At death’s door
“You’re dying,” I tell him.
“You don’t exist,” he counters. “A mere flight of fancy, for all that you seem solid enough.”
I take his hands and squeeze until he gasps. Not much of a challenge, as his hand is a wasted thing, the bones standing in stark outline against his pasty, greyish skin.
“What are you?” he whispers.
“A visitor,” I say.
“God knows I haven’t had many of those,” he mutters. He raises his arm, swipes ineffectually at a strand of damp, dark red hair. “My son,” he says. “My Henry. How will he fare without me?”
“Well enough,” I say.
He stretches his lips into a smile. “You’re just saying that to humour me.” But hope colours his voice and I can see in his face that he loves his son.
“Why would I?” I wring out a linen cloth and wash his face. Cheekbones, nose, jaw, chin – a collection of sharp planes that lead character and a certain loftiness to his emaciated face. From under arched brows he regards me with caution. Even now, at death’s door, he’s a handsome man for all that he’s on the short side.
“My attendants?” he asks.
“Not here.” I lean close enough to meet his bloodshot dark eyes.
“Did you?” I ask.
“Did I what?”He licks his lips.
“You’ll have to be a mite more specific,” he says. “I’ve killed my fair share of men.” He laughs, but is quickly reduced to a coughing fit. “I dare say it’s dear nephew Arther you’re on about, no? Everyone wonders what befell that treacherous whelp, his potential fate hangs like a millstone round my neck.” He sets his jaw, eyes narrowing. It makes him look quite sinister.
Moments later he’s twisting like a hooked worm and i rush for a bedpan. the room fills with the stench of voided bowels. I try to breathe through my mouth.
“Damned flux,” he says, closing his eyes. “I had hoped for another death.”
“Oh? On the battlefield?”
He opens one eye. “In my bed – of old age.” He laughs softly. “Like my lady mother.”
“She became a nun,” I say.
That makes him laugh again. “Not a very good one. That pride of hers …” He draws in a long breath, does it again. “A priest,” he says. “I need a priest.” I stand. he grips my hand. “My children …”
“They’ll be fine,” I say. I lean down close. “So did you? Kill him?” It’s somehow important for me to hear him deny it, to have him swear that of course he never killed his nephew. I’m not sure why.
King John releases my hand. “That’s for me to know.” He waves in the direction of the door. “The priest.”
“For what? A deathbed repentance?”
The frail man lifts himself up on his elbows and fixes me with a hard, burning stare. A king, a dying king for sure, but still a king.
“I don’t believe in the hereafter,” he says, “but rituals must be observed. Now go and find my damned chaplain!”
To my surprise I do as he tells me.