A beam of sunlight peeked through a gap in the curtains and fell on white sheets, an old grey comforter and a liver spotted hand that hung limply over the side of the bed. The fingers were long and bony, the skin paper thin and the veins under the surface stood out like bubbles of air under a strip of wallpaper. As the sunlight warmed the hand, its fingers twitched and stretched out, and the old man stirred under the sheets.
His eyelids creaked open, revealing bright blue eyes that once sparkled with intelligence, now sunk deep into their sockets and squinting at the world in confusion. A thin, veiny arm dusted with hair and freckles reached slowly out to the cold sheets beside him, smoothing out the soft cotton as if expecting to uncover something in its folds and creases. His bald, walnut head turned to the side and peered through stained-glass vision at the second set of pillows.
"Mary?" he croaked through parchment-dry lips. His voice was barely louder than a whisper and whistled over his greyish-pink gums like wind blowing around an attic. He stared at the other half of the bed with the air of a man who knew he was supposed to do something important but couldn't for the life of him remember what it was.
When he finally pushed back the covers and sat up, the movement was sudden and surprising; more energetic than you would expect of an elderly man. He perched on the edge of the bed and lowered his feet to the rug, searching for the faded blue wool of his slippers with his toes. His feet slipped into them like a second skin, and he curled his toes with a content smile; they were his favourites, they were familiar. A scrap of comfort in a world that seemed more and more alien as each day passed.
His dressing gown was hanging on the back of a chair, and he slipped each sleeve over his bony arms, then clasped it around him; his protective armour. His false teeth floated like a preserved sea-monster in a glass of water by the bed, and he took them out but did not pop them into his mouth. Instead, he lay them on the bedside table and raised the glass to his lips, drinking deep to clear the gravel out of his throat.
Thus prepared for his search, he shuffled out of the room, toes curled deep into his slippers for warmth; the hallway was draughty and cold. The bathroom was right next to his bedroom and he stopped at the door to listen. No sound of splashing from the bath, no running water, no creak of the toilet seat as someone shifted their weight. He raised a wallpaper hand and rapped on the varnished wood; three sharp knocks like a surveyor testing the strength of a wall.
No answer, but this did not deter him. Mary put all sorts of flowery, oily things in her bath and would stay in there until the four horsemen came knocking on the door. She would top up the water whenever it got cold and he'd lost count of the times he'd found her dozing away under a bubbly blanket. She was probably asleep in there right now, dreaming about the children when they were still young, or their first date together when he still had his hair and she still had her beauty. Nonsense, if you asked him; in his eyes, blurry and faded though they might be, she was still as beautiful as she had always been fifty or more years ago with her dark, knowing eyes and her hair that tumbled in curls down her back. He pushed the door open gently, not wanting to startle or wake her if she really was asleep in the bath.
The bathroom was empty save for a damp towel that hung on the wall by the shower and a pair of toothbrushes in a cup by the sink. Something about this struck him as wrong, and the creases in his forehead deepened as he stared at the toothbrushes for a long minute.
A noise from downstairs broke his concentration and he turned to peer down the stairs at the carpet below and the mat by the front door that said 'Please Wipe Your Feet'. There was no one at the foot of the stairs, but he thought the noise might have come from the kitchen, so he shuffled forward and began the task of descending the stairs. Each one was taken slowly, bony fingers gripping the banisters on either side, his concentration fixed on each faded woollen slipper as it slid out from under the dressing gown and down to the next step. Then he would ease himself forward, a careful balancing act as his death grip on the banisters ensured that he wouldn't pitch forward to the carpet below.
He reached the bottom a couple of minutes later, not out of breath but feeling nonetheless as if he'd accomplished an arduous task. When his son had suggested that he move into the living room, he'd protested at the assertion that he was too old to manage stairs. He thought the very idea preposterous; he'd served his time in the army, back in the day, and worked down the coal mines, he'd even got into a fight or two in his youth, but now even the simplest of tasks were difficult for his frail, old man's body. Perhaps it was better to give in to his family's demands; they meant well, after all. It wasn't as if they were trying to put him in a home, just make life more comfortable for him. Perhaps he should ask Mary what she thought of the idea. Hadn't he asked her before? Surely he must have.
He shuffled into the kitchen, hoping to see his wife at the sink, washing dishes, or perhaps at the stove, cooking something for the grandchildren. Were they coming over this week? He never could keep track of that sort of thing; it was Mary who invited over the neighbours and relatives, remembered birthdays and ages and favourite foods. He was just along for the ride, happy to see his children and grandchildren when they visited but leaving the arrangements up to his wife.
She wasn't there, but perhaps she was in the dining room, sipping a cup of tea and doing the crossword, or in the living room watching one of her soaps. He shuffled through the dining room, frowning slightly at the dog basket in the corner as he passed. He'd always adored his son's black Labrador, but Mary was allergic to dogs. He pushed open the living room door, expecting to see her with her feet propped up on her footstool. She would look up when she heard him enter, smile, ask if he slept well and whether he'd taken his medication this morning. He'd sit down next to her, place a kiss on her soft, peach-scented cheek and listen to her talk about the neighbours' rose bushes and the kitten she'd seen in the garden the other day, and complain about how cold it was lately. He could smell her perfume already, feel the warmth of her hand as he squeezed it tight, running his thumb over the smooth band of her wedding ring.
The living room was dark, the curtains still closed. A computer sat innocently on the desk where Mary kept her house plants and bits of unfinished knitting. He stood in the doorway, eyes locked on the dull grey screen and the keyboard that sat where the spider plant should have been. A feeling of fear and bewilderment crept over him, starting at the pit of his stomach and working its way up to his heart. Something was terribly wrong
With trembling hands, he reached for the doorknob and pulled it closed behind him as he backed into the dining room. A voice behind him made him jump with fright, and he turned to see his son regarding him with concern and a sad kind of sympathy.
"Where is she?" he asked, fear creeping into his voice. He clung to his son, gripping his shoulder with a shaky hand and bunching up the fabric of his jumper. There were so many things he didn't understand, things at the back of his mind that he couldn't quite reach or remember. In the confusion, a single thought surfaced, a desperate urge to understand. "Where's Mary?"
His son looped an arm through his and gently tugged in the direction of the kitchen, trying to lead him back towards the stairs. "She isn't here," he said quietly.
"Where is she?" the old man asked again, allowing himself to be led. His son meant well, after all... didn't he? And all the strength he'd had when he woke up was drained out of him; none left to argue or fight. Preposterous, really. Preposterous.
"She isn't here," his son replied, his voice soft and gentle as if he was talking to a child, or a frightened animal.
"Will she be back?" he asked. Perhaps she was away, visiting. But that wasn't right, was it? Something told him that she was a lot further away than that.
His son said nothing, just led him patiently up the stairs and back into bed, taking his dressing gown and hanging it over the back of the chair, placing his slippers on the floor by the bed, where he'd be able to find them.
"Goodnight," he said, gripping the old man's hand briefly before leaving him to rest.
"Goodnight, Mary," the old man whispered, voice as dry as the tomb.