“Anyone can have a bad day” – a short story

It had been one of those days, you know, the sort where you hoped, when you woke up again, it would be a distant memory if not gone altogether. Everything had gone wrong, the handover from my shift to the next, longer than usual, I got home late to find the building’s security system malfunctioning, and after everything that could go wrong had, I was late getting to bed, which meant I was going to be tired and cranky even before my shift started.

But what topped it all off was that the alarm didn’t go off. It was not as if I hadn’t set it, I remembered doing it. There was something else in play.

I rolled over and instantly noticed how dark it was. It was never this dark. It was why I chose an apartment as high up as I could, there would always be light coming from the advertising sign on the roof of the building over the road at night, or direct sunlight not blotted out by surrounding buildings.

I also left the curtains open, deliberately. I liked the notion of being able to see out, sometimes looking at the stars, other times watching the rain, but mostly to see that I was not in a dark place.

Not like now.

I got out of bed and went over to the window. Yes, there were lights, but they were all the way down on the street level. Everywhere else, nothing. It had to be a power blackout. Our first in a long time. I should have noticed the air conditioning was not on, and it was almost silent inside the room.

The apartment had windows that opened, not very far, but enough to allow some airflow, and the room feeling stuffy, I opened one in the bedroom. Instantly, sounds drifted up from street level, and looking down I could see the flashing lights of police cars and fire trucks, as well as the sounds of sirens.

The cold air was refreshing.

It took a few minutes before I realized the elevators would not be working, and I remembered the only pitfall of having a high-up apartment, it was a long way down by the stairs, and even longer going back up.

In the distance, I could see other buildings, about ten blocks away, with their lights on. It had to be a localized blackout, or perhaps a brownout. We had been having problems across the city with power supply caused by an unexplained explosion at several power stations on the grid.

Some were saying it was a terrorist attack, others were saying the antiquated infrastructure had finally given out.

My attention was diverted from the activity below by the vibration of my cell phone on the bedside table. I looked over at the clock and saw it was 3:10 in the morning, not a time I usually got a phone call.

I crossed the room and looked at the screen, just as the vibrating stopped. Louis Bernard. Who was Louis Bernard? It was not a name I was familiar with, so I ignored it. It wasn’t the first wrong number to call me, though I was beginning to think I had been given a recycled phone number when I bought the phone. Perhaps the fact it was a burner may have had something to do with it.

About the go back to the window, the phone started ringing again. The same caller, Louis Bernard.

Curiosity got the better of me.

“Yes?” I wasn’t going to answer with my name.

“Get out of that room now.”

“Who….” It was as far as I got before the phone went dead.

The phone displayed the logo as it powered off, a sign the battery was depleted. I noticed then though I’d plugged the phone in to recharge, I’d forgotten to turn the power on.

Damn.

Get out of that room now? Who could possibly know firstly who I was, and where I was living, to the point they could know I was in any sort of danger?

It took another minute of internal debate before I threw on some clothes and headed for the door.

Just in case.

As I went to open the door, someone started pounding on it, and my heart almost stopped.

“Who is it?” I yelled out. First thought; don’t open it.

“Floor warden, you need to evacuate. There’s a small fire on one of the floors below.”

“OK. Give me a minute or so and I’ll be right out.”

“Don’t take too long. Take the rear stairs on the left.”

A few seconds later I heard him pounding on the door next to mine. I waited until he’d moved on, and went out into the passage.

It was almost dark, the security lighting just above floor level giving off a strange and eerie orange glow. I thought there was a hint of smoke in the air, but that might have been the power of suggestion taking over my mind.

There were two sets of stairs down, both at the rear, one on the left and one on the right, designed to aid quick evacuation in the event of a calamity like a fire. He had told me to take the left. I deliberately ignored that and went to the right side, passing several other tenants who were going towards where they’d been told. I didn’t recognize them, but, then, I didn’t try to find out who my fellow tenants were.

A quick look back up the passage, noting everyone heading to the left side stairs, I ducked into the right stairwell and stopped for a moment. Was that smoke I could smell. From above I could hear a door slam shut, and voices. Above me, people had entered the stairwell and were coming down.

I started heading down myself.

I was on the 39th floor, and it was going to be a long way down. In a recent fire drill, the building had been evacuated from the top floor down, and it proceeded in an orderly manner. The idea was that starting at the top, there would not be a logjam if the lower floors were spilling into the stairwell and creating a bottleneck. Were those above stragglers?

I descended ten floors and still hadn’t run into anyone, but the smell of smoke was stronger. I stopped for a moment and listened for those who had been above me. Nothing. Not a sound. Surely there had to be someone above me, coming down.

A door slammed, but I couldn’t tell if it was above or below.

Once again, I descended, one floor, two, three, five, all the way down to ten. The smoke was thicker here, and I could see a cloud on the other side of the door leading out of the stairwell into the passage. The door was slightly ajar, odd, I thought, for what was supposed to be a fire door. I could see smoke being sucked into the fire escape through the door opening.

Then I saw several firemen running past, axes in hand. Was the fire on the tenth floor?

Another door slammed shut, and then above me, I could hear voices. Or were they below? I couldn’t tell. My eyes were starting to tear up from the smoke, and it was getting thicker.

I headed down.

I reached the ground floor and tried to open the door leading out of the fire escape. It wouldn’t open. A dozen other people came down the stairs and stopped when they saw me.

One asked, “Can we get out here?”

I tried the door again with the same result. “No. It seems to be jammed.”

Several of the people rushed past me, going down further, yelling out, “there should be a fire door leading out into the underground garage.”

Then, after another door slamming shut, silence. Another person said, “they must have found a way out,” and started running down the stairs, the others following. For some odd reason I couldn’t explain, I didn’t follow, a mental note popping up in my head telling me that there was only an exit into the carport from the other stairs, on this side, the exit led out onto an alley at the back of the building.

If the door would open. It should push outwards, and there should also be a bar on it, so when pushed, it allowed the door to open.

The smoke was worse now, and I could barely see, or breathe, overcome with a coughing fit. I banged on the door, yelling out that I was stuck in the stairwell, but there was no reply, nor could I hear movement on the other side of the door.

Just as I started to lose consciousness, I thought I could hear a banging sound on the door, then a minute later what seemed like wood splintering. A few seconds after that I saw a large black object hovering over me, then nothing.

It was the culmination of a bad night, a bad day, and another bad night. Was it karma trying to tell me something?

When I woke, I was in a hospital, a room to myself which seemed strange since my insurance didn’t really cover such luxuries. I looked around the room and stopped when I reached the window and the person who was standing in front of it, looking out.

“Who are you?” I asked, and realized the moment the words came out, they made me sound angry.

“No one of particular importance. I came to see if you were alright. You were very lucky by the way. Had you not stayed by that door you would have died like all the rest.”

Good to know, but not so good for the others. Did he know that the fire door was jammed? I told him what happened.

“Someone suspected that might be the case which is why you were told to take the other stairs. Why did you not do as you were told?”

“Why did the others also ignore the advice.” It was not a question I would deign to answer.

They didn’t know any better, but you did, and it begs the question, why did you take those stairs.”

Persistent, and beginning to bother me. He sounded like someone else I once knew in another lifetime, one who never asked a question unless he knew the answer.

The man still hadn’t turned around to show me his face, and it was not likely I’d be getting out of bed very soon.

