THIS IS CURRENTLY BEING REWRITTEN – READ THIS IF YOU LIKE AND OF COURSE SEND ME FEEDBACK – BUT BE AWARE, IT IS GOING TO CHANGE!
Abel watched the man wander about the bookstore for about half an hour. He seemed to be both aimless and focussed at the same time. The basket slung over his forearm was so full the handles dug deep grooves in the sleeve of his tweed coat. He looked across the shelves, his fingers touching every spine and a wistful look on his face. His eyes were misty and focussed at a distance. Clearly those books weren’t really what was on his mind. He suddenly broke left and began studying a shelf full of assorted family board games. He chose a couple and then went back to the first shelf, clearly umming and ahhing about his decisions. He selected a couple then began to make his way to the register. He changed his mind and zigzagged back across the bookstore before returning to his former exit strategy. The register was open and empty; the cashier had a warm smile on her face and made a couple of gentle jokes. She knew the man and her pleasant voice named him Daniel. She asked after his daughter.
“She’s not getting any worse; we’re hoping that if she plateaus out then some of her treatments might start working.” His voice was smooth, like he was used to the question and the answer was almost automatic now.
“Well that good news, surely? I hope everything starts to get better soon. My little sister is in your historical policy class and she really doesn’t like the sub the department put in your place.” The cashier sounded like she was only half joking.
“I’m sure the department made sure that any replacement would be a replacement that could do the job.”
“See, that’s what I told her when she started to complain, but she insists he’s useless. His name is Ray, Raymond, Raj, something like that. And he’s old.”
“It’s not Rajesh Smythe is it?” Daniel’s tone changed and became a little bit despairing. Whatever was going on at home for him must have been pretty intense for him not to check who would be taking over his classes.
“Yes! Well, it rings a bell.” The cashier was scanning Daniel’s items very slowly, like she wanted to prolong the conversation.
“He’s about ninety years old and still thinks communism could work for large populations. I can’t believe the department approved him!” Daniel seemed to realise what he’d said and locked eyes with the cashier.
“But you didn’t hear that from me and please don’t tell your sister I said that. It’s extremely unprofessional of me.”
“You have my word.” The cashier finished scanning and then raised her hand in a parody of the scouts’ honour salute.
“That will be three hundred and sixty eight dollars and thirty five cents. Will that be cash or card?”
“Card thanks.” Daniel rummaged for his wallet in his back pocket and paid. Abel watched as the cashier began to move the bags onto Daniel’s side of the counter to make them easier to reach.
“Would you like your receipt Daniel?” The exchange was coming to an end. Abel wound his way to the door and slipped the little brown book out of his pocket in the front of his hoodie. He fiddled with the stack of baskets, feigning a struggle with the handles of the topmost basket. The professor stumbled past Abel with two plastic bags and he caught the man’s elbow, sliding the brown book into the more strained looking bag.
“Sorry.” Daniel’s voice was polite but distracted.
“It’s okay. Have a good day.” Abel smiled cheerfully and finally pulled a basket from the stack. He watched Daniel walk out, watched the sun hit the back of his head and the wind ruffle his short thinning hair, and smiled to himself. One down. Two to go. Daniel sounded just about perfect; a sick child, a gentle demeanour, everything Abel needed.
“Your dad will be home soon honey.” Michelle looked up at her daughter from the brownie batter she was spreading into a shallow baking tray. Sara took her time looking up from the last page of her workbook and just stared at the top of her mother’s head. She could see the grey hairs that she’d failed to get with the home dyeing kit. There were too many for a woman of her age. Sara knew that her mother wasn’t old – not like some of the mums she sometimes met at the hospital.
“I know mum.” Michelle looked up again and Sara saw the movement, dropping her eyes back to the page and trying to focus on the long division problems. They were beginning to blur on the right side and Sara closed her eyes, squeezing them tight and hoping the nagging sensation would go away. She opened them quickly and moved her pencil across the page, creating small, random, patterns under the questions. She knew they weren’t answers but fear was beginning to tickle the edges of her consciousness. She knew what that blurriness meant; she needed to run away.
