Non Omnis Moriar
(I shall not altogether die)
‘No good deed goes unpunished’
– Clare Boothe Luce 1903-1987
‘We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep’
– William Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ Act 4 Scene 1
When she was mad, then he was mad too. John Ashton just lay there, helpless, night after night in their crumpled sweat soaked sheets, as his wife raved, mumbled and cursed in the darkness; any semblance of reason or sanity had by then long since fled.
When she was mad he was mad too. He couldn’t prevent Rebecca’s shrieking descent into the hell that was her hate-filled, private universe. Not that he ever even tried to. In her private realm of delusion, the sum of the pain and every full measure of anguish she ever felt was encapsulated. Grief seemed to exude from her very being to fill this personal abyss, till his wife, Rebecca, could almost but never quite drown herself in it.
Their four-year-old son Danny had drowned. And Ashton couldn’t save him, and he couldn’t ultimately save Rebecca from herself. Abysmal events and truly tragic failure ultimately, he realized, make disinterested observers of us all.
She’d ramble on, mumbling almost incoherently in the dark for hours; then suddenly wrench herself up, whispering fiercely that she could hear their dead child’s faint cry, in the dead of the night.
“Mommy’s coming baby, mommy’s coming”.
Rebecca would then stagger out of the bed; and, puppet like, on invisible tethers Ashton was pulled haltingly along after her. He was a mute witness to an absurd folly as she’d go in a fruitless search for their already dead child in her mechanical, methodical, yet clumsy way. Night after night, she’d frantically search the house, room by weary room. Inevitably the sad quest would lead through to the back garden; it always ended with his wife crouched down by the side of the large ornamental fish pond under a dark, starless sky. Even in this position Rebecca was still weaving and swaying, groggy from sleep deprivation and fighting the sedative chemical cocktail a doctor had given to her. However, some wounds inflicted in life can gouge far too deep to heal with any arbitrary prescribed chemical patch.
Her demented keening would inevitably wake the neighbors. Lights started to flicker on high in the dark all around them in the up-market suburb; bright shafts spilling light across the large lawn that illuminated the pathetic, kneeling figure that was his wife. Her thrashing hands and arms pawed and dug with increasing desperation within the murky water; probing deeply in that hateful weed strewn pond that had drowned him; frantically parting waving, slimy, clutching fronds, vainly searching. He had repeatedly promised Rebecca to drain down that big pool since they had moved into their smart new house with the baby three years before. Ashton never had gotten around to it. It was one of those ‘to do’ jobs for the next weekend; or in the autumn maybe. Or perhaps he’d do it in the early spring. Or certainly he’d get round to it next year. Then definitely he’d take care of it the year after that.
But complacency not only assured that John Ashton never got the large ornamental pool emptied and filled in; but also that it didn’t matter anymore.
It was a Sunday afternoon in late June.
The sun was yellow-hot fuzz in a flawless blue sky, Rebecca’s early lunch had been substantial and Ashton was comfortably lazing on the living room couch; french widows thrown wide and the smells and ambient sound of Sunday suburban mowing falling pleasantly on his ears and nostrils. Their world was good then. His recent promotion to Manager at the bank had given them a financial security. John Ashton had done well for a thirty-two year old and Rebecca’s part-time job teaching at the local infant’s school paid for two good Mediterranean holidays a year. Yes, life was undeniably excellent, but what he should have realized was a defining bitter truth; namely happiness isn’t something that anyone can ever monopolize. You have to make the best of it when it’s there. No one can ever own it. Ashton’s bliss, his life as he had so contentedly known it; indeed his very world ended, incongruously, on that smug, self-satisfied summer afternoon.
As T.S Eliot had once hypothesized, it didn’t end with a bang, but with a whimper. Dozing, Rebecca’s question came innocently enough. Through half-closed eyes he saw her head poking out round the half-opened living room door.
He roused himself sourly, answering, “I thought he was with you in the kitchen”.
The head vanished. Ashton closed his eyes with satisfaction and once more settled back deep between the soothing arms of the couch. His comfort ended quickly. The head was back.
“I can’t find him John…..where is he? I thought you were watching him”?
Ashton was properly awake now. “Why the hell should I be watching him? I thought you were”?
