“I’m very proud of you.”
The words echoed out of me. Never from the heart but the mouth. There’s never been much of a direct connection there, not until now. They rattled around against the few walls that hadn’t yet sunk into the tequila-soaked brain before enduring an awkward birth from out the hole in the middle of it all.
The tequila was all I had left. I found it hiding late last night somewhere worryingly behind the white spirit and ketchup I should really throw out. But it was not the one responsible. No, for once, for the first time for as far as I can think from the hole in my head, right now somewhere drifting through Mexico, what seemed like the right thing to say was all about me. It’s funny how when you find yourself in a hospital ward as much as I have without anything wrong with me and everything wrong with everyone else around me, when by rights it should have been me there three times over, there comes a time when you’ve got to solder some wires or at least tie them together with masking tape. From the look on Harry’s face there wasn’t any lasting scars from the attempt.
“You don’t have to be. There’s other things.”
Harry flipped his laces around like he was trying to make wind where there wasn’t any. In those heavy burgundy size four Doc Marten boots it was going to be hard enough. There wasn’t much of anything but dulling fluorescent light and a smell just as dank in the long hallways leading to ward after ward, the elevators somewhere in between much like as ever there was a feeling of hope. There was always hope. That’s what they told us. Hope is like pantomime in here. That’s what they tried to give us over and over again after diagnosis after surgery and, on occasion after the curtain had already dropped on another life where there was no hero and no villain to blame.
“Besides I’m not here any more.”
Harry was eight-years and old. He always talked like he was older and the face the words left had that slightly mottled look that he got from his grandfather. For the first ten years of my life I assumed the old man just had scars but as it turns out we were all just a bunch of ugly bastards from way back, like in the terrifyingly ugly Viking kind of way. The women were all naturally quite striking but had sort of an angry, long resting expression about them and quiet presences like the Scandinavians we came silently screaming out of.
Harry didn’t get any of that.
Even when he was five he talked as old as his face was and didn’t have many friends. Maybe that made him grow up in his own little way. Fuck, I wasn’t there to do it for him. But when I was, I looked at him one day and I remember thinking about how his body grew though his face never changed. That wasn’t like any man in any house I’d ever lived. Even at eight years old there was so much about me he’d never seen or known.
“There are other things. You’re right. Your aunt, my sister…you never met her…she’s in her fifth session of IVF now. She wants something so much that she’ll pay thousands, she’ll put her body through that hell over and over again for just a glimmer of a chance but she stopped listening to what we were saying years ago. She’s somewhere down the hall probably.”
I’d wanted Harry to meet his aunt. Despite having that look about her Jennifer was kind and you’d always be surprised by her. One time when we were both way too young to remember, she bought me this watch for my birthday, a Seiko. At the time I thought that all that came from anywhere but here must have been expensive. She said she bought it but I have no idea how. She didn’t have a job because she was fuckin’ twelve years old and she’d never dare to ask our parents if they had anything going spare. Jennifer always had a little bit of a crook in her, running right down the middle and out of her wandering hands. She got arrested when she was seventeen for trying to steal a necklace from Tiffany’s once she’d ventured into the city for the first time. The girl had balls but she was stupid as fuck. I suppose that’s why, like me, she’s a part-time alcoholic and proud and a personal shopper. She stumbled onto them both by total accident and never wanted any of it and now there she is, down one of these hallways sat on a table about to have something implanted directly into her for the fifth time in the hope she’ll finally get it. She wanted to be a dancer too and she always called me to talk about that instead of what the treatment was doing to her. I just liked picking up the phone and hearing the sounds that came out of her heart.
Harry sat on the edge of the final seat in the line of chairs framing the hallways of the outer ward, rocking back and forth trying to move it but the metal back was wired to the wall as hard as the asbestos they’d been trying to move from the Eastern wing across the courtyard since I first started visiting. I sit here sometimes and I can see the construction out of the far window. This hospital, it didn’t have the best of reputations and as such didn’t have the funding. Like all the other kids who’d sat here before he was just trying to entertain himself I guess. From near the far end of the row I absorbed the vibration and took it as it only hurt my head a little. He stopped and leaned forward, holding on to the side bars of the seat and peered down the hall.
“She’s down there?”
“You don’t know?”
“I know she had an appointment sometime today that she was nervous about.”
“Would you be nervous?”
“Yes, I would.”
He leaned forward until he almost fell right out of his seat.
“Your grandfather sat in that chair a couple of years ago.”
“Wow. How’d you know that? They could’ve… they could’ve replaced the seat with a different one. They’re all different colours.”
“I can still see him there. Trust me, it was that seat.”
