As I hold her silk-skinned hand in mine her mouth twitches into a smile. Her eyes are closed, face turned towards the window and the sun setting across the mountains. I can hear the playgroup next door — the call and chatter of children at play.
A distant, whimsical expression settles onto her face as she lives in her past. It has been painful as this bright, witty woman has slipped away from me over the past year. She would be saddened to see this living decay.
“Mum?” I call, quiet as though approaching a startled bird.
I raise the straw of the orange juice carton to her lips — her favourite flavour, it always seems to draw her back to me from her world of far off memories.
It has been a wonderful day skiing. The sun is not yet set and the mountains are fringed in glowing, loving tones. John is sitting across from me, a sly quirky smile on his face, scarf unravelled as we cool off in the cafe. We get on so well, and after a year dating I think he is the one.
The distant squeals and laughter of families on the nursery slopes echo from the snow outside as he dips his head to sip from the large hand-warming mug of hot chocolate. Vapour from the chocolate fogs a lense on his glasses; I snigger. He snorts into the mug, woofing a cloud of steam over both lenses fogging him completely. He pulls a loony-tunes grin and I am lost to laughter.
When I recover my breath I see he has been watching me, his head on one side, the quirky smile gone — replaced with a tender expression, a mix of compassion and loss I cannot place exactly. I realise that I too am staring, gazing deep into his eyes. I pretend a cough and look away, briefly disconcerted, but find myself intent on his eyes again. They are a light brown, rilled with gold and amber. I have heard that you know love when you can see the eyes of your children in those of your lover. The shrieks and yells from the day’s-end skiers fades, and it is as though I can see my future sons and daughters. Not just their eyes; there are shadows of faces and muted far off echoes of their voices, all centred around his eyes. He is the one.
I lift my own mug and sip my chocolate. Sour, sharp bitter discordant tones in my mouth — I look down at my chocolate, the mug is gone, just blankness. My heart skips a beat — what is happening? The noise from outside has stopped, the people all gone, John is gone from before me. I stand, quickly — too quickly, the blood rushes from my head and I feel myself tumbling.
Mum turns to me; I knew the orange would revive her. A quizzical frown wrinkles her brow, I reach to soothe it away but she jerks her head back. Her stare is intense for a moment; as though she recognises me, but is not sure.
“You look like John, but he knows I don’t like orange.” An accusation and statement, with an undertow of questioning.
“It’s me, Kit, your son. You always say you don’t like orange, Mum, but it seems to revive you.” I offer it again, to be fended off by a gentle hand.
“I’d like that chocolate one.” She waves her hand at the tray by the bed with the chocolate milk.
I force a smile, knowing that she will lose herself and become the shell again. I don’t want to acquiesce, but also don’t want to unsettle her.
After a momentary pause I tug the straw off the packet. “Okay, but you just seem to drift off.” I poke the straw through the foil and offer the open end to her lips. She smiles and sips gently.
I know the children are still being noisy on the slopes outside, but my world has shrunk to this table, our hands across them, and the question he has just asked.
“Are you all right?” His smooth face has creased with concern. “You weren’t there for a moment.”
I lean forward and smile. “Yes, I will marry you.” I feel the tickle of a tear on my cheek, and grip his hand tightly.
“I love you, Jean,” he said, “and look forward to being with you forever.”
“You’ll think this funny, but when I look at you I can almost see what our children will be like. I know everything will turn out well. Do you think that silly?”
He remove his glasses with his free hand, and I can see his eyes smiling, unencumbered by lenses. “No, not silly, and I look forward to meeting our children.”
I can feel my cheeks aching from my smile. The world narrows further and I feel the café fold around me in a warm darkness.
Mum looks at me, her eyes as bright as I ever remember, more lucid than earlier. “I have had a wonderful life, you know… and soon I will be with your father.” I feel her thin grip squeeze my hand. “And I am happy here.”
Quite taken aback, I look at the Mum I used to know smiling up at me. Unbidden, tears choke me. “I miss you, Mum, it is heart-breaking seeing you like this.”
“You need to worry less — and get out more.” Mum is smiling, patting my hand. I know this is another goodbye.
Her eyes close. Her smile broadens as the sound of children outside swells to a crescendo carrying her to some golden moment.
She is not concerned about how she is now, she has settled with life. As I see her far-off smile return I know she is happy. My shoulders drop — I don’t need to be concerned, she is living in moments of her past life. Not in her present ending.
Mark English is an ex-rocket scientist with a doctorate in physics so he has an unwitting talent for taking the magic out of twinkling stars, sunsets, colourful flames dancing in a roaring fire, and rainbows. However with three children, he has been practicing story telling for many years, before he had the idea to write the stories down.
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