows’ feet at the edges, the upturn of her mouth that seems a mouth always ready to smile. Yes, his face is empty. For soon hers will be, too.
“The secondaries are extensive. Maybe a month, or two.” He watches her blink quickly, perceives the briefest halt in her breath, and she smiles. Not a strained pulling back of bloodless lips over ground teeth, but a true, full smile that lifts her cheeks and softens her eyes.
“Thank you.” She stands, shakes his hand and simply leaves.
Grace pulls up her inbox and looks around her study as the messages arrive. On the mantelpiece a red lacquered plate rests against the wall, the light held within it like some crystal planet. Directly in front stands a tall thin red glass candlestick. Its elegant form contrasts with the round smoothness of the plate, while their shared colour combines them. To the left of it is a hand-crafted pottery mug, decorated with heavy swirls of red roses, outlined in black circlets. A glorious thing, a gift from her dearest friend. There had been no order to their arrangement there. Yet Grace can now see their perfection. ‘Still Life in Red.’ Still life in red. Blood red. Still...life in red.
Grace’s first tear slips down her face.
The computer is blinking at her. Before she sits, she allows herself her ambience. She folds shutters over the old windows and lights candles –her favourite way of softening technology. Distracted now by the shelves of books, books that mark her years and journeys: texts and reference tomes charting her education, her career; fiction too delicious to give away; large picture books full of fabulous photos: Himalaya, Sahara, Treasures of the Buddha. Places her friends had seen and she had dreamt about. Notebooks. She wonders if she should hide those, and laughs out loud. That would be pointless. They would be found. Maybe she should destroy them. There is the little blue one; it lived on her bedside table to capture nightmares that she scribbled in the dark, not caring if the words were lucid so long as it took the images out of her head. Surprised, she was, to read it years later and find not only was it legible, but she remembered each dream like a movie. The big spiral-bound book she called her book of complaint, for she only wrote there when she was ranting, unhappy, untangling her negative thoughts, her hurting soul. There’s the little leather-bound one – a gift – her Ta-DAH! book, where she recorded highlights, however small, as she crawled her way back from the dark days. ‘I had a bath, with my book.’ ‘I lit the candles in my study.’ Small things. Big moves towards self-kindness, little steps towards happiness. Ta-DAH! This is my life. This has been my life. Someone might want to know.
A quick click on the mouse and Alice is in the inbox. ‘Hi, Mum. How did you get on at the doctor’s today? I’ll give you a ring when I get Teddy off to bed. Text me, ok?’
Click reply. Her daughter’s photo is sellotaped to the bookcase.
‘No need. False alarm – middle-aged and whacky hormones. I might take a holiday. A little break might put things right. Big hugs to Teddy, and you! Love, Mum.’
In warrior pose, Grace feels gently strengthened. She holds it a moment longer than usual, breathing deeply, mildly amused by how very well she is feeling. Moving to begin her salute to the sun, she is disturbed by a knocking on the door. She glances at the clock. 9am. Everyone should be at work. Probably post. She opens the front door and is not pleased to see the man filling the frame. Grace does not greet him.
“May I?” he asks as he steps forward into the hall. Grace holds the door ajar, gesturing towards the kitchen where she might command enough civility to offer Alice’s father a coffee, but more definitely because the wooden kitchen chairs are less welcoming than her cosy sofas. She potters with the kettle, awaiting his usual attack about Alice’s choice not to see him anymore, her decision to keep him firmly out of his grandson’s life.
Ben scrapes his chair across the tiles. “Alice answered my e-mail. She said you’re going to Puerto Rico.”
He looks upset, momentarily, and Grace wonders if he has actually held some kinder memories in his heart, pictures of their early days, pictures that she herself took years to reconstruct, desperate to break free of the legacy he had bestowed on her bones and the skin of her infant.
“Puerto Rico?” Grace calmly holds his gaze, unafraid that he knows.
