by James Wall
DR FARQUHARSON WOKE feeling more alert than he’d done for some time, despite his restless night. The excitement of the coming day had been too much for sleep. He climbed out of bed and, kneeling down as he did every morning, he clasped his hands together to his chest, and bowed his head in prayer. When he’d finished, he pulled himself up and opened the curtains. Light flooded the room, and he savoured the warmth against his face as he gazed out at the street below and the park beyond. In the distance, he could just hear a voice, but when he held himself still and listened again, it had gone.
He showered and slowly shaved, taking care over every stroke of the blade and relishing the smell of sandalwood. Dressed, he combed his greying hair, once strawberry blond, in front of the mirror before heading downstairs for breakfast where Mrs Kaminsky greeted him warmly and ushered him to his usual seat. A matriarchal figure, she was slim, her hair unnaturally dark and her makeup always haphazardly applied. He was never sure of her age, but guessed she was older than him, somewhere in her 60s.
‘Beautiful morning, Mrs Kaminsky,’ he said.
‘Indeed it is, Dr Farquharson.’
She made a point of stressing “Doctor.” He always felt uncomfortable with the title now he was no longer practising.
She was about to fetch his Earl Grey when he said, ‘Do you have anything special planned for the day?’
She looked surprised at his question. ‘Just the usual, I imagine,’ she said.
‘Maybe do something a little bit different today,’ he said. ‘Just a small thing, something you don’t normally do, perhaps? The weather warrants it, don’t you think? You don’t want to be cooped up indoors all day, do you?’
‘Yes, very true. Maybe I will.’
Then, nodding to the menu on the table, she said, ‘Your usual?’
‘Actually, no. Full English, I think. For a change.’
Alone in the dining room, he followed the sunlight from the wooden floor, onto the table tops and back out the window, and across the street. In his mind, he heard the children laughing in the park and saw her on the swing, her skirt blowing in the wind. She was being pushed harder and he revelled in her delighted cries as she rose higher and higher until she was enveloped by the sun. Mrs Kaminsky interrupted his thoughts with his tea and toast. Then Charles Bunty arrived. They greeted one another, and commented on the weather, and how it put a spring in one’s step. Brushing his hair back with his hand, he went to sit at his usual table by the wall, and minutely arranged the cutlery, the small vase containing the single flower, and the condiments before placing the napkin on his lap.
Mrs Kaminsky was taking his order when Miss Ashton entered, her head bowed as usual. Dr Farquharson mentioned the weather again, and she nodded in agreement, and slid into her seat.
He smiled at “the Fountains Family,” as Mrs Kaminsky liked to call them. The smell of fried mushrooms and bacon was gradually replacing the morning bleach.
Mrs Kaminsky brought him his breakfast and Miss Ashton her fruit. He would have liked to talk to her but couldn’t think what to say.
His breakfast finished, Dr Farquharson stood and surveyed the other residents. Perhaps they’d chat for a while, he thought, but when no one noticed him, he made his way back to his room. Sitting on his bed, he considered the day ahead and checked he’d noted everything down on his list.
The air outside was hazy, and there was still a slight chill despite the sunshine. In town, a window display in The Gentleman caught his eye. The tweed jacket was impressive, but it was the burgundy and ochre tie that he particularly liked. He was tempted by the shirt too but his finances weren’t the same now. Inside, the assistant congratulated him on his excellent choice as he paid.
At the bookshop he browsed through the poetry section and sought out the Wordsworth selection, enjoying its comfort and familiarity. Upstairs in the café, he sat with a coffee and admired the tie again: just like the one Lucy had bought him for Father’s Day years before. He’d looked everywhere for it, and decided it must have been lost in the move to Fountains. At the sound of a child’s laughter, he looked up to see a toddler with wild, ginger hair running unsteadily back and forth between tables, clutching a sugar sachet that she gave to her mother who thanked her each time as if it were the first. The woman noticed him watching and he realised he was smiling at the sight. She finished her coffee and gathered up her child, glancing at him as they left. He checked his watch (already approaching midday), and returned to his list.
There was a queue at the cake shop. The aroma of marzipan and sugar hung in the air. While he waited he checked his list again, and looked down the line. The woman at the front was leaning forward to put her purchases in her bag. For a moment, he was sure it was Elizabeth. Same hair style, auburn waves to her shoulders, similar slightly plump build. But when she turned to leave, it was clear it wasn’t her at all. It’d been so long since he’d seen his wife, she’d look completely different now. It was foolish to think it was her. She’d left long before she actually did go, and he’d given up asking where she’d been each night. He watched this woman who wasn’t Elizabeth make her way out of the shop, and wondered, just like he used to, how she could have deserted their little girl like that. Had he pushed her too hard for a child, his eagerness overriding her reluctance? The night she left, while their daughter was asleep upstairs, Elizabeth had smirked to see him helping her with her bags into that foreign car, her eyes full of contempt for his weakness. Her resentment must have been so great that she didn’t wish Lucy goodbye or make any attempt to contact her afterwards.
