“We’re here, Bets.”
Betty slowly blinked her eyes open, her husband’s voice waking her from her reverie. Lulled by the gentle motion of the car, Betty had been oblivious to the journey, peaceful, happy dreams playing behind her closed eyelids. She shifted in her seat and rubbed her eyes, then peered out through the windscreen to survey her surroundings.
“Albie, you’ve brought me here!” Her face lit up with pleasure and excitement.
Albert grinned at her before getting out of the car. He walked around to the passenger door and opened it, reaching in to take Betty’s hand. Gently, he guided her out onto the beach-front pavement. Betty closed her eyes and breathed deeply, the salty air tingling her nostrils, a fine mist of sea spray spattering against her cheeks. She smiled, filling Albert’s heart with joy. He hadn’t been sure if taking his wife away from her usual surroundings was a good idea, but seeing her obvious pleasure, he decided that he had done the right thing.
“Yes, my love. Southend-on-Sea, where we met all those years ago.”
“Have you forgotten how many years?” Betty teased.
“45 years and 135 days,” Albert replied without hesitation.
“Goodness Albie, I wasn’t expecting you to be that precise!”
“It only feels like yesterday.”
“Except we were young, slim and full of energy then. Now, we’re old and sedate. And you’re plump,” Betty said playfully, patting Albert’s paunch. “And of course I have ‘The Affliction’,” she added.
‘The Affliction’ was the name they had given to Betty’s illness. They didn’t like to use the word Alzheimer’s; it was too negative. Betty had been diagnosed with The Affliction six months ago but she’d started to exhibit symptoms many months before that. At first they had laughed at her forgetfulness, Albert pointing out gleefully that she had always been a bit ditsy. But then Betty had begun to forget names of neighbours and friends, and sometimes struggled to find the words she needed to express herself. It had been so gradual, that they hadn’t seen the disease sneaking up on them, like a demon in the night. Some days the demon lay dormant and Betty seemed her usual self; some days it reared its vile head and scared them, as they both knew what it meant. It was only a matter of time before Betty would no longer be Betty, her memories locked away in the recesses of her mind.
“We are not old, my love, merely older,” Albert corrected. He ignored the comment about her illness. Betty smiled.
“So what is the plan?” she asked, putting her arms around his waist and her head on his chest. Her shoulder-length brown hair lifted in the breeze and tickled his face. He drew her in tight against his body and closed his eyes. He was terrified of losing her to her illness. He didn’t want her to one day look at him as a stranger, to not remember all they had been through together, to maybe even fear him. He could not bear the thought.
“Well, first, we’re going to eat fish and chips on the beach, because I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. And then we’re going to take a ride on the pier train. At the end of the pier I am going to give you something special.” Albert said.
“Something special?” Betty eyed him curiously. “What are you up to?”
The couple slowly wandered along the sea front, holding hands, chatting amiably as Albert led the way. He stopped outside the front of an imposing red-brick building that housed a bowling alley, amusement arcade and rides.
Betty looked at the building and said: “It is a beautiful building.”
“Don’t you recognise it?”
“Yes, it’s the Kursaal. I used to come here as a child.”
Albert hesitated then nodded. He began to move away but Betty had noticed the fleeting look of hurt that had danced across his face. She held his hand and pulled him back.
“That’s not it, is it?”
“It’s ok Bets, it doesn’t matter.”
Betty looked at him, confused, desperately trying to remember why the building was important to Albert.
“I can’t… I’m sorry. I don’t know.”
Albert was horrified to see small tears glistening in the corners of her eyes.
“Come on Betty, it really doesn’t matter. The last thing I wanted to do today was upset you. Let’s go and get something to eat.” Albert tried once more to move them away but again Betty stood steadfast.
“No. Tell me why I should remember this place,” she looked at him beseechingly, wiping a tear off her cheek with the back of her hand. Albert kissed her on the lips and then turned her round so she was looking at the entrance to the building. He pointed to a spot near the front door.
“You were standing there. You were smoking a cigarette you had stolen from your brother, who was inside chatting up some girl.” He turned her around again. “And I was walking down the road across the way, I spotted you and, once I’d finished gawping and mustered up the courage, I swaggered over to you and introduced myself.”
“I don’t remember us meeting here,” Betty said, sadly.
“It’s ok, my love.”
“But I do remember the first thing you said to me.”
“You do?” Albert was surprised.
“Yes. You said: ‘Do you come here often?’”
“I did not say that!” laughed Albert.
“You did! I remember thinking it was the lamest chat up line I had ever heard.”
“You’re making it up! I’m sure I would have said something more much more sophisticated than that.”
“I do remember some stuff Albert, I’m not completely useless. My brain does work sometimes,” snapped Betty, her mood changing in an instant. This was another facet of The Affliction that Albert was learning to live with. Mood swings and aggression from his usually placid and gentle wife.
“Oh Betty, I know that. I was only teasing. I’m sorry.”
After a few moments, Betty reached out and took hold of Albert’s hand. “I’m not really hungry. Can we eat later? I would really like to ride the train and see what this special something is?” Albert took her face in his hands and ignoring his grumbling stomach said: “Of course.”