“I can’t be in the kitchen, sorting out food and clearing up and watching Danny. Honestly, love!” Ashton sighed. “Don’t get your knickers in a twist! He’s probably in his room with his toys. Hold on, I’ll go find him”.
He heaved himself up, brushed past her more than a little annoyed at being disturbed from his Sunday after-lunch snooze and went into the hallway. Leaning on the bottom of the banister, head tilted he yelled out into the silent upstairs:
“Danny, where are you?” No reply came. He shouted a little louder in mock anger that was always sure to get the boy’s attention. “Danny, you answer your daddy right now!”
The silence indicated he’d probably fallen asleep playing. He was at that age where kids do; Ashton made a quick run upstairs to check the nursery room. Toys cars and plastic action figures lay in a strewn, jumbled mêlée on the carpeted floor; but there was no sign of the four year old. He was making a quick check of the other bedrooms when he heard a faint scream through an open upstairs back window; a piteous, high pitched yell that emanated from the house’s extensive rear gardens. It was a wordless screech that could only have come from Rebecca.
Ice-cold at once despite the warm afternoon it sent him bounding down the stairs, three at a time, skidding wildly on the polished wooden floors of the hallway, back into the lounge and dashing outside through the open french windows.
The sight Ashton saw was never to leave him. Rebecca was up to her waist in the ornamental pond, her long cotton summer dress billowing up around her waist, the thin material supported and caressed by the filthy, stagnant water, she was screaming out the child’s name. Tearing down the length of the lawn her fraught husband reached the side of the pond in seconds, Ashton’s body reacting unhesitatingly to what his mind could not accept; the obvious fact that their little boy must be submerged somewhere in those scummy, weed strewn depths. Oh God, Danny was drowning…his fault…his fault…
Ashton jumped straight in at a dead run; a clumsy hard leap that he hoped would bring him to the center of the pool. The water was already churning madly from his wife’s frantic, flailing arms. She was desperately trying to latch onto Danny’s limp body but this task somehow was near impossible; she couldn’t gain a purchase. The child’s small body was slimy from the hateful embrace of the weeds that had wrapped themselves around him as he had obviously struggled pitifully to reach air again…
John Ashton’s leap carried more momentum than he realized; he fell forward himself, with some considerable force, falling headlong into the ornamental pond. He went straight under. A rough rock impacted viciously into the top of his head and gravel strewn on the bottom jabbing and scraping at his face, the pain zipped quicksilver from his head through the rest of his body…Then suddenly he was above the surface once more. It seemed that one moment he was submerged in the foul, roiling stink; then the next instant the couple were out of its griping embrace, dragging a lifeless, pale child onto the side of the pond; tragic filthy semblances of what had once been a happy family.
Strange, but later, when he thought about it, John Ashton didn’t even recall calling the ambulance. Indeed, much of the weeks that followed were a jumbled mass of blurred events. A montage of tea and sympathy from friends and relatives, with the occasional episode starkly acid etched, highlighted indelibly into his memory. Things like identifying his son’s body as a prelude to the inquest. His wife couldn’t face that. Ashton’s mother had volunteered for the horrid task, but he steadfastly refused, saying it was his job. He was punishing himself for his self-perceived inadequacies; his failures. Ashton felt that he needed to be punished.
When he carried their child’s little coffin, on his own at the funeral, there was a miasma; a sickly sweet smell of whatever it was that the undertakers had used to hide the stench of corrupting flesh. It wafted up to him; a repulsive cloying smell he was never to forget. It made Ashton want to thrust the casket away from him, smash the polished wooden container onto the ground, to tear open the lid; to pull out their child; as if he could actually remove Danny from the horror that was his own putrefaction. He gripped the hard, precious burden more tightly to his chest despite those irrational thoughts.
Ashton never faltered in his grim purpose, not for a second.
He’d already failed his child, his grief reasoned. Carrying Danny’s coffin alone was his gauche way of saying goodnight to his little boy for the last time; to atone in some small measure for his failure as his father to protect his small son when he had needed him the most. Ashton knew that and this would be the last time he’d ever get to put him to bed and tuck him up. And as John Ashton mentally said goodbye to the child at the sad little funeral, the reality was he was saying goodbye to the life they had all shared.
A loss of this magnitude can do only one of two things to any family. It either holds them together with adamantine bonds that only time can ultimately separate; or it tears and shreds them apart, like the cruelest elemental force that nature can ever summon up against us. Dreadfully, the later was true for John and Rebecca Ashton.
