© Stuart Martin
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Based on the experiences of two dear friends.
(I will always remember laughing with you)
Every Silver Lining
Ridiculous! I strummed my fingers on the side of the stairs as I held the cupboard door ajar and ran my eyes over the shelves. Four seconds, that’s all it could have taken to get from the kitchen to the cupboard. How could I forget what I came for in four seconds? I could go back to the kitchen to jog my memory that usually worked. But no, I was determined to stay right there until I did remember because forgetting something in four seconds is ridiculous.
I ducked down, bobbed my head inside, and pulled the door closed behind me. I hadn’t come for a coat I knew that, so I pressed my back against them and started an even closer inspection of the shelves. For the umpteenth time I made a mental note to sift through the clutter in this cupboard. On the bottom shelf were a pair of Greg’s old trainers. Greg, my son, left home five years ago. Separating himself from his mother’s five-star service was quite a wrench - for both of them. Carol was happy today though. Greg was in town later, and dropping in for tea. No doubt many a fatted calf had breathed its last…Hmm, I hate myself when I do that, sound resentful, and decide that later I’ll tell Greg how proud of him I am.
An old carrier bag came to hand, and I thought I’d make a start on the junk while I pondered. When I picked up Greg’s trainers to drop them in there it was, the key thingy I use to bleed the radiators - of all the places. I spent a good two hours looking for that last Saturday. In the end I drove to the DIY shop and bought another one…Can’t think where I decided to keep it though.
Five minutes later the carrier bag was full, but I still had no idea what I was there for. I’d just started to make my way through the alphabet one letter at a time to see if that would kick-start my grey matter when the doorbell rang. “Keith, can you get that?” Carol called from upstairs.
Carol and I communicate as much by tone as words. I didn’t want to break my concentration, so I went for apologetic, “I’m in the middle of something, dear.” Her footfall on the stairs was heavy enough to suggest irritation. Wasn’t sure why, but Carol worried about some of the things I did, so I kept quiet, hoping she wouldn’t notice where I was.
The caller asked Carol to take a parcel for number sixteen. I visualised her agreeing with an exaggerated smile. Heading back up, she stopped on the third step. “Where are you?”
Damn, I had to answer, “…In the cupboard.”
“With the door closed?”
Ouch, that questioned my sanity. “I’m looking for something – and getting rid of some old stuff.”
I didn’t need to see her to know Carol would be combining a shake of the head with eye rolling. She paused again after another step. “You’re not naked in there again, are you?”
“No, I’m fully clothed.” It was hard to sound indignant given recent events.
From the landing, she added, “Careful not to burn your head on the lightbulb again.”
I hate it when she flicks to that ‘carer’ voice. What made it worse was I realised my scalp was verging on hot and something smelt of burning. I brushed at some singed strands of hair and bent at the knee. “Of course I won’t, dear.”
Every item I dropped into my second bag had a story. Weird, how I recalled things that happened years ago so vividly. I tried to regain focus, but when I lifted the flap under the bottom shelf and saw the pair of orange stilettos I gave myself over, and sank into the memory like a warm bath.
We were going out for a meal, and from the moment Carol came downstairs in her new burnt orange pencil dress and those shoes my senses were sizzling. I was desperate for the taste of her lips and the touch of her skin, but when we got home Carol made me wait. She uncorked a bottle of sparkling wine and poured herself a glass. Then she moved close, locked my gaze with her seductive eyes, and guided my hand to her zip as our lips brushed. It was eight quid a bottle, but that wine tasted so, so good: the receptacle makes all the difference.
Moments later, melancholy crept up on me like cooling bath water. I still wanted her, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d kissed or touched Carol and not felt like a pest. She never complained, just sort of waited, not responding. I hated how that made me feel. It was what life in your late fifties did to a relationship I supposed. Carol suffered with hot flushes for almost two years, I’d had some medical problems, and we weren’t intimate for so long the thought felt foreign. I slid the high-heels back with the deference of a monk handling a holy relic.