“Could you let me know when dad gets here? I’m gonna go finish my homework in the treehouse.” Michelle had turned around and was putting the brownies in the oven. By the time she’s straightened up and turned around, Sara had already left.
The treehouse was Sara’s special place; she went there when she needed to be away from her parents and their ever watchful, pity filled eyes. She’d begged them to build it for her and being the parents of an ever-sick and pain filled child, they did exactly what she asked them to. She barely made it out the backdoor and to the bottom of the ladder when the nagging feeling became a terrible pain. She closed her right eye and ran, clutching her maths book. She got the ladder and as she climbed so did the pain behind her right eye. She threw her book over her head and pulled herself into the protective shadows. The darkness wouldn’t bring any relief but she crawled into the corner anyway and curled up. She closed both eyes and the burning in her head, centred behind her eye, became too much. It was like a fire, like someone had plugged the back of her eyeball into a wall socket. She hugged her knees and controlled her breathing, her doctor in her head reminding her that there were things more important than the pain.
The pain was subsiding when Sara unfurled from the foetal position and reached for the maths book. She heard the treehouse’s ladder creak and struggled to open her eyes against fierce light from the doorway. The bright shaft of light hit the shiny cover of Sara’s maths book and turned it into a blazing rectangle on the dark and dusty floor. A shadow mercifully appeared in the doorway and it coalesced into an outline of her mother. She blinked rapidly to clear the last of the headache-induced tears. It took a moment for Michelle’s eyes to adjust to the shadows inside her daughter’s treehouse. Sara was lying on her stomach with her book poised in her hands.
“The brownies are done sweetie. Are you done with your homework? Want me to take it in and mark it for you?”
“No I have a couple of questions I didn’t do the other day; I’ll finish them and bring them down to you when dad gets home.” Her voice was a bit weak and but she the smile on her face was normal enough. Michelle thought her daughter’s eyes were a bit glazed, but shrugged it off in her head. Maths made her eyes glaze over too.
“I’ll call for you when your dad gets home. Finish that up.” Michelle retreated, leaving a plate of freshly baked brownies covered tea towel in her wake. Sara waited for the creaking of the rungs to fade out and the sliding backdoor to thunk resoundingly, shutting her mother into the dining room. When the sounds faded Sara closed her eyes again, feeling the last vestiges of the headache crawl back inside her brain. When she felt normal again she opened her eyes and grabbed a brownie. Her mum did make a great brownie. She found a pencil in the little box by the door and brushed the dirt off the floor, repositioning the book so that she could read the equations. Once the headaches were gone she found it easier to concentrate and set about erasing all the odd little marks she’d scrawled in the place of the answers. Each problem presented itself new and fresh to her eyes and she scribbled out the answers. She ate a second brownie and closed the book, putting the pencil back in its box. Rolling over, Sara observed the cobwebby ceiling and felt the sun touching her head.
The sliding door opened and Daniel stepped out. He had always felt like needing a deep breath before seeing his daughter. He climbed the ladder, juggling the bag of books and games he’d bought at the bookshop at the college. He flicked the edge of the bag up into the doorway of the treehouse and Sara rolled over and popped up into the light, dodging the bag and peering with wide eyes at her father a few rungs down. Daniel smiled apologetically and pulled himself into the house, sitting next to his daughter. He awkwardly filled the opening and Sara had to sit against the wall hunched up watching her father open the bag up and reveal the treasures inside.
“How did your day go darling? Did you finish your homework?” Daniel pulled two new board games out of the white plastic bag, his face concerned as he waited for Sara’s approval.
“I finished the work; I finished the whole book actually, so I think I’m about six months ahead on the math.” Sara grinned at her father and he smiled back.
“You are! My bright little girl. That will give you plenty of time to get to work on these new textbooks I got you.”
“Oh what did you bring me?” Genuine happiness flushed Sara’s voice and Daniel heard it. It made him feel a little bit better. She so rarely had a truly happy voice.
“Well, you’ll have to have a look to get the full list but I picked out some ones about religion, and then a couple about evolution and three about forensics. I thought I would try and broaden your horizons with this delivery.” He chuckled to himself and patted the bag.
