Jasmine Dent let her head fall back against the pillows and closed her eyes. Morphine coats the mind like fuzz on a peach, she thought sleepily, and smiled a little at her metaphor. For a while she floated between sleeping and waking, aware of faint sounds drifting in through the open window, aware of the sunlight flowing across the foot of her bed, but unable to rouse herself.
Her earliest memories were of heat and dust, and the unseasonable warmth of the April afternoon conjured up smells and sounds that danced in her mind like long-forgotten wraiths. Jasmine wondered if the long, slow hours of her childhood lay buried somewhere in the cells of her brain, waiting to explode upon her consciousness with that particular lucidity attributed to the memories of the dying.
She was born in India, in Mayapore, a child of the dissolution of the Raj. Her father, a minor civil servant, had sat out the war in an obscure office. In 1947, he had chosen to stay on in India, scraping a living from his ICS pension.
Of her mother she had little recollection. Five years after Jasmine's birth, she had borne Theo and passed away, making as little fuss in dying as she had in living. She left behind only a faint scent of English roses that mingled in Jasmine's mind with the click of closing shutters and the sound of insects singing.
A soft thump on the bed jerked Jasmine's mind back to consciousness. She lifted her hand and buried her fingers in Sidhi's plush coat, opening her eyes to gaze at her fingers, the knobby joints held together by fragile bridges of skin and muscle. The cat's body, a black splash against the red-orange of the coverlet, vibrated against her hip.
After a few moments Jasmine gave the cat's sleek head one last stroke and maneuvered herself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed, her fingers automatically checking the catheter in her chest. Installing a hospital bed in the sitting room had eliminated the claustrophobia she'd felt as she became confined for longer periods to the small bedroom. Surrounded by her things, with the large windows open to the garden and the afternoon sun, the shrinking of her world seemed more bearable.
Tea first, then whatever she could manage of the dinner Meg left, and afterwards she could settle down for the evening with the telly. Plan in small increments, giving equal weight to each event -- that was the technique she had adopted for getting through the day.
She levered herself up from the bed and shuffled toward the kitchen, wrapping about her the brilliant colors of an Indian silk caftan. No drab British flannels for her -- only now the folds of the caftan hung on her like washing hung out on a line. Some accident of genetics had endowed her with an appearance more exotic than her English parentage warranted -- the dark hair and eyes and delicate frame had made her an object of derision with the English schoolgirls remaining in Calcutta -- but now, with the dark hair cropped short and the eyes enormous in her thin face, she looked elfin, and in spite of her illness, younger than her years.
She put the kettle on to boil and leaned against the kitchen windowsill, pushing the casement out and peering into the garden below.
She was not disappointed. The Major, clippers in hand, patrolled the postage-stamp garden in his uniform of baggy, gray cardigan and flannels, ready to pluck out any insubordinate sprig. He looked up and raised his clippers in salute. Jasmine mimed "Cup of tea?" When he nodded acceptance she returned to the hob and moved carefully through the ritual of making tea.
Jasmine carried the mugs out to the steps that led from her flat down to the garden. The Major had the basement flat and he considered the garden his territory. She and Duncan, in the flat above hers, were only privileged spectators. The planks of the top step grated against her bones as she eased into a sitting position.
The Major climbed the steps and sat beside her, accepting his cup with a grunt. "Lovely day," he said by way of thanks. "Like to think it would last." He sipped his tea, making a small swishing sound through his mustache. "You been keeping all right today?" He glanced at her for a second only, his attention drawn back to the rioting daffodils and tulips.
"Yes," Jasmine answered, smiling, for the Major was a man of few words under the best of circumstances. Those brief comments were his equivalent of a monologue, and his usual query was the only reference he ever made to her illness. They drank in silence, the tea warming them as much as the late afternoon sun soaking into their skins, until Jasmine spoke. "I don't think I've ever seen the garden look as lovely as it has this spring, Major. Is it just that I appreciate things more these days, or is it really more beautiful this year?"
"Hummff," he muttered into his cup, then cleared his throat for the difficult business of replying. "Could be. Weather's been bonny enough." He frowned and ran his fingers over the tips of his clippers, checking for rust. "Tulips're almost gone, though." The tulips wouldn't be allowed to linger past their prime. At the first fallen petal the Major would sever heads from stalks with a quick, merciful slash.
Jasmine's mouth twitched at the thought -- too bad there was no one to perform such a service for her. She herself had failed in the final determination, whether from cowardice or courage, she couldn't say. And Meg ...