Camille Baudouin was a feisty eighty-something year old French lady with a tongue that could lacerate like the tail of a whip. Her grey eyes had the depth of someone who’d seen a lot in her life, and even though her stature had shrunk with age Rick thought she was definitely in better shape than most women in her age bracket. She currently had tears in her eyes and was looking under lashes at her husband like she was taking a mental photograph of the way he looked. She made a noise in the back of her throat and shook her head. Rick watched her closely. He could tell she would’ve been a real looker in her youth. Although time had changed her appearance, there remained evidence of her beauty, her high cheekbones and penetrating eyes were still striking. But it was the proud way she carried herself which he found the most beautiful.
Rick had heard Camille speaking French with her husband on numerous occasions and maybe because of this her English was always accented with a thick lilt that made her sound like she hadn’t been residing in Australia for over 27 years with her family, which he knew she had.
‘It is not time.’ Camille puckered her lips and Rick noticed the wrinkle between her brows deepen. ‘You are animal doctor, non?’ She punctuated the sentence with a jabbing motion in the air. ‘You cannot say. It is not your place.’
Beads of sweat had formed on Rick’s forehead. Camille made him feel like she could see right through him. She cocked her head to one side, like she could hear the cogs in his head turning. He cleared his throat and took a sip of water.
A husky plea came from the chair next to Camille, the English was stilted but the accent wasn’t quite as thick as hers. ‘Camille, I chose this day, not Richard.’ He hesitated. ‘Dr Macgrath told me I did not have much time left...’
The man was Camille’s husband, Léandre Baudouin, and he was the man Rick was going to kill.
A few weeks ago Rick had seen a sepia photo of the couple dangling from a set of the Baudouin’s house keys: Camille and Léandre on New Year ’s Eve in 1949 he’d been told, Léandre looking stocky and strong. Taking in his thin skeletal frame and withered limbs now, made it hard for Rick to draw any similarities between the person sitting in front of him, and the man from the photo. Although he no longer had the build of an aggressive fighting dog, a full head of thick blonde hair, or a youthful appearance, facially all the markers were there. However, everything seemed to be miniatures of what they once were; bushy eyebrows, close-set eyes, knife-edge nose, almost non-existent lips, cauliflower ears, and a smile that once upon a time lit up the room.
Rick noted that on this particular day Léandre’s pock-marked cheeks seemed even more sallow than usual, and his pale lips were trembling frequently. His brows were constantly pinched together above his hollow gaze, like he was concentrating on something no-one else could see.
All three of them sat inside Rick’s office with the indoor heating turned up high. It had grown warm very quickly, and even though Rick had removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves he was still sweaty. Camille had removed her sweater as well, although the flush in her cheeks told him she was still hot. Lѐandre was the only one who still looked rugged up; he was wearing an oversized sweater with baggy tracksuit pants, and on his feet he had on a pair of wooly ugg boots.
Rick shot the skeletal figure of Léandre a wry look. ‘Its alright Lѐandre, I’m used to these sorts of questions from partners.’ Rick didn’t bother mentioning to him that they weren’t usually worded quite as bluntly. You can always rely on the French to get to the point quickly. ‘Camille, you’re right, I’m not qualified to make that call.’ Rick’s fingers drummed against the Cherrywood desk in front of him. ‘Which is why I always leave it up to the patient and Dr. McGrath to choose this day.’
A soft whine pierced the silence and Camille smiled at the couple’s brown Pomeranian crouched behind her legs. She reached underneath her chair and pulled the dog toward her by its diamante studded collar, patting the attention-seeking animal when it was close enough. Moments later she straightened and wrapped her hand around the transparent glass sitting across from her. She took a tentative sip of what I assumed must now be lukewarm water. Some time passed before she uttered her husband’s name in a way that sounded like she was being strangled. She drained the glass in an effort to rejuvenate her voice. ‘What will I tell the children?’