“And the games?” Sara could see the two games he had pulled out but was a bit confused. Usually he brought her games she could play on her own. These two were a special edition of Monopoly and a Hollywood themed trivia game.
“I got these two for family game night, I thought I would try and spice that up, and there’s a new one with cards for you in the bag.” Sara nodded, remembering the last game night. She liked playing canasta as much as the next person but adding a new game to the mix might indeed ‘spice things up’.
“Thank you daddy.” Sara hugged him as best as she could and he slid himself down the ladder, turning around so he could grab the two games on his way. She watched him go and waited for him to enter the house before dragging the brown bag closer and tipping it out, spilling a pile of heavy books out onto the dusty floor in the process.
“He really outdid himself this time.” Sara often talked to herself. She pushed the pile out into a single layer so she could look at all the titles. Her dad hadn’t been lying when he’d talked about broadening her horizons. She opened one of the forensics books to the first page and pulled it onto her lap. A small book appeared on the floor and she put the textbook aside. It must have been stuck to the back of the forensics text. She opened it and flicked through the back pages. It was a journal, with blank pages and a boring brown cover. It looked like just an average journal. She grabbed a pencil and opened it to the first page, intending to write her name and mark it as officially hers. She’d never had a journal before but her dad had often told her that writing things down could make her feel better and help her relate to people. And Kim and Sienna both had journals in the hospital.
Anton watched on sadly as the tiny woman wiped drool from her husband’s cheek. The joy in their eyes at a good pain day made his chest ache. This job was so depressing.
“How much longer do I have for visiting hours Dr Beaumont?” She looked up at him and smiled welcomingly. He made eye contact with the little woman and dragged his unwilling lips into a smile to match hers.
“Visiting doesn’t finish for another two hours Milly. You can stay with Leonard until then.” She reached for his hand and grabbed it in her elderly claws. The skin was pale, nearly translucent, and the knuckles stood out like the knots on the branches of an old fig tree. She had a steely grip though; he’d discovered over the years that some of the smallest and most fragile looking people had the toughest grip.
“Thank you doctor.” She had tears in her eyes. He felt tears prickle his and carefully shifted his hand out of hers, reaching for his pager as if it had buzzed.
“You’re very welcome Milly. I have to head off, I’ve got a nurse looking for me. I’ll see you in a couple of hours. I’m glad you’re feeling better Leonard.” He had to speak up for the old man to hear him but the smile on the man’s otherwise slack face made up for the emotional effort of staying nearby. He had pancreatic cancer and the metastasis was so complete there was very little point trying to treat anymore. A day where he could sit up was a once in a fortnight opportunity for his wife. Anton backed out of the room and made a beeline for the cafeteria. He had promised his friend lunch and their busy schedules rarely allowed them this luxury. He fought his way past the line for food and managed to get to the outside tables. The autumn sunshine was unseasonably warm and the wind lacked its normal goose-pimpling chill. Dr Simon Phillips stood up from his chair and extended his hand for a shake. Anton felt the first genuine grin of the week spread across his face as he accepted the gesture and sat down.
“Anton! Long time no see. What have you been up to?” Simon had a cup of coffee on the table in front of him. A strong gust of wind ruffled his thick hair and he transferred the cup to his lap, cradling in two hands.
“Not much Si; it’s been a long hard slog these last few weeks. I’ve got fewer patients dying, so the ward has really swollen and given all of them are last stage, I’m surrounded by misery and pain. How is your work going? You’ve got some sort of drug trial going?” Anton didn’t like talking about how his work was. Working the palliative care wing for a cancer ward was always going to be depressing. Most people only ever had to ask once; after that they knew no one wanted to hear about all the miserable dying people he had the pleasure of meeting every day.
“Yeah, I’m working with neuropathies; it’s always been my interest but I got lucky and Keira’s father offered to fund my trial and I took the opportunity.” Anton felt like he should have been envious of Simon’s connections. Keira came from a rich family and she leant that socialite weight to her doctor husband whenever she thought it would be useful. He couldn’t bring himself to be jealous though; he didn’t have any designs on running his own trial. They were nothing but headache after headache and more paperwork than a police department dealt with in a year.
“That’s a hell of a deal. You’re a lucky man.”
