June 30, 2023

Five O'Clock World (CH 4)

           **FIVE O'CLOCK WORLD** 

No one could face London traffic without being extra guarded.  It was the scourge of any beautiful day, driving from the clean air of the outskirts and into the manic and pollution of the city.           Every morning Neil drove himself to work at Balfour Enterprises. His day, as always, finished at 5pm on the dot, and didn't really care if anyone else's did.  Complete your quota and you were outta there with him - tough if you weren't. Perks of being the boss.
   His usual morning hit of caffeine came in the shape of a drive-through large cappuccino to help tackling the traffic. Had he ever paid any attention to his car-rantings, he would have driven his own self round the bend. And now a quick right turn had just helped to spill coffee from his polystyrene cup onto the passenger seat. Had it hit his suit, he'd have gone turnaround and straight home to change. Image carried utmost importance for him and his staff, presenting a whole, not-a-hair-out-place affair - if you excluded his own, unruly waves - of which singularly, he could.  But dried in map-like stains on silky suits, simply wouldn't do. Entering the car park, Mark, his chauffeur and attendant, wished him a good morning and opened his door for him. 
   'I'm afraid there's some spillage, a dodgy coffee lid. Could you see to it for me?'
   'No problem, sir.'
   Neil swung open the doors to the building, giving his usual 'here-we-go-again', sigh. Even being as fit as he was at 57 years old, he always took the elevator. Although he rented out many of the floors in this building, he was happy to be nearer the top. A twenty-three floors ascent is still one heck of a climb, and he wouldn't risk a sweat-on. 
   The floor from which he ran his businesses, that dealt mostly with property and overseas building sites, (now his architectural days were behind him) had his own office incorporated within it. A room within a room, if you like, big enough to just host him and a secretary.  It was dubbed 'the greenhouse' (which he found quite amusing) as it consisted of four sides of eight feet high windows, with a light polycarbonate roof.  Each and every window, on each and every side, hung top to bottom venetian blinds.  That gave him the scope to shut his employees out, or keep one very keen eye on them. With one turn of the head, he had the peripheral view of the whole office and workers, although most staff desks were adjacent to his. 
   On entering the pristine room, he gave his usual morning greeting to all as he weaved his usual route to get to his space. One sit down and quick check around from his uncluttered and orderly desk (the exact way he expected all desks to be) he was appeased to see heads down going at it.  There was at least two inches of paperwork per person, materially enough to his satisfaction. Yesterday had been a bank holiday, so there was a lot of catch-up in play!  He had a stolid approach to the efforts of his staff, and generally viewed him comparatively to fireworks - still safe in it box if all was well, or a sudden explosion if you sparked his wrath!
   This morning was rather warm for the time of year and the heating system was still on, so within ten minutes his jacket was off and hung up. Jacqueline, his private secretary of ten years, who typified the whole secretary look, (cardigan, glasses and hair up in either a no-nonsense bun or ponytail) knocked twice and came into the greenhouse to start her day too.  Usually she gave him a percolator coffee and an hour before approaching him with anything, but she knew this couldn't wait. Slowly, she crept over to stand at his desk. Trying to mask his annoyance, he spoke as pleasantly as he could.
   'Jacqueline ... what can I do for you?' Said without looking up.
   She licked her lips. 'It's regarding Friday's mail?'
   'Something need signed?'
   'No, it's just ...well, a letter arrived for you and I think you need to take a look at it.'
   'Can you or Robert not take care of it?' he asked, his focus still downcast.
   'Not really.'
   'I'm trying to get the Carter contract away in time, so I don't need this right now, we've a day to catch up with.'  A hint of irascibility started to pinprick its way through, with a hefty sigh on standby.
   'I appreciate that, Sir, but it's rather personal ... from a Beverly?' 
   His pen stopped dead and his head jerked straight up. Beverly was an old flame, or rather a former partner who had long fizzled out. She was more or less his first serious girlfriend, but he hadn't heard of, or thought about her for nigh on thirty years. There was no other Beverly he knew, so in all likelihood it was her. How strange.
   'What did it say?'
   'Please sir - read it.'  The reluctance of committing herself to read aloud sparked certain caution in him, as she held the letter out.  He took it from her and she turned to leave the room.
   'No, Jacqueline ... stay, please.'  The nature of how she was handling this told him that she must be aware of some pivotal point or other. No wonder she'd been acting strained.
       Dear Neil,
                        I'm not sure if this message will actually get to you, but if it does, I hope it finds you well. I am not doing so good and it's because of this I need to let you know.  This letter was not easy to write and  I wasn't going to send it at all. I do hope I've made the right decision. 
      Neil, you have a daughter.  I gave birth to her months after we split up, and she's almost 27 now. I know this will be a shock, and I apologise for that. All I ask is for a chance to explain. 
      I shall be in London this Tuesday attending a hospital appointment and this could give us the opportunity to meet. I'll be heading to Blazes department store afterwards, which I believe is not too far from your offices. From 1pm, I'll be waiting in the coffee bar section of their restaurant.  If you can't make it or don't get this letter in time, I shall be back for treatment the next again Tuesday (9th). Same arrangement.  If you don't show up for either one, I will wholeheartedly understand.  
                                              Beverly (Reymarr) 

