A short story first published in Issue 1 of The Istanbul Review.
At eight a.m., on the morning of the last day of her life, Alice Calder stood shivering in the outdoor pool of the Madeira Heights Hotel. Refracted by the water, her bony, thread-veined legs appeared even more ugly than usual. She remembered herself many years ago, resplendent on the beach at Nice in a high-leg black bikini. She sighed for what once was.
‘Morning Mrs Calder.’ Peter the pool attendant waved as he tossed blue and white striped cushions onto sunloungers.
‘Morning Peter.’ She took a deep breath and launched herself onto her stomach.
Kick, pull, breathe.
She submerged her head as she swam, despite not having a swimming cap on. Wet hair, she’d catch a chill.
The temperature would play havoc with her already stiff hips but, for once, she didn’t care.
Kick, pull, breathe.
So liberating to swim without having to hoard her dwindling energy reserves for later, the next day, the day after that.
She moved well for a woman of eighty-three, her neat, steady breaststroke practised every day at home. Ten lengths before breakfast in the heated pool in her conservatory.
As she swam, she thought back to the night of her sixtieth wedding anniversary. Was it only two months ago? Only two months since the decision was made?
She recalled the care with which she’d set the table. Two crystal wine glasses, two sets of her best silver, polished. Chicken breasts wrapped in Parma ham from Marks and Spencer – Julian’s favourite. After serving dinner, she filled the glasses with Sauvignon Blanc, then sat back and stared at her husband’s empty place.
Poor Julian. She prodded at the chicken with her fork but couldn’t bring herself to eat it. She did miss him. She gulped back her wine and reached for his. Everything in moderation, Julian liked to say. She finished his glass too.
Afterwards, she teetered to the kitchen and retrieved her husband’s medication box from the cupboard next to the fridge. She lined up a parade of bottles in front of the kettle and inspected them. The tablets were nearly a year old now but they should do the trick.
What would her daughter say? Alice doubted Lucy would even care. Too full of cocaine and martinis and hashish and god knows what else. Too busy buying herself a young local lover in whatever tropical paradise she happened to be in just now.
One by one she opened the bottles and shook their contents into a pile. She thought about leaving a note, that was the done thing, but who would read it? It felt impolite not to tell someone of her intentions, like leaving a party early without saying goodbye to the hosts.
She found the Yellow Pages in the left hand drawer of the oak dresser. H for helpline.
Friend In Need 0800 091091.
Picking up the phone from the dresser, she dialled.
‘Friend in Need.’ A man’s voice, some sort of Midlands accent.
‘What’s your name my friend?’
‘Alice.’ She toyed with the heap of tablets. ‘I’m going to kill myself.’
‘My name’s Samuel and I’m listening’ the man said. ‘What’s made you feel this way?’
She told him everything. Julian’s slow, cancerous demise, the deaths of her closest friends, her daughter’s absence – it’s years since I’ve seen her – oh she’s into everything, drink, drugs, sex – after all the opportunities she’s had. Three marriages too. No, no grandchildren.
‘I see.’ Samuel paused. ‘Now if we just step back for a moment and—’
‘I don’t want you to change my mind,’ she said. ‘I just thought I should tell someone before I go.’
‘You’re sure you want to kill yourself?’
‘I see.’ Another pause. ‘In that case, you might be interested in one of our other services. How would you like to make your suicide really count?’
Kick, pull, breathe.
At the end of her seventh length, Alice stopped to rest. Lifting her goggles onto the top of her head, she looked out beyond the pool to the rocky, terraced coastline and the Atlantic below it, spread out like a big, blue dream.
Peter sashayed past, carrying two orange juices on a tray.
‘Peter,’ she said. ‘Are you working tonight?’
‘Sorry Mrs C. Off tonight.’
‘That’s good,’ she said, relieved. ‘You have fun.’ She hoped he’d get the three hundred Euros she’d leave at reception for him later. She liked Peter.
Her eyes rested on the terracotta pots surrounding the pool. The nearest contained six long-stemmed flowers yet to open, the purple buds wrapped in a yellow skin.
She would never see them bloom.
‘Three more old girl.’ She eased her goggles back into place, took a deep breath and struck out once more into the cool water.
Kiwi. Mango. Grapefruit. Prunes.
Alice surveyed the fruit selection at the breakfast buffet. Prunes would be her usual choice but regular bowel movements were no longer a concern.
She joined the queue for cooked food, keeping a look out for Bridget, hoping the woman had already eaten. The white, high-ceilinged dining room was busy. Alice nodded and mouthed good mornings at familiar faces – the young couple from St Albans with the five-year old twin girls, the retired couple from Chichester in search of a holiday home.
