He was a few weeks into his 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. It was almost empty. Taking a jam jar filled with bird seed, he was about to tip the contents into the mesh feeder when he saw the figure within.
Inside the room lay an elderly lady, partially raised in bed, pink covers drawn up to her throat. Her eyes were closed, her mouth wide open and her skin was as grey as the thinning curls of her short hair. On the walls around her bed were photographs of her family: husband, children, grandchildren.
Never before had he seen anyone so close to death. He had witnessed 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 moment might be their last.
He considered the lady and considered the feeder. Then, he tipped the contents of the jar into the feeder, and continued on his rounds.
Some weeks later he was back at the home to repaint the lady’s room.
She died last night, said the other handyman. It wasn’t a surprise, really. She’d been like that for months. Months. Anyway, they want to move someone else into her room, so we’ll need to repaint it. I’m away next week, so that’ll be your job. I don’t think it’ll take more than a couple of days. There’s plenty of paint. Magnolia for the walls, white for the ceiling. Make sure you do the ceiling.
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 wardrobe, chest of drawers and bathroom had been emptied, and the window of the room left 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. Taking the curtains from the wooden rail, he laid them on the bare frame of the bed and covered them with newspaper. He shoved the wardrobe and chest of drawers into the centre of the room, and spread dustsheets around the perimeter.
Using a roller, 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 empty.
Once the paint had dried, he put the furniture back as he found it, and re-hung the curtains, ready for the next occupant. Surveying his work, soft light streamed in from the low winter sun. A fine room, he thought to himself, and pulled the door closed.