After five days of rain, such a beautiful day would have been a shame to waste. Bob was done with being cooped up. He had to get some fresh air, go for a walk. That’s when he thought of the Old Farm. He hadn’t been there since, well, since before he was alone again.
He put on his winter coat, picked up his house keys and set off before he changed his mind.
At first, his muscles were stiff and sore with various aches and pains, but after half a mile, with the spring sun on his face, he had warmed up and felt better than he had in months. He left the housing estate behind and walked along a footpath with trees and fields on either side. After a mile he was striding out, eager. He met no-one else on the path.
He came upon the Old Farm almost by accident, for the ruins had settled further into the landscape. Many of the walls he remembered had collapsed and much of the rest lay concealed under long coarse grass.
He hadn’t thought he would ever come back. Not by himself.
He stood with his a hand on the tallest remaining wall and his eyes followed the wall’s shadow as it reached out towards the well. A line of beech trees grew behind the well, much larger and more wild than he remembered. He looked out towards the trees, his gaze inward.
For that brief moment he was glad he had come, and then he felt guilty for enjoying the sun, guilty for breathing, guilty for being here without her. His eyes stung.
Someone stood up from behind the well, but by the time he had blinked away the tears and focused, the someone had vanished.
Was that a flash of yellow? A yellow dress with red flowers? Was that really someone or just wishful thinking?
“Hello?” he called. No-one answered and no-one stood up. “You can come out, y’know.” He walked along an overgrown path, the tops of his shoes became wet from the damp grass. He kept his eyes on the well. When he reached it, he went around, but there was no-one on the other side.
He realised that he had done this exact thing before. That he had circled this well searching for someone, for her.
He completed his circuit, all the while searching for footprints in the soft ground, listening for any furtive movement. There was neither.
The only place left for someone to hide would be inside the well.
He placed his palms on the rounded, mossy stones and leaned out over darkness and called an echoing query. Was that movement? Was that yellow reflected in the water below?
He leaned further, his palms taking his weight. His thighs pressed against the top of the wall.
He felt a strange doubling between the now and his memory. He had done this before too, what, forty years ago?
The soles of his shoes slipped on the grass. His palms slid on the moss. He tipped over, his thighs acting as a pivot, and he fell head-first into the well.
At first, there came the terrifying exhilaration of flight, then his left leg was jerked straight behind him. There was a wrench and then a crack, felt as much as heard, and an immediate and immense explosion of pain in his left hip that blew all the fuses in his head. Cold water slapped him in the face and woke him up.
The water slowed his descent until his forehead came to a stop with a bump on the bottom of the well. The rest of his body continued to fall and pressed down, bending his neck back. He hissed, blowing bubbles, and then inhaled. He began to cough. His hands found and pushed against the rough brick wall. His legs were still somewhere above his head. The surface at the bottom of the well slid aside and he was able to twist around, his hip flaring in pain as it submerged, and then his head popped up above the waterline. He coughed out water and inhaled a ragged lungful of air. The water tasted metallic. He spat and then tried to stand. There was another sharp agony from his hip and he greyed out again.
When he came back, his hands were splayed out on either side, his legs out in front, the left one at a weird angle. He knew his hip was dislocated. He’d felt the grinding pop as the bone had left the socket.
He coughed again and heard the reverberations echo off the rounded walls. He leaned back against the bricks and lifted his head up to see a circle of clear blue sky. Only about twelve feet above him, it might as well have been twelve miles. The wrinkles on his forehead and around his eyes were dark and deep. Droplets of water clung to his eyelashes, grey brows and stubble. Water lapped against his chest.
He tore his eyes from the sky and tried to slow his breathing. He looked around at the slimy bricks.
There was no-one down here. No-one with a yellow summer dress. Why would there be? Of course not. He was going daft.
He risked a small adjustment of his hips and felt an uncomfortable flare of heat. He needed help, medical attention, and he needed to get out. He couldn’t stay down here in this cold water.
“Help!” he shouted. “Help me! I’m in the well.” His voice raced up to the light. He shouted for as long as he could until his throat grew hoarse and weak.
If it got dark and he was still here when night came he would be a gonner. He lifted his wrist to check the time and his left side sank and his hip and pelvis became a sheet of pain. He grunted, made a fist with his right hand, his fingers dug into the loose bottom of the well. He steadied himself and the pain receded with reluctance. His right fist was full of small round objects, too even and flat to be sand or gravel.
He took his fist out of the water and opened it under his face. In his palm were several coins. Two of the coins were bright and new as if thrown in only yesterday. Which was hopeful, someone might come by and throw another one in. The others were dark and green with corrosion and algae.
He held people’s wishes.
He saw a hexagonal twenty pence piece, still relatively clean, and when he turned it over he saw the year it was minted. The date read 1991.
His lips changed shape from the grimace of pain to the more subtle twist of grief.
“Joseph,” he whispered.
The air-conditioning in the hospital had failed at about the same time as Joseph’s liver. The air in the waiting-room became dry and hot. Bob’s eyes felt gritty and inflamed in his head. He kept his blinking to the absolute minimum because he did not want to cry.
Catherine sat on a waiting room chair and did not fidget. She said nothing and stared straight ahead. If it hadn’t been for her calm endurance he would have been a basket case hours, hell, years ago.
