Now I return, and I watch myself as I was then. Now I stand over myself like Cassiel in Berlin, a mute guardian angel, or like a cold monument over a grave. Now I watch myself as I was then, and I know what is going to come.
Everything is slowly circling inwards, and I watch myself and I know I don’t realise it’s happening.
No time at all has passed, just a little over two years. I watch myself sitting on that uncomfortable dining chair in the little Airbnb flat in Dublin, above a barber’s and a mobile phone repair shop on a damp Saturday night, waiting for the dryer outside in the hall to finish. I watch myself sitting on that uncomfortable dining chair watching a movie on the small TV mounted on the wall.
I watch myself and I know what I’m thinking. I watch myself and I also know what I’m not thinking. I watch myself and I know I’m thinking, a week ago we were together in that little cottage on the farm in Wales, and now she’s in A&E in the hospital down the road and I’m sitting here waiting for her laundry to finish. I watch myself and I know I’m thinking I don’t understand. I watch myself and I know I’m thinking it must be serious for her to be admitted to hospital in the middle of a pandemic, but I watch myself and I know I’m struggling to believe it, because a week ago she was fine.
I watch myself and I know, if I could, I would put a hand on my shoulder. If I could, I would offer the silent comfort of just sitting beside another, maybe put a drink in my hand. If I could, I would try to find something to say, to offer some words of solace. But I watch myself and I know all I could say is, it is going to get worse.
I watch myself sitting on that uncomfortable dining chair in the little flat and I try to imagine what she’s thinking right now, how she’s feeling. From where I watch myself she is not very far away at all, though I’m not allowed to see her, but I couldn’t imagine how she was feeling then, and I still can’t now.
I watch myself and I know I tell myself she was fine. I watch myself and I know I tell myself she was feeling a little unwell, but she had been to the doctor and was taking what had been prescribed. I watch myself and I know I’m telling myself she was doing everything the doctor told her, she was taking her medication, she was watching what she was eating, and she was taking it easy. I watch myself and I know I am thinking that a week ago we lay in bed, and I gently rested a hand on her abdomen and told her I was certain the slight bloating was going down. I know I was sure of that then and I am sure of that now. The bloating was going down which meant the medication was doing what it was supposed to do which meant she was getting better. Because that is what is supposed to happen. I knew that then and I know that now. But I know as I watch myself sitting on that uncomfortable dining chair that she will never leave the hospital, and within a couple of weeks of this night she will be dead.
I watch myself.
A little couch sits against the wall, it looks far more comfortable than the dining chair, but I know why I don’t sit in it. I watch myself and I know I am worried what I will say if the landlord comes by, or someone asks why this man is sitting alone in the flat rented by the woman who isn’t here. I watch myself and I know I am sitting in that uncomfortable chair because I want to be able to make it clear I am only here to wait and take her laundry out of the dryer in the hall.
I watch myself and I can look around the flat once more. The packet of peppermint tea on the counter. The fresh fruit. On the dining table her laptop and some notes for work. In her bag she has an extra screen if she needs, running presentations and video calls while also checking any background materials. As ever with her, everything is organised. Behind me in the bedroom her clothes are all hung up, nothing is thrown around. This anonymous flat immediately becomes hers as she settles everything in. Apart from the items I bring her tonight, everything else will later be packed up and brought into the hospital for her. She won’t see this place again.
I watch myself and I know I’m putting far too much effort into something stupid like worrying what I might say to a landlord who will have far better things to be doing on a dreary Saturday night than calling up to the flat, rather than what I should be worrying about. But I watch myself and I know why.
I watch myself and I know in my pocket is the same phone I still have with the voice messages she leaves telling me she is in A&E waiting to be admitted, asking me to please bring her some things, her washing bag, her pyjamas, and some fresh underwear. I save every message, I know I’m afraid of losing anything, but I watch myself and know I have never been able to listen back to any of them.
I watch myself and I wonder if telling myself what was happening, what was to happen, would make things any easier. I watch myself and I know it wouldn’t.
I watch myself and on the TV is Gravity directed by Alfonso Cuarón, starring Sandra Bullock. Even then I’d seen it before. I watch myself and I know I’m watching it for no reason other than it happens to be on, and there’s about as much time left in the movie as there is on the dryer cycle.
In one of the voice messages she asks if I can go back to the flat, take the laundry out of the washing machine, and put it through the dryer. The duvet cover, some underwear, and some towels. I watch myself and I know I don’t even consider that she may have been sick on them. I watch myself and I know I don’t think any further than this is just her being as fastidious about everything as she always is. I watch myself, and I know that a week before I am sitting in that flat on a damp Saturday night, we were in the little cottage in Wales, and she insisted on us leaving it spotless before we departed. I watch myself and I know on the phone in my pocket I have also an email from the owner of the cottage thanking us for leaving the place so clean, which I haven’t passed on to her yet. I watch myself and I know I never will; like so much else it loses all importance, all meaning.
