Clara shuddered. It was one of those strange uncontrollable little movements. Her mother used to say it meant someone was walking over your grave. What did that mean, actually though? They were walking over where you were going to be buried? How would you know now? It was nonsense really but she had no better or even any other explanation for it. It wasn’t as if it was cold in the kitchen: the Kackelofen was lit and the sun was streaming through the window.
She put the rest of yesterday’s birthday cake away. Ernst had insisted she should celebrate her birthday despite his illness. She’d baked one of her special cheesecakes but nobody had had much appetite for it. It would keep a few days, she guessed. Perhaps when he was feeling better they would all appreciate it more.
She looked at the clock. He should have called for his tea by now. It was half an hour past the normal time. She’d looked in on him earlier. He’d been sound asleep. Doctor Friedrich had said it was good to let him sleep. Perhaps she should go and look in on him again.
The doctor hadn’t really given a clear diagnosis. “It’s a combination of things, Frau Lehrs,” he’d said. “His worry about this war has weakened him. The rickets has got worse. And now this chest infection…”
“That shouldn’t kill a man, though, should it, Herr Doctor? He will recover won’t he?”
“I’m afraid I can’t say. He’s still quite young but you know this terrible war has taken its toll. It’s made men even younger than him want to give up. I’m sorry I can’t give you any better news.”
Damn men and their wars. Clara made her way towards her husband’s room. So many men killed on both sides and so many left with half-lives. And now they were all so poor. It wasn’t so bad for them as for some of the people who worked in Ernst’s factory. But they had had to cut Imelda’s hours in order to pay for the nurse.
The door to Ernst’s room was flung open. Schwester Adelberg rushed out. “Frau Lehrs, you must come quickly,” she cried.
Clara hurried into the bedroom.
Ernst’s breathing was laboured. His chest was rattling.
“Should we send for the doctor?” said Clara. But she could tell from the look on the nurse’s face that it was too late.
“You must say your goodbyes,” Schwester Adelberg whispered guiding her gently towards the bed.
Clara knelt down beside her husband and put her face next to his. She took his hand. He was trying to speak but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Yellow bile streamed from his nose and seeped from the corners of his mouth and his eyes. He tried to push the sheets and blankets away.
“Does he have a fever?”
“It’s the blood rushing to his vital organs, trying to save them. His lungs are filling. That sound you hear is them working to expel the fluid but it has gone too far now.”
“Is – is he in pain?”
“He’s probably not comfortable and he’s very likely afraid and lonely. Talk to him.”
“Ernst – Ernst, my love. Don’t leave me yet. It’s too soon.”
Schwester Adelberg touched her shoulder. “There’s nothing more we can do,” she whispered. “Try to comfort him.”
Clara stroked his arm. “I’m here my darling. It will be all right. Sleep gently. You’ll soon have no more pain.”
He looked at once like a child and a man forty years older. Her father had not looked this frail when he’d died. Ernst’s poor body was a twisted wreck. But it had been like that all of his life and he’d done so much despite his disability. She stroked his hair.
He relaxed a little. He took one final breath and the rattle in his chest stopped. His faced changed and he looked peaceful. Yet at the same time he looked like a piece of paper. His lips and cheeks were grey. Yes, the life had gone out of him. That wasn’t her Ernst anymore. Even so she leant over and kissed his forehead. “Goodbye, sweetheart,” she whispered.
She knelt for a few more minutes holding his hand and then she stood up. “We’d better get the doctor here to sign a death certificate,” she said.
“I’m happy to stay and lay him out properly after the doctor’s visit,” said Schwester Adelberg.
“And would you like me to help with the arrangements?”
“That would be very kind. Now, I’d better go and let the children know.”
As Clara made her way down the stairs she realised that another phase of her life had ended.