Bob couldn’t sit still like her. Instead, he paced a short stretch of corridor like he was on guard duty. At each end of his patrol, his shoes made squeaking sounds on the linoleum floor as he performed an about turn. He re-read portions of the notice board every time he passed it: blood donor clinic on Tuesdays, the symptoms of meningitis, something about visiting hours (which didn’t seem to apply to relations of the soon-to-be-dead), a pregnant lady with paragraphs of text squirming around her protruding stomach.
A woman doctor appeared and surveyed the waiting room. Her face was composed, blank and expressionless. Bob couldn’t tell if she was bearing good news or bad. Doctors would make excellent poker players. This had to be bad news, or else why the blank look? She didn’t find who she was looking for and walked away.
Bob swallowed what little saliva he had. Boy, did he ever need a drink. Why hadn’t they come to tell them what was happening? What was taking them so long?
Catherine reached out and took his hand between both of hers. He stopped pacing and looked down. Her eyes made contact with his and she said: “Joe’s gone.”
Bob’s stomach clenched and he could not feel his feet. He became adrift. Catherine’s hold on his hand was the only thing that kept him grounded. He wanted to deny what she said. He wanted to misunderstand on purpose and say that Joseph was not going anywhere, not with all those tubes going in and out of his body. He wanted to tell her that Joseph never had the patience for knots and that those tubes would keep him tied up till doomsday.
Catherine squeezed his hand. “He’s gone, Bob.” She said it with such belief, such authority, that he could not misunderstand, disagree or argue. He nodded.
He had no words but opened his mouth anyway to say something.
Catherine broke eye contact and turned her head to look down the corridor. She stood but kept hold of his hand.
A doctor approached, the Asian one with the Edinburgh accent. Bob tried to read his face. Was that a hint of a smile? Was he going to tell them miraculous news? That Joseph had been found in the nick of time, that the paramedics at the scene had done everything right, that the medical team at the hospital had finished the job, that Joseph would pull through, that he was a fighter. He felt hope swell in his chest.
The doctor looked at Catherine. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Bob heard nothing else the doctor said after that. He was never going to play poker with a doctor, that was for sure. Bob’s head felt too heavy and fell forward. His eyes sought the shiny vinyl floor. He whispered his son’s name.
Catherine’s hands had felt blazing hot because his had gotten so, so cold.
Bob had no tears left to cry over Joseph. He let the twenty pence fall. It disappeared with a soft plop under the still surface of the water.
In his palm he saw a much older coin. It was corroded and almost furry. He rubbed it, thinking of Aladdin’s lamp, hoping for a djinn to appear and grant him three wishes. Instead, his rubbing revealed the head of King George V, and on the reverse a large shield design. He rubbed harder under the shield and found the words “Half Crown”, and beside that a date: “1934”.
Robert loved (almost) everything about being thirteen.
He loved the fact that he was several inches taller than everyone else in his class. He loved the fact that his voice was changing and would go from high to low whenever it wanted. He loved the hair that was growing under his arms and beside his willy. He was even (almost) beginning to love the way girls looked at him and whispered to their friends. And, actually, it wasn’t ‘girls’; it was one girl in particular. He loved the way that she looked at him (almost).
The tin bath sat in the center of the back room full of hot water. The cold air was filled with steam. Since he now drew his own baths, he liked to make them as hot as he could take.
He stepped in, clothed only in goose bumps, and felt the painful pleasure of the heat on his cold skin. He lowered himself in stages as he became used to the heat until he was sitting in the tub. He took a deep lungful of steamy air, held his breath and pinched his nose and ducked his upper half under the surface. Submerged and surrounded by hot water his thoughts turned to her. He stayed under for as long as he could and then, moving slowly, he allowed his face to breach the surface.
He breathed out and his body sank to the bottom of the tub. He breathed in and his chest rose out of the water. He was wrapped in warmth, breathing deep, rising and falling as he thought of her.
When the water had turned lukewarm, it was time to get out. Getting out into the numbing cold was much worse than the hot pain of climbing in.
It had to be done quickly. He braced himself.
At the bottom of the well Bob managed a smile.
Who was the girl he had been thinking about? It couldn’t have been Catherine, he was too young, he wouldn’t meet her for another, what? Eight years?
His smile faded and he let the half crown go. He didn’t watch it sink.
There was no pain from his hip. In fact, he could no longer feel the cold of the water at all. Maybe the heat from his body had warmed the water up. As a boy, he’d always get out of the bath when it reached body temperature. There was no way he was climbing out of this tub.
He looked at the coins remaining in his palm. Two left: okay then, let’s see.
Next was a thruppeny bit. Threepence. Twelve sided. It was less corroded and furry than the half crown had been. He rubbed it carefully with his thumb. It had the profile of a young Queen Elizabeth II on the front, and on the reverse he could make out a portcullis with a crown on top.
What year? Under the portcullis: 1958.
“Come on, mum! Get up! Dad! Last day! Last day!”
Bob lifted his head from the pillow. Joseph was shouting from the end of the bed, his outline silhouetted in the rectangle of brightness where the door should have been. He saw that Joseph had dressed himself in bright red shorts and t-shirt that were only a shade or two lighter than his skin. All three of them were lobster pink. The Cornwall sun had left its mark on each of them.
Catherine turned over sleepily, her arm wrapped itself around Bob’s waist. “Get lost, Joe,” she said smiling. “Your Dad and me are having a lie in.”
