by Stuart Snelson
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Patiently he sat, surrounded by those soon to die, or at least they imagined that to be the case, waiting to see if he would join them. Conversation was declined out of wariness, an uncertainty with regards concealed afflictions. He certainly had no desire to engage in an exchange of symptoms. If he sought reassurance, he wouldn’t find it here. The room’s wheezing occupants, lugubrious souls, pondered the differing weights of their consultations. From hyperventilating hypochondriacs whose illnesses were confined to their minds, to those unfortunates three blood-speckled coughs away from last rites. The doctor, he imagined, spent his days pinballing between emotions, from the all clear to terminal disclosures, the bearer of all tidings. He had no desire to hear the doctor’s consolatory tone. Around him each face, each death’s door demeanour, displayed an expectancy that when they finally shuffled in for examination, they would be whisked away in ambulances before pleasantries could be exchanged. How many imagined last breaths had been drawn in this room? Morbid, they anticipated the elevation brought about by pallbearers.
As he sat in the waiting room, he wondered how much of his life had been spent in this manner. He had seen, over the years, life’s components broken down into percentiles, lives fractioned off, proportional statistics for each constituent act. Such a number of years spent asleep, so many months engaged in ablutionary acts, one’s three score and ten reduced to a bar chart biography. Did anyone assess their life in this way whilst it was still being lived? He preferred not to live his life in this manner, analysing dull accumulations, but nonetheless he was intrigued, possibly just to pass the time, how much of one’s life did one spend waiting?
Contemplating the amassed seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months of irretrievable time wasted in this way, he wondered how they might better be served. He imagined time’s off-cuts, almost insignificant in themselves, pieced together, a patchwork of time passed uneventfully. The awkward lulls between events, every finger tapping, foot pacing, clock watching moment stitched together: an assemblage of salvaged time. The things he could have done with such temporal abundance. He could have learnt a language, written a novel. But life didn’t work like that. Those slivers of wasted time would remain exactly that.
For his own amusement, surveying the sickly, he allocated ailments, tried to separate the gonorrhoeal from the terminal. He imagined the eagerness with which they presented their abnormalities – a unique protuberance, a lavish rash – a parade of bilious strippers. Sleeves rolled, freckles proffered as though they were pulsating tumours, their doctor bracing himself for their magnified maladies, the exaggerated dramas they twisted from their symptoms, underwhelmed repeatedly by deviations of little concern. Considering the furtively restless man to his right, he imagined him to be the type to deliver a five-minute monologue by way of explanation, before apologetically lowering his trousers ready for inspection. How did one keep a straight face during such presentations? Turning he received a friendly nod. Christ, may he be spared that, induction into their feeble fraternity.
What could appearances tell him? As a group, they were unsettlingly generic, would remain so until the more convincing among them were relocated, accorded the specialists who would oversee their demise. He needed light relief, would welcome a raft of slapstick accidents. Where were the children with saucepans lodged on their heads, the quixotic slips beloved of comic strips? Where were the easily diagnosable? The readily bleeding, flows stemmed by makeshift compressions? They were more the domain of accident and emergency, along with the unfortunate insertions of urban myth. The doctor’s waiting room offered a more genteel terror. Here disclosures remained behind closed doors.
He had only attended the practice a handful of times yet already some of the faces were wearily familiar. Repeat prescriptions perhaps, or loyalty point accumulators. What would one obtain with medical loyalty points? Some cosmetic consideration? A little reshaping or augmentation? His sympathies lay not with the patients, but with the doctor, routinely updated with the minutiae of their incremental decline.
Personally, he eschewed self-diagnosis, but wondered how many of the assembled had succumbed to its fatal charms. The majority he suspected, an uncontrollable outbreak. Symptoms entered into search engines provided early deaths for those who were looking for them. Computers had yet to cultivate compassion, acquire a convincing bedside manner, could entertain no notion of breaking things gently. Once consulted, they seemed to revel in displaying their death sentences within fractions of a second. Previously the hypochondriac had a limited arsenal: a hefty medical encyclopaedia – unputdownable, a page-turner – had provided their anxieties. Now there were no physical limits to their paranoia. Upon a few typed words, the digitally diligent became overburdened, greedily stockpiled disorders. Oracle consulted, results festered in the suggestible until they duly booked appointments. Demoted, the doctor’s own judgement was now the second opinion, years of dedicated study replaced by half-hearted browsing. The worriers had become more sophisticated in their illusions, a borrowed vocabulary added weight to their fears. He envisaged eye-rolling doctors listening to cracked Latin diagnoses, a mishmash of mispronounced afflictions, wishing, perhaps, that the self-diagnosing would self-medicate, remove their misgivings from the loop altogether.