“I have colleagues left right and centre eating their hearts out.” Simon sounded proud. Anton smiled but it felt forced. If it looked forced, Simon didn’t say anything.
“I bet.” Anton knew how doctors could get about the success and good fortune of others. And the kind of money Simon now had access to was rare in the medical world.
Silence fell between the two friends and Simon sipped his coffee. Anton looked back towards the hospital cafeteria and picked three or four family members of his patients out from the crowd. He knew so many of them by name. He felt an odd sense of pride mixed with sadness; it was heavy in his chest. He was happy that he remembered faces and names but he couldn’t shake the reason he knew them all. It made him think of the pale ghosts lying in the beds upstairs.
“How is Grover doing?” Simon’s voice broke Anton’s self pitying reverie.
“He’s not doing great but he loves me and I love him. He doesn’t do much running anymore. He still plays fetch but it’s a pretty slow process.” Anton’s dog, Grover, was a beautiful but decrepit old Basset hound; he had the soul of a much younger dog but the joints and digestive issues of a fossil.
“It’s good he’s still got the heart to play, even if it is slow.” Simon was more of a cat person but he’d had dinner several times at his friend’s house and despite Grover’s unattractive physical appearance he thought the old boy was delightful.
“I’ve got a sitter with him while I’m at work.”
“Like a babysitter?”
“Yeah. There’s a puppy-preschool down the road but Grover is too old to attend that. And he doesn’t like puppies.”
“Puppy-preschool is a thing?” Simon felt like the world never ceased to amaze him. It seemed a little ridiculous to have a whole house of puppies just while their owners were at work. They weren’t really children, no matter how much people liked to call them their fur-babies.
“It’s very serious. And expensive.”
“Well you learn something new everyday.”
“Anyway, I should probably get back to my patients.” Anton felt them calling to him. He was a glutton for punishment.
“I promised old Mrs Grail that I would drop in on her after lunch; I spoke to her this morning and she seems worried about something. Last time this happened the old girl had just discovered that her own son had been diagnosed with cancer. I hope the old lady hasn’t gotten some awful news like that.”
“Here’s to hoping. Good luck Anton.” Simon knew how horrible the patients could get. The guilt and the fear and the constant talk of pain; he worked with pain as well – that was how he and Anton had first met – but he knew that cancer pain was different. It was ugly and drawn out and terrible. He felt a deep sense of despair for his colleague. Anton watched Simon stand up and begin to walk away. It suddenly occurred to him that neither of them had actually eaten anything on their lunch date. He had time to grab a quick sandwich on the way back to his building; he jumped up, gathered his things and made a beeline for the vending machine by the exit.
Anton reached the double doors that lead to the ward he considered his own; sure the nurses walked the same floors and spoke to the same people but he really felt like the only person who truly owned the pain of these people was him. He pushed them open, his long lab coat opening as his arms raised to hold the doors open, he dropped his arms again and stepped through the doors as they closed with a soft clapping noise. He walked past two of the families he had seen in the cafeteria line and found the private room of Mrs Grail. She was a very elderly woman; not the oldest in here by a long shot but she looked old beyond her measly seventy years. Her hair had given up nearly five years ago and her skin was like rice paper; sometimes Anton was sure he could see the valves in her veins and the bones in her bird-knee elbows. He knocked on the door and waited for a faint bell to sound. Mrs Grail barely had a speaking voice right now; her ability to call out had vanished longer ago than her hair. He opened the door gently and poked his head around. She was lying down, propped on three large hospital issue pillows. A little round pillow adorned with a simple, timeless cross stitch sat between her withered looking fingers, clasped at her midriff.
“Thank you for coming Dr Beaumont.” Not once had she called him Anton; no matter how many times he told her to. She had never invited him to call her Nancy. They had a strangely formal relationship, given how closely they operated.
“You did ask me to Mrs Grail. What can I do to help you today?”
“Come closer please Dr Beaumont.” Her voice was so faint he almost had to ask her to repeat herself. He appreciated the irony of the passing thought as he approached her bed and settled himself into the seat by the bed. Normally such a seat would be reserved for visitors, but he had never seen it occupied except for when a nurse took the old lady’s blood pressure.
