Ngaire Blakes refused to check her watch. She’d looked just ten minutes ago. At least, she hoped it was ten minutes. In the reception room of the Christchurch Central Police Station, time passed at a crawl.
A multi-generational family waited for the Detective Sergeant in charge of their case. Mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and four assorted children under twelve. The women sat and chatted in soft voices while the kids built a fort from the orange plastic chairs, stacking them one on top of the other to form a barricade. All was well until the eldest boy tried to clamber up and over to gain entry. Ngaire closed her eyes to slits as the bottom chair sagged under the weight and the topmost tilted, throwing him to the floor.
His face contorted with pain, and he gripped his leg, rolling back and forth. When his great-grandmother bent to pat his shoulder, the built-up friction from the rub of the utilitarian carpet against his sweatshirt crackled.
In a celebration of his defeat, the youngest daughter picked up a chair to wave it around her head. Her mother smiled in reward where Ngaire would’ve told her off. When her mom looked away toward the opening doors, Ngaire made a face at the girl, all wild-warrior eyes and furrowed brow. The girl took it as an excuse to swing in wider circles.
A man walked through the double doors, wavering on his feet as the suction from them closing pulled him off-balance. Both mother and grandmother made initial motions as if to help then sat back, staring at the ground. The little girl jabbed her chair at him, once, twice, the world’s smallest lion tamer, then dropped in retreat to her mother’s lap.
Ngaire understood why. Every pore of the man’s body exuded death. He reminded her of an autumn leaf left to mummify in the dry winter air, no substance, no flesh to his bones. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. With no offers of assistance, he struggled to keep a slow creep forward, his feet never leaving the carpet. Minutes passed.
The thick plastic sidings, which enclosed Ngaire within the front counter, formed her excuse not to help. To walk around reception side, she’d have to unlock two doors with her passkey and then what? Let him stand and tremble while she walked back?
There was still a meter to go when she manufactured a broad smile and asked, “Can I help you?” In training, an officer instructed her to channel Gold Coast surfers when she faced the public, a method sure to produce a happy grin with no concerns. Far more tiring than ‘resting bitch face’ but also more likely to yield positive results.
He reached the counter at last and pulled a passport out of his jacket with shaking fingers. He tried to give it straight to Ngaire, but she nodded at the desk tray instead. When he dropped it in, she picked it up and flipped through the front pages, stopping at the photograph.
In the picture, a grayscale man with thick hair kept a straight face for the camera, although happy upturned lines still radiated from the corners of his eyes and mouth. The name was Paul Worthington and Ngaire worked out his age from his date of birth, fifty-three. She pushed the book back to him, thinking surf, sun, sand. Smile, girl. The poster child for cancer returned her stare, his face blank of expression, and she tried to swallow past her sympathy, her pity. Her eyebrows raised in inquiry.
“My identification,” he said. “So you know I’m serious.” He leaned forward until her nostrils filled with mild acid and dank grapes. “I want to confess to a murder.”
When Ngaire pushed through to the central office, the two detectives in conversation next to the coffee machine stopped talking until she passed. It doesn’t matter. Ignore them and they’ll go away. Her smile widened until her jaw ached.
When she’d gone to University, she thought she’d left the schoolyard behind, but the Christchurch Police was a new club with its own set of cliques. Once she’d been in; today she was out. If she continued to bear it, one day she might belong again. Worse still, she understood their position and would act the same if another officer repeated her choices, her mistakes.
Genna stood at the exit door, chatting with Sergeant Watson outside. A waft of smoke blew through the doorway on a sharp breeze, and Ngaire clicked her fingers to draw her attention. “Sorry, but could you man reception again?” She jerked her head toward the office. “I’ve got a guy waiting for an interview. I pulled Jefferson through to keep a check on him, but there’s no one else on the counter.”
“Jefferson,” Genna said, rolling her eyes. She twiddled her fingers in a goodbye wave before pulling the door shut. “Did Gascoigne come back yet?”