“Can we talk about…? Grace, I need to talk, to explain…”
“Grace, please? I never meant it to be that way. I was under so much pressure, trying to keep the company alive, protect people’s jobs and families. Alice would cry and cry. I was so tired. I lost control.”
Grace has heard this all before, over the years, Ben’s drunken remorse bringing him to her doorstep at closing time. She is surprised to be hearing it again now, after so long, in the sober light of day.
“What do you want, Ben? She’s 24. She remembers it all. I can’t make her see you.”
“It’s not about Alice. It’s you. I know I’ve been a complete bastard. I don’t recognise the man I was back then. And I’m sorry, Grace, so very sorry. I need to know that you forgive me, Grace, before you go…on your…holiday.” His eyes fill and tears drip silently onto the table.
Grace sips her tea, her heart heavy. What it takes to make a grown man cry – losing someone he has continued to love all this time? No. Simple selfish self-pity – his own inability to take responsibility for his actions and their consequences. His need to be absolved of guilt. Grace forgave him years ago. She had to, to heal herself. She has been free of it all. Yet Ben is not. And she has the power to afford him rest in her passing. It would be kind.
A pain is forming in Grace’s chest. She can’t tell if it’s real – disease, or real dis-ease, the dis-ease that Ben cost her before she finally realised that she needed him to stay away. He was toxic. He is still toxic. And that is not what Grace’s body needs right now.
“Ben,” she says quietly, “I need you to leave. Now.”
The Camuy caves are swallowed in the thickest, lushest foliage that Grace has ever encountered. The heat and humidity of the island is imbibed by these plants and brought forth in green glory, gorging itself on the constant waterfalls. Her sweat runs rivulets down her spine, gathering in a little puddle in her shorts. The Caribbean heat feels to Grace like a sauna. Walk: sweat. Eat: sweat. Breathe: sweat. Water in, water out. So natural. So pure. Grace feels the vapour of her body mist into the vapour of the planet – sublime co-dependence. She holds her open palm beneath the dripping leaves. “Alive.”
El Murro she visits very early one morning. The heat would only increase and soon beat off the fortress and become untouchable. Here, now, there is a cool breath off the sea. A handful of people are here, before the coaches arrive. Grace has a deep impulse to practise some yoga in this ancient place. She spends a second with self-consciousness. A waste of a second. Going to the broad wall of the fort she steps up, breathes deeply, and stretches. Once more it is warrior pose that draws her body. She holds; she breathes; she grins. Grace delivers her Namaste to the ocean. As she turns, a man is taking her picture. She offers Namaste to him and steps off the wall.
Grace had been hoping for better weather for Rincon’s perfect beach. Perhaps a suntan. Yes, that would make a better-looking corpse. Then she wonders, if the blood is drained from my body, would my skin hold any colour? Or would it, too, be depleted? So, sod the suntan. Let me just feel the sun. Let me inhabit this earthly body fully, from the outside in, and enjoy. But the sky is marine blue, the heaviest gray clouds fumbling about, obscuring the sun. Not sunbathing weather. As Grace watches, a rainbow breaks through the cloud and reaches for the beach. She wishes she could capture it.
“It’s not as hard as you think. Look.”
Grace puts her fingertips to her lips – had she spoken aloud? It is the man from the fortress. He raises her camera for her. She holds it to her eye and he takes her by the shoulders, turning her so slightly. “There. Take it.” She does, and the result on the screen is perfection. The man smiles: the most open and beautiful smile she has ever seen. He is younger than she saw before, his skin clear, his body lean. Yet his presence is somehow older.
“We’ve met, I mean...Hello, I’m Grace.”
“I’m Strat. Now we meet.” He takes her hand, holds it a while, energising her before letting go. “You travel alone?”
“Yes. I always promised myself…before…yes.”
“Congratulations,” he says, looking deeply into her.
Grace is overwhelmed with a need to stay in his company. She scans the people around, trying to ascertain whether he is alone.
“Come. I’ll show you more photos to make.”