“Go ahead, Joseph. We’ll catch up,” Bob said.
“Okay,” Joseph said and then looked up with a grin. “I’ll go exploring.” He spun and darted out of the room. The front door of the cottage slammed shut and his running footsteps faded away.
Catherine caressed Bob’s stomach. “Good morning.”
She lifted her head and kissed him lightly on the side of the mouth, he turned towards her, and she kissed him harder on the lips.
He kissed back. Her hand moved lower on his stomach. He rose to meet it.
The prickly heat of his sunburned arms, face and neck were a minor consideration.
Bob and Catherine were just finishing breakfast when Joseph came running back in, hot and sweaty and out of breath. “Mum! Dad! There’s a fair. We gotta go! We’ve got to. They’re setting up right now. They’ve got stalls and rides and everything!”
Bob looked at Catherine and she nodded. “Yeah, sounds great, buddy,” Bob said.
Joseph’s smile dazzled more than the sun. “Yesss! Brilliant!”
They spent the rest of the morning pottering about, packed a picnic and took it the beach. Joseph splashed in the surf, the red of his shorts and t-shirt darker when wet. Bob and Catherine stayed under the beach umbrella. When Joseph came back, they built a sand castle in its shadow.
At the fair they laughed, ate too much, and were spun until dizzy. Bob won a big, furry bear for Catherine and Joseph won a goldfish. They carried both back to the cottage, and as they passed the cottage pond Catherine said: “Joe, we can’t take the fish in the car. We’re driving all day. It would never survive the journey back. We should set it free.”
Joseph lifted the bag with the orange fish inside and peered through the plastic. “In the pond?”
“Will it be okay, dad?” Joseph said.
“Yeah, of course. It’ll love it in there.”
“Yes, Joe, it’ll be fine,” Catherine said. “It’ll grow huge, and be the biggest fish in the pond. There’s a girl goldfish in there already. It’s been waiting. Last year, a girl, about your age, put her fish she won at the fair into the pond. Your goldfish and her goldfish will be happy and have a family; there will be a whole dynasty of goldfish who will live in the pond for all the years to come.”
“That girl goldfish must be lonely,” Joseph said. “Can you undo the bag?” He handed the bag to Catherine. She twisted the knot open and handed it back. Joseph moved to the edge of the pond and knelt in the mud. He tipped the goldfish in. “You’re free now. It’s your new home.” He looked up, his face sad, and then he smiled at Catherine. “The pond is much better than a plastic bag.”
Catherine smiled back. “Yes, it is.”
They spent some of the afternoon tidying and packing.
They were up and the car was loaded before dawn. With the first light they drove north.
‘The Best Holiday Ever’ they called it. Cornwall, 1958.
The pain was definitely gone.
Bob considered standing up. Maybe his hip wasn’t as bad as he’d thought at first. Although, why risk moving and making things worse? It was easier to just stay where he was.
He pushed the threepence off his palm. One coin left.
He brought it up to his face. Two new pence. The coin was green, no longer copper bronze. It seemed thinner than the older coins, like they had minted them differently back in, what? 1983.
The coin slipped from his fingers, splashed, and he felt it land on his thigh. He did not want to remember this.
But the memory came anyway.
Bob had planned over several months for Catherine’s birthday. It was all prepared.
She would be sixty today. He did not begrudge her retiring three years before he could because she had earned it. It was long overdue as far as he was concerned. She had began to tire for the last year, and it had only gotten worse. Her eyes had developed dark rings under them and she had lost weight. She deserved her rest.
His alarm clock went off at the normal time and Catherine stirred.
“Stay there,” Bob said. “You’re officially retired.”
She breathed out with a sleepy chuff, like a one-note laugh and mumbled something which he didn’t hear.
Bob tip-toed out of the room. He cooked a proper fry up: bacon, eggs, sausages, tattie scones, beans. She needed proper food, she needed to get some of that lost weight back. Starting today. He popped open a bottle of sparkling wine and poured two tall glasses. He put everything on a tray and carried it back into the bedroom.
Catherine was sitting up in bed and had a smile on her face. “Smells good.”
“It’s a celebration.”
“Do we need a reason?”
Catherine took both glasses from the tray as Bob placed it on her lap. He slipped into bed next to her. She passed him one of the glasses.
He held it up. “To you.”
Something shadowed Catherine’s face and then she smiled. “To me.” They clinked glasses.
She ate a sausage and some egg white, but left the rest. She finished the wine and put the glass and the tray on the floor by the bed. She turned around and looked at Bob. “Come here,” she said. She took Bob’s face in her hands and they kissed. He moved his hand up and began to caress her breast. Her skin felt warm and soft through her night dress and then he moved his hand to the side and felt something firmer, his fingers found it, investigating.
Catherine jerked away.
“Wait, I felt-” His hand moved toward her breast.
“Don’t,” Catherine said.
“It’s nothing. Just a little lump.”
“Let me feel.”
“No,” she turned her body away. “It’s okay.”
“Have you been to the doctor?”
She nodded. “I was going to tell you. After today. I didn’t want to spoil it for you.”
Spoil it for me? Bob did not know what to say, so he said the worst thing first. “Is it cancer?”
