‘Nana,’ says a little voice in my ear. It’s my favourite of all the names people call me: Nana, Mum, Rose, that nosy old woman at number fifteen. ‘Are you all right, Nana?’
It’s Izzy, my six-year-old granddaughter, yet I keep my eyes closed. I don’t want to worry her, but I’m too scared to open my eyes in case there’s another one of them at the end of the bed. I read in a magazine once that patients, moments from death, reported seeing the previously departed in the same room. These are my final hours, I can feel it in my bones.
But why would Sandra Burkett appear to me? I last saw her over thirty years ago. She lived on our street and we brought up our children at the same time. When her son reached sixteen, she ran off with the owner of the corner shop. Imagine that: her and Mr Turnball. She called him Bully, which was quite apt as he had a belly the size of Jupiter.
Anyway, two years later, her son told us that Sandra had died during a hot spell in Tenerife. Terribly upset he was, obviously. I didn’t say it was karma taking a bite, because no one deserves that sort of retribution. But it would be just my luck to end up with her as my companion to the other side.
My husband, Eric, doesn’t believe in all that nonsense. ‘Once you’re dead, you’re dead,’ he says. He tells me I should stop worrying all the time, to just live in the moment, but it’s hard when I might die at any moment.
I don’t know why I’m in hospital this time. The last thing I remember is peeling potatoes at the sink; it was so hot. Was it yesterday? I must’ve been found in the kitchen, sprawled on the floor. It could’ve been worse, though – I could’ve been in the bath or on the loo. My face burns with the shame of it, even though didn’t happen. Vivid imagination, Eric says.
‘Don’t bother her, love,’ says another voice. ‘Let her sleep.’
It’s Steven, our only child. I say child, he’s forty-two.
I carefully flicker open an eyelid. Izzy’s playing on her dad’s phone anyway. It didn’t take her long to abandon the notion of receiving precious words of wisdom from her dying grandmother.
The curtains are closed around us and there’s no one at the end of my bed any more. I open my eyes fully, and put my hands either side of me to make a show of sitting up. I know I shouldn’t, but there are certain things to be expected of a woman of my age.
Steven gets up quickly from the plastic chair.
‘Mum, love,’ he says. ‘I’ll help you.’
‘Give over,’ I say, pulling myself up and leaning back against the lovely soft pillow. Stoic as ever, they’ll say when they remember me. ‘I’m fine.’
I want to add I’m not dead yet, but I wouldn’t want to devastate the poor lad when he remembers this moment in a few days.
‘You had us worried for a while,’ he says.
I look around, probably a bit too obviously. He means his wife, Anna, and his dad.
‘They’ve popped downstairs for a coffee,’ he says.
He’s always been good at noticing my little looks, unlike his father. No, no. I’m being factitious now. Eric’s always been a good sort. We married when I was twenty-one and he was twenty-three. By standards these days, we were only starting out, but things were different then.
I should’ve popped Steven something extra in my will – though everything will go to Eric first. Only my mother’s wedding ring is mine alone. It’s quite sad really; I’ve not many precious possessions of my own. But life isn’t about things, is it? Not when you’re in my position. Still, he’d get a few quid for the ring, if he sold it. But I can’t think about that.
When my mother died, it was just me and Dad for years. I was only twelve; it was so sudden. Dad cleared out all her belongings after just a few months and we barely spoke about her. Poor Mum. It was a heart attack in her sleep. She was only thirty-nine.
I often think I could die at any moment – it’s worried me all my life – that I’d go to sleep and never wake up. I’ve got too much to do, though. I’ve been older than her for thirty-eight years.
If anyone out there is listening, I think to myself, I can’t go now. I have to go to Izzy’s end of term play this Friday and book club on Thursday. I read this month’s novel all the way through this time and I’ve a few things I want to say about it. It would be just typical if I didn’t get there. Especially as Judy, the organiser, had words with me last time for going off piste with my comments on Wuthering Heights, the film version.
Why can’t my mother be the one to come for me? Instead, it’s been left to Sandra Burkett, the grim reaper personified. She was always gossiping about everyone else. I suppose she elbowed her way past those who really wanted to collect me.
No, Rose, I scold myself. Stop thinking like that.
I always thought that when I was about to leave this earthly plane, I’d have wisdom – a love for enemies. Why am I still the same? People will forget I was ever here if I’m still myself, someone ordinary. I sit up even further on my bed and try to think of some insightful observations of life.
All I can think of is the time it takes to boil carrots.
Izzy’s still engrossed in the game on Steven’s phone.
Anna pulls the curtain aside and places two inches of magazines on my overbed table.
‘I hope these are okay, Rose. I didn’t know which ones to pick so I bought them all.’
‘Bless you, love.’
Anna’s like a daughter to me. I should tell her how much I appreciate her before it’s too late.
The consultant whips the curtain open – I recognise her from my last visit, which is odd as I’ve never had the same one twice before.
‘How are you feeling, Rose?’ she says.
‘Now I think about it, I feel all right. What did I come in with?’
She gives me a quizzical look.
‘Low blood pressure. If you ever feel light-headed again, see your GP. But for now, we’re going to equip you with a monitor for twenty-four hours.’
‘Have you looked at my heart?’ I say. ‘I was always told that there was something wrong with it. Well, I wasn’t actually told that. It’s my mother, you see. She died of a heart attack. These things are hereditary, aren’t they?’
‘We carried out an ECG and an echo of your heart. It’s perfectly fine for a person of your age.’
‘So, I’m not about to die?’
‘I can’t predict anything, Rose, but from your results at present, no.’
Eric comes in … there’s a look to his face. Guilty? No: sheepish.
‘Er, there’s a visitor for you, love,’ he says, eyes wide.
After writing on my notes, the consultant leaves. She’s replaced by an older woman, standing at the end of my bed.
Oh god, it’s Sandra Burkett again.
I look to Eric; he keeps glancing at her. What on earth is going on?
‘You can see her as well, then?’ I say.
He frowns. ‘Yes, love. We’ll leave you two to catch up.’
‘Wait, no …’ I say, but they’ve already scarpered.
Sandra pulls the chair along the floor and it squeals, just like the voice in my head. She sits down only half a yard away from me.
‘I thought you’d died.’ I say. ‘Your son was distraught.’
She takes off her coat. My shoulders sag.
‘Dead? Me? No. Plenty of life left in me yet. My Peter took a while to forgive me for running off, but he did, thank the Lord. Anyway. We’ve got so much to catch up on. I’ll tell you it all from the beginning.’ She settles into the chair. ‘Well, as you know I ended up in the Balearics, but the weather played havoc with Bully’s overactive sweat glands …’
I lean back against the pillow.
God, if you’re listening, put me out of my misery.
‘The Grim Reaper’ first appeared in the Sunday People August 2017
My new psychological suspense is out now – The Woman Downstairs published by Orion