For the most part the waiting room enjoyed a consensual, reverential hush. Any discussion was liable to lead to conversational dead ends. There was always the possibility of dissenting voices, disturbers of the nervous equilibrium. Some seemed to take great delight in their own debilitation, couldn’t wait to make enquiries of their sickly ilk as a prelude to offloading instalments of their episodic disintegration. He tried to ignore the regulars, on first name terms with each other, united only in their sickness. Once they started discussing their ailments they became unstoppable, paradoxically revitalised by talk of ill health. He didn’t care for such breakdowns of silent etiquette. Emboldened they displayed a willingness to share physical intimacies with near strangers. Like war veterans exchanging battle stories they compared wounds, a terminal round of surgical show and tell. Shirts hoicked, they engaged in peacock displays of patchwork abdomens, fading scars delineated by trembling fingers, a delicious relish taken in relived operations, explicitly descriptive of scooped malignancies. How many times had they been taken apart and reassembled? It was a minefield. He, and those around him, attempted to avoid such diseased conversations, their spirited mimes, a turning of deaf ears and blind eyes.
He looked at his watch. Where was she? Don’t leave me alone with these pathetic specimens, these lingering malingerers. Were these to be his compatriots now? His breathless brethren? Chameleon- like would he adapt, acclimatise, whiten and worry in their company? The genuinely afflicted, he suspected, kept their melancholy to themselves, the disheartened keeping cardiac murmurs close to their chest.
To divert himself: some reading material. Across calf threateningly low tables, outdated magazines were fanned distractedly. Instinctively, upon sitting, people would stoop and select randomly. Fumblingly thumbed, their readers absorbed little, the occasional image would provide momentary respite but nothing sank in. How could anyone recall anything read under such conditions? The more upmarket titles displayed cracked spines, had a luxurious heft to them, fragrant with the residual afterglow of aftershave and perfume samples. Aspirational, they provided gleaming insights into aromatic utopias, windows into worlds unknown, of lives exquisitely lived. The fingerprints of the anxious had contaminated their glossy pages, inadvertently smeared spotless lives.
The polished parade contained within, the inhabitants of airbrushed advertisements, seemed so far removed from where he found himself now. Inside the tanned and robust exuded, were aglow with, excellent health and taste. The humiliations, the probes of medical examination, would offer no infringement into their immaculate existence. The proctologist would not insert himself into their pristine life; their top of the range phones would not trill at a doctor’s behest, summoned to gaze upon fatal x-rays; their gleaming torsos would bear witness to no surgical intrusion. Sickness had no place in their world. The doctor’s reception would hold no banal end to their photoshopped immortality.
Suitably undistracted, he realised he would impose his own predicament upon any situation. He folded shut the visions of paradise. They seemed ill judged. For those around him, salvation did not lie in the acquisition of trinkets.
The notion of the waiting room was a disconcerting one, solemn spaces to which one immediately acclimatised, fell into silent line. Grouped together how much space at any one time was devoted to waiting? He pictured all the world’s waiting rooms gathered together, acres of land devoted to fidgety inactivity. How many waiting rooms had he haunted? How many hours sat in the company of strangers?
Elsewhere, scattered throughout his life, the humdrum hours he had spent effectively doing nothing. Whilst waiting with strangers was bad enough, he found it worse waiting at home, time off work secured to pander to the whims of visitors. From the brusque intrusion of utility engineers, to the vagaries of deliverymen: elusive types who could not be tied to time. His home became an alien territory as he waited, unable to settle to anything. Any constructive activity risked being irreversibly disturbed upon the visitor’s arrival. He had learnt from experience, through some perverse law, that if he engaged in any activity, that they would arrive immediately, would somehow make an inconvenience of their convenience. He would resign himself to inactivity; prepare his acerbic responses to their gruffly apologetic, last minute cancellations.
