In this episode we hear a story by Dr Susan Mary Ruben. We follow a new widow as she goes on a grey gap year and seizes the day, before the clock strikes midnight.
Read by Lisa Chae
Content warning: discussions of grief and terminal illness.
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CLOSER TO MIDNIGHT
By Sue Ruben
I’m telling Phil, an old friend from college days, about the Doomsday clock. He’s never heard of it. We’re in the pub. Second bottle of Merlot. He only drinks red now. For his heart, apparently.
‘It’s moving closer to midnight,’ I say. ‘The end. Oblivion. About one hundred seconds away.’
‘A clock?’ Phil isn’t following my gist.
‘No, a metaphor. It’s a measure of how much time we’ve got left, us humans.’
‘Time,’ jokes Phil. ‘We’ve got twenty-four hours less than yesterday. Cheers.’
He orders another bottle, and changes the subject. He thinks I’ve gone all serious since Alex.
He waxes lyrical about Women in Love. He has perfect recall of a mock-fight when my friend Liz and I tore off each other’s fishnets, as a re-enactment, or perhaps re-interpretation of that scene in front of the fire.
‘You want to get some of whatever that was back,’ he suggests.
‘Look, I was twenty-two, and clueless. And Alex, he didn’t just up and go. He keeled over outside Aldi and died in the trolley park.’
Surprisingly, Phil did have a point. He was quite insightful for a near alcoholic with three ex-wives.
Years ago, against Phil’s advice, I had married a much older man. Tired of hedonism, shared flats, and unreliable partners, I went for security, children and dependability. In other words, I took maternal advice and settled down. We rubbed along well enough with the children as cushions between us. Then they left, and Alex took his pension.
Once retired, said husband behaved just like the retired accountant he was. He set about improving the household. He suggested a timeshare in a gated community. Then spread sheets to ensure order in home and garden, including a computerised planting plan for the spring bulbs. Naturally, I ignored that, and by the time they came up Alex was, so to speak, under the daisies.
The last few years had been a painful, slow end to our relationship. I’d been grieving long before Alex actually died. Afterwards, I put on a bit of a show for the kids. The truth was, I wasn’t feeling how I thought people thought I should be feeling after such a sudden tragedy.
Of course, he left me well provided for. Comfortably off, menopausal, living in the stupor of suburbia. Waiting for doomsday. The GP, a pompous young man just past puberty, had assured me that all hot sweats and moody tears needed was six bereavement counselling sessions, Prozac, and oestrogen cream.
No, I needed a change. Of mind, of heart, and surroundings.
I sprung up and addressed Phil. I was slightly inebriated - actually very drunk - so the whole pub heard me yell :
‘Fear not, old friend. I am going to do lots of stuff. A grey gap year. It’s all the rage. Alone I will wander like an ancient Greek, or one of them sages. See you back here in twelve months.’
Phil raised his glass to that. I exited, a bit unsteady, to a round of applause.
Next day, somewhat hungover, I was trying to articulate my plan to Suzy, my youngest.
‘I don’t just want to have a good time. That’s trite. More like a journey of discovery, maybe find–’
‘The end of the rainbow’ says Suzy.
‘No, something more spiritual. I’ll keep a journal and, on my return, perhaps be a role model for –’
‘The elderly’ she quips.
‘Perhaps find something to help make sense of - the world.’
Susy snaps, ‘Some hope. You Baby Boomers. Given us Brexit, Boris, Truss, now Sunak. Trump, greed, pollution, inflation, obesity, famine, covid.’
I tried to interrupt, defend our record on the ozone layer, but she was in full flow.
‘Bird flu, Ebola, drought, zero-hour contracts, to say nothing of water in all the wrong places, like on your brain. So, whatever Mother. Travel the dying planet, drop out, and keep taking the happy pills.’
And off she flounced before I could say ‘Doomsday clock.’ I took this as Suzy being as positive as she could manage.
But what to choose? Google came up with a mere one hundred and twenty-eight million suggestions. This made me worry that I’d choose one thing and miss the very thing I should be doing to give me the answer to the question that I had not yet quite formulated.
I’m not good when it comes to choice. I had to give up on supermarkets after an episode in the dairy section. Actually, I screamed ‘Who the eff needs twenty-two brands of yogurt.’ People stared as I burst into tears. Alex, ever helpful, took over the shopping, never without a list; hence my absence on what turned out to be his last trip.
Then I had a brainwave. A to Z. Start with twenty-six things, each corresponding to a letter. A framework to get me going. Forget the ‘what if I miss the very one I need’ I would just pick an event or a task for every letter, and be open to whatever emerged. Julie, my friend who left the police to teach yoga, would, no doubt, have been supportive of this plan, what with her somewhat annoying catchphrase being ‘The universe will always find a way’. Alex would have been methodical so, I decided to be random in my letter order. Rebel against my dead husband. This felt good, a bit creative, quirky. Phil would approve of that.
