Sensitive content: themes of death
John checked his watch. 5:04pm. 182 days, 60 minutes to go. He wondered when he would stop counting the minutes. He wandered when there wouldn’t be any more minutes to count. The Goodbye and Good Luck banner hung lopsided above a table laden with cupcakes and pastries. He picked at the apple turnover on his plate. It tasted like cardboard. He hoped his sense of taste would return.
“Urgh, trust it to rain when I forgot my brolly!” Louise smoothed her wet hair from her face, her glasses spotted with raindrops. She tilted her head to look at him. Her voice was friendly but laced with disappointment. “ You mysteriously go on leave without telling me, I don’t hear lickety split and now I'm at your going away party. What the hell!?” She thumped his arm playfully and he grabbed it in fake hurt before engulfing her in a tight embrace. After he had missed his train all that time ago and ran into her waiting for a taxi, they had decided on dinner instead and spent the next four hours chomping down Chow Mein and laughing until his side ached and his eyes watered. They had been close ever since. “I’m sorry, I didn’t tell you. It was kind of a last minute thing”.
Louise narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you pregnant?”
He laughed, the sound strange to his ears. “Now that would be a first. Pretty sure that remains impossible for the male species”.
Louise shrugged. “I’ve heard stranger things. So where did you disappear to? You go and spend time with your parents?”
He thought back to his father’s face. Pale. Drawn. His mother’s pacing. The smell of disinfectant. The tube in his arm. Nausea. The ticking of the damn clock.
“Yeah, yeah I did”.
“And you cut your hair!"
He ran his hand self consciously over his buzz cut, feeling the prickle of his hair scrape against his palm. “Yeah, I had to”.
“John, mate!” Peter approached, his arms open wide, his mouth curled in a smirk. I hear you’re leaving state? Leaving us for the big smoke”.
“Ah not quite. I’m heading…up north”.
“Nice”. Peter took a swig from his water and John was sure it was laced with Gin. He wondered if it was the same bottle they had swiped from the exec’s office not two months earlier on a whim before they’d spent the rest of the day supplementing their tea and eyeballing each other knowingly across the office partitions. Breaking into fits of laughter as the afternoon wore on. He’d been sent home like a chastised child for disrupting his colleagues. John smiled at the memory.
"I thought you wanted to go traveling this year?"
John shrugged. “I did but… sometimes you can’t say no, I guess”.
He had wanted to go traveling. Visit the Louvre. See the leaning Tower of Pisa. But it was never a good time. Too many clients to see, too many reports to write. John thought back to the late nights, the tapping of his keyboard, the whirring of the janitor's vacuum, the jingle of keys swaying haphazardly on the security guard’s belt.
“Another late one eh?” Raj would say, resting his hand on his protruding belly, a smile as sweet as candy across his face.
“Who else would keep you company?”
“Ha! You don’t stay too long now boy. It’s a Friday night. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than keep that seat warm for free”. A wink and the security guard would be on his way, his keys slapping against his hip in a rhythmic jaunt.
But he always did stay late. That report, heavy as lead, couldn’t wait until Monday. Now, he didn’t have many Mondays left. But that was all life was, wasn’t it? A series of mundane events sewn together in a patchwork of ‘life’. He just wished there were more squares to his quilt.
A women bustled through the door. He watched as she shook out her umbrella, tutting irritably at the dampness of her clothes. She looked around the room and pointed her finger in his direction. “Young man, you sneaking off without telling me. Why, I've got the mind to give you a hiding just like my own kids!” John smiled at the receptionist. The sound of her voice was honeyed and homely. Marjorie wrapped her arms around him and clasped their hands together. He breathed in her perfume, floral and sweet and reminiscent of his mother. John looked down at their entwined hands. Hers were spotted with age, his were smooth with youth, not yet 30 years. He eyed the vase of poppies that sat on the windowsill to her left. He fingered their wilted petals, velvet on his fingertips. John tried to remember how long they had been there. Something so vibrant invisible in a sea of people. He poured the rest of his water into their vase.
“John, did you hear me?”
He was back there, sitting across from Dr Mak in a small and stuffy office with uncomfortable chairs. You would think when delivering news like this, the person could at least be sitting on something softer than a brick with legs. There was a coffee stain on the desk. New. Still wet. He had the urge to wipe it clean. There one minute, gone the next. “John? Did you hear me?”
His eyes snapped to the doctor. A tiny crumb on the man’s moustache wavered precariously with each breath he spoke. “Hmm? Yes, I heard. The cancer has spread. Six months. Twelve at best”. Dr Mak continued but the words sounded distant. Muffled. Alien. Like he was eavesdropping from another room. Like they were for someone else. Because surely they were.
It wasn’t fair. He was young. He still had so much more he wanted to do. The lament of all those who die young, of course. But nobody said life had to be fair. It was a roll of the dice. A game of chance. Sometimes you draw the long stick. And sometimes you don’t.
“John, did you hear me?”
He looked up at Marjorie’s face. Her smile, warm but sad nonetheless. She squeezed his hand, “You go easy now”. He wondered in that moment if she knew. The way all mothers did. He nodded, not trusting himself to do anything else.
The rain slapped against the windows, streaking the glass and framing the city lights in a moving portrait. He said his goodbyes, deliberately leaving behind his umbrella. He curled his toes into the muddy grass and tipped his head to the pouring sky. He smiled remembering something they had all forgotten. Sometimes you need to learn to dance in the rain.