He hated waiting at the best of times, and this was far removed from the best of times. He looked around, watched how others amused themselves. On the arms of plastic chairs, drumming fingers paradiddled. There had been more pleasant waits in his life he was sure. He recalled, in his youth, waiting for the phone to ring, for a number scribbled in a nightclub to have greater consequences. Stationed on the stairs, by the telephone, intermittently checking for a dialling tone, he had wondered whether the inked numbers on the back of her hand had survived the rain. A dance, a drink, a stolen kiss: was this to be the limit of their romance? He had strove to control the flutterings of his butterflying stomach. At its eventual ring, he had scrambled from the bathroom, almost stumbling downstairs whilst his trousers bound his ankles, lest his parents intercept the call. Breathless, he adapted a nonchalant manner upon answering, belying the hours he had spent in restless anticipation. He imagined explaining such events to any future grandchildren, the notion of being tied to an immobile phone, a detail that consigned their nascent relationship to the dark ages. Five years later, he had waited for her again, with even greater apprehension, at the altar.
Within a year, they were at the hospital awaiting the birth of their daughter. He had held his wife’s hand, tense but thankful that this was the extent of his involvement. Rather this than heaving her into the world. He had grown up in more liberated times, men no longer consigned to a room of nervous, expectant fathers, the illicit circulation of a bottle of whisky whilst their children emerged unobserved, by them at least, in another room. He imagined, upon the news, waiting rooms transforming into makeshift, smoke infused boy’s clubs, backs slapped as celebratory cigars made a fug of the air. As they puffed, their roles were clearly defined: stay outside, do nothing. Now they had to watch the drama unfold, were invited to a private opening, unflagging in the delivery room as their partner pushed relentlessly, once intimate areas becoming communal. He struggled to picture his grandfather donning a surgical gown, offering encouragement as the birth took place, the handling of the emergent grisly doll. How times had changed. For twenty-three hours he had offered his wife unwelcome encouragement. Their daughter was in no haste to leave the comfort of the womb.
* * *
As she waited at the tattoo parlour, she had questioned her motives. Would she go through with it? She tried to ignore the persistent buzz, the relentless drone of the needle in the next room. The sound, the atmosphere, took her back to the reluctant dentist visits of her childhood. It was a nauseous nostalgia, as she pictured herself five years old again, cowering beside the dentally defective, anticipating the suction and scrape of routine procedures. Glumly slumped, she hummed to drown out the drill. Flicking distractedly through tattoo magazines, she wondered, did anyone ever change their mind at the last minute? Having settled upon a course of action, was anyone sidetracked by an arresting photograph – actually, I’ll have this one – a permanent marker decided on a whim. As second thoughts were entertained, she stole glances at the other people in the room. If the arabesqued clientele were nervous, their elaborate armour concealed it. Would it be as bad as they said? She tried to banish from her thoughts the horror stories she wished she had avoided.
Her father had been given no option of dissuading her. She had waited, at least, until she was of legal age for such inked interventions, had made an appointment with someone established rather than seeking the services of some disreputable backstreet needlesmith, a slew of scribbled botchings in his wake. Whitening, she watched the emergence of the previous customer, a square of wadding taped to her leg, faint traces of blood emerging. Was this madness? At the call of her name, feeling faint, she had risen.
Returning home, her neck swabbed, her father had almost collapsed upon seeing the blood dappled gauze, and then again when she tentatively revealed what lay beneath. Transcribed upon the back of her neck were the years 1961 - 1989. Above the dates, inside a scroll, the words R.I.P Mum, the tragic brevity of her life encapsulated. She had decided that in this way she would commemorate her mother, an indelible mark which, save for some freak accident, would be about her person always. As a memorial act it was touching, but to his mind ill advised, a sign of irretractable youthful exuberance. She had been at a loss how else to make some kind of statement, and he was equally at a loss as to how to respond.
At first, he had seen it as a failing on his part, that she should do this to herself, that he had been somehow neglectful, had failed his wife’s memory. But he couldn’t watch her, accompany her all hours of the day. Looking so similar to her mother and yet distancing herself in this way felt, to him, like an act of desecration, someone doodling absentmindedly upon a much-loved photograph of his dearly departed. If it relayed nothing else to him, it explained that she was growing up, was becoming independent. Her mark of permanent remembrance was also an act of distancing, of differentiation. She had no desire to be a reincarnation.
