It was little after two in the morning when George woke up with pains in his chest. To begin with he tried to convince me it was just indigestion, but I used to be a nurse: I know a heart attack when I see one, even if it is ten years since I quit. He was grey and sweating, and despite his attempts to brush it off as a result of the curry and two bottles of wine at dinner, I knew something was terribly wrong.
I phoned for an ambulance right away. I had a momentary panic when I couldn’t remember the address of the hotel, although it was the same one that we always stay in when he visits the regional office. Even after three years he won’t spend the night in my house: George is nearly sixty and old-fashioned like that.
I pulled on last night’s clothes in a hurry and tried to keep him calm whilst we waited for the ambulance.
The paramedics arrived quickly; it was no more than five minutes - although it felt like half an hour with George gasping for breath and clutching his chest. He asked me once if he was dying. Not if I have anything to do with it, I told him, and tried not to show how scared I was.
The ambulance crew examined George, shared a knowing professional look, scooped him up onto a stretcher and took him to the hospital, sirens blaring through the foggy night-time streets. On the way one of the paramedics did an ECG and told me she was almost certain it was a heart attack. She thanked me for calling 999 so quickly and told me the difference of a few minutes could be vital.
I held his hand all the way, telling him over and over how much I loved him and silently bargaining with God: make him live and I’ll do anything you want me to, just don’t let him die. God, please don’t let him die…
At the hospital, they whisked George efficiently into Resus while I stood at the desk giving his details and mine to a tired receptionist behind a battered Perspex screen. His full name and date of birth was easy. His home address was a bit trickier because I’ve never been there but I managed it, all bar the postcode. Was I next of kin? No, I said, I’m just a friend; his wife is the next of kin, and no, I don’t have her contact details. George had never given me his home phone number in all the years we’d been together: it was strictly mobiles only. The receptionist said it wouldn’t be a problem; they could get it from somewhere else.
She finally finished asking me questions and I was powerless to do anything but sit and wait and hope.
The relatives’ room was a functional white space with scarred, pitted lino and a tiny kitchenette with tea and coffee things, and a few old magazines scattered on a low table. I made a desultory mug of tea and waited. My mind was spinning and I wondered what to do about his things at the hotel; I supposed I’d phone them later to arrange storage or something. I thought I ought to call work in the morning, too.
I drank more tea and paced up and down the small room, which was mercifully empty of other relatives. Almost an hour later a young nurse wearing blue scrubs came in and sat down and explained what was happening. I felt strangely reassured by her familiar medical jargon – myocardial infarction, angioplasty - washing over me. I nodded dumbly, ran my fingers through my hair and twisted my rings round and round on my fingers, wishing I could wake up from this god-awful dream.
I asked if someone had contacted his wife: the nurse said she thought so but would go and check. He and Linda lived miles away on the Essex coast; I hoped that she wouldn’t drive all the way from Southend at this time of the night. Call me selfish, but I didn’t particularly want to meet her like this.
The nurse asked if there was anyone that she could call for me, but I said no. It would be too complicated to explain to her, but not a single one of my friends knew about our relationship and this wasn’t the time or place to break the news to them.
I asked if I could see George, she said not yet, we need to get him stabilised and transferred to the Cardiac High Dependency Unit first. She told me that could take another couple of hours.
I gave her my mobile number, saying I needed to get some air, and to please call me if anything - absolutely anything - changed. I walked round the grounds of the hospital in the chilly soft pink light of pre-dawn and leant against an ugly piece of modern sculpture in a secluded courtyard.
There, alone and away from A&E, fear and uncertainty overwhelmed me. I started to cry – great gasping racking sobs that seemed to come from nowhere. I began to shiver and walked another circuit of the hospital to calm down, and I briefly wished I hadn’t given up smoking. I thought about cadging a cigarette from the noisy group of teenagers huddled outside the entrance but thought better of it. I trudged back inside back to the noise and smells of the hospital and the waiting room, hoping for some good news.
And of course, she was sitting there. Not that I’ve ever met her, but George keeps a photo of her in his wallet. He showed me the picture once when I told him I was curious what she looked like.
Linda is fifty or so: a tall, slender redhead with freckles that make her look almost girlish. She’s wearing a powder blue fleece and jeans and her long hair is tied back into a ponytail. She’s prettier than in the photo.
I wonder if I should introduce myself, but settle for a nod and a quick “hi” instead. Then I realise that I have to explain why I’m here, so I tell her I’m a colleague of George’s, which is at least partly true. I say to her that the team were working late last night and went for a meal and that’s when he was taken ill. She nods and I feel a prickle of guilt as she swallows my lies whole.
I offer her a cup of coffee from the little kitchenette, and she accepts. She looks exhausted and I’m surprised to find myself feeling sorry for her.
As I’m boiling the kettle I try to crack a joke about wishing this was a real drink, not just cheap instant coffee, and there’s a leaden silence for a few beats. Then I remember George telling me once that she’s strictly teetotal and I wince.
I put the mugs on the low table between us. I feel as though I might faint.
I ask Linda how her journey was in another effort to break the ice: she tells me she’s driven the whole way down here at ninety, and starts to weep. I try to comfort her but struggle to find the right words as she cries on my shoulder.
I wish the nurse would come back with some news.
I rub my eyes; the harsh neon light is giving me a headache.
‘I like your ring,’ she sniffs, eyeing up the gold signet I wear on my wedding finger.
‘Thank you,’ I reply. ‘It was a present.’
I can’t tell her it was a gift from George on my fortieth birthday last year.
She reaches out and takes my hand. She inspects the ring closely, turning it around on my finger, making the stones catch the harsh light.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she continues. ‘It must be quite unique.’
I must admit it’s a very distinctive piece, the way the two rubies are set together in the corner.
‘My father-in-law had a ring just like that,’ she says. ‘He died two years ago – cancer. George was ever so upset.’
‘I remember,’ I say. She looks at me quizzically.
‘I mean…he wasn’t himself at work,’ I stammer. ‘He had some time off; we didn’t see him for weeks.’
I didn’t know the ring was a family heirloom and I feel flattered by how much George must care.
‘Why are you wearing his father’s ring?’ she asks in a whisper, half to me and half to herself.
It’s only a matter of time now.
She looks at me and her lips curl with horror and revulsion as she understands that I am sleeping with her husband.
Just then the nurse in blue scrubs barges in without knocking.
‘Mister Morgan?’ she smiles. ‘Your friend is stable, and he’s been transferred upstairs to the cardiac unit. You can go and visit if you like.’