Matthew J. Metzger © 2019
All Rights Reserved
Rather appropriately for the occasion, it had been raining all day.
Chris took in a deep lungful of smoke and exhaled it smoothly into the chilly afternoon. The memorial garden was blissful after the hustle and bustle of the funeral. The air was open and soothingly cool, not like the stuffy heat of the chapel. He could breathe again. He could gather the shards of grief around himself and try to put them back together, without having to think about his mother’s sobbing at his side, or the favourite song that had been played for Jack’s last journey, a song now stained with sadness.
The gentle patter of raindrops on the umbrella calmed him, and the far-off chirping of some irate bird provided a gentle counterpoint. Life slowed. From farther off, the chattering of friends and relations had finally died away, and Chris stubbed out the remains of the cigarette as he heard the crunch of gravel.
He’d never been here before, but the footsteps coming down the path were as familiar as his own. Thunderously heavy, an immense weight crushing each step into the ground even as the pace was slow and steady. That slight stress on one step, followed by lightness on the other. That dodgy knee from the rugby accident last year had left its mark in the form of a subtle limp and a tiny scar like a fish hook that made its owner go all shivery when Chris kissed it. Even the speed with which each step followed the other was familiar, like the tower of a body might collapse if the feet were spread too far apart. The hands that clasped Chris’s shoulders were as big as spades, and only one person in his life was tall enough to kiss the crown of his head without the use of a box to stand on.
Chris leaned back into the wall of a man who had arrived and lifted the umbrella to let him into the shelter.
“Your mum’s gone home with Lauren.”
The relief was bittersweet. Mum and Lauren had always gotten along, despite one being Dad’s ex-wife and one being Dad’s girlfriend. Lauren would look after her—even if it was Chris’s job. Even if he was supposed to.
“You did great.”
Chris swallowed thickly. “I think it’s just sunk in.”
It hadn’t been real. It had taken so long that it had never quite felt real until this moment.
Jack had died a long, slow, terrible death. Weeks in the hospice. Chris would never forget the gargling way his stepfather had breathed near the end, or the clammy coolness of his skin. The way Mum had cried, soft little sniffles at the corner of the bed on that final day. The gaps between the gurgles, until finally there had been nothing but the eeriest silence. The shaking in his fingertips was over.
Everything was over. The smell of cigar smoke on the tenth of March, the one day of the year Jack lit up. The shuffle of his slippers. The whirr of that deathtrap of a stairlift. The croaking way he’d chuckled, a noise that in a bigger man would have been a belly laugh. The little huff he let out when Mum was in one of her moods, followed up hastily with “Yes, dear, of course…” And Chris had never seen it, but he’d known Jack had flashed him little smirks across the table at such moments, conspiratorial understandings between the two men who were most subject to her fussing and flapping, the two men who loved her most. Gone.
“I know.” The words were soft but firm. The hands on his shoulders rubbed down to his elbows and then back up in a long, smooth stroke. “But so is the pain and the suffering. He’s not hurting anymore. And if he was right, then he gets to see his daughter again now.”
Chris coughed a shaky laugh. It bubbled out of his ribs like water overflowing. “No such thing as heaven.”
“You never know.”
Chris sighed and leaned his head back. He closed his eyes and hummed as a kiss was pressed into his temple.
“I should go and see Mum,” he said.
But his chest ached. His ribs felt like they were going to cave in, and a red-hot pain followed the scar, as if he’d been wrapped in metal wire, melting against his skin. He hurt.
“I want to go home.”
The hands pulled. He was turned by the shoulders and drawn into a rain-damp embrace. The arms around his back made the pain worse, but Chris clung and burrowed into the embrace anyway. The kiss on the top of his head slotted two of the jagged edges together and sealed them shut again. The grief ebbed a fraction.
“Come on, then. Let’s go home.”
They’d met over a cup of coffee. Chris had been minding his own business in one of his favourite coffee shops, and along had come this big clumsy oaf and knocked his mug flying. For a split second, Chris had been angry—then the oaf had talked.
He was called John.
And John had a voice.
John’s voice reminded Chris of swallowing whisky—desert-hot, followed by a deep warmth radiating from the inside and felt in every fibre of the body. Like melting dark chocolate in the mouth on a cold winter’s day: smooth, gentle, indefinably rich. He never said anything. He drawled, grumbled, rumbled, growled, snarled, creaked, croaked, coughed, snorted, sniggered, and chuckled, but he never just said anything. They’d do the exact same thing in bed, but it became a searingly hot fuck if John growled, or a tantalisingly sweet worship if John whispered. Chris had fallen in love with his voice from the first word, and it was pure dumb luck that the man attached to said voice was just as good.
