Roland and Deborah were enjoying their walk along a leaf-strewn path in the forest. It was a beautiful autumn's day and the trees had been turning
to gold for a week or two now.
Running ahead of them ploughing through the leaves like a thing possessed was their dog, Roddy. He'd loved their new life in the country and,
Deborah often thought, it would be unlikely to find a kid in a toy store looking any happier.
She and Roland had been throwing an ever-diminishing stick for the dog, who was bringing it back far too efficiently. They had hardly recovered from
the last throw before they'd been presented with the sodden, chewed up thing that had started the game as a small branch.
Roddy was particularly fussy about which stick he'd play with and once the choice was made they'd be stuck with it. Roland tried to dissuade him
from the longer branches, which he preferred, but Deborah had a knack for throwing them so that they'd land awkwardly and break to a more reasonable
For a woman with back trouble she was doing remarkably well at 'caber tossing'.
Since they'd moved to the country she and the dog had thrived on the fresh air and exercise, but Roland's health had been declining and there seemed
to be little they could do about it. Often, on their walks, he'd slow down and let Deborah and Roddy go on ahead as there was no slowing the dog
Deborah used to find herself with an anxious little dog who'd stop playing when he realised that Roland wasn't with them. 'Don't worry darling'
she'd assure him 'Daddy's coming'.
Roddy had been named after his parents, Ro for Roland and Dee for Deborah. They'd been pleased with themselves for thinking of it when they'd been
trying to come up with his name having got him, as a boisterous two year old, from a local rescue centre and he'd been busily wearing them out ever
Roland started to struggle as they approached a particularly steep part of the path and so they headed home, back to a cottage that they had hoped
would be their dream home.
Leaving the City had seemed like such a good idea. Roland could work from home and Deborah had made enough money from selling her small business to
gain them some financial security. They'd been devastated that their hopes of the less stressful life being beneficial to Roland had come to
He'd been very brave about his condition and, for the first couple of years, he'd been able to cope as if he were a healthy person. Now, though, it
was apparent that things were going severely wrong and Deborah did her best to ensure that Roddy wasn't putting too great a strain on him.
Roddy, being a dog, had no idea that he was being selfish or a nuisance by expecting to be exercised for several gruelling hours a day and no-one had
the heart to deny him. But, more frequently now, he and Deborah found themselves far ahead of Roland with Deborah repeating their little mantra
Back at the cottage the dog flung himself through the back door before he could be caught and bounded, muddy feet and all, into the living room.
Deborah chased him with a towel, only to see him shaking himself all over the carpet. 'Little git' she muttered as Roddy wiped the damp, muddy
sides of his body against the back of the sofa.
Even after she'd caught him it was hard to dry him off properly and she wondered when she'd actually break her neck trying to grab those muddy,
She was grateful to hear sounds, coming from the kitchen, of tea being made. A fair division of labour, as usual. Whoever dried the dog left
tea-making to the other one.
Later that evening, all three of them settled in front of a hard-earned log fire. Roland and the dog were flopped out at either ends of the sofa,
both of them snoring, and Deborah had her nose buried in a book. Occasionally she'd look across at her boys and be grateful to see them so
comfortable and contented.
In their own ways, all three of them had had a poor start in life and, at least for Roland and Deborah, it made them appreciate each other more.
No-one knew what the dog thought, but he seemed happy enough with them, especially with his Dad who used to feed him from his plate.
It was an odd thing that these three little pieces of flotsam and jetsam had managed to turn themselves into a happy little family but they'd done
it, even in spite of the dark shadows that hovered in the background, always threatening, always just there.
Roland and Deborah had found different ways of dealing with the misery of their early lives and Roland was paying the price for his attempts at
escaping the harsher realities. There was no way to undo the damage he'd done to himself.
Deborah had sought, more than once, an early exit and hadn't expected to be around for quite as long as she had been.
By the time they'd found each other they were pretty much so emotionally wrecked that they wouldn't have been able to find anyone else who would put
up with them. And yet, they'd found a way to understand each other. Despite all the darkness and misery, they'd seen the spark in each other. The
bright spark of an intelligent and empathetic human being. They'd discovered that they shared a work ethic and had similar values. They both had a
kindly, helpful disposition and neither one of them wanted to see the other fall.
Deborah, in particular, enjoyed the novelty of fighting over a job that needed to be done because they both wanted to do it. She'd usually found in
life that everyone else was loafing around expecting her to 'step up to the plate'.