For the first few weeks after the funeral, John’s grief had to take a back seat. Rebecca needed him to be there for her. But, Ashton’s self-torment was a greasy, vicious, undernourished junk-yard dog. It was a ferocious hound that mindlessly barked and strained at its rope leash; forever struggling in order to win its freedom. And in the end the tether snapped and the animal was finally, joyously free to range and terrorize its domain. In the few short months after Danny’s death John Ashton became a transformed being. He was a man on the edge of a deep dark chasm; a poor, contemptible creature that drank heavily and was gripped with an inner wrath. Possessed of a raw, lashing anger that made those about him cringe away from his unreasoning rages.
He started to miss the odd day from work. Then the odd two days became three…it escalated. Soon Ashton couldn’t even face getting up in the morning. Or if he did get up, it was only to get onto the lounge couch and sprawl there instead of the bed.
Inevitably, Jeannie Murt, the bank’s Regional Manager came to the house to see him. Ashton had dispiritedly answered the door at the third ring. Rebecca didn’t answer the door anymore. She rarely came out of Danny’s nursery. They hardly spoke these days. Murt’s face wrinkled up at the sight of Ashton’s unshaved face and generally unkempt, disheveled appearance. After inviting herself into the hallway and half closing the door behind her she took a second to draw breath and square back her rounded shoulders, and then let him have it. Although she; and she was certain that others had ‘great sympathy for him and his terrible loss’ etc., but, that notwithstanding, the bank’s interests and business had to be paramount. If he didn’t pull himself together and quit the drinking, and start pulling his weight then he should have no illusions that his job with the bank was on the line. After all, it had been nearly 9 months now! Come on man! Time to move on.
Ashton stared back at her blearily, blankly; still horribly hung over, barely comprehending the words that were showering over him from the pale, shrill, shrunken husk in front of him…Like he gave a rat’s arse about the fucking bank…However, he mumbled some platitudes at her, assuring her that he just needed a few days to ‘sort things out’, and he would be in late next week a new man. ‘Yeah, he just needed a few days’. Ms. Murt didn’t seem convinced, but she left saying:
‘Well, we’ll see John, we’ll see…but this state of affairs really can’t carry on you know….’
Ashton was glad to be rid of her. He had no intention of stopping the drink. Fuck her. Fuck them all. He staggered back into the lounge and settled torpidly back onto the couch again…The boozing, however, did end abruptly…oddly enough, not because of the threats from his boss. No, that made no difference to him at all. It was a shocking event that alone marked the end of Ashton’s piss-blind drunken stupors.
He had awakened on some forgotten early afternoon sprawled on their bed not long after Jeannie Murt’s visit… He was in a sorry state, to be sure. The unshaven exterior of him was comprised of a stinking, filthy sweat grimed shirt and sleep wrinkled pants. The interior was head blurred with yet another night of drinking excesses. And the worse of it was he had absolutely no recollection of how he had even got there on the bed; or in this state initially. But this booze fueled memory loss was getting to be a normal state of affairs for him these days. But that, in itself was a comfort. Ashton sodden senses didn’t even register that his wife wasn’t in evidence. They rarely shared a bed these days. Heaving himself grudgingly up from off the reeking divan, swaying, head pounding, he dragged his sorry, breath sour, disreputable self across the hall to the bathroom; only to literally stumble over his wife slumped unconscious on the floor; several empty pill bottles were scattered around in mute evidence of a suicidal longing.
She hadn’t died but it had been a close run thing.
The upshot of this affair was that Rebecca had been ‘sectioned’ under the mental health act by the doctors and social workers; hospitalized in a mental ward for her own protection by the local authorities. She was obviously a danger to herself. John Ashton couldn’t even bear to see Rebecca whilst she was there. He couldn’t bear to see her at all. It wasn’t that Ashton didn’t love her, because he did. John loved her with every fiber of his being. But He learned, too late, yet another one of life’s bitter truths; love isn’t nearly enough sometimes. Not by a long chalk.