“Yes.” Catherine said without flinching. “My operation is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. They’ll remove the tumour with most of the breast tissue. Just to be safe.” Catherine spoke clearly and slowly. “It’s going to be alright, Bob. I promise.”
Bob wanted to ask questions, but they all slid away when Catherine kissed him tenderly and caught his panicked eyes with hers. She smiled.
“Make love to me,” she said.
It was gentle and slow. They did not break eye contact until Bob pushed his face into the space between Catherine’s neck and shoulder. He did not want her to see his tears when he came.
Bob began to shiver.
It was alright, just as she had said it would be. The mastectomy was a success. She never gave in and fought back to full health. Her dry humour about her prosthetic boob made them laugh. When she was naked he loved her scar because it meant life, and she was never ashamed of it.
Bob smiled and tasted salt on his lips. He used his wet hands to wipe his face and any other tears away. He could not stop shivering. He knew that if he stayed sitting in this water for much longer he would die of hypothermia.
He’d seen death, and there were worse ways to go.
Joseph’s overdose for one. Or maybe not, because Joseph never regained consciousness. He had been found sprawled on his bedroom floor, a rubber tube and needle beside him. When his organs failed, one by one, he never knew that he was dying because he never woke up. He had made his decision with the plunge of a syringe.
Catherine? No. He wouldn’t think of that. He couldn’t.
So his mind scrambled for something else to think about and remembered the day they first met.
That was February 5th, 1942.
Christ, Bob thought, she was beautiful.
Private Robert Blair had been part of the British Eighth Army that had liberated Benghazi just before Christmas at the end of ‘41. Barely a month later they were attacked by Rommel’s Afrika Corps and the Eighth had been ousted. A desperate rear-guard action by the infantry protected the retreat, but they were the ones that saw the most action, the most death. Those that survived were shipped back to the UK and given leave.
Private Robert Blair was one of those survivors. He hated the war. He didn’t understand it. It was stupid and crazy and terrible. But it also made him feel more alive that he had ever felt, it had led him to meet amazing people, people who he trusted with this life. Two of those, Private Graeme McCarthy and Private Mark Duggin, had managed to persuade and all but dragged him out to the city. The mix of music, booze and women beckoned. As Duggin said: “Was there ever a better way to forget all the blood and madness?”
Blair did not want to forget. He could still hear the crack of rifles, the boom of explosions, the screams of the dying. He could still see the dead things, no longer recognisable as people.
McCarthy was already drunk, loud mouthed and full of what he called his Glaswegian charm. He was handsome and knew it. The London women were drawn to his exoticism, much as they would be drawn to the Yanks a couple of years down the line.
“Blair, man, will you take a look at her,” McCarthy stage-whispered.
Blair looked up. The superimposed images of blood and limbs made her look more garish than she already did in too much make-up.
“C’mere darlin. Lemme show ye a wee Glaswegian tradition,” McCarthy said.
“Not her, Mac,” Duggin said. “She’s on the bash.”
She walked over. Blair thought Duggin was right: she definitely looked like a prostitute.
“So?” McCarthy smiled. “Any warm hole, whatever the cost, eh?”
“Glaswegian? What’s that then?” she asked as she stood over McCarthy.
“Sit doon an’ ah’ll show ye, darlin.” McCarthy winked at Duggin. Duggin raised an eybrow. The woman sat down.
Blair stood up.
“Where are ye off to Bobby?” asked McCarthy. “We’re just gettin’ started.”
“I’ll get a round in,” Blair said and then lost himself in the crowd around the bar.
How could they carry on as if nothing had happened? Jim Currin was dead. The four of them were in basic training together and had been assigned to the same Battalion in the Eighth. They fought together, looked after each other, went on leave together.
The crush of bodies at the bar reminded Blair of the piles of corpses and the mass graves. He spotted a door beside the bar and he slipped out into the night.
The sky was clear, the stars bright and the air sharp and cold. The cold caught at the back of his throat and made him cough. Once he started coughing he found that he couldn’t stop, and he became light-headed and had to sit down on the curb, his head on his knees.
Jim Currin was dead.
Blair could still taste Jim’s blood on his lips. He could still smell Jim’s burning hair and clothes. He could hear Mac as he shouted: “Fucking hell! Jim’s been blown to fuck. Is that his brains, man?” Mac had bent over to look and then puked over what remained. Blair watched the stringy ropes of Mac’s vomit run down what had been left of Jim’s face.
Blair didn’t know what to do, what to think. He couldn’t look at Jim’s body any longer and ran.
“Bobby! Come back ye daft prick!”
Blair sat on the curb and could not keep the pain and horror from overflowing.
He heard a women’s voice telling people to back off, to make some room. She sounded calm and in control.
He felt a soft touch on the top of his shoulder. “Here,” she said. “Take this.”
He looked up, trying to focus, and saw the hem of a thick woollen coat and then a large white blob that resolved into a handkerchief. He took it, hid behind it and poured his grief and confusion into that small square of cloth.
He felt her warmth on his thigh when she sat beside him on the curb. He felt her hand as it rested on his shoulder.
After a while his sobs lost their urgency, slowed and stopped. He wiped his face with the now sodden handkerchief. He turned to look at his silent companion.
He saw concerned blue eyes on the serious face of a young woman.
“Thanks for the hanky,” he said, and offered it back.
“Keep it,” she said. And smiled. The smile deepened the seriousness in her eyes. She was beautiful. “I don’t want to have to boil wash that snotty rag.”
