Monday, 5 July 2010

Short Story: A Better Place

At the home, there were a great many forms to be signed. Signed and counter-signed. Things that came in triplicate. A copy for ourselves, a copy for themselves, a copy for the insurance people. As if all this wasn’t hard enough.

The man had a fear of all forms of administration. He kept looking at his father sat there in the wheelchair with a thick green woollen blanket over his legs, staring out at something with those cold, empty pools of his. Up against the large back wheel of the chair there was a large suitcase of a fading reddish colour and a rubber plant. This was a very reasonable place. Some friends of the man’s wife had recommended it when they had recently made a similar decision. It was more than they could afford but the man could not afford to lose his wife. This thought alone seemed to bring him back to the paperwork on the receptionist’s walnut desk. All these boxes to be ticked. The time was getting on but he felt that, with his father behind him, he should at least properly read everything in front of him before signing. He thought he could hear his wife sighing each time he lifted the pen back off the pink form. He felt watched, like he was in the school gymnasium sitting an exam and being watched by the teacher sat below the big white clock with its unforgiving ticking. The man put his new mobile number in the emergency contact box. He had listed it on his phone that day, under the name me. He kissed his father goodbye and looked at his wife. It was time to go.

“Here they come,” said the little boy.

“Thank God,” said his sister.

The children had wanted to come but they were told to wait inside the car. It was late and it was raining. They sat in the back seat and played on their consoles.

Their mother entered the car first; she sat in the front passenger seat. She looked at the children.

“Granddad will be fine here. We’ll all miss him, but this is a better place for him,”

The man got back into the driver seat. He looked at his wife and then at his children. He didn’t know what to say. He sighed loudly and went to start the ignition and then stopped.

“I still have the receptionist’s pen,” he said, and made to leave the car.

“She’ll have another. Let’s just go. It’s late.”

The man looked at his children.

“Let’s go then.”

On the way home the children bickered about who would have use of the new bedroom. The mother occasionally shot them a look of reproach but more often she would put a consoling hand on her husband’s shoulder as he drove through the rain. All the man could think about was the receptionist’s pen. He could feel it in his shirt pocket, it wasn’t a feeling he was used to. This little silver ballpoint so close to his heart. It wasn’t a feeling he liked. He wished he could go back and return the pen. But that was impossible, for now.

Each time he turned a corner, he’d indicate and that little ticking noise would start up and would infuriate him for no reason he could properly articulate. So he said nothing.

They got home and ordered take away food.

In the morning the man woke earlier than he normally would on a Saturday. His wife was still fast asleep, his children too. He peered in on his father’s room. The thick curtains were closed and only a thin lip of light from above the rings permeated the gloom. He sat down upon the little single bed and placed his head in his hands. A clock ticked on an old side table. He knew that clock from his childhood. It sat above the old fireplace in the kitchen. He would use it as a guide to the bathroom if he needed it in the night when he was small. He breathed louder to see if he could stop hearing the ticking. It was impossible.

“I’m going to take the car for a wash, maybe get a service.”

“Why’s that?” his wife replied.

“It was making a weird noise last night on the way home. I just want to get it checked out.”

He checked again that he had the receptionist’s pen in the inside pocket of his coat and shut the door behind him quietly.

He rang the little bell on the receptionist’s desk. There was a room behind the chairs and he could hear a woman speaking on the telephone. She was giving directions. He thought perhaps he should just leave the pen there on the counter and go but he felt bad about ringing the bell for now he could hear the woman politely but clearly trying to end her telephone conversation.

The man remembered the first time that he had entered the building a few weeks previously. He had finished work early that day after having had a sympathetic chat with his line manager a few days before. His wife had been supposed to meet him here at two. She was running late. So he took a seat in the waiting area and started flicking through some magazines. In the background he could hear some music coming from a radio in the office. It wasn’t loud but it felt disrespectful.

The man started reading a short story about a guy who decides to kill a few hours in a strange town by visiting his father. In the story this guy mentioned that the song “Downtown” was playing on a radio in the background. At that very same moment that he read that line “Downtown” came on the radio in the office.

It was a coincidence that made the man’s head hurt. He put the magazine down. He didn’t like the way he felt. He never wanted to hear music again. Eventually his wife had arrived. They took a look around. Said they had some other places to view but they knew. They had decided things.

The man could see his surname written on a folder just beneath the counter. It took him a while to realise that this was also his father’s name. Eventually the woman came out of the office. She had beautiful red hair and spoke like she was about to serve fries.

“Sorry about that. How may I help?”

“I brought my father here but I took this pen by mistake. I just wanted to return it.”

“What’s your father’s name?”

“Oh. Erm. Yes, of course. Johnson.”

The woman picked up the folder.


“I was going to call by later, I just wanted to return the pen now.”

“I see.”

“Because I was passing.”

On the drive back home from the garage, the man refused to indicate. As the car slowed outside his house, he saw his wife cleaning in an upstairs room. The thick curtains had gone and she knelt upon the sill, spraying and wiping the glass. She had the radio on, which was odd, because she didn’t like music that much usually. He shut the car door loudly to show he had returned. She waved back for a split second and returned to the chore.

When he got inside the house, the first thing he could hear was his kids arguing on the second flight of stairs.

“Mum said I could have it for studying.”

“You liar. I need it for all my things.”

“Granddad said to me that I could have the room. Ask Mum.”

“He didn’t say that. He never said anything.”

“Dad said too. He said. He said. Ask Dad when he gets back.”

He got to the middle landing and everyone shut up. His wife came out of the bedroom where he had sat that morning and the house was filled with light from that side. He felt breathless. He walked into his father’s room and sat on the bare mattress. The clock was still ticking loudly upon the side table.

His children walked in after him, quietly with their hands locked together. The man looked into his children’s eyes and he was suddenly afraid.

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