Angered by what he saw as the tattooist’s irresponsibility, her father had wanted to march her down to the parlour. And what? Turn back time? Why hadn’t he talked her out of it? Which other trade talked themselves out of business? Is that what nervous inductees wished to be confronted by? The instillation of doubt? He conceded, at least, that hesitancy was not a desirable trait in one about to indelibly mark one’s body. Given the swell of their waiting rooms, their increasing proliferation, they probably didn’t have time to counsel every newcomer.
As it turned out her first tattoo was not an end in itself. Whilst it would remain the most significant, it did not go unaccompanied for long. Slowly her body was colonised by all manner of adornment, her skin becoming laboriously tendrilled and filigreed. She had discovered a tattooist with whom she developed a rapport. As her body was revealed to him piecemeal, he inscribed it, and over time emerged an illustrated map of interconnected memories.
* * *
At his pocket’s vibration, he returned to the room. I’m queuing in traffic, be there as soon as I can. He wished she wouldn’t text whilst she was driving. In truth, he wished she wouldn’t drive at all. Queuing in traffic. Queuing. Regimented time wasting. In his life how many queues had he joined? Secretly he had a fondness for these rigid strictures, saw them as the essence of egalitarianism. It seemed to him that people always knocked the English unfairly for their love affair with a well-organised queue. It was a much-maligned allegiance. Abroad, witnessing the tumultuous huddles that greeted approaching bus drivers he would swell with linear patriotism at the prescribed orderliness of the English queue, the very model of etiquette and restraint. As chaos ensued, he would long for an orderly line. Overseas the concept had been adapted, after all what was the conga but a queue set to music? But whilst he may have missed them when abroad, back on home territory he would mutter profanely when caught in their grudgeful trudge.
On holiday, after the accident, he soon tired of the disapproving stares of the fully-fledged families – mother, father, a brace of children, all present and correct – as they scornfully acknowledged his efforts. Alone with a young girl, he begrudged the implications of their gaze, as strangers supplied their own context. Cast as the divorced father, he imagined they instantly summoned infidelities for which they held him accountable. At attempts to quell his daughter’s remonstrations, red faces would briefly bob above sun-loungers to register their disapproval. They were accusatory looks that earmarked him as the absent father coercing his way back into his daughter’s affections. With a bitten tongue, he endured their disapproval.
A hacking cough drew him from sunny climes. Sighing, he re-emerged in purgatory. In a circle the neurotic tried, without success, to banish death from their thoughts. This was not a gathering of the immortals. The single disruptive cough triggered a chorus of competitive expectoration, theatrical retching and wheezing, an attempt to justify their presence. Psychosomatic? Hear my cough. All around him sputum bubbled handkerchiefs were squelched back into pockets. He recoiled at the thought of what they may contain. Nothing virulent, he hoped. They could keep their contagions to themselves. No one wished to leave with more than they arrived with, some airborne gift, new ailments to add to their expanding repertoire.
Their bronchial affectations were silenced, briefly, as a sad-eyed mother pushed her pale child in his wheelchair, his face barely visible beneath an encumbrance of apparatus, practically transparent beneath the welter of rollercoasting tubes. He displayed a wide-eyed optimism that shamed them, all smiles and pluck. There was a palpable change in mood as self-pity shifted to sympathy. Weak smiles offered false hope, everyone, apart from the child, aware that death had entered the building. Their pallidity paled in comparison. Long suffering, his mother’s sleep deprived eyes avoided contact, the onslaught of compassionate glances, of timid smiles. Wherever she went, she saw pity in the eyes of strangers, every excursion oppressively sympathetic. How did she do it? Because she had to. There was no secondary option. Through a child’s affliction, she had martyrdom thrust upon her. Sincere strangers clasped her hands and commended her bravery, but what other option did she have? Hers was an ongoing, heartbreaking regime of dutiful perseverance.
* * *
For five consecutive nights, he had remained vigilant by her bedside, his spine misaligned in a cheap plastic chair. He waited for her to stir, to wake, to show some sign of life. The resumption of his life lay upon the twitch of an eyelid, the involuntary tap of a fingertip. Hypnotised, he watched the rise and fall of her gentle breaths. So sweet, so peaceful, as though she had fallen asleep during a bedtime story. But it was a sleep brutally induced.