‘Hello?’ the woman behind the counter was saying, her hand in a small wave. She broke into a smile.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Miles away.’
He gave her his order, and was about to pay when he noticed the iced buns. He and Lucy used to love these on their Saturday morning trips to town. He bought two and then sat on “their” bench alone in the park eating his.
The sun was fierce now. As he walked home, trickles of sweat travelled down his temples and onto his jawline. He took off his coat and draped it over his arm. As he passed her school, children’s cries rose and fell in the breeze.
Late afternoon, Dr Farquharson, dressed in a suit and his new tie, with his special aftershave applied, stood in front of the mirror in his room. He checked his hair again, wetting his fingers to press down odd strands that wouldn’t behave. He adjusted his tie and brushed his shoulders. The girl wasn’t due until 7pm but he was outside the restaurant from just after 6pm, just in case she arrived early and had trouble finding the place. The street was busy, more so than normal, and he kept having to move out of the way as people hurried past. When he noticed the waitress watching him, he went inside and sat with a whiskey while he waited. He kicked himself for not asking for a table in the window when he’d booked. He was back out again by 6.45.
He didn’t notice the taxi draw up at first. He’d been looking the other way. The girl stepped out, and he whispered to himself, ‘My heart leaps when I behold.’ She was slim, and her red hair was tied back, as he’d requested. He was pleased she looked to be about the right age.
‘Welcome,’ he said. ‘Hope you found it alright.’
Her skin was clear and perfect.
‘Dr Farkwar-, Farkit-‘
‘Farquharson,’ he said.
‘Farquharson,’ she repeated, smiling. Her cheeks flushed. ‘Hi.’
He contemplated kissing her on the cheek but instead gestured for her to go inside and they took their seats. Classical music played softly in the background. Watching him place his napkin on his lap, she did the same.
‘Nice here,’ she said, glancing around.
Her accent was a little broader than he would have liked.
‘It is, isn’t it? Not been here before.’ He glanced round at the marble tables, the bar and the expansive mirror along one wall. ‘Quite different to Fountains.’
He waved away the question. ‘Just my current abode,’ he said, smiling. He couldn’t think of the words to describe it. He’d grown used to the place over the years. Mrs Kaminsky often said it was more a ‘Home from Home’ than a guest house. She was right: it was much more than that.
The waitress came over and handed them the menus, and poured them water from a jug. She was young, and was dressed in a black skirt and white shirt, just like the others. He half-smiled as he thought of Mrs Kaminsky who’d be in one her cocktail dresses that evening as she waited on the tables.
‘Any drinks?’ she asked.
‘A bottle of the red would be nice, I think,’ he said. ‘Push the boat out!’
The girl smiled and asked her where the Ladies were. He watched her leave. When the waitress brought the wine, he tried it and nodded in satisfaction.
‘Shall I pour some for your guest?’ she said.
‘My daughter. Yes please.’ He checked to see whether she was coming, and then said, ‘The arrangements. All in hand?’
The girl returned, her small handbag banging against her hip as she walked.
‘Wine,’ she said as she sat down. ‘Lovely.’
‘Well it is a special occasion.’
He raised his glass to her. ‘Cheers,’ he said.
She did the same and they clinked. She had a sweet face. He liked her mischievous eyes. That was a bonus, not something you could specify beforehand. When he’d contacted the agency, he’d said that he wanted an evening with a girl. No, nothing like that. He had to repeat the instructions that it was dinner, just dinner. You do understand?
The starters arrived, and he made a great show of them, commenting on their appearance and on how delicious his was.
‘How’s yours? Looks wonderful.’
She looked up from her dish and attempted a smile. ‘Really nice.’
After a while, he said, ‘Are you enjoying yourself? I’m sure it’s a bit stuffy here for you young ones I know, but the food is said to be excellent. We could have eaten at Fountains but it’s a bit more basic there.’
‘It’s lovely, thank you,’ she said.
He took another sip of wine. The glass finished, he poured more for them. ‘Maybe we should get another bottle? What do you think? Live a little.’ He laughed.
‘Good idea.’ Her eyes brightened, and she too drank more.
‘I’m glad you’re having a nice time,’ he said, and placed his hand on the table. After a while he said, ‘The retirement’s going well, although a little sooner than I’d expected. Don’t miss the work. Not really.’ Neither of them spoke for a short while. Then he said, ‘I was bored of the old place. Been there too long. Too many memories. New start. And I like it at Fountains. Change of scenery and all that.’ He glanced down at the table.
In his head, he could hear Lucy’s voice: ‘She wouldn’t have just left me.’
But if he’d been honest and told her what her mother was really like, how she’d been unfaithful and had left him for someone else, Lucy wouldn’t have gone looking for her. The policewoman said he didn’t know that, but he did.
