Carol & Greg
By Adam Dixon
Carol and Greg Cotton were arguing again. It was the day before their thirtieth wedding anniversary and they could not decide on a plan. It had become tradition that they would go out on the evening before and stay out until past midnight, so as to be aware of the very moment that their anniversary occurred. They had done this every year without fail since their first and, as always, they fell to arguing about where to go. This had also become tradition, although neither of them would admit to it.
“I’ve told you, I don’t mind, love!” Greg rolled his eyes in exasperation as he listened to Carol reeling off the names of restaurants and bars. “I’ll be happy just to be out with you.”
“You always say that!” Carol was equally frustrated, practically slamming a fresh mug of tea down next to Greg’s armchair. “Every year it’s the same, and every year it’s no help! Why can’t you just help me for once and pick a place to go?”
“Fine.” Greg sat quietly for a few moments, deep in thought. At sixty-two, Greg was still much the same as he had always been; overweight, laid-back and quick to smile. What was left of his thin hair was now completely silver, and his pudgy face was decorated with wrinkles. He reached out absent-mindedly and picked up his mug as he pondered.
“What about that hotel in town?” He said finally, glancing up at Carol. “The one your brother had his wedding reception in? The food is nice there, and the bar is open all night.”
“The Veranda? No, thank you!” Carol sniffed. “It’s nice enough, but hardly the kind of place I want to celebrate my thirty years of marriage.”
“Oh, I didn’t realise it was just you.” Greg grinned mischievously and raised a mock toast with his tea. “Congratulations and all that.”
“Yes, yes, very funny.” Carol dismissed the joke with a wave of her hand, although a ghost of smile played on her lips. Greg’s humour was infectious to her, as always. “But not the Veranda.”
“Okay, how about the Winchester? It’s open late these days.”
“The Winchester!?” Carol looked at Greg, stupefied. “I’m not spending the first hours of our anniversary surrounded by those sad old drunks in that pub!”
“Those sad old drunks are our friends, love.” Greg laughed.
“Yes, yes, I know.” Again, Carol waved her hand dismissively. “But it’s hardly the most romantic of locations, is it?”
“Alright, alright, just a thought.” Greg shook his head. “Right, romantic…Well, how about a meal in Pinocchio’s and a couple of drinks in the Grape Vine next door? You’ve been saying how nice it looks in there.”
“Yes, but it will be full of kids!” Carol sighed. “It’s one of those trendy new bars that have been popping up lately. We two oldies will stick out like a sore thumb in there, and I don’t much care for that!” Carol sank heavily into the sofa next to Greg. “Why can’t you suggest somewhere sensible?”
“Bloody hell, Carol,” Greg groaned, placing a meaty hand in front of his eyes in mock despair. “You wanted me to make some suggestions, and I have done. Not my fault that they don’t meet your high standards!”
“I don’t have high standards!” Carol protested. “I just don’t want to go anywhere that you’ve suggested so far!”
“Then just pick somewhere!” Greg insisted, raising his voice in irritation. “Christ, you always make this difficult.”
“I’m not difficult,” Carol folded her arms primly in front of her and gave Greg a haughty stare. “You’re just not very helpful.”
“Give me strength…” Greg muttered to himself, imploring the ceiling above him. He took a long swallow from his tea, before slowly placing the remainder of it on the table.
“My arm is still aching,” He mumbled, half to himself. He rubbed his left arm, his face creased slightly in a grimace. “It’s hurting, actually. Seems to be getting worse.” Carol looked at him. A faint sheen of perspiration was becoming noticeable along his forehead, and he was looking slightly pale.
“Are you alright, darling?” Carol’s frustration was forgotten and she became worried. Greg normally wasn’t one to complain about aches and pains. He was of the ‘shut-up-and-get-on-with-it’ breed.
“I don’t know, love,” Greg’s face creased slightly as she watched him. His breathing had gotten shallower as he had been talking, but Carol hadn’t registered the fact at the time. She reached out and touched his forehead.
“You’re burning up, Greg,” She said, genuinely concerned now. “How long has this been going on for?”
