The old man’s fingers are yellow and occasionally he raises them to his face as though he is smoking. But of course, that is not allowed here. He doesn’t seem to notice there is nothing between his fingers as he presses them to his deep-lined grey lips.
Aside from the nicotine stains, everything about him is grey. His cheeks are sunken, his eyes hooded by dark shadows, and you can see the knobby protuberances of his collar bone in the open neck of his grubby shirt. His wrist joint looks grossly swollen and misshapen, but it is only an illusion caused by the thinness of his arm.
The fingers rise to his mouth again. He seems no more substantial than a puff of smoke tethered to the chair by some unfair force of life. It occurs to the work experience student, Laura, that he might be better off if it let him go so he could drift away on the breeze.
He cries. He is silent, so it took her a while to notice, but his cheeks are always moist and there are damp patches on the collar of his shirt.
“Why does he cry?” she asked the ward manager.
“Who knows?” the woman doesn’t even look up from her computer screen. Her suit is incongruous among so much soft decline, and Laura doesn’t think she even knows the patients’ names.
“Hasn’t anyone ever asked him?”
“I doubt it. He probably couldn’t tell you if you did. Some of them are just miserable bastards,” she picks up an armload of files and clicks away down the corridor in her high heels without so much as a backward glance.
He remembers the water beneath them, remembers that it was topped with swirling white, but can’t recall whether it was foam or ice. He remembers it was a long time ago, but he can’t remember how many years, and those he does remember seem blurred and grainy. Like an old movie with too many missing scenes to make sense of any of what is left.
He remembers there was a goose and that it landed suddenly on the water before them in a cacophony of beating wings and honking, but he can’t remember if it was the first or the last one that year. He remembers that it startled her and then she laughed, like honey trickling down his soul, but he can’t remember the last time he heard her do it.
He remembers her voice as clear as water from the spring at the top of the hill.
“Promise you’ll never leave. Promise you’ll always be near me.”
But he can’t recall her face, or the last time he saw it.
He remembers that he promised, but he knows she is far away now, although he can’t remember where or why.
He weeps for his broken promise.
Stef Hall is a country girl at heart. Born and raised in Norwich, England, she now resides in London with her musician partner, Paul, and their bonkers cats. She tries to make up for the bustle of city life by procrastinating, walking slowly, and drinking far too much tea. Since early 2007, Stef has enjoyed publication of many of her short stories in anthologies and magazines, including Twisted Tongue and La Fenetre. Her current focus is to find a home for her first completed novel while trying to write the second before the characters take over her head entirely.