By the time I made my way to the back door carrying the two bulging carrier bags, Carol was tending to three pans and peeling potatoes. She flicked a smile. “I’m making a fish pie for tonight.”
That was odd. Fish pie is my favourite, not Greg’s. I returned the smile. “Great.”
“Can you take that if you’re going down there?” With a nod, Carol indicated a bloated food waste bag. I hooked it onto a middle finger and headed down to the bins.
Greg’s trainers stuck in the bottom of the bag, so I shook it with more vigour. That released them, but also jarred the food bag, which split, and a soup of leftovers and fish trimmings followed them into the general waste bin. My eyes shot to the kitchen window. Carol wasn’t looking, so I moved some bags around to cover my recycling crime.
As I walked back I could see through the frosted glass of the door that Carol was on the phone. I eased the door open and caught a snippet of conversation, “It will be better face-to-face.” Carol always stood when talking on the phone, and paced while she listened. At the end of the kitchen she turned and saw me, hesitated for a moment, then said, “I’m sure he won’t mind.”
She held the phone against her chest and addressed me, “Greg’s catching an earlier train and meeting his old mates for a game of football. You don’t mind giving him a lift, do you?”
“Of course I don’t.”
She went back to Greg, “That’s settled, dad will pick you up, and I’ll see you later – bye love…Ok, I’ll get him to bring them – bye.”
Carol started stirring a pan. “He wants you to take his old trainers, they’re on the bottom shelf in your favourite cupboard.”
I glanced down the garden toward the bins and grimaced. “I know, I saw them earlier.” That could be sorted later, I wanted to know what the tryst was about. “Anyway, what were you saying to Greg earlier, about being better face-to-face?”
She stirred a little faster. “Greg wants to talk to you about something, that’s all.”
Talk to me? The only subject Greg and I ever stretched into a conversation was sport. It couldn’t be relationship news that would go straight to Carol – unless. “He’s not coming out as gay, is he? Please tell me it’s not that because I’m not sure if I’m homophobic.”
Carol did her head shaking eye rolling thing. “Of course he’s not gay, he’s been living with Trisha for two years.”
I threw my arms out. “That’s no guarantee, blokes have come out of the closet after thirty years of marriage.”
“Well he’s not. And what do you mean, not sure if you’re homophobic, you love Graham Norton.”
I flopped onto a chair at the kitchen table. “You know how you run awkward life-scenarios through your mind when you see things on TV.” Carol raised an eyebrow. “Well I do - and it may not be PC, but the truth is, I can’t honestly say I’d be equally as happy if Greg introduced his new partner and it was a man.” With elbows on the table I clasped my head in my hands. “Does that make me homophobic?”
Carol recoiled a little. “I don’t know.” She went back to her stirring. “But you don’t have to worry, it’s not about that."
Realisation hit me. “You know what it’s about, right?”
She turned her head, but I could still see the anguish on her face, and her voice cracked mid-sentence, “Greg wants to talk to you – so don’t ask me to tell you anything - please.”
Curiosity had me, and my initial reaction was to press the issue, but that was so unlike Carol. After a moment’s thought I decided to diffuse the tension with a cliché. “How about a nice cup of tea?”
Carol dabbed at her eyes with her sleeve. “Yes,” She smiled with her mouth but her eyes didn’t follow, “thank you.”
I thought it best to give her some space, and wait until I saw Greg for my answers. There was still the trainer problem to sort too, so I took my tea into the garage and watched and waited.
Half an hour later I saw Carol fold her apron and leave the kitchen. I went straight to the bin and dug out the trainers. When I’d flicked off the biggest chunks of food debris they looked fine—ish. There was a bit of a fishy aroma though, I’d have to give them a wash.
Carol held up her mobile as she opened the kitchen door. “Greg’s just sent a text. His train….” She stopped when she saw me using her best hair dryer on the trainers.
“They were looking a bit grotty, thought I’d give them a wash.” I slid them off the table into a carrier bag. “All done now.”