“Nope,” Ngaire said. “He’s still out facing the media, and the Kahurangi family are still waiting.”
Genna groaned and nodded, heading back through to the front office.
“Deb, are you working on anything world-shattering?” Ngaire asked as she walked into her cubicle. “There’s an old dude in reception wanting to cop for a murder, and I need someone to co-interview.”
Ngaire had worked with Deb a lot back when she'd first started. They'd done patrols of the earthquake red zone together at night; keeping the looters and vandals out while the souls of the dead struggled to break free. She trusted that old connection now her current ones were so tenuous.
“Murder?” Deb stood and arched her back until air popped from her vertebrae. Her dark hair was cut short, in a bob, matching her square jaw, stuck in a permanent jut of defiance. “Who’s the victim?”
“Nobody, probably. Still need to get him interviewed and give him his thrill, though.”
“Now, now,” Deb said with a grin. “Don’t be too hasty to judge.”
Ngaire poked her tongue out. They’d had three false confessions so far this month, and being on desk duty, she’d caught the paperwork for most of them. “He fits the profile,” she said. Old. Male. Lonely.
Deb strode ahead then turned to give Ngaire a quizzical look. “Has the doc signed you off?”
Ngaire shook her head and followed Deb through to the interview suites. “Getting closer, though. There,” Ngaire jerked her head to the door on her right, “we’re in room three.”
Deb sighed and Ngaire shrugged her shoulders. The third interview room had a rattle in the air conditioning grill no workman could fix. Audio recordings always captured it, an embarrassment when replayed in a courtroom.
“He’s in poor shape,” Ngaire whispered as they continued through to reception. “Halfway to dead. Are you ready?”
Deb nodded and Ngaire opened the door. Although she’d seen him minutes before, Ngaire suppressed a new shudder at the sight of Mr. Worthington.
“Shit,” Deb said under her breath.
Paul held his chin high, even though his shrunken frame swam inside the voluminous fabric of his suit. Bright and eager eyes stared out from deep sockets, the corneas not yet faded. He followed Deb at a crawl while Ngaire held the door open for him to pass.
When he sat opposite them in the room, his breathing was audible, shallow. A wheeze accompanied his exhalations, reminding Ngaire of her childhood asthma. Deb turned to flick on the recording equipment, but Ngaire placed a finger on her arm, just a moment.
“Could I get you a cup of tea or coffee before we start?”
He paused a long time before speaking. When he did, his voice was strong and confident, even without air to back it. “I’ll have a coffee, white, no sugar.”
Ngaire nodded and stood.
“I’ll have tea, thanks,” said Deb. “Milk and two sugars.”
When Ngaire returned holding the steaming cups, Paul seemed better. His breath was calmer, and his face held a tinge of pink.
“Here you go,” she said, handing the mug. “And you,” she added, sliding Deb’s to her. In other circumstances, she might’ve headed back to fetch one for herself, but Deb looked ready to explode at the delay.
“So, you’re here to confess to a murder,” Deb began.
Ngaire frowned down at her hands but kept silent. Set procedures existed to make safe and productive interviews, and they didn’t include pushing straight to the crime.
“That’s right,” Paul said. “I am.”
“So, I must caution you first. I’m speaking to you in connection with a murder you believe you’ve committed. You have the right to remain silent. You do not have to make any statement. Anything you say will be recorded and may be given as evidence in court. You have the right to speak to a lawyer without delay and in private before deciding whether to answer any questions. We have a list of lawyers you may speak with for free. Do you understand these rights?”
He nodded and Deb waved her finger and tapped her ear.
“Oh,” he said aloud. “Yes.”
“Can you state your full name for the recording?”
“Paul Leonard Worthington.” He sipped his coffee, holding the mug between his palms to heat them. The central office was air-conditioned to twenty degrees Celsius, and it was a few degrees hotter in the interview room with three bodies crammed inside.
“And what’s your date of birth?”