Chris accepted the cup of coffee, but the heat that soaked into his bones came from John settling down on the sofa next to him, sliding an arm around his waist, and asking what he wanted to watch on the telly.
“Nothing,” Chris said. “I don’t really feel like doing anything.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“Or Jack. Or anything, really.”
Chris swallowed thickly. “I don’t know.”
Jack’s death had been years in the making. He’d met Chris’s mum when Chris was in his teens and he was diagnosed not even a year later. Parkinson’s disease. The early stuff wasn’t too bad—the stiffness, the shuffling, the shaking. Jack hadn’t minded those. “You get old,” he’d said. “It’s not too different. I’m just getting old, young.” But Parkinson’s, a brain disease, like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, had eaten away at his head, and if the physical symptoms had taken years to come to a crescendo, the mental ones had taken a bitterly short two years.
In a matter of two years, he’d gone from Chris’s affable, elderly stepfather to a ruin. He’d walk into the road at three in the morning, sobbing like a child and crying for his granny. He forgot how to eat. He rang the police a hundred times, swearing blind that Mum was trying to poison him with his medication. Then he forgot how to use a phone, how to talk, how to move. The gentle soul had been torn out and replaced by a man who swore at the nurses who came to help, and slapped Mum for trying to get him to drink a cup of tea.
“I’m glad he’s dead,” Chris breathed.
There it was. The ugly, awful truth. He was glad. He’d been there, holding Jack’s hand, and when the silence stretched out and they realised he was finally gone, the only thing Chris had felt was relief. A heartbreakingly awful relief.
“So am I.”
He jolted at the words.
“He was suffering,” John explained. “Remember last summer, when he still knew it was happening, and he’d just sit and cry for hours that he was losing his mind?”
“That was—I liked Jack. I wouldn’t wish that kind of suffering on my worst enemy, and it was bloody awful watching it happen to someone like Jack.”
Chris leaned his cheek against John’s shoulder. The guilt eased a fraction.
“In my head, he’s been dead for years,” he breathed. “He died the summer Mum had to get the social to come and help her get him up in the mornings. I—I think he died then. He just wasn’t Jack after that.”
John’s soft agreement dissolved into the room. For a long moment, there was only stillness. Poppy’s soft weight on Chris’s socked feet. John’s breathing next to his arm. The steam rising from the coffee cup and stroking Chris’s nose. The heat pouring from the gas fireplace, crackling in an attempt to feel real but sounding—to Chris anyway—exactly like every other fake fireplace in the world.
“I’ll go and see Mum tomorrow,” he whispered.
“She mentioned seeing the solicitor and starting the inheritance process,” John remarked. “You know your mum. Ever practical. Do you want to go with her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“She, um. She gave me something for you. A letter.”
Chris frowned, lowering the cup to his lap. “A letter?”
“Yeah. Apparently, Jack wrote you a letter when he was diagnosed.”
A savage lump swelled in Chris’s throat. Oh dear God. A letter from Jack. From his diagnosis? That was over ten years ago.
“We can leave—”
“No,” Chris whispered. “I—I want to hear it.”
There was a long pause, and then John kissed the side of his head and got up from the sofa. Chris took the opportunity to move. The flat was small, the ground floor of a converted house, and perpetually chilly. But he’d turned their bedroom into a den of hedonism, the carpet so thick he took off his socks and buried his naked toes in the fuzz for a long, luxurious moment before stripping and heading for the bed. He was exhausted, hurting, and bound to start crying again. To hell with nightly rituals and dinner. He wanted to go to bed.
Poppy, sensing his upset, jumped up onto the end and settled across his legs. Her heavy weight a comfort, he sat up to pet her until John came through. The bed sagged under his immense weight, and Chris rolled into his side to settle against his chest and listen to the gentle beating of his heart.
“Yeah,” he whispered.
The letter was in an envelope. Chris listened to John tearing it open in little tugs, and the crinkle of paper sounded thick. Chris touched the edges—the fancy stuff from the writing desk in the living room, the one Jack had barely touched ever since his hands had started shaking. The desk had gathered dust and ornaments, and now would likely be consigned to the dump or the loft.
“Dear Chris,” John read and swallowed. “Erm. Sorry. The handwriting’s not so great, so I might struggle a bit.”
“Yesterday I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I know from both my mother and my late sister what this means for me. I estimate I only have a handful of years before I die, then a handful more before—what’s this? Oh—before my body catches up to the fact. I won’t burden you with my feelings on the matter because I know you and I have this in common. But it would destroy your mother if I were to take that path, so I will face this, and hope death is not too drawn-out an affair.”
A lump swelled in Chris’s throat. Death had been drawn-out. Death had been long, slow, and viciously cruel. Their worst nightmare.
“What does he mean?” John asked gently.