Blair managed a thin smile. “Thank you.” And something deep, so deep it had grown used to the darkness, began the journey back to the light. “Really.” He wiped his damp palm on his trousers and lifted it towards her: “Robert Blair.”
She did not hesitate and took his hand. Her hand was strong and warm, as he knew it would be. They shook.
His whole body shook. He couldn’t stop. Weird thing was he didn’t even feel cold.
He watched Catherine’s lips as she told him her name. Her breath condensed in the cold air as she said it. The mist moved towards him and enveloped his face. He had been enveloped by her ever since.
Bob wondered what he would have done, or become, without Catherine. Her love had anchored him. Kept him safe. Even from himself.
Joseph, on the other hand, couldn’t take it. Joseph felt smothered by her love, not enveloped. He rebelled, mixed with the wrong people, started on the drugs and got into trouble.
He had run from his mother’s love straight into the arms of that trollop, Mandy.
“They’re here,” Catherine said.
Bob stood up and looked out the window. Joseph and a young woman had gotten out of a MKII Cortina. Bob made his way to the front door and stood behind it.
“What are you waiting for?” Catherine said. “Let them in then.”
He pulled open the door as his son and girlfriend walked up the path, holding hands. She was skinny and tall, nearly a head taller than Joseph. Even so, she looked too young for him.
Joseph had grown his hair long and had the beginnings of a patchy beard. His skin was pale and there were dark half moons under his eyes.
“Hey, man,” Joseph said. He lifted his hand that was being held by the girl. “This is Mandy.”
She lifted her other hand in a little wave, her eyes darted to Bob’s chest, looked at something over his right shoulder, then something over his left, but never directly at his face, never made eye-contact.
“Pleased to meet you, Mandy,” Bob said.
“Sure, sure,” she said. Her blond hair was a shaggy mane and she had on a lot of blue eye make up on. She wore a long sleeved one-piece dress that stopped half-way up her thigh. Was she even wearing a bra?
“Can we come in?” Joseph said.
“Of course, of course!” Bob stepped back. “Come on.”
Catherine stood by the living room door with her eyes on Joseph. Joseph held Mandy’s hand and looked at Bob.
“Hello, Joe,” Catherine said.
Mandy let go of Joseph’s hand and stepped forward. “You must be Joey’s mum, yeah? Oh, you’re so fucking pretty. I’m Mandy.” She wrapped her skinny arms around Catherine in a bony hug. Catherine returned the hug, her eyes still on Joseph. He stepped past Mandy and Catherine and into the living room. Bob followed and watched as Joseph took a seat on the sofa under the window.
Catherine untangled herself from Mandy’s embrace. “Hello Mandy, please make yourself at home.”
Mandy sat down on the couch beside Joseph without closing her knees. Bob saw a flash of her white underwear before he averted his gaze to Joseph’s face. What the hell was he smiling about?
“Can I get you drink?” Bob said.
“Oh, I could murder a g and t,” Mandy said.
Joseph looked sideways at her, put his hand on her bare thigh and squeezed.
“Jesus, Joey! Joking! Just a cup of tea, please, Joey’s dad,” Mandy said.
Joseph left his hand on Mandy’s thigh. “A beer would be great, man.” His grin, aimed at Bob, looked stretched too tight.
“Right. The kettle’s just boiled so, um, I’ll be right back,” Bob said and turned towards the kitchen. Catherine moved into the living room.
“So,” she said. “How long have you two been an item?”
Bob heard Mandy answer as he opened the fridge. “Oh, a couple of weeks. Joey’s such a sweetheart. Always got a little something for his girl, eh Joey?”
Bob came back into the room with the drinks. Joseph was looking at Mandy and Mandy’s eyes kept darting around the room, never settling on anything for more than a second. Catherine sat on the edge of an armchair, straight backed, her face neutral, her eyes on Joseph.
“Here we are,” Bob said and handed out the drinks. Joseph drank half his beer in two or three swallows. There was something wrong with him. He couldn’t seem to move his eyes without moving his head, as if they were stuck in their sockets.
“You have a lovely home,” Mandy said. Her eyes on Catherine, on Bob’s face, behind him, on the sofa, the carpet and back to Catherine. She was jiggling her knees back and forth. A semaphore of knicker flashes. “It’s fucking lovely.”
Bob wondered if Mandy knew she had spoken out loud. She picked up a cushion and began plucking at one corner. Joseph nodded and took a gulp of his beer.
The silence stretched. There was a ping from the kitchen. Catherine stood, her eyes never leaving Joseph’s face.
“That’ll be the chicken,” she said. “I’ll start serving up.”
“Oh great!” Mandy said. “I’m absolutely fucking starving!” She laughed as if she had just been told the funniest joke she’d ever heard. Joseph’s head continued to scan the room, his eyes fixed like the headlights of his car. He squeezed Mandy’s thigh and then he handed her something. “Oh! Yeah. I’ll go have a tinkle before dinner. I could eat a fucking horse!” She bounced off the sofa and then grabbed the door frame to stop herself from skipping out into the hall. She looked back at Bob. “Where’s the bog, Joey’s dad?”
“Up the stairs, first door on your left,” Bob said. He watched her legs as they disappeared up the stairs.
“Amazing, huh?” Joseph said.