“How are you feeling today Mrs Grail?” He always started with the same question. And he always hoped for an honest answer, no matter how unpleasant.
“I’m at a six today.” Nancy’s voice was soft and rusty, slightly croaky and profoundly tired. A six was a good day for her. Her eyes looked clear, like she hadn’t hit her painkiller button recently.
“That’s a lot better than yesterday Mrs Grail. I’m glad. How can I help you today?” He always spoke softly, keeping his tone compassionate. With these older patients he didn’t feel the need to add any authority to his speech; they knew who he was and his standing.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.” Her voice was sure and steady. Despite it’s low volume and lack of impact, it had an underlying conviction that told Anton exactly what she meant.
“I can’t do that Mrs Grail.” He always dreaded this conversation. It wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last. But the heavy feeling in his chest pressed down on his lungs, restricting his ability to breathe.
“But I cannot do this anymore.” She sounded so matter of fact. Like this was the only solution. She wasn’t going to get better. She had no reason to pray she was going to get better. Suddenly the lack of pain medication made sense; she’d wanted a clear mind. His heart broke a little.
“I can’t do that Mrs Grail. I’m sorry.” And he was. More sorry than he could accurately express. The heavy feeling in his chest began to hurt a little.
“But you said you would help me.” Anton hung his head, trying to find a way out. He had said that but he hadn’t meant what she was asking for. He had never meant that, not even with his most desperate patients. He thought he had made that clear.
“I can’t help you in that way Mrs Grail. You know I can’t.”
“Why? Just because it’s illegal?” Her tone took an accusatory edge and he felt himself recoil a little bit. How could she think that that was his primary concern? It was a concern, but hardly the most important one.
“I do not want to be responsible for your demise Mrs Grail. I am sorry, I cannot do it.” He tried to add stress to his voice, removing any natural sounding contractions.
“Oh come on, I’ve been dead inside for years. No visitors, no real relief, no friends. You would be doing me an immense kindness; moving me on to my next life.” It was a beautiful way to think about it but Anton’s stomach still twisted in knots. He couldn’t think about it. It was a slippery slope. He’d had three colleagues get in trouble for this sort of thing. Two lost their licenses and one of those saw jail time; they would never help another patient again.
“I will consider it.” Anton stood up, shock radiating through him upon hearing the words fall from his own mouth. The look on her face was so happy, almost blissful, and yet even that couldn’t unfreeze the twisted mess his stomach had become. He couldn’t believe he’d said that.
The hallway outside was mercifully empty, because Anton ran as fast as he could back to his office. The soles of his shoes made odd squeaking noises on the very clean floor and each door seemed to rumble like a thunderclap behind him. He was glad when he was able to wrap himself in the gloom of his darkened office and settle into the rich scent of the freshly treated leather chair. The darkness, familiar sounds and smells all comforted him as he tried to calm his racing mind. He’d said four words he had coached himself not to say. He had avoided them time and time again when he’d been asked the dreadful question and every time he had diplomatically declined. Why could he not pull one of his empathetic but unhelpful phrases out this time? He held his head in his hands and stared at the rich dark timber under his elbows.
His phone made a chaotic buzzing noise, trapped between his belt and his desk. He sat back and freed it from its leather pouch, lighting the screen up so he could read the message. Simon’s phone number showed up. His friend wanted to know how his meeting with his patient had gone. He stared at the message until the screen turned dark again. He unlocked the phone again and quickly replied, asking if Simon’s drug trial would have any implications for his cancer ridden patients. He locked the phone and put it back. He had other patients to see to. He got up and wiped his face with the kerchief from his pocket. He had his rounds to do.
Ashleigh felt like she was loitering. The university building was quiet and the lack of students in the halls made being there feel wrong. She looked down at her phone, unlocking it to see if there was a message from Robbie she had overlooked. There was nothing. She bit her lip and looked around, feeling oddly exposed and paranoid against the back of the building. It felt risqué. She gave up staring at her phone and surroundings and began the long walk to the back of the geology building; there was a quiet nook there by the old fire pit that he liked to hide in when he was having a bad day. She pushed her way through the disused south gate – it would take an extra half an hour to go all the way around to the more normal entry by the building – and stood in a deep mud puddle. The shade from the old trees must have kept it from drying out. She scraped the edge of her shoe on one of the mossy stepping stones and came around the corner to see Robbie hunched over on one of the four large logs that ringed the charred fire pit.