Chris sniffed. “I—I told Mum and Jack once that if I got another brain injury, and I wasn’t going to recover, then I’d rather be dead. I’d rather just die than waste away unable to think or only move my eyeballs or something. If—if I wasn’t able to live my life, then—then it wouldn’t be worth it. That’s what he means. He—he said Parkinson’s and dementia were like the brain died, and the body was taking a while to catch up.”
John breathed out through his teeth, the shrill whistle piercing in the quiet warmth of the room. They’d talked about it before. John didn’t like it, and Chris knew he didn’t like it, but it was what it was. Chris believed life was only worth it if you could live it. John believed life was always worth it. They had long since agreed to disagree and didn’t talk about it much.
“I have written a will, but they are terribly impersonal pieces of paper, so I am writing this as well. I have never tried to be anything but a friend to you. You have always had an excellent and capable father of your own and didn’t need my clumsy meddling to complicate matters. You have a wonderful mother who has always done what she feels best for you and could handle you even at your teenaged worst without my assistance. I never felt you needed me—and yet, for all that, I have considered you as a son from the day I met you.”
Chris’s eyes were hot. He could feel the weight of the tears on his eyelashes.
“I was as proud as any father the day you passed your exams. I worried as much as your mother with every medication change. I, too, was permanently torn between encouraging you to seize every opportunity and never let yourself lead anything but a normal life, and fretting you would come to harm in your adventures beyond the familial nest and would be safer with us than without— Your stepfather wasn’t half posh,” John complained.
Chris laughed. The tears spilled over. He nestled into John’s side and wiped at his eyes with the heel of his hand.
“He loved reading. Loved learning. Education. That’s why I went to sixth form college—he insisted. The only time he was ever angry with me was when I refused to go to university.”
John hummed. “That’s the first page. He’s got rid of the next one; he’s started again, I think.”
“Just read the new one, then.”
“Dear Chris. Things have changed, and so must this. Yesterday, you brought a wonderful young man to dinner, and your mother’s worst fears came true. You have fallen in love with someone entirely suitable, and your life will take on new dimensions inaccessible to the dusty old roads your parents have trodden.”
“Oh God, he wrote this the day after he met you?” Chris croaked.
John hummed but didn’t answer. He just kept reading.
“Much has changed from when I wrote my original letter. You have spread your wings. You have gone into the world on your own, and your independent streak is now felled by the arrival of—by the look on your face and the way you speak of him—the man who opens the next chapter of your story. Forgive me for mixing metaphors, but the facts are quite plain. You love him, and he loves you, and it’s not quite how it was done in my day, but that is all for the better, I think.
“Your mother is filled with dread over the whole affair, but I take a perfectly different view. My life was changed when I met Sarah, when we had our daughter, and when I lost them both. I thought I would never recover. All the sound had gone from the world, and I moved through it paralysed from the mind down.
“But love was not gone. My paralysis was because I still loved, and they were no longer here to receive it. To this day, I still love Sarah. I still love Rachel. That will stop only when my heart does, for even as this illness is starting to sap my memories, and I can no longer remember the sound of Sarah’s voice, or if Rachel was six or seven when I lost her, I still feel that warmth and aching in my chest when their names are uttered. I still remember someone by that name was here once, and my world was all the richer for it.
“When I met your mother, the sound crept back into the world. Her (terrible) singing of a morning. Your dulcet tones as you tried every day to argue your way out of going to school. Christmases roaring with laughter at the black-and-white films on the TV, and your mother’s fury when you came home with blue hair— You dyed your hair blue?”
“You totally went along with it, though.”
Chris shrugged. “To be honest, I didn’t really understand the big deal. Blue, black—what’s the difference?”
John snorted with laughter, then carried on.
“—just in time for Hanukkah when you were eighteen years old. (I don’t think she ever quite forgave your young friend Gina for that one.)
“Love transformed me once more. I was reborn. I have lived a second life here, with my wife and son. You may not have needed another father, but you are my son as much as Rachel is my daughter, and I have watched you transform in the years I have known you and have been immensely proud and privileged to be here to see it.
“You transformed when you came to love yourself and shed the weight holding you down, and if ever I said or did anything to make you doubt me in those difficult times, then I can only offer my final apologies here. And now you have begun a new transformation and a new chapter in your story. John is a plain, simple man, and you are clearly the sound in his world already. I’m no fortune teller, and you are stubborn as a mule, so who knows? But I would not be at all surprised if when the time comes, it is John reading this letter to you, and you are quite a different man from the one to whom I was writing it.”
Chris buried his face in both hands and bawled. It hurt. The emotion tore through his heart and lungs and left ribboned shreds behind. His throat burned, and everything collapsed inwards into a jagged mess, bracketed by the low croon of John’s voice, the weight of his arm, the nudge of a damp nose against his elbow, and the thump of a tail beating on his knees. Chris dissolved into pieces, wrapped in the duvet and caught between the hulk and the dog, and let it all happen. What harm would it do? He could come apart all he wanted, and they would stitch him back together.
