We sit for ages on moulded plastic chairs, their cheery orange colour shouting: ‘Look on the bright side.’
Suddenly, she looks up and says: “What time is it?” Her voice contains a note of panic. I know why. Usually, we’d be picking Jerry up from the day centre. For thirty-five years, our lives have revolved around our son and the damn clock.
I feel safe now she’s broken the silence. It’s like standing in a pitch black room and she’s switched on a light. Everything’s suddenly familiar; the way she plays with the bobble on her old green Mac; that kink in her hair that won’t stay flat.
“Nearly half three,” I say.
“Oh,” she nods, looking ahead.
Silence falls again. I want to fill it. I want to tell her, “It’s half three and I’m bloody sorry, love. I feel as bad as you. You know what I’m like. No good with words, just believe me, you’re not alone in this.”
But, I don’t say any of that. I can’t even remember the last time I said I loved her. Must have been years ago.
She looks up at me briefly, like we’re passengers on a train. Two people who’ve shared the same journey every day for years, but barely spoken.
I try to smile. That sets her off again. Her eyes fill quickly and tears begin to flow, covering her face with rivers of wetness.
I can’t say “don’t cry”, it wouldn’t be right. So I pass her a handkerchief instead. It’s one of a pack of five I found in a drawer that Jerry bought her for Christmas from Woolworths. I hope she doesn’t notice.
“It’s not fair, it’s just not bloody fair.” She cries into the flimsy square of cotton, embroidered with juggling clowns.
I try patting her hand, longing to take her in my arms like I used to. But, as usual, I don’t.
Her sister called by yesterday with some shop-bought cakes. She’d dressed down in jeans and a sweatshirt with the words ‘Mama Mia’ printed across the front. Usually she’d have worn a red suit, one befitting her sales executive status. It’s a bossy colour and it suits her. But yesterday, the red was rationed to her lips. She’d gone straight into the kitchen, taken control, mouth moving like lightning. Bossing the dog outside, directing us into our chairs, with lips saying; “Shame shame, well, we all knew it was coming,” while her eyes said nothing.
“He was a lovely boy.”
She had never loved her nephew.
“A pity,” she had said.
He was the pity she’d had to endure. A blight on the family tree, which, up until then had been sprouting nicely. It’s funny really, but Jerry had always liked her. Maybe it was her directness he admired. That no-nonsense approach that they both shared.
“I love you, Auntie Jean,” he used to say, taking her in his big, clumsy arms and holding her against his broad chest like a doll. He’d never noticed her pursing her lips, or felt her body stiffen as he squeezed her.
“Auntie Jean’s got nice wotsits,” he’d say, gazing down at her generous bosom. Jerry was never one to mince his words.
We sat, as we always did, at opposite ends of the room, staring out of the window, chewing on Victoria sponge, me picking at my fingernails as Jean carried on talking.
“I always find charity work helps,” she chattered. “Takes the mind off things.”
We looked up at her blankly.
“Mrs Burton, you know the one I told you about? Lost her baby the other year? Well, she’s working at Oxfam now,” she said, as her busy fingers straightened a crease on the tablecloth.
“She’s had another since then. Healthy, thank God.” She flashed me a look. “Different father.”
We both winced and said nothing. She left soon after that, staining our cheeks with red lip prints, leaving us with unwanted cake and words to digest.
Time’s going so slowly sitting on these hard, orange chairs, waiting for a voice to call out our name. A voice which will mouth unfelt words of sympathy, oblivious to this unhappiness eating away at any remains of what was once our love. We’d looked after Jerry all his life. Now it was just the two of us again. Two very different people from the ones who had started out all those years ago.
I say nothing as I watch my wife wilting in front of me. I’d love to say we could start again. Take that holiday we’d always dreamed of. But what would we talk about, now that Jerry has gone.
“His heart was weak,” the doctor says. “It’s typical of many with Down’s Syndrome.”
We nod like puppets, two guilty children suffering the consequences of their incompetence. The doctor sneaks a quick look at his watch. The chairs scrape against the floor as we stand.
We take what we can. His teddy. A hospital tag, the death certificate, and one last photograph of Jerry, his arms wrapped around a nurse, tongue sticking out, a big smile on his face.
“What was it all for?” my wife says, looking hard at the photograph.
I take a deep breath and think about all the words I’d saved-up for her and never spent. All the things I could have told her, like:
“I love you,” I say suddenly, taking her in my arms, “and so did Jerry.” I feel her melt against my shoulder.
“Come on, let’s get out of here. Before it rains.”
Celeste Goschen has worked as a Model, Musician, Bread Seller, Film-maker, PA and business owner. Her short stories and articles have been published in magazines, papers and ezines (including Every Day Fiction). Winner of Writers Billboard Flash Fiction & PrimeProse. Work awaiting publication in Delivered and EarlyWorks Press. She is currently working on a radio play and her first novel.