“Oh, I dunno,” Greg considered the question. “My arm’s been hurting for about half an hour or so, and I’ve not been feeling right since then. Maybe…I’m just a bit peaky. Shouldn’t…worry too much…” Greg began panting slightly, his hand unconsciously clutching his chest as he leaned forwards. He grunted in pain, and panic flared in Carol’s brain.
“Greg, we need to call an ambulance!” She exclaimed, “I think you’re having a heart attack!”
“Don’t be…ridiculous!” Greg wheezed, feebly trying to wave Carol away. “It’ll pass in a…minute. I’ll be…fine.”
“No, Greg, I don’t think you will.” Carol seemed close to tears. Her voice wavered slightly, which caused Greg to look up at her. It usually took something quite serious to get her worked up like this. He reached out and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Alright then, love,” he smiled at her weakly. “Call the…ambulance…I don’t want you to worry…But I reckon I’ll be…alright soon.”
“Stay there,” Carol stood up quickly and rushed off into the kitchen where their house phone rested on the wall. Her wispy brown hair flailed about as she hurried across the room. She struck her bony hip on the door frame in her haste, causing a vulgar expletive to issue from her lips. She glanced behind her, ready to glare at Greg when he made the expected sarcastic remark. Greg was leaning forwards in his chair, his face ashen and his jaw slack as his breathing became laboured. He hadn’t even heard Carol swearing. That was bad. Carol nearly tore the phone from the wall as she reached it and dialled 999. The crisp, clear voice on the other end of the phone asked her which service she required, and she barked her answer with nervous impatience.
“You have reached the ambulance service, what is the nature of your emergency?” A calm voice asked her. A woman’s voice.
“I think my husband is having a heart attack!” Carol’s voice cracked slightly as she answered, her hand gripping the phone tightly.
“Alright, madam, could you please tell me your address?” The voice continued.
“We’re at 95 Park Road, Croydon. Please come quickly!”
“Ok, madam, an ambulance has been dispatched and will be with you shortly. Please try to remain calm and stay with your husband. Ensure that he is sat down and is resting whilst you wait and do not allow him to move around if you can help it.”
“Okay, thank you. Please, come quickly!” Carol put the phone down with a shaking hand and ran to the drawer containing their medicine box. Whilst on the phone she had remembered seeing a medical advice poster about heart attacks. It suggested chewing aspirin as a way to slow blood clots. She reflected briefly at how unusual circumstances brought up useful information before she flipped open the green plastic lid and fished around in it. Finding the aspirin, she ran back into the living room. Greg did not look good: his eyes were closed and his face was dripping with sweat as he struggled to breathe. Carol fell to her knees in front of him and began frantically tearing at the box of tablets in her hand.
“I’ve called the ambulance, Greg,” She said lamely, not knowing what else to say. “There’ll be one along any minute now. Here, take this aspirin, it should help. Chew it, don’t swallow.” Greg merely nodded his acquiescence and opened his mouth. As he crunched the tablet, Carol put an arm around his shoulder and began rubbing his back.
“There, that’s the way,” She said, unconsciously crooning as if to a child. “You stay right there, darling. Everything will be alright soon.” Carol threw a furtive glance out of the window facing the street, silently praying that the ambulance hurried up.
The longest ten minutes of Carol’s life was spent anxiously waiting for that ambulance to arrive. She was trying to remain calm for Greg’s sake, who appeared to be spending all of his concentration on breathing. He occasionally gave Carol a pained smile and patted her hand, reminding her in a strained voice that he was okay. Carol was not convinced, but appreciated his concern for her, nonetheless. It also made her angry with herself; Greg was the one having the heart attack, not her! The paramedics arrived after what seemed like an eternity and Greg was given oxygen and stretchered into the back of the ambulance. Carol was permitted to ride in the back with him, and sat holding his hand tightly as they sped towards the hospital.
