by Mike Fox
I don’t envy the fish. I’ve noticed how often their dorsal fins protrude above the water’s surface, as if raising themselves that small amount is as near as they can get to a three dimensional existence.
Their pond is a long, shallow concrete trough, with paving on one side, the asphalt of the car park on the other. In effect they’re confined to a single plane. Despite this they look sleek, and move serenely. Perhaps they don’t feel restricted. I watch as they gather round a mildewed stone fountain that spits out a single arc of water. The small depression it creates in the surface spreads in intersecting ripples, then fades quickly into an untroubled reflection of the sky.
Before long John arrives in his dressing gown. We stand beside one another leaning on the single rail, looking down at the fish. This has become our ritual when he’s well enough. It’s when he tells me things. I’ve learned to gauge when to keep looking towards the water and not glance sideways to catch his eye.
‘I’m back in remission,’ he says now. ‘They’ve just told me. I should be home by next week.’
‘Brilliant,’ I say, and I mean it, although John seems to have his own take on the term ‘remission’. He speaks as if it’s a gateway to something permanent. Liz, his ex but still on the scene, tells me it’s not. She insists she’s spoken to his consultant and his clinical nurse specialist, and they each say the same thing. Remission is only remission.
At first, knowing John and Liz, I thought she was most likely to be right. Increasingly though, I’ve begun to wonder if they both have a point. Since I’ve been visiting John on the ward, and seen what happens there, I’ve come to think of life itself as a period of remission.
But, whatever I think, the same question remains. What do you do with someone else’s hope?
I follow the movements of the fish, koy carp in various shades of blue, gold and white. Somehow they seem too vulnerably exotic for their surroundings, although living as they do in the hospital grounds they probably have no predators. Their lives are circumscribed, but not under threat.
John is wearing no socks. Above his trainers his long thin calves, still with a hint of muscle definition, disappear just below the knee into the towelling of his dressing gown, which he knots ever more tightly at the waist, as if to disguise the body beneath. Somehow none of this looks incongruous any more.
‘Do you fancy a session once I’ve got things sorted?’ he says now. ‘Just a little trot, a few stretches, no weights. Maybe on Friday week?’
He usually says something like this once he’s learned he’ll be discharged. I don’t ask if his physio thinks it would be a good idea. Some mistakes you only make once.
‘Sure,’ I say. ‘That would be great.’
We met at the running club when we were both seventeen. Being in the same age division I’d seen him before, but we’d never spoken. He had a longer stride than me but I had a runner’s arse, as our new coach loved to point out. By the time you’ve tried yourself against a range of fields, as we had by then, you usually have a fair idea who’s good. I thought I was good, but not that good. John, whose times were much like mine, continued to believe he was meant for greater things.
At that age I’d already seen a couple of ordinary runners improve dramatically, but one of the reasons I doubted him was that he was not an egomaniac. You soon understood that the people who consistently won races were humourless and only talked and thought about themselves, whereas John was sunny and a great encourager. But as far as we went we were both dedicated. If asked what we did, whatever else we might say, we would say we were runners.
It might sound strange, but if you stand near a good athlete you can almost feel the health they give off, as if they push out surplus power and energy. But the opposite applies too. Standing beside John at this moment I can sense how much his life force has diminished.
‘I’ve been doing some steps since the last time you came,’ he says now. ‘A few more every day. Some of the nurses are training to go up Kilimanjaro for Macmillan. They do the whole lot twice before every shift.’
‘Fantastic,’ I say. There are sixteen flights of stairs up to John’s ward, and I find myself calculating how many steps the nurses would have to take, then hoping he does his at a different time.
Before long I have to leave. We always give each other a perfunctory male hug, patting each other’s backs to hide what we’re feeling. Now his big frame feels light and birdlike, and I make sure I don’t tear up until I’m well out of sight.
If I find these visits difficult, I’d hate myself if I didn’t go. I’m very clear that I owe him, though I don’t think he sees it that way. For more than six months after my accident he trained with me four times a week, every week. Although at first it was much more like rehab than training. The fracture to my femur needed both a rod and a plate.
‘Do your pool stuff,’ he’d said, ‘then when you’re ready we’ll get back in a rhythm.’
And that’s what we did. But it was my rhythm, because it had to be. Short distances on the level, barely jogging, then some hill work, at first only walking. Way below John’s standard, but that never seemed a problem. If he’d put it into words, which he didn’t, he’d have probably said, ‘that’s what mates do.’ Invariably cheery, often taking the piss, he was always there.
My partner, Jess, thought he was a bit shallow when they first met, but her opinion changed.
‘You couldn’t buy a friend like that,’ she said one icy winter morning, when she saw him through the net curtains, waiting outside in his car. He knew she did shifts, so he never rang the bell in case he woke her. Jess always asks after him now when I’ve been to the hospital. She asks me when I get home today.
‘He’s not going to get better. I don’t really know what to say to him.’ It’s the first time I’ve been able to put this into words.