The crying jag took a long while to ease. When he recovered himself enough to blow his nose into the offered tissue and soothe Poppy’s whining, the jagged edges inside were smoother. Jack was gone, but it had been a good life. Jack was gone, but so were the pain and the suffering. Jack was gone, but he was still here. His letters and Chris’s memories and the wedding video Chris had put on DVD for Mum last year so she could watch it after the VCR finally bit the dust.
Jack was gone, but only in the sense that he wouldn’t come shuffling through the door complaining about the prices in bookshops these days.
“You okay?” John whispered.
“Yeah.” It hurt to talk. “Is that it?”
“The rest, please.”
John kissed his forehead and smoothed down his curly hair once more before shifting slightly. Paper crinkled, and his deep, soothing voice started up once more.
“You may be different now, but I imagine some things are the same. You still have your mother’s sense, but your father’s sense of adventure. You have your irrepressible humour, and, of course, that stubborn streak that has seen you through so much. Perhaps your temper has mellowed with time, age, and happiness—or perhaps you are still explosive. But there is one thing of which I am absolutely certain. You are still loved, completely and utterly, by a great many people. And I assure you they also know, perfectly well, you love them in return.
“You would likely scold me for being overemotional now, and Lord forbid I’ve made you cry, so I will get down to the practicalities of the thing. I have a will, and your mother knows where it is and its contents. We agreed on it all. I have made arrangements for her to receive my pension and my savings prior to my passing, in case this disease drags itself out. She will not be in need, and even if she is, I know you will look after her. All I ask is you make the time for her after I am gone. She is spending more and more of her time at home with me, and less with her friends. She will be lonely, and I know the pain of being the one who is left behind. It is a terrible time, and she will need you.
“But I also leave something to you, in light of this new part of your life. Two things, to be precise. The first is my wedding ring. It is the same one I wore for Sarah and the one I wear for your mother now. It has seen me through the best and worst moments of my life. May it see you through the same and serve as a reminder that no matter what happens, love remains.”
Chris’s heart tightened into an impenetrable ball of rock inside his chest, the pain nothing short of cardiac arrest. It hurt.
“The other is my old home. By the time my mother passed, my dear sister was already very unwell, and so I inherited the house.”
Chris choked. John stopped dead, and slammed him in the back. Pain exploded over his chest, but it opened up his startled airway again, and he sucked in a shocked breath.
“He’s left me the house?!”
“I don’t know! You’re reading it. Mum owns the house; he can’t have left me the house.”
John paused, then hummed. “I think he means a different house. He talked about his mum and his sister. Did they live with Ruth?”
“No. They were both in a care home, I think. I don’t know; they died years and years ago.”
“Maybe he means their house? Hang on, I’ll keep going.”
Paper rustled once more.
“I still own it. It is a ruin, but I could not bear to part with it. It has been in the family since 1910, when my grandfather bought it with the wages he had painstakingly saved from years in the factory. He bought it to persuade my eminently sensible grandmother he was a good man to marry, and it has been with us ever since. My mother was born, lived, and died in that house. I myself have years of fading but fond memories in its walls and garden. And now I leave it to you and ask you return love to its lonely walls. Be that crafting it into a home for you and John and any future generations you care to gift us with, or be that returning it to its former glory and selling it to some deserving family who will breathe life back into it.”
Chris sat up awkwardly, trying to take the pressure off his wound. It ached, but it faded into a dull throbbing under the confusion whirling in his head.
“I didn’t even know Jack owned a house,” he said stupidly. “Does he say anything else?”
“I dearly hope to have many more years with you and your mother, and to be in a fit state to see you become ever better, but in the event I am not, I know you will be fine. I have been infinitely blessed to be a part of your mother’s life and a part of yours.
“Indulge a slowly dying man to impart one last piece of wisdom. Dance. It’s good for your heart, good for your soul, and good for your mind. Your loving father, Jack.”
“Dance,” Chris echoed feebly and laughed a little. “Bloody Jack.”
“Well, you dance plenty. Always sashaying around the kitchen, you are.”
“Like you can talk, Mr Hug-And-Sway,” Chris mumbled, scrubbing at his eyes. He held out his hands and took the letter, rubbing the paper between finger and thumb as if trying to absorb the words. “We need to put this somewhere safe.”
“Think we need to go to the solicitor with your mum tomorrow too.”
“Well, you’ve got a house,” John replied. “I think maybe we need to figure out what to do with that.”
Chris bit his lip but said nothing.
He already had a bit of an idea—but he didn’t know if it was going to work.