“The fourteenth of January 1963.”
“Who’d you murder?”
Ngaire struggled to suppress a burst of laughter. So much for building rapport. However, false confessions were a regular source of unwanted paperwork, so perhaps Deb’s method could teach her something.
“She told me her name was Claire,” Paul said, then shook his head. “But it wasn’t.”
Ngaire’s urge to laugh died. Paul’s movements spoke of a gentle man, old-fashioned. He didn’t belong in here. It gave credence to the idea he spoke the truth.
“Was she a prostitute?” Deb asked. A profession that attracted pseudonyms more than others.
Paul's face twisted, expressing disgust. “No, she wasn’t a hooker. She was a sweet girl.”
“A sweet girl using an alias,” Deb said, deadpan. “Did she tell you her real name?” She rubbed her eye with her knuckle, a demonstration of how uninteresting she found this.
“Her name was Magdalene Lynton.”
“Magdalene,” Ngaire said in surprise then hurried to cover herself as the two of them looked at her. “That’s an unusual name.”
“Should make her easy to find,” Deb said, holding Ngaire’s gaze a beat too long.
Ngaire caught the hint. A name to remember. False confessions often used sensationalized cases, but people weren’t above picking out an old one and dusting it off. It only needed a few distinguishing features to stick in the memory.
“When did you murder poor Magdalene, Paul?”
“The thirteenth of March 1979.”
Ngaire exchanged a glance with Deb and muted a groan. The dates meant she’d end up shuffling through the paper files. She’d be lucky if the computer held a reference number. They’d loaded up all the prominent cases, sure. But this? In a filing box somewhere if it existed at all.
“Well, no use keeping us in suspense, Paul. How’d you kill her?”
He turned his head aside, and Ngaire followed his gaze. Light indicators flashed to show the recording equipment functioning, but apart from that, the wall was blank. Beige tiles with holes poked in patterns to reduce the ambient noise made a mockery by the rattle of the air conditioning duct overhead. Interview rooms didn’t hold items of interest, because people were distracted enough without giving them cause.
His finger traced a circle on the table, then he pulled it back. “I gave her a beer,” he said. His voice, which to that point had stayed stable, cracked, and he swallowed and cleared his throat. “I forced her to drink it, the whole bottle.”
He’d be referring to the good old swap-a-crate bottles, Ngaire thought. Puinamu, her dad used to call them. Much larger than the stubbies that existed nowadays. “What age were you?” Ngaire asked. The passport had told her, but recording it would save double-checking later.
“I was seventeen,” Paul said staring at her with his eyes wide. She noticed the beat of his pulse in his neck, faster than hers. “I shouldn’t have been drinking.”
“We’ll write you a ticket,” Deb said and waved at him to go on. “You gave her a beer.”
“I forced it down her throat,” he said, raising his hands up in mimicry. “A lot spilled, but she must’ve been drunk ’cause she fell back on the bed–”
“Where was this, now? Your bedroom?” Deb interrupted.
Paul shook his head, no. “Out in the stables. We’d pulled the cover off a hay bale and tipped it on the side so the stuffing spilled out. It made it comfy to sit or lie down if you ignored the rustling.” His fingers scrabbled on the table. “Mice.”
“So, you pulled her onto the bed?” Deb prompted.
Paul looked at the two of them, and Ngaire read shame on his face. “I pulled her top up. When I did, I thought she might yell out, so I held my hand over her mouth.”
He stopped talking and looked behind him as though he expected someone or something to be standing there.
“The old horse stables were out back of my dad’s farm, and we used them on and off. Weren’t s’posed to, but no one minded if you get what I mean.”
Deb just stared at him, eyes unwavering, so Ngaire nodded the encouragement he seemed to need.
“Long as we cleared up after ourselves, nobody cared much. Dad didn’t own horses to stable, and we didn’t need feed stored up top neither. Should’ve been demolished, but he didn’t have the money.”