Last year when me and my sister decided enough was enough and gave up drinking and therefore gave up seeing each other, Dad passed on. Harry might remember something of him but I don’t ask. I remember a lot about him while I was growing up. When he talked seriously about people and politics and things he’d end every sentence with “…if there were any justice in this world.” shortly followed by “…but there ain’t none!” if we didn’t beat him to it. There were long car journeys where I could see that world, while it looked big and grey, never blue. One minute my eyes would open and we’d be in a city where the neon soaked in the condensation of the cold window was enough to keep me awake, the next down an oblivious foggy pathway in the back-end of nowhere where I couldn’t tell what was real and what was just water on the window. All the while out of the corner of my eye was the back of his head right there in front of me, always the last thing I saw before I drifted back to sleep. I might have known the back of his head better than his face. He called me three times a week on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays and always asked me the same things, sometimes two or three times towards the end but that was the most we ever talked. When I pictured him talking to me like we do when we’re on the telephone I only saw the back of his head, this perfectly trimmed line that ended his hairline and the two moles his collar barely hid. I remember him falling from that seat Harry sat in.
Me and him, we looked alike but he was ham-fisted and he stomped around every apartment I ever owned, his footsteps always echoing without meaning to be as intimidating as he was, my comically petite mother stood almost skipping along just to keep next to him.
I remember looking up my entire life. He was a little taller than me, even at eighteen when I’d finally finished growing and he had to duck underneath the crowned doorway at our latest apartment when he came around to visit, right after Harry was born. He was getting back on his feet after a hard year without my mother. The man, he could break through a floorboard without meaning it and he could never break your heart, but my God. How he stepped around that baby like he’d never stepped around anything in his life. He could barely keep a hold of him and passed him back to me as soon as my hands were free of the saucepan I’d been cooking dinner with. That’s when I told him I was calling him Harry after him. I only realised it in that one minute and his world lit right back up like nothing and everything had changed, even if just for that one minute when he took him right back out my arms.
He said thank you to me three times in my life that I recall; once when I helped my mother carry her bags from the back seat of the car to the kitchen in the old place because he was struggling with my sister, the last time I helped him into his bed in the hospice and one more when he left the house that day having met Harry.
He stood in the doorway seeming like he didn’t need to duck down any more and he said; “Harry. It was always a strange name. I never knew what my old man was thinking. Like what you’d call a joker who may become king. Thank you.”
That’s what we knew. I can only imagine it’s what he did too. The silence I grew up with between us always contained something that never quite felt right. Only when I hit eighteen and it was okay for him to see me drinking did I find something to make the difference, at least for a little while. The only time we ever got close enough to call it an embrace was reserved for the hospice and by then somehow it felt like enough.
Harry sat on the floor trying to tie his laces. He was always a little slow in learning things that needed a little perspective, a little co-ordination. Seeing him struggle and eventually win with the little things like that pull at me as much as they gave me hope for him. In fact, it’s the only thing I feel guilty for. The school teacher told me that he may be all kinds of things but I knew he was okay then and that he was alive. His mother skipped out when he was four and a half. She said she’d come to visit but by then my head was heavy most nights and, like that hospital hallways I’d come to know all too well, I stopped noticing if it was night or day. I’d missed out on the first three years of him before we decided to give it another try to give him a chance at something else than what we’d fucked him to never have. So how was I to see a difference if she wasn’t there any more. I never thought about him like that and thought about him where it mattered or so I thought. So I tell him simple little stories that he can understand.
“He only had a few coats of paint to go before the summer-house would’ve been finished. He wanted it for us. Since we were as big as you were he wanted it for us all. He didn’t have much time, especially not towards the end but he still came to visit and was determined to finish.”
“Yeah, a big, almost entirely white one.”
“I’ll bet he didn’t paint around the windows. People always leave that while last because it’s too hard.”
“No, it was the door. The door is hard too.”
I looked down the other end of the hall, away from where Harry was peering and realised I’d never really noticed what was down there. The hall ended abruptly with a service door for the cleaners, a large potted palm plant stood blocking it. When my father sat here and he broke his nose from the fall, I followed one of the cleaners up there looking for something, anything to clean up the mess we made. When he opened the door I stepped inside and I noticed it was so lowly lit in there, I wondered how he could see a thing. But out there above that palm plant, the light was so bright now as if to make up for it. I wondered how I’d never seen it there before.
“Now it’s quiet and the telephone doesn’t ring any more.”
I wouldn’t care if it were bad news and that that lightning had come by and burnt down that summer-house and this hospital. Maybe, just maybe, I just needed a drink. I turned around to Harry to seek a response to see him running down the hallway and only heard his heavy footsteps echoing against the ground as he neared the next ward.
“Harry, get the fuck back here!”
I glanced back at the palm plant and when I turned back around he was on the floor once again, playing with his laces.
“I just wanted to see if Jennifer was down there. Don’t you?”
“I just want to know the world still moves.”
“It does. I can see it moving now.”
Harry finished tying his laces and sat next to me on the yellow chair and somewhere I know I smiled.
“I don’t have anyone else to be proud of. Let me be proud of you now.”
“Okay. Today at last was a good day after all.”
Banner photograph: By Adrian Boliston (Flickr: Hospital) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons (Musgrove Park Hospital in Taunton.)