She’d never noticed how many couples there were in the world until she lost Julian.
For her last breakfast, she chose pancakes with crispy bacon, smothered in maple syrup.
Since deciding to kill herself, she’d discovered a new interest in food. To think she’d been so scared of putting on a few pounds all these years. Not that Julian would have said anything but she knew what the role of Business Wife required.
‘Had a terrible night. Couldn’t sleep a wink with my back.’ Bridget’s nasal whine drifted across the room. The seventy-nine year old from Oxford liked to share her insomnia, diabetes and osteoathritis with anyone who would listen. A late September wasp of a woman, spreading her poison as far as possible before the end arrived, taking as many people as she could down with her.
As soon as Alice returned to her table, Bridget appeared. ‘You’re late this morning,’ she said.
‘Yes.’ Alice picked up her napkin. Bridget had latched onto her the first night of the holiday– two lonely widows, we should dine together – and Alice had been trying to shake her ever since.
‘Bridge?’ Bridget said. ‘We’re starting at eleven.’
‘I’m doing the island tour today.’
‘Lucky you.’ Bridget brandished her walking stick. ‘If only I could.’ She sighed.
‘Flower arranging at five?’
‘I can’t. I have…I’m meeting someone.’
Alice smiled. ‘I’ll certainly be here for dinner.’
‘Lovely. See you at seven.’
No you won’t, Alice thought as Bridget hobbled away. She’d booked herself in for the late sitting that evening.
A German couple, sturdy and sandy-haired in matching yellow T-shirts, commandeered the table to her right; their plates piled high with pork and cake, their conversation anti-socially loud. German. Such an ugly language. She knew the war had ended a long time ago and that it didn’t make sense to bear a grudge but she suspected her generation couldn’t help it. Her father had survived the war but he’d walked with a limp for the rest of his life and never once slept through the night on account of what he’d seen. He never complained though, always said it was a cause worth suffering for.
When Samuel had put her through to his colleague, Mr Farris, the first question the well-spoken man had asked her was whether she had a cause.
‘A cause?’ She’d frowned. Did badgering the council about potholes count? ‘I don’t suppose I do.’
‘Not to worry. We can provide that as part of our service.’
‘What exactly are you offering me?’
Mr Farris cleared his throat. ‘I’m a matchmaker Mrs Calder. There are plenty of people who feel ready to end their time here on earth and there are plenty of causes that require people to sacrifice themselves on their behalf. My job is to put the two parties together.’
‘Are you an Islamic terrorist Mr Farris?’
‘We’re a multi-faith organisation. Atheists and agnostics are also welcome.’
‘Are you religious Mrs Calder?’
‘I go to church every Sunday.’
‘But do you believe?’
Alice picked up a stray pill and added it to the pile. On a walking holiday in the Scottish Highlands, she and Julian had conquered a Munro. At the mountain’s summit, they’d each picked up a rock to place on top of the cairn. Julian had insisted on placing hers for her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I do.’
‘Doesn’t it seem absurd that men and women with so much faith and passion should be coerced by extremists into laying down their lives?’
‘It certainly does.’
‘Exactly. Our service aims to remedy this ludicrous situation.’
‘We’re getting enquiries from a wide range of potential clients.’
‘Animal rights, environmentalists, pro-life radicals. Everyone knows a dramatic statement would help their cause but no one is committed enough or deluded enough to do it. Not that we’d want that. It’s such a shame to lose people who actually believe in something. Don’t you agree?’
‘Well,’ Alice said, thinking of the two chicken breasts congealing in the dining room and resolving to cut them up and offer them to next door’s Labrador, ‘one does abhor waste.’
‘Hello,’ the tour guide said, ‘my name is Maria.’
Alice joined in the muted greetings that rose up from the coach seats.
‘Today on our island tour you will see all the many different sides of our wonderful island Madeira.’ As she spoke, Maria mimed an oval in the air with her hands, as if drawing the island for them. ‘First I will do a count of heads,’ she said. Then we will start our tour in the capital, Funchal.’
She walked down the aisle, counting heads, her mouth moving silently. Alice glanced round at the other passengers. Row upon row of grey heads and beige nylon. Honestly. Old age needn’t exclude stylishness. She’d asked Mr Farris about euthanasia; surely the sick or senile elderly were a vast, untapped market for him? He’d explained that euthanasia wasn’t really a choice, just a way out of intense pain and misery. His service had a greater impact when people ended a life that appeared worth living.
The coach made halting progress through the old town of Funchal. Alice marvelled at the variety of trees and flowers on display, all thriving side by side in tolerant beauty.
