By Mark Burrow
A passer-by wouldn’t notice the white plastic handle fastened next to the front door. The postman most likely pushed the letters through the vertical slot in the dark wooden door and then went back up the path, oblivious.
Ben released the knocker.
‘Hold your horses,’ said his mother, Jan.
‘You’re here finally,’ she said, letting Ben step by her and into the hallway. She kissed him on the cheek. ‘I thought you’d be here at half three.’ She took his jacket and hung it on the banister.
‘I walked,’ said Ben.
‘From your house?’
‘I got off two stops early and walked. The weather is great, I didn’t want to sit baking on the tube.’
‘But we’ve been waiting,’ she said, adding: ‘You’re here now and that’s the main thing.’
From the garden, a voice called. ‘Is that him, Jan? Is he here yet? Is that him? Is it?’
‘YES, HE’S HERE. DON’T WORRY, HE’S HERE.’ Then quietly, she said: ‘He gets agitated so easily now.’
‘He never was one for patience, though, was he?’
‘True,’ she answered.
‘How is he?’
Jan shrugged, glancing downwards at the pink carpet. ‘Frustrated. Bored. He’s so bored just sitting in the house.’
‘He does get out, though?’
‘Yes. We go shopping on Thursdays. He goes to the club as well. It’s hard, though, Ben. He won’t go in the wheelchair so walking about the supermarket is so slow, and people look at him.’
‘I take it he has a pint when he goes to the club?’
‘He says he doesn’t, but I know he does. Which you can’t blame him for, can you? But he’s stopped going up there, saying it’s depressing; full of old men, which it is.’
Robert was shouting from the garden.
‘You better go,’ said Jan. ‘I’ll bring nibbles out in a mo. What do you want to drink?’
‘A lager, if you’ve got one.’ Ben paused, then added: ‘I completely forgot to bring anything for you. Sorry…’
‘Don’t worry. You’re here, that’s what counts. You should’ve let us know you were going to be late. He was getting really worked up.’
Ben passed the dining room. The table, instead of being in the centre of the room, was pushed up against a wall, creating space for Robert to move as this was now his room during the day, where he watched television and films. When he left the hospital, six months after the stroke, he said he couldn’t wait to watch his war films: D-Day…Battle of the Bulge…A Bridge too Far…Saving Private Ryan…Zulu.
Ben stepped into the garden.
Robert craned round awkwardly. ‘Here he is,’ he said.
The sun was bright and strong and the air smelled of freshly cut grass. Ben shook his father’s right hand.
‘I thought you weren’t coming.’
‘You wanted to drag it out for as long as possible, didn’t you? Tell the truth. You thought, on a day like this, do I really want to be sitting with that cripple dad of mine?’
‘Don’t be stupid. Why say stuff like that?’
‘Eh, Jan?’ said Robert, laughing.
‘Are you giving him grief?’ said Jan, putting a bowl of Bombay mix onto the green garden table.
‘He’d do anything not to see us.’
‘He’s only arrived a minute ago.’
‘I’m joking. You know that, right?’
‘He knows, see. I’m kidding.’
Ben took a handful of the mix and shoved it into his mouth. Bits dropped onto the front of his cotton shirt. The fence was still covered in a new coat of paint only a quarter of the way along. Robert’s stroke occurred soon after he’d started. He went to bed on a Sunday night and awoke at three in the morning, needing the toilet. He forced himself out of bed and fell over on the landing. His joke was that it was “like you felt as if you were drunk, but without the good parts”.
Jan poured a can of Guinness into a pint glass. ‘Thanks girl,’ said Robert.
Ben poured lager into a glass.
‘I love this, sitting here in the garden, looking at your mother’s flowers and the tree down there. You know, in the afternoons, you sit here and there isn’t a sound around. Only the birds and the peacefulness is stunning.’
‘I bet it is,’ said Ben.
Foam gathered at the corners of Robert’s mouth. He wiped the right side but didn’t touch the left, which sagged slightly, making his lips appear crooked.
‘That’s better,’ said Robert. ‘So how’s work? You enjoying it?’
‘You do like your new job, then?'
‘It’s much better, yes.’
‘You’re happy with life?’
Ben sipped the lager. His father was smiling at him. In the kitchen, there was the sound of plates and glasses and cupboard doors.
‘I suppose I am,’ said Ben. He swallowed another mouthful, washing away the powdery taste of the mix. In the garden next door, there was the scraping noise of neighbours moving plastic furniture across their patio.
Jan placed a bowl of ready salted peanuts next to the mix. She sat down, exhaling dramatically, then reached for a glass of white wine. ‘It’s so good to see you,’ she said. ‘How’s the job going? Are you glad you switched? You were nervous, weren’t you? About starting at a new place, I mean.’
‘I am glad. It was the right decision to switch.’
‘How are the people? What are they like?’
‘They’re friendly enough. It’ll take a while to figure what’s what - what they're really like there.’
‘That’s nice to hear,’ said Jan. ‘We’ve been wondering, haven’t we? I do call and call but you’re never in, are you? I can never seem to get through.’