Paul coughed, then couldn’t stop. His bony shoulders hunched in, and he put a hand in front of his mouth. Ngaire could hear the loose sounds of mucus strands moving with every violent outburst.
She pulled a packet of wipes that came free with every car service from her trouser pocket. They often came in useful when people burst into tears, but they were suited to a coughing fit too. She peeled the plastic strip off to open the pack and shook one loose, its companion joining in for the ride. “Here.”
He took them and put one up to his mouth. The coughing continued, but tapered off. Paul crumpled the tissue, now stained brown and red, in his fist.
“Do you need a break?” Ngaire asked. “I could get you a glass of water.”
Deb turned the full force of the frown on her and mouthed the word, “No,” at the same time Paul spoke it aloud.
“I’ll be okay. I’m not used to speaking so much.”
Ngaire couldn’t imagine dying alone in a house with no one to even talk to. She’d prefer a hostel when her time came with someone always around to comfort her. Of course, she had nobody living in her place at the minute either, so she should probably suspend her judgment.
“You said you were in the stables?”
Paul nodded. “If she yelled, Dad might hear, and if we disturbed Dad, he’d kick us out.” He frowned and leaned his elbows on the table. “For good, I mean. We larked about in there ’cause it was the one place we had to go. Fair enough, we shouldn’t use it at night, but Dad could go mental.”
He twisted the napkin in his hands then touched his throat with the fingers of his right hand, cupping it in a mild version of a strangle.
“If I thought anything bad was going to happen, I’d have left her alone, you know?” He stopped and panted for a few beats while he caught his breath. “I only covered her mouth for a moment.” He pulled his shoulders in, shrinking further. “I’m sure it was less than a minute, but she died.”
He squeezed his lips with his fingers; a late reflex to cease talking for his own safety. Ngaire looked at Deb, eyebrows raised. Was she going to ask?
Deb nodded. “You said, ‘we called it the bed,’ and ‘we knew not to go upstairs,” she quoted verbatim back to him. “Who was ‘we’ exactly?”
Paul’s eyes widened, caught, then his face relaxed and he shrugged. “I misspoke, it was just Magdalene and me that night.”
It would be on the video. Ngaire glanced at the side panel, reassured to see the steady green light, which meant the camera was on and operating.
“What did you do with Magdalene once she was dead?” Ngaire asked. “What did you do with her body?”
“I moved it in the car, an old truck. It wasn’t mine, but Dad let me drive it as long as I did a few errands for him when needed. I shifted her into the flatbed and drove to the Waimak.”
“The Waimakariri River,” Deb clarified. Paul nodded, and she waved her finger in the air.
“Yes,” he said aloud. “I drove near the bank, downriver where it’s deeper, and pushed her off the back.” He rubbed his hand over his face, over his bald head, and flakes of skin drifted in lazy spirals to land on the table. “Then her body stopped, halfway down. I slid beside her to push her in using my boots and had a terrified moment when I thought I’d get caught there myself.” He gave a hoarse laugh. “I couldn’t swim. Still can’t. I thought she’d drag me with her and we’d both be found dead in the river in the morning. Then she shifted and slid down into the water, and I pulled myself up to the car.”
He looked in question at his watch and grimaced at the answer. He reached into his pocket then his expression changed to one of dismay.
“Do you mind if I go home now?” he asked. “I’ve left my medication at home and it’s time to take it.”
Ngaire watched the clouds gather on Deb’s face and hurried to ward off the storm. “We’d prefer you didn’t leave the station, Mr. Worthington. We’ve a doctor on staff who’ll be able to assess you for medical needs. If you tell him what you’re taking, he’ll make sure you’re looked after.”
“But I’m free to go, aren’t I?” he asked, looking from Deb to Ngaire and back again. “I came in here voluntarily. It’d be easier if I go home for my pills now and return tomorrow.”