My first was B for balloon trip. Over Cheshire at sunset. Clear blue sky, gentle breeze. The chap burned the flame thing and up, up, we went. Way up, drifting peaceful and free. Until, not long after take-off, we sort of stopped moving. Becalmed. I thought that only happened at sea. Then Jenny, thinnish, blondish, youngish, lost it. She had, it turned out, various phobias including heights, death, and the colour red. My anorak - the trigger - undoing weeks of therapy. She alternated between gasping, yelping, and begging for a parachute. I felt responsible, so tried, without success, to be soothing.
The complementary champers, described as ‘the perfect end to a flight to remember’, was lukewarm.
The F for flirting weekend was quite a revelation. The tutor felt I had a natural flair. That sparked a thought.
S for sex: that might do me good, energise my psyche, get me a bit fitter. I’d also read it was an antidote to hot flushes. Sex had not featured much in Alex’s latter decades; actually not at all. Better than G for gym, which I had rejected out of hand. My chosen venue; a singles holiday entitled ‘Release your inner longings.’ A Greek island in early May. Just the job. I put my newly honed flirting skills to good use. Flattery. Feigned interest, just enough eye contact, and a bit of light banter. Malcolm seemed just right. Not too young. Or too old. Or too needy. I felt like Goldilocks. By day three we were in the pool, naked under a full-ish moon. The others had hit the local taverna. The kissing was pleasant. The seduction, swift. We didn’t speak for the rest of the week, neither wanting a replay. ‘Strangely unsatisfactory coupling’: my journal entry. To my surprise I then added a happy memory: the time Alex and I made love on a beach. It had been hampered by sand in awkward places. I giggled as I wrote this, then felt very sad and very alone.
This spurred me to keep searching.
So. W for wild camping. A taster weekend with hardy types. A lot of weather. Snow in June, rain, thunderstorms, wind and a flooded latrine. The fire never got going. The high spot was my collapsible potty. I did feel very alive out in nature, but didn’t try climbing Snowdon, blaming a pulled hamstring.
Warming to the outdoor theme, I ventured on a T for ‘Taste the Wild.’ Simon, with his rainbow bandana and love of bitter weeds, was very up on mushrooms. He had a personal background in the hallucinogenic variety. I passed on the magic mushroom infusion, opting for pine needle and bramble leaf. Simon felt that I had not got the full benefit of the day. Indeed, my mind was not expanded. I was so hungry that I indulged in two Big Macs on the way home.
In London I managed two Z’s: cross Abbey Road, just like the famous four, then off to the zoo at Regents Park. My connection with a gorilla seemed strong. As I gazed through the cage, I was touched by his plight. He seemed trapped. Deep despairing eyes aching for freedom. Then he just ambled off, mounted a lady gorilla, and went for a post-coital snooze.
Next, I booked a Y for Yoga and G for Gong bath retreat in a very swish hotel. The room was luxurious; all Egyptian cotton and fluffy bathrobes. The food, sparse and mostly juiced. No light bulb moment to report. Just a feeling of exhaustion, vague dyspepsia, and a strange pain just below the left rib cage. The pompous young G.P. was strangely concerned compared to our last encounter.
An urgent referral to H for hospital, X for X-Ray, then P for both PET scan, and poor prognosis. It was hard to believe. Less than six months was the timescale. I declined the C for chemo and R for radiation, preferring less time rather than what sounded extremely gruelling. The pleasant, grey-haired Consultant was more upset than me that I didn’t want to buy some time. She gave me a hug, and we both sobbed a little as I thanked her.
I was numb, in shock. Like a bad dream. Days passed in a bit of a blur. I re-read the Doctor’s letter. It was stark and blunt. I had to keep going. Get back to the list. That’s what I needed.
So, W for will. Since there would be a lot more cash than anticipated for the kids, and hoping Susy would approve, I added Amnesty, Oxfam, the Red Cross and a monkey sanctuary. That gorilla, still in my thoughts.
To please Alex and be organised, I thought I’d sort out F for funeral in good time. I chose H for Humanist so had tea with a nice chap, Keith. It was actually good fun. My choice to include Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel’ was, Keith said, a first for him, featuring as it does both a blow job and the line ‘I don’t think of you that often’.
‘Still, it’s your funeral,’ said Keith. We chatted about my life. Laughed about my recent adventures. Keith prefers funerals to weddings, and that somehow cheered me. He’ll give me a good send off. My sort of chap.
After he left, I sat on in the garden. It was warm, balmy. I watched a rose shed its petals. They just floated off, carefree, beautiful. Then, blow me. I had a moment. The very thing I’d been after. Short-lived, but suddenly everything - yes - it all made sense. Hard to put into words. I was at one with the Universe. I think.
Then, I came to. All that tea put pressure on the bladder. Still, my plan was made.
I couldn’t involve the children. They would try and stop me. Still, I didn’t want to be alone for this trip. Phil would be the perfect companion. He was delighted. Never been to Z for Zurich. He was honoured - he said - to be asked. He’s going to tell the children afterwards, and try to explain. I hope they understand.
So here I am, on my way to meet Phil then off to D for Dignatas. Bag packed, all documents in order. One-way first-class ticket. My quest nearly over.
My time. My clock. Closer to midnight.