Léandre sat back in his chair and gave a half-hearted attempt at rolling his eyes. He slumped in his seat afterwards as though the effort of rolling his eyes was simply too much. ‘Camille, we have been through this. The children have families of their own now.’ His breathing came in short shallow gulps, like he’d just run a marathon. ‘They will be sad for a while but they will get through it, for their families and for you. He smiled sadly. ‘Life keeps on going, it doesn’t stop for death.’
A light blush crept up her neck and she played with her pants in a self-conscious way. ‘If I tell them truth,’ she sighed in exasperation. ‘If I admit I help to murder their father,’ she frowned and the wrinkle between her brows deepened, ‘how will they ever forgive me?’
Léandre spluttered for a moment, like he was choking on something foul. ‘Camille! Don’t say that!’ He made an obvious effort to straighten. ‘This is no murder ma chère,’ his voice dropped to a whisper. ‘It is bonne mort.’
Rick’s French wasn’t too good but he’d spent enough time with the Baudouin’s to know that ‘bonne mort’ meant good death.
Camille visibly stiffened, but otherwise no emotion moved her face.
Léandre floundered for words. ‘It is,’ he paused for a moment and looked to Rick for help, ‘er, my decision.’
Rick decided to step in and elaborate on Léandre’s short explanation. ‘Voluntary euthanasia is a very controversial issue for a variety of reasons.’ Rick met Camille’s glare head on. ‘There are many different perspectives to consider when it comes right down to it,’ he sighed, ‘but I believe people should have the right to choose when to end their suffering, in cases such as this.’ He shifted his weight in the chair, easing some of the discomfort. ‘Ultimately, no-one else has decided this for Léandre.’
Camille made a noise in the back of her throat at the same time that Léandre stroked her hand. ‘He is right Camille, I chose this.’
Camille opened and closed her mouth a few times. She put a hand on her forehead and shut her eyes. A moment later Léandre abruptly doubled up in a coughing fit. ‘Léandre!’ She started out of her chair but got her ankles caught up in the pink dog lead.
Rick was on his feet and around the desk before Camille had finished untangling her ankles. When he reached Léandre he pulled the poor man upright by his shoulders, bracing his chest while the shuddering coughs ran through him.
When the coughs subsided Camille grabbed a tissue off the desk and used it to dab at Léandre’s soaked chin, ignoring the excited dog at her feet. ‘I’m so sorry, Léandre.’ She helped him blow his snotty nose and whispered. ‘You don’t deserve this.’ Her voice broke on the last word.
Léandre raised his head and smiled weakly, chest heaving. ‘Neither do you, ma chère.’
Camille made a face in response and tilted a glass to his trembling lips.
Once Léandre was finished drinking Camille leant her forehead against his and stared into her husband’s eyes with a pleading look in her own. ‘I do not want you to leave me.’
Léandre’s face softened. ‘You know I cannot stay.’ He trailed a tired hand down one side of Camille’s face, like he’d had this argument many times with her. ‘This cancer, it is a battle not even you will win.’ His hand stopped on her cheek and she turned her head into it. ‘We fought well, through surgery, through chemo,’ she kissed his hand, ‘but it was not to be.’ His hand dropped into his lap and he was silent for a moment. ‘I am nothing but a mere shell of the man I used to be, the man I want to be remembered as.’
Camille appeared to fold in on herself at his words, like a balloon deflating.
Léandre exhaled. ‘I will not suffer any longer.’ Seeing the anguish written across Camille’s face, Léandre grimaced and lowered his voice. ‘This is my choice, not yours.’
Camille squeezed her eyes shut and tears came pouring down her face. Her breathing became laboured. She began holding herself in a way that Rick recognised from experience; it seemed like without the tension keeping her muscles taut she was afraid she’d fall apart.
Léandre grabbed Camille’s hand and Rick was surprised to see a hint of pale pink enter Léandre’s normal ghostly complexion. Rick realised with a start that Camille and Léandre had been married for at least sixty-four years. They knew each other better than they knew themselves. A lump formed in Rick’s throat and he swallowed convulsively for a time.