‘You don’t have to say anything,’ Jess says. ‘That’s for the doctors. Just do what he wants you to do.’
There are older men and women in the club who’ve been running for thirty or even forty years. I’ve realised for some time that neither John nor I are going to be like them. But at least if I can’t run by then I’m still likely to be around.
‘It’s the pretending,’ I say. ‘John never had to do that with me.’
‘He just helped you do your best,’ Jess says. ‘That’s all you have to do for him.’
Of course she’s right, but I know he wants me to think what he thinks, to be another will alongside his. And for sure, if it was that easy, I’d just do it.
‘He could never accept something he didn’t want to hear.’ Liz sits opposite me in the hospital café. She knew I’d arranged to visit John and asked if we could meet to have a chat first. She wants to give me her take on things, but doesn’t want him to know we’ve spoken. Another layer of complication.
‘I just wish he’d enjoy his time,’ she says, ‘instead of keep pushing himself. It’s the last thing he should be doing.’
Liz spends a lot of her time reading medical websites. She split with John two weeks before he was diagnosed. Recently she keeps quoting statistics, as if it was possible to turn numbers into a person.
‘Perhaps this really is his way of enjoying himself,’ I find myself suggesting. ‘He’s just doing what he’s always done.’
Liz looks at me as if I’m a piece of cardboard. I can see she still loves him, it’s not simply guilt. The thought occurs to me that, basically, we’re both struggling to accept John for what he is, which you could say is all he asks.
‘Can’t you talk to him?’ Liz says. ‘He respects you.’
‘I’m sure he respects you too.’
I regret saying this because immediately she begins to cry.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. In fact John rarely mentions her, so I don’t know what he thinks.
Less than half an hour later, John and I stand looking at the fish. Although the pond is sheltered by the concrete overhang of the first floor, a light shower blows across the water, and the fish come to the surface open-mouthed, as though the disturbance makes them hope for something.
John’s quiet for a while, then he says, ‘They’ve done some more bloods. I’m still neutropenic so they’re worried about infection. They say it would be safer to stay here a bit longer.’
I nod, and make noises in my throat. Jess has pointed out that I do this when I don’t know what to say. Then John surprises me.
‘It’s like your body’s a map of your life, and all the things you’ve done are in there somewhere. And now you’re relying on someone else to read it.’
I nod again, and make more noises. He’s never said anything like that before.
We’re silent for what seems a long time, and then he turns sideways and looks at me directly.
‘Liz has asked me to marry her.’
‘Christ!’ Straight away I can see her face as if she’s in front of me, and our conversation makes a different sort of sense.
John looks down again at the fish, tilting their faces upwards towards the rain.
‘What did you say?’ I ask.
John eases his lower back, and I realise he’s probably in pain as we speak.
‘I told her it wouldn’t be fair.’
I glance at him and see his eyes are following movements in the water, in the way people do when they’re thinking rather than seeing. I’m wondering exactly what he means, but then he tells me.
‘I’m not going to be here, am I?’
I manage to stop myself from arguing against him, from being trite and inauthentic, from saying what I, and Liz, and now he can no longer believe.
Instead I say, ‘But would you like to anyway?’
‘’Course I would,’ he says. And suddenly I realise how much he hasn’t told me, and that I’ve probably misread what he’s been thinking all along.
‘It doesn’t sound unfair to me,’ I say.
For a moment I wonder if he hears me, but then he nods. We spend some time looking at the fish, still with only their faces visible, as if they’re making an appeal to a world beyond the one they know.
‘Fair’s a strange word, isn’t it?’ he says eventually. ‘I haven’t seen much that I’d call fair while I’ve been here.’
I can tell he’s thinking about the other people on his ward. It’s easy to picture him in his dressing gown going round their beds, trying to motivate them to get well. John being John.
‘I’m not going to stay here any longer.’ He makes a stretching movement of his back again. ‘There’s no point.’
When I call for him at his home the following Friday, he comes to the door in his tracksuit before I can knock. It’s the sort of spring day on which, not that long ago, we’d have run for a couple of hours just for the pleasure of it.
We trot for a hundred yards towards the park, then John stops to retie a lace that hasn’t come loose and we walk the rest of the way. Once we’re there we start jogging again, and he surprises me by how long he keeps going. Distance runners know a lot about managing pain. When we stop, he bends and rests his palms on his thighs, gulping the air as if he’ll never be able to get enough of it.
‘D’you reckon we’re too young for the Evergreens?’ I ask him.
‘Bloody cheek,’ he manages to say between inhalations that are so loud he sounds like he’s inflating himself. ‘I’m still after a personal best.’
Once he’s recovered we carry on, very slowly. Without any conscious effort our feet start to hit the ground in the same rhythm, as they often used to, almost as though something within us has synchronised. The sun warms us, and for a little while time becomes our own. We can be who we are, and think the same things, and spend these moments like a child spends freedom, cheating the future together.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo and a variety of other journals in Britain, Ireland, America and Australia. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Contact Mike at www.polyscribe.co.uk.