His secretary never took her eyes off him as he read. Slumping back in his seat, exasperated, and still holding the paper bolt-from-the-blue, she couldn't begin to imagine how such news must feel.  After a short silence, he sat forward, not quite taking all of this in.
   'Did you read it all?' he asked.
   'Yes,' she admitted, 'it was kinda hard not to once I read ... you know.'
   He smiled at her honesty. 'Fair enough. What do you make of it?'
She raised a hand to sit on her chest, and glanced awkwardly around her before holding his gaze again.  It was as if neither wanted to voice their conclusion, despite both surmising the same. She drew in a brave breath. 'Sounds like she's ill with something serious.'
   He nodded and had a stare at his paperweight.  'Anyone else know of this?'
   'Absolutely not. I was the one who opened it. The envelope wasn't marked 'private' or anything, but I thought it odd with the hand-written address, so separated it right away.'
   'That's good'.  Loyalty from her knew no bounds, and he knew he would be lost without her and often told her so.
   Looking at the envelope in more detail, he noticed the postmark from where it was sent was not too far away, and she still seemed to be using her maiden name. Why she added it in brackets kind of puzzled him. Even with the vast passing of time, it was something he'd hardly forget given that both their father's ran a small business together way back. That was how they met.  The handwriting didn't spark familiarity in the least, and there were no lasting embers of romance that some carry with first loves.
   'This can't go any further, Jacqueline.'
   'Of course not, that goes without saying. So ... what are you going to do?'  The big question!  Jacqueline knew only too well that Neil Balfour was a man that very much needed to get things out of the way (usually by 5pm if at all possible). But this predicament couldn't be listed for quick erasure off the to-do list. While knowing the golden rule of never disturbing him at home for anything work-related, (lest the bloody building be on fire) she was now questioning herself if perhaps she should have called him at home over the weekend. But a call over something so startling, she felt, was better disclosed personally.
   Neil rubbed a hand over his chin, his working mind now well and truly addled.  'Not sure, Jacqueline, but at least I've got till tomorrow to mull it over.'
   'It's Tuesday today, sir.' She raised her eyebrows. 'Bank holiday yesterday?'
   The news had thrown him off guard from usually being on the ball. 
   'So it is,' he gave a part-embarrassed smile and tapped nervous fingers on the desk, leaned back and shaking his head at the ceiling, morally stumped. 
   'Why not give yourself till next week, a bit more thinking time?'        
   'Christ, I don't know ... ' he composed his sitting stature. '... you come to work of a morning and you're a father by elevenses!'

June 14, 2023


                start of **BREASTLESS** 

🍰Holding hands, the hair clipper's speedy buzz rasped from behind. Sitting tensely upright, feeling more like they were heading for the guillotine, the two friends had another two friends - one standing at the back of each chair - poised for the off.
   Under a loud chant of  'Do it! Do it!' a huge cheer went up when the razor started skimming off their already scarecrow-like trimmed hair, both promising not to look at the other until both heads were skin-shiny. The grip on their hands went from firm to bone-crushing in a matter of seconds, and on the count of three, to loud applause, they turned to look at each other...
   'OH ... MY ... GOD!'  Each took a mirror to see for themselves.  'What the ruddy hell have we done!'  
   The room fell into fits of laughter as locks of hair - one pile reddish-brown, the other tones of blonde highlights - gave themselves up to both sadness and determination. Beverly, the previous-brunette, and Fay, the past-blonde, hugged each other tightly. When one has breast cancer and another friend goes the extra mile in helping you through it, it makes dealing with the dreaded disease that bit more kick-ass! The ladies involved, who all lovingly baked, and kitted out the living room with balloons, banners and bunting, were aiming to raise around a thousand pounds for charity.
   'Oh, sod it Fay ... I know we said we'd not open the wine box until the cake and coffee had gone, but it's nearly the afternoon.'
   Fay giggled back at Beverly. 'What, at quarter to eleven? Tell you what, we'll go for a sneaky one in the kitchen, hide it in a mug! We deserve an early stiff one after that brutal shaving! C'mon... '
   Beverly's daughter Saskia, came into the kitchen to rub her mum's bald head.  'Well, that's you done now. Can't believe how shiny it is!' 
   'I'll be dusting mine with face powder to hide any sheen!' Fay said.
   'Good call.'  
   'Still going to practice the head-scarfs, in a short while?' Saskia, asked. She had a few ideas she wanted to try out on the baldies heads once they were more relaxed.
   'Yeah, absolutely.' Fay agreed, 'I'll go get the box from upstairs. As she was leaving the kitchen, Beverly whispered to Saskia, 'I just knew she'd have a wonky head!'
   'Mum!' Saskia scolded, giving her a humorous slap to the shoulder. 'That's terrible!'
   Joining the other's back in the lounge, Saskia watched as her mother mingled, radiating fortitude and friendship. She knew she had a challenging time ahead - a journey that could be stopped short depending on what the future held. But she'd be filling her role as a daughter, knowing she had an important part along the way with her - whichever ending came about.
                         end of **Breathless**        

In The Middle (CH 10)

                   **IN  THE  MIDDLE**
🚿In utter amazement, Saskia had just learned that Neil was, back in the day - a punk.  A whole spiky-green-mohawk, studded black leather jeans and ripped band tee shirts, plug and safety pin chains affair.
   'No way, Dad! No way did you go around like that!'
   'I'm telling you. I saw the Sex Pistols loads of times!'
   Through narrowed eyes she look at him, she wasn't convinced, simply couldn't muster up an image of this at all. 'Why hasn't mum mentioned it?'
   'It was before we met - honestly.' He laughed at her expressions of dubiety. 'Look, I'll see if I can muster up a photo sometime, I'm bound to have one locked away somewhere.'
   This revelation was drawn out by pure chance.  As it happened, the club that they were due to go see Saskia's friends perform in, was the same underground club - Divers - that Neil once frequented himself when he was into the punk rock scene. Such stark familiarity felt peculiarly intrinsic than coincidental. How could he not go? But toying with her a bit longer - now serendipity had helped make his mind up -  was far too tempting to let pass.
   'You are still coming, aren't you? I've told my mates you'll be there and you'll enjoy visiting an old haunt again.' 
   'Oh, I don't know ... still feel I'm a bit too old.'
   'Doesn't matter if you're a raptor or not, loads of older folk are always there. It's for local bands mainly, all ages come to cheer them on. Say you'll come, Dad, I'm dying to show you off!'
   'I'm not a pair of shoes, Saskia!' 
   She tutted her frustration back at him. 'Just come - stay for a coupe of drinks at least?'
   He knew that she wasn't seeing her friends so much for playing catch-up with him, so it had always felt like a meeting-her-half-way kind of offer. 'It's this week, isn't it?'
   'Thursday night. I was planning on catching the train after work, you could meet me off it?'
   He hissed out a lengthy sigh. 'Alright, you win - but I'm outta there like a shot if I am the only raptor. I mean it!'
   'You're a gem, Dad.' She bounced up on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. 'You'll like the band, they're sort of new wave-ish - listenable enough. I know the lead singer from high school.'  
   Chewing the inside of his cheek in premature foreboding, he said adamantly while physically pointing out his message with serious finger motion: 'Me. Raptor. Outta there - okay?'
   'Sure'.  And she ran off to phone the news to her mate, while he - although mostly dreading it - felt secretly gratified for being considered such a cachet showpiece.