Stunned and slightly swaying, he blearily watched the wailing ambulance pull away, the blue light flashing vehicle that contained the poor, tormented shell that had been a vibrant loving woman; his destructive self pity abruptly ended then and with it the alcohol abuse. At that point he might even have been willing to move on with his life. Then a second devastating hammer blow struck him down to the floor once more…
Rebecca, in her second month of residence in the ward, had managed to steal herself a glass soda bottle from somewhere; maybe from one of the waste bins in the staff toilets. No one was certain. She could have sneaked in, unnoticed…hidden it on her person and easily concealed it from the nurses until it was safely hidden in her room. She was clever. She knew the ward was overworked, overwhelmed and ultimately understaffed. She’d obviously planned it meticulously, knowing when the patient night observation times were and did the act precisely when she needed to.
By the time any of the staff realized that she was missing from bed, it was already too late. Rebecca had obviously watched the cleaning staff punch the code into one of the storeroom’s locks, memorizing it. That’s where they found her poor drained body some two odd hours after they had begun to search. She’d obviously been dead for a while, her wrists slashed arterially. It was very well contrived. She had towels and rags carefully and strategically laid loosely around her wrists and spread out on the floor to soak up the majority of the blood so as the hot red running fluid wouldn’t seep under the door to give her intent away; at least not before it was too late for anything to be done.
Rebecca’s inquest verdict was mere formality; death by suicide. After all, what can anyone really say when someone just can’t bear to live anymore?
So there was another funeral, and yet another interminable round of tea and sympathy. And as she was buried, the only emotion that the numbed Ashton could honestly feel was one of relief. So long days turned into longer weeks; those weeks dragged into interminable months. It was then, just as he thought things might get better, that the nightmares really started and his horror truly began.
It was after 10pm. The winter dark was pressed in hard against the lounge french windows…he hadn’t bothered closing the drapes against the soulful moan of the cold, windy December night. He lay sprawled on the couch…the same one that he’d been on that fateful summer day seemingly now in another lifetime past. He had worked over at the bank most nights lately, immersing himself in mindless meaningless work as a panacea against his inner misery. Up till now it had seemed to work. He kept himself almost to the point of exhaustion with the administrative minutia of the bank’s business.
This punishing routine was serving him well on many fronts; it was gathering its own reward. His bosses at the bank, happy once more now that the status quo had been re-established were discussing the distinct possibility of moving him to a larger branch in the company with far more responsibilities. It had been almost a year and a half now since Danny died; almost and several months since Rebecca had been buried. He hadn’t had a drink now in…God…how long was it? His mind was wondering with fatigue. He guiltily opened his eyes, realizing he had been dozing with the evening paper draped over his face; the news bulletin was still droning on in the background.
“Daddy”? A sweet, melodious questioning child voice…Danny…
Ashton’s heart seemed to compress painfully in his chest, to flutter wildly yet slowly at the same time…a hot bright butterfly trying vainly to beat its wings in a dark vat that was filled with icy cold treacle. His breath caught sharply in his lungs. The call came again, still as warm as a summer wind…yet he felt instantly chilled by its sound:
He was frozen by it: as if that simple word had tangible, terrible weight and substance; a force that crushed him into the couch. He couldn’t move a muscle. Now the child’s voice sounded out once more…yet oddly corrupted; bubbling in some hideous fashion…harsh syllables forming forced words through a larynx that was liquid filled and rank. Stinking. Corrupt. Dead.
Through the thin shroud of the newspaper sheets, Ashton could make out the bright cluster of lights from the lounge ceiling chandelier….but there was something else there to at the periphery: something that was a faint, yet solid shadow. Ashton was terrified; he couldn’t bear to look directly at it. The shape…the hint of a small grasping hand attached to a child’s arm…a limb that was snaking quickly out with the boneless intent of tearing the paper away from his face. With a cry, his breath coming in short tortured gasps, heart pounding madly Ashton shot up from the couch; the paper crumpled by his convulsing hands and hurled violently from him to the lounge floor; his eyes searching wildly round the room for his phantom assailant. None was in evidence. It was just an empty room. An empty room with him standing, shaking and white faced in the center. There was a TV playing, and the uncaring winter wind howling mournfully in the dark outside.
The vision, of course not real Ashton realized; it had no substance other than in his own mind. It was just another damned stupid nightmare; one of the many that had plagued him for months now. His therapist has assured him in his twice weekly sessions in very knowing tones that these night terrors would certainly diminish in frequency and severity with time as Ashton’s mind and psyche came to terms with his traumatic losses. The psychologist might know that. Ashton might know that. But, apparently, the nightmares didn’t. If anything they were getting worse.
