by Nigel Jarrett

On the way by bus to the hospital, Mary Marshall thought she saw George having a drink outside a pub. She craned her neck but the bus was travelling too fast. She hadn’t seen him since the divorce and knew he’d emigrated. Perhaps he was back – to make someone else’s life a misery. She looked around at the other passengers, all sitting singly except for a mother with a child who wouldn’t stop crying. None looked cheerful. All probably had a story to tell. The crying infant reminded her of pain, a particular kind of pain that needn’t have been.

Mary didn’t normally travel by bus. She said they smelled and were full of people who stuck spent chewing-gum under the seat. But the car was at the garage. She’d insisted on someone coming to collect it. George had been good for one thing: he could repair wonky cars. George was good with his hands, she’d often say, before the information was weighted with a heavy irony lost on the listener. She’d wanted to say he was very good with his hands after a few drinks. Clenched into a fist, his right hand was very good at splitting a cheekbone and making you stingingly deaf in the right ear. The back of his left hand, with its glistering band of gold, could knock a tooth out.

A few hundred yards from the hospital, she pressed the STOP button on the upright and perched herself on the end of the seat. The bus still seemed to be speeding. She thought the driver had not heard the bell and would over-shoot, or not stop at all. So she stood up, walked halfway down the vehicle and clung to another upright, shouting, ‘Next stop! The hospital, please!’ Some of the passengers looked at her curiously. She wasn’t dressed for public transport, unless it were first-class. They didn’t know she was dressed for Robert, who needed to know that nothing could get her down. Robert was in Ward C4 East. He had cancer. ‘Thank you,’ she said to the driver as she stepped down. But the driver didn’t reply. They never did. No-one did any more.

‘I thought I saw George on the way here,’ she said, arranging her coat on the back of the chair so that it wouldn’t crease.

Robert was sitting up in a tidied bed, propped by three pillows, his hands lying palms upwards like a supplicant. He looked awful. He raised his eyebrows but didn’t comment.

‘You’re looking better,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know he was back. If it was really him. It was his double if it wasn’t George. Imagine that – two George Cheevers in the world. God help us. God help some poor creature.’

Mary wouldn’t ever have thought of herself as defenceless. Even when things with George were at their worst, she fought back. George said anger brought out her true self and that it wasn’t a pretty sight. ‘Why did you marry me?’ he’d ask her when she’d shamed him into dropping to his knees and apologising. ‘Get up, you fool,’ she’d said, feeling for the blood filling her nostrils. ‘You don’t even know how to do that. You don’t know how to do anything.’ Getting at George when he was down was a risky business.

‘How did you get here, afterwards?’ Robert asked, knowing she would have dithered between taking a bus and a taxi. Her estimate of which was the less awful was never resolved till the last minute. Taxis were only ever ‘surface-cleaned’ and she hated the tacky air-fresheners that dangled behind the windscreen. Or those God-awful giant dice.

‘Bus. The driver was a madman. He hadn’t shaved.’

‘If he’d gone a bit slower you might have been surer that it was George or not.’

‘Well, in that case, he did me a favour. Not knowing would be preferable.’ She countered his half-smile. ‘I’m not going looking for him if that’s what you think.’

Robert was distracted, as if he’d already forgotten these brief exchanges with his sister as soon as they’d taken place. Two months before he’d had reasonably healthy dark hair. All that had disappeared after the first ’bout’ and thin fluffy white down was growing in its place. The second ’bout’ – she liked the word for its combative feel – would begin the process of loss and regeneration again. What she saw was fool’s hair, like fool’s gold. Robert was no fool. And he would never hit out. Never. But she’d told a friend that men ‘never got it right’ meaning, in George’s case, that anger and determination dissipated themselves in fisticuffs, while Robert couldn’t even summon them. He needed to summon them, or their emotional counterparts. He needed to be angry about ‘the enemy within’.