“Robbie?” She hated that she sounded so hopeful but nervous. She knew it pissed him off when she acted like she was afraid.
“What?” He sounded grouchy. He wasn’t welcoming. He wasn’t loving. He wasn’t even remotely happy to hear from her.
“How are you doing baby?” She could hear her voice rising in pitch, her throat closing a little as her paranoia took hold. He was probably angry at her.
“Well I’m not hiding in the dark all alone because I’m having a fucking fantastic day.” His voice was strained but cold. He really was mad at her. She thought about anything she could have done and settled on absence. She must have missed one of his classes.
“Well how is the pain today baby?”
“Is there anything else in my life, babe?” The last word came out dripping with acid. His hand automatically went to his chest, pulling and smooth wooden cross from under the collar of his sweater. His thumb rubbed rhythmically up and down the vertical section of anointed olive-wood. He pressed his finger into the surface so hard his knuckle and the skin around the edges of his nail went white.
“I’m sorry.” She wanted to reach out and hold him, maybe stroke his hair or rub his shoulders, but despite the fact that her hands were reaching out slightly from her body, pulling her towards him, her feet remained solidly rooted to the muddy ground. If she went to him he might get angry. He obviously didn’t want company. She would just annoy him.
“Do you want me to go to your chem class? I can take notes for you.”
“My chemistry lecture isn’t until after lunch tomorrow Ashleigh; you’re not good at chemistry. Leave it alone. Go to your own classes.”
“I don’t have any more classes today.”
“Then why are you still here? Go home.” He was angry. She’d upset him by offering to help. She’d damaged his masculine sense of pride.
“I was looking for you. You know, in case you wanted a hug or something. Or any help.” She managed to uproot her feet and approach him, placing her hand on his shoulder and using it as a pivot point to walk around in front of him, bending down to look him in the eye. His eyes were dark and cold. She could tell he was in bad pain because his lips were pale and tight. He looked up a little bit and his hooded eyes met hers properly. Fear and sadness trickled through her and the fear took over as he suddenly stood up, letting his well worn talisman fall to his breastbone, stark against his sky-blue sweater. He pushed her backwards as he strode past, Ashleigh hit the wet ground, slipping and catching herself on her hands.
“I told you to leave me alone Ashleigh.” He looked down at her, sitting on the ground with the cold damp seeping into the seat of her jeans and the hem of her cream jacket absorbing the dark clay tones of the soil. He didn’t like his girlfriend getting in the way but a spike in his pain shut off his emotions and he stepped around her, leaving through the main gate in the general direction of the chemistry building.
“I’m just trying to help!” Ashleigh meant to shout but the words came out in a husky whisper. She felt the brief moment of backbone fade and she hung her head in shame, feeling tight muscles pull against the back of her neck and across her shoulders. Robbie had disappeared, not hearing her defensive statement, and she was left sitting on the cold, wet, ground.
A thin mist of rain began to fall like an icy shroud. Ashleigh picked herself up and in vain swiped some mud off of the back pockets of her pants. He was having a really bad day, obviously. She should go home. She had homework anyway. And plus she’d promised her mum that she would make dinner tonight. She would just go home.