He’d done all that the psychologist had suggested; cut down on the tranquilizers, the caffeine, tried to change and rationalize these visions in a conscious state, to think them through; modify them, so that whilst asleep, the outcome would change. But none of this had much effect.
Ashton sat heavily down on the couch once more; his hands were still shaking slightly as he brought them up to his face and held them there, his head bowed wearily resting against them, covering his already closed lids with his pressing fingertips for a few long minutes. He finally slowed his breathing and regained control of the pounding organ in his chest. Finally, he pulled his hands away, opened his eyes again and studied his wet, sweat covered palms that were held out in front of him. At least they had stopped shaking now, he noted with some small measure of satisfaction. He actually felt a little better. Perhaps now it was a good time to go to bed, whilst he was ahead. Who knew, thought Ashton, hopefully this night would be dreamless.
He stood up and turned to the french windows to draw the curtains. They stood there, waiting silently, careless of the December wind that must have bit cruelly into them.
Rebecca & Danny hand in hand; mother and son.
Dead flesh pressed against the clear cold glass. Danny’s corrupted face was drawn back in an obscene parody of an impish childish grin…algae filled green pond water draining from his mouth like viscous drool; his mottled free arm waving in welcome. Rebecca, her blonde hair was encrusted with her own blood and leaked body fluids. Her dead clouded eyes were fixed intently on him. Opaque, sightless white orbs that had the ability to bore straight through him to probe his deepest thoughts. Her dead face jerked down, seeking a way in… The putrefying corpse reached hesitantly out to the outside handle and it turned down with a sickening inevitability. Rebecca’s hideous face came up in a snigger of triumph to fix his gaze once more. As force was applied, the door began to slowly open inward letting in the heavy unfriendly outside air…a foul emanation liberally laced with the vile stench of purification.
Ashton gagged at the disgusting odor, staggering back; his hand flying wildly to his mouth in sickened horror…he tripped over the unnoticed couch arm in his blind panic to escape this fresh repulsion. On his back, he could not see, but he could sense his dead wife and son dragging themselves purposely across the lounge carpet toward his struggling fallen form…once again the newspaper was hurled away off his face in a crumbled heap as he wrenched himself up of the couch with a piteous cry sounding out into an empty room, a warm walled comfortable space whose only other occupant, was, of course, the Television.
He sank back down onto the couch edge in defeat, drained and beaten.
John Ashton began to sob in his abject misery: ‘Please God”, he begged…’Please make the nightmares stop….”
But of course, they didn’t. How could they?
Ashton was at peace. He felt better than he had since…well, since he could remember. He lay on his back in the grass, legs crossed, hand’s behind his head and gazed up into the kind of polished blue canopy with just a few contrasting billowy white clouds; the sort of sky that every perfect British summer day should have, but only rarely ever does… except in a childhood memory. The breeze was warm and balmy; the bees droned lazily, the smells were indicative of a meadow. Everything was as it should or could be. It was a truly glorious, halcyon time.
“John”, Rebecca asked…”where’s Danny?”…
‘Oh, I suppose he’s around somewhere’…Ashton replied absently with the true unconcern that only a perfect day like that can bring. She answered. Her tone was bitter, venomous, accusing.
“Oh, you damned, damned fool. He’s not! Don’t you know?” She screamed. “Don’t you remember? We buried him alive…We put him there into the ground. He was stuffed in; closed up tight in an airless box. We piled wet, heavy earth onto him. He’s trapped, suffocating underground and now he’s calling for you John. For God’s sake can’t you hear him? He’s your son and he needs you’!
She was right. Ashton was on his feet in an instant. The pleasant afternoon had inextricably turned dank and misty. Trees that had been bursting with life and vigor now only bared their wet bark bones. The grass, once fragrant and crisp under him was now greasy and lank. The sky above Ashton was a leaden monotone grey, heavy and oppressive. He called out. “Danny…where are you? Daddy’s coming!”
All was complete silence. He spun around, desperate for a clue to Danny’s whereabouts. There, just yards away, framed against a line of thin, naked, sentinel trees, was a mound of freshly turned earth.