‘So you were saying.’
‘If I didn’t know better, then I’d think you were ignoring us.’
‘I’m not ignoring you.’
‘I know that. I’m just saying, that’s all.’
The three of them sat there. Muffled voices could be heard from the garden next door. Jan shook her head and mimed the word: ‘nightmare’, pointing to that side of the fence. ‘They’re so common, a real rough house,’ she whispered. ‘The father’s in construction.’
Jan popped a few peanuts into her mouth. ‘Here Robert, have you shown him your arm?’
‘Go on, show him. Show how much better it’s got.’
Robert shuffled in the chair. With his normal arm, he supported his left, raising it, and then he let go and, his back straight, taking deep breaths, he moved the arm up above his head and then slowly lowered it so the hand was parallel with the table.
‘Isn’t it good?’ said Jan.
‘The control is much better,’ said Ben.
Robert glanced over, nodding. ‘Yeah,’ he gasped. He struggled to clench and unclench his fingers. Half succeeding to do this, he moved his hand toward the can of Guinness. Jan and Ben watched. He arched slightly to the right, utilising strength from his shoulder, trying to stop the hand from moving too high or too low to the can. He breathed in, then out, opening his thumb and fingers, then he clasped the can and grinned. ‘There,’ he said, exhaling.
‘Be careful,’ said Jan.
In jerky movements, he raised the can.
‘Well done, dad.’
‘It’s brilliant, isn’t it?’
‘This time last year,’ said Robert. ‘When I was lying in that bed after it happened, did you think I could do that again?’ He used his right hand to remove it from his left and put it on the table.
Ben looked at his mother. ‘No, we didn’t, did we? You couldn’t move at all. It was touch and go for a while.’
Robert started sobbing.
‘Oh, that’s started him off again. Don’t worry,’ she said, getting up and pulling a tissue from the pocket of her white trousers.
Standing up, Ben went into the kitchen and opened the door to the fridge and grabbed another can of lager and a Guinness. He heard his father say, ‘It’s like you’re my mother.’
Jan made a joke and the two of them laughed. Before the stroke, his father, in his mid-fifties, a London taxi driver, was in the final weeks of training for his third marathon.
‘Are you staying for dinner?’ said Jan.
‘Yep. I need to leave about nine though as I’m meeting friends later.’ He opened the can and refilled his father’s glass.
‘I’ll go and put the food on. You two okay sitting here, you’re not cold are you?’
Robert looked at Ben. ‘You hear this? She talks to me like I’m her son.’
‘I’m only asking.’
‘We’re fine. Leave us be.’
After a silence, Robert said: ‘Your mother’s worried about the money situation.’
‘She keeps getting told to go to Citizen’s Advice and then Citizen’s Advice tell her to go where she’s just been.’
‘She told me. I’ll help, though.’
‘That’s reassuring to hear.’ He laughed. ‘It should be us giving you money, not the other way round.’
‘Things don’t always work out how you expect them to.’
‘I won’t argue with that,’ said Robert, moving his left arm, looking at it like it belonged to another person.
The charcoal smell from a barbecue wafted into the garden.
‘It’s April,’ said Robert. ‘I’ve given myself until the end of May to get better.’
‘That’s too soon. You’re putting pressure on yourself.’
‘I have to set myself goals. You don’t understand.’
‘I do but…’
‘Sitting in the house all day. I can’t do cooking, you know, only watch those programmes during the day. That’s all I do now. I’ve watched my films and all that’s left is cookery programmes.’
Food or, more accurately, the process of cooking, was his father’s passion. Chinese, Indian, Italian. The portions were always enormous. An entire wok would be overflowing with broccoli, mushrooms, noodles, carrots, asparagus, the whole works.
‘What’s going to happen after May?’
‘I’m going back to work.’
‘I think the arm will be fine. The leg’s better. It’s the eye, really, getting sight back in that eye.’ He pointed to the left side. ‘Once that comes back then I reckon I can start again. She’s worried about the money but when I’m back cabbing we’ll be alright.’
Ben topped up his glass. ‘I don’t think you should put too much pressure on yourself.’
‘You should set yourself goals though.’
‘Did mum tell you that I walked to the club yesterday? Walked by myself, there and back.’
‘She did. That’s brilliant.’
‘I had my stick but I went. I made it. And today I feel better for that walk. You saw the arm, it’s not so tight. The signals, you see, are finding paths to get from my brain to my arm again. I can’t feel the hand still,’ he said, touching it with his right hand, then patting the fingers and the left side of his face and mouth. ‘Nor here. But it’ll come back in time, won’t it? This time next year, who knows…’
‘Look at the progress you’ve made already.’
‘Goals. You got to set yourself goals. Don’t tell your mother, but I want to run the marathon next year.’
‘The marathon. Are you still running?’
‘Two, three times a week, yeah.’
‘Shall we do it together next year?’
A gust of wind made the leaves in the apple tree at the end of the garden rustle. They both looked at it and listened.
Ben made himself smile. Finally, he said: ‘Yeah, why not, that'll be fun.’