John felt the slight pressure on his shoulders. Slight movement. He opened his eyes slowly, timidly. Light began to seep into the cracks painfully and obtrusively and he began again. Every time it was like being reborn, but with a little more left on the other side.
A woman stood over him. She was pretty. That was his first thought. She was pretty but looked tired. Sad, slightly. But he knew her. A wave of familiarity flooded over him. He knew her.
Lucy. His little girl. He smiled and held her hand.
She leaned in and hugged him before sitting back down on the chair facing his armchair. He smiled at her again and looked around the room. There was a man sat in the corner. He was well dressed as if he’d come straight from work. Lovely imitation suede brogues, smart black trousers and a dark blue crushed cotton shirt. Left leg at a right angle over the other holding something in the palm of his hand. Staring at it, touching it. Looking out of the window. Looking anywhere but in his direction. That must be… it’s Michael. It is him! He looks… different.
“Hello Lucy” He smiled. “Hello Michael”
“Hello dad” replied his daughter, smiling with a beauty and a sadness that ripped right through him.
Michael turned to face him. “Hello John, how you doing?”
“Well, I'm almost finished on my autobiography. Then I’ll think about climbing Everest.”
“And how’s the.. uh… the”
“I’m a digital archaeologist, dad. Remember? We make simulations…”
“Yes, that’s right… sort of anyway”
“Of course… I forget. I’m sorry. I keep forgetting things. It’s the heat. This place…”
“I know dad”
“They keep the heat up so high. I can't think! It’s… uh… it’s a little bit frustrating” He let out a laugh that, had he been on his own, would have probably developed into tears.
“Oh dad…” Lucy put her hand on his and rubbed it. His skin was like soft, fleshy paper.
“How has the writing been going?” Asked Michael.
“Ahhh” said John and waved his hand dismissively, pulling a face as if tasting lemons for the first time.
“No really, I think it could be fascinating, an account of the past 80 years from the perspective of a normal person”
“I don't know. What have I got to write about? 40 years as a teacher. Love of my life dies of cancer. Slowly losing my mind. Nothing, no one wants to read that.”
Michael got up and started talking in an impassioned manner. “Really, this is what archaeology, what history is. Every major event gets covered every which way by the news media, but there’s no really impression of what it was like for ordinary people. Not really”
“Oh, I don't know Michael, I’m old. I've no flair for writing. Every time I try and recount something from my past it sounds like I'm describing a commuting route or reading train times.”
“No, no I really think…”
“Michael…” said Lucy, sternly.
Michael sat back down again.
“So how are you getting on with the computer we got you?”
“Yes, very well. It’s very good you know. Quite like the old Apples we used in school”
“Yeah, we hunted one down with the closest interface to those old ones. It’s got the old QWERTY keyboard if you like and it does everything just fine. You can get your films on it ok?”
A silence descended over the room, as was so frequent in these mostly stilted and forced conversations. They could hear the distant roar of the building’s humidifier and heating system, always set far too high for anyone without the terrible circulation of old people. Someone was watching a film or a show on a screen in one of the rooms nearby. Muffled American accents seeped through the walls. Someone shouting. English. A resident.
Knock knock knock.
They all turned to face the door, slightly startled.
It was Pearline, one of the carers. She opened the door slightly and stuck her head and hand in. She was holding a water jug.
“Come to change your water.”
“Yes, please come in.” said Michael, presumptuously. Lucy looked at the ground.
Pearline came in and smiled and changed the water, pouring the old jug away and taking a new one from its disinfected, cellulose wrapping. She smiled again and left. She was an intensely shy woman. She had been one of the few thousand to make it from the Côte d'Ivoire when she was a child. Like most people hearing about atrocities, natural or otherwise, Lucy had tried to be as supportive as possible but there was nothing she could say or do. She tilted her head and furrowed her brow, rubbing her arm supportively in the way many English people would, caught up in the guilt of their indirect involvement. Lifestyles. Taxes. Governments. These things all lead to misery somewhere else. It was that simple. With a father like Lucy had, there was no way she couldn’t be aware of this, even if she was at a loss to know what exactly to do about it.
There just weren’t words.
“Perhaps you'd like to see if you can get us three cups of tea?”
“ Can't I just ask Pearline?”
“Its not her job and you know it”
“Sorry, yes. I’ll be back in a tick”
Lucy once again turned her attention to her dad.
“Now pop. I want you to tell me how you're doing.”
“Oh me… don't worry about me petal. I'm fine. I’ll be fine.”
“And you're settling in alright, are you?”
“I think so. How long have I been here now?”
“About three months dad”
“Of course, of course. Time just seems to… It’s odd. Before I had a routine. I’d go out and get the paper, go for a little walk, come home and fix a bit of lunch. Tuesdays and Thursdays it was the seniors club. Wednesdays I’d do a class… I just…”
“But you still have a routine. You still get the paper. Are they not giving you enough to do here?”
“Oh no, that’s fine. I'm taking minutes at the meetings you know? And there are the art classes. And they've asked me to pick a film for this week…”
John let out a sigh.
“Dad. You miss her don't you? You miss mum.”
“Look dad, I'm an adult now. I've got my own kids. You can talk to me.”
“I just feel like… It… It should have been me, not her.”
“But then she’d be just as miserable without you, you know?”
“I know. What I mean is, without her, I may as well be dead. I haven’t got anything left. It all left with her. All I’m doing is waiting.”
Tears began rolling down Lucy’s face and she brought a sleeved fist up to her mouth, just like she used to when she was little. When James would bully her or when she didn’t get what she wanted.
“Here we are”
Michael entered the room backwards, pushing the door open with his arse. He spun round to try and retain some dignity as quickly as the tray would allow him.
“three lovely cups of… is everything alright?”
Lucy sniffed and wiped her eyes with the corner of her sleeve.
“Yes, yes. Everything’s fine. Thank you for the tea.”
“I got some biscuits too. I thought we could use something sweet.”
Lucy smiled and patted the seat next to her. Michael smiled back.
“There you go dad. Milk, no sugar and a couple of hob nobs”
“I like black earl grey with lemon.”
“But thanks anyway, its lovely”
Michael smiled awkwardly and suddenly thought back to when he first met John. He'd felt like a teenager. They'd certainly both slipped into roles well, though marriage and children went some way to proving he wasn't a ‘love-em-and-leave-em’ type.
They all finished their tea in near silence.
“Well… we should probably get going…” Michael put his cup down on a bedside cabinet. It was the one that Lucy had run into when she was 5. She still had the vague scar, a slight dent in her forehead. It was a Johaanas design. One of the first wave of affordable furniture that was guaranteed a minimum of thirty years. Some kind of sustainable resin. This guarantee was a legal requirement- part of a tokenistic gesture towards the backlash against the ‘wasteful west’, but one that had worked remarkably well.
Lucy looked at her watch and sighed.
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
She leaned forward and hugged John, kissing him on the cheek.
“See you really soon dad”
Michael shook his hand.
“Let me know how you get on with that computer. If it starts giving you problems, you call me up or message me. Anytime. I can always pick it up on this thing.”
Michael waved his ‘mother box’ and strapped it back on its belt holster. The kind of thing a father would wear.
“Heh. Ok. Ok. See you soon. See you.”
They shut the door behind them and left John to slowly fall asleep again.