But I watch myself and I know something I didn’t know then. I watch myself and I know I’m breaking; I know I’m shutting down. I watch myself and I know I’m shutting down those parts of myself that could suspect she might be seriously ill. I watch myself and I know that even until—or even after—she messages me to tell me the test results are back and it is what they feared, cancer, I will be unable to consider any alternative but that they will find what is wrong and fix it. I watch myself and I know my ability to comprehend will get smaller and smaller, because the reality will become far too terrifying.
I watch myself and I know I retreat into my engineer’s brain. I watch myself and I know that in the cottage on the farm when she told me she was unwell, she said that the doctor feared if the medication didn’t work, surgery may be required. But I watch myself and I know even then I thought of it like an engineer: that if there was an intestinal issue, because that is what the doctor thought, it became a simple exercise in engineering, if a length of pipe is damaged it is removed, replaced, the healthy ends joined together again, and everything works as it should. I watch myself and I know I cling to this analogy. I watch myself and I know I do not allow myself the possibility of it being anything more serious than that.
I watch myself and I know how wrong I am. I watch myself and I know the realisation of the truth will break me.
I watch myself and wonder what I could tell myself. I watch myself and I know I could say I will spend the next couple of weeks watching my phone, waiting, hoping for updates, telling myself that if she can message me she can’t be feeling too bad, bringing her the little things she asks for, like dry shampoo, because she’ll want her hair to feel clean; like fruit purees, because she dislikes the hospital food; and a pair of slippers, because she will still try to move about. I watch myself and I know I will want her to ask me to do more, desperate to be able to do something. I watch myself and know that despite my mind closing down, the doubts, the worries, will start to creep in, and that by that last weekend when she has told me it is what they feared, cancer, and she is moved to the ICU, and I will have nothing left but the wish that no matter what happens now she no longer be in any pain. I watch myself and I know I will plead to powers I don’t believe in. I watch myself and it brings me to tears.
I watch myself sitting on that uncomfortable dining chair watching Gravity and I know this is all to come.
I watch myself and I know I can’t conceive how she is feeling, how hard she is fighting and that a week ago we shared a bed in the cottage on the farm and a week and a half from now I will accidentally see her in the hospital because they lose a bag of laundry she wants me to take away, and she will be so weak and so drawn I will barely recognise her. I watch myself and I know I won’t be able to comprehend how the cancer could have withered her so quickly, yet I’ll clutch to the idea that if she is angry enough to get out of bed because they lost a bag of laundry, it must mean there is a chance. But I watch myself and I know that after I promise to track down her bag of laundry, she will go back up to her ward, and I will have to cling onto a wall to stop myself from collapsing.
I watch myself and I wonder if there’s any way I could warn myself. But I watch myself and I know it will all happen as it did.
I watch myself and I know as I sit in the flat on that uncomfortable dining chair I feel like an interloper. I watch myself and know I am reluctant to touch anything, or do anything, beyond what she wants. I watch myself and know that all I do beyond packing a bag for her and transferring her laundry from the washing machine to the dryer is put away her laptop. I watch myself and know I feel uneasy sitting there, as if I expect to hear a key turning in the lock at any moment and her walking into the flat wondering what I’m doing. I watch myself and I know I still don’t understand what is really going on.
I watch myself watching the movie and I wonder now if I’m just watching a movie I’ve seen before as the dryer spins in the hallway outside, or if I’m more invested in it than I thought. I watch myself watching the movie and I wonder how much I need Sandra Bullock to survive, to persevere and emerge triumphant by the time the closing credits roll. But I watch myself and wonder if this is just something I consider in retrospect.
Because I watch myself and I know what is to come. I know how everything ends.
I watch myself and know that as we were a secret to others so we will remain even after the end. I watch myself and I know that as everything we did together was private, so, as her illness accelerates and her family and friends arrive, I will recede into the shadows until I only find out after the fact that her silence means she’s gone.
I watch myself and know nothing will ever feel as bad as this.
I watch myself and I know I will find it impossible to conceive how she’s feeling. I watch myself and I know I will find it impossible to picture her in the hospital bed, to picture her in pain, to picture her trying to comprehend what is happening, to picture her fighting, to picture her as her own body turns against her and starts devouring itself, to picture her struggling to move, struggling to speak, reading her briefer and briefer messages to me, yet be unable to hear them in anything but her normal voice. Finding it impossible to picture her struggling to breathe, to picture her intubated in the ICU and the only sounds are the last beats of the song of her heart.
Because I watch myself and I know I still see her as she looked on our last morning together in the cottage, standing in the sunlight, waving me off as I had to leave, looking beautiful in a summer dress in front of the white walls of the cottage, with the lawn in front of her, and the lush fields all around. And the birds are singing, and the cattle are grazing, and there should be music in the air and woodland creatures gathered adoringly at her feet, and she’s smiling as she waves me off, and no one that happy, no one that pretty, no one that full of life, should ever fall ill. And I watch myself and I know I still don’t understand how any of this can happen.
I watch myself and know that in eighteen months or so I will find myself sitting in the pub across the street from this flat, and through the tall windows I will keep glancing at the windows above the barber’s and the mobile phone repair shop and in my silence I will keep hoping a light will come on.
I watch myself and I know the weight of what is happening is slowly beginning to pull me in.