He had waited at home, alone, for her return. Pacing, his fears went unshared, had no one to temper his unfounded suspicions, his worst-case scenarios. He endured horrific visions, his mind flashing, disturbingly, with all manner of dispatch. This was how he seemed to pass most evenings when she was out, nauseous until her safe return. His persistence in dialling her switched off phone reaped no dividends.
Feeding intravenously, she looked incongruous in hospital whites, her tattooed arms and shoulders resting on top of the sheet in stark contrast with the starched environs. She was barely recognisable, her face bereft of makeup, an innocence restored to her features. It was the first time in years he had seen her denuded of blusher and foundation. His little girl had been returned to him. Unlacquered, the normally sculpted, turbulent hive of her hair lay softly upon her pillow. On her skull, beneath the flattened strands, the imprint of a boot.
By her bedside, holding her hand, with only the whirr of machines for company, he tried to come to terms with a society that could do this to his daughter. Of the attack, little was known. From the evidence, the pernicious residue, there would seem to have been more than one person involved, an ambush perhaps. How many people did an ambush entail? As bruises emerged over her body, they revealed a variety of footprints. There was no surveillance footage; her humiliations had occurred off camera, a residential street had become a temporary, one-sided battleground.
Police doing door to door in the vicinity of the attack had provided scant useful information. Concerned residents – peeping from behind twitched curtains, peering through Venetian slats – had witnessed little, a flurry of indiscernible activity. They had emerged only once the commotion had died down.
He refused to leave the hospital, had remained stoically by her side. What if she didn’t recover? What then? He willed her to move. Unconscious, supine, he had never seen her look so vulnerable. Her hand in his had felt so small, as though she were shrinking. He felt consumed by such a sense of powerlessness. What sort of mindset would reduce his daughter to this? He didn’t know where to take his anger, how to channel his grievances. Recriminatory thoughts rolled relentlessly, a response which had unsettled him. He was unaccustomed to such vitriol. Would he be spurred into vigilantism, to wandering the streets with a sawn-off shotgun eliminating undesirables? Perhaps that wasn’t the answer. It wouldn’t undo the damage done.
On the third day he met, for the first time, his daughter’s tattooist. In his mind’s eye, he was a rum swilling caricature, a piratical maniac who inscribed voluptuous vixens upon the arms of comatose sailors. In the illustrated flesh, his charm had disarmed him, conveyed a gentility that had taken him by surprise. Over plastic cups of molten hot chocolate they talked, an odd conversation in the silenced presence of the one person who united them. That this tattooed stranger knew about his wife, had not just made enquiries about her but had remembered what he had been told, revealed something of his disposition. Perhaps he didn’t just see people as transitory canvases on which to display his work. He had made unfounded assumptions.
After half an hour of subdued conviviality, having drained their cups of sickly sweet sediment, he had finally been persuaded to go home, freshen up and gather clean clothes. When he returned, he discovered what the tattooist had done to his daughter. On her plaster-casted arm, in place of the smutty scribbles of well-wishers she displayed an elaborate decoration. Tenderly, using cheap felt tips he had found in the hospital shop, he had set about reinstating the designs that lay concealed beneath, had reworked them from memory. Biting his lip, her father fought back tears in this man’s presence.
He would never find the right words, without descending into mawkishness, to describe his relief when she blinked back into existence, as her eyelids flickered into life, a reawakening, the torrent of tears that had gushed uncontrollably from him.
* * *
Hearty sobs wrenched him from reverie. He was surprised to discover that they were not his own. Through an opened door, a woman walked, inconsolable, her partner trying to guide her from the room. As he watched them leave, he exchanged guilty glances with his death row cohorts, a tangible sense of relief that, for now, it wasn’t them. There was an unspoken consensus, a feeling that only so much death could be distributed on any given day, an allocated quota. He immediately felt ill at ease for taking comfort in someone else’s misfortune. At least they would have time to say goodbyes, to prepare for death, would be able to leave each other on good terms.
With his wife there had been no long drawn out process, no bedside heartache. She was alive and well one minute, gone the next. All too readily, he recalled the unearthly sound of collision, and the deadly silence that had followed it. He still blamed himself. Briefly his wife had twisted herself into the backseat to calm their daughter. From the left, from nowhere, a car rammed into them, shunted them into oncoming traffic, a series of brutal ricochets. After coming to a standstill, following a cacophony of squealing breaks, a showering of shattered glass, and general disorientation as he tried to control his car, it had taken him a second to realise that his wife was no longer sat beside him. Unbelted she had glided, on impact, through the windscreen.
