‘We’re stuck behind a broken down train,’ announces the ticket inspector as the passengers in the aisle tut and sigh and curse. Thankful for a seat, she picks up a crumpled local newspaper and flicks through: a warehouse fire; a café opening on the high street; the city’s best-ever exam results. Nothing interests her until the personal ads: the one circled in red pen.
Small and cuddly, seeking friends, hugs, picnics in park. Tolerant outlook essential.
They pull into the station fifty minutes late. While the train empties, she keeps reading the ad, then slips the paper into her bag and steps onto the heaving platform.
‘Take your time, love,’ mutters a middle-aged man waiting to board. She doesn’t hear; her mind is racing.
She can’t face another ready-meal for one, or the bowls caked in dried cereal, or the fridge that freezes cucumbers. At the station’s sushi restaurant, she sits at the conveyor belt and watches dead fish trundle past. Once, five years ago, she took Father for sushi: a proper place, with tatami mats.
‘They only do lager,’ he said, scanning the menu. ‘You know I drink ale. And when have you ever seen me eat seafood?’
He ordered eel because the waiter said it would be cooked. Four slithers arrived. He picked up a piece, sniffed, put it back, pushed the plate away.
‘Sorry,’ she said, palms sweaty under Father’s sullen glare. Moments later, her chopsticks slipped and a maki roll fell into a bowl of soy sauce, splashing his white shirt with a single dark tear. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, reaching towards him with a serviette. He snatched it off her.
‘For Christ’s sake. What’s wrong with you?’
She re-reads the ad, drowns the memory in double G&T, relishing the refreshing sparkle in her chest and stomach.
His name is Teddy. He asks if she would like to meet sometime. She suggests Saturday at noon. He recommends the park next to the cathedral, on the bench beneath the sycamore tree. She will wear her yellow dress with daisy prints. He will pin a flower in his buttonhole. She has no other plans that day. Nor him. If all goes well, maybe they could go for cake. Coffee. Something stronger?
Despite jogging the last kilometre she arrives late. Approaching from behind, the bench seems empty. She sits, happy to rest, hoping he was held up and that her flushed face fades.
While searching for deodorant, someone coughs. And again, louder. She turns around. He is short, about one foot tall, with close-cut mid-brown fur. Attached to his tailored jacket is a scarlet rose. She smells cloves and cardamom – but that might be his aftershave. There is a threadbare patch under his nose; a scar, hinting at trouble. He has no fingers or toes. No mouth. He has big glass eyes that reflect a smile drenched in sunlight.
They part four hours later with a lingering look, a promise to meet soon. In bed, that evening, she starts a book – but the words won’t settle. She thinks about her weekly visit to Father tomorrow morning; even that isn’t enough to cool her. She picks up the photo on her bedside table, tracing all three faces with her thumb, and then turns the lamp off. In the pitch black she wonders how one light could fend off so much darkness.
Date number two is a musical at the theatre. She’s seen one musical before: a touring production of Joseph during a family holiday in Blackpool. After the show Father said he needed the toilet, then surprised her five minutes later with a copy of the soundtrack from the merchandise stand. She sang along the whole way back to Birmingham.
‘You’ve got a lovely voice,’ said Mum; one of the few memories to stick. Father holding the gearstick, Mum’s hand on top of his, her immaculate lips and white teeth reflected in the rear-view mirror – that stuck too.
Teddy is dapper in a tight-fitting grey waistcoat and pink bowtie. They arrive early and wait in the foyer, battered from all sides by prosecco-fuelled chat. She’s hungry. Thirsty. The queue at the bar is three people deep; the queue at the snack stand is even longer. It’s hot. Airless. Her arms shake. Will she lose Teddy? Will he get trodden on? She puts him in her handbag, his torso sticking from the top. Even in this crowd he is composed, self-assured; a good influence, she thinks, as her pulse steadies.
There is a tap on her shoulder, a voice from behind. ‘It is you. God, it’s been ages.’
Rupert, an old colleague. More than that. After-work drinks, the cinema, tapas and bottomless fizz. A few weeks later, walking past The Roosevelt, she saw him drinking cocktails with Claire, her boss. Claire was twirling the ends of her hair. Rupert licked his lips, twice.
‘How’s things?’ he says. ‘Not still at Quinn’s I hope.’
‘It pays the bills.’
‘Best decision I’ve made, to leave. Three years now – can you believe it?’
Has it been that long? She closes her eyes, breathes slowly – deeply – through her nose.
‘I’m here with my team. Good guys. Social. Not like most of them at Quinn’s.’
Her fingertips tickle as she runs them over Teddy’s ears.
‘Is Claire still there?’
Gentle stroking, then firmer, grasping his fur, squeezing, kneading; her skin taut – dry, cracking – over white knuckles.
‘Hey, is everything OK?’
The loudspeaker plays a four-note jingle. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the show will start in three minutes.’
‘Well, take care,’ he says, striding over to his friends. He points. They turn and laugh.
Facing the wall, she scrubs at her makeup with a tissue, pulls her cardigan tight around her chest. At the dress circle entrance, the elderly attendant examines her ticket, flashes a kind smile.
‘J14, love. Up the stairs, in the middle. You enjoy the show.’
‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,’ she says, shimmying past jutting knees, impatient faces. When seated, she holds Teddy in her lap, angling him so that he can see through a gap between two heads. ‘Teddy, about what just happened…’ but the band start playing, drowning her out, and, for the next hour, Teddy is still; enthralled, captivated, by this unbelievable tale of love against the odds.
During the interval they share a mint chocolate ice cream; the tiny scoop, stuck beneath the lid, is just right for Teddy. One spoonful for him, one spoonful for her; she finds comfort, calm, in the gentle to and fro.
