Gary Couzens is a British writer whose work has been published in The Magazine of
Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, The Third
Alternative, Peeping Tom, Psychotrope and Urges, and in the anthology
Bizarre Sex and Other Crimes of Passion (Richard Kasak Books). This story previously appeared in
is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments,
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by Gary Couzens
(Go back to Part One)
In the morning Penny comes down to breakfast swathed in a nightdress and dressing-gown.
Lorna, the only other woman living under this roof, is sitting at table in her pinstriped suit,
applying lipstick: a secretary. Soon she and her boyfriend will be buying a flat of their own. A
good time to do it, with prices depressed.
Lorna glances up. "Hi, Penny." Then she looks up again, for longer this time. "God, you
"I feel awful."
"Then why'd you get up out of bed, you silly cow?"
"I had to eat something."
"You really ought to see a doctor. You keep getting these migraines. It could be something
you're eating. You may have to change your diet. I know about these things."
"I know. I've seen a doctor. It's like my head's fucking splitting open."
"By the way, your brother rang up last night. I said you weren't well."
"I'll ring him back. It's probably Mum again."
"Remember to log the phone call, won't you?"
Shortly after one o'clock Penny rings her brother. A chartered accountant, he often works
from home. But it's his wife, Michelle, who answers: Penny can hear the ping of a microwave
oven in the background.
"Can I speak to Richard, please?"
"I'm sorry, he's with a client. Who's speaking, please?"
"Penny, hi! Why didn't you say? How are you?"
"Not too good. I'm just getting over a migraine."
"Oh, poor you. You get them really bad, don't you? It's about what Richard rang you up
about, isn't it? I can tell you what that was all about. It's your mother, I'm afraid. She's taken a
turn for the worse. He wondered if you'd like to come up here, stay with us a while...? Not if
you're not well enough to travel."
"No, I'll come. I'll get the train tomorrow. I should be better then."
As soon as she puts the phone down, it rings.
"Hi, Penny!" It's her boyfriend Malcolm. "Lorna said you were feeling better." Lorna had
introduced them to each other six months before.
"Better than I was last night. I've just found out Mum's taken a turn for the worse. I'll be
going down to Southampton tomorrow."
"I was just wondering if I could come over tonight. Not to go anywhere. Just to see
"That's sweet of you, Malcolm. Sure."
After she puts the phone down again, she goes back to her room and into bed. She dozes
fitfully. In her waking moments, she imagines Malcolm's visit tonight. They'll talk, they'll play
music, watch TV or a video. They'll make love.
And tomorrow she'll travel south.
At midmorning, I left my desk. I glanced across at Isobel,
who looked up at me and nodded. When I first started working here, I knew what it was like to be
left out of a clique: everyone knew everyone else better than anyone knew me. Conversely, I had
an early reputation for being aloof. Now, of course, I was accepted, part of a team; cordiality
reigned, at least during working hours. Twenty years older than me, Isobel was the first to
befriend me. As we both smoked, we took a mid-morning coffee break together. When she was
on leave or unable to leave her desk for some reason, I'd take a science fiction novel with
The staff lounge on the sixth floor had been partitioned in two when the company passed its
no-smoking policy. The left-hand half was officially the only place in the building where you
could smoke (the fire-escape stairs were used unofficially). As there were a lot of smokers in
the building (those who weren't, were often drinkers), a permanent smoke-haze hung over the
Isobel and I sat down next to each other and she offered me a cigarette. "What a morning,
eh?" she said.
"I got involved in this big complaint case. Someone rang up wanting to know when we were
doing this job. He'd been told this week. No-one had done bugger-all about it."
She shrugged. "Bloody typical. He probably spoke to this phantom man or this phantom
lady we have about."
"Jenny seems to be getting it hard." This was someone who had joined our department three
"Poor girl. She told me, every time she gets in her car at five o'clock she just bursts into
tears. Still, it could be worse. I spoke to someone in the London office yesterday and she told me
there's somewhere in the country where people are being treated for depression. It was just the
same at my last job. They just squeeze you dry and use you up. And of course, you can't go
anywhere else. You're lucky you've got a job at all. That's what they'll say."
In many ways, if I'd been born twenty years earlier I'd have wanted to be her. I found her
attractive, as did others. She had children, and was kept young by her boyfriend (ten years her
junior); she had a young outlook on life, generally. But I knew this was another pipe-dream. I
hadn't told her I was a virgin (heterosexually); I hadn't told her about my homosexual
experience (which was nearly aborted when he found I was wearing a pair of knickers under my
trousers -- he wanted to have sex with a man, not a woman manque). Most of all, I hadn't told
her about Marie. But if I were to confide in someone, it would be her.
We went back down to the office. In amongst the memos to ring certain customers was a
message to ring my brother. I went over to the clerical assistant's phone (we were no longer
allowed to use the office switchboard phones for personal calls, though many still did) and
dialled his work number. He answered on the second ring.
"Hello, Richard," I said. "You rang. How's things?"
"Oh, fine," he said. "Listen, Peter, the reason I'm ringing -- it's Mum. She's taken a turn
for the worse. She might not last the week."
"She's had false alarms, but I don't think this is one. Do you want to come down? Michelle
and I could put you up."
"Yeah, sure. I'll speak to my boss about it. I'm sure I can get leave. In the circumstances."
Said with an involuntary grimness.
"Yes," said Richard. "I'm sure you can."
So there it was. My mother was finally dying. And when the moment came, she'd have her
two sons next to her. She had no daughters -- if you discounted myself.
Go On To Part Three