THE WARMEST WINTER • by David R Gilbert

The clock strikes five. I run a finger down the window pane through the condensation. Outside, the unseasonably warm winter winds bustle through the trees, and naked branches dance and sing in the last sad throes of death. They say it’s the mildest winter since records began. I turn from the window and look over to the open fire as it cackles and kicks out at the air it breathes. They say a lot of things.

“I’m sorry, Mr Grady, your condition seems to have worsened. You really should be thinking about…”

Looking down the garden path at the bushes that sway in the tepid winds along the stone walkway, I see them as they approach, my angels, hand in hand, skipping, with their father walking tall behind them. It seems like a flashing moment that it was he who was walking up this path with his mother and I walking behind. Oh, Martha, if only you could see this.

“How long have I got, doctor?”

“It’s been a while,” I say to Harry who stands before me with a cup of tea in his hand. We are standing in the kitchen while the girls play in the living room. He takes a sip and looks at me with his mother’s eyes and smiles.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Harry replies, “I’ve been so busy recently.”

“Don’t be sorry for living, Harry,” I say, “That’s the key to happiness — forgetting time.” He nods. “You’ve got the right idea,” I say. “You don’t even own a bloody watch.”

He chuckles and I see myself in that face and it fills me with warmth as it always does.

“I don’t blame you, either,” I say. “What a burden it is to be chained to such a thing. The hands of the clock ticking away each second into a minute, and each minute into an hour and so on until the days are passing by while we are watching the clock that keeps ticking and the hands that keep creeping round the clock face. It’s all so exhausting.”

The wind has picked up outside now and whistles down through the chimney breast as Harry speaks quietly, cautiously, “What did they say at the hospital, dad?”

“We have carers, good people that can be with you when…”

I sigh, and hide my fear with a false indifference behind my words, “I’m still me, for now,” I say. “But the time will come shortly when I’ll need some help. I have spoken to Dr Geddis and we are making arrangements for when…”

“Making arrangements?” Harry interjects.

“Yes, Harry, making arrangements for when the illness is at a more advanced stage.”

“But dad, I can be here…”

I wave a hand in the air and gesture for him to stop this ridiculous notion before it gets to the inevitable conclusion it always does. And then it does.

“Why don’t you come and live with us?” Harry says. “The kids and Judith would love to have you around, and I…”

“Harry,” I interrupt. “This is my home.”

“But dad…”

“…but nothing.”

I see it, his pain. It burns and contorts from the inside. I see it. I reach out and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Harry, you are my son, you are my whole world. I would never burden you with such a thing. And this place, this is my house, my home, where you grew from a boy to a man, where your mother and I spent our best years together. This floor is the very place where you took your first steps, and where I will take my last.”

He shakes his head slowly, his gaze averted to his shoes.

“Grandad!” the girls bellow in unison as they burst through the kitchen door in an explosion of life, young and erratic with no room for order in their chaos. “Come and play with us,” they plead.

“I’m afraid.”

“That’s understandable.”

“I’m afraid I might one day forget it all — my life, my family.”

We eat and play and talk for hours, and I lose myself in this restricted box we call time. I step out of its walls and take a breath and I feel weightless. The girls are angels and I watch them play like the heavenly creatures they are. And here, now, I find this to be the most perfect moment. Tomorrow can wait.

“I’m afraid I might live long enough to lose it all.”

I wave them off and they leave with Harry who hugs me once more before walking off down the path and into that good night which whispers with a cool breeze and holds with it a promise of colder weather to come.

I sit alone with the fire and the house and the picture of Martha which smiles at me from its place above the mantelpiece. If only she had lived to see the girls. But that is not the case and so it must pass like all things in this world. Such is the fleeting nature of things. Now what? What of this disease?

It can wait. Time can wait. I watch the clock as it tick tocks and checks off each passing moment with twitching hands. I walk over to it and unhook it from its place on the wall and take it outside into the air that snaps and bites at my aging bones. I drop it in the bin and return to the house.

I hear the whispering of the trees and the whistling wind that cuts through the bare branches and sings sweet secrets to the earth as it glides effortlessly over its surface like the night tide flowing over soft sands. I think of the girls and life and my son, and the old trees and the dead leaves that fall and nourish the earth for new life that will follow and will go on, despite the ticking clocks and fading memories and the old men who mourn them.

David R Gilbert writes, philosophises, and travels through time in Coventry, England.

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