“You tell me?”

He turned slightly and I could see his reflection in the window. I thought, for a moment, that was a familiar face. But I couldn’t remember it from where.

“The simple truth, you suspected the fire was lit to flush you out of the building and you thought taking those stairs would keep you away from trouble. We both know you’ve been hiding here.”

Then he did turn. Hiding, yes. A spot of trouble a year or so before had made leaving Florida a necessity, and I’d only just begun to believe I was finally safe.

I was not.

They had found me.

And it only took a few seconds, to pull the silenced gun out of his coat pocket, point it directly at me, and pull the trigger.

Two stabbing pains in the chest, and for a moment it was as if nothing happened, and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t breathe.

The last thing I saw and heard, several rounds from at least two guns, voices yelling out on the passage, and people running.

As I lay dying, my last thought was, it had been a good run, but no one can run forever.


© Charles Heath 2021

How could that possibly happen… – A short story

I had hoped by the time I was promoted to assistant manager it might mean something other than long hours and an increase in pay.

It didn’t.

But unlike others who had taken the job, and eventually become jaded and left, I stayed. Something I realized that others seemed to either ignore or just didn’t understand, this was a company that rewarded loyalty.

It was why there were quite a few who had served 30 years or more. They might not reach the top job, but they certainly well looked after.

I had a long way to go, having been there only 8 years, and according to some, on a fast track. I was not sure how I would describe this so-called ‘fast track’ other than being in the right place at the right time and making a judicial selection.

When it was my turn to be promoted, I had a choice of a plum department, or one most of my contemporaries had passed over. At the time, the words of my previous manager sprang to mind, that being a manager for the most sought after department or the least sought after, came with exactly the same privileges.

And, he was right. I took the least sought after, much to their disdain and disapproval. One year on, that disapproval had turned almost to envy; that was when the Assistant Managers were granted a new privilege, tea, and lunch in the executive dining room.

“So, what’s it like?” John asked, when our group met on a Friday night, this the first after the privilege was granted.

He had been one of the three, including me, who had the opportunity to take the role. Both he and Alistair had both declined, prepared to wait for a more prestigious department. It hadn’t happened to them yet.

“The same as the staff dining room, only smaller. Except, I guess, the waitstaff and butler. They come and serve you when you have to go to them in the staff room. They’re the same staff, by the way, except for the butler.”

I could see the awe, or was it envy, in their eyes. “but it’s not that great. The Assistant Managers all sit at one end of the table, and we’re not part of the main group, so no sharing of information I’m afraid. And the meals are the same, just served on fancier crockery.”

“Then nothing to write home about?” Will was one of those who they also thought to be on a ‘fast track’. I was still trying to see how my ‘fast track’ was actually that fast.

“Put it this way, the extra pay doesn’t offset the long hours because you get overtime, I don’t, so on a good week, you’d all be earning more than me. Without responsibility, if anything goes wrong. I think that’s why Assistant Managers were created, to take the blame when anything goes wrong.”

That had been the hardest pill to swallow. Until I got the role, I hadn’t realized what it really involved. Nor had the others, and it was not something we could whinge about. My first-day introductory speech from Tomkins, my Manager, was all about taking responsibility, and how I was there to make his life easier. It was a speech he made a few times because he’d been Manager for the last 16 years, much the same as the others, and promotion if ever, would come when they died.

And Manager’s rarely died, because of their Assistant Managers.

“How old is Tomkins now?” Bert, a relative newcomer to our group, asked. He was still in the ‘in awe’ phase.

“About the same as Father Time,” I said. “But the reality is, no one knows, except perhaps for the personnel manager.” O looked over at Wally, the Personnel Department’s Assistant Manager. “Any chance of you telling us?”

“No. You know I can’t.”

“But you know?” I asked.

“Of course, but you know the rules. That’s confidential information. Not like what you are the custodian of, information everyone needs.”

Which, of course, was true. Communication and Secretarial Services had no secrets, except for twice a year when the company Bord of Directors met, and we were responsible for all the documents used at their meetings. Then, and only then, was I privy to all the secrets, including promotions. And be asked ‘What’s happening?’.

“Just be content to know that he’s as old as the hills, as most of them. It seems to me that one of the pre-requisites for managership is that you have been employed here for 30 years.”

Not all, though, I’d noticed, but there wasn’t one under the age of fifty.

And so it would go, the Friday night lament, those ‘in’ the executive, and those who were not quite there yet.
It seemed prophetic, in a sense, that we had been talking about Mangers and their ages. By a quirk of fate, some weeks before, that I learned of Tomkins’s currents state of health via a call on his office phone. At the time he was out, where, he had not told me, but by his the I believed it was something serious, so serious he didn’t want me, or anyone else, to know about it.

That phone call was from his wife, Eleanor, whom I’d met on a number of occasions when she came to take him home from work. I liked her, and couldn’t help but notice she was his exact opposite, Tomkins, silent and at times morose, and Eleanor, the life of the party. I could imagine her being a handful in her younger days, and it was a stark reminder of that old saying ‘opposites attract’.

She was concerned and asked me if he had returned from the specialist. I simply said he had but was elsewhere, and promised to get him to call her when he returned. Then I made a quick call around to see where he was and found that he was in Personnel. I left an innocuous message on his desk, and then let my imagination run wild.

At least for a day or so, the time it took for me to realize that it was probably nothing, the lethargy he’d been showing, gone.

I’d put it out of my mind until my cell phone rang, and it was from the Personnel Manager. On a Sunday, no less. In the few seconds before I answered it, I’d made the assumption that Tomkins’s secretive visits to the specialist meant he needed time off for a routine operation.

Greetings over, O’Reilly, the Personnel Manager, cut straight to the chase, “For your personal information, and not to be repeated, Tomkins will be out of action for about two months, and as that is longer than the standard period, you will become Acting Manager. We’ll talk more about this Tuesday morning.” Monday was a holiday.

All Assistant Managers knew the rules. Any absence of a manager for longer than a month, promotion to Acting Manager. Anything less, you sat in the office, but no change in title. There was one more rule, that in the event of the death of a manager, the assistant manager was immediately promoted to Manager. This had only happened once before. 70 years ago. If a manager retired, then the position of Manager was thrown open to anyone in the organization.

It was an intriguing moment in time.

Tuesday came, and as usual, I went into the office, with only one thought in mind, let the staff in the department know what was happening, of course, the moment I was given the approval to do so by Personnel.

Not a minute after I sat down, the phone rang. I picked it up, gave my name and greeting. It was met with a rather excitable voice of the Assistant Manager, Personnel, “I just got word from on high, you’ve been promoted to manager. How could that possibly happen…”

Then a moment later, as realization set in, “Unless…”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

How could that possibly happen… – A short story

I had hoped by the time I was promoted to assistant manager it might mean something other than long hours and an increase in pay.

It didn’t.

But unlike others who had taken the job, and eventually become jaded and left, I stayed. Something I realized that others seemed to either ignore or just didn’t understand, this was a company that rewarded loyalty.

It was why there were quite a few who had served 30 years or more. They might not reach the top job, but they certainly well looked after.

I had a long way to go, having been there only 8 years, and according to some, on a fast track. I was not sure how I would describe this so-called ‘fast track’ other than being in the right place at the right time and making a judicial selection.