John raced to the pile of soil, sliding madly across the oily grey grass, and upon reaching it he threw himself onto it. Then he was ripping at the wet, reeking heap with his bare hands, careless of his rapidly shredding fingertips. After what seemed to be an eternity of tearing into the wet mound, his bloodied fingers found the slick surface of the coffin cover. Ashton scraped away at the mud on the lid with a wide sweep from the edge of his filthy hand. He kept at it. Painstakingly the small casket was revealed as a soil streaked filthy lozenge. He heaved it out from the sucking earth that seemed to want to hold jealously onto it for a few extra seconds. Pulling it away from the grave site onto the grass, John Ashton pressed the side of his head to the box surface, desperate for a sound of life; any hint that his child was still alive. He thought that faint sounds could be heard from inside. Quiet rustling movement that indicated all hope was not yet lost to him.
“Daddy’s here Danny…hang on son…hang on!”… he yelled breathlessly…
He stood up again, searching around for something he could use to pry off the lid; or failing that to smash it forcibly open. His searching gaze spotted a small rock embedded in the grass not far from him. Hurriedly bending down and seizing upon it, he yanked it out like a loose tooth. It was smallish, but had one sharp edge…it would suffice.
Staggering back to the filth splashed coffin, he lifted the rock up with both hands high over his head, and brought it smartly down on the outer edge, mindful that his child inside could still be alive. The blow produced a satisfyingly long jagged splinter from the lid, exposing bright yellow tinged wood beneath.
Ashton stopped to listen once more, the side of his face now as filthy as the casket lid from the last time he had pressed it hopefully against the surface. He could now definitely hear a scrabbling frantic scratching movement on inside of the coffin now. He was alive!! Danny was alive!!! He lifted up the instrument of his son’s freedom and Ashton’s salvation once more, and brought it crashing down again.
The top began to split. Again. Again.
The split was now wide enough for him to put his fingers in of one hand at least. And that crack was also, Ashton realized, flooding the black interior of the casket with light, but more importantly life giving air! He hit at it one more time, mustering all the strength that he had left in his gasping, wilting body…that did it. Part of the lid fell in on itself. Without hesitating he plunged in his hand to rip away the rest of the splintered lid and pull his child out.
The pain was instantly agonizing. He yanked back his hand out from the smashed blood and muck splashed ruin that had been the cover of his son’s coffin. His appendage was now obscured by a living writhing mass of stinking, slick verminous fur and lashing segmented tails that were wormy; they flailed joyously with a seemingly gross and independently life. The rats truly had him. Their eyes black as death and pin bright as cold stars. They tore frenziedly into his hand with rending razor teeth, ripping away the flesh, gnawing voraciously into the finger bones. Still gripping onto the coffin’s edge Ashton pulled himself crouchingly upright, shaking his arm insanely in agony; desperately trying to dislodge vicious creatures that seemed intent on eating him alive. He tried to force them off with the sudden, violent movements, but all that vain effort succeeded in doing was spraying a multitude of crimson blood from his shredded hand. These vicious hump-backed furry monsters clamped their powerful jaws tighter into soft flesh and bit harder into hard bone making him scream again. Some of the drops of his errant blood fell back into the coffin.
As he watched with pain blurred vision, the ravaged and ruined corpse of his child sat upright in the coffin. In frozen horror, the chewing, rending rats almost forgotten, Ashton saw that the child turned his putrid misshapen head and tilted it up to look directly at his father…grotesquely the eyes, nose and lips had been eaten away. A bloodied, rat snout, twitching inquisitively poked out of the child’s empty socket from the inside. Danny’s face split into a demonic mirthless, lipless grin, gums shriveled and blackened. His short ragged arm shot out to grip Ashton’s hand, and clamped down on it with what was an unbreakable inhuman grip of steel….his tongue was a tattered stump, mostly gnawed away; yet he still managed to gurgle out the almost unintelligible words:
“Th rath’s thar thungry, thaddy….juth keef sthill…”…
Ashton shot up in his bed with a howling yell that really would have woken the dead. The lights were still on…he never turned them off at night any longer. Ashton couldn’t stand to be in the dark. He pushed the quilt off his body that felt damp and clammy. His pajamas were almost wet with sweat. He swung his trembling legs out of the bed and onto the floor. His whole frame ached with fatigue. Every muscle seemed to hurt, all his connective sinews felt twisted and raw. His small bedside clock on the nightstand said 7:27am and it was time to get up anyway. Ashton felt awful but he forced himself to function for just one more day.
