I check my watch. Nudging four in the morning. Every sense I have is heightened. Was I asleep twenty minutes ago? Slumber broken by the callous trill of the telephone: hello, Gregory calling, words jumbled, sentences dashing into one another, faster and faster, a runaway train of thought about to jump the rails, and I'm unprepared, stammering, "What's the matter, calm down, tell me, shoosh, what's happened."
I push the door. It swings open. "Gregory?"
No answer. Inside, I close the door, lock it, stop, listen, unsure of the etiquette. Louder: "Gregory?"
Nothing. I fumble, find the hallway light, switch it on, blink, make my legs walk me into the quiet.
The front room. Dark. The blanket smell of booze and burnt tobacco. He gave up cigarettes a year ago, said he didn't miss them, never craved their lethal comfort.
Of course, that was before.
Very loud now, panic plain, voice cracking: "Gregory?" At last: "Here."
There. Crouched on the floor, bunched up tight before the behemoth canvas he's been slaving over. It seems finished. A great gold Inca eye on cold white, the eye circled - surrounded - by extravagant weals of scarlet and black. I imagine birds; a flock of predatory, pecking, feathered things.
I approach, kneel. There's a knife to the right, a lazy arm's stretch away. A kitchen knife: cut and carve. I pick it up. Put it down. "Gregory." "Yes." "Have you taken any pills?" "Yes." I brush my fingers through his hair. I envy Gregory his hair. It's thick, shiny and a hundred subtle shades of brown. "What sort and how many?"
"Sleeping pills." Silence. Then: "Four. Wanted to sleep. Started by wanting to sleep." "Sure. Should I ring for..." "No." "Fine. Tell me, where's Joe?" "Joe's left." "Left?" "Left. Left. Left. He's left."
Gregory's head remains pressed against his knees. Defensive posture. "Gregory, will you please look at me." He doesn't. But he does concentrate, he does focus: "He went yesterday. Joe can't hack it. He's been weird since the diagnosis. You saw him at dinner." I did. Joe the liberal, Joe the precise, Joe the selfish. Oh, ask him and by now he'll have a wide selection of dainty reasons for his summary departure, but sod his reasons, and sod him. Dereliction of duty is dereliction of duty. Responsibility outranks the petty freedom to choose. So does love.
Gregory finally offers his face. I can't read it. The pills, perhaps. "John, I don't blame him. He can't hack it - I can't hack it. I've thought about it, I have, rationally, and I'm not dying a slow, painful death. Huh..." He loses it, finds it: " I'd rather make my own arrangements." I keep stroking his hair: "But you could have years. We've talked about this. We know people ... Peter. Take Peter. It's been a decade, a decade, since he was told. He hasn't been ill. And we're informed on the latest drug regimes and research. Which is promising. Why not..."
Gregory groans, this deep, low, animal sound, and seizes my wrists. It hurts. "And I'm still going to have a shitty death." His voice is like his grip - hard: "I won't do it. I won't. My death should be mine. Something I control." I try detachment. I fail: "And what if this is a period of adjustment? What if you're wrong, and what you really need is not some - pardon me, okay - some dumb idea of 'your' death, but just the time to come to terms? What if you take 40 of those pills instead of four, and then discover that you're wrong, and at the next to last moment find that the chemicals have control, not you? They do take over Gregory. They suck you in and they take you down."
Anger challenges grogginess: "How do you know? How do you know that?" Another time. "Gregory, my wrists." Release: "Sorry." I press my forehead against his. 100 per cent proof breath and burning skin, hot and dry, as if someone had thrown open the gate to a blast furnace. "You're running a temperature." "What? Huh. Cold. Flu." "Have you seen your GP?" Gregory snaps to attention: "I've seen nothing but doctors. Doctors, a healer, a therapist, ah, cute guy from a support group. I'm being processed. The system..." I don't want to pursue it. Not now. So: "Can I put on the lamp?" "No." My tone is impatient: "What can I do?" Gregory considers: "Help me to the... the sofa - bit wobbly."
More than a bit. He's the rubber band man. I lay him down, lean him forward, prop him up against my chest. He drifts, yawns: "I can hear your heart beat." "That's good news." "John," Gregory says, "I think my heart's broken." I am brisk: "Don't worry. It's a regenerative organ." Gregory's body sags. Before long he's snoring, muttering, even, once or twice, smiling. He'll be gone for a while. I check my watch again, sigh, and kiss the top of his head. And kiss. Kissing the bad stuff away. Kissing it better. Waiting for the light.Reuse content