Hibiscus, bougainvillea, nasturtiums. African tulip trees, purple Jacarandas and the Bottlebrush trees with their red, bristly flowers. Birds of Paradise grew wild by the side of the road and orchids were as casual and numerous as daffodils in spring. She closed her eyes and saw Madeira floating like a wreath in the Atlantic Ocean, ablaze with reds and purples, oranges and pinks.
The wreaths people would place at the hotel would be beautiful.
First stop Pico de Areeiro, the island’s third highest point. The coach climbed away from Funchal harbour, winding itself around the sharp bends in the road. Mist descended over the green terraces. By the time it cleared, the landscape had transformed into a Scottish Moor, barren and patched with heather and gorse.
The coach stopped near the summit. As soon as Alice stepped down into the dusty car park, she heard the panpipes. Three poncho-clad men with long black hair played pipes of varying sizes over a backing track. Abba. That one about the drums. ‘Fernando.’
She joined the crowds at the viewpoint and gazed out over jagged volcanic peaks and the lime-green valley below. She opened her handbag to take out her camera then closed it again. No holiday album from this trip.
The scenery, breathtaking, tempted her to cling on to her allotted place in the grand scheme. Was life really that bad? She still had her Bridge club and her coffee mornings and she’d always felt she should read the copy of War and Peace still sitting on Julian’s bedside table.
‘Fernando’ changed to ‘The Winner Takes it All.’ No solitude to be had, even at 6000 feet above sea level. There were so few wildernesses left and those that remained her body couldn’t carry her to. From now on it would just be tour buses and fighting over soiled views with strangers.
War and Peace had never really appealed to her anyway.
‘Terrible,’ she said. ‘The flies lay their eggs inside but the fruit looks perfect on the outside. Only when you cut into it can you see the fruit is rotten.’
Lucy at five years old. Blonde ringlets, blue eyes, red cheeks. Picture perfect. It was only as she grew up and ripened and fell apart that they discovered how rotten she really was.
She didn’t even attend her own father’s funeral.
Alice knew her daughter would be furious when she found out about the new will. The charities suggested by Mr Farris would receive most of the money. Julian had made his wealth setting up petrochemical factories in poor countries, where no one listened to the local people complaining about their toxic rivers and poisoned air.
‘It’s dirty money,’ she’d told Mr Farris.
‘Show me some that isn’t,’ he’d replied.
When the coach pulled up in front of the hotel, Alice pushed two hundred euros into Maria’s hand. ‘Your island is very beautiful,’ she said. ‘Please accept my apologies.’
The jewellery proved tricky. She couldn’t choose so she didn’t. She decorated her neck with a string of black pearls and a diamond pendant on a white gold chain. Rings adorned every finger – rubies, sapphires, emeralds.
Then she put on her hotel robe and waited.
The knock on the door came at five-thirty, just as arranged. Her visitor was a middle-aged woman in a navy blue skirt and a white shirt with the words ‘Madeira Time Share’ embroidered in pale blue across the left hand pocket.
‘An honour to meet you Mrs Calder,’ the woman said in a local accent. She didn’t offer her name. She placed a black suitcase onto the bed and opened it. The first item to emerge was a piece of paper, which she handed to Alice. ‘Please take a look at this.’ Next came a mobile phone. ‘Then we will make your film.’
Alice sat on a chair, the phone pointed at her, and repeated as much as she could remember of the prepared statement. She spoke of her commitment to the cause, without ever mentioning what the cause was. Clever, the way they’d phrased it.
The woman watched the footage back, nodding to herself. ‘Very good Mrs Calder,’ she said. ‘Very good.’ She tucked the phone back into the suitcase and took out a black, padded waistcoat.
‘It’s smaller than I thought,’ Alice said. She’d had a cartoon image of herself, bundles of dynamite strapped all over.
The woman beamed. ‘This is the very latest technology. The device is made entirely from—’
‘Oh goodness.’ Alice held up her hands. ‘I don’t want to know anything about it thank you. Apart from what to press of course.’
‘Of course.’ The woman pointed to a black plastic button on the front of the waistcoat.
Alice slipped off her dressing gown and let herself be clothed in the deathly garment as if at a dressmaker’s fitting. Once the waistcoat was in place, the woman helped Alice into the green and gold Gucci kaftan chosen for the occasion.
‘It’s beautiful,’ the woman said.
‘Thank you.’ The kaftan had made only one other appearance, at Julian’s sixtieth birthday party. After that, she’d been ‘saving it for best’ as she did with all the more expensive items in her wardrobe. How ridiculous. When the woman left, clicking the door shut behind her, Alice wanted to call her back and ask if they could record the film again, so that she could urge her audience never to save anything for best.
‘Martini,’ she said to the barman. ‘Shaken.’