The second half passes in an instant until the women in front stand for the final song, blocking Teddy’s view. Beside and behind – everyone is dancing so she rises too, holding Teddy in the air like a trophy, stomping and hollering and clapping for more. The cast bow, the lights turn on, the audience scatter towards the exits. Sitting back down, she picks a petal of golden confetti from Teddy’s shoulder and places it on the end of her tongue.
Teddy has no eyelashes to catch rain. It slices through the air and bounces off the pavement while thunder crashes, too close for comfort. Nevertheless, he insists on getting out of the taxi and accompanying her to the front door.
‘Let me cook you dinner,’ she says, offering a peck where his mouth would be. ‘Tomorrow night.’
She waves from the living room window, blows a kiss. In the glass she catches her reflection and her smile disappears. Lipstick smears surround her mouth: bruised plum; a present to herself last Christmas. She draws the curtains. A plastic curtain hook falls onto the carpet, broken in two.
In the kitchen, she grabs a bottle of spray cleaner. Shots splatter over the surfaces, the sink, the hob. She scrubs. It stings. It aches.
She phones work and tells Claire she is sick. Tonight needs to be perfect.
After a quick trip to the supermarket she gets started, massaging cumin and harissa into a leg of lamb and laying it on a bed of quartered onions. According to the recipe it must roast on a low heat for eight hours; the flavours should penetrate the succulent flesh. Six hours later, whipping egg whites into soft foamy peaks, she smells smoke and checks the oven. The meat can’t take much more. She puts it on a tray and pours wine into the tin, over the black and brittle onions. Dirty flecks float to the surface. She siphons off some of the sauce, sips; it leaves a greasy film on the roof of her mouth, a bitterness on her tongue. She tips it down the sink, digs out a tub of gravy granules.
The rest of the wine sits, breathes, on the table beside two mismatched glasses, buffed to a shine. In the shower, the smell of dinner is scrubbed off with a soapy loofah. Recently, she found a second-hand dress: black with ruffle-shoulders, from the 80s. She backcombs her hair, applies hairspray.
She opens the front door at seven o’clock. Teddy is outside, wearing last night’s waistcoat, fur dull and matted. His hands are empty; no chocolates, or flowers, or wine.
Despite the recipe’s promise, the lamb is not melt-in-the-mouth tender. She wishes she had sieved the gravy. They eat in silence, Teddy barely touching the food. He smells damp and fusty, like old towels. She wonders if he slept last night, or if he caught a cold in the downpour.
The pavlova shatters into shards when cut and the cream is stiff and grainy. When they finish, she tops up her wine glass and dabs at crumbs on Teddy’s cheek with a napkin. She takes his hand, ready to apologise for the meal, but feels something that makes her stop: there’s a small, hard bump underneath his fur – a few centimetres wide, rigid and angular. She pinches, applies more pressure. Teddy’s face is brave, stoic; he doesn’t even wince.
She was ten years and four months old, struggling through long division, when Mrs Alvers told her that Father was waiting in reception. ‘Your mum died,’ he said in the car, staring ahead at the road. ‘Cancer.’
Back home, Father hung up his coat, tidied his shoes away, put on his slippers. He sat on the sofa and she sat on the floor by his feet. ‘Just us two now,’ he said.
‘Mum had cancer?’
He’d always worn slippers. Two new pairs a year: on his birthday and at Christmas. ‘Who will buy them now?’ she thought, waiting for an answer, for an explanation, that never came.
The spare room is full of boxes cleared from Father’s after he moved to the nursing home. A few Fridays ago, after a second bottle of wine, she opened the door. Years of dust tickled her throat and coated her skin while she sifted and sorted their history: old toys, Father’s train magazines, Mum’s clothes and jewellery. In a photo album, she found a picture of the three of them standing outside a theatre, big hair and smiles, Mum sleek and stylish in black. She took it out of the sleeve and turned it over; in biro, someone had written: Blackpool, 1985. That night she propped it up against the lamp on her bedside table and then slept, fully clothed, for twelve hours. Right now she wants Father’s Stanley knife – the one he used to slice hard skin from the soles of his feet. She finds the toolbox under piles of old newspaper, lowers a thumb onto the blade, watches blood form a bubble.
‘Teddy, I’m coming.’
‘Try not to peek,’ she whispers, planting a soft kiss on his black plastic nose. Like a child he can’t stop himself so she knots a tea towel around his head. The tip of the knife slides into his paw, and glides through his stitches – just enough so she can squeeze a little finger inside.
‘Are you OK?’ she says.
It is buried among soft, spongy innards – cold and metallic. She stretches, hooks onto a jagged edge with her nail, coaxes it closer and closer to the open wound.
And then it’s out, falling, plummeting towards the tiled floor, landing between them with a clink, a bounce, a sparkle. She picks up the ring, slips it on; a perfect fit.
Today she wears another vintage outfit from her recent find. Walking down the corridor she fidgets with the ring, smiles at the staff, hums.
Every visit is the same: Father, in the comfy chair, staring at nothing and no one. He doesn’t notice her enter and he doesn’t notice her leave. But today, as the minutes pass, his head tilts and lifts towards her, like a dying flower that’s found the sun. His face thaws into a smile; the first in forever.
‘Linda?’ he says, voice shaking, reaching for the ghost of his one true love. ‘Linda, is that really you?’
Danny Beusch writes flash fiction, short stories and children’s fiction. He lives in Birmingham. His work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Spelk, The Cabinet of Heed, and Ellipsis Zine. One of his stories, Fool, appeared on the Biffy50 list of the best British and Irish Flash Fictions 2018-2019
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