This story is by Paul v Walters and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The train eventually stopped at a station, which overlooked a small harbor shrouded in a dismal drizzle that fell relentlessly from a slate grey sky. The prows of tethered fishing boats bobbed about like teams of horses in harness, as if struggling to break free.
My route took me up a narrow lane, winding between white and blue painted cottages which reminded me of her beloved island of Santorin, but this was a poor second best given the state of the weather.
Outside her door I thought I should flee but a painfully thin woman, whose face looked as if it was perpetually pinched by an arctic wind, opened the door as if she had been listening for my arrival, Given her nurses attire I gathered she was her carer.
“You’re late,” she muttered, allowing her steely eyes to meet mine.
“Wait here,” she said, indicating a sitting room off the hallway. “The professor sleeps a lot these days; I’ll check to see whether she can accommodate your visit.”
Her furniture was almost too pristine as if the couches had never had to endure the burden of uninvited guests. In a corner sat a small grand piano, its top supporting silver framed family portraits spanning several decades.
I wandered over and picked up one or two. Here she was with her firstborn, another showed two children frolicking on a beach, first days of school, her sons in academic gowns, caps set at jaunty angles. Of a father figure there was no sign.
At the back a tiny frame, no bigger than a matchbox, caught my eye. Much to my surprise, there we were, sun kissed and carefree in the full flush of youth, her head resting coyly on my shoulder even though the decaying chemicals seemed to be fighting a losing battle to retain the image.
The woman reappeared, “The professor will see you now, but please keep your visit short as she tires easily.”
A room that obviously once been her study was now filled by a hospital bed. A bedside light struggled to allow much light to penetrate the gloom even though a weak ray of sunlight, filled with dust motes that swirled like dervishes managed to squeeze its way into the room between the shutters.
In the bed lay a tiny form as if fresh from a famine, dwarfed by her surroundings. Her once-beautiful face seemed to have fallen in on itself; the flesh, clinging hopelessly to her prominent cheekbones, now had the texture of a recently plucked chicken. A withered arm lay like a broken twig across the bedclothes from which a tube protruded, leading to an intravenous drip suspended above her.
Her once-lustrous hair fell like cobwebs across the sheets, lifeless and thin, obliterated no doubt by the chemotherapy that trickled down the tube.
I closed my eyes and saw her; young, vibrant and full of passion, so sure of her destiny. However, she was like a diamond cutter, looking only for imperfections in the stone and I became one of those.
She had become a skilled and renowned heart surgeon who fought fearlessly for her beliefs but in the end it was those self-same beliefs that were to end a brilliant and glittering career.
Her work consumed her as she furiously gathered reams of senseless arcana on the theory of heartbreak and how it could prove fatal.
She was absolutely convinced that heartache was a prelude to disease and wishing it—nay, fighting for it—to be recognized as such.
Her colleagues began to despair of her inability to be swayed from her self-righteous path until, eventually she was forced from her profession, her research much maligned and ridiculed even by those who had once worshiped at her font of
Undeterred, she ploughed on with the dedication of a seasoned athlete, submitting paper after paper to scientific journals that were routinely rejected, while trying desperately to lead the unbelievers back to the path of enlightenment.
Suddenly, as if she sensed my presence, she opened her eyes and made a feeble attempt to reach for a glass of water. I stepped into her line of sight, took the glass and inserted the bent straw between her parched and withered lips. She sucked greedily as she held my gaze as if trying to conjure up decades of experiences in one futile glance.
I gently took her hand in mine.
“So, you came,” her voice reedy, as if emitted from a broken flute. “I didn’t think you would.”
“I was just passing and, when I heard you weren’t well, decided to contact you.”
“You were always just passing, always on the way to somewhere else,” she retorted. “And, as you can see, I am indeed not well as you so succinctly put it.”
She raised my hand to her nose and smelled it. “Tobacco is still one of your vices, I see. How ironic that I, a fervent anti-smoker, am lying here, dying of lung cancer.
I read your books,” she said with a lopsided grin. “ I must say you have certainly improved after years churning out that all that irrelevant drivel. Strange, I never really believed your writing would amount to much; you were always too sentimental to be a great writer but obviously I was wrong, as these days your critics seem to fawn over you. Come closer, I need to see your face.”
I leaned forward into the cone of light and subjected myself to her scrutiny.
“Hmm, you’ve aged quite well, given your propensity for good living. I presume that’s still the case?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” I replied. “I’ve tried to lead a more settled existence lately. Family, as you know tends to anchor one after a while.”
“Ah, yes, two daughters, I believe. Do you have photographs?”
“I don’t,” I said. “I have never felt the need to show photographs to complete strangers, not that you are a stranger.”
“ Of course. What was it you once said? Beautiful things should never seek attention, so I presume they must be beautiful creatures. I saw once them once, in a magazine that did a profile on you.
For my sins, I had boys” she said, after a bout of coughing which threatened to tear her frail body apart. “Sons are an enigma, and mine in particular were a mystery. They were such a disappointment to me. One is a hopeless drug addict and the other simply took off, never to be heard from again. Tell me, are you happy?”
“I believe I am,” I said, “although, I still have regrets about what might have been.”
“Regret is such a useless emotion,” she said. “The past is something we simply tell ourselves about, and consequently we distort or invent scenarios to make the present seem so much more bearable. When you have no future, you tend to live in the past.”
“There is something I have to know, now that I am not long for this world. Why did you leave me, suddenly, like a thief disappearing into the night?
I never understood. I woke up and you were simply gone. I searched for you that day, and for days after knowing it was a fruitless exercise, as you were never coming back.
You broke my heart.
“Heartbreak. It’s is a disease, you know, and for some, an incurable one. I never really recovered, even though I tried but, no matter what, it was never you, it never could be.
You left a hole in my heart that no amount of time could fill.
Not even the unconditional love of my children, when they were young, gave me solace. But seeing you now, I realize that I don’t need an answer. It’s far too late for that, and anything you would say now would be simply pointless.”
She pushed my hand away, reached into a side drawer and lifted out a pile of envelopes wrapped tightly with a blue ribbon. She handed them to me as if it were somehow a recipe for my betterment. “I don’t know why I kept them, so perhaps you should have them and then you might understand why I fell in love with you.” She said, as she drifted back into sleep.
At the front door, putting on my coat I felt the envelope in my pocket, a pathetic, ‘Get Well Soon’ card I had purchased at a newsagent. It would be a cruel gesture to leave it behind, as there would be no getting better soon in this household.
The door closed behind me with a decisive slam.
Outside, I examined the blue-ribboned package and I tugged at the delicate bow but thought better of it and dropped the pile into a bin where it fell atop a greasy piece of packaging.
Without a backward glance I made for the station where, in the distance, I could hear the sound of an approaching train.