Bob shrugged and sipped his beer.
“Come on, man, you can’t stop looking at her legs.”
Bob wanted to get up and shake his son: what the hell is wrong with you? Go and talk to your mum, for God’s sake. Instead, Bob held his glass with both hands and held his tongue as well. He concentrated on keeping his face as neutral as he could.
Catherine appeared in the doorway. “Won’t be long now.”
For the first time Joseph’s eyes seemed to be able to move independently from the rest of him. He looked at Bob, to Catherine and back to Bob without moving his head.
“We’re getting married,” Joseph said.
Bob wanted to look at Catherine and see what she was thinking. The silence grew. Bob licked his lips and felt his grip tighten on the glass. Why wasn’t Catherine talking? Joseph was smiling. Bob had to say something before his glass shattered. “You are not marrying her.”
Joseph’s eyes snapped to look at bob. It looked like they might pop out of his skull at any moment. “What did you just say?” he asked through his smile.
“I mean,” Bob said. “You’re young and-”
“You mean, you think she’s too young. Is that it?”
“No,” Bob looked at Catherine for help. She said nothing and looked at Joseph. “Look, I don’t think it’s a good idea, I-”
“Fuck you, man. You don’t have a say,” Joseph said. His smile was gone.
Catherine took a step forward. Joseph’s eyes slid to her feet and then up to her face. Bob thought that it was probably the first time Joseph had made eye contact with his mum since, well, since before he had left a year ago.
“We can help you with the drugs, Joe,” Catherine said.
Joseph’s face went red. It was the most healthy Joseph had looked since he’d arrived, Bob thought. Joseph clenched his teeth and his face screwed up ugly. He did not say another word. He stood, handed his glass to Bob and walked past Catherine into the hall.
Catherine did not move to stop him and continued to stare at the couch where Joseph had been seated. This was all going wrong. Bob moved into the hall and fought to think of something to say that might make things better.
Mandy skipped down the stairs. She sniffed. She looked from Joseph to Bob and then through the doorway at Catherine. To Bob, Mandy’s eyes looked wilder than ever. “Fuck, Joey,” she said. “We leaving?”
“Yep,” Joseph said and opened the front door.
“But I’m sooo hungry, Joey. It smells lovely, I-”
“Shut up. We’re leaving,” Joseph said. He turned and looked at Bob, ignoring Catherine but knowing she could hear. “Just keep the fuck out of my life.”
Mandy laughed. “Bye then!” she said and strode out the door. Joseph followed.
Bob stepped forward, put his hand out, to what? Stop him, grab him, plead? In the end he didn’t move fast enough because Joseph had already slammed the door in his face.
Bob walked back into the living room. He felt numb, he didn’t know what to do. He looked at Catherine. She spun on her heal and walked through to the kitchen. He heard the clatter of pots, plates and cutlery.
Her voice came through from the dining room. “Dinner’s ready,” she said. “Come eat.”
The shivering had stopped.
Bob felt nothing now: not warm, not cold, not scared, not lonely, not sad. Tired, though, very tired.
Everything was dim. He looked up at the circle of sky and saw it was getting dark. He tried to shout for help but his voice was weak, barely a croak. No-one would be able to hear it.
What did it matter anyway? Joseph had left.
In the weeks that had followed Joseph and Mandy’s visit, Bob had phoned Joseph’s flat every few days. Joseph would never answer, only Mandy. She was always glad to chat but there was only so much stream-of-consciousness bullshit Bob could stand. One day, the phone rang and rang and no-one answered. He drove to Joseph’s flat and found that they had left in the dead of night, and owed several months rent and electricity. No note, no forwarding address, just gone. Joseph had made sure his parents stayed out of his life because now there was no way into it.
When Bob talked to Catherine about Joseph she was full of self-recrimination. She’d given Joseph too much mothering, too much care. She blamed herself for not being able to see that Joseph was the kind of person that didn’t want, or need, that kind of love.
They heard nothing from Joseph for nearly thirteen years, and then on April 1st 1979 they received a phone call.
Bob had taken a bite of his third slice of toast and Catherine had just kissed his forehead as she went by to make a second pot of tea, when the phone rang. Catherine put the teapot down and stepped out into the hall. Bob could only hear Catherine’s side of the conversation.
“Yes, this is she.”
“Yes. Yes, I do. Joe. Joseph Blair.”
Bob stopped chewing and found himself on his feet and making his way out into the hall. He swallowed a dry ball of toast.
“This is a terrible April Fool’s joke.”
Bob stood behind Catherine and leaned his head towards the receiver. He heard a male voice but could not make out any of the words.
She turned and looked at Bob. He could not place the emotion on her face. He had never seen that look in her eyes before.
She sat down on the stairs. She held the receiver out to Bob. “I can’t…”
Panic. The emotion he couldn’t place, that he’d never seen? It was panic.
“Hello. I’m Robert Blair, who is this?”
“My name is David Clarke, Mr Blair. I’m an A&E nurse at the Edinburgh Royal. Your son asked me to call.”
“We’ve stabilised any immediate threat, and Joseph is now in intensive care. You should come immediately.”
“Can I talk to him?”
“No, we’ve just taken him off the ventilator. We’re keeping a close eye on him until we can be sure he can keep breathing on his own. It’s still early days.”
“Do you know what happened?”