When it was my turn to be promoted, I had a choice of a plum department, or one most of my contemporaries had passed over. At the time, the words of my previous manager sprang to mind, that being a manager for the most sought after department or the least sought after, came with exactly the same privileges.

And, he was right. I took the least sought after, much to their disdain and disapproval. One year on, that disapproval had turned almost to envy; that was when the Assistant Managers were granted a new privilege, tea, and lunch in the executive dining room.

“So, what’s it like?” John asked, when our group met on a Friday night, this the first after the privilege was granted.

He had been one of the three, including me, who had the opportunity to take the role. Both he and Alistair had both declined, prepared to wait for a more prestigious department. It hadn’t happened to them yet.

“The same as the staff dining room, only smaller. Except, I guess, the waitstaff and butler. They come and serve you when you have to go to them in the staff room. They’re the same staff, by the way, except for the butler.”

I could see the awe, or was it envy, in their eyes. “but it’s not that great. The Assistant Managers all sit at one end of the table, and we’re not part of the main group, so no sharing of information I’m afraid. And the meals are the same, just served on fancier crockery.”

“Then nothing to write home about?” Will was one of those who they also thought to be on a ‘fast track’. I was still trying to see how my ‘fast track’ was actually that fast.

“Put it this way, the extra pay doesn’t offset the long hours because you get overtime, I don’t, so on a good week, you’d all be earning more than me. Without responsibility, if anything goes wrong. I think that’s why Assistant Managers were created, to take the blame when anything goes wrong.”

That had been the hardest pill to swallow. Until I got the role, I hadn’t realized what it really involved. Nor had the others, and it was not something we could whinge about. My first-day introductory speech from Tomkins, my Manager, was all about taking responsibility, and how I was there to make his life easier. It was a speech he made a few times because he’d been Manager for the last 16 years, much the same as the others, and promotion if ever, would come when they died.

And Manager’s rarely died, because of their Assistant Managers.

“How old is Tomkins now?” Bert, a relative newcomer to our group, asked. He was still in the ‘in awe’ phase.

“About the same as Father Time,” I said. “But the reality is, no one knows, except perhaps for the personnel manager.” O looked over at Wally, the Personnel Department’s Assistant Manager. “Any chance of you telling us?”

“No. You know I can’t.”

“But you know?” I asked.

“Of course, but you know the rules. That’s confidential information. Not like what you are the custodian of, information everyone needs.”

Which, of course, was true. Communication and Secretarial Services had no secrets, except for twice a year when the company Bord of Directors met, and we were responsible for all the documents used at their meetings. Then, and only then, was I privy to all the secrets, including promotions. And be asked ‘What’s happening?’.

“Just be content to know that he’s as old as the hills, as most of them. It seems to me that one of the pre-requisites for managership is that you have been employed here for 30 years.”

Not all, though, I’d noticed, but there wasn’t one under the age of fifty.

And so it would go, the Friday night lament, those ‘in’ the executive, and those who were not quite there yet.
It seemed prophetic, in a sense, that we had been talking about Mangers and their ages. By a quirk of fate, some weeks before, that I learned of Tomkins’s currents state of health via a call on his office phone. At the time he was out, where, he had not told me, but by his the I believed it was something serious, so serious he didn’t want me, or anyone else, to know about it.

That phone call was from his wife, Eleanor, whom I’d met on a number of occasions when she came to take him home from work. I liked her, and couldn’t help but notice she was his exact opposite, Tomkins, silent and at times morose, and Eleanor, the life of the party. I could imagine her being a handful in her younger days, and it was a stark reminder of that old saying ‘opposites attract’.

She was concerned and asked me if he had returned from the specialist. I simply said he had but was elsewhere, and promised to get him to call her when he returned. Then I made a quick call around to see where he was and found that he was in Personnel. I left an innocuous message on his desk, and then let my imagination run wild.

At least for a day or so, the time it took for me to realize that it was probably nothing, the lethargy he’d been showing, gone.

I’d put it out of my mind until my cell phone rang, and it was from the Personnel Manager. On a Sunday, no less. In the few seconds before I answered it, I’d made the assumption that Tomkins’s secretive visits to the specialist meant he needed time off for a routine operation.

Greetings over, O’Reilly, the Personnel Manager, cut straight to the chase, “For your personal information, and not to be repeated, Tomkins will be out of action for about two months, and as that is longer than the standard period, you will become Acting Manager. We’ll talk more about this Tuesday morning.” Monday was a holiday.

All Assistant Managers knew the rules. Any absence of a manager for longer than a month, promotion to Acting Manager. Anything less, you sat in the office, but no change in title. There was one more rule, that in the event of the death of a manager, the assistant manager was immediately promoted to Manager. This had only happened once before. 70 years ago. If a manager retired, then the position of Manager was thrown open to anyone in the organization.

It was an intriguing moment in time.

Tuesday came, and as usual, I went into the office, with only one thought in mind, let the staff in the department know what was happening, of course, the moment I was given the approval to do so by Personnel.

Not a minute after I sat down, the phone rang. I picked it up, gave my name and greeting. It was met with a rather excitable voice of the Assistant Manager, Personnel, “I just got word from on high, you’ve been promoted to manager. How could that possibly happen…”

Then a moment later, as realization set in, “Unless…”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

“Call me!” – a short story

You know what it’s like on Monday morning, especially if it’s very cold and the double glazing is failing miserably to keep the cold out.

It was warm under three blankets thick sheets and a doona, and I didn’t want to get up.

It doesn’t help if in the last few months, the dream job you once had turned into a drudge, and there was any number of reasons to stay home rather than go into the office. Once, that was trying to find an excuse to stay home because you’d rather go to work.

That was a long time ago or felt like it.

My cell phone vibrated; an incoming message, or more likely a reminder. I reached out into the icy wasteland that was the distance from under the covers to my phone on the bedside table. It was very cold out there, and for a moment I regretted that impulse to check.

It was a reminder; I had a meeting at HR with the manager. I had thought I might be eligible for redundancy since the company was in the throes of a cost-cutting exercise. Once I might have been apprehensive, but now, given my recent change in department and responsibility, I was kind of hoping now that it was.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Time to get up sleepy head. You have a meeting to go to, not one to be late.”

It felt strange to wake up with someone else in the bed. My luck in that department hadn’t been all that hood lately, but something changed, and at the usual Friday night after-work drinks at the pub, I ran into one of the PA’s I’d seen around, one who was curious to meet me as much as I was to meet her.

One thing had led to another and when I asked her if she wanted to drop in on the way home, she did.

“I’d prefer not to. I can think of better things to do.”

“So, could I but that’s not the point. Five more minutes, then I’m pushing you out.”

She snuggled into my back, and I could feel the warmth of her body, and having the exact opposite effect than she intended. But she was right. It was important, and I had to go. But, in the meantime, it was four more minutes and counting.

When you get a call from the head of HR it usually means one of two things, a promotion, or those two dreaded words, ‘you’re fired’, though not usually said with the same dramatic effect.

This year had already been calamitous enough getting sidelined from Mergers and Acquisitions because I’d been usurped. That was the word I was going with, but it was to a certain extent, my fault. I took my eye off the ball and allowed someone else to make their case.

Of course, it helped that the person was connected to all the right people in the company, and, with the change in Chairman, it was also a matter of removing some of the people who were appointed by the previous incumbent.