He watched the girl opposite, noticed how a few strands of hair had gone astray, and enjoyed that familiar gesture of her tucking them behind her ear. She drank more wine.
The waitress cleared away their plates. ‘Everything to your satisfaction?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Very much, thank you.’
By the time the main courses arrived, the restaurant was nearly full.
‘Have you had the reading list for your course yet?’ he said in between mouthfuls. ‘It’ll be the usual suspects, I’m sure: Updike, Roth, Bellow.’ She looked confused but he carried on. ‘Always wished I’d done English. Poetry for me though of course rather than prose. Talking of which…’ He reached into his jacket pocket and handed her a small parcel wrapped in red paper.
‘What’s this? You shouldn’t have got me anything.’
‘I’m not sure I should. Doesn’t seem right.’
‘Nonsense,’ he said, gesturing to her. ‘Go on.’ He sat back and watched her pick at the wrapping paper and tear it open.
‘William Wordsworth Selected Poems,’ she said, reading the cover. She didn’t look up for some time. ‘I don’t-’
‘I know you don’t read much poetry, that’s why I got it for you. William’s been a constant companion for me, and now he will be for you too.’
She turned back the book again before carefully putting it down on the side plate. ‘That’s very kind.’ Her cheeks were pink as she returned to her meal, her head dipped as she grew more intent on her food.
He said, ‘Maybe I should go back and do English myself? Now I have more time.’ He forked a potato. ‘Yes, I think I’ll do that.’ His face was ruddy with excitement and wine. ‘You’ve inspired me. But you always have.’ He drank more and sat back, watching her, admiring the beauty of her youth. ‘You don’t need to eat so quickly,’ he said. ‘There’s no rush. We have all evening.’
She looked up at him and obediently placed her knife and fork on the plate. He nodded imperceptibly, studied her and wondered whether he should have specified that she looked a few years older. Five years in fact. ‘With the length of five long winters,’ he said to himself. His eyes lost focus as his mind wandered. Five years since she didn’t come home from school. He’d rung the police to report her missing and had gone out looking for her every day for what felt like years. None of her friends knew where she was. The police eventually tracked down Elizabeth but she’d not seen or heard from her. She promised to let him know if she did.
No, he thought. She had to be just as Lucy was then.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said at last to the girl. ‘Sorry I didn’t make it better for you. I wish I’d done more. You know that?’
The girl gripped the wine glass and quickly finished it.
He straightened himself up. He wanted to savour this moment, to celebrate, not to mourn.
When the waitress came to clear away the plates, she exchanged a look with him and gave a slight nod. A few minutes later, the music stopped and the main lights went off. Then the kitchen door opened and the waitress gingerly carried in a cake with 18 candles flickering on it. She started singing Happy Birthday, and the doctor quickly joined in, followed by the other diners. They were all singing loudly as the cake was placed on the table.
‘…happy birthday, dear Lucy, happy birthday to you.’
Everyone clapped and cheered.
‘Blow out your candles,’ Dr Farquharson said excitedly. ‘Go on, blow them out, and make a wish.’
Her cheeks flushed. She looked around at the faces eagerly watching her. As the seconds passed, their smiles began to wane.
‘Come on, Lucy,’ he said. ‘Big blow.’
She sank into her chest.
‘She’s just shy,’ he said. The candles sputtered and a few went out. ‘Come on,’ he said again, trying to maintain his smile. ‘Blow them out. It’s your special day.’
She stared down at her lap.
Leaning in, he whispered: ‘Everyone is watching. Please.’
At last, she blew them out and they all clapped. The lights came back on and the music started again. The waiting staff hurried in and out of the kitchen as if making up for lost time. He looked round at the other diners and was surprised to see them carrying on just as before, each intent on each other at their tables. He became aware of the music: it jumped and returned to the beginning of the section just played. He listened again and it did the same thing. No one else seemed to have noticed.
When he turned back to the girl, her eyes were glistening. He caught his breath and thought of the others he’d taken to restaurants in the past. They’d been happy to accept his money, and he knew they will have laughed at him as soon as they set off in their taxi home. He always reminded himself that it was only for a few hours but in that time, he’d imagined how it could have been.
Taking in this unfamiliar girl opposite, a wave passed over him. He hated that he’d upset her, and he wondered how they’d both come to find themselves here.
He thought of Lucy, his Lucy, and of their walks together, of sitting on the park bench eating iced buns, and of browsing in the bookshop. If she could see him, what would she think of him now?
Quietly, he said, ‘Things I have seen, I now can see no more.’
Soon they’d finish their meals and he’d thank her for her company. She would be sweet, as she’d been instructed, and that was alright. Tomorrow would be different, and that was alright too.
James’ work has been published in the Best British Short Stories 2013 anthology, Tears in the Fence, Unthology 6, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, The Nottingham Review, Prole, The View from Here, Long Story, Short Journal, Fictive Dream, Beatification, Firefly, Action, Spectacle and in Matter Magazine. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University.