They shared a sense of humour, too and whenever one of them decided to start off a joke the other would join in the silliness until all avenues were
exhausted. They'd often sing together, changing the words of a popular song, and always in rhyme. If one was stuck for the next line they could
rely on the other to keep it going.
They'd been confident, when they got Roddy, that they could provide for him and that he'd be the perfect thing to complete their family life.
And now, as she looked at them, Deborah started to wonder how she'd cope with Roddy if Roland's health continued to deteriorate. She tried to
imagine how she'd get up every day for their two hour walks, how she'd get him to the vet when he needed to go. How she'd cope with her little
dog's misery if he ever lost his Dad. She was tearful as she looked back at the two of them. Roland's breathing sounded coarser now but the dog
was as oblivious as ever as he stretched a bit in the warmth and enjoyed the comfort of his Dad beside him.
Somehow, Deborah knew, she'd have to find the strength to go on for the sake of the dog and she felt, not for the first time, a few hot tears welling
up at the thought. She sniffed a bit and, so as not to wake anyone, she left the room to go and make some tea. It took her mind off her thoughts and
she welcomed the relief.
She couldn't have known how grateful she ought to have been for that evening. That instead of sitting there crying for what might be, she should
have taken more time to enjoy the moment.
She and Roland had spent so long concerned over his health that they were unprepared for Roddy becoming sick. He bounced about so much and displayed
such an enthusiasm for life and everything he was doing that they couldn't have expected the shadows to accumulate over his head.
But accumulate they did and it was a terrible day that the three of them took the bus to the vet's with only two of them suspecting what needed to be
Roland and Deborah had discussed it the night before and he had asked Deborah if she was up to it. 'I can do it if you can do it' she'd told him
and so it was decided.
Roland knew that Deborah 'compartmentalised' but he'd never seen her ability so much on display as when she waited at the vet's reception desk
after they'd said 'good bye' to Roddy. All throughout the procedure she'd been dry eyed and now, there she stood, waiting in line to pay the
He noticed the two beautiful greyhounds standing in front of her and how she smiled as she stroked them under their chins, they were at just the right
height so she didn't have to stoop too much to reach them. No-one could have guessed, looking at her, what she had just witnessed.
The misery of the bus ride home was almost too much to bear and when they got home Roland made the tea as Deborah went around the house gathering up
Roddy's things. Another fair division of labour.
Somehow they settled into a life with just the two of them. Roland felt less and less able to undertake a daily walk, but Deborah trudged off on her
own. It was winter now and the countryside was snowy and beautiful. She loved the spiders' webs in the forest, hung as they were with small icy
droplets. She remembered winters past when Roddy had been careering along the path gathering small icy droplets on his whiskers. He'd never let the
snow deter him and somehow seemed to enjoy his playtime all the more. Well, anything that got him in a right old mess always added to his
Deborah remembered how she used to say that if she didn't come back filthy and hurt after a walk with the dog then they couldn't have enjoyed
themselves. Now, here she was trying to sense Roddy's presence as she noted small footprints in the snow. She always enjoyed trying to work out who
had made them and sadly she remembered how big Roddy's footprints had been. Anyone seeing them would have thought he was huge.
But poor Roddy, he had been so ill treated before he was rescued that he had never grown up into the big dog that he could have been. His paws always
looked a little too big for him.
Deborah turned to go home, she'd tried to find some joy in her walk but was unable to stop the memories. She looked forward to the day when she'd
be able to think of Roddy without it hurting so much. She tried not to think of his snowy little face looking up at her, as it had last year, when
she'd assured him that 'Daddy's coming'. Only last year, Roland hadn't fallen behind because he felt ill, he'd just been gathering wood.
Gradually Roland and Deborah got comfortable with less responsibility in their lives and, with Roland having more and more bad days, they even started
to feel grateful that they didn't have Roddy to worry about. They didn't love him any less, but both realised that they had just about as much to
deal with as either of them could manage.
Deborah no longer had to worry about how she would cope with Roddy by herself and Roland now had only to worry about Deborah's welfare after he'd
gone. He was sad to admit it to himself but it made things easier for him if he wasn't fretting about two of them.
Neither he nor Deborah were particularly demonstrative but they both knew that their feelings ran deep. Something had always gone on between them
that was far under the surface. Whatever was going on in their daily lives or their relationship, they were both aware of very strong
It helped that they didn't need to talk very often. They'd found out each other's beliefs very early on in their relationship and had ascertained
that neither of them was particularly attached to life. Deborah often thought that they were in a race to be the one to go first. Neither of them
had ever wanted to be the one who was left behind and it now looked as if Roland was going to be the winner.