There was no time for Neil to change from his suit. A phone call back from China kept him an hour longer in his office, and by the time it was sorted Saskia had already been on the train. To keep his evening events from office knowledge, (he didn't want mocked) he decided to meet her directly from the station. No ruddy way would he be waiting outside the venue by himself till she showed; old suited geezer hanging around a bunch of lollygagging gig kids? Nah! Plans made were plans made, and as bothersome as they may be he was sticking to them.
   Taking a train himself, which he rarely did, he felt stupid having to double check with the station staff that he was on the correct platform. But she come flitting off the scheduled one, waving a hand and hanging on to her hat with the other, her favourite red tartan mini skirt swinging with each bouncy step.  As she approached, he again questioned himself on what in God's name he was doing. Nonetheless, he greeted her with a hug and kept his face happy and gait casual, with no hint of hesitation as they headed for Divers. 
   On reaching the venue, before he let the basement stairs engulf and spiral him down from pavement level, he took a few moments to absorb his youth before reentering the place. A kind of lost scent swirled over him, as he recalled Thomas, Colin, Barry and Gregory, all punk friends in full anarchic regalia, with names not to be called out lest it ripped their eminence asunder. Yes, the memories sucked him back all those years; gangs of coloured hair and eyeliner that had to be desperately removed before work in the morning. Wet arses from pavements, sat on for hours before doors opening. The effing and blinding, false bravado and bruise-comparisons. Any misgivings about coming here were exchanged now for welcoming nostalgia. Even the paint on the railings looked as if was still the same flaky, neglected coat. 
   'Right,' Neil said, 'ladies first.' 
   'Ladies...?' Saskia jested, 'In Divers? That's gig blasphemy here, that is!' Saskia jested, and led him down. 
  She was greeted right away by a small group of friends at the bar while Neil hung back and let the greetings-before-the-meetings occur. Never before had any of them met or even knew a multi-millionaire - it was surprising enough to discover she even had a father.
   As the young ones exchanged banter, Neil was transfixed at his old entertainment pit. The place had, as expected, its decor changed but still kept the element of rough and ready, while the pillars and posts, toilets and light fittings all appeared - as did the bar - in original form and placement, and still providing a starting block for up and coming musicians. 
   When it came to the one-to-one introductions, he was met with an almost wary silence and just brisk, hello's in return. It wasn't being in the presence of a parent that induced silent respect, or fact that he was Scottish and they feared not to understand the accent - it was the fact he was worth a hefty bob or two! Prosperity or not, Saskia painted him as a down to earth guy, but a test of that was about to transpire.
   Dan, a good friend of Saskia's from her high school drama class, bounded through from the sound check session on realising she was there. This big, grizzly guy (all bushy bearded, long haired and leather coated) approached Saskia, grabbed her, and in one fell swoop dipped her backwards, quoting from Twelfth Night but in his own- version ramble,
   'Here cometh my dainty one! If music be the food of love, play on... ' Then he kissed her full on the lips, for no longer than a few seconds, and swept her upright again. Saskia laughed and threw arms around him.
   'Hi Dan! God it's been over a year since we last saw each other!'
   'Hello, beautiful!'
   Dan knew he'd never mean anything in the heart department from Saskia, so always settled for a kiss. But he'd drop any girl for her, in the flick of a switch. Enjoying every moment, Saskia then took a perverse pleasure in introducing him then to Neil, as a mortified Dan, reddened readily, mumbling away between an apology and explanation, till Saskia set the record straight.
   'We took higher drama at secondary school, Dad. This is always how we always greet each other, it's just our 'thing'.
   Curling in his bottom lip, Neil, staring the whole time, slowly raised his hand, putting a damper on that little theatrical moment. 'Hello, Dan ... pleased to meet you'. No smile. On purpose.
   'You too, Mr, um ... '
   'Balfour,' Neil finished for him.
   'Yup,' the big lummox swallowed, nodding away uneasily. He really was just an oversized pussycat.
   The barman rang a bell and announced loudly that the bands would be on stage shortly, and opened the hall partition. With that a wave of frenetic bodies rose from their meantime tables, clanking glass, spilling beers and swear words in desperation to claim a table near to the stage.  
   'I'll keep you a seat, Dad!' Saskia called as she was swept away in the flow straight past him. Neil simply rooted himself till the coast - and the bar area - was clear. 'Large JD on the rocks, please,' he ordered. On placing down the drink, the extremely young looking barman (maybe it was still a haven for underagers) smiled and asked, 'First time here?'
   'Use to frequent here, actually, but it's my first in a very long time.'
   'Ah ... don't think any of the acts tonight will be worth the ink, the more promising ones are usually kept till the weekend.'
   Neil pursed his lips a little, frowning out the barman's statement, a bit befuddled. 'Sorry?'
   'Oh, um ... ' the lad said while rinsing out glasses at speed, 'is there a particular band you're in to see? Hope I haven't put my foot in it.'
   Then he clicked on; he was standing there like a veritable music scout in his Saville Row suit, possibly after the next Top 20 artist whose songs he wouldn't give a shit about once the deal was sealed. Sure, he wasn't stylized to happily step on a piss-ridden floor at the urinals, so he understood why his clothes kind of led to the young man's conjecture. The venue had, after all, produced quite a few mainstream bands in its time.
   'I'm not!' Neil shook his head, keen to rid such a possibility, 'I had other plans tonight but my daughter roped me into coming here straight from work instead.' Neil necked his drink in two goes. 'Better go find her... keep the change.'  He tapped by the coins left over.
   'Cheers! Enjoy your night,' the lad said politely, and when out of earshot commented: 'you're gonna hate it!' ***

