After the first night we gave in to our desires, I had pretty much moved into his bedroom. As we got more and more comfortable with one another, the more it intensified and the more I worried about accidentally killing him. I started seeing headlines like, “Older gentleman shagged to death by woman half his age” and when I shared my concerns with him he laughed and said, “There are worse ways to die.” He seemed to do well, better even, suffering fewer blackouts – and couldn’t get enough of me. I, too, found myself in a state of constantly being turned on for as long as he was near me.
‘Don’t you think we act a bit like teenagers?’ I asked as I slid off the dining room table.
‘Completely. Isn’t it great? I haven’t had this much fun since…’ he paused. ‘I don’t even know. I feel like I’ve been in a coma for twenty years.’
“Older gentleman shagged back to life” did sound a lot less depressing than my initial headline.
I had been living under his roof for about three months when the inevitable happened: We ran into someone I knew. We had just exited Hyde Park when Nadine, one of my childhood friends, suddenly stood in front of us – literally gawking as she was clearly trying to recover from the view of me kissing him.
‘Maria?’ she squeaked and hugged me. ‘Who’s your… friend?’
‘This is Alfredo. Alfredo, this is Nadine.’
‘Pleasure,’ he smiled and met her hand with his. She looked at him in disbelief at first, then I could literally see the change in her face as soon as he made eye-contact with her and held her gaze as he briefly planted a kiss on her hand.
‘No, really, it’s all mine,’ she giggled. Her giggling was as surprising as John Wayne dancing. She was one of the most cerebral people I knew, and handled every situation with absolute control. Was she actually blushing?
‘It’s about time we met,’ he added, even though I’d never mentioned her to him.
‘It is,’ she beamed. ‘Where are you heading?’
‘Home,’ I said, even though she didn’t take her eyes off him.
‘Where is home?’
‘Over in Lennox Gardens.’
‘We should meet, soon, for coffee. We need to… catch up. Clearly.’
‘Clearly… I’ll call you.’
She continued into the park and we made our way across the road and towards Knightsbridge high street. I was still amused at her reaction and pleasantly surprised at his ability to take charge of the situation.
‘Are you close?’ he eventually asked.
‘She’s my childhood friend and close with my ex boyfriend’s sister. And my ex… kind of.’
‘Ooooh, I see. So this is obviously going to get back to him. Does that bother you?’
‘She’s the reason why we broke up, given that she had been sleeping with him for four months by the time I caught them in my bed. Such a boring, classic tale.’
‘You never told me this. What a douche.’
‘Have you ever cheated?’
‘I have. When I was married, thirty years ago.’
‘When did you get married?’
‘In 1945, when I was 24,’ he said and immediately chuckled. ‘My God, that makes me sound ancient. So… how do you really feel about your ex finding out you’re shacking up with a dinosaur?’
‘I really don’t care,’ I laughed. ‘Seriously. He was an immature child and couldn’t fuck worth of damn. If you’ll excuse my French.’
‘No problem,’ he chuckled. ‘It sounds like she did you a favour.’
‘True. If she hadn’t betrayed me, then I would never have been homeless and desperate and probably wouldn’t have applied to be a live-in PA.’
‘We should send her a bottle of wine, really.’
We looked at each other in amusement as we walked along in silence. How did I feel about Nadine telling Michael? Considering how she had reacted to him, I guessed that he would be getting good reviews – in addition to “oh, and he’s kind of old”. I also knew that Nadine’s mother spoke to my mother on a regular basis, so how fast the news travelled would become apparent as soon as I heard from her. She and I weren’t close, so she didn’t really know what I was up to, but I was almost certain she’d heard that Michael and I had broken up. We just had the kind of relationship where we didn’t speak more than we had to. Weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays and Christmas seemed to cover both our needs sufficiently.
Outside the brownstone he suddenly bent over, clutched his chest and grunted.
‘What’s happening?’ I asked as calmly as I could bring myself to be, as I touched his back and managed to sit him down.
‘Angina,’ he wheezed. ‘It’s going to be OK, I just need my…’ He pointed to his pocket and I fished out his beta blockers. He took two and tried to catch his breath.
‘Are you sure this will be OK? Should I call an ambulance?’
‘Don’t worry, just give me five minutes.’
Fifteen minutes later we were still sitting there, but he had stopped sweating and was finally breathing normally. I was trying hard not to show that I was scared out of my mind every time he had an episode, but I realised that I’d failed when he looked at me and said “sorry”.
‘For putting you through this. It’s not fair on you that I’m being selfish.’
‘How are you being selfish, exactly?’
‘I’m indulging in feelings of love, passion and lust, when I should be telling you to find a healthy man your own age.’
‘But you’re not really that patronising… are you?’ I snapped.
He touched my cheek and took a deep breath. ‘No, I’m not. But I love you. For what it’s worth.’
‘I love you, too. For what that’s worth.’
I wrapped both my arms around him and rested my chin on his shoulder. He leaned in and planted a kiss on my mouth before embracing me fully and letting the aforementioned passion take over. We didn’t stop until we heard someone demonstrably clearing their throat. We must have looked guilty as charged when we looked up, because Mrs Connelly – his housekeeper – went from looking stern to offering a beaming smile.
‘Well, well,’ she said. ‘I did suspect.’
We sheepishly followed her up the stairs to the 4th floor and went through to his bedroom, where she usually cleaned last. Both to not be in her way and to give him a chance to rest. We left the door wide open so that she wouldn’t think we were up to anything, and lay down on top of the covers – him on his back and me on my side, resting my head on his shoulder.
