Fiction Contemporary Inspirational

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

The Promise

“Think about it,” Alex said one day. “They have offered me the big promotion. And you can work from anywhere. You’re portable.” He stretched his arms in front of her, palms open, shoulders hunched, defeat already tensing his features.

After two years of dating, it made sense to move in together, but first Hannah couldn’t leave her sick dad, then she couldn’t leave his house, and Alex continued to drive the 260 km to York every Friday. After a demanding week at work, he travelled to spend the weekend with her. She wondered whether he regretted pursuing her after they’d met at his friend’s wedding just over two years ago. She knew the bride from childhood and rejoiced when she announced that she’d met someone special online. After the ceremony, Alex introduced himself to her, and she was aware of eyes watching the two single people. That led her to spend most of the event avoiding him while simultaneously seeking him out--to ensure he hadn’t lost interest. The easy chatter in the marquee grew more animated as the summer evening wove its intoxicating magic into the music of the moment. Shared celebration and memory-making brought bubbles of laughter cascading from everyone’s lips. Cheeky champagne cocktails mirrored these bubbles until eventually, the merriment drew to a close and late evening brought with it a new agenda. For them at least anyway.

“I will never stop asking you to join me.” His voice nudged her from her memories. He took hold of her hand, pulling her towards him. His face close to hers, “You’d love living in Edinburgh and I know of a perfect apartment that’s coming up for sale soon.” He tapped the side of his nose and winked.

“I know I know.” And not for the first time, she searched for words to fill the holes where indecision lingered.

Now, a year after her father had passed away, she looked out of her window and registered it was just such an autumn day when her father had made his promise in the park. The sun penetrated the amber leaves on the branches, illuminating them with its Midas touch. It tempered the growing chill in the air, and while it did not prevent people from wrapping their scarves around their necks, it didn’t stop them from smiling either. It was her father’s perfect day—a crisp, sunny autumn day that invigorated you.

Later, hospital odours replaced the earthy smells of Autumn. Grimaces replaced smiles and harsh ward lights became the suns of her father’s life. The arms that tickled her childhood and carried her dreams lay limp, skinny; blue veins slithered across his hands like snakes. His hollowed cheeks and pallid complexion bore no resemblance to the man who brought her up. She almost recoiled at the stranger who they said was her father, and that guilt etched itself onto the pages of her life. Where is he and why isn’t he here? She posed the question to no one in particular and wished that she were religious. With her mother gone by the time she was two--not cut out for family life—her father was her life supply. He never missed a school show or parents’ evening; he held her when her heart was broken from a lost toy, then a lost boy; he washed her bloodstained underwear when she had her first period.

She recalled her childhood and the happier times when he would playfully tease her, yet always allow her to get the better of him. She remembered how once when he had stomach pain, she asked, “are you going to die Daddy?” and he replied laughing, “of course not, it’s only indigestion.” That was when he made the promise.

She was sitting on his knee on the park bench, pulling at the patterned woollen scarf they had chosen together for his last birthday. He told her he had no intention of dying until he was ancient.

“And when I do, remember that I will always look out for you. Bending down, he picked a single marigold flower.

“You should never pick flowers in the park, but this is a special exception because I want you to remember my promise.”

When they arrived home, her father pressed the marigold in his copy of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music, and there it remained.

The sun caught the glass on the picture of them on the wall and added impossible life to her father’s immortalised smile. A faded postcard of The Matterhorn stuck to her fridge still bore the words As a writer, you’ll flinch at the cliché, but ‘wish you were here’ Dad xx. In a second, she could locate his last texts on her phone. She always checked, just to see whether when he died everything remained as it was; that nothing disintegrated like disappearing pixels; that his cards, messages, images, all the manifestations of him—but not him—were still there. The pear tree he planted stood vigil by the back gate and was probably the main reason she never moved from this cottage they had shared even after Mum left.

A knock at the door startled her from her reminiscence, but when a seemingly innocent parcel arrived, it unsettled her. She tensed as the mail deliverer asked her to “sign here please, madam.” He then shifted awkwardly as she looked up at him, expressionless. Her dog’s bark pulled her back to the present. There she stood, still on the doorstep, still trying to fill holes, while holding a brown parcel with Alex’s handwriting on it.

She stared at this unexpected object in front of her. She couldn’t deal with seeing Alex’s neat letters on the front; her body felt heavy whenever she thought of him, which was every moment that she didn’t fill with pointless doing. She struggled daily to fill her head with anything that numbed the memory of his leaving, of the hurt that spilled from his eyes when she said she couldn’t go; she couldn’t commit; she wasn’t ready to sell her cottage.

With a heavy hollowness, she carried the parcel to the kitchen and placed it on the table, tearing at the brown packaging. A tear fell onto the address, smudging the ink. Her postcode was now a blur. Hands trembling, heart beating, she lifted the lid of the brown paper box and stumbled backwards, and gasped. Inside the shoebox was the gift they had chosen for her father’s birthday many years ago. She thought she had lost it, but it must have become entangled with Alex’s paraphernalia like her life had with his.

Holding the scarf to her cheek and inhaling its familiar scent, something wrapped in tissue caught her attention at the bottom of the box. She eased the paper with delicate fingers and happiness released both a smile and a sob. A single dried marigold flower fell from the paper. A subtle sheen veiled its faded beauty, and pastel golden hues evoked what was long gone. Joy and heartbreak all mixed and mashed into one undecipherable code of emotion. A small card bore the words,

I found this scarf inside my sleeping bag, from our last camping trip. The flower was inside the book you lent me, I thought it might cheer you up. I bought two vintage bedside-table lamps yesterday, just your style. All my love, and still waiting for you, Alex xx

Her thumb and forefinger gripped either side of her forehead as she attempted to steady herself.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

With unexpected calm, she wandered outside and listened to the leaves rustling in the autumn breeze. She hoped to hear secret messages of reassurance. A chill nipped her ankles above her sneakers as she made her way along the stepping stones to the pear tree with a basket in her hand.

Only when the basket was full, did she sink her teeth into the yellow-skinned flesh of a freshly picked fruit, juices flowing down her chin, meeting rivers of tears that now flowed down her cheeks, silent and uncensored.

Inside, she cut the pears, extracted the seeds, and lay them out on damp paper towels. You are portable, she thought. Then she eased them inside plastic bags before placing them in the airing cupboard to germinate. This meditative activity settled her, and she managed to smile. This was my home, she mused.

With a newfound resolve, she snatched her phone from the kitchen table. It took no time to find the number saved in her contacts. Her call was answered immediately.

“Hello, Peartree estate agents, sales department, how may I help you?”

October 14, 2022 17:05

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