I and four of my equivalent managers had been usurped and moved to places where they would have less impact. I had finished up in sales and marketing, and to be quite honest, it was such a step-down, I had already decided to leave when the opportunity presented itself.

My assistant manager, who had already put in his resignation, was working out his final two weeks. I told him to take leave until the contract expired, but he was more dedicated than that. He had got in before me and was sitting at his desk a cup of coffee in his hand and another on the desk.

“How many days?”

“Six and counting. What about you? You should be out canvassing. There are at least three other places I know would be waiting to hear from you.”

“It’s still in the consideration phase.”

“You’re likely to get the chop anyway, with this thing you have with Sharkey.”

Sharkey was the HR manager.

You know something I don’t?” I picked up the coffee, removed the lid, and took in the aroma.
“They’re downsizing. Broadham had decided to go on a cost-cutting exercise, and instead of the suggested efficiencies we put up last year, they’re going with people. I don’t think he quite gets it.”

“You mean my replacement doesn’t know anything about efficiency. He makes a good yes man though, telling Broadham exactly what he wants to hear.”

Broadham, the new Chairman, never did understand that people appointed to important positions needed to have the relevant qualifications and experience. My replacement had neither. That was when the employees loyal to the previous Chairman had started leaving.

We had called it death, whilst Broadham had called it natural attrition. He didn’t quite understand that so far, over 300 years of experience had left, and as much again was in the process of leaving.

“Are you going to tell Sharky you’re leaving?”

“I’ll wait and see what he has to say. I think he knows the ship is sinking.”

There wasn’t much I didn’t know about the current state of the company, and with the departures, I knew it was only a matter of time. Sharky was a good man, but he couldn’t stem the tide.

He also knew the vagaries of profits and share prices, and we had been watching the share price, and the market itself. It was teetering, and in the last few months, parcels of shares were being unloaded, not a lot at one time, but a steady trickle.

That told me that Broadham and his cronies were cashing in while the going was good, and quite possibly were about to steer the ship onto the rocks. The question was who was buying, and that, after some hard research I found to be certain board members. Why, I suspected, was to increase their holdings and leverage, but I don’t think they quite realized that there would be nothing left but worthless stock certificates.

It was evidence, when I finally left, that I would pass on to the relevant authorities.

In the meantime, I had a meeting to go to.

“Best of luck,” my assistant muttered as I passed his desk.

“If I don’t return, I will have been escorted from the building. If that happens, call me.”

It had happened before. When people were sacked, they were escorted to their office, allowed to pack their belongings, and were then escorted to the front door. It would be an ignominious end to an illustrious career, or so I’d been told by the girl who was no doubt still asleep in my bed.

She had heard the whispers.

The walk to the lift, the traversing of the four floors to the executive level, and then to the outer office where Sharkey’s PA sat took all of three minutes. I had hoped it would be longer.

“He’s waiting for you,” she said, “go on in.”

I knocked on the door, then went in, closing it behind me. “Now, sir, what on earth could you want to see me about?


© Charles Heath 2021

“Long time, no see…” – short story


You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your relatives.

So sayeth my sister, who for years refused to acknowledge I was her brother.

The point is, as I was trying to tell Nancy, the woman who had agreed to marry me, “my family has long been ashamed of me because I refused to become a doctor.”

“That’s no excuse, in fact, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

To most people, it would. I agreed with her. But then, her family had not had a forebear who stood shoulder to shoulder with George Washington at the Siege of Yorktown.

It was a statement my mother had often pulled out of nowhere at dinner parties, and sometimes in general conversation, just to impress. I thought of trotting out as another example of ridiculous statements, but thought better of it.

It was a situation I had not bargained for, and probably why it took so long to find someone to share the rest of my life with.

Perhaps I hadn’t quite thought through what would happen once I asked the question, and it was a yes.

It was not as if Nancy and I hadn’t taken the long road with our relationship. She had been burned a few times, and I always had my family in the back of my mind as the biggest obstacle.

In fact, I always had considered it insurmountable, and because of that, rarely made a commitment. But Nancy was different. She was very forgiving and had the sort of temperament saints were blessed with.

Her family sounded like very reasonable people who lived upstate out of Yonkers on a farm she simply said had been in the family forever.

She didn’t have big city aspirations, was not impressed by wealth, travel, large houses, or a resume a mile long with achievements. It was everything I didn’t have and didn’t want, and my job as storeman and fork life driver was one where I could go to work and leave it there.

Nancy, on the other hand, was a checkout clerk at a large supermarket, with no aspirations to be a boss or run the place. She had a run-in with a tractor early on in life and could manage a lot of the farming basics.

Her parents sent her to the big city to learn a different trade, but she just wasn’t interested. She was a country girl and would never change.

We met when she was attending the same pre-wedding party that I was, both with different partners at the time, and both of whom were more party animals than we were.

A week later we ran into each other in the same bar, and it grew from there, and after a rather interesting six months or so, we had ended up making the ultimate commitment.

“I guess, now, we have to tell our parents,” she said, stating what was to her, the obvious.

Such a simple statement with so many connotations. I had deliberately steered the conversation away from all of them, and so, at this point in time, she knew I had parents, grandparents, and three other siblings. And that they lived on the other side of the country.

Asked why I had moved so far away, I told her that I’d failed to meet their expectations and preferred to be as far away as possible. My brothers more than made up for my failings, so it was not necessary I stay there.

It was only recently I’d told her those expectations were of me following the family tradition into medicine. It was when I told her my father was a pre-eminent thoracic heart surgeon, my brothers top of whatever field they’d chosen, and my sister, a well-regarded general practitioner.

When she asked in what way I’d failed, I said it was not in the education because like all Foresdale’s, we were always top of the class, and as much as I tried to fail, the teachers knew better.

I just refused to go to University. Instead, I tried to disappear, but my father had the best private detective at his disposal. It took a very long, loud, screaming match to sever that tie, get disinherited, and leave to make my own way in the world.

Perhaps, I said, it would be best to just say I was an orphan.

That, of course, to Nancy, was not an option. She came from practical people who always found a solution to any problem, and they had had a few really difficult ones over the years.

But, for the first time, there was a look of perplexment on her face. Maybe she was thinking that she should have asked more probing questions about my family before agreeing to be my wife.

“I think I can safely say that your parents will be more approachable than mine. Those expectations on me will also fall on you.”

And having said it aloud, it sounded so much more like a threat. The problem was, I knew what there were like, living in that rarefied air where the upper classes lived.

I might be a forklift driving storeman, but I was still a Foresdale, and my match had to be commensurate to the family values.

“Then we’re just going to have to go visit them and lower those expectations. I’m not afraid of them.”

No, I expect she was not. I’d seen her deal with all types of miscreants at the checkout counter, rich and poor alike. She had the sort of gumption I always had wanted but was too much of a coward to confront the problem.

Perhaps now, it would be the perfect opportunity.

“We should go next week. I’ve got some vacation days owing, and I’m sure the boss will let you go if you tell him the reason.”

Practical as ever. Confront the beast and get it over with.

“Sure. I’ll talk to the boss, arrange the tickers, and let someone know we’re coming. But I will not be staying at the house. That way if it gets too intense, we can leave.”

I saw her shrug. I’m not sure she agreed that was a good idea, but I didn’t want to see them corner her the way they had a habit of doing when any of us children brought anyone home. I did once, and never again.

“It will be fine.”

Famous last words.