The hall filled with people rapidly, high spirited voices collecting in sudden rushes of volume as the support band was screeching its instruments in preparation for the first song. Christ, this was going to be loud. Not even his trip down anarchic memory lane where he pogoed like an idiot, could stop him from bracing himself at the old 'one, two, one, two'. But he was rather relieved that there were a few older others already sitting at tables, probably feeling similar.     
   Saskia was at the hall bar with the skinny guy with too much hair gel and the boniest hand he'd ever shaken.
   'Dad!' she called as he passed. 'We're over at the side table,' then pointed it out.
   'Great,' thought Neil, 'Right next to a humongous bloody speaker!' 
   'What d'you want to drink?'
   Waiting beside her until the orders were placed on a tray, Neil flicked out a £50 note from his wallet. 'It's okay, we've put a kitty in.' Saskia told him, but he flicked the money between two fingers more insistently at the hesitant barmaid, who this time took it and rang the sale through the till. She, also, was told to keep the change.  And while his wallet was still out in abundant-generous mode, he drew out a bundle of  £20 notes. 'Treat your friends,' he told Saskia, while scrawny Joseph stood in jaw-drop mode, 'I know you don't see them often.'
   'Dad, there's no need!' 
   Though he knew, she knew and they knew he could well afford it, it truly wasn't part of the night's agenda - a round or two at the most maybe - the young group had not awaited a free ride. Tonight was more to do with pride and common connection; another factor to help bind their lost years. 'I'll get my own, sweetheart. Honestly.' With a twisty smile and a scrunched up nose, she accepted and led the way back to the table. 
   The second Neil's arse met the chair he physically jumped as the support band kicked off in sync with him sitting. If nothing else, it would at least mask vibrations if a heavy duty lorry passed over! For having been a hardcore London punk, he had always felt nervous when the joint's chandeliers shook!
   Thankfully, as the night wore on the booze started to loosen restrained tongues - double helpings of shots at a time being a huge benefactor - and Saskia's friends were left gobsmacked when she snared Neil into his erst, punk territory- talk ... well, shout, actually. Even with the music having temporarily stopped to allow the main band to set up, the hall still annoyingly resounded with voices and bustle.  He knew his throat would protest from it's thrashing in the morning. Then the table cleared as quickly as the bar did the second the band's frontman's lips met the mic to welcome their following. Neil was left (sitting this time) like a ninny on his own, while the fans got within spitting distance— if not closer— to the performers. This abandonment was, however, pre-decided by Saskia. An elbow in the face, or any bruise in any manner, was not quite the memory or souvenir she wanted him to be taking home.******

As the floor overcrowded with fans, Neil's table was forever getting bumped into. Why couldn't they just stay in their ruddy seats? But then he thought that a bit unreasonable - it was just the old pot, calling the new kettle, black.  Leaving the table, he wound his way toward other raptors standing at the back near the PA system. Leaning his shoulder on the same thirty year old (or more) scuffed-stained pillar, he was actually getting a better view with being a few steps higher up. 
   Saskia noticed the empty table, checked the bar and panicked when she didn't see him there, but his wave caught her eye and she relaxed. He managed to lip read her mouthing: 'Bloody brilliant!' while stabbing a finger towards the band. In return, Neil nodded with high-rise brows and a faux, I'm enjoying myself smile, all the while wishing he was outta there! Saskia faced forward and back into fan mode. When would his torture end?
   Finally, the last song was announced, and Neil surprisingly found his foot tapping along to the catchy little number (oh, the wonders of alcohol and relief!). During the chorus, he watched as Saskia waved her hat in the air, until the lead singer noticed, then beckoned her to throw it. Bending his knees, she frisbee-like spun it towards him. Destination; his head. If she misses; the suede hat is flattened. But the guy judged it to perfection; this little trait the band kept up every time she went to their gigs! Neil found the quirky move rather, well, moving, gleaning that his wee lassie was a popular girl, admired by a faithful bunch of friends. From what he gathered, they had all attended university and now had good jobs, with the exception of one who seemed very muddle headed, but nevertheless, simpatico. 
   His heart went out to his daughter who'd been there for her mother and grandfather, all those life-conforming years stuck in a cafe sacrificing a potential better future - lest she yearned for a job at Ikea!
   Saying their goodbye's in typical drunk-huggy style (Neil very much an outlier as this was going on), he marveled at the youth of today, especially the way they knocked back alcohol like there was no tomorrow. Most of them would no doubt be fresh for work in the morning, while he stood seriously contemplating the day off; he was usually in bed by now.  But he did promise to see her on the last train home. Thankfully that was only a ten-minute walk away.