By disturbing quirk of fate, the final, jostled resting place of his car had provided him with a reluctant ringside seat to his wife’s demise. Trapped in his mangled car, he was at the nadir of helplessness, vehicles on either side blocking his exit. She lay strewn on the road, motionless, atop a pooling expansion of blood as the life seeped out of her. In the backseat, buckled, their daughter screamed, safe amid the compaction, but afraid, enshrouded within metallic origami. Unable to intervene, he had at least managed to call the emergency services. Distressed, shivering, he reached an almost hallucinatory state. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, he waited for his wife to peel herself from the tarmac, dust herself down and walk away. He would wait in vain. Through the shattered shards of what remained of the windscreen, he had watched her die.
Looking at photographs of the car afterwards, the concertinaed wreckage, it was astonishing that anyone had walked away. His daughter’s survival was nothing short of miraculous. That the driver of the other car had died on impact came as horrific relief. He would feel remorse for taking consolation, sometimes a monstrous satisfaction, in this fact. He was uncertain what he would have done if he had been required to live with the knowledge of his survival.
Upon returning to their house that night, he encountered his wife’s unfinished life. Ongoing activity had been abruptly curtailed, a stalled momentum. Her effects awaited her re-emergence, her interaction. In the kitchen, vegetables chopped in preparation were now weighted with something beyond their own significance. It was one of many minor intimacies that would reduce him to tears. Upstairs, in their bedroom, a washing basket of clothes almost retained her heat. He waited for her to walk through the door, for life to resume. How could his entire life transform so thoroughly in under a minute?
Upon her death’s pronouncement, surgeons had pounced, scalpels at the ready. They had overseen the liberation of designated organs. Swiftly they salvaged what they could, a donor card plucked from her purse outlining their entitlements. Everything bar the eyes. Even in anticipation of death, their removal had made her squeamish. In hospital beds, ill recipients, beneficiaries of this sudden harvest, were prepared for theatre. His wife’s death, in a sense, was the news that other families had been waiting for. She became a supplier of spare parts, fulfilling deliveries to the upper echelons of several waiting lists. Whilst he remained unaware of her blood type, was uncertain even of his own, to others it would be of lasting significance.
In the morning, they had argued over breakfast. By nightfall, the best of her organs had been removed from her body, dispatched hastily across the city and reinserted elsewhere. He was astonished by the speed with which she had been redistributed, had not even been allowed to come to terms with what had happened. What remained of her was stitched back up and lowered into the ground. He found it strange to think that people survived through her posthumous donations, a fleshy mess of immortality, lives resumed once she was sealed inside them. Where were they now, these thriving organs? What had he expected? Updates? Visiting rights to see them in their new homes? Holiday postcards from recipients? Weather lovely, liver doing fine. He wasn’t sure but he had anticipated something, some form of acknowledgment.
He had waited for the guilt to subside, for the nightmares to stop, but at heart was not optimistic that they would, or convinced that he deserved to forget. Events were relived nightly, haunted as he was by two diametrically opposed nightmares. The majority were of the conventional variety, of events starkly relived. Upon its nocturnal return, he was denied the accident’s one redeeming feature: its instantaneity. It was a slow motion replay, everything perceived in hideous clarity. From such re-enactments he would wake, sweating, disorientated, surprised to find himself safe inside. The other dream was perhaps worse. This was the one in which the accident didn’t happen. Rather than proceeding the way he had on that awful day, he would take an earlier turning, an alternative route, bypass the carnage altogether, an idyllic drive that saw them safely home. From this untroubled world, he would wake into instant recognition, the absence in bed beside him, the years of living without her overwhelming him. Both dreams would find him leaping from his bed to check on their daughter. Hovering over her, brushing fine hair from her forehead, he wondered what impressions that day had left with her.
He was loathe to dispense with anything that had been hers, anything marked by her fingerprints, her touch. Through such actions, he was acutely aware, he was forming unwholesome attachments to inanimate objects. He acclimatised to life in a shrine, to a life lived among relics. Her clothes remained, still bearing her impression, a wardrobe full of ghosts. The thought of their disposal terrified him, saw such an act as a form of exorcism, an expulsion of her spirit. Friends suggested donating them to charity, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Already, in crowds, a glimpsed dress would find him short of breath, a heart stopping moment before he remembered. He didn’t wish to see her actual wardrobe resurrected in this way, filled out by strangers, a catwalk parade of doppelgangers. Eventually, pulling them from hangers, he bagged them, stored them in the attic, persuaded himself he was doing this not for himself but for their daughter, that one day she might take consolation from them. Was that likely or even desirable?