I was expecting a ticking off, but Carol said, “Very thoughtful,” and waved the phone again. “His train arrives in forty minutes.”
My timing was perfect. As I stopped in the station car park pick up area Greg was walking off the concourse. He threw a bag onto the back seat and got in alongside me. “Alright, Dad?”
“Good thanks.” I indicated to pull out of the car park. “Mum says you want to talk to me.”
Greg sighed. “She told you.”
“Sort of. I heard her talking to you on the phone.”
A horn blared as a car went straight over a mini roundabout and almost took off my front wing. The driver gave me the finger. I swirled my hand at him. “You’re supposed to go around those - dick head.”
Greg gripped the bracing handle over the door. “Nobody goes round them, Dad…Well, almost nobody.”
I made pointed eye contact. “So, what do you want to talk about?”
Gritting his teeth, Greg indicated the road with a nod. “Let’s just get there, then we’ll talk.”
We skirted the field, making for the patch of waste ground at the end. On the pitch, nine men in their mid-twenties had formed a circle, each one attempting a trick when they received the ball. The group cheered the failures louder than the successes. When we stopped, they spotted Greg. There were sporadic shouts. “Come on, get out here.”
“Greg, you lightweight, move it. We want to be in the pub by three.”
There were loud jeers when Greg opened the door and called, “Five minutes, guys – ok?” They went back to practicing their ball skills.
I’d taken my belt off and turned to face Greg, full of anticipation. “Right, Son, what’s all this about.” I held up a hand as he was about to speak. “Just so you know, if you’re gay I’m fine with it.”
Greg stifled a laugh. “That’s good to know, but I’m not gay.” He took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose. “We’re quite alike, you and me. It doesn’t come naturally to share our emotions. But we both love mum, we can admit to that can’t we?”
Familiarity and routine have a habit of taking over, but I love Carol, that has never changed. I nodded. “Yes, yes we can.” I said, then I had a horrible thought. “Is your mum ill, oh my god, is that what it is?”
Greg put a hand on my shoulder. “No, Dad. Mum is worried you might be ill. You have to admit you’ve been having some real memory problems, and doing some – shall we say, eccentric things.”
I postured up. “There’s nothing wrong with me. Your memory’s bound to go a bit when you’re fifty-eight, I’m fine.”
Greg jabbed a pointing finger at me. “There, that’s the problem right there.”
I must have looked confused because I was. “I don’t…What?”
He lowered his voice as he went on, “You’ve always been the same. You’ve got that hunter-gatherer macho thing going on. You don’t like to bother other people with your problems. You brush off their concerns, barrel on through, and it usually works out.”
I wasn’t sure what he was getting at, but he had a point. “I suppose.”
“Mum tells me she’s tried to talk to you about seeing the doctor, but you won’t even have the conversation.”
“Because there’s nothing wrong with me, it’d be a waste of his time.”
“You’re probably right. The problem is, you saying you’re alright isn’t going to stop mum worrying about you. And she is very worried. So, I’m asking you to go and see the doctor -and be straight with him, no stiff-upper-lip bollocks. What harm could it do? And, it would put the mind at rest of the woman we both love.”
There was a shout from the field: “Are you coming or what?”
Greg cracked the door open. “Alright, I’m coming - you whinging pricks.” He patted me on the arm. “Promise me you’ll think about it.”
I looked at him, really looked at him, and said, “Ok”. I handed him the bag with the trainers. Greg, my son, had become sensitive, observant, diplomatic, he’d become a rounded individual, and I hadn’t noticed it happen. I jumped out of the car, determined to seize the moment.
Greg and his friends were in a huddle, taking turns to sniff his trainers. Without hesitation, I called out, “Greg, Greg.” When he looked up I blurted out, “I’m very proud of you, Son. I just wanted you to know that.”
The whole group fell silent and stared at me. They continued to stare until I wondered if there was something other than my declaration going on. With a quick sleight of hand, I checked my zipper, no problem there.