They spend the afternoon side by side as Strat instructs her eye, drawing her to the detail of a vision – the one that will capture the essence of the sight. Grace sees the world as she has not seen it before, and laughs at the absurdity of her observation. She has never seen this world before.
“If you are not hurrying somewhere, the most magical light is yet to come, as the sun rests. Stay and eat with me.” Strat lays his hands over hers to take the camera. He strokes her fingers with deliberation, his young face pensive. Thoughts riot through Grace’s mind, questioning what she desires, what he wants – whether she cares. She’s about to die – what place have morals now? The weight of that question hits her hard and she makes a sharp gasp.
“What’s wrong, Grace?”
“Just…thinking.” She tries to shrug it off.
They have come to the beach and the sun is slipping steadily towards the horizon. Strat leads her to a clearing before leaning palm trees. “Now, watch.” He positions himself for his shot and Grace focuses on his direction. A minute passes slowly. A cloud stratum trails in front of the sun, and the sky turns lemon – bright, warm lemon with a tangerine stripe, the sea gold beneath. The palms stand silhouetted against the stunning sky and a couple steps out, embracing, to admire the view. Strat presses the button. That’s his shot.
Dinner is from a beach barbeque, on Grace’s blanket from her rucksack with some local wine from the wooden kiosk. They laugh at the antics of some dusk surfers and kids making a bonfire further along the beach. Grace lies back, caressed by the Caribbean breeze. “Wait,” Strat says, rearranging himself behind her. “Rest on me.” Grace lies back between his thighs, wary. He remains relaxed and she lays her head against his chest. He kisses her lightly on her head, easing his arms around her. “How long have you got?”
In a heartbeat Grace realises that somehow he knows. “I’m not sure, exactly,” she says quietly.
“You’ll return to your family?”
Grace moves to sit up. Strat holds her closer. Exhaling, she lays her head back again. “No.”
“That’s an unusual decision.” His voice is steady, non-judgemental. “Why?” His compassion surrounds her.
“Because I want to die happy.” Grace turns to face him and a deep smile breaks across her face, bringing with it a rush of joy. “I want to die happy. Right here, right now would be fine! You see, I just can’t stand all the drama people make around death. I don’t like the ‘protocol’. I can’t be doing with last suppers and dying wishes. I want to leave a free woman. My Alice would beg me not to go-as if I have a choice. And her asking, her need, would hurt so much, I can’t bear to hear it. Everyone gets so selfish when someone is dying. Everyone is thinking ‘me, me, me.’ It’s crazy. Even my ex, of twenty years wants to be heard, seeking my forgiveness, and my family will beg me to give it. They don’t understand why I want nothing to do with it. I let go of it all years ago – he’s the one who’s holding on to his guilt. He hurts about his own wrong-doings – he has to forgive himself. I don’t want to take the stain of his ills onto my soul. I don’t want the tears and the angst. I don’t want to be fixing it for everyone else so it’s okay for me to die. I’d like to leave in peace.”
Strat leans forward and kisses her on the mouth, a deep and beautiful kiss that transports her heart to another plane. Ah, that death should come like this –breath intermingled with another’s, dispersed into another life force, and be gone.
“Come on, Teddy, let’s wipe your face.” Alice is distracted from her task by a knock on the door. Leaving Teddy in his chair, she opens the door to a courier who asks her to sign for a box. “Oh, I’m not expecting anything...”she begins, when the phone rings. She shrugs a goodbye and elbows the door shut, jogging back to the kitchen to take the call.
“Solicitor from the Medical Insurance...Puerto Rico...flying the casket back...” The details are lost as Alice sinks to the floor, the box still under her arm. She sees the foreign stamps as it falls. She tears it open. Mum’s camera, with a set of photos and a note. She flicks through the pictures first, desperate for a glimpse of Grace. She is not there. Instead Alice finds amazing scenes – notes on the backs in Grace’s hand: ‘the Caves of Camuy’, ‘Rincon Rainbow’, ‘Sunset in San Juan’. Alice opens the note.
“I’m happy. I’ve been happy for a long time. I love you. Mum.”