Charley Foley calls into the Mater Misericordia Hospital to visit his wife.
'How are you feeling?' he asks, sitting at the bedside, close to Dolly who is smiling up at him, her black hair resting against the white pillows.
'I'm fine,' Dolly says, quietly. She looks old and tired to Charley; she is deathly pale and has black pouches under her eyes. When she slips her fingers into Charley's he notices two ugly brown liver spots on the back her small hand.
'You look tired,' Charley says. 'Aren't you sleeping?'
'I was a bit restless last night.'
Dolly does not mention the pain: she doesn't want to upset her husband.
'Any word from Linda?' she asks.
'She phoned again last night. I told her you were grand. I said there was nothing to worry about.'
Linda, their eldest, teaches in a university in Galway. Linda will come home for the holiday in August. Their son, Colm, and his children live in Australia. Colm hasn't been told that his mother is unwell. Colm's a worrier: it's best he's not upset.
Charley gazes dreamily across the chattering hospital ward, bright with pale afternoon sunlight. Other visitors are doing their duties, gathering around the sick, bringing flowers and fruit, offering words of hope and comfort.
'Have you seen the doctor again?' Charley asks his wife.
'Any idea how long they'll keep you in?'
Dolly turns away and coughs into a tissue, then settles back. She takes Charley's hand again.
'They'll let me know on Monday. They have to do lots more tests. They won't let me home until they know. I'm sorry to be such a bother.'
Dolly's small chest heaves under her heavy nightdress. Charley thinks of a frightened bird. Sweet Dolores Delarosa he used to call her long ago when they were courting, mocking her sorrowful eyes and the way she took everything too seriously. He can't help wondering if she made herself sick with worry.
Poor Dolly Delarosa!
'Don't let them budge you until you're absolutely better,' he says.
'Are you managing all right, darling?'
Charley is eating out and staying away from the house as much as possible. He's managing all right.
The minutes pass in heated tedium. Charley is watching the visitors and glancing at the small alarm clock beside his wife's bed. He can hear its distant ticking and still recall the irritating ring when it dragged his wife from bed at the crack of dawn and moments later her breakfast sounds clattering in the kitchen keeping him awake, reminding him that there's a day's work ahead and children to be schooled and fed.
The kids are all grown up now. Second grandchild imminent. Time is running out. A grey face in the shaving mirror reminding Charley of middle age and the rot ahead. Where's the point in having money if you can't enjoy it? Why can't clocks take their time? What's the hurry?
Ah - God have mercy! Dolly Dolorosa. How different might it have been without her?
Dolly's eyelids droop. Her mouth opens a fraction. She looks almost dead. Moments pass slowly.
'This must be very boring for you,' she says, without opening her eyes.
'Not at all. It does me good to see you.'
'It's not nice having to visit anybody in hospital. It's so depressing.'
Dolly settles her dark head further back against the white pillows. Grimaces for an instant then braves a smile.
'You should leave now, Charley. I think I might sleep for a while.'
'Are you sure?'
Charley bounces to his feet.
'I'll come in later,' he says.
'Please don't. With it being Saturday the wards will be crammed with people. Leave it till the morning. Come after Mass.'
'Is that's what you want?'
'It is, darling.'
Dolly opens her eyes, smiles like a child. It's been a long time since Dolly was a child.
'You look tired, darling,' she says. 'Aren't you sleeping?'
'I was a bit restless last night.'
'Try to take things easy.'
Dolly squeezes her husband's hand, presses her ringed finger against his gold wedding ring. Her fingers are light as feathers.
'Off you go, darling,' she says. 'Try to not worry.'
Charley bends and kisses Dolly's hot forehead.
'I'll see you tomorrow,' he says.
Dolly's eyes close. Her fingers slip from his.
Charley walks along a polished corridor and finds the exit. Outside in the bright car park he locates his car and sits inside. He glances around at the visitors coming and going. Nurses walk past, reminding him of butterflies. Charley reaches for his mobile phone and taps in a number. The call is answered almost immediately.
'Katherine?' he says.
'Where are you? I've been waiting ages for you to call.'
'I'm outside the hospital. I've just been in to see her.'
'How is she?'
'All right. As well as can be expected, I suppose. Who really knows?'
Charley pulls down the sunshade to protect his eyes from the blinding brightness, then returns his attention to his new friend, Katherine.
'She'll be in for a while longer.'
'Will I see you later?' Katherine asks.
'I expect so.'
'Stay tonight,' she offers. 'If you like.'
Charley thinks of his own empty house, the quietness without Dolly and the dreadful silences she left behind.
'I'd like that, darling,' he says.
'Come now,' Katherine whispers with a smile in her lovely voice. 'I'll cheer you up.'
Charley says goodbye and puts the phone away. He smiles properly for the first time that day. He starts the engine and as he drives away Charley glances through the rear view mirror and sees the grey hospital building receding like a prison.
God help me, he thinks. God help us all.