The portly old man whistled as he left the hospital and walked back to his car, noticing with surprise that the car park was now swathed in cool early morning light. How long was I in there for?
He opened the car door, its handle wet with morning condensation, and fell heavily into the worn drivers seat. His eyes fell wearily on the dashboard clock. 07.47. October 3rd. His skin prickled uncomfortably at the recognition of the familiar date. So, here we are then.
The man took off his spectacles and wiped them carefully with the handkerchief he always carried in the top pocket of his tweed jacket. Then, placing the handkerchief back in his pocket, he reached over to the glove box and searched inside it for the mobile phone his son had given him. His pink forehead furrowed with concentration as he looked for his son’s name in the short contacts list and pressed ‘call’.
“Hi dad,” came the crackly voice in the handset. “You ok? In fact what time is it…don’t tell me you’re still at the hospital?”
“I’ve just left. I wanted to wait with him awhile. Don’t worry about me son. Did you get home ok?”
“Yeah, fine. I got a cab. Managed a few hours sleep at least.” And, with a heavy sigh, “Dad, it’s nearly 8am. You’ve been there all night”.
“I know son, but I couldn’t just leave him. Anyway, I’ll let you go. I just wanted to let you know that he woke up, and I spoke to him. Told him what had happened. He’s going to be ok.”
The son fell silent on the other end of the line. “Dad. You know, you can’t just go around trying to fix everyone else. Not all the time.”
The old man cleared his throat and straightened his back, pushing his head against the worn out headrest. “I’ll let you go son. You must be getting ready for work”.
“I’ll see you at your sister’s next week.”
“Dad.” The son spoke louder now, with more authority, and the man inhaled sharply as he recognised the intent in his son’s voice.
“Trying to fix everyone else’s lives all the time won’t bring mum back. Nobody can do that. You need to start looking after yourself more.”
The man held his breath and clenched his jaw silently, to stop the tears that he could feel forming behind his eyes.
“Anyway you’re right. I’m going to be late for work. Take care, dad. Get some sleep. I’ll call you later.”
Back at home, the man searched for a mug to make himself a cup of tea. Cupboard after cupboard was empty, and he anxiously eyed the chaotic piles of dirty crockery piling up at the sink.
The man picked a pile of damp socks up off a wooden chair and placed them on the already cluttered kitchen table, before slumping down heavily onto the seat and stretching his short legs out in front of him. He should really go to bed.
His thoughts turned briefly to the man from the hospital, before his eyes rested on a fridge magnet which read, ‘Dull women have tidy houses.’ The man smiled. His wife always was a messpot. But even she would be shocked by the state he’d let the house get into without her. Well, what was the point anymore?
His eyes fell on the chair opposite. The chair where he had found her.
A year ago today.
He could see her so clearly. Her head slumped wide-eyed on the table, her grey-blonde hair snaking across her dead face like tangled wires, white pills strewn across the mint green tablecloth. He inhaled sharply as the painful memory gripped his chest like a tightening skeletal hand, and his eyes fell to the kitchen worktop, and to the half empty bottle of whiskey standing upon it.
His heart quickened as the familiar flutter of longing rose inside him. His tongue crept to his lips, where it slowly explored the edges of his mouth like a cautious animal.
He approached the bottle. Just a bit. Just one small drink. It’s been a tough night. He unscrewed the metal lid and put the neck of the cold glass bottle to his lips, feeling the pain in his heart subside as the warming liquid washed through his body. More. More. More. But it was no good. The image of his wife only became clearer, her vomit-crusted lips reflected in the bottle in his hand. And her eyes. Wide open. Cold.
The skeletal hand around his chest tightened its grip again. “God help me!” he screamed, launching the bottle against the kitchen wall. The vessel shattered and fell to the ground where it created a puddle punctured by broken glass, like menacing icebergs scattered across a toxic sea. The man collapsed to the floor, sobbing loudly into his hands. “Christ! My Lord!” The pungent puddle crept around his knees, soaking into his grey trousers.
The man took a deep breath and opened his eyes. His hands explored his jacket, patting each pocket until he found his pocket bible, which he wrapped his thick fingers around comfortingly.
No! I won’t let her see me like this! He stood up, slowly, wincing as the joints in his knees resisted him. He wiped his face, reached for the spectacles, which were lying impotently on the wet floor, and walked out onto the road, picking up his keys from the telephone table in the hallway as he passed.
Closing the small iron gate of his front garden behind him and stepping onto the pavement, he attempted a cautious ‘hello’ to the teenage girl sitting on the front step of the house next door in her scruffy school uniform. The girl and her mother had lived on the other side of a wall from him for the past two years, and the man suddenly realised that he had never spoken to his neighbours.
The teenage girl stared silently at the fat man from next door, narrowing her eyes as she inhaled from a cigarette. Fucking bible basher. No wonder your mental wife topped herself.
Nodding politely at the girl and promising himself he would speak to her mother next time he saw her, the man wrapped his jacket around his body and walked the short distance from his house down to the canal, where he sat down on a wooden bench. Their bench. In the summertime they liked to come down here with a loaf of bread and throw handfuls for the ducks.
He closed his eyes and let the memories wash over him, his head feeling woozy from the drink. He could see her now, stood at the waterside, her laughing face beaming back at him as the ducks flocked to her feet. Seeing her smiling face there, he could almost forgive her. Almost.
The Lord preached forgiveness. It was the last lesson he had yet to learn. He placed his hand on the bible in his pocket and closed his eyes as the image of his wife faded into the morning light. One day.