He always spoke of his son as 'the little one'; always spoke of him mournfully rather than hopefully. Cruel shouts and words moved the boy not; not even when he was a babe did the looming figure of authority have any sway over his temperament. Disappointment was the little one's only mentor, an old man's attempt to hold out a hand and guide him without raising the fist, without cutting the nose.
He tried, but he knew he was lost.
He spoke of the little one mournfully, but the little one did not speak of the old man at all.
Wednesday, 25 July 2012
"He always spoke of his son as 'the little one'; always spoke of him mournfully rather than hopefully."
His puckered face screwed itself into a new twisted arrangement of tired features. His tight lips twitched as if on the verge of spilling forth secrets. You could see his tongue running along his teeth, bulging across the tiny space between his mouth and squashed, ill-set nose. His left eye drooped and the right swung wildly around the tavern, lingering on the backsides of rotund and bosomy barmaids. Some squawked whilst other patrons slapped and pinched, grabbing at their flesh, others sauntered slack-jawed and glazed between tables. He swallowed the dregs from his glass, braced his hands against the edge of the bar and issued forth a deep belch, ripe and fetid from low grade spirits.
No one paid a blind bit of notice. His kind, the drunken, unsociable, crotchety, unwashed and aging group of men, made up a small proportion of the clientele on an average night, but they were the most persistent and familiar. There were always a few patrons who wandered in blindly and sat awkwardly in a corner, merely observing the revelry around them; the younger fellows, made bold by drink, oftentimes managed to steal kisses before being thrown out; there were the scholars who gathered in close-knit academic, philosophical debates and lastly the soldiers who feared nothing, who were well-equipped to fire bullets into the ceiling should the place become too rowdy, and to fire the same bullets into a man’s chest should he choose to become their enemy.
He swung around on his barstool and attempted to remain vertical once his feet hit the ground. He stared at the grubby toes of his shoes on the sticky wooden floor and tried to find some inner sense of balance. He contemplated the way his feet were aligned with the grain in the wood and wondered how many coins were lost in the cavernous gaps between the squeaky boards. Taking one deep breath he looked up and strode forward, towards the exit, the length of his legs eating up the distance. Emboldened by alcohol, he felt invigorated, he felt like a conqueror, he felt he’d fought his demons and won, then it all came crashing down with one glimpse of fiery red hair.
Ettie wore her hair like all other barmaids, scraped away from the nape of her neck, piled on top of her head. It was for practicality and comfort rather than fashion, nonetheless she was often gawked at for its hue; in this part of the country her colouring was rare. But she little knew that her screaming scarlet locks would spark such a painful memory for a stranger who she’d barely noticed. From the corner of her eye she saw a sullen man stewing in his own thoughts, then galumphing towards the exit. She sped up her pace so she could get out of the way, but he’d stopped for some reason. Whatever it was she was far too busy to hang around and find out.
This stranger’s name was Silas, and so acute was the pain caused by the ignited memory that he froze in place while his heart continued sluggishly thumping. Once, twice it echoed in his head and then he crumpled, his frame so completely weakened that he collapsed in a pile of useless flesh and aching bones. He was carried outside by some gallant soldiers who misread his distress as the foolishness of a drunk. He was then ceremoniously tossed into a large pile of discoloured snow that had been shovelled off the road in a vain attempt at keeping them traversable.
Silas stared skyward as the heavens shone down. Through pinpricks in the fabric of reality, the blessed afterlife shared its light. Just as the snow cooled the feverish heat emanating from his body, the hypnotic patterning of stars burning in his retinas seemed to clarify and distil the harrowing memory that had welled forth so suddenly. In the blink of an eye he was back in the brothel, in the bed that smelt of sweat and violets. Ruth had loved sugared violets so much that the scent seemed to envelop her. Her sticky breath gusted across the bed clothes, but Silas could also smell them permeating her skin and perfuming the titian ringlets that haloed her angelic face. The youth in her sleepy eyes mirrored his own. So young, too young really. He spent every penny he made as a tailor’s assistant keeping her. He’d hoped to put aside money for a house of their own but it was all he could do to secure her as his own under the ever-watchful madam of the house. They were in love, but he was foolish for thinking that was enough.
The day Ruth told him she was expecting had been the happiest day of his life. Of course they were troubled about how they’d manage, but nothing could overshadow the joy they felt in those golden months. As Ruth’s stomach expanded with the life growing inside her, Silas scrimped and saved, planned and schemed to free them from the financial trap they were in. It took until the child was big and almost ready for the world before Silas could afford a deposit on some rooms, but no sooner had he shaken hands with the landlord than he was pummelling up the stairs of Madam Beaufort’s to share the news with Ruth. He found the girls crowded around the door looking sorrowful and teary. They tried to stop him going in but his panic and adrenaline had him pushing them aside, scrabbling at the door.
He’d never forget the look on the doctors face. There was nothing they could have done he said, the baby came too soon. He spoke in hushed tones, and with a firm, sympathetic squeeze of his shoulder, he left. Silas could see her, a pale ghost of her normal self, propped against the pillows. She lay limp like a rag doll, except for the small bundle clasped in her arms. She wept, and then she started crooning softly. It was a lilting, haunting melody. He crept to the bedside and laid his forehead against hers. They shared their sorrow with a silent communication of tears.
“I called him Henry.”
Silas lay sombre and still as the snow soaked his coat and winter stole into his body. He never could bring himself to say his son’s name. He referred to him as ‘the little one’ in the rare moments that he spoke of him at all. Two days later, Ruth had followed their son into the afterlife. The pregnancy and then the fruitless hardship of labour had destroyed her body and dissolved her will to live. He had found her cocooned in her bed sheets, cold as stone but still smelling of violets. He buried them together in a small, simple plot and thought he had buried the memory with them. He didn’t know that thirty years on all it would take was one glimpse of red hair to unearth the grief and the loss and the sorrow. He let the pain wash over him, he was numb now. With thoughts of his lover and his lost child flooding what was left of his consciousness, he let go of his life. Between the stars and the snow Silas found peace.