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Authors: Charlotte Castle

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BOOK: Simon's Choice
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“Shh! Porridge.
Shh!

Sarah opened her eyes sleepily. “Dad?”

“Yes, darling. Go back to sleep.
Shh!
Porridge.” Porridge continued to bark, the noise as intrusive as gunshot in the calm sanctuary of the hospice.

The door burst open and Fiona appeared. “What a noisy dog!” She gave Simon a strange look and immediately focused on Sarah. She moved towards the dog and patted him, though Porridge, thoroughly riled, continued to bark.

“What’s going on?” Sarah spoke groggily.

Rhonda and the male physiotherapist rushed into the room, causing Porridge to bark more. Rhonda’s usually congenial manner had turned brusque. “Stop that dog barking this instant. Mr. Bailey, you will have to go. Take that animal with you.”

“Daddy?”

“It’s alright, Princess. Porridge, shut up! Go back to sleep, darling.
Porridge!

“Simon, just go.” Melissa attached a lead to Porridge’s collar. “Look what you’re doing. Look at the harm you’re causing. Please go.”

“Daddy?” Sarah’s sleepy voice was breaking now, tears clearly forthcoming. “Daddy, you are coming to heaven with me, aren’t you? Daddy? You promised. Daddy?”

Without hesitation, Simon replied “I will, Sarah. I will.”

The whole room glared at him in shocked silence, with the exception of Sarah who smiled in relief and closed her eyes and Porridge who was ready to go.

Simon took Porridge’s lead. “I just want to be with my daughter. I just want to be with Sarah.”

Melissa took the still barking Porridge’s lead back and led the dog out of the door. “Just go, Simon,” she said quietly. “You have to go.”

Chapter 22

“Another pint, Simon?” Steve, the landlord of The Whippet, nodded at Simon’s near empty glass. “Not like you’ve got far to crawl, is it?”

Simon shrugged and handed the glass over for refilling. He might as well have one for the road, or for the staircase as it were, since he had moved into the flat above the pub that evening. He kicked a huge cricket bag at his feet, apologized profusely to it and then realized that it wasn’t his Labrador, but the holdall containing his clothes, toiletries and a photo of Sarah. Twelve years of collecting and accumulating possessions and his only real requirements fitted in the vast sports bag below. He had not even bothered to look upstairs. He needed a bed, loo