He was a few weeks into his new job as a handyman at a care home when he saw the lady.
Finishing up his daily rounds, he was replenishing the bird feeders when he spied one pinned to the frame of a ground floor window. He had missed it on previous weeks, and it was almost empty. Jam jar filled with bird seed in hand, he approached the window and was about to tip the contents into the mesh feeder when he saw a figure within, and hesitated.
Inside the room lay an elderly lady, partially raised in bed, pink covers drawn up to her throat. He eyes were closed. Her mouth was wide open, and her skin was as grey as the thinning curls of her short hair.
Never had he seen anyone as close to death. He had experienced the slow demise of two grandparents from cancer, but he had never gazed upon someone on the threshold of extinction before, where the breath that they were drawing at that given moment might be their last.
He considered the feeder, and he considered the lady. Adorning the walls around her bed were the photographs of her family: husband, children, grandchildren, smiling next to her, in better health, happier times. It was a profoundly piteous tableau, universal in its familiarity.
He tipped the contents of the jar into the feeder, and continued on his rounds.
Some weeks later, he was back at the home when he was asked to repaint the lady’s room.
She died last night, said the other handyman. It wasn’t a surprise, sadly. She’d been like that for months. They want to move someone else into her room, so we’ll need to repaint it in preparation. As I’m away, that’ll be your job. It won't take more than a couple of days.
When he came to paint the lady’s room a few days later, there was no trace left of her, save for a small houseplant on the window sill, and a framed pencil drawing of a house hanging on one wall. The window of the room was open, bringing in fresh air from the garden.
He took the drawing down, and pulled the picture hook out of the wall with a pair of pliers. He took the curtains from the wooden rail and laid them and the rail on the bare frame of the bed. He pushed the wardrobe and chest of drawers into the centre of the room, and spread dustsheets around the perimeter.
He re-painted the walls in magnolia emulsion, and touched up the woodwork with quick-drying white satin. As he was painting, he looked at the bird feeder in the window. It was exactly as he had left it.
Once the paint had gone off, he put the furniture back as he found it, and re-hung the curtains, ready for the next occupant. As he considered his work, soft light streamed in from the low winter sun. A fine room to die in, he thought, and closed the door.