Deb kept eye contact with him and shook her head. “Paul Worthington, I’m arresting you for the murder of Magdalene Lynton on or about the thirteenth of March 1979.” A tight smile hardened her face. As Deb ran through the caution again, Paul’s face lifted in surprise, frowned and twisted in indignation, then his shoulders slumped into acceptance.
“Do you understand?” Deb prompted again when he didn't answer.
He nodded, his hands gripped into fists on the tabletop in front of him.
“For the tape,” Deb said. They hadn’t used tape in a decade, but saying DVD or hard drive just earned puzzled looks.
“Yes, I understand.”
They suspended the interview, and while Deb scouted for the Doctor on duty, Ngaire went back to her desk. The screen saver paraded the official police insignia across her screen, and she clicked the mouse to bring it to life.
Lynton, Magdalene, she typed into the search box. A list of entries popped up, but none matched. She tried a few different spelling options but didn’t produce a result.
“The doc’s in there now. Find her yet?” Deb asked. She leaned over Ngaire’s shoulder to peer at the screen.
“There’s nothing on record. Maybe there wasn’t a case?”
“Or the asshole who typed it up spelled it so wrong we’ll never find it,” Deb said. “Have you tried the death register?”
Ngaire switched through to that website and logged in. It was late afternoon, and school holidays were in full swing. Even on a Tuesday, teenage hookups jammed the Internet to a standstill. A circle spun in slow loops on the monitor as she waited.
The screen cleared, and Ngaire typed her query again. “Bingo,” she said as a list of results came up. This time, the first line matched.
“Cause of death, accidental drowning,” she read out and turned to Deb with a question in her eyes. “Do you think we were too quick off the mark?”
“Nah. Fits in perfectly. Besides, if he’s wasting our time, he deserves a scare.”
“Jesus, Deb.” Ngaire pushed print and locked down her computer. “The guy looks on the verge of death. A bit of sympathy?”
“He’d better hold off until he’s bailed,” she replied. “Last thing we need’s a death in custody.”
Deb could be so callous sometimes, it amazed Ngaire she held this job. Then again, last year she’d interviewed a teenage girl, Kensy Phillips. Attitudinal armor thicker than her cheap makeup. Deb talked with her until she revealed detailed information about her abusers, succeeding where a realm of social services had failed.
“Print it out and bring it along,” Deb said as she walked from the room. “I’ll check and see how he’s doing with the doc.”
“Don’t be surprised if we’re not able to continue straight away,” Ngaire called after her. “When he said medication, I think he meant painkillers and not your garden variety. We’ll need to wait until he’s lucid.”
“I’ll use small words.” Deb pinched her fingers together to show how tiny. To Ngaire, it looked about four letters’ worth.
Paul rested his head back against the painted concrete wall. To resist the pain took everything he had. He needed relief soon. He’d take whatever medication the doctor could give him.
He remembered when this foolish idea first popped into his consciousness. It had occurred at the last oncology appointment he’d attended.
When Dr. John Geleyn – “Call me John” – sat behind his desk and sighed, Paul’s heart had sunk. “Further chemotherapy won't do you any good; the cancer's too advanced.” Another sigh, followed by, “It's time to put your house in order.”
An insult, Paul’s house was always in order. Years spent in the navy saw to that.
The urge to confess rose in him, a bubble breaking free. What else could he do with his remaining life? No wife, no kids, no job, and too late to try.
The chemotherapy treatment had left him weak. When he woke in the night unable to find a position that didn’t trigger a new ache, Paul imagined the poisonous chemicals and the ravenous tumor joined in a foul alliance. Instead of working, one against the other, they both attacked him.
“Keep positive,” his nurse said when she clipped the tube onto his Tenckhoff catheter and again when she instructed him to turn, sit, and lie still. “That’s how you show the cancer who's boss.”
Paul gritted his teeth and kept resenting her, instead.
“We'll hit the chemotherapy hard to buy you time,” Dr. Geleyn had said. “Six months could stretch into twelve or more. Remission isn't out of the question.”
