To Her Question Was—‘Three’

Amelia met him in Ibiza. They quickly fell together, as young people do, their affections outlasting the temper of holiday’s hot sun and returning home hand-in-hand. At family gatherings, rarely moving from the sofa other than for a cigarette, where his arm was draped around her shoulders, they recounted how they met, although it was really not such a story, and his older relations were happy that he had found someone. She was not long out of university and was ripe for life. Her family, from the suburbs of London, was well-to-do, and run by the four strong women – mother and daughters – as the brother kept timid in the background and the father quiet also, but unwaveringly protective, standing behind his wife’s shoulder. Amelia’s path was not altogether unusual: after a while she and him rented a property twenty minutes’ drive from her family, and eighteen months later they were married in Amelia’s childhood church – a brutalist stack of red bricks – and the wedding breakfast held in her parents’ garden.

As these things go on, the author need not mention the time between one event and the next, falling, as they do, within societal norms: She gave birth to a daughter named Millie, who, like her mother, was characterful and confident, and she never backed away shyly from those bigger than her. People who came to meet Millie were charmed immediately, and Amelia would bend down and address her daughter without the least amount of childish pitch, and Millie would respond maturely, and to all who observed it was most amusing. Then Millie gained twin sisters and took to looking after them without encouragement. All three girls engaged one another sensibly, never fighting or disagreeing as siblings are prone to. Each twin looked like one of their parents, and Millie looked like both. Amelia mothered them excellently and they grew up. As the children joined school, she resumed working and enjoyed it enormously.

She was a graduate of Art History from the University of Manchester, and would gush over memories of her time there. She required little encouragement in conversation to reminisce and one sensed that she had not one sour experience there. The subject of her degree still fascinated her, and it was not uncommon for her to join an overheard conversation on art, declaring opinion or theory over all manner of movement or style. As she did, she came alive, for in her voice one gathered that her love and knowledge of art was now inextricably entwined with her memories and friends from university, whom she met often in various cities around the country over a weekend, although it was Manchester that bound them all together. In the free time she made for herself, she took to running marathons, which afforded her the opportunity to spend more time with her parents and sisters as they ran together and encouraged each other along the routes they scrawled in the uncertain overlap between Essex and London. The exercise and lifestyle brought her a glow and caused her to feel quite young again. As the girls grew older, into teenagerhood, she discussed with her husband the possibility of buying a property in Manchester and renting it out to students, which, she assured him, would provide a sizeable income – and, of course, that all the students would be vetted thoroughly. It was to be her project that she saw through, for he had no interest in the venture, taking the train from Euston up north, visiting various properties, researching legalities, meeting estate agents and solicitors, organising plumbers, decorators, cleaners and so on.

One day, at the beginning of March, as the virus was making its way from shore to shore, Amelia was just blue enough for her husband to inquire what was wrong, and, at that moment over all others, she confessed that she was engaged in an affair with a man in Manchester and had been for some time.

As everything went into lockdown, there were many arrangements to be made between Amelia and her husband, and although they would separate, they both agreed that the nature of their separation would not be disclosed to their daughters. He moved out into one of her father’s properties, and she stayed at the house. It was a strange situation – strange times – but they conducted themselves harmoniously for the children; always for the children who now had their mother’s looks and their father’s long limbs, gangling within adolescence and always such demure young ladies. Within the restrictions of lockdown, and the whole thing fallen into disarray, the romance in Manchester fizzled out, but she, like her ex-husband, was finding some happiness in her new freedom, so that when she was alone, she felt truly alone but not lonely, and revelled in it. Her life would now take a different direction and she anticipated it with wide eyes and excitement.

On Wednesday, my mother, who I had heard conducting several phone calls quietly about the house, came into my room as I was getting dressed. She wore her fancy trainers that were whiter than sunlight. I stared down at them—‘This here is a Japanese room…! you come into this room and you take your trainers off.’ She smiled at me, although I had already sensed that something was wrong. She said it all in one long breath, which I suspect she had perfected over the course of all her phone calls—‘Amelia fell down the stairs on Sunday and is in a coma and the consultants don’t think she’s going to make it and so pretty soon they’re going to take her off the life support.’ I cursed and started tapping each of my fingers in a steady rhythm, one by one, against my thumb: index, middle, ring, pinky, index, middle, ring, pinky. Who knows what I had expected her to tell me, but it was not that. She went on, that it was top secret, and no one was to know, but that my uncle had told my mother to tell their brothers and sisters and me (which struck me as unusual, if flattering).