Once again calm, Betty and Albert meandered along the sea front heading for the pier. It didn’t take them long to walk to the glass building at the entrance to the structure.
“This wasn’t here back then, Albie.” She paused. “Was it?” she asked quietly.
“No, it wasn’t, you’re quite right.” Betty seemed pleased with the answer, a small, smug smile tugging at her lips.
The pair bought their tickets and waited patiently for the train to return from the pier head. They hadn’t been waiting long when they saw the blue train trundling towards them. Once the disembarking crowd had dispersed, Betty and Albert made their way into the rear carriage. They sat and Albert put his arm around Betty’s shoulder. A few other people boarded their carriage but the passengers were spread out enough for Betty and Albert to feel like they were alone. After a short wait, the train pulled off again, heading back the way it had just come.
“Albert, you know how I said I don’t ever want to be put in a home?”
“Yes,” he replied, softly
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it and I think, actually, it is probably the best option. I don’t want you to have to be my carer, I don’t want you to see me fade away and become a different woman to the one you knew.”
Albert turned his body towards Betty and took hold of her hand. “Bets, I will never put you in a home. Never. I will not have other people looking after you. You’re too precious.”
“But I can’t bear the thought of you having to cope with me when I am really bad. I will probably eventually forget who you are, I’ll be a totally different person. I’ll be confused, scared, maybe even aggressive. That is not the way I want you to remember me.” Betty began to cry, her pale blue eyes shiny with tears. Albert choked back a sob, feeling tears pricking at his own eyes. He needed to be strong for Betty, he needed to be strong for what he was about to do. They hugged, Albert’s cheek on top of Betty’s head; he breathed deeply, inhaling the aroma of her freshly washed hair. For a moment they enjoyed the embrace, their bodies swaying gently with the motion of the train.
“I have something for you,” he said, pulling away briefly, reaching into his jacket pocket. He withdrew a silver hip flask, which was engraved with the words: ‘To Albie, Happy Birthday! Love your crazy wife’. Given to him as a gift several years before Betty had been struck by The Affliction, the engraved words now seemed portentous. Albert could see from Betty’s face that she didn’t recognise it. Betty was about to speak but Albert gently pressed a finger against her lips.
“Listen, I have something important to tell you. I love you, Betty. More than anything in the world and I would do anything to have you free of The Affliction. I wish I could trade places with you. It breaks my heart to see you crying and hurting. What is happening to you now is inevitable and we can’t stop the disease’s progression; I have thought so hard about what we could possibly do to make you better and there is nothing.” Albert dabbed at his eyes, unable to stave off the tears any longer.
“I feel so selfish because this is happening to you, but I feel it too. It is both our lives that are affected and I know, I just know that this will become too much for me. It makes me feel weak because I am a coward. I am not brave enough to watch you go through this.”
Betty reached out and stroked Albert’s face. “This is why you need to put me in a home. You cannot be expected to give up your life for me.”
“But you are my life, don’t you see? I can’t be without you. I can’t lose you.” Albert’s voice cracked with emotion. “I need you Betty and if I can’t have you, the real you, then I don’t want to live.” The couple embraced again and cried, letting their pain and anguish pour out of them.
“So, the flask?” asked Betty, loosening her grip on Albert and looking up into his face.
“This flask gives us a choice,” Albert began. “It contains something that will allow us to be together as we are now.” He tapped it with his index finger.
Betty’s brow creased as she tried to work out what he meant. She looked at him, at the flask and then back at him. “I’m not sure if I understand what you’re suggesting…”
Albert, shuffled in his seat and said: “We don’t have to watch your decline Bets. We don’t have to stand idly by and watch the disease take over you. We can do something about it.”
Betty’s expression turned to one of shock as Albert’s words sunk in.
“I have thought about this everyday since they told me, but I didn’t want to leave you. I didn’t want you to have to deal with my body, my funeral. To know you feel the same makes me both happy and terribly sad.”
“I have no doubts about this, Betty. I will drink from this flask in a heartbeat if it is what you want too,” Albert said, earnestly.
“Will it hurt? And will it be quick” Betty asked, eyeing the flask.
“It won’t hurt. I promise you. And yes, it’ll be quick.”
Betty looked out the train window. She could see the Thames estuary, glinting in the sunlight, seagulls pirouetting above it, their white bodies in stark contrast against the grey of the water. She could see the coastline, people milling about, children running and playing at the water’s edge, amusement rides towering high. And then next to her, her wonderful husband Albert, who was prepared to end his life for her.
“Are you sure about this, Albert?” she asked.
He nodded. “Absolutely.”
“Pass me the flask.” Albert handed it to her with a trembling hand and watched as Betty put it to her lips and drank. She handed the receptacle back to him and he did the same. They smiled at each other and kissed, then put their arms around each other in a tight embrace.
“I love you Albert,” whispered Betty.
“I love you too Bets,” replied Albert, before closing his eyes.
The pier train rolled into its destination as Betty and Albert’s hearts slowed, the poison taking hold. A brief blast of the train’s whistle announced its arrival and the passengers quickly clambered off; all except for the sweet elderly couple hugging in the rear carriage. They had already departed the train but their final destination was somewhere else entirely.