Seven months on, he’d gained a few weeks for a high cost in quality of life. One month bought for time in pain, hours lying on the bathroom floor too weak to sit up to reach the bowl. Traded for mornings spent hoping for the time and energy to clean his soiled sheets before anybody else saw.
It turned out the cancer was aggressive, not him.
Paul believed in atheism if disbelief counts as a belief system. Through lack of interest, not passion. The long months of sickness didn't change his mind. Sick as he had been, he didn’t call out to God. There was no spiritual awakening.
So, he didn't want to confess to earn a path to heaven; he needed no salve to his conscience. Paul knew where he’d end up, and the journey involved a pine box and a pre-purchased cemetery plot. The cheapest hole available, not one near a tree nor a bench, the position he chose sat on a corner next to a walkway where he expected visitors to stub sneakers against his headstone when they turned short of the edge, heels scuffing on the packed earth atop his coffin.
No. Paul didn’t have an everlasting soul for confession to unburden.
There’d be no solace for the victim's family, either. For them, Magdalene’s death already had answers. Wrong, but satisfying enough. Paul’s confession would overturn their peaceful lives and reignite the pain from her death.
Sometimes, sitting alone waiting to die, Paul felt he’d lost connection with his life. His eyes filed away scenes of other patients being collected by loved ones, one or two staying throughout the sessions in support. Sure, the nervous chatter of company might drive him mental, but - oh - the chance to caress another human being.
Every touch he received was perfunctory, part of a service, bought and paid for, or distributed when someone didn't pay close attention. The frisson of fingers into his palm when a checkout operator returned his change, the brush of a hand when he moved his shopping bags from counter to trolley.
It wasn't a sexual thing. If Paul needed sex, he’d buy sex. No. He missed the chance to impress himself on the world. He wanted the people, who’d live and love and walk and talk long after he died, to care that for now, he lived. He wanted to matter.
His life spooled out like the last minutes of a movie shown in a cut-rate theater. The reels needed changing, and Paul waited, perched on seats scented by old smoke and greasy popcorn.
The act of confession could start a new picture, unfold a new reel while he waited for death. One last dance with humanity before, “Show’s over, folks.”
Once he decided to do it, to confess for real, Paul didn't want to phone the station. His last stand shouldn’t be lazy. He wanted to be a real person, a real citizen, and take action.
Which presented the problem of how his body behaved these days. The chemotherapy over, he was grateful his long bouts of nausea belonged to the past, but he still waited for the bone deep fatigue to leave. Not to mention the breathlessness, which accompanied even the mildest change in position. Paul had been happy when the post office decreased their service to every other day, spared the extra treks to the lettterbox to see if anyone remembered him.
Circulars and bank statements were the only prizes he recovered from the mail these days. Internet banking meant his payments happened online and his bills arrived via email; they cluttered up his inbox, because he didn’t have the energy to organize them. He paid with credit so he couldn’t forget anything, except the monthly Visa bill.
He’d take the circulars inside and leaf through their colorful pages. Each one urged him to buy something, try something, be someone better. Crammed with energy, their short phrases required little attention from his melting brain.
The papers finished, he stacked them next to the pantry. A small-time hoarder. He’d be dead before the pile grew so large it required moving. Someone else’s problem.
Home help visited once a week. They laundered his clothes, cleaned his floors, kept cutlery and crockery in his cupboards. They filled his prescriptions, but never overfilled them. Who needed a death on their watch? Paul knew they earned little and often considered leaving a tip, even though his sickness benefit was meagre and his savings almost gone. When they came, though, he grew resentful of how easily they performed tasks he couldn’t. He withheld his money and his compliments until they left then thought about tipping again.
He thought of home help as “they” although the same man arrived each week. The job fit a woman, but a grunt and a reference to heavy lifting answered his query about that. If Paul collapsed, he realized, a male carer could pick him up. No need to call for help and double the minimum-wage bill to the taxpayer.