Camille opened her eyes and brought Léandre’s bony hand to her lips. ‘Tu vas me manquer tous les jours.’ She was smiling underneath her tears while she said it, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Léandre turned to Rick and raised a barely-visible brow. ‘May we have a moment Richard?’
Rick hesitated for a second or two, unsure what to do, until Camille nodded. With her approval he retrieved two white surgical gloves from the top drawer of his desk and then turned to them. ‘When you’re ready please head into the first room on your left.’ He made his way over the door and opened it. Straight away he could feel the pleasant change in air temperature. Rick felt the cool air against his clammy skin and sighed. He closed the door behind him swiftly in an effort to keep the heat trapped inside his office.
As he walked down the brightly lit hall he found himself emptying his head of distractions, trying to concentrate on the task ahead of him. When he reached the first door on the left he turned and opened the door wide. He entered the dark room and switched on the overhead lights.
In the middle of the room a sturdy eight-by-four stainless steel table was nailed to the floor. Against one wall was a charcoal bench with a small basin down one end and a whole lot of drawers and cabinets down the other. Built into an adjacent wall were two translucent screens with lots of wires snaking out from underneath them and up into a piece of machinery on wheels nearby. Two small white tables were resting against opposing walls and a plastic chair was tucked into a corner next to a pair of double doors that led out into the carpark behind the practice. Posters displaying the anatomy of household pets and reminders about the importance of annual heartworm tablets for cats and dogs took up available wall-space.
The thermostat was mounted next to the light switch, Rick went straight over to it and made sure the air was set to 28˚ Celsius, feeling clammy even before the warm air kicked in. He headed over to the bench and rummaged through a cabinet underneath. He pulled out an amber bottle and placed it on the bench along with his latex gloves before returning his attention to the cabinet. Moments later he found a fresh 28-gauge syringe alongside a plastic bag of cotton balls, these he put on the bench without even looking up. He got to his feet and closed the cabinet while estimating the time in his head. After a moment he gave in and checked his wristwatch, it read a quarter past five. He realised it was time to ring the boys.
He pulled his white iPhone out of one of the pockets in his pants and called Mitch’s mobile, holding the phone against his ear while it rung.
The voice that answered was deep and sounded like whoever it belonged to had just woken up. ‘Leaving now, mate.’
‘See you in ten.’ Rick hung up and slid his mobile back into his pocket. A moment later he looked up and watched Léandre and Camille hobble into the room together, Camille keeping a bony arm around Léandre’s thin waist for support.
They stopped next to the big table in the middle of the room, as if to acknowledge where Lѐandre would take his last breath. Léandre saw Rick watching them and nodded. ‘I’m ready, Richard,’ Léandre announced with gusto, but his body betrayed him and a flash of pain crossed his features. Fortunately Léandre was gripping the table when his knees buckled and Camille hadn’t noticed.
‘Shall we help him up?’ She stole a fearful glance at the table.
Rick looked at her clawed hands. ‘What about the stuff you told me you’d brought?’
Camille looked around the room wide-eyed. ‘I think I left them in the car.’
Rick stuffed each hand into a latex glove and made his way over to Léandre. He replaced Camille’s stone-like grip on Léandre’s arm and was shocked by the thinness of his arm. He felt so frail and Rick worried he would hurt him if he held him too tightly. Rick turned to Léandre once Camille had left the room. ‘Is Madisen still in my office?’
Léandre nodded. ‘She is,’ he panted, ‘er, unsettled.’
Rick grimaced slightly. He knew the dog would’ve been agitated by the tense atmosphere earlier, and he knew from experience that when dogs felt like that they often behaved erratically. He hoped the Pomeranian hadn’t urinated in his office.
Léandre interrupted Rick’s thoughts with some more panting. ‘I must sit now.’
Rick assisted Léandre over to the plastic chair and eased him down. He noted how pale Léandre seemed – so much paler than before, which Rick didn’t think was possible. ‘Do you need my help getting changed?’