Having made her decision, she took the back paths and traced around the backs of buildings to find her way to the carpark. She slipped into her car and put a picnic rug on the seat to protect the shabby but clean upholstery. Home was a ten minute journey away, not long enough for the heating to really start working. By the time she pulled into the driveway she could confirm that the moisture had seeped into her underwear and her backside was really cold. She hurried into the house, her bag slung lower and further back than usual to hide the stains on her jacket in case anyone was home. The house was cold and dark. She ignored the lights and hurried to the bathroom where she stripped down and turned the water on in the shower, letting it run for a bit to get nice a steamy. The water heater was at the other end of the house, near the kitchen, so it always took a few minutes. Her teeth began to chatter. The bathroom tiles were exceptionally cold and the steam created a fine slimy layer on the surface. She finally stepped into the warm spray and waited for the cold-to-hot induced burning in her fingers to die down. Then she washed her hair, cleaned her face and shut off the water, stepping out onto the small round bath mat. She reached for the towel and her hand hit the cold metal of the towel rail. She looked around, checking the edge of the bath and the floor. Her towel wasn’t in here. Her mother must have done the washing. Swearing quietly under her breath and feeling all the warming effects of the shower starting to melt away, Ashleigh poked her head out the door and checked that all the house lights were still off. When she they were she made an executive decision and bolted for her bedroom at the far end of the hall, her hair still dripping down her back and her feet hitting the cold hardwood floor with decisively wet slapping sounds. She grabbed her robe from the back of her door and without regard for her wet hair she slung it around her shoulders, sliding her arms through and fighting against the pull of dry fabric on wet skin. She pulled on socks, again fighting the inevitable stickiness of wet feet, and padded into the kitchen, rubbing her hands against the soft fabric in the robe’s pockets, trying to restore a little of her lost warmth. What could she make for dinner? She checked the fridge and found some mince partially defrosted. Deciding on making a simple herby Bolognese sauce and serving it with pasta and vegetables, she set to work. The stove gently filled the air with the smell of basil and tomato and oregano and when everything was bubbling away nicely and the prep was completed, she went around the house turning on lights. She knelt by the old fire box in the corner of the dining room and started assembling the fire. She cursed herself for not doing it earlier and worried that the house wouldn’t have warmed up at all by the time her parents had gotten home.
When the door opened and her father stomped into the living room, he was greeted by delicious smells.
“Ashy? You home love?”
“In the kitchen Dad!” Gavin Silk poked his head into the kitchen and sniffed appreciatively.
“Do you know when your mum was meant to be home sweetie?”
“She didn’t say. How was work?” Even as her father started to tell her about the trials and tribulations faced by a large animal vet, Ashleigh could feel her attention wavering and focussing on her phone, resting on the edge of the bench. It hadn’t buzzed. Was Robbie okay? Should she have invited him over? He was in pain. Should she bring him food at the dorm? He didn’t love spaghetti. She could make up some penne instead. Or bring pizza. Maybe Chinese? Her thoughts were interrupted by a clatter of silverware to her left and she looked down; her father was setting the table, rummaging through the hodgepodge selection of silverware to find three matching sets. The sets probably wouldn’t match each other but that wasn’t the point.
“Sorry, what was that? I zoned out for a minute.” She apologised and received a calm smile from Gavin. He knew she phased in and out and wasn’t terribly fussed.
“I didn’t do much today. Just a couple of vaccinations and one horse who’d been lucky enough to get inside his owner’s house and cut himself on a broken vase.” Gavin explained his day patiently, yet again, to his daughter.
“How was your day? How was class?”
“Class was fine.” Ashleigh wracked her brains but in that moment she couldn’t remember what she’d learnt, if anything. So she added her favourite topic of conversation.
“Robbie was having a pretty bad day today so he was distant, but otherwise it was fine.” She couldn’t ever tell the truth about him but she liked talking about him nonetheless.
“The doctor haven’t made any recent breakthroughs?” Gavin’s voice held genuine concern; he did like Robbie, even if he didn’t like how stressed he made Ashleigh.
“Nothing. I mean, he has pain meds, duh, but fibro is not really curable and there’s talk of a clinical trial but it’s all just rumours, you know?”
“Are you going to go over there tonight?”
“No, I think I’ll stay in; he said he needed his space.” Ashleigh didn’t want to say anything that would get her parents talking about her happiness. If that happened then she didn’t know if she could lie about Robbie’s behaviour and then the conversation would switch to being about how she didn’t need someone like that in her life… She didn’t want to have that conversation. She heard the door and automatically smoothed the front of her dressing gown. She was starting to warm up and in the middle of the kitchen she nearly removed it before remembering that she wore absolutely nothing underneath.
“I’m just going to go to the loo. I’ll be back in a second dad. Could you get the jug for the table?” She was already leaving when Gavin answered.
“It’s already done love.” Then she heard him greet her mother, muffled through the walls while she rifled through her cupboard looking for her clean pyjamas.
