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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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“Yes, Simon. Bellowing. I believe there was a smattering of name-calling as well.” Duncan caught the eye of his wife, who gave a tight smile, though her eyes twinkled. “It is a common assumption that members of certain professions are faultless. Vicars get cross too, you know. And we dislike people. We even swear – yes, swear from time to time. I seem to remember hammering my thumb recently and using a panoply of curses. Rather loudly. Of course…” The vicar broke off, appraising the man before him, “doctors aren’t infallible either, I imagine.”

“Everyone blames me.” Simon mumbled into his glass.

“No. Melissa, perhaps. But she too is grieving, and she is wrong. The only person who really blames you is yourself. And you’ve had a bang on the head.” Duncan chuckled, Mrs. Hughes’ tinkly laughter joining in. Simon looked up, surprised by their mirth. He had got so used to hushed whispers and groveling platitudes that for a moment their giggles horrified him. “I forgot to thank you for livening up the service.” Duncan added. “They were much more alert for the second half.” Simon surprised himself as his shoulders began to shake. The dogs barked as the three laughed.

* * *

“Thanks, Dad.”

Simon waved his father off from the door. The evening was still bright, the April sun only just going down. He jogged back up the stairs to check on Sarah who was asleep, settled and satisfied having finished a Harry Potter chapter with her grandfather.

Downstairs, Melissa was at the kitchen table, half hidden by a mountain of floristry oasis, boxes of roses and ribbons.

Melissa had bought the floristry business four years ago – two years before Sarah first became ill. Long since departed from her girlhood job at the department store in Leeds, she had become bored with the life of a housewife and once Sarah was happily settled in school, she looked for a business she could take on.

Floristry was the perfect answer. She was able to flex her creative muscles, her artistic nature immediately putting her at the top of her night-school class. Once she had taught herself how to hand tie bouquets and create elegant table decorations, she found a run down little property down a ginnel on Commercial Street and set about turning it into the most fashionable flower shop in town.

Melissa was shrewd. She employed staff with far better experience than her and paid and treated them well. Within two years
‘Fluff & Nonsense’
was the preferred supplier for all the local hotels, restaurants and wedding co-ordinators.

When Sarah fell ill, she sold half of the business to her senior member of staff. Lorraine was a working mother like Melissa and they shared the workload amicably. This week, Lorraine was visiting her mother in Scotland, so preparations for one of their smaller weddings fell on Melissa.

“How you getting on?”

“Ten pomanders down, fourteen to go. I won’t be finished until at least 2 a.m., but at least they’ll be fresh for the wedding breakfast tomorrow. The bouquets are done. These are just the table decorations. How are you feeling?” Melissa snipped a white rose from its stem and pushed the flower into a ball of oasis.

“Fine. It was just too much wine, no breakfast and not enough sleep. Do you want some help?”

“No offence, Simon, but your track record with floristry isn’t great. Remember the wonky pomander trees you did that Christmas? I’m okay. Thanks for the offer. Do you really think that’s a good idea?” Melissa paused, dangling the pomander from its white ribbon before her. “I know we’ve been drinking a bit too much wine recently, but don’t you think whisky is a bit of a slippery slope?”

Simon rummaged through the freezer, looking for ice. “I really think it’s time we did a supermarket shop. There’s nothing in the house. No tea, coffee. Do we have ice?”

“Did you hear me? Don’t you think whisky is a rather dangerous path to travel at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening? You’ve already done a bottle of wine this afternoon.” Melissa stabbed a sprig of gypsofilia into the oasis.

“No.” Simon kept his back to Melissa. “Bugger it, I’ll have it neat. I’m off to watch Top Gear in the sitting room. You sure you’re alright with all that?” He gestured with the bottle at the mound of roses.

“I’m fine.”

Simon tucked the whisky bottle beneath his arm, a tumbler in one hand, opening the door to the hallway with his other. “Right. See you in a bit, then.”

He clicked the telly on in the small sitting room. It was cozy and smart with blue pinstripe sofas, white walls and ‘shabby chic’ white painted furniture. A large model schooner stood in the windowsill and a long cracked-leather footstool served as a coffee table, stacked with GP newspapers and
‘Homes and Gardens’
. He sloshed a large whisky into the tumbler and fiddled with the remote, searching for the motoring program he wanted to watch.