An odd and singularly depressing thought occurred to him whilst he was taking his shower. He was scrubbing at his lathered hair, washing off the night sweat with water as hot as he could stand it; mentally still trying to push away and the last lingering remnants of the awful visions from his head. My God…he thought suddenly and stopped still for a moment, the hot water running the soap from his hair and sending foam swirling around his feet…What if these nightmares never end?
As he mused, he realized that the fresh bubbly detergent laden water that had been running around his feet was now soiled. Mud filled. Weed laden. Liquid that had the all too familiar stink of corruption and death. Thick green pond water….He felt a delicate feather touch at his hip. A small hand gently clasped his. Two far heavier hands placed themselves on his naked warm shoulders from behind him.
They were woman’s hands.
These hands possessed sharp bloodless fingers; dead digits with needle nails that were both icy cold and clutching. They were digging deep, with an insistent pressure that could never be ignored. Without looking he knew who they belonged to…eyes closed in terror Ashton screamed…and screamed…and screamed….
He was sick of this shit, although he’d never tell his mom that.
It just wouldn’t be decent really. But he was nineteen years old and his mother had been dragging him almost daily here since the accident. So they sat by the side of the bed, with his arms on his knees, hands laced together staring at nothing really. Whilst he was here, he tended to just turn off while his mother chattered inanely away. And there was a lot of triviality that you could cram into fifteen years, once sometimes twice a day on weekends. Yep, fifteen long miserable fucking years of looking at the slowly wasting, deteriorating pale figure that lay on that bed. A withered sad husk that once, longer than his memory allowed, had been a living vibrant active man. A well respected man. A loving and loved father and husband.
He shuffled uneasily in his chair at the side of the bed.
He had to meet Claire at six pm. Claire with the red hair, quick wit and who had been even quicker to take him to her bed. He was only here because his mom insisted. It wasn’t like the poor old sod even knew they were there.
Why not just turn the machines off? It had always seemed cruel to him to make someone live like this. Or rather not live like this he thought bitterly. The pumps sighed in their rhythmical way, shoving air into the lungs. The heart monitor recorded the slow circadian rhythms that he’d heard for as many years as he could remember. A white coated consultant doctor walked into the room with the normal consultant’s entourage of students and underlings…this one must be a ‘higher-up’ thought Danny. He had five of them in tow.
‘Mrs. Ashton?’ His mother stood up quickly as he entered. His mom was funny that way…subservient to these hospitals Dr’s as though they had ever actually done anything for the comatose creature lying hooked up to the machinery that kept him going. That’s all they had done really. Kept him going. Not a life at all. There was nothing there any longer hardly; just the occasional faint electrical spark from the darkness that had once been his brain. And this Dr. Sanderson, a neurologist, no less if he remembered correctly, was probably just about as good or bad as the battery of other medical men and women that had preceded him over the years. “I have to tell you Mrs. Ashton that the last scans and tests proved as inconclusive as all the previous ones”. Sanderson flipped open a thick ponderous manila folder, whilst his juniors crowded around impressively trying to look like they actually knew what they were doing. Danny suppressed a snigger. He had to look down to hide it. “As you know, Mrs. Ashton”, Sanderson smiled beatifically, and then winked at her conspiratorially… “Can I call you Rebecca?”
His mother giggled nervously like a teenager asked to dance at her first prom. Shit, this is embarrassing thought Danny. “Of course you can Dr. Sanderson”, she replied, “please, feel free”. “Thank you” he answered. His face became grave and took on a sterner aspect. Here we go, thought Danny. They’d heard this same song a dozen times. The melody might change a little; but the lyrics always were the same.
Sanderson pulled up a chair from the other side of the room and sat down beside them, almost at the end of the bed. The Dr.’s underlings seemed to flow away into different parts of the room, trying to appear inconspicuous. “Mrs. Ashton”…he corrected himself…”Rebecca…the brain stem activity we are registering within John’s brain is practically non-existent. Without the life support…” He gestured at the impressive hardware that his dad was wired to, “…your husband would probably pass away. There is no way of putting it any other terms.”
Danny knew what was coming next. His mother responded.