‘Well, how was it this time? she asked in a manner which seemed to raise expectations of optimism in his reply, or at least a more positive response than before. Having been a victim and overcome it, she didn’t expect others to succumb, but she reached out and touched his hands, as if any kind of answer would be all right. They’d never been close, huggably close, because that’s not what their family did. Hug, embrace – ugh; it was too effusive. Of course, she did it all the time now, having moved on, progressed.

‘You’ll never forgive me for that time, will you?’ he said, lingering with the former memory.

Her response was to look at him over her glasses like a schoolteacher at a child about to tell the truth to redeem an unconvincing lie. She knew what he meant. George had fallen into the conversation and wouldn’t go till he was bundled out. It took strength to get rid of George, to push him away, to pull him off. For a moment, Robert closed his eyes and raised his head to the ceiling. In a side ward on his own was not where he belonged. He should have been at home after his ‘chemo’ (it sounded to her like a small birthday gift you couldn’t get excited about), but there’d been problems the last time and this time they were keeping him in for observation. He was referring to when he’d called on Mary and could hear the final attempt by George to sort things out with a punch; he’d been drinking. Robert had run round the back to find her sitting on the kitchen floor like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, and George standing over her, about to let fly with his boot, the familiar one-two. What could he, an inoffensive lightweight, do against the bluff and bludgeoning George? Nothing. And he did nothing. At least it was consistent. None of them ever did anything about it, about George. They tacitly blamed Mary for getting involved with him. He’d just stood there before the monster, on his way out of the house and out of her life. George had appeared to be chasing him to the front gate, but they were going different ways.’ I should have taken him on,’ Robert had said afterwards. ‘Yes,’ Mary had replied. ‘Yes’ could have meant anything.

They’d discussed this many times. He was always sorry and regretful, she always dismissive and forgiving. But the attack on his rampant cells was re-defining his guilt, dissolving the stuff with which he’d surrounded it. The incident was rarely mentioned now but it coloured everything for him where Mary was concerned. Some species of it seemed to have infected his dreams for ever.

As he looked at her sitting there, gripping his hand yet staring through the window and possibly thinking of something else, she appeared to have moved on from everything and everyone, even those, like him, closest to her. She dressed fashionably and affected an almost painful dignity, a hauteur, as if in anticipation of anything gross, any future despoliation of her life. But only those like him. Not himself. As far as he was concerned, she was, as the saying went, inclusive.

They chatted for a while in that way hospital patients and their visitors do, with a painful pretence that all was really well, until she turned to him and asked: ‘Well, have you considered it? Have you come to a decision?’

She meant her offer, as he jokingly put it, to ‘take him in’. She’d been a nurse, a matron, and she lived on her own in a big house, too big for one. He lived in a bachelor flat, an apartment really, not far away. It made sense, though it would be unconventional. He even wondered whether some would consider it morally questionable once he’d recovered and the arrangement continued. It would continue: that was her intention. After George, she had developed new powers, an authoritative way of saying and planning and doing. She saw the two them, for the duration of his illness, as sole occupants of an island, self-sufficient, mutually supporting and on patrol of the strand, keeping at bay everything that looked threatening. (The re-appearance of George, for instance, sitting outside that pub, coming in on the tide, fanciful though the vision had probably been.) It would be until such time as embattled friends could join them, not under the same roof but inhabiting their own keys and forming an archipelago of the proud and defensive.

He placed his other hand on top of hers.

‘Yes,’ he said, uncertainly.

She took a deep breath. ‘Good. It’s all arranged.’

There was a small scar that extended her right eyebrow, though she used make-up to conceal it. She’d become adept at hiding things, diverting attention. Just before she left, he felt some unspecified but painless event inside him, as if he were being dropped to a lower level in a dark indistinct space, and just after, before she’d gone in fact, he settled into a deep sleep.

Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. His first collection of short stories Funderland, was published to wide acclaim. His début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was published in 2013, and his first novel, Slowly Burning, by GG Books in March 2016. All are available on Amazon. He lives in Monmouthshire. Learn more at www.NigelJarrett.wordpress.com or Twitter @jarrettjourno.