He ran his tongue over the canyons and craters of his sore inner cheek, now too painful to chew. A large amount of the damage had been done that afternoon whilst his father was there. Terry had enquired as to whether Sarah could see some of her friends, a bit of a change from watching cartoons and playing scrabble with her family. Simon had seen no reason why not.

“Trust me, I’ve tried.” Melissa had cradled her tea-mug and rolled her eyes.

“What do you mean?” Simon had looked puzzled.

Melissa sighed. “All of Sarah’s friends suddenly have astonishingly busy social lives. Despite the fact that Izzy Hartwell has been coming here every Wednesday afternoon for months, she apparently now does gymnastics. Francesca does ballet. Harriet has a maths tutorial. Sundays are apparently out too.”

“Are you saying you think they’re lying, eh?” Terry, Simon’s father had bristled, color rising from his neck.

“I don’t think it’s the kids, Terry. I don’t think the parents want to be … I don’t think they like being so close to illness. It scares them.” Melissa leaned back in her chair. “I don’t blame them really. They know their children will ask them questions, make them explain things they don’t want to explain yet. They don’t want their children to realize how vulnerable they are.”

“Load of ruddy wimps!” Terry banged the table, making Porridge look up sleepily from his basket, where he was taking a rare break from guarding Sarah. “How would they like it if she were their child? Don’t they think about that?”

“It’s exactly that, Dad.” Simon had bitten the inside of his cheek hard. “They think
‘What if she were our child?’
. They don’t want to be made to think it. They don’t want to see it. They don’t want their children close to it. Bad luck.”

The remembered conversation superimposed itself over the television program. Simon knocked back a large swig of whisky. It was cheap and the burn as it went down and the sting against his sore inner cheek satisfied Simon’s slight tendency to masochism.
Bastards
. All those patronizing smiles at the school gates, the promises of
‘anything we can do’
, the endless, incessant apologies
‘I’m so sorry, Simon. If there’s anything we can do…’ Actually, there is. You can let your daughter come over and play for a couple of hours. What’s that? Oh, I see. You don’t want your precious little brat to see my daughter’s weird tufty hair. You don’t think she should see the drip stand next to Sarah’s bed. Yes, I see. I see alright.

Simon poured another inch of whisky into his glass. The three men bickering over cars on the television were merely background noise to his thoughts. Unable to concentrate, he began flicking through his CD collection which was now, he thought sadly, becoming redundant, like the much-loved LPs that sat gathering dust in the loft. Where was the joy in an MP3 download, he wondered, draining his glass. What about the tactile feel of a record? The cover art, the disc art? As much of his memories were sunk into the snarling tusked and winged skull on the front of a Motorhead album as in the lyrics or (Melissa would say
shouts
) of Lemmy.

He turned the television off and fumbled with the CD player drawer, eventually managing to slip a disk into the correct place. The opening chords of Eric Clapton’s album ‘Unplugged’ blared out and Simon sent a pile of rejected CDs skittering across the floor as he lunged to turn the volume down. The door opened.

“Simon. For God’s sake, turn it down. Look at you. You’re a disgrace.” Melissa’s head in the door.
Bit blurry.

“Sorry. I didn’t realize it was that loud.”
“I’m off to bed.”
“You’ve finished already? That was quick.”
“It’s half twelve, Simon. And yes, I worked quickly. Night.” Melissa disappeared.
“G’night.”

Simon leaned back against the leather footstool, holding the bottle up and surveying the damage.
Whoops. Mostly gone. Might as well finish it.

A recognizable riff came over the speakers, Simon beginning to sing before he realized what the track was.


Would you know my name

If I saw you in heaven?

Will it be the same

If I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong, and carry on

Cause I know I don't belong

Here in heaven…”

Simon sang on, his baritone loud and off key. He giggled a bit as he kicked over the stack of CDs again. Who was it that said, “
You're not drunk if you can lie down without holding on
”? Simon grinned to himself as the room tilted slightly.