Linking arms as they walked, Saskia reveled in the success of the gig, with Neil enjoying himself a fraction more than he'd care to admit. The way she was downing those shots he was amazed she was still upright. Thankfully she chose not to wear heels so kudos to those clumpy boots for their perpendicular support. 
   Doing his best to keep up with her babbling, he had to pull her onwards and away from the enticing smell of the fish and chip shop they were passing.
   'Go on, Dad,  just a bag of chips!'
   'Look, your last train is in fifteen minutes and there's a long queue, we can't stop.'
   Under a hugely exaggerated huff of air, she plodded on with her angry stomach and its false hunger, until a little further along, they were heading towards a group of lads that Saskia had some hassle with at the bar during the gig. 'Ah, shit...' she said under her breath. 
   'Woohoo, look who it is ... no wonder you got nowhere with her, Seb!'  Neil wasn't really making any sense of the quips they were throwing among themselves until one leaned out and slapped him on the shoulder as they passed.  'Well done, old timer!'
   Now he clicked. So the lamebrains thought that Saskia must have a thing for older blokes and that he'd just picked her up.  'Behave, lads, she's my daughter!' 
   Turning round the mouthiest one shouted from behind them; 'You're joking, mate ... if she was my daughter I'd still be giving her a bath!' 
   Stopping dead, Saskia roughly pulled her arm free and fast-paced it back to the lad in front with his arms crossed; a bolt of fast-acting ferocity surging through her.  'What did you say? What the hell did you say!? A bath... eh?'  In a millisecond she pulled back her fist and punched him straight in the mush.
   Under a chorus of lengthy wows, everyone's arms—including Neil's—  everyone's arms shot up, hands landing on the sides of their heads like a footballer that just missed a goal.  Luckily, one lads quick catch-reaction kept his mate from a possible head crack off the pavement. 
   Neil stood rooted and shocked, while one of the gang now saw the funny side and laughed at the  stupefied dickhead that had just been decked by some dizzy blonde; bang goes his muscled-bravado now! Saskia continued to rip into him;  'Don't you dare disrespect my father! A bath? You cheeky bastard!'
   Grabbing the shoulder of her jacket, Neil tugged her around and pushed her forward, raising I'm sorry palms up for a few seconds. The assault was very unexpected, but her next words just astounded. As she tottered along a few steps in front of Neil, she called over her shoulder. 'He'd shower me anyway if he was going to, he'd never let me sit in my own filth!'  
   'Jesus Christ!' Neil stood, briefly motionless at her comment and now coarsely dragged her—mega- quickly— along by the hand, as laughter amplified behind them 'You're incorrigible lady!'
   'Am I? Okay ... whatever that means.' Saskia said, stumbling along with his grip on her hand at crushing point. 
   He was mortified and took a quick glance back to check their distance. With the vision of the young lad still on the ground with his bloody nose, he'd just caught an abstruse side of her coming from nowhere; but no doubt fuelled by booze, frustration and a lack of chips. 
   'Dad, those gits were hassling me and Luce at the bar earlier, they were being vile. The ruddy bouncer threw them out -  he deserved what he got!'
   'Yes,' he sighed, 'perhaps ... but did you have to say THAT?'
   She threw her loose hand in the air, then let it drop. 'Well, maybe not... it just came to me.' She tried to stifle a giggle. 'I thought it was funny, though!'
   'God almighty.' He marched her on even quicker; the sooner she and that peppered tongue of hers were on the train the better. Thankfully,  was only five minutes to until her train had pulled in, preferring to stay with her until it took off (just in case she did!) again.  'Text me when you're home, okay?'  She promised to take a taxi straight from her stop. 'In fact, text me when you're in the taxi first... '
   On doors opening, she stepped in, and turned to say goodbye by grabbing his tie with a double twist, giving him a full five second kiss on the lips!
   'Mwah, Dad-eeee! I'll call you tomorrow... love you!'  
   If Neil hadn't yanked his tie quick enough, it may well just have caught in the closing doors! 'Text me when you're in the taxi.' he reminded her again.
   As she glided away, Neil let out an enervated sigh, urging his heart rate to drop to normal. The station was near empty, so no-one was really paying attention to her daft antics apart from railway staff. He needed very much to take a seat to come to.  'Why the Hell didn't I just let them use their kitty?' he soughed. He'd never seen Saskia in such a state. Mr Moneybags had stupidly - but kindly - infused an ethanol free-for-all.  After a couple of minutes he rose and said: 'Sod it - I'm getting a sausage supper!'
   He swaggered his way back to bag some soggy, greasy chips, (hoping that the boys had sodded off) still not quite believing how, in a matter of weeks, life had transformed him from a pertinacious, repetitive human, into a bloke readily on his guard.  Oh, Saskia Reymarr, what have you done to me?
Around 10.50 am, she called him at work. Bent over a particularly important document he was trying to finalise with Jacqueline's assistance, the sudden beep of his mobile startled them. Thinking it best to answer, in case it was important, he said rather chirpily, 'Morning, sweetheart... everything okay?'
   'No, it's not. Dad, I'm so sorry about last night, I hope I didn't embarrass you too much.'
   Neil flicked his eyes across to Jacqueline, who kept her head down but hearing every word. 'It's fine.'
   'No it's not!' she stated again. 'I don't usually get that drunk and as for that idiot I lamped... you should have heard the way he spoke to us at the bar! I know it's no excuse but please believe it's really not like me, I've been feeling bad all morning...' Bad and with the hangover from Hell.  'Bugger, gotta go; customer. Call me later, yeah?'  
   'Will do.'                                                    
   'Love you, Dad. Bye.' And there she put the phone down on him, giving the back of her neck a good rub; her head feeling way too heavy for it.
   The grin on Jacqueline's face that was downcast, was still pretty clear. 'That sounded fun. Good night last night, then?' she teased. 
   'Mental! Too old for gigs!'
   'You were at a gig?'
   'Friends of hers - don't ask.'
   'I won't.' she said. Wise not to press things anymore. 
   If nothing else, he at least got some comfort in knowing that Saskia could handle herself - if such times were to again arise.
             end of ** IN  THE  MIDDLE**    !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

June 01, 2023

Breathless (CH 2)