I had the phone number of my sister Erica, stored on my phone, not that I’d ever intended to call her. It was there because she had called me, I had made the mistake of giving it to her when I left because she asked me for it.

I hadn’t spoken to her since I left home all those years ago, nearly ten by my reckoning, and perhaps it was a testament to my father that not one of them had called, or even reached out.

Being cut off literally meant that. But it was not something that irked me. I was glad not to see them. I could easily keep up with them in the newspapers and magazines, such was their visibility.

I was surprised Nancy hadn’t made the association.

I don’t know how long it was that I stared at that number, finger hovering over the green button. My first concern was whether I’d remain civil, or how long it would take before I disconnected the call.

Then, courage summoned, I pressed the button.

An anticlimax might occur if there was no answer, or the number had been disconnected, but such was not the case. It rang.

Almost for the full number of rings before a familiar voice answered. “Good morning, this is Erica speaking.”

If only I’d learned to answer a phone properly like that.

“It’s Perry.” Damn, I hated that name, and once I left home, I adopted my middle name, James.

“Now that’s a blast from the past. Never expected to hear from you again.”

“Believe me, if I had my way, you wouldn’t, but there’s a person who insists she meets the family. I tried to talk her out of it, but she’s a force to be reckoned with.”

“Good for her. I always knew you’d meet a sensible girl who wouldn’t put up with your nonsense. I’m assuming you asked her to marry you?”

“I’m beginning to wonder if I should have just outright lied and said I was an orphan.”

“Yes, and how would that have worked when we finally ran you to ground. Besides, your father has known where you’ve been hiding all along. You are still a Foresdale, and that will never change.”

“Even when I’ve been ex-communicated from the family.”

“That’s only your assumption. Everyone here might have expected you to change your minds somewhat earlier, but we never doubted you would return. Now, just who is this Nancy, and who does she belong to?”

© Charles Heath 2021

Going once, going twice… – a short story

It was the small town that we had visited once, some years ago, that had enticed me back.

Those had been happier times, times when the stench of money hadn’t overtaken sensibility, and who we really were.

Not that I had changed all that much, except for the upper west side apartment, and posh car to go with it, but what had disappointed me was the change in Liz, the woman I thought once as the love of my life.

Without the trappings of wealth, she was the kindest, most thoughtful and generous person I knew, but that had changed when I became the recipient of an inheritance that beggared belief.  We both made a promise from the outset that it would not change us, but unfortunately, it did.

And that was probably the main reason why I was standing outside an old fixer-upper house on several acres overlooking the ocean.

I’d asked Liz to come, but she was having a weekend away in Las Vegas with her new friends, or as one of the ladies rather salaciously said, a what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas kind of weekend.

Charmaine had told me about the house, one that she had admired for a long time, but didn’t have the means to buy it.

Charmaine was a painter, a rather good one, and both Liz and I had met her on a weekend away upstate, and I’d bought one of her landscapes to hang in our new apartment.  Liz hated it, but I think that had more to do with the painter than the painting, and that was because Charmaine had flirted with me, and that, I had observed over time, was how she was with everyone.

She called it her sales technique.  After all, it had worked on me.

I listened to the auctioneer go through the rules of the action and then move on to a physical description of the property.  I’d been to several viewings and got a good idea of what was needed if I was to buy it.  It had good foundations and had suffered from a lack of TLC.  It was how the auctioneer summed up.

When he called for the first bid, I felt a hand slip into mine, and a glance sideways showed it to be Charmaine.  I had asked her along for support but she had something else to do, but it appeared now, she hadn’t.

“So,” she whispered next to my ear, “you were serious about this place?”

I had been dithering, not being able to make my mind up, but Liz, in the end, made the decision for me.  I’d overheard a snippet of conversation with one of her new friends, and, to be honest, I’d been surprised.

“Perhaps it was time to find a hideaway.”

“Things that bad?”

I shrugged.  “Maybe I’m writing too much into it.  At any rate, I needed an excuse to get out of town, and being here was as good as any.”

The first bid came in at 450,000.   I knew the reserved was about 700,000, and I was prepared to 850,000.  But I was hoping to spend less than that because the renovations would be about 250,000.

“We could go and have a picnic.  It’ll certainly cost less than buying this place.”

“I’m here now.”

Holding hands was just one of Charmaine’s ‘things’, and I had never written anything into what might have been called a relationship of sorts.  We were not lovers, and the conversation had never been steered in that direction, but I did find myself gravitated towards her when Liz was off doing her thing with her friends.  To be honest, I just liked the idea of a picnic and watching Charmaine paint her landscapes.

I raised the bid to 500,000.  Another from the previous bidder, 550,000.  Another at 600,000.  It seems there were three bidders for the property.  The other sixteen people attending were observers, probably locals interested in how this would help their property value.

I went 625,000 when the auctioneer changed the increment after a lack of bidding.  It was countered, moving to 650,000.  Another at 657,000, and then the first bidder went to 700,000, the reserve.

“You do realize the other bidders are friends of the owner and are there to push the price up?” Charmaine whispered in my ear.

I’d heard of it happening, but I’d not suspected it until she mentioned it.

“Going once, going twice at 700,000.”  The auctioneer looked at me.  “I’ll accept 10,000 increments.”

I nodded.  710,000.  It quickly moved to 800,000, after I bid 790,000.

The auctioneer looked at me expectantly.  “810,000, sir?”

That was more than I wanted to spend though an elbow in the ribs was the clincher, and when I declined, there was an air of disappointment.

“Going once, going twice, all done at 800,000?”  A look around the crowd confirmed we were all done, and the gavel came down.

“Looks like we’re going on a picnic,” she said.  “I’d expect a call in an hour or so.”

Two things happened that weekend, both of which surprised me.  The first, Charmaine was right, I did get a call, and finished up with a hideaway in the country, overlooking the ocean.  The second, Liz didn’t come back from Las Vegas.  She had apparently found someone new, someone more exciting, or so she said.

I guess I was disappointed but not overly concerned.  She had changed and I had not and if the truth be told, we were drifting apart.  We parted amicably, sold the apartment, and moved on, each in a different direction.

I had a new residence, and renovations to take my mind off the break-up, and when I told Charmaine, she was just said she didn’t believe we were that perfect match.  And in the light of my new status, I could now ask her to come and stay in the spare bedroom, a lot better, I said, than the one person tent she had been using, an offer she readily accepted.

Until, a year later, it became something more than that.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Bloody hell… – a short story

The cell phones insistent and shrill ring dragged my mind away from the crossword, and after a fairly mild curse, I picked it up.

Sidney, my brother.  Odd he was calling me at this hour of the night.

“What,” I barked into the speaker.

“That’s no way to speak to your baby brother.”  His smooth tones rarely reached a screaming point, which was often the reason why mine did.

And who called the younger brother ‘baby’ brother these days?

“What do you want?”

A hesitation.  He was in trouble again, I could feel it.

“Can you come down to the bar.  I seem to have left my wallet at home.”  Sheepish, and just enough to stop me from yelling at him.  It was not the first time, nor would it be the last.

“I told you the last time was the last time.”

“Just this once, please?”

I shook my head.  That was probably my biggest fault, giving in to him.  After our mother had died, and our father had to work, it was left to me to bring him up.  He was going to be the death of me yet.  “Where?”

“The usual place.”