Whilst everyone reassured him that there was nothing he could have done, consolatory in-laws, he suspected, held him responsible, blamed him for the loss of their daughter. Though they engaged in the good natured exchange of platitudes, they tolerated his presence only in the hope that access to their granddaughter would not become a contested issue. He felt intense guilt at his own lack of injury, that he had hobbled away, once extracted from the wreckage, shell-shocked, but with only minor whiplash and a broken ankle. Would it have been a more balanced outcome if they had both died, leaving an orphan but no guilty survivor? Perhaps if all three had died? He held no hope of an afterlife, of an ethereal reunification. His all-consuming grief, was counterbalanced by his duty of care to his daughter. Wallowing, self-pitying, would serve no one well. Routinely, he summoned the strength to ensure his daughter’s life was as normal, as fulfilling as possible. For her sake, he determined not to become a dour figure, would present a front of contentment, a façade behind which he suffered.
He had neglected himself for the sake of their daughter, was merely surviving, going through the motions. If it hadn’t been for her he wasn’t convinced he would have struggled on, grief laden, through what remained of his life. As her features outgrew adolescence, she became an ever present reminder of his wife’s absence, her smile flickering on their daughter’s lips. Each passing day brought a closer resemblance. When certain expressions crossed her face, he had to brace himself, lest he embarrass her with his tears. Yet whilst they looked so similar, he realised that, if through some paranormal shift his wife did reappear, they would be strangers, unknown to each other.
Over the years, he had answered her questions as honestly as he could, as she attempted to reconstruct her mother from fading, well-fingered photographs and second hand memories. She had lost count of the number of times he had assured her that her mother would be so proud. Seeking to add a tactile element to her re-imagining he had climbed the ladder into the attic to bring down her clothes. Upon retrieval they had crumbled, had been reduced to moth-riddled artefacts. As he touched them, they disintegrated in his hand, disappeared between his fingers.
Where was she?
Where was she?
With a gentle nudge he returned to the room, was drawn back into the sickly fold. He smiled, relieved, held her hand as she took the seat beside him.
The tattooist had asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, her hand being one of the few remaining areas upon which he was yet to make his mark. He berated his daughter for not marrying him sooner, pragmatically pointing out that she could have saved herself a fortune.
When he died would he be memorialised in the same manner as his wife? He wasn’t sure that enough undecorated skin remained. Perhaps she had already earmarked an appropriate space. He imagined, somewhere about her person, a cursive Dad above the year of his birth, in anticipation of its polar opposite. When the time came, her husband would ink it in, all part of the grieving process. He tried not to become unduly concerned which leftover space he had been allotted. Since his daughter’s first tattoo, he had noticed many more memorials, loved ones honoured upon the flesh, their death always about them. Perhaps he should have one? Negotiate a family discount. It was never too late.
Or was it?
He had only gone for tests at his daughter’s insistence, a campaign of persuasion that led him to this juncture. He would soon get his results, would discover his fate. Was it to be his conclusive comeuppance? Suffering so far had been at a remove, devastated by the pain of others, he had yet to undergo his own physical trauma. Was this to be his turn in the spotlight? Against the light box, an x-ray illuminated, the doctor detailing how his body was betraying him. Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps he was as guilty as the waiting room hyperventilators in fearing the worst.
He clutched his daughter’s hand, the tension alleviated by her presence. At the call of his name he rose. As he disappeared into the doctor’s surgery, he hoped for good news, for survival, that he would live to wait again.
Stuart Snelson lives and writes in London. His stories have appeared in 3:AM, Ambit, Bare Fiction, HOAX, Lighthouse, Litro, Popshot, Structo and Synaesthesia among others, and have been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Links to previous stories can be found at stuartsnelson.wordpress.com and he can be found on Twitter @stuartsnelson . He is currently working on his second novel.
Jenni Adamitis is a photographer by hobby and by trade in Houston, TX. View more of her work at Flickr.