👴 Relief swept over Saskia at seeing her mother walk towards her through the no thoroughfare corridor with a nurse. Staff had been filling her in on how her father was and it didn't fare well.  He'd had a heart attack: not strong enough to have killed him, though bad enough to have him drop to the floor. This would likely leave him vulnerable to future ones, as at home his angina attacks were becoming more frequent and intense. 
   Stopping in front of Saskia, the nurse left the women outside of Resus, where doctors were still tending to him. The second the nurse was out of earshot, Beverly turned angrily on her daughter.
   'Why in God's name weren't you home when you said you'd be, it was your weekend to get home early!'
   'I know, I'm sorry, the time just flew by and the second I realised how late it was I went to call him.'
   'And you let your phone die!' she added, making Saskia feel worse.
   'I used Amanda's and after three times of not getting an answer, I hurried home.'
   'And you didn't think to call me during all this?'
   'Look, I stupidly assumed he must be in bed - I didn't want to worry you, but I knew you usually give him a call as well - thought everything must be okay.'
   Beverly sighed and slumped heavily into the chair next to Saskia, her heavy-drop earrings swaying recklessly as her head bowed. She knew her father wasn't doing so well and despite both of them not really wanting to admit that he was incrementally changing, they didn't expect this. He was a master at hiding his ailments and his worries, and knew fine his health was put more on the line with any extra exertion. Every morning he joked that he had 'made it another day' in the mornings, and either or both would joke back that they'd have to shoot him to see him off. 
   They could hear the flurrying around from the room behind them and felt fear pump through their veins. Heaven knows what the outcome would be but they instinctively knew he wouldn't be coming home any time soon..
   'Listen, Saskia, I'm sorry for having a go,' Beverly quietly said - the seriousness of the situation seemed to both sober and soften her.  'I forgot to check on him myself, I know how fast a night out can go - and we damn well work pretty hard all week to earn it - but I've a feeling there'll be a lot of adapting to do.'
   'Grampa will pull through, though, Mum, won't he?' Saskia nervously asked, her face ashen, eyes full of concern.
   'Course he will.' Beverly smiled and drew her nervous little girl into a hold. 'He's a trooper, you know that!'  It was the biggest affirmation she felt she'd ever had to make. All she had to do now was  convince herself of it too.

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The women stared at the near-husk in the air bed, laying on its side, head sunk into super-soft pillows, with sunken eyes in its sockets, no more than a helpless soul. Pain was killing him, while painkillers were killing the precious time they had left. Three quarters of all the visiting hours they managed were spent with him asleep.
   Leonard didn't recover from his heart attack with any great promise, his existing health problems worsened instead. During his fall, he had broken his left ulna making matters worse, and from the hospital, he was prudently placed into a nursing home for a number of weeks - something his girls, as he fondly referred to them as, were vehemently against, willing even to take alternate days from work to have him home. But he was savvy enough to know their home wasn't suitable or could be adequately adapted to care for him. His pride wouldn't let them be burdened either. It was a shockingly quick decline, and he was taken back to hospital, especially now his oxygen saturation levels had dropped to critical numbers. 
   Beverly and Saskia felt helpless. A combination of emphysema, spinal stenosis and acute osteoarthritis was wearying-out his final days, ripping away his once active life in under a year.  
   Just as they had decided to leave, old Leonard stirred, initially confused at the opening of his eyes. Giving him a minute or two to habituate his surroundings, Beverly squatted beside him, sparing him the need to twist and chance rubbing his bedsores. She smiled at him, stroking the back of her fingers along his clammy brow.
   'Hi Dad, how are you feeling?'
   Leonard focused in on her and gave a crooked smile back, his words coming in between ragged breaths: 'Oh, you know ... much the same.'
   'Hi Grumps!' Saskia said to him, using the nickname she'd called him since a child, although when referring to him it was always Grampa - no N, no D. She crouched down, peering over her mother's shoulder, giving him a smile too. 
   'We were on our way out, visiting time's nearly up.' 
   'Huh,' he sighed, chagrined to know that. 'I've slept through again ... so sorry, love.'
   'Goodness, Dad, you need your sleep when it comes, don't worry about it...'
   This past week had seen a vast plummet in his overall condition. They both knew it, but had been too considerate of the other to broach the matter. Each new visit brought new fear; the dread of seeing an empty bed on arrival. 
   'Will we ring for a nurse to help prop you up?' Saskia asked, his sores far too open and raw for them to comfortably manage this simple task.
   'Oh, no, no, no. '
   'That's what they're there for Dad. You're really not bothering them, I keep telling you this.' Even in his sorry state he didn't want to feel burdensome. Without hesitation, she had two nurses by his side and painstakingly watched the torture on his face during the few seconds it took. He regained a forced smile and made an attempt at small talk for a few minutes, which did nothing but exhaust him.
   'Listen, Dad, we'll go now, it looks like you need a bit more rest.' 
   Beverly stood, and her father's bony hand flapped by his side, failing to grasp hold a hold onto her. Once he felt her hand grip his, he pulled with what fractional might he had towards her. 'I need to talk to you, Beverly, on your own ... Saskia, sweetheart,' he said meekly, 'can you give your mum and me a minute alone?'
   Concerned lines formed on his granddaughter's forehead. Usually he was pretty open and forthwith in his concerns. But as much as Saskia felt uneasy by it, she respected his wishes. Kissing him goodbye, she told her mum she'd wait at the end of the corridor for her. 
   While there, she was (as most visitors were) pivotally drawn to the strategically placed vending machine, feeling as if feeding it coins was mandatory with every 'wait' one endured. Choosing her overpriced fizz - the sound of the can landing with a thud accentuating in the quiet corridor - she sat with it and pondered over what needed to be said without her. Five minutes later, Beverly appeared.
   'Mum?' Saskia stood, concerned by her strained expression. 'What is it?'
   Beverly shook her head. 'I can't talk about it right now.' Whatever it was looked like it had crushed her, hit her for six.  
   'Is he okay?'
   'He's dying, Saskia, of course he's not okay.'
   'You know what I mean, Mum ... has he been told anything else we should know about?'
   'Then tell me what he said!'
   'Just leave it for now - please!' Her raised voice turned heads. 'I've a few calls to make in the morning, then I'll fill you in.'
   Saskia gave up. No point in forcing the matter any more, her mother could be a real headache - worst during stubbornness - when she wanted to. She let it drop and took her mother's stony silence all the way home, then to bed.