‘What do you think your parents would say to this?’
‘Oh, I’m not sure they’d care a whole lot, to be honest. They never got involved in any of my other relationships, so why should they get involved in this one?’
‘What would you like them to think?’
‘I’d like them to acknowledge my right to choose whomever I want to be happy with.’
‘Good answer. Good answer…’
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Tired. But nothing a little rest won’t take care of.’
I put my hand on his chest and felt his heart. It was beating calmly as he drifted off to sleep. I closed my eyes and listened to his breath as I almost drifted off to the land of dreams. Suddenly I noticed that my hand was no longer moving along with his chest and his breath was silent. I immediately removed the pillow from underneath his head, knelt next to him and started performing CPR as I screamed for Mrs Connolly. She came running and as soon as she saw what I was doing, she dialled 999. I bent his head backwards and gave him mouth to mouth, then started counting out loud.
‘They got in touch with an ambulance that’s right around the corner,’ she informed me calmly, even though her voice was shaking. ‘They were in Holland Park when I called.’
I knew what to do because I’d had a one-on-one with a doctor in the hall when I was waiting for him to get his lip fixed. “Pump hard down on his chest, two fingers up from his breast bone, five times, then breathe once into his mouth. Make sure his neck is bent backwards so the airways are clear and straight” was the message. I felt surprisingly calm and collected, until the sound of him gasping for air filled the room. As he took the first breath, his torso elevated from the mattress before he collapsed back once he’d been able to take a second breath. This was the point when my eyes filled with tears and I started sobbing audibly. He opened his eyes and looked at me, mouthing a “sorry” as the ambulance crew burst through the door and gently removed me.
‘You did good work here,’ said the most senior of the three as he put an oxygen mask on him and shone a flashlight into his eyes, which was met with some dissatisfied grunting. ‘We need to take him in for further testing, but I don’t think there’s brain damage here. I understand you started CPR straight away?’
‘Yes,’ I said as I was trying to compose myself. ‘I noticed that he stopped breathing.’
‘You should come with us,’ he said as he stepped aside to allow the other two to put Alfredo on a stretcher and take him out of the room. ‘You did well,’ he repeated as he touched my shoulder. ‘You saved his life. OK? You did well.’
I told Mrs Connelly that I’d call her from the hospital as soon as I knew what was going on. She cried controlled and dignified, as a lady her age would. I ran down the stairs and into the back of the ambulance with the same crew member that had attempted to calm me down. Alfredo was awake, but still being given oxygen. He held my hand with a firm grip and didn’t stop looking into my eyes for as long as the car was moving. Once we arrived at the hospital I was told to wait until they came to get me after he’d seen a doctor that was already waiting.
It was a long half an hour where I had a million thoughts going through my head. I found myself by the coffee machine, clearly looking distraught because a man my age came over and put his hand on my shoulder.
‘Are you OK?’
‘No… Yes… I’m OK, but he’s… he… his heart….’ I sobbed and was embraced by the stranger in front of me. He stroked my back and just held me. I let every possible scenario run through my head, every dark thought that I’d kept at bay for months was in free flow and seemed never ending. I played the scene of me pumping away at his chest over and over again. Then I thought of his eyes as he clutched my hand in the ambulance and took a step away. My mascara was running down my face, making my eyes sting. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t worry about it. Here,’ he said and gave me a handkerchief. ‘Take it.’
I dried my face, completely ruining the piece of cloth with make-up. ‘Sorry.’
‘I guess that’ll be the last time you’ll ever ask a woman how she, huh?’
He smiled. ‘Are you Maria?’
‘I’m Marcus, Laura’s son. Laura Connelly. She called me when you went to the hospital and asked me to come over. She was worried about you. Him, too, of course, but at least he’s being looked after.’
‘Mrs Cocozza?’ I heard behind me and turned around to see an elderly doctor smiling at me. ‘Your husband is doing well, under the circumstances. You saved his life.’ Once more I broke down and had to be comforted by Marcus. They both stood patiently while I cried it out once more and just nodded. ‘You can see him now.’
He took me to Alfredo’s room and let me go in by myself. Marcus had clearly decided to stay in the waiting room, giving me a chance to be alone with him. He was hooked up to various machines and a drip. He looked spent but smiled heartily when he saw me.
‘My husband?’ I chuckled as I dried a tear.
‘I’m on morphine, I don’t know what I’m saying,’ he said and winked.
‘I thought you’d been brain damaged there for a minute,’ I joked.
‘I’m laughing on the inside,’ he smiled and reached out his hand. I took it and sat down on the edge of his bed. ‘I love you. You’ve saved my life in more ways than one. Will you marry me?’
‘Of course I will,’ I confirmed and leaned in to kiss him. ‘But make sure you ask me again when you’re off the morphine.’
‘Of course I will. Come lie on my arm.’ He moved over slightly and I climbed onto the bed, resuming the position we’d had before his heart stopped.
‘Do they know what happened?’
‘I have blood poisoning so they’ve put me on antibiotics intravenously, as well as morphine, but I should be home in a few days. You impressed the ambulance crew and the doctor.’
‘I had to try,’ I said as I felt a fresh flood of tears running down my face for the third time in ten minutes. ‘I can’t lose you.’ I heard my voice cracking as I said it.
‘I’m sorry,’ he repeated and he kissed my forehead, tightening the grip around my back and shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry.’