To my relief one of Greg’s friends broke the spell, “Nice one, Mr H.” He gave a thumbs-up. “You put it out there.”
I raised a hand in a muted gesture as I edged back to the car. “See you later.”
Greg did that phone thing with his hand, and said, “Later, Dad.” I think he smiled.
On the drive home I had a road to Damascus moment - well, it was more of a road to Damascus fifteen minutes. The thought that my lucidity could be time-limited focused my mind on all the important things I’d neglected. I knew where Greg lived, where he worked, and that he was with Trisha, but I’d never asked him what was going on in his life. At least not in a way the he would think was anything other than superficial. And it must have been years since I asked Carol how she felt and wasn’t talking about her backache or sniffle. I couldn’t wait to start putting that right.
When I got back, Carol was sitting at the kitchen table reading. She lowered her magazine and looked at me through moist eyes. In that moment I hated myself. How could I have been so insensitive? I spread my palms and edged forward. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’ll make an appointment at the doctors first thing on Monday.”
Carol came to me and we embraced. She rested her head on my chest as she spoke, “Isn’t it best to be sure?”
With a finger, I moved some hairs aside and kissed her on the forehead. “Of course, and it was so wrong of me not to listen to you. I’ll never do that again.” She snuggled in close again.
A little later, Carol decided to make a pie, and set me on peeling apples. “By the way,” she said as she sprinkled flour onto a lump of pastry, “where did you put the new table mats?”
“New table mats?” I furrowed my brow.
“The one’s you went to the cupboard to…Don’t tell me that’s what you were looking for all that time.”
I shrugged and nodded. “Guilty.”
The expected eye roll never came. Instead, Carol gave me a peck on the cheek. “What am I going to do with you?”
That night over dinner, I couldn’t stop asking Greg questions. It turned out he and Trisha were trying for a baby. There had been no mention of marriage, but all I saw on Carol’s face was joy, and I felt the same.
When I took Greg to catch his train I walked onto the platform with him. Before boarding we shook hands. He drew me into a hug and whispered, “Don’t worry, it’s not a gay thing.”
We laughed, there was a different feel between us.
As soon as I got home I filled the kettle. I could hear Carol upstairs and called, “Would you like a cup of tea?”
She hadn’t replied by the time I’d got two mugs out. I was about to ask again when I heard the click of heels on the wooden floor. Carol appeared in the doorway wearing that orange dress and those sizzling stilettos. “There’s a bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge, if you’d like to uncork it.”
The wine was out in a flash. But I was ridiculously nervous, and overfilled Carol’s glass.
She took a slow sip, then pinched and tugged at the dress on her hips. “This is a bit tight, I hope I’m not going to be in it long.”
I feathered kisses on her neck as I reached for the zip with a trembling hand. “Let me help you with that.”
Couldn’t pin it to an exact time, but by the end of the next day I knew something in me had changed. I found pleasure in what would have seemed mundane two days ago, and luxuriated in discovering my son and wife anew. That was the silver lining I pulled in around me. Easy to say now, but I think I must have known the darkest of clouds would soon loom into view.
Six weeks later, a doctor who must have spent as much time in elocution lessons as his medical training confirmed the bleak weather forecast. There would be help, but no cure. The good news was I wouldn’t live long enough to become such a burden to Carol that she couldn’t remember me any other way. But I would be around to meet my first grandchild: it had been confirmed that he or she was on their way.
The next day I took early retirement with immediate effect. My boss surprised me by promising to work out the best possible deal for me, and my colleagues in the office gave me a bit of a send-off. I got quite emotional.
The plan for the next few days was to book a hotel near Greg and Trisha so we could visit without imposing. I made the reservation on the internet, the type of task I usually found infuriating: web sites timing out, entering the wrong card number, and trying to decipher blurred text. This time however, I kept calm throughout. I knew then I was ready for what lay ahead.
I still have dark moments when I worry about Carol. But we have a lot to look forward to in the next few months, and her bond with Greg and Trisha is strong now, I can take comfort from that.
Almost – THE END.