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The phone call to say his final hours were upon him arrived two nights later, the one Saskia and Beverly knew was looming closer.  Moved into a side room, those dreaded curtains had been swished fully around him, settling in farewell pleats. His breath had become short, inhales just a rasping struggle draining his life. They were met on arrival and through a blur of motion and colour, followed the nurse to the passing room. Saskia made a sudden halt outside the door.
   'I can't, Mum,' she gasped, bravery suddenly eluding her. The thought of witnessing her Grampa's final breath was unbearable, and her mother used no ascendancy to make her. She even told her to go home if that was what she wished, knowing he would have vouchsafed such a decision. Seeing him after death felt far less daunting, and felt she still needed to be there for her Mum. No matter how many hours may pass, she'd hang around in the late night cafe and her car. 
   Gingerly entering the room, all white and clinical with nothing on the walls but vital equipment, Beverly's heart sunk. Leonard always joked he wanted to die in a magnitude of roses, like the colourful ones in his beloved garden and taking a bunch with him through those pearly gates. Instead, he lay prostrate under the lure of death - old-ages' innermost nature - stripped of the scents and the vibrancy. 
   She sat slowly down on the chair waiting by him. He was propped up on a cloud of pillows, eyes closed and gently muttering indistinctly every now and then, Beverly grasped his macilent hand and his head turned momentarily towards her. 'Hey, Dad ... I'm here.' 
   Struggling to keep eyes open, Leonard managed to focus on his daughter who was doing an excellent job of keeping the tears at bay. 
   'Ah!' he smiled weakly, 'there's my girl ... I knew you'd ... make ... make it.' Leonard's words came out laboured and scratchy, the tone so low Beverly needed an extra keen ear to hear him.
   'Of course, I would. I'd do anything for my dear old Dad.'  
   'No Saskia?' he was just still able to take in his surroundings.
   'Trying to find a parking space, Dad...you know how busy it gets.' 
   'I know, I know.' he said in agreement, and she wasn't sure if he was able to cotton on to the cover up.
   Just then, his nurse laid a gentle hand on Beverly's shoulder, whispering that she would leave them alone for a short while, and Beverly knew that her exit meant that now was the time and chance for final exchanges, and where forgiveness, sorrow and secrets come out in unmeasured sincerity.
   'Make sure you girls both look ... after each other, you ... hear me now?'
   'We will, Dad.' It was torturous to hear him struggle out just a few words at a time.
   'Tell Saskia I ... I love her.' Now her tears spilled on hearing his own acceptance of his final hours, knowing that by morning he would be dead. 'I'm going to ... miss you, sweet ... heart.'  She grasped his hand tighter, and he shook it feebly.  'It's okay, love. I'll be with ... your mum. She'll be waiting ... wh, wh ... with a huge ... bu ... bunch of ... '  His words tailed off, too exhausted for any more.
   'Roses,' Beverly finished for him, and he smiled, grimaced, and let the pain in for it's final go. With a tear rolling down the side of his face, he turned away from his daughter.
   Nurse Lawson returned to the room and quietly informed Beverly that they would be upping his pain relief and would most likely be unable to respond any more. With a quiet nod, the nurse injected more morphine and gave the grieving daughter a sorrowful smile and went to fetch her some tea.

In just under an hour there had been no more movement from Leonard other than the rise and fall of his chest. Beverly simply sat staring at his face, knowing it was almost over.
   'Do you think he knows I'm still here?' Beverly asked as the nurse still hovered about behind her.  Even those unresponsive were said to be able to hear what was going on - often a conflicting medical opinion. The nurse, basing her answer on vast experience, told her she doubted it, but encouraged her to still talk to her father if she so wished. There was that tiny hope he might, and that was comforting enough.
   The second the doctor entered the room, she knew.
   'I'm so sorry, your father's gone.'
   An almighty wail released itself from Beverly as she leaned forward embracing herself.  No amount of preparation catered her for the actual event, and she wondered how she would ever evaluate the loss.
   'Come,' said nurse Irene, let's get you into a side room until we sort dad out. Would you like me to fetch your daughter for you?'
   'I'm ... not sure where she is,' she sniffed heavily, catching her breath.
   'She's at the end of the corridor. I'll bring her to you.'
   Saskia rushed into her mother's arms, hugging with all the strength she had left, cries of grief in unison.
   Once the nurse felt they had composed themselves a bit more, she felt them able enough to be left them on their own, telling them on her way out, 'Mr. Reymarr will have to be moved on soon, but he'll be in the same room for now.'
   Moved on, Beverly repeated in her head, knowing that meant to the morgue. She couldn't quite believe they were talking about her father.
   'I can still see him, though?' Saskia asked. 'You'll come too, Mum?'  
   Beverly gave a curt nod. 'As long as your sure.' Though it would be Saskia's first time seeing a dead body, she still felt afraid to be doing so, despite it being her loving old Grumps. 
   'Of course, just press the call button when you're ready.' And there she left them to gather some preparation breaths.
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Sleeping. It really did look like he was simply asleep - as goes the theory of mourners.  Saskia saw no greyness, just a lack of the usual pinkness of his garden cheeks. His hands had been clasped across his tummy and Saskia reached out her own hand to cover them, instantly recoiling it back as coldness shocked her. But she returned it slowly, rubbing a thumb quickly over the cool skin as if trying to return some warmth. 
   'Hey, Grumps,' she said softly, 'the house is gonna be a whole lot quieter without you.'  Beverly took a step back, giving Saskia the space for her goodbye's. 'I'm really going to miss your nagging and tutting, and I promise I'll try to at least keep the garden neat ... well, cut the grass from time to time, you know.'
Memory induced tears started to flow. No previous thought went into what this goodbye would contain, but she knew it would most likely be utter nonsense - always had been since she was a little girl. He had taken the time to listen to the childhood reasoning and ramblings that made him laugh, never once calling them silly or stupid. 
   Streaking her mascara more across her cheeks as she swiped away the wetness, she giggled softly.  
   'Just look at me Grumps ... you always told me off for crying, said tears were a waste of time, and here's me blubbing away in front of you!'
   Making extra sure her lips and nose were dry, she leaned down and kissed his cheek. Despite his many wrinkles, his skin felt as smooth as it did cold. Although her words were brief, they were enough. Between grandfather and granddaughter, there were no vital deathbed exchange of words, nothing to apologise for, or to reveal. 'Say hi to nana for me ... ' And with that she turned to leave. Being the driver she wanted to do her best to compose herself before the journey home. 'Get you back at the car, Mum.' She whispered on her way out.
   Now a sole daughter stood looking at the only man she'd ever truly and unconditionally loved. One who sacrificed and swallowed his own hurt in life to protect his family.  A man ascetic in life, and so doughty though fragile in death, that stubborn heart having lasted as long as it could for his girls. 
   A giggle from a nearby room roused her from her thoughts. A heart here breaking, and there was laughter. Sudden stark realism hit that to these people her plight to them was but another day's work. All they were most likely wanting to do was store her father in the morgue, get the deed over with so they could have yet another coffee break and hope no other oldie pegs it through the night.
   Letting out a deep breath, she turned sharply, hands stuffed in coat pockets and made her way out with no thanks or goodbye's to the hospital staff. The medical certificate could be collected at some other time, she needed to get out of here.