I have not seen Amelia in some time, of course, so at first my thoughts turned to imagining her in a hospital bed, and what kind of apparatus would be spread around her supine body, supporting her existence. Then I did not know what to think or how to feel, other than her death hanging over my head – over everyone’s head – like a Looney Tunes piano, ready to fall or maybe not, sparing her and sparing us all. It was happening miles away, untouchable, like another galaxy or expensive jewellery. Sunday evening I had been eating leftover prawn curry and tomato rice; was she lying there at the bottom of the stairs as I pulled that segment of prawn shell from the tip of my tongue and wiped it on the edge of the plate? I wondered how long she lied there before she was discovered. Without knowing her stairs, I pictured her at the bottom of my own, kind of spread, face-down, not moving. The hollow of the stairs like a guitar body, and every knock of her descent amplified until she stopped on the floor. All that bodily percussion, and then silence…! How silent must that silence have been. (I dropped a vacuum cleaner down the stairs once; the sound was tremendous and it shook the house. It was only a split second but as I watched it bounce all the way down, I begged for silence, I wept for silence; when the silence finally landed, it was one of the most wonderful things ever. I let it hang in the air for a few seconds, then my father cried out—‘What the fuck was that?’ and I told him—‘It’s okay, just the hoover.’ But it was not just the hoover, it was her at the bottom of the stairs, kind of spread, face-down, not moving.)

‘For want of a better word,’ I said to my mother over lunch—‘how perfectly must she have fallen down the stairs to do that kinda damage? Like, how many times would you have to fall down the stairs before you did that to yourself? A sprain or a broken wrist, or whatever, yeah, but… a coma?Death?!’ Occasionally I had stumbled up or down stairs, perhaps not paying full attention, and thought nothing of it, yet I quickly regarded the elevation with a newfound fear and caution. Certainly in the past, if I am following my nieces up the stairs, I make sure to keep my hand behind them at all times, lest they slip; or if I am climbing a flight behind a fat person, I do my best to stay out of their way (such as happened recently with a boss on our way to a meeting). But then, as I finished eating and was making conversation with my mother, I considered our stairs with dread, which, after all this, vanished and was forgotten before the next time I approached them.

She was laid in the hospital bed and I imagine there was sound again – beeps, chatter, gasps, what-have-you – and was examined by numerous consultants and doctors who estimated her chances. These opinions were shared and discussed privately, away from the family, and then delivered on Tuesday evening. Such was the damage, they said, that she would not likely stir nor recover from the coma, and they should begin to think about the possibility of removing life support. That was when my aunt and uncle, her former in-laws, who were at their holiday home in Lanzarote, decided to return, to visit her, support their son and Amelia’s family. At the airport, my uncle phoned around, to give his brothers and sisters the news, although he struggled terribly, and wound up passing the phone to his wife. They desperately wished to return to say their good-byes, but, due to global circumstances, could not. Somberly, they returned to their apartment by the Atlantic and stared at the water with a glass of wine.

All those who could, gathered around her bedside. Tears in a hospital are much like rain in a forest, very little of it actually reaches the floor. Maybe someone in attendance recalls the exact time she opened her eyes. There were twitches about her body; the last impulses of electricity shuffling off the extremities, or signs of returning life? Someone noticed and a nurse was called in. More twitching that slowly coalesced upwards to the eyelids and a gradual opening, inexplicable, greeted by much sound in the little white room and all of the sounds were joyful and skipped beats. The nurse leaned in, close to Amelia’s left ear, where hair had fallen away, exposing her auricle curls. Everyone hushed. The nurse spoken clearly—‘Amelia…? Amelia…?’ And the question she asked—‘How many children do you have, Amelia?’ Something behind the eyes. A pause. Maybe someone in attendance recalls the exact length of the pause. ‘Three,’ Amelia said, quietly.