I was surprised because the last I’d heard they’d banned him from going in there.  It was only a twenty-minute walk from my apartment, but, late at night, and winter, there was snow in the air.  And the odd snowflake falling, a prelude to much worse.

About a hundred yards from the bar I had a shiver go down my spine.  I’d not had that for a long time, not since school, and the trouble with Wiley, the school bully.  Wiley had graduated to the local thug, done a few stints in jail, and last I heard he had been sent down for a few years for an assault.

I stopped and took a moment.  Perhaps karma was trying to tell me something.

I shrugged.  Just in my imagination.  I reached the door, took a moment then went in.  He was standing by the bat looking a little apprehensive.  He was in more trouble than just not paying his bar bill.

Close up I could see the fear in his expression.  “Bloody hell, Sid, what have you done now?”

“A problem that he insists his older brother would be happy to pay for.”

I knew that voice and felt instant dread.

Wiley.

In the flesh, and not looking very happy at all.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

Bloody hell… – a short story

The cell phones insistent and shrill ring dragged my mind away from the crossword, and after a fairly mild curse, I picked it up.

Sidney, my brother.  Odd he was calling me at this hour of the night.

“What,” I barked into the speaker.

“That’s no way to speak to your baby brother.”  His smooth tones rarely reached a screaming point, which was often the reason why mine did.

And who called the younger brother ‘baby’ brother these days?

“What do you want?”

A hesitation.  He was in trouble again, I could feel it.

“Can you come down to the bar.  I seem to have left my wallet at home.”  Sheepish, and just enough to stop me from yelling at him.  It was not the first time, nor would it be the last.

“I told you the last time was the last time.”

“Just this once, please?”

I shook my head.  That was probably my biggest fault, giving in to him.  After our mother had died, and our father had to work, it was left to me to bring him up.  He was going to be the death of me yet.  “Where?”

“The usual place.”

I was surprised because the last I’d heard they’d banned him from going in there.  It was only a twenty-minute walk from my apartment, but, late at night, and winter, there was snow in the air.  And the odd snowflake falling, a prelude to much worse.

About a hundred yards from the bar I had a shiver go down my spine.  I’d not had that for a long time, not since school, and the trouble with Wiley, the school bully.  Wiley had graduated to the local thug, done a few stints in jail, and last I heard he had been sent down for a few years for an assault.

I stopped and took a moment.  Perhaps karma was trying to tell me something.

I shrugged.  Just in my imagination.  I reached the door, took a moment then went in.  He was standing by the bat looking a little apprehensive.  He was in more trouble than just not paying his bar bill.

Close up I could see the fear in his expression.  “Bloody hell, Sid, what have you done now?”

“A problem that he insists his older brother would be happy to pay for.”

I knew that voice and felt instant dread.

Wiley.

In the flesh, and not looking very happy at all.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

“Return to sender” a short story


We all make mistakes, errors of judgment, stupidly or otherwise.

I’ve made a few, just like in the words of a song that rattled around in my head for a long time after.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but there was one that, in the end, I didn’t.

But I guess it took a while to get to that point.

Sometimes it’s hard to work out why, sometimes because it’s simply time, others, well when you look back you realize that it should have happened for so many reasons, but at the time you couldn’t see the wood for the trees.

We were in a bad place.

I’d been spending too much time traveling in a job that I had begun to hate, and I could see our relationship slipping away.  It was not that neither of us cared for the other, or even stopped loving each other, it was simply the stresses of everyday life.

And it was not as if Chloe didn’t have a high-pressure job, the one she had always wanted, and the one, we agreed, nothing would get in the way if she was given the opportunity.

I was happy with that, and for her.  She was as entitled to have her dream job, as I was.  I thought, I think we both thought, and believed, that would be the foundation of a good relationship.

And it was, to begin with.

There’s a point where there is a catalyst, that action, or statement, or person, or moment in time that comes along like a wrecking ball, and sets a series of events in motion, and no one really knows where it’s going to land or it’s effect.

That event?

I came home early and saw an old friend of mine, Roger, leaving our house.  OK, not so much a big deal, except for the send-off.  Still, even then it might not be such a big deal, because I knew Chloe was a very affectionate, touchy feely sort of person.

It used to faze me, way back in the beginning, but she had said and proved, that I was the love of her life, and that others, well, she made them feel special.

I thought no more about it, of course, and I didn’t even mention it, though at the time when I did walk in the door, she seemed distracted.

And I would not have thought about it again until Roger’s wife, Melissa, called one morning, though why she would call me was a mystery, to say that she was planning to surprise Roger in Las Vegas.

OK, I was suitably surprised, thinking that she was suggesting that Chloe and I should both go and make a weekend of it.  We had done it before because Melissa was a travel agent, and sometimes got airline and hotel deals that made it affordable.

I remember saying that as far as I was aware Chloe was in Pasadena doe the week on a conference.

No, she said, Chloe was co-incidentally in Las Vegas and Roger had accidentally run into her.

Should alarm bells be going off, I wondered, when that sliver of memory of him leaving popped back into my mind?  No, it was just me, running around like a headless chook, failing to read her diary correctly.

I simply said, fine, and told her to make the arrangements.

It was going to be a surprise because I hadn’t seen Chloe for two or three weeks, time seemed to pass too quickly these days, and it would be good for the both of us to spend some time together, away from home and the stresses of our respective jobs.

I met Melissa at the airport.  Unlike Chloe, she was traveling light with only a carry-on bag.  I was used to moving fast and light with a bag that fitted in the overhead locker.

Sher had secured business class which was a treat because, in this day and age of economics, that perk had disappeared a while back and was only available to the senior staff.

Onto the fourth glass of champagne, she dropped her bombshell, whether deliberate or otherwise I was never sure.

“It was very nice of Chloe to find Roger a job in her company.”

Did she, I thought.  It was the first time I’d heard about it, and my expression must have given me away.

“You didn’t know.”

“Chloe never mentioned it, no.  But it is like her.”  She had also employed members of her family that, in my opinion, wouldn’t get a job anywhere else.

“Odd, don’t you think?  It’s been about a year now.  His company went broke, and all the employees were tossed out onto the street with nothing.”

A year was a long time to forget to tell someone.  “Has it.  Perhaps it just slipped her mind.  She doesn’t tell me everything that goes on, nor do I want to know unless she thinks it’s important.”

Except employing my best friend was important, and it surprised me that he hadn’t told me himself.  He was never backward in bragging about his achievements.  Odd, yes, that he hadn’t told me he’d lost his other job.

Melissa had found out the hotel they were staying in, how I had no idea and didn’t ask, and it was simply a matter of telling the front desk clerk their spouses had arrived, and without question, he handed over the keys.

They were staying on different floors which to me made sense.  I wasn’t expecting they would be staying together, but I had an awful feeling Melissa had.

On the floor, I went to the room and knocked on the door.

A minute later the door opened.  Chloe, still in her nightgown, and an expression which lasted a fraction of a second before it registered surprise.

“Tom!”

Any other time, I might have thought she was expecting someone else.

Then my phone buzzed, an incoming message and I looked at it.

From Melissa.  “Lobby, now.”

I looked up, thought how beautiful she still looked, and said, “Hold that thought.  I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Then I closed the door and headed for the elevators.

Once inside and going down, my brain finally registered what it had just seen.  A woman prime for sex with that lustful look she used to have when we were first married.  Yes, she had been expecting someone, only not me.