Both of them thought that the other was better equipped to deal with life than they were themselves.
And it now appeared that Roland's belief was the stronger. Deborah didn't expect him to fight his illness, she pretty much knew that he'd do what
she would do if she were in his circumstances. She accepted it and, although she didn't like it much, she respected his right to choose the way that
best suited him.
Roland struggled with the difficult decisions that he had to make. An operation, a transplant, chemotherapy, or just accepting that he was dying and
asking for palliative care.
He thought that perhaps he'd better consult Deborah as, after all, this would affect her too. But he was worried about what she'd ask him to do.
He wanted to fight for her sake, but feared that he wouldn't have the strength of mind. He knew it would be tough physically and that there was a
chance he wouldn't make it whatever treatment he had. The risk of infection, rejection and blood clots was daunting but, most of all, he wasn't
sure that he was up to the fight mentally. He wasn't sure that he had the strength of spirit, either. His life had been blighted from the time he
was abandoned, as a baby, by his mother and somewhere inside he'd never recovered from that.
He knew that Deborah was convinced he had a death wish just going by the fact that he was so accident-prone. She'd seen it as her duty to keep him
safe from himself ever since they'd got together. She'd been quite successful, too, and the few accidents he'd had during their relationship
weren't nearly so spectacular as the ones he'd endured prior to their meeting.
Deborah's death wish was far more overt. She had no qualms about admitting to it and had complained when he'd sharpened their kitchen knives.
She'd explained, very carefully, that she wasn't allowed to have sharp knives as she was dangerous with them. After that, Roland found himself
using a bread knife for dicing vegetables and had often marvelled at Deborah as she managed to cut things up with her small, blunt knives.
He didn't know how keenly she'd felt death stalking just about everyone she'd ever truly cared about in her life. She had a long list of pets and
a much shorter list of friends who she'd had to say 'good bye' to. It was small wonder that she compartmentalised the way in which she did. So
many rooms in her mind and none of them with a door that she wanted to open.
Deborah knew exactly what Hell looked like. It was a series of long, dark corridors. Lined with doors. Somehow, one could see in all the darkness
even in the absence of any light. Hell was a dull, matt black. And even greater Hell could be found behind the doors.
Deborah knew what Heaven looked like, too. Heaven was a sunny field with a large tree in the middle of it, underneath which one could sit and watch
the butterflies as they flitted about in the sunshine. There were bees and snails – all creatures of which she was particularly fond. Her pets
would be there, too. All of them. Deborah used to wonder who would be the first to greet her when she arrived. She didn't know what Heaven might
be for anyone else, but this was hers.
Sadly, the problems she and Roland had to cope with in their real lives were looming ever larger and Deborah had been bracing herself for the awful
time, in the not too distant future, when he would ask her what she thought he should do.
She'd decided to be brave and tell Roland to do whatever was best for him. She'd become aware of the dangers of the various treatments available
and still doubted his will to go through with any of them. She knew that he might want to try for her sake but accepted that he needed to try for
himself, not her. If he wasn't one hundred per cent committed to a course of treatment she couldn't imagine that it would be successful.
She was extremely aware of that hidden death-wish and was pretty convinced that if anyone could get themselves an infection or a blood-clot after an
operation, it would be Roland.
She thought about the option of a transplant. It went against everything that she believed in and she knew Roland wouldn't be too keen either.
Neither of them was bothered about the decisions other people might make in this respect, but neither of them saw it as an option for themselves.
Deborah knew that even though she'd stopped being suicidal after the move to the country she wouldn't say no to a legitimate chance to drop down
dead on the spot. And now, here was Roland with with the way out that he'd been longing for. How, she wondered, could she deny him the chance to
find some peace?
Being in the country had opened up a new enthusiasm for life for them both, but still neither of them were so enthusiastic that they could shake off
the shadows from their earlier years.
Deborah hadn't expected to be drawn into the doctor's office for the consultation when the day finally arrived and would have preferred it if Roland
had gone on his own. She began to doubt her resolve when faced with someone who was in the business of saving lives, not offering people an easy way
She sat quietly listening to all the pros and cons of the various treatments and heard the doctor's recommendations. All of them sounded gruesome
and unattractive. But there might be life at the end of them. Equally, there might not be. So much depended on the fitness, or otherwise, of the
She watched Roland's reactions to the options as they were laid out before him and could see that he wasn't keen. She could almost hear his
thoughts as he weighed up the pain and inconvenience to himself, with the chance that he would survive to stay with her, against his option to say
'Oh, sod it' and just not bother with trying to get better.