“Abi! My darling! My delight! How was your day? I missed you!” The couple had been married for over twenty years and he still acted like a theatrical teenager. Sometimes Ashleigh wished she had a relationship like that; they were bestest friends, the love of each other’s’ lives. They were both independent people and attached at the hip. They fought and laughed and loved and supported everything each other did while retaining couple activities and personal interests. She didn’t know how they’d found each other, cosmically speaking, but they were perfect in her eyes.
She found her pyjamas, dropped her robe onto the cold floor and slithered into a sea of fabric softener scented flannelette. She grabbed her slipper socks and hurried back out.
“Mum!” She exclaimed her greeting, hugging her tightly and receiving a warm embrace in return.
“Ashy; how was your day darling?”
“It was alright mum. How was yours?”
“Well you know, arrested some people, defected a car, it was pretty boring.” She pushed Ashleigh out to arm’s length and looked at her.
“You look very tired this evening Ashy. Should you go to bed early? Do you have much work to do? Are you going to Robbie’s?”
“I am staying here tonight mum. I have prep work for a tutorial tomorrow and Robbie needs his space.” Abigail studied her daughter, still holding her at arm’s length. A quiet ding broke the tableau and Gavin announced that dinner should be served. Ashleigh helped her father divvy up the pasta, sauce and vegetables and Abigail sat down, relishing in being off of her feet. Bowls were brought to the table and silence ensued as without any fuss the family started eating. Ashleigh avoided her mother’s watchful eyes, keeping her own glued to her bowl. Gavin daydreamed wistfully and watched his wife’s strong but feminine hands master her utensils. Abigail tried to catch her daughter’s eye but failed, and her suspicion that something was wrong deepened. She wouldn’t get anything out of Ashleigh tonight though; the young woman had shut her out. She would have to be patient.
Because Ashleigh had cooked, her parents cleaned up the kitchen and set about washing up and packing the dishwasher. She went to her room, phone in hand, and set up her laptop and textbooks for the preparation she had doubts she would do. It was so boring. Political Obligations was just a filler; first year, nothing fancy, she’d just needed to fill a spot in her course load. But despite it being easy content, the amount of work she had to do was unbelievable. She hated it too; it was boring and hard to remember because it seemed to numb her mind. Her phone rang and she looked at it. Robbie’s smiling face lit up the screen and she accepted the call, holding the phone to her ear and greeting him. He apologised for pushing her over earlier in the day and she forgave him – as if there was anything to forgive – and asked him how he was feeling.
“The doctor started talking about complementary and alternative options.” he sounded miserable.
“The pain one, German fella?”
“Oh. Well that makes sense. What kinds of treatments was he suggesting?” She had googled alternative treatments before but come up pretty empty. Fibro didn’t have a lot of experimental or traditional treatments.
“He said something about some jungle herbs or some shit. You know it’s all bullshit. I’m not going to trust any of that pagan voodoo crap. If it does anything at all it will make worse!” His voice got savage right at the end and Ashleigh imagined him sitting alone on the end of his single bed in his little shitty student residence. It would be dark except for the reading light by the bed because he would be lying in the dark trying to not think about anything but the void of sleep.
“Have you thought about the church option? I mean, I know you go, but there might be another church, one of those ones with a sacred river…?” She regretted it as soon as it came out of her mouth. She could hear Robbie’s expression over the phone, even before he spoke.
“You don’t believe in that crap; stop being so uselessly supportive. You have homework to do. I’m going to bed. I love you.” He hung up before she could say anything and she took a deep breath. She’d never heard the word ‘love’ used in such an unloving context. Damn she’d screwed that up. She turned off the lamp and shut her laptop. She couldn’t do prep anymore. This just wasn’t going to happen; she would just have to go to bed. She lay down on the bed, half under the doona, and stared into the dark ceiling. In the darkness the world always seemed to both stretch on forever and stop right beyond her nose. She thought about Robbie’s condition, his pain, his whole life situation. She thought about jungle herbs and alternative medicine and visions of voodoo dolls flashed in front of her eyes. Maybe there was a solution in traditional medicine… She should look that up next time she went to the library.