by Mike Fox  

I sit on the park bench, watching. There must be twenty ducks, floating towards the small boy, expecting pieces of bread. The boy waits until they draw near but doesn’t throw bread. He throws stones. Despite this the ducks stay, as if they don’t know how to relinquish their expectation, or hope, for bread.

I fail to intervene. I’m not a physical coward—I’ve climbed mountains for God’s sake—but overt aggression does things to me. There’s something primitive, atavistic, in that small child that I sense can’t be reached or controlled. It’s like watching all the cruelty of the world distilled in a single incident, and knowing it will always be perpetuated.

I can admit now that John affects me like that, and I suppose the ducks remind me of myself: I hang around in his orbit continuing to hope for things that should happen, but never seem to. People laugh at me, or look despairing, when I say he’s really a kind man, but then I know him better than they do. Life has disappointed him—who doesn’t it disappoint?—and he gets frustrated. And because he loves me, he turns that frustration on me, knowing I will understand, or at least cut him slack. I have until now anyway.

I watch as the boy continues to hurl stones, and eventually the ducks begin to swim away. I form a strange impression; at least it seems strange as I describe it to myself. I think they leave because of the absence of bread, rather than fear of pain, as if they realise at last that their hope was misplaced.

The boy remains standing by the pond. He has ceased to throw stones and his shoulders sag. Even though I can only see his back I sense that he feels abandoned. After a while he turns and walks away, looking every bit as disappointed as the ducks. Despite myself, I feel a certain pity for him. We all want something from the world, but how many of us know how to find it?

I reach into my handbag for a pack of mints, and place one on my tongue. For a few moments I feel liberated from this scene and all its associations by the uncomplicated sensation of taste. It’s mine, right now, and can’t be taken away from me. This might seem odd, but I’ve learned to relish small acts of autonomy. Even ones as small as this. They remind me of what life was once like.

When John first started to comment on my clothes I was flattered. He even suggested coming to the shops to help me choose them. My girlfriends—I had girlfriends then— told me I was lucky. Their blokes rarely noticed a new dress or pair of shoes. I was surprised when he said blue didn’t suit me—I’d always thought it did—but I imagined that, as a graphic designer, he must have a good eye for colour and so I deferred. It took some time to reach the point where I could only wear grey or black, unless I wanted to cope with moods that could last for days.

At first people thought I’d adopted a new style. My friend Cindy called it ‘monochrome chic’, but one or two asked where all my beautiful scarves had gone, then after a few months they stopped mentioning it. Colour had left my life.

Except it hadn’t. It was still there, but only in small private moments, times when we laughed together, when I hadn’t broken any rules.

We never spoke of rules, of course, and it took me some time to recognise them: the things that displeased him, that altered the climate between us. They were difficult to identify, because they were elusive, never actually stated. Like the ducks, I became aware of them only because something was absent. Although unlike the ducks I never experienced physical violence. Real subtlety has no need of violence.

I began to crave time away. I’d always enjoyed my work but at a certain point it became a blessing. Hospital administration might not sound too uplifting, but hospitals are full of kind people, even if their kindness can be buried under layers of stress. ‘A place where angels tread’ a patient once said to me, gesturing around him, and I smiled. Angels take many forms, and so do devils. At work there was no need to do things secretly, to steal moments of freedom, of choice. Within the limits of my job description they were mine by right.

And hospitals can be strange places: both as personal and impersonal as it’s possible to be. Like some relationships, I suppose. You can live with someone, eat and sleep with them, notice all their habits and mannerisms, and yet know that part of them is locked off from you. But sometimes, oddly when things seem to be going well, you can glimpse a shadow they’re trying to escape. And you know that shadow is the fear that trails them. Does that sound weird?

So perhaps we were both afraid: I to lose hope, he to lose control. Love, I suppose, distorted us both. Until I realised it wasn’t there anymore. That was when my hope changed. I stopped wanting love to be different, and started praying for it to return. Then one day I knew it wouldn’t. I suppose then I could have swum away, though that would have been difficult. Some things travel further than stones.

I stand and walk over to where the boy was. I take out the small bag of stale bread from my handbag, open it and break a slice into pieces. Then I throw the pieces towards the ducks, as though I’m feeding them hope. As I do this I notice flecks of blood, dry under my fingernails. I consider them as if they’re now part of me, and wonder why I still think of him in the present tense.

Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness.  Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion and Footnote, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competition. His story ‘The Homing Instinct,’ first published in Confingo, has been selected to appear in the Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt)Another story, ‘The Violet Eye,’ will shortly be published by Nightjar Publications as a limited-edition chapbook.

Contact Mike at: wwwpolyscribe.co.uk.