Yet, in that moment of realization, I wasn’t mad at her or angry.  She was exactly where she was because of me, and my lack of consideration.  I had several opportunities to toss in the job that was clearly causing us issues, and I didn’t.  It was inevitable we were going to end up here.

When I stepped out of the elevator, I looked for Melissa, but she was not immediately noticeable.  Then, a further scan showed she was outside, and not in a good state.  When I reached her, it was evident she had been crying, and she was angry.

“Is it what I think you’re going to say?”

She nodded.  “When he opened the door, his first words were, “Chloe you sly fox, back for seconds?  And then nearly had a heart attack when he saw me.

“I’m sorry.  But did you have an idea this might happen?”

She nodded.

It explained everything, the hints, the sadness, the trip.  Obviously, she had known about it for some time.

I gave her a hug, and she melted into my arms, and we stayed that way until I saw Roger coming out of the elevator, looking around.

“Roger’s coming,” I said.

“I don’t want to see him, much less talk to him.”

“Then I’ll head him off.  Do you want to go home?” Again she nodded.  “Then get a taxi to the airport and I’ll be along in a short time.  I’ll text you when I’m leaving.”

A quick look in Roger’s direction, she headed to the taxi rank, and just as Roger came out the door, her taxi departed, leaving him standing there.

He saw me coming towards him, and to give him credit, he didn’t run.  It would be difficult for him to know exactly how I might react.

“Tom.”

“My best friend, Roger.  I might have been able to cope if it was some random guy, but not you.”

“Look…”

If he was going to try and justify himself, or make excuses, I didn’t want to hear it.  “Now is not the time.  I’m going to take Melissa home, and I suggest you take the time to figure out how you are going to deal with her because I’m not the problem.”

He was going to reply but possibly thought twice about it.  Instead, he shrugged.  “Later then.”

I watched him go back inside.  What I should have done, then, was go back to see Chloe.  The thing is, I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want the conversation to descend into blame, or worse.  Better I just head for the airport and come to grips with what I was going to do next.

As expected, about five minutes after the taxi had left for the airport, Chloe called.

“I’ve been expecting you,” she said.  Her tone was not confident, but a little bit hesitant.

“Sorry.  Roger came looking for Melissa, and seeing him, well, that just threw me.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you?”

“About?”

“Going to Pasadena.  I came here to end it because it made me realize what was missing between us, and I wanted it back.”

“And if Melissa hadn’t played out her worst fears that would have worked.  The world, it seems, works in mysterious ways.”

If I thought about it, I might have had suspicions, but I was not the sort of person to let them get the better of me.  And had it not been for Melissa, my ignorance would have been bliss.

“What is it telling us, then, Tom?”

“That we need to take a step back.  I know that I’m to blame as much as anything else, and although you might find it hard to believe, I don’t hate you, nor am I angry with you.  For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.  I saw the signs and I didn’t do anything about it.  We’ll talk when you come home.”

I disconnected the call.  My voice had broken, and I hadn’t realized just how much it had affected me, suddenly overcome with great sadness.

I didn’t go home.

On the plane back, I realized that where I lived was just a house.  It wasn’t mine, Chloe’s success had contributed most towards it, and everything else.  If I was to be objective, there really wasn’t anything of me there.

It was easy to walk away.

When Chloe came home and found me missing, she called, three times before I answered.  I had thought long and hard about what we had together, and whether or not we could get over what had happened.  Perhaps, if she hadn’t lied about where she was, perhaps if it had not been Roger, my best friend, who, by the way, was no longer my best friend, I might have considered we had a chance.

But the trust was broken, and I’d always be wondering.  She was successful, she had everything she ever wanted, and she was a grown woman who had to take responsibility for her actions.

She would always be the love of my life; it’s just I couldn’t live with her.  We spoke about divorce, but it never seemed to happen.  I think she always had the notion that we would eventually get back together.

We parted friends but never seemed to travel in the same circles.  On our twentieth wedding anniversary, she sent me a letter, perhaps thinking it was the only way she could speak to me, I had long since traded my old phone in for a new one, in another country.

I toyed with the idea of reading it, but in the end scrawled on it black capital letters, “Not known at this address, return to sender”.  It was time to move on.

© Charles Heath 2021

“Going out of my mind…” – a short story


Accidents can happen.

Sometimes they’re your fault, sometimes they’re not.

The accident I was in was not. Late at night driving home from work, a car came speeding out of a side street and T-boned my car.

It could have been worse, though the person who said it had a quite different definition of the word worse than I did.

To start with, I lost three months of my life in a coma, and even when I surfaced, it took another month to realize what had happened. Then came two months of working out my recovery plan.

If that wasn’t trial enough, what someone else might describe as the ‘last straw that broke the camel’s back’, my wife of 22 years decided to send me a text that morning, what was six months in hospital, to the day.

“I’m sorry, Joe, but enough is enough. I cannot visit you anymore, and for the sake of both our sanity, I think it’s time to draw a line in the sand. I know what happened isn’t your fault but given the prognosis, I don’t think I can cope with the situation. I need time to think about what will happen next and to do so, I’ll be going home to spend some time with family. Once again, I’m so sorry not to be doing this in person. I’ll let you know what I decide in due course. In the meantime, you have my best wishes for your recovery.”

In other words, goodbye. Her family lived in England, about 12,000 miles away in another hemisphere, and the likelihood of her returning was remote. We had meant to visit them, and had, in fact, booked the tickets shortly before the accident. I guess she couldn’t wait any longer.

My usual nurse came in for the first visit on this shift. She had become the familiar face on my journey, the one who made it worth waking up every morning.

“You look a little down in the dumps this morning. What’s up?”

She knew it couldn’t be for medical reasons because the doctor just yesterday had remarked how remarkable my recovery had been in the last week or so. Even I had been surprised given all the previous negative reports.

“Ever broken up by text?”

“What do you mean?”

“Frances has decided she no longer wants to be involved. I can’t say I blame her, she has put her whole life on hold because of this.”

“That’s surprising. She’s never shown any disappointment.”

“Six months have been a long time for everyone. We were supposed to be going home so she could see her family. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.”

I gave her the phone and she read the message.

Then she handed it back. “That’s goodbye, Tom. I’m sorry. And no, I’ve never had a breakup by text, but I guess there could always be a first time.”

She spent the next ten minutes going through the morning ritual, then said, “I’ve heard there’s a new doctor coming to visit you. Whatever has happened in the last few days had tongues wagging, and you might just become the next modern miracle. Fame and fortune await.”

“Just being able to walk again will be miracle enough.”

That had been the worst of it. The prognosis that it was likely I’d never be able to walk again, or work, and the changes to our lives that would cause. I knew Frances was bitterly disappointed that she might become the spouse who had to spend the rest of her life looking after, and though she had said it didn’t matter, that she would be there for me, deep down I knew a commitment like that took more internal fortitude than she had.

She ran her own business, managed three children into adulthood, and had a life other than what we had together. When I was fit and able, and nothing got in the way, it had worked. Stopping everything to cater to my problems had severely curtailed her life. Something had to give, and it had.

But, as I said, I didn’t blame her. She had tried, putting in a brave face day after day but once the daily visits slipped to every other day, to once a week, I knew then the ship was heading towards the rocks.

This morning it foundered.