Hours later, Carol sat by her unconscious husband’s side, listening to his ragged, laboured breathing. She was alone with her misery and fear, her mind wandering. Her thoughts continually drifted into nightmare territory, where the worst always happened and she was nearly sick with terror. She had to shake her head vigorously each time her mind stumbled into that mental danger zone, and she often followed it up with a sharp clout to her temples for good measure. This eventually led to Carol’s tired brain being rattled around mercilessly in her skull and her head throbbing from repeated self-abuse. Unfortunately, it only succeeding in making her feel even more wretched and helpless as she gazed upon Greg’s still frame.
As the day dragged on, Carol found herself reflecting on the life she and Greg had shared together. She thought about when they had met during their late twenties, now nearly thirty-three years ago. Carol had been working in her father’s greasy-spoon café, a job which she had enjoyed but felt confined by. Greg had recently begun his employment as an early morning bus driver, a task which continued to be his job until his retirement at sixty. Neither of them could remember exactly how they had met, but both remember how drab their lives had seemed beforehand. Something had passed between them, and they began meeting regularly. Greg would come to her café early in the morning before his route began, and Carol would let him in before they opened and make him breakfast. They would chat whilst Carol set up, laughing and joking and enjoying one another’s company. Carol’s father had been surprised at her willingness to start work early every day, but had quickly gotten wise to the proceedings. He found it amusing and quite touching, and allowed it to continue uninterrupted. Besides, he secretly thought quite highly of Greg due to knowing his father.
With her nondescript brown hair, crooked nose and thin, sneering lips, Carol had never been pretty. The unattractive mole on her chin had never aided matters, and her aging had only rubbed salt in the wounds. Despite this, Greg somehow managed to make Carol feel both attractive and desirable. He had always found a way to compliment her, and had admonished her for her attempts to stop him. He had been able to make her smile and feel beautiful, regardless of how she felt when she looked into a mirror. Carol looked up from her bedside vigil and glanced at her reflection in the hospital window. She saw only an exhausted, frightened old woman gazing helplessly back at her. Could she ever bear to look at herself again, should the worst happen? She didn’t know.
Shortly after their morning meetings became a fixed part of their daily routine, Carol and Greg began spending most of their evenings together too. They delighted one another, and Greg was very kind to Carol without being overbearingly chivalrous. They quickly but very naturally became lovers, and for a time they were blissfully happy. Then, three years after they had met, Carol fell pregnant with Greg’s child. Greg was overjoyed with the news, and immediately got down on one knee and proposed. He had been toying with the idea of asking Carol to marry him for months, and this development had seemed like fate. Carol had accepted without a flicker of hesitation. She smiled at the memory despite her current low spirits. Greg had been so happy that he had picked her up and spun her round and round in a circle, tears streaming down his face as he laughed deliriously. He had been overweight then, too, but that evening he had moved like an energetic teenager.
They had gotten married mere weeks before their daughter was born. She had felt as big as a whale despite her beautiful wedding dress, and she had been extremely self-conscious as she had waddled slowly up the aisle, supported by her beaming father. But one look at Greg’s face and the adoration in his eyes had banished all thoughts of her appearance. He had winked at her, slowly blinking his left eye in the same flirtatious way he had used to when they had been courting, and she had readily taken her place next to him at the altar. They had taken their solemn vows, celebrated with their ecstatic family and friends, and shared a romantic honeymoon in Paris. Their daughter had come into their world soon after, and they named her Elizabeth after Carol’s grandmother. Those two events shone brightly in Carol’s memories as the happiest in her life.
Life had moved quickly after that. The years had passed by in a blur, but with plenty of moments standing out in their significance. Lizzie’s first words, Carol’s new job as a teacher, Greg’s fortieth birthday, her father’s death, Lizzie starting university… Moments in time which were filled with emotion, both good and bad, and were therefore unforgettable. But now Lizzie was a grown woman and had immigrated to Australia to start her own family. Her departure had been difficult for Carol and Greg, but they had wished her luck and given her as much support as they could. Their little house had been quiet since then, but they remained as happy in one another’s company as they had always been. News of the birth of their first grandchild had brought much joy to them, as had the photographs which had followed in the post. The baby boy in Lizzie’s arms reminded them both so much of Lizzie’s birth that they had shared a moment of tearful reflection together. They had made plans to fly out and visit her in the spring. The tickets had already been booked, and they were both eager to meet their grandson.