He didn’t hear the door opening to the sitting room and jumped when he felt a little hand on his shoulder. His senses sharpening quickly, he leaped towards the stereo to turn it down. “Princess – what are you doing out of bed? Was it too loud? Sorry. I’ll turn it down.”

Sarah shook her head and settled herself on the edge of the leather footstool. She was barefoot and wearing only a nightie. Her frailty and tufty hair gave her the look of a very old woman, which was exacerbated by the shrewd look she gave the empty bottle of Teachers whisky.

“It’s, okay, Daddy. I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Sweetheart, it’s very late. Aren’t you cold? Come on,” Simon staggered to his feet, “Lets get you up to bed.”
“I’ve been in bed all day. I want to talk.”

Simon stopped at the door and regarded the seated Sarah carefully. His seven-year old daughter spoke with a calm authority, a maturity that had been increasingly presenting itself since Disneyland. Sarah had always been articulate, observant – animated but mature. But recently … there was something else. It was as if as she had slowed down, she had more time to think.

Simon moved back into the room, shutting the sitting room door and turning up the gas fire. He tripped slightly, recovered quickly and took a travel rug from the arm of the sofa to wrap around Sarah, sobering up with the speed only a parent can muster.

“What did you want to talk about?”
Sarah stood up, then hopped onto the squashy sofa and tucked her feet under her blanket. She held her father’s gaze firmly.
“I’m dying aren’t I?”

Chapter 14

Sarah tucked the lambs wool blanket under her toes, wiggling her feet and curling up into the sofa. The house had taken on the strange atmosphere that, in her experience, houses did, when only the grown-ups were up. The lights in the kitchen were off, the usual vibrancy of the large family room zapped. The little sitting room in which she rarely sat felt different in the night. The lamps made the room more solemn than in the daytime.

Daddy was drunk, she mused. It wasn’t a particularly shocking revelation, though she did find it a bit sad. Mummy and Daddy often got what they called ‘tiddly’ at Christmas. And in the summer there were plenty of garden parties where the grown-ups talked too loudly and did silly things like ride the children’s bikes. At her last birthday party there had been a number of trampoline-based accidents involving the grown-ups. Uncle James had fallen asleep in the bouncy castle. This kind of being drunk was slightly different though, she could tell. The yummy smelling jugs of brown stuff with fruit and cucumber - cucumber! Grown-ups were weird - that were passed around barbeques were fun, harmless. The empty whisky bottle beside her daddy was dirty somehow. Like drunk people on telly.

Daddy looked tired. His hair was longer than normal and his face was all furry. Scratchy actually. She wished he’d shave.

“Daddy?”

He sank into the sofa next to her and she thought he looked old. Older. He spoke slowly and his voice sounded thick. “What on earth has made you say that, Princess?”

Sarah picked at a speck of lint on the blanket. “It’s okay, Daddy. You can say. I won’t cry.” She looked up at her daddy and noticed the rims of his eyes were reddening. “I’m not getting better am I, Daddy? You all think I’m going to die.” She winced as a pain shot through her thigh bone. Leukemia sucked.

He still didn’t answer. “Daddy.” A little more insistent this time.

“I – we – you are very poorly.” Her father shifted his weight, a hand covering his eyes. “There is a chance. No. It doesn’t seem that you are going to get better. No.”

Sarah had the same feeling that you get when you go over a bump in the road. Like her tummy went up and down. Normally she loved that feeling. Knew the spots in the roads they travelled regularly where they would get the sensation and encouraged her mum to drive faster, faster.

This time it wasn’t a nice feeling.

“Am I going to get worse?” She picked at the lint diligently. Trying to separate the little ball from the fibers of wool. She wished her nails were longer.

“Yes.”
“What?”
“Yes, Sarah. You’re going to get more poorly.” Her father took a sharp little intake of breath.
“Don’t cry, Daddy.”

“Oh, Sarah!” Her daddy’s shoulders started to shake up and down, though he kept his hand over his face. Sarah wriggled up the sofa to him, wincing as a seam of upholstery scratched against her hypersensitive skin. She put her arm up to cuddle him, but his back remained to her. She patted him on the back, helplessly.

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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