I pondered the situation for an hour before I sent a reply. “I believe you have made the right decision. It’s time to call it, go home and take some time to consider what to do next is right. In normal circumstances, we would not be considering any of this, but these are not normal circumstances. But, just in case you are worried about the effect of all of this on me, don’t. I will get over it, whatever the result is, and what you need to do first and foremost is to concentrate on what is best for you. If that means drawing a line on this relationship, so be it. All I want for you is for you to be happy, and clearly, having to contend with this, and everything else on your plate, is not helping. I am glad we had what time we had together and will cherish the memories forever, and I will always love you, no matter what you decide.”

It was heartfelt, and I meant it. But life was not going to be the same without her.

I’d dozed off after sending the message, and only woke again when my usual doctor came into the room on his morning rounds, the usual entourage of doctors and interns in tow. I’d been a great case for sparking endless debate on the best route for my recovery among those fresh out of medical school. Some ideas were radical, others pie in the sky, but one that seemed implausible had got a hearing, and then the go-ahead, mainly because there was little else that apparently could be done.

That doctor, and now another I hadn’t seen before was standing in the front row, rather than at the back.

The doctor in charge went through the basics of the case, as he did every day, mainly because the entourage changed daily. Then, he deferred to the radical doctor as I decided to call her.

She went through the details of a discovery she had made, and the recommendation she’d made as a possible road to recovery, one which involved several radical operations which had been undertaken by the elderly man standing beside her. When I first met him, I thought he was an escaped patient from the psychiatric ward, not the pre-eminent back surgeon reputed to be the miracle worker himself.

It seemed, based on the latest x-rays that a miracle had occurred, but whether it was or not would be known for another week. Then, if all went well, I would be able to get out of bed, and, at the very least, be able to stand on my own. In the meantime, I had endless sessions of physio in the lead-up to the big event. Six months in bed had taken its toll on everything, and the week’s work was going to correct some of that.

It meant there was hope, and despite what I said and thought, hope was what I needed.

There had been ups and downs before this, fuelled by a morning when I woke up and found I could wriggle my toes. It was after the second operation, and I thought, given the number of pain killers, it had been my imagination.

When I mentioned it, there was some initial excitement, and, yes, it was true, I wasn’t going out of my mind, it was real. The downside was, I couldn’t move anything else, and other than an encouraging sign, as the days passed, and nothing more happened, the faces got longer.

Then, the physiotherapist moved in and started working on the areas that should be coming back to life. I felt little, maybe the pain killers again, until the next, and perhaps the last operation. I managed to lift my left leg a fraction of an inch.

But we’d been here before, and I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

Annabel, the daughter that lived on the other side of the country, finally arrived to visit me. I had thought, not being so far away she might have come earlier, but a few phone calls had sorted out her absence. Firstly, there was not much use visiting a coma patient, second, she was in a delicate stage of her professional career and a break might be the end of it, and thirdly, she accepted that I didn’t want to see her until I was much better.

She was not very happy about it, but it was a costly venture for her, in terms of time, being away from a young family, and just getting there.

Now, the time had come. She had a conference to attend, and I was happy to play second fiddle.

After the hugs and a few tears, she settled in the uncomfortable bedside chair.

“You don’t look very different than the last time I saw you,” she said.

“Hospitals have perfected the art of hiding the worst of it, but it’s true. The swelling had receded, the physios have revived the muscles, and I have a little movement again.”

“The injuries are not permanent?”

“Oh, they’re permanent but not as bad as first thought.”

“Pity my mother isn’t here.”

“She was, day after day, through the darkest period. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But your mother is an independent woman, and she has always been free to do what she wants, and I would not have had it any other way.”

“But deserting you in the middle of all this…”

“It’s been very debilitating on her. I can understand her reasons, and so should you. She will still be your mother no matter what happens to us.”

There had been a number of phone calls, from each of the children, decrying her actions after she had sent a text message to each of them telling them what she was doing. She had not told them she was leaving, in so many words, but leaving the door ajar, perhaps to allay their fears she was deserting them too. Annabel had been furious. The other two, not so much.

“And this latest development?”

I had also told her about the miracle worker, and the possibilities, without trying to get hopes up.

“On a scale of one to ten, it’s a three. We’ve been here before, so I’m going to save the excitement for when it happens, if it happens.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

It was a question I’d asked myself a number of times, one that I didn’t want an answer to. Hope was staving it off, each day a new day of discovery, and a day closer to the idea I might walk again. I had to believe it would happen, if not the next day, the next week, month, year, that it would eventually happen.

For now, all I had to do was stand on my own two feet.

It was ironic, in a way, that simple statement. ‘Stand on your own two feet’. Right then, it seemed so near, and yet, at the same time, so far away.

I didn’t answer that question, but did what I usually did with visitors, run a distraction and talk about everything else. This visit was no exception. I had a lot of catching up to do.

It’s odd how some call the day of momentous events D-Day because to me nothing would be more momentous than the invasion of France during the second world war.

Others were not quite of the same opinion. It was going to be a momentous day.

It started the same as any other.

The morning routine when the duty nurse came to do the checks. Then the physio, now a permanent fixture mid-morning, just after the tea lady arrived. Deliberate, I thought, to deprive me of my tea break, and some unbelievably delicious coconut cookies.

Then the routine changed, and the escort arrived to take me down to the room where the physio had set up an obstacle course. It looked like one, and I’d told him so when I first saw it, and he had said by the time he was finished with me, I’d be able to go from start to finish without breaking a sweat.

In my mind perhaps, but not with this broken body. I didn’t say that because I was meant to be positive.

An entourage arrived for the main event. I would have been happier to fail in front of the doctor, the miracle worker, and the physio, but it seemed everyone wanted a front-row seat. If it worked, the physio confided in me, there was fame and fortune being mentioned in Lancet, which was a prestigious medical journal.

Expectations were running high.

The physio had gone through the program at least a hundred times, and the previous day we had got to the point where I was sitting on the side of the bed. We’d tried this ordinary maneuver several times, previously without success under my own steam but this morning, for some reason it was different.

I was able to sit up, and then, with a struggle move my legs part of the way, and with a little help for the rest.

What was encouraging, was being able to swing my legs a short distance. It was those simple things that everyone could do without thinking, that had seemed impossible not a month before, that got people excited. I didn’t know how I felt other than I missed those simple things.

Then the moment had arrived. Hushed silence.

There was a structure in place. All I had to do was pull myself across, at the same time sliding off the bed and into a standing position. There was a safety harness attached so that if my grip slipped it would prevent me from falling.

It was probably not the time to tell them the pain in my lower back was getting worse.

So, like I’d been instructed, and going one step further than the day before, I reached out, grabbed the bars, and pulled myself up and over, at the same time, sliding off the side of the bed. I could feel the tug of the safety harness which told me I had left the safety of the bed, and was in mid motion.

I could feel my legs straightening, and then very softly landing on the floor, the safety harness letting my body drop down slowly.

The pain increased exponentially as the weight came down onto my legs, but my body had stopped moving. I could not feel the tightness of the harness, but a rather odd sensation in my legs.

All that time I had been concentrating so hard that I had heard nothing, not even the encouraging words from the physio.

Until I realized, from the noise around me, that it had worked. I was standing on my own two feet, albeit a little shakily.

And I heard the physio say, in his inimitable way, “Today you just landed on the moon. Tomorrow, it’s going to be one small step for mankind. Well done.”

© Charles Heath 2021