Gus had been having a terrible time, not feeling well. Nausea. The kind that made its home in the pit of his stomach without consent, trashed the place when it got bored, and bubbled up into his mouth in sour splashes. Headaches, too. Right behind his grey-green eyes, radiating into his neck in quickening spikes.
After the work conference, he went back to his shabby hotel, forked his microwaved dinner around its black plastic tray, and lay down to take a nap. The double bed creaked, its mattress hard and unyielding.
Next to it was a single bed, probably meant for a small child. Its heavy bedspread was covered in cartoon characters. They all had names, but he couldn’t remember them. Timothy would have known them all. Lovely little Timothy.
In an effort to hold back tears, he tried to conjure up a mental image of a fresh, uncomplicated space - a soothing environment for sleep. He longed for crisp white bed linen, wooden bedside lockers which were big enough to hold lamps and books and glasses of water, smart armchairs on which he could put his shoes and clothes, plush carpets and tubs so huge they could hold a ship.
But it was no use. There’s no greater pain than recalling somewhere pleasant when you’re feeling miserable; it just highlights the magnitude of the gap. The tears came, hot and salty and unwanted, rolling down his cheeks.
At about three o’clock in the morning, Gus got up and began to pace around the dusky pink room. He noticed the untidy stubble on his chin in the dancehall mirror behind the painted headboard. Just as he had his face lathered up, thick with aloe shaving cream, and was beginning to grip his razor, the whole rush of loss came out of the storm clouds and dawned on his head in heavy, heavy drops. Is a father still a father without his child? The force of it all made him drop his razor, cutting himself badly in the process. Treacly red drops fell on the grubby porcelain sink.
On nights like this he was meant to call his therapist, but he’d always been terrible at taking verbal instructions. His chemistry teacher had often told him what to do with Bunsen burners and conical flasks and test tubes but he was never able to finish an experiment throughout his potted high-school career. That was years ago, but little had changed. Stopping someone for directions was invariably a pointless exercise, and cooking was impossible without detailed written instructions.
In a flash of retching, he lurched forward and knelt on the chipped white tiles. Now he was straddling the ugly plastic toilet seat - translucent blue, decorated with orange starfish and dark dolphins. He threw his head back violently, opened his mouth wide - wider than he ever thought possible. A huge, brown-grey snake of vomit slithered out, pushing his head backwards. It unwound itself onto the ugly blue plastic ring in front of him. The snake was wet and gleaming and began to mix with the yellowish toilet water.
He took one snorting, wet breath, then, in an instant, resolved to drink himself into hell. He would end his days cold and yellow and alone, lying on a steel slab. He knew that now. He already knew the terrible absence that held the space where a loved one once lived. What is
hell but the pain of presence in such absence? He knew that grief began in loud gasps and noisy tears, then fell in half-thoughts and fragments and whispers, but - before long - there was only silence. Timothy now lived only in the pause between Gus’s thoughts and flowing tears. He wouldn’t have to live in that pause for much longer. The certainty of that comforted him.