Carol blinked tears from her eyes and buried her nose in a tissue. The last thirty-odd years with Greg had been supremely happy ones, fulfilling ones, and she just couldn’t fathom having them end so abruptly. She took several deep breaths to calm her nerves before sitting up straight.
Greg’s eyes were open. He was staring intently at Carol, and she could only guess as to how long he had been watching her. She frantically scrabbled for his hands, seizing them in her own.
“Greg?” She choked out, half-sobbing with relief and hysteria. “Greg, you’re awake! Are…are you alright?” She felt monumentally idiotic at having asked that question. Greg merely continued staring at Carol’s face in silence. Then, he slowly closed his left eye and opened it again with obvious effort. Carol barked out a stiff laugh, the sound raw with emotion. Greg had winked at her! He was still himself despite everything he was going through. Her poor, poor darling! As if in response, Greg weakly patted her hand, the movement scarcely more than a stroking of their skin. He looked into her eyes, and Carol felt an icy hand grasp her heart. The merry light in Greg’s eyes was dim, and it was fading slowly.
“No!” Carol launched herself forwards, for once ignoring her hip as pain flared along her side, landing awkwardly on the bed next to Greg.
“Greg, no!” She sobbed freely, her voice rasping through her tears. “Please, darling, don’t go!”
Greg peered up at his wife, the pain of his ailment and seeing Carol’s distress was clearly marked with his own tears. As Carol held his hands tightly, he slowly closed his left eye again, barely managing to open it again before it snapped shut. After a moment of rebellion, his right eyelid slid closed as well. His fingers twitched once in Carol’s hands, and he was still.
Carol wept as Greg’s life signals disappeared. The room was filled with the sound of her anguish coupled with the cold, incessant beep of the heart monitor. The world suddenly turned grey, as if the colours had been removed from Carol’s perspective in an instant. She sat there gripping Greg’s hands for what seemed like aeons before she heard footsteps hurrying down the corridor outside. Carol sat up abruptly and quickly wiped the tears from her eyes as the door to the room opened. A tall, handsome doctor came striding in followed closely by a petite nurse. The nurse was clearly new to the realities of her profession, as she looked somewhat bewildered and mortified. She scurried over to Carol and placed a hesitant hand on her shoulder whilst the doctor felt for Greg’s pulse. After a moment he shook his head and turned to face Carol, his dark face full of sympathy.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cotton,” he said gently. “Your husband went into sudden cardiac arrest. He’s gone.” Carol sighed deeply and gave Greg’s hand a final squeeze.
“Yes, doctor,” She replied calmly. “I know.”
Carol arrived home at eleven o’clock that evening. She was still maintaining her stoic demeanour, and was courteous when she spoke briefly to her taxi driver. She got out and walked briskly up the garden path to her front door, the motions automatic and efficient. As soon as she had closed the door behind her she became aware of the silence of the house. It was a strange, unfamiliar silence from a house which had frequently been full of the noises of everyday life. It would have been hearing Carol pottering about in the kitchen on any given day, listening to her sing along to the hits of the 60’s on the radio. It would have been hearing Greg laughing at something on the television, or his cries of exasperation as some dimwit didn’t answer a question correctly on a quiz show. But today, the house was still. It was a pregnant silence, as if the building was anxiously holding its breath.
Carol sat down heavily on the sofa, exhausted. So much had happened that day, and yet it seemed incredible that her ordeal had taken less than fifteen hours. It was then that Carol noticed the mug of tea. The very same unfinished mug that Greg had been drinking before their ordeal had begun.
“It’s half-empty”, Carol murmured to herself, her own voice sounding distant in her dazed, drained state. “But Greg would probably say its half-full.” She shook her head sadly. It no longer mattered what Greg thought. Greg was dead. Completely alone for the first time in more than thirty years, Carol gave in to her grief. As the time dragged onwards, Carol was unaware of the passing of midnight.