“Um, I don’t… Haven’t the police phoned you already?”
“The police? For Christ’s sake, David, what’s going on?”
“I really can’t say, Mr Blair. Your son needs you.”
“David, please, for the love of God.”
There was a pause, and Bob imagined David Clarke, A&E nurse at the Edinburgh Royal, taking the phone receiver from one ear and placing it on the other.
“Your son is alive, Mr Blair. His wife and child were…look, when the paramedics arrived at the scene…”
“…it turned out your son still had a pulse.”
“Mr Blair? Come to the hospital, he will need you when he wakes up.”
“We’ll come right away,” Bob said.
Bob sat in darkness with water up to his chest.
When Catherine and Bob had reached the hospital, they had found Joseph sitting up, a food tray across his lap, sipping tomato soup from a spoon.
Joseph was stick thin, with no muscle tone and no body fat. His head was shaved, his eyes were sunk deep in their sockets and his cheekbones were so sharp and protruding it made his face look like a skull.
Jesus Christ, Bob thought, he looks older than I do.
Joseph looked up and it took his eyes several seconds to focus. He smiled. His teeth looked too big for his head, like he was wearing someone else’s dentures. “Hullo, Mum. Hullo, Dad.” He went back to eating his soup.
“Hello, Joe,” Catherine said. She stepped forward and took her son’s free hand between hers. He continued to spoon tomato soup into his mouth with the other.
Catherine holding out her handkerchief, gentle hand on Bob’s shoulder.
Catherine’s jokes about her prosthetic breast, her determination to beat the cancer.
Catherine’s eyes when they had first made love.
Spring of 1943.
As the train pulled in, Bob spotted Catherine on the platform. She always met him at the station, always with a welcoming smile and always wearing her best dress, even in early spring under thick woollens. This time was no different.
That was kind of an answer, wasn’t it?
He stepped onto the platform just as she came forward and wrapped her arms around him. After a moment she dropped her arms and grabbed hold of his hand. “I’ve got something to show you,” she said and turned and walked out of the station.
Bob had to double-time it to keep up. They took a side road behind the station that was little more than a rutted track with head-high hedges on either side. “Where are we going?”
“Wait and see.”
“What about my answer?”
The hedges thinned and fell away leaving a dry stone wall on one side and a wire fence under trees on the other. The trees were green with buds, and the verges of the road were yellow, blue and white with daffodils, blue-bells and snow-drops.
Catherine stopped at a gate in the dry stone wall.
“Secret entrance,” she said. She opened the gate and then motioned for Bob to enter. A path rose up a steep slope. “Go! Up to the top,” she said. Bob began the climb as she closed and latched the gate behind them.
Bob got to the top first and saw the remains of several stone buildings. The roof of every structure was gone, not even a timber skeleton remained. Some of the taller walls had collapsed or stood leaning against the others.
“Robert Blair, the Old Farm, Old Farm, Robert Blair,” Catherine said from his shoulder.
“Pleased to meet you, Old Farm.” Bob said. “You can call me Bob.”
Catherine laughed. Delighted. “Round the back, round the back is where we need to go.” She grabbed his hand again and led the way around the crumbling farmhouse.
Bob turned the corner to reveal a grassy courtyard dotted with daisies, buttercups and clover. Three sides of the courtyard were walled by hedges and trees, the fourth, by the back wall of the farmhouse. From the empty doorway, the remains of a path, choked with weeds, ran from the door to a low circular wall made from cemented stones.
Catherine shook off his hand and ran along the path. She took off her coat and draped it over the low stone wall. She placed her hand on the wall and turned to face him. “This,” she said. “Is the Wishing Well.”
Bob did not remember walking the last few steps to the well because he was imprinting her into his memory: her hand on the rim of the well, her yellow dress with the red flowers, her body bent slightly, her head and eyes turned towards him, bright and happy in the sunshine.
“The Wishing Well,” he said. He found it hard to tear his eyes away from her. He touched the wall and found the stone was warm, having soaked up a mornings worth of sun. Each stone was fitted carefully against its neighbours. There was no cover and no bucket or rope, just a circle of expertly laid stonework.
“Was this what you wanted to show me? This well of yours?”
“It’s not mine,” she said.
He leaned over to look down the well. The stonework continued into darkness. He thought he saw a glint far below and he smelled the mineral scent of fresh water. He looked up at Catherine. “Smells clean.”
“Clean enough to drink,” Catherine agreed. She took a coin from her pocket. Closed her eyes and tossed it into the well. There was a smile on her lips.
Bob watched her face as he heard the coin bounce once on the wall and then a small splash as it hit the water. At the sound of the splash Catherine opened her eyes and looked him in the eye.
“Your turn. Throw a coin in and make a wish before it hits the water,” she said.
Bob tilted his head. “And waste my hard earned m-”
“Throw a coin in and make a wish before it hits the water.” Her face was serious. “I won’t tell my wish until you’ve made yours.”
He rummaged in his pocket for a coin and kept his eyes on hers. “Okay.” He held a thrupenny bit between his thumb and forefinger.
“Don’t forget to close your eyes!”
He closed his eyes, still seeing the after-image of her face, and threw the coin in. It was a simple wish and he completed it easily before the coin hit the water. He opened his eyes.
She was gone.
He turned around full circle. She was nowhere to be seen.
