Great stories, beautifully told
by Julia Graves
He has his eyes closed when I approach the bed but somehow, I know he’s awake. Perhaps he saw me coming. Perhaps he’s trying to sleep. It doesn’t matter. I have time to wait.
I study his face, or what I can see of it. A bandage covers the right side of his head. His eye peeks out from underneath, but it’s bruised and swollen, the purple just starting to fade to yellow around the edges. His face is lined with wrinkles, his skin spotted with age.
I glance up at the name above the bed: Ronald Taylor.
I’m in the right place.
‘Well?’ His gruff voice takes me by surprise. I look up to see one piercing blue eye staring right at me. The other remains closed. ‘Have you come to flog me TV credits?’
‘Um, no,’ I say, smoothing down my skirt.
‘Huh. One of them bible bashers then.’
‘No,’ I laugh. ‘Not one of them either. I’m Julie,’ I say, holding out my hand. ‘I’m a visitor.’
‘Ron,’ he says, taking my hand in his and shaking it with a surprisingly firm grip. He glances round the ward. ‘Who’s yours then?’
‘None of them,’ I say, smiling. ‘I’m here to visit you.’
‘Me?’ He looks puzzled.
I laugh. ‘Heard you hadn’t seen anyone but the nurses for a couple of days and thought you might fancy a fresh face.’
He nods. ‘Well,’ he says slowly. ‘Lucky me.’
* * * *
It’s 4am when I wake from the dream. In it, we walk hand in hand through the zoo, my father and me. I chatter away and he tries to keep smiling but I can feel the sadness coming off him in waves.
‘What’s wrong, Dad?’ I ask when we sit down in the cafe, him with a black coffee, me with the large ice cream I’ve always hankered after.
He shakes his head and smiles but the sadness lurks in his eyes.
‘Daddy?’ I say, the worry pressing down on my chest.
He takes a deep breath and runs a hand through his hair. ‘Look, sweetheart,’ he says. ‘You know that Mummy and I haven’t been getting on lately.’
I know they’ve argued. I’ve heard them hissing at each other in the kitchen late at night. But what’s new? It’s always like this when his black moods come, and Mummy’s seemed so much brighter this time.
I shrug and he sighs. ‘Look, there isn’t an easy way of saying this,’ he says. I can see his lips move and I know what they must be saying – that he’s going to New Zealand, that I have to stay with Mummy, that I can visit him in the summer – but all I can hear is the rush of blood in my ears and I know that things will never, ever be the same again.
* * * *
It’s two days before I visit Ron again. His bandage has been removed and though the bruising is starting to fade, he still looks bashed up and exhausted.
‘Good of you to come back,’ he says, smiling.
‘It’s what I do.’
We sit and chat. He tells me about his son, about his dog. The dog died. The son moved away. He lives on his own now.
I tell him my dad died when I was young. I spare him the details. ‘Then the cancer took my mum,’ I say. ‘Now I’m alone too.’
‘A pretty thing like you,’ he says.
I shrug. ‘It’s not so bad. I have friends. I meet people. I’m not lonely.’
‘Lucky you.’ He scratches his neck and I can see he’s chewing something over. ‘I’d like it if you kept visiting,’ he says. ‘When I get out of the hospital.’
I frown. ‘It’s not normal procedure.’
‘But you will?’
I suck my teeth before nodding. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Why not?’
* * * *
Perhaps it’s finding him that does it. What else can explain why, for the first time in years, I don’t dream of the zoo. I don’t have to watch Dad sit there, tearing his soul apart. I don’t have to see it all over again just as I saw it when I was a child, but hardened, embittered by the knowledge I’ve gained over the years.
How many times have I asked myself the same old questions: might he have stayed, had he known she would never be unfaithful again? Was it his death that made her stop? Why wasn’t I enough to keep him alive? And most painfully of all, could I have done anything to save him if only he’d stayed?
But it’s different now, knowing I have Ron where I want him. In a few days’ time I will be alone with him, just as she was all those years ago.
And his life will be in my hands.
* * * *
The front door is unlocked so I let myself in, closing it gently behind me and flicking the catch. The house smells of TCP and cigarettes. The fire is dying in the grate.
Ron lies on the sofa, a blanket round him. ‘So,’ he says, sounding weary. ‘Here we are.’
I frown. ‘Are you okay?’
He raises his eyes to meet mine. ‘Okay?’ He laughs. ‘No. I’m old and I’m lonely. But that’s all right,’ he says. ‘After all, we both know why you’re here.’
‘Do we?’ I ask, my hand still clasped around the bottle in my pocket.
He nods. ‘You look just like her, Julie,’ he says, sighing. ‘I understand. It was wrong, what we did.’
I stare at him and for the first time, I wonder what I’m doing here. What I hope to gain. Or what I hope to recover. But I know that this is not the way. I’m worth more than this.
‘I shouldn’t have come. This was a mistake,’ I say, stepping back toward the door.
He nods gently. ‘Goodbye, Julie,’ he whispers.
I walk away, down the garden path, not looking back.
Copyright © 2019 Julia Graves