Léandre quivered once at this suggestion and straightened as much as he could without wincing. ‘No, thank-you. Camille can help me.’ His proud tone was saturated with pain.
Rick knew the man needed some time alone to prepare himself for what was about to happen. ‘I will go check on Madisen for a moment. Call me when you’re ready.’ He headed out into the hall and almost ran into Camille, who narrowly avoided him by sidestepping into the room clutching a pair of blue-striped PJs and a pristine white bed-sheet to her chest.
Rick made his way into the room where the dog was, and as soon as he entered Madisen yapped a greeting at him. Rick smiled down at her, but the temperature in the room made him immediately feel sick. Taking shallow breaths, he hurried over to the thermostat and changed the temperature to a much lower one, then he bent down and scratched Madi behind the ear. ‘Not much longer to go, Madi.’ She yawned loudly as if to illustrate her boredom and his nose wrinkled involuntarily at her pungent unwashed-dog odour. He decided to wait out in the hall in the fresher air for a while.
He had been standing in the hall for less than a minute when Camille had opened the door. She told him that they were ready in a dull monotone, like she was on auto-pilot.
Rick followed her into the room. Léandre was dressed in his freshly pressed PJs and bed socks. He sat balancing on the edge of the big table which had been covered with the bed-sheet, and his discarded clothes lay in a pile on the floor. Rick made his way toward a swaying Léandre. Once he got closer he noticed Léandre’s knuckles had turned white from gripping the table so hard. Camille was standing motionless by the door. While Rick assisted Léandre into a lying position on the table he asked Camille if she was okay. She nodded without looking at him.
Léandre lay on the table, blinking rapidly. One hand still gripping the edge of the table like it was a life-line. Rick cleared his throat loudly which appeared to help Camille find her feet. She scurried over to Léandre and held his hand in between hers.
Rick made his way over to the bench and unscrewed the lid on the amber bottle. The astringent smell of chemicals emanated from the bottle and made him cough. It was a revolting smell, it reeked of toxicity. He could see the bottle was almost empty so he quickly opened another cabinet and pulled out some plastic cups. He pulled one out and filled it with liquid from the amber bottle. He picked up the wrapped syringe and opened it.
Rick lowered the needle into the clear liquid and forced the plunger out as far as it would go.
‘Ready?’ Rick asked without turning around, expecting tears or a delay of some sort.
He was surprised when Léandre calmly told him he was.
Rick made sure all the air was pushed out of the syringe before turning in time to see Camille squeezing Léandre’s hand in anticipation.
Rick headed over to the table and ran two fingers over Léandre’s pasty elbow. Rick was surprised to feel that his skin felt like crepe-paper. ‘Léandre, can you please curl your fingers into a fist on this hand,’ He tapped one of Léandre’s hands, ‘and squeeze a few times?’
A few squeezes later, the faint outline of a vein in Léandre’s elbow lazily surfaced. Rick brought the hand that held the syringe closer to Léandre’s vein and positioned the needle on an angle.
Léandre let out a soft whimper as the needle pierced his paper-thin skin.
Rick pushed down on the plunger until the vial was empty. He noticed that Léandre’s eyes sparkled with a glint that for some reason reminded him of a child’s euphoric glint after finding an exit from a maze in a colouring book.
Rick withdrew the needle and the man let out a contented sigh. Léandre caressed the side of Camille’s face. ‘Thank-you,’ his mouth curved into a smile, ‘ma chére.’
Camille intertwined her fingers through Léandre’s and kissed his knuckles in response.
Before too long Lѐandre began blinking slowly, like paper-weights were tucked inside each eyelid. ‘It is time to let go, mon amour.’ Camille’s strained voice cut through the still air like a warm knife through butter.
Eventually Lѐandre lost the fight to keep his eyelids open and they shuttered down. Camille cupped his cheek tenderly with her free hand, and watched as his hand went limp in her desperate grip.