He looked back at the farmhouse, and scanned the hedges and tree-line. There was no way she could have made it to any of those boundaries without running. And besides, he hadn’t heard anything.
He leaned over to look down into the well. “Catherine?” His voice echoed back at him from below. Was that movement down there or just the fading ripples of the coin splash?
He moved around the low wall of the well. He kept expecting to see the yellow of her dress as he circumnavigated. He arrived back to where he started, one full revolution. There came the sound of a scrape. He switched direction, speeding up, and headed back the other way. There came another scrape and then a cry. When he rounded the wall he saw her sitting on the grass, the dress above her knees, a flash of girdle. She looked up and saw him and her frown turned into a laugh.
She scooted round and rested her back against the well. She settled the hem of her dress below her knees and straightened out her legs. She patted the ground.
Bob eased himself down. She took his hand and cupped it between hers.
He was drawn to her eyes. They were clear and deep blue. She watched him as he watched her. She squeezed his hand.
“What did you wish for?” he said.
“I can’t tell you or it won’t come true.”
“Alright, I won’t tell either.” His eyes were serious. “I want mine to come true.”
What happened next was easy, with no hesitation, and no awkwardness. They kissed and undressed each other. There was tenderness and passion and excitement. She encouraged him with her eyes as he entered her. Her eyes never left his and she watched him with more love and trust and desire than he had ever thought possible.
Bob knew he had never seen anything more beautiful in his life.
After, they held each other in the warm sunshine next to the low wall of the well.
“Your wish come true yet?” Catherine said.
What she said next wiped the smile from his lips: “So. Will you marry me?”
Bob’s hands lay by his sides, under the water. His head rested back against the brickwork. He had never felt so tired.
He would see that look in Catherine’s eyes for the next fifty years every time they made love.
He could see those eyes now, looking at him from the other side of the well.
He blinked and lifted his head, peered into the darkness. There was nothing there.
He could not hold his head up and let it hang forward. His chin almost touched his chest.
Joseph’s blonde mop of hair as he ran down the beach in Cornwall.
Joseph’s shaved skeletal head and deep blank eyes.
A comforting hand and a handkerchief.
A look of love and trust that filled his life with meaning.
He had been there for her as she fought. He watched her love and trust and desire fade away to nothing.
1994. Royal Infirmary. Oncology.
Bob insisted that he be by her side. He would not leave and they could not make him. He saw their poker faces for what they were and they would not bluff him. Not this time. They said she was going fast, and that she was in no pain and that she was well sedated and would not wake again.
No pain? That was a joke. Everything was pain.
When the cancer was found in her stomach the doctors were not that surprised. She had been off her food, losing weight, and had been passing blood. Eleven years clear after the breast cancer. Not a bad run, she said. Didn’t expect that many, she said.
After that it was quick. Not easy, not in the least, but it was quick.
Bob knew that behind her calm demeanour and warm humour she hurt, hurt to her core. He kept up the pretence with her, for her. They talked about Joseph and their life together and what they would do when she felt a bit better.
They both knew they were just killing time.
Now, he held her hand in both of his, ignored the doctors, and willed her awake.
Fifty nine hours had passed since she had kissed the back of his hand and said: “Goodnight, darling.” He did not want that to be her last words to him. He had things he needed to say. He knew it was selfish of him, that he should let her go, she had been through so much, but he wanted more. He needed more.
His bladder was so full it felt bloated and uncomfortable and he couldn’t wait any longer. He was as quick as he could and when he returned she was so still that he thought she had gone without him. He gasped and fumbled for her hand, which was still warm. He heard the bleeps of the monitors and saw the rise and fall of her chest and he knew that she was still there.
What if he hadn’t been there for the end? He would have failed her, this one time when she needed him more than he needed her.
A doctor came in, performed some routine examinations. He told Bob that there was a spare bed down the hall if he wanted to get some sleep. Bob told the doctor where he could stick his poker chips. The doctor left without another word.
Later, a nurse popped her head in and asked Bob if he needed anything. He turned his head to face the door, and declined.
When he turned back Catherine’s eyes were open.
Her face was taught with effort or pain or both, but her eyes, they were bright and aware.
“Joe,” she said, with that look in her eyes that he had loved for so long. “My wish.”
The sibilant end of her sentence faded to silence. Her chest did not rise again.
Bob watched her face become slack.
Her pupils were dilated, all focus lost. Her eyes no longer held any emotion. He closed them, and then kissed them both, one after the other.
He would not cry. He. Would. Not. Cry.
He couldn’t cry because there was no-one to hand him a handkerchief.
He cried anyway.
His chin pressed against his chest. A drip fell from the end of his nose into the water. Ripples spread out around him, bounced off the walls, headed back, making interference patterns.
He had no strength left. It was time to sleep. His inner well had finally run dry. Catherine and filled it continuously and regularly every day they had been together. She had filled him up until he thought he might overflow. Fifty five years worth of her calm, sweet love.
It had taken him six years to drain it after she had gone. Now, he was empty.
As the ripples faded and the water became still he thought he saw his reflection. He frowned, it was too dark to see anything. Where was the light coming from?
But it was not his reflection at all, no, it was Catherine, here with him at the end, just as she had been on that spring morning in ‘43.
It was Catherine with that same look of trust and love filling his parched soul.
Robert Blair died, and his wish was granted.
He wished he could be with her forever.