She knew what she would do, but now she didn't know what she wanted him to do. Deborah had many faults, but selfishness wasn't one of them.
Whatever decision Roland made she would say 'I can do it if you can do it'.
She was dismayed to see that Roland was going to cry. She touched his arm and gave him what she hoped was an encouraging look. 'It's your decision.
Do whatever's best for you'.
He didn't want to do what was best for him, he wanted to do what was best for her. He asked if she could make it through all his treatment, if she
could cope. Of course, she said that she would.
Roland knew that she'd just about kill herself looking after him if that's what it took. But, he tried to think, what if he didn't survive an
operation? Would that be harder for her than if he didn't go through with one?
He might live for several more months, even in his condition, but if he had an operation straight away he could be dead within weeks, if not days.
He thought of what they had done for Roddy and wished that option was available to him. But would he take it, knowing that Deborah would be left all
alone? It would be easier, though, than to raise her hopes by trying an operation only to have it fail.
He thought about being ill for months due to treatment with a 'maybe' at the end of it. Maybe it would work and maybe it wouldn't, but he'd still
feel lousier for those months than if he just accepted pain relief and reconciled himself to the fact that he was going to die.
'Whatever's best for you' – how could it be best for him to give up without a fight knowing that Deborah would spend the rest of her life alone?
He knew her well enough to understand that she wouldn't go looking for any similar relationship after he had gone.
He thought about life and what it meant to him. How much more it had come to mean to him since he'd met her. And then Roddy had come along and the
three of them had found something that none of them could have found alone.
He knew that Deborah would never find it again. What else had he to live for, besides her? Nothing much, he realised sadly. Was she enough to make
him want to stay? Stay in his painful, ravaged body. The one he'd spent years, since he was a little kid, trying to destroy.
She was looking at him, willing him to make the right decision for himself. 'How would you cope, without me?' he asked.
'Oh, you know me. I'll be alright' she said off-handedly. Trying so hard not to show what she felt and influence his decision in any way.
'I don't want to be selfish' he could barely get the words out.
Deborah looked him straight in the eye 'There you have your decision' she said 'don't be afraid to make it because you think it's selfish'.
'I don't want to leave you' Roland was getting more tearful
Deborah decided it was best to be blunt 'The chances are that you'll be leaving me whatever you do.
You just have to do it in the way that's right for you. You could fight and win or you could fight and die. But whatever you do you have to commit
to it. If you'd rather not fight I can respect your decision to go quietly. But if you can't fully commit then you're fighting a losing battle
and you'll suffer. You'll suffer and you won't win'.
Roland felt his heart plummet. He knew that there was no way he could fully commit to the fight. He would suffer and he would lose.
He looked across at the doctor 'I'll just have the pain relief, thanks. And a little care when I need it'.
The doctor watched as the two of them left his office. Their body language matched perfectly, as it had throughout the consultation. Something
between those two ran deep, it was noticeable even to him.
Roland and Deborah went home and got on with their lives, the way they always did. Carrying on as if nothing was wrong. A joke here and there, a
silly song sometimes. And they watched the seasons. Spring was beautiful and they both appreciated the new life as the world gloried in the warm
sunshine. But spring soon came to an end and, as the weather became warmer, they realised that months had passed and they were getting ever nearer to
the event they were dreading.
Roland had lived very carefully, not overdoing things, sticking to his special diet and even giving up smoking. All rather too late, but he was
feeling some benefit from his efforts.
Deborah watched him carefully. She tried not to make it obvious, but she tried to imprint a perfect picture of him on her mind. She was terrified
that she would forget what he looked like. She encouraged him to tell her more stories about his chaotic, tragic and hilariously funny life. She
listened more carefully than she had ever done before, terrified that she would forget the sound of his voice.
Roland watched her carefully too, with some amusement, as he noted her puzzlement when her indifferent passing of a duster over the furniture failed
to yield any appreciable results. She'd taken on the burdens of all the heavier housework now but it so obviously wasn't her forte. How, he
wondered, would a woman whose idea of cleaning things was to do the bits that showed and hope nobody moved anything cope with the house all by
Summer had arrived and it was noticeable that Roland was struggling more, maybe because of the heat. Both of them realised that the inevitable was
drawing more closely upon them. Both of them realised, but neither of them spoke.
They started to make more adjustments. The pace of their lives slowed down and they somehow slipped into coping with Roland's bad days, frequent as
they now were. He worried that he wouldn't be able to die at home. She worried that he wouldn't be able to die at home. Still neither of them
spoke. Deborah trusted to him to somehow arrange his own demise as he pottered about the house or garden. Of all the times his accident-proneness
could be useful, now would be it.