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The funeral passed in a haze of the usual sympathies and dismal smiles with follow-up promises that people rarely keep. It was simple and understated with a minimum of friends. With Leonard having been an only child himself, relatives were few and moving to the outskirts of London kept him long out of touch with bygone associates. Friends of Saskia's attended for moral support - some having not known Leonard at all - leaving neighbours and a few friends of Beverly's to make up the rest.
   While it is usually the case that younger people bounce back from grief quicker due to their network of friends and their quiddity, Saskia was coming to grips with her loss while Beverly wasn't quite getting there. She'd become sluggish and took to drinking alone at night. Despite repeated invites to do something other than working, Saskia struggled to get her mum involved with anything to help take the place of this inertia. Tears had dried up, even by the day of the funeral, and Saskia worried that a lack of releasing grief would hold her back from getting over death, but was refusing yet to talk about him much at any point so far.  Even when Saskia fondly quipped that part of her couldn't believe he won’t come bouncing around some corner, or laugh for falling for his elaborate joke, she was told to shut up and not be so stupid. She could accept that people could go cold inside, put up a barrier, even let empathy wither and die; feeling it better to be insentient than tackle the hurt underneath. But she was here for her mum, who seemed determined of going it alone. What Beverly didn't expect and couldn't handle was the feeling that her father had deserted her, leaving her to struggle.
   A turning point came after Beverly received a letter from the nursing home requesting her father's personal belongings be collected. Since Leonard's fee had always been paid in advance, legally his room and its contents could remain until such a monetary period was up - despite how needed the rooms were. Asking Saskia to help her in this daunting task was at least getting her out of the house.

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Stepping inside room 23 felt awful. A sweet or stale fragrance no longer swam in the air, just a cold occasional breeze from the open window. Staring at the empty chair felt strange, like he was about to return from the sitting room or library. His bed was draped with his clothes and two bags of toiletries sat on top of them. The walls were still adorned with pictures, and ornaments and plants yet stood on the sideboard and the windowsill.   
   'We have already sorted out a few things,' the accompanying nurse said, 'but we're not sure how much  you want to remove.' Beverly knew by saying how much you want to remove, really meant how much do you want us to keep - especially the television and music players.  The majority of deaths in the nursing home ended with relatives donating clothes and electrical appliances for less privileged patients - especially ones placed with funds from the council. The nurse hung about for a few moments with a 'well, what's it to be?' grin on her expecting-generosity face. Beverly deliberately held her silence a long awkward moment - just until the uncomfortableness kicked in a bit longer - before turning her back to the nurse. 'Yeah ... well, we'll let you know once we're done.' The nurse said nothing in reply and walked out the door.
   Beverly turned to find Saskia in a berating pose - all wide-eyed and purse-lipped. 'What!?' She raised her palms upwards, and let her mouth gape open before giving a puckish smile. 'Bloody vultures!' If nothing else, it was a relief to have her mum back, somewhat, to her old self again.
   'Okay .. where do we begin?'
   Beverly picked up a bag with the nursing home's logo on it, from the bed and threw the flimsy thing, catching in the air a second or two, towards her. 'You start with the sideboard drawers and I'll do the bedside cabinets.'
   Saskia helped herself during the clear out, by accepting the daft notion that old Grumps was in the room with them. A quiet hum strummed up from Beverly as mother and daughter went through a yes or no list of what goods and chattels should be up for donation.

   As Beverly sifted through the magazine rack, tossing old puzzle books, magazines and such like on to the chair behind her, the song she'd been lightly singing to herself, abruptly stopped. Lifting her head to see why, Saskia watched her staring at a page in a newspaper. A deep, pained frown formed on her head and she threw the paper fiercely on to the chair, dissipating the growing heap to the floor.
   'Mum, what is it ... what's wrong?'
   Beverly stood ignoring her. With closed eyes and hand over her mouth, she stood shaking her head gulping in air in mouthfuls.
   'Mum?' Saskia prompted again.
   'It ... it's nothing, baby,  just ... just these answers in a crossword your Grampa had been doing, they're all nonsense. Must have been the medication or something, eh? It just hurt a bit there, you know how good he was at them.' 
   'Yeah, and so determined! Aw, Mum,' Saskia went to her for a hug. 'Let me do this, eh?'
   'No, no, it's okay, really. There are some books and a couple of his gardening magazines I'd like to keep. You finish up in the drawers and I'll finish up here, there's not much to go.'
   In the end the women left with only a largish box and a two half filled flimsy bags worth of Leonard - the vultures getting the TV and CD system as desired.
  On the way out, Beverly went to the reception desk to finalise any bills and to sign for the more important personal documents and effects of her father's. Old Leonard. Over and out.
      Back at the car, Beverly suggested they head off for lunch somewhere, since they managed to sort out cover at work for the full day.  Despite how difficult the morning had been, Saskia regarded the suggestion a positive step. Upwards and onwards. But little did she know that there was more heartache and asperity ahead. In another turn of events, an additional struggle was about to enter their world, busting through the door without the decency of knocking first.