To visit a police station in person, he needed to dress himself and dress himself well, not the shambles of robe and underwear he wore most days. He slept nude because changing outfits for bed exhausted him.
With desire tugging at his brain, Paul opened the drawer in his bedroom where his undershirts lay. He hadn't worn one in so long they remained in the pattern he'd left them, untouched by strangers with their own odd ways of arranging things. It was summer, but due to the weight falling from him over the past months, a chill always nipped away deep in his body. He’d shake sitting inside on his chair in the sun. The heat from bright sunshine on his skin still not able to penetrate enough to warm his core.
The undershirts lay three to a row, three rows across, each folded collar two inches below the other.
He'd bought them years before, when Paul worked out the holes dotting his old shirts were spreading to expose more of his flesh than they hid. One day, he put his arm through a hole, which wasn't the armhole, and realized it was time. One of the things he had to work out for himself because he never landed a wife.
His dad called them skivvies. Paul referred to them as undershirts for that reason, even inside his head.
He pulled out one and laid it on the bed next to him. The drawer stuck when he tried to push it back in, the chestnut wood squealing in protest at his efforts, and he hit his hand against the panel in anger. It hurt, the pain searing his nerves. Paul curled over to protect it, and tears beaded in his eyes. Stupid. He didn't know how to cry. Throughout the years he’d wanted to, or others expected him to, he’d never learned the skill. Pain tears were a new thing. Familiar to him as a toddler, but years being a real man lay between. They dried before Paul stopped rocking. His nose ran in sympathy, so he sniffed and wiped the wet warmth from his face.
Paul had to raise his body into a kneeling position and push with his shoulder to force the drawer back in. He couldn't face getting back on the bed afterwards, so he crouched on all fours on the carpet, panting. Once, as a teenager, he ran a cross-country race at high school and came in first. When he finished, he'd still been able to talk with the people congratulating him at the finish line, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a towel. The crowd cheered, and he would’ve run in the district competition, but his dad whipped him the night before. Made him stand, bleeding, facing the corner for hours afterward.
One undershirt accomplished. At this rate, he should book an appointment a month from Sunday. Chances were he'd be long dead by then.
Desire fired up inside him again.
It was Wednesday tomorrow, which meant home-help day. If he put aside his resentment and pride for long enough, the carer would help him dress. Even if he couldn't quite let the man do that, he could instruct him to lay his clothes out.
But that was a whole day away.
For the first time, his impending death became real to Paul. Its touch rose from his abdomen, ready to choke him. His stomach roiled, and his heart beat, thud-thud-thud, doing double time.
Focus. He needed to dress, the same as he’d done each day since he turned three and his mother told him he was a big boy now.
Paul used the bed to lever himself back to his feet. His shirts hung in the wardrobe alongside his suits. Identical, like his undershirts. Pick a style and buy plenty; that’s the secret. He was a man. He didn’t need to spend time in front of the mirror deciding what to wear.
So, a charcoal pinstripe it was. The jacket and trousers slipped off the hanger without bother, but the belt caught, so Paul had to take one step, two, to wrestle it off. Winded by the movement, he leaned against the mirrored door. His short breaths condensed on the glass until his image blurred into a hulking monster, instead of a skeleton decorated with skin.
Shoes would have to wait. If he bent now, no way could he straighten again. He knew the signs. Weakness in his thighs, shortness of breath. His vision ebbed and flowed with each heartbeat.
He sat on the bed to dress. It took two tries to get off the dressing gown; it caught the bones of his shoulder, and his hands failed the first time he tried to pull it free. The undershirt didn’t catch, and his shirt, too, was easy, although the buttons slipped and slid under his skinny fingers. The pads on his fingertips no longer had cushioning, so their grip was tenuous and it hurt to pinch objects.
Paul pulled his trousers on, his right leg up to the knee, then the left. He gripped the belt with his right hand and balanced with his left on the side of the bed as he stood. One heave and he dropped back down to the mattress, now able to fumble with the zip and the buttons.