On the morning of the 26th Mr. Withers sits at his kitchen table spreading chocolate truffles on toast. He places them in the centre of the bread and waits for them to melt, before expertly steering the screed towards the crusts, an equal portion to every side. The knife moves innately, like a big fish working its tail, slowly, mechanically, through the ocean.
The kitchen is built into the ground floor of a council block, sheltered from the morning sun by the shell of steel and concrete it carries on its back. The fixtures and appliances have been greying steadily since the 1970s and are pitched around the room like old museum attendants, on hand, if needed. There has been a loving touch there once, and the potted plants are vestige still, once in bloom but now uncared for. They have long since morphed into a contorted nightmare of themselves, their brittle bodies retreating inwards, searching for some vein inside to save them. Occasionally, he will lay a finger to the soil to test the moisture, studying the form he will one day assume.
He wears misty stubble over winter cheeks and a maroon jumper turned inside out. The style is strategic, without pause for fashion or comfort, allowing for maximum wear between each wash.
A lifetime carpenter, he has built sets for local theatre companies, never once taking to the stage himself. His thumb is wrapped in a composite bandage, tarred and set like papier-mâché. He bought a saw several weeks previously to shape a brace of shelves, but the blade nicked him as he removed it from its protective casing. The wound has healed but bleeds with the slightest provocation, and so, he keeps it covered.
His eyes are drawn to the kitchen window, to the snow that lights the common garden between the buildings, delicate but unyielding, and still too fresh to melt. He watches as a butterfly crests on the cold air, but indeed, it is just another betting slip caught up in the breeze. The distant sound of a car alarm carries to him, travelling as sonar through the empty streets. Birds shoot between the branches in search of comfort. And a cream cat lays down on the grass and almost disappears.
The interior of the flat is mint green and seasonless, bereft of Christmas decorations. A tweed chair is shaped awkwardly into the corner of the living room, the armrests greased with wear, the body badged with cigarette burns, odourless and grey. He sits there most nights struggling to sleep, stiff like a suit of armour. The last few weeks have been frightening and unknown. The truest thing he has ever seen are the digits of the clock chopping late at night.
He drinks neat gin from a standard orange juice glass – and this is his chaser. The thin alcohol cutting through the residual gum of his breakfast sandwiches. Calories calories the doctor ordered. Any weight will do.
He pushes the plate of crusts to one side and begins preparing Christmas cards: short leads to those he feels might answer. He discovered a stack of postcards and a shared address book in a table drawer while searching for the clicker two days previously. The postcards are curled and bruised at the edges, printed with a selection of coastal scenes he struggles to recall. He considers their late arrival early in the new year but is unmoved by the prospective jibes and surmising of dementia. He leafs through the pages of the address book and arrows out the dead.
A stack of newspapers sit on the chair opposite him – a November-December collection – advertising beer and cider by the dozen, frozen appetisers and clove-studded hams. The pages rise just above the level of the table, tight and unread, shyly suggesting conversation. He wonders what the scene says about his life. About his day-to-day. And what they must think. To the people passing through. Meals on wheels, owner occupier, keeping warm this winter. The only words he ever hears. He wonders too about the solitary sign off and if it is even necessary. Yours, &c.
Mrs. Withers died of brain cancer, big and raw. He studied her face for months, imagining the dark stone rotting, reaching out in strings. A sinister peach pit frayed with flesh. Try as you might, you’ll never suck it dry. Her mind had gone towards the end. She moved on soft currents. And on this measured routine he thought they could go on forever.
The fridge hums, pauses and relents, a little unsure of the point it is trying to make. Each performance seems unique, somehow connected to the same animal struggle.
She died at home with his body stretched out beside her. There was no chocking sound or struggle, no moment of release. He watched her go without knowing exactly when the moment came. She slipped away. The doctor came and called it mercy.
A painting is set on the living room wall, on which she focused much of her attention. For years it hung at the centre of their lives, as the wall stained around it. A tree standing in a meadow and a stone trail cutting through the left-hand corner, yellow flowers dimpling the grass.
Catch it! Catch it! she would scream, frantically pointing at a bird’s nest delicately shaped between the branches.
The only way for him to calm her down was to walk over to the painting and mime a pinch at the abode, reassuring her its position was even and that the chicks were safe inside. But all he ever saw was the influence of the brush.
He presses his palms into the scattered pattern of crumbs left behind on the kitchen table, feeling each minute crown map against his skin, as he tries desperately to trace the picture in his mind. The skin on the back of his hands is dry and cracked and bleeding in places. Blue veins rise to the surface like ice on distant planets. He feels around for the sharpest crumb and begins to roll it between the plain of the wood and the pad of his finger, his eyes fixed on the window, as if reading braille.
He waited for her at the threshold every evening, with one eye drawn beyond the glossy white doorframe, peering secretly into the living room. Two cups stood on a grazed silver tray with a fresh pot of tea steaming in anticipation. One empty, one filled with tablets and capsules. She would pick them off one by one as she stared beyond the square glow of the television screen, her agreement partisan to the ritual itself. He would stand beside her until the pills were gone and her eyes returned, dark and grey.
The small decisions were the hardest ones to make. The conversations with the undertakers: The coffin style and what to wear. The choice of music. And how to dress her face. After the funeral he stood in front of a spread of sandwiches mindlessly collecting her favourites.
He clears the table before leaving for the day, setting the kitchenware beside the sink. He opens the press and places the chocolates deep inside, tight beside her filled prescriptions. He never understood what each one did, or indeed, might do. The jewels inside each vessel and each blistered tray remain a mystery. He can’t bring himself to throw them away or to return them to the Doctor’s office, to be re-filled for another hopeless case. They will remain huddled on the shelf, bubbling with gravid memories.
He opens the front door and lifts a set of keys from the hook. The two lengths of wood lean against the wall, patient in deferral. The keys and keyrings chime with a composite bauble of shared memories as he transfers them into his pocket. Souvenirs and emblems singing careful notes of places they had gone together.
He emerges into the iron lung of the passageway – leaking pipes and frozen bags of household waste. He steps lightly onto the footpath and the snow begins to fall, too light to make any real impression. Into his clothes and onto his skin. The day opens out like a reoccurring dream remembered for the first time.
First to the post office and to the red post box that stands outside the entrance. To the flower stand beside the station. And then to the park. He walks along Cassland Road, along the rows of terraced houses, the brittle snow crunching underfoot, crumbling and compacting in equal measure. He finds it hard to measure the distance, confused by the scarlet footsteps shoehorned around him.
He sits on a bench and props a bouquet of flowers by his side, anchoring the stems into the middle trench that runs across the seat. The pond is partially frozen. Sheets of ice float between lines of darker colour, like grey light through a stained-glass window. He produces a soft bag from inside his coat and twists the top loose. He removes stray crusts of bread and begins to rip at them with his fingers, scattering the crumbs aimlessly on the snow, waiting patiently for a return.
His tears are dry and stay inside.
He’d love to see a robin. But it’s always the pigeons, and sometimes the crows.
Born in Dublin, now living in London, working as a Technical Writer. Former Assistant Editor at Dalkey Archive Press, Dublin.
First-class honours, MA Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama, University College Dublin.
Writing has appeared in Crannog and Into the Void. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 and 2017.
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