They started to hold hands. They weren't particularly affectionate in their way towards each other. Neither of them often felt the need for warm
human contact, but holding hands seemed to remind them of the bonds between them. Once, on a particularly bad day they had been crossing the living
room and as they passed each other, somehow they'd both decided that they should hug. And so they stood, in the middle of the room for over an hour.
Neither of them noticing the passing of time and neither of them remembering what it was they were supposed to be doing before they'd decided to just
hold on to each other.
Every night Deborah watched Roland as he slept. She'd listen to his breathing just to make sure that he was still alive. She was used to him having
nightmares and, throughout their relationship, had always been ready to come to his rescue when he shouted out telling something to leave him alone.
Something that had tormented him in his sleep since he was a child.
It was to her bitter regret that Roland found a way to elude her when his time came. He slipped away before she'd had the chance to check on him
late one night. Being nocturnal her normal bedtime would be between two and four in the morning and she'd been devastated to go into the room
expecting to tuck in a warm, sleeping Roland – only to find him lying stiff and cold instead.
She knew it was far too late to get help and save him. She couldn't face having him carted away in the middle of the night to be put on a cold slab
before his soul had the chance to vacate his body.
She got into the bed and curled herself around him sobbing on his shoulder. She didn't know why. He'd gone out in the way that he was hoping to
go. He'd been peaceful, no shouting that night. He was at home, he'd died in his bed and, even though she hadn't been there for him, he'd
departed his life knowing that she loved him.
At a decent time, later in the morning, she called the hospital and reported what had happened. No-one questioned her when she said that they'd both
gone to bed as usual the previous night and that Roland had died while she was sleeping.
After he was taken away she made tea and tidied up a bit around the house. She noticed his things. She'd have to sort them all out. Sadly she
thought of Roddy's things and the day she'd cleared them all up. She'd put them in the garage and they were still there. She'd never had the
heart to get rid of them.
After her tea she went for a walk in the forest. Try as she might she couldn't sense the presence of either Roland or the dog. This would be her
life now. Lonely walks through the forest, hoping to sense them, and an even lonelier time when she came home.
She had no-one else. Her life had been built around Roland and Roddy and now here she was, having to live for herself. Somehow, it didn't seem
She made it through Roland's small funeral. He hadn't many friends and only two could make it out of the City to help send him off. Deborah had
never met one of them and intensely disliked the other. Neither were invited back to the cottage.
She'd been doing well until the day after the funeral. So drained on the day of it, she'd come home exhausted and unable to think of much, but now,
the day after, she felt the compartments in her mind beginning to collapse.
She found herself in Hell's long corridor with all the doors starting to open. There was the door to her childhood. There was the door to the first
little pet she'd lost. There was the door to her lonely, miserable teens.
There was the door to the broken relationship she'd endured long before she met Roland. There was the door to her best friend who'd died young, due
to embracing life and other people a little too closely.
There was the door to her mother and the verbal abuse that used to be heaped upon her, and the slaps to the head which her mother seemed to forget had
been fractured in a spectacular accident.
There was the door to the knowledge that she'd been unwanted. And the horrible realisation that if your own mother didn't or couldn't love you then
it was unlikely that the rest of the world ever would.
There were the doors to her other lost little pets. And the doors to small, poorly creatures that she'd found whilst she was out walking and been
unable to save.
Deborah felt herself being overwhelmed by it all and curled up in a ball, right in the middle of the living room floor where she and Roland had last
hugged each other. She cried so much that she could barely breathe. Eventually she had to get up for a tissue and walked into Roland's bedroom
looking for one.
She looked at the bed, cold and empty. She'd changed the covers after Roland had died in it, although she hadn't wanted to. She'd felt it might
be better for her if she didn't keep them on the bed, perhaps she thought it might help her to detach from the event. That was her logical mind
speaking. What she had really wanted was to get into that bed, with his covers still on it and lay there until she died, breathing in the faint scent
of him that lingered there.
Beside the bed was Roland's cabinet. The one with all his medication in it. Pain killers, strong enough to..... How often had he told her that
he'd built up a tolerance and that the doses he took would be dangerous to anyone else?
Out along the forest path a man walked with his dog. The dog ran happily ahead chasing a stick that the man threw for him. Now and then the dog would
stop and look back, expectantly. The man bent over to stroke him and re-assure him 'Don't worry, Roddy. Mummy's coming'.