She counted ten people in the room, five pairs, all waiting to go in for the second dinner sitting. Ice clinked in glasses; conversations hovered politely below the music coming from the black piano in the corner. She recognised the song, that John Lennon one that asked people to imagine all sorts of impossible things.
Her short-sleeved mink jacket attracted a few glances; not surprising considering the mild evening. She’d added the fur to her outfit at the last minute, thinking it would provide extra cover for what lay beneath.
‘Martini madam,’ the barman said.
Drink in hand, she chose a cream armchair that offered a clear view of the dining room entrance. As she lowered herself into it, she smiled at the dark-eyed pianist. He’d think her slowness was due to arthritic limbs or bad coordination.
‘Just move normally,’ the woman had told her. ‘It won’t go off unless you press the button.’
Still, Alice didn’t lean back in the seat and held her arm away from her body as she lifted her glass.
‘Cheers,’ she said.
The drink slipped down quickly and she signalled the barman to bring another. A few families drifted out of the dining room, the children either skipping ahead of their parents or clinging to their wrists and legs in a sulk.
She’d given her last meal considerable thought over the past few days, trying to decide what she might have but now she realised she wouldn’t be able to eat a thing. Never could when she was anxious.
A fresh martini arrived. As she sipped it she admired the bar’s flower arrangements. Red proteas, exploding fireworks in a vase.
Two more families exited the dining room. Two more went in – French. What could you do? She’d never understood the French, dragging their children out to eat at all hours.
‘Mrs Calder.’ A waiter approached her. ‘Your table is ready.’
‘I’ll just finish this,’ she said.
She let her forearm brush against the fur as she raised her drink, just to enjoy its softness one last time. The mink was rather fabulous. As a child, Lucy would beg to try it on and then strut around the house pretending to be a model. As a teenager she’d taken it without permission and worn it to a party. Removing the vomit had cost a fortune.
Before she’d left her room, Alice had stared at the phone. She could call her daughter’s mobile one last time, she thought. To say goodbye without saying goodbye. Something profound that Lucy might puzzle over.
She’d resisted. Thank goodness Mr Farris had warned her the temptation might arise. It was very common apparently, for clients to try to speak to their relatives just beforehand.
‘Actions speak louder than words if you’ll forgive the cliché,’ he’d said. ‘Those left behind will have plenty to think about. Trust me.’
She hoped so. She hoped Lucy’s life would never be the same.
The second martini disappeared. The pianist switched tunes. Fly Me to the Moon. He winked at her as if to say, this one’s more your style. Old tune for an old lady.
She hummed along as she stood up and weaved her way from the bar. We’ll all be flying to the moon soon, she thought.
Inside the dining room, the waiter showed her to her table.
‘May I take your jacket Madam?’
‘No. Don’t touch it. No.’
The waiter backed away. She didn’t dare sit down in case she couldn’t get up again. Mr Farris had instructed her to go to the centre of the room. Maximum impact, minimum casualties. She approached the buffet tables with slow steps.
Indian tonight, for those who fancied it. Lamb rogan josh, chicken tikka masala, Keralan fish curry. Julian had never liked spicy food so she’d assumed she didn’t either. Pity.
Smelled delicious. Under other circumstances she might have tried some.
The German couple from breakfast stationed themselves in front of the gleaming silver dishes, spooning every type of curry onto their plates, the orange, yellow and brown sauces running together.
Alice lifted her right hand towards the middle of her jacket but found herself shaking, her hand fluttering in mid-air like a crazed bird. Sweat broke out on her upper lip and her chest.
Big occasions always made her nervous. Unbearably so. So much so that she’d always tried to avoid them. When she was four – or was it five? – her teacher had chosen her to play the part of Mary in the school Nativity. Once her initial elation had worn off, the panic set in. All those people looking at her. During the first rehearsal she’d sobbed until they gave in and replaced her with someone else.
She looked up, expecting to see Julian hovering above her, an expression of disbelief on his face. You don’t have it in you darling. Get yourself a nice salad and go and sit down.
‘No,’ she whispered. She would not waste this opportunity to do something of value, something meaningful. She took a deep breath.
‘There you are.’ Bridget appeared at her side. ‘Where on earth have you been?’ In one hand she held her walking stick, in the other a desert bowl.
‘Decided on the later sitting.’ Alice held out her hand and found it still and calm, like the sea after a storm.
‘I see.’ Bridget nodded at the contents of her desert bowl. Raspberry panna cotta, a slice of some kind of sponge and a multi-coloured mound of ice cream. ‘I’ll regret this in the morning.’
Alice slipped her hand inside her jacket. ‘I don’t think you will,’ she said.