She had her suspicions on Monday but chose to blame it on a blip in her observational skills due to the anaesthetic.
On Tuesday she thought she spotted some familiar signs: shaking, not making eye contact, in a hurry to get away but she told herself to give the guy a break; it was just boredom making her imagination work over-time.
But as the week went by and the gifts got more and more inappropriate from the flowers on Monday, grapes on Tues, to a teenage girls’ mag on Wednesday, a chicken sandwich on Thursday… What’s this? – She had asked – you know they give me lunch here. And since when did we start eating meat again… she knew her caring, considerate husband had been replaced by the useless drunk again. And the visits became shorter; he turned up late, couldn’t wait to get away, tried to joke with the nurses, stopped asking her what she needed and instead kept repeating: ‘You’re okay then, that’s good.’
She couldn’t smell booze. Must be vodka, she decided. She had to ask him. He would deny it of course but that was always their starting point – she would challenge him, eventually he would admit it and cry, beg her not to leave and then they would get the calendar and make a plan and he would hand over his money and his credit cards.
Only this time she couldn’t look after him and she was scared.
On Friday he didn’t turn up until visiting time was over. He was properly drunk this time; staggering, confused and pushing past the nurses who tried to tell him that they would have let him had he been sober.
‘It’s my wife!’ he shouted. ‘I have every right to see my wife!’
Three nurses followed him as he lurched towards the wrong bed.
‘Phil!’ she shouted. ‘Here.’ Instinctively she swung her legs over the side of the bed to go to his aid, but realised she couldn’t get up.
He side-stepped over and dropped himself heavily onto her bed, jolting her and causing her to wince with pain. He leant forward puckering his lips and closing his eyes making a kissy kissy noise. She obliged if only to keep him sweet so they could get him out quicker.
‘One minute,’ she mouthed to the nurses, raising her forefinger. They remained quietly behind, ready to assist at any time.
‘You’re drunk. You’ve started drinking again. I want you to stop and I want you to stop now. You’re no good to me like this.’
‘Whasha talkin’ ‘bout?’ he laughed. ‘I’m jusha bit late, thasall. Here – smell ma breff.’ He hoffed in her face so hard that she had to lean back suddenly, causing yet more pain in her stitches. He smelled of Polo mints and dirty hair.
She blinked slowly, breathed deeply and said ‘I’m tired. Can you come back tomorrow?’
Phil suddenly remembered he had something for her in his jacket and pulled out a crumpled greetings card without an envelope. ‘To my dear mother, get well soon,’ read the message printed on the front over a picture of peonies. She hated peonies, great big blousey showy off things – especially those light pink ones on the card. Her husband knew she hated peonies but this drunk next to her didn’t know anything. She wanted to scream and rip the card up in his face but instead she said nothing and lay down slowly.
He didn’t show up at all on Saturday. She was relieved the drunk didn’t visit but heartbroken and unbearably lonely without her husband, who she hadn’t really seen since Sunday.
Where are you? she wondered. Where is my husband? Does he die every time you drown him in alcohol?
On Sunday afternoon he arrived looking like he’d just woken up; his hair over his face and his clothes badly crumpled. When he was drinking, this was the soberest he would ever be but she knew that he would need a drink soon. Keeping his distance, he offered no present and no kiss. But there was no mistaking the familiar smell of whisky even from six feet away. She didn’t bother asking why he hadn’t shown up the day before; she knew he wouldn’t remember. She felt sorry for him but for the first time she felt more sorry for herself. She wanted her husband back. She needed him to take care of her. The hospital staff had said the specialist would come to see her first thing Monday to discuss going home. But who the hell was going to give her a lift home, help her into the house and feed her?
Phil looked uncomfortable and vaguely ashamed. At her suggestion he went to the visitors’ toilets and came back sucking a mint and looking like he’d made an attempt to look more respectable by wetting down his hair and washing his face. Then he sat waiting for her to make the first move.
NO, she was screaming inside, I CAN’T DO THIS.
‘No Phil. You take the lead. You sort this out. I’m ill. I need looking after. You have to stop drinking again right now. I simply cannot do it this time. Please go away, sober up, stop drinking and don’t come back again until you’ve beaten it. I want my husband back, not you. I didn’t marry you, you’re a stranger and I hate you. Make a choice, you ugly, stinking mess of a man: the drink or me. I mean it.’
He left. Walked away. Right that minute.
She imagined the doors were revolving doors and that as the drunk walked out her loving husband, freshly showered wearing clean clothes, free of pointless guilty gifts, would walk in. He would kiss her face, ask if she was in pain and promise clean sheets and a freshly stocked refrigerator by Monday.
God, she loved that man. She felt totally bereft.