“You say ‘probably’ Dr. Sanderson. That means you don’t know for sure, doesn’t it”? Sanderson sighed and settled back into the chair, John Ashton’s thick medical folder on his lap. “No, Rebecca. Truthfully in these cases where brain activity is so spasmodic we, as medical professionals can never be absolutely certain. No one can, it wouldn’t be possible. There are no absolutes in this type of long-term intensive care comatose case. But, in saying that I’m fairly sure that is all that really is keeping John ‘alive’ if you want to call it that”…he paused…”however, we could experimentally withdraw the support and see how he responds?”. Danny had been waiting for this too. Another path well-traveled. “But Dr.” his mother replied, “that was tried once before about five years ago By Dr. Roberts…and it was an unmitigated disaster. It’s in the notes if you’d care to check. John nearly died when they tried it. It probably did more harm than good. And isn’t that against your medical ethics? “Above all things do no harm..? And you know I’ll never consent to you turning the machines off. Not while there’s any hope, no matter how faint it is”.
Sanderson squirmed, and then quite abruptly stood up. Danny suppressed another snigger. His mom was good at this. The consultant was back on his feet, his minions flocking back to him at once. The Dr. reopened Ashton’s medical file closer to the beginning of its voluminous pages.
He began to speak again. Danny felt it was sure to hide his chagrin.
“Let me see…Mr. Ashton became comatose as a result of a severe blow to the head and immersion for almost three full minutes in a pond, fifteen years ago, is that correct?” This extraneous summation went unanswered by Danny’s mother. But Sanderson obviously didn’t really expect an answer. It was an irrelevancy seemingly more to for the benefit of Sanderson’s students. He ploughed on, answering his own question.
“Mrs. Ashton firstly pulled out her child from the family fish pond”…he glanced at Danny over the open folder, and Danny half waved in mute acknowledgment. “She then proceeded to administer CPR until the child could breathe unaided…then she pulled her husband”…he gestured to the unmoving figure in the bed…”from the pool and did the same for him; but this time with a slightly less favorable outcome”. He shut the file together again with a loud slap, before continuing.
“Well Mrs. Ashton”…it was back to Mrs. Ashton again now, Danny noted…”we now know where we are and, more importantly the state of play. I need hardly impress upon you that we as Doctors and indeed this medical facility will, of course, continue to do our best; and hope that one day your husband becomes conscious naturally”.
With that he turned on his heel and was gone through the room door. They were all gone in a flurry of shiny stethoscopes and white lab coats.
Danny waited a minute before speaking. His mom was back to watching his dad’s face intently. He began.
“You know mom, perhaps we ought to think about this whole thing you know. I mean…” he said hesitantly, almost unwilling to broach the subject, “…dad can’t have much of a life like this can he. Lying there like that. No thoughts, no hopes. Just, well, nothing.”? His mother glared at him, lips compressed and tight with her emotion. She paused for a second, and then stood up tall and proud before answering full of vim and righteous indignation.
“I’ll hear no more of that! You of all people should know better young man! Your father wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the fact he was trying to save you”! It was the same every time Danny inwardly sighed. She’d lay this mega guilt trip on him.
“Besides’, Rebecca Ashton said, softening her words and tone ‘Just look how peaceful your dad looks”. She held Danny’s hand and turned him to face his comatose father. She continued talking…Danny had heard this all before to.
“No worries, no thoughts, no problems. Just happily lying there, peacefully waiting to wake up”. She sighed, released her son’s hand and leaned over the hospital bed. She kissed her husband’s white immobile, hanging face. She picked up her handbag from the floor, resting her hand for a moment on the sheet that covered one of John Ashton’s atrophied, withered thighs.
“Can’t you see it? We have to keep him alive Danny. And if anything happens to me, then you must promise to do the same. Keep him going. It’s what he deserves…to wake up to a loving family. People that care enough about him to keep him going”.
She leaned over her husband for one last kiss…and whispered in John Ashton’s ear: “I love you John. If you can’t wake up, then I promise I’ll keep you like this forever, if I can. I’ll find a way to do it. I’ll never ever let you die”.
Then mother and son left the room. But they’d be back tomorrow of course.
And tomorrow would be another fresh day for the whole world.
Except for John Ashton. And as Danny and Rebecca left the hospital room, quite unnoticed by them, or anyone else, for that matter, a single tear rolled out from the corner of Ashton’s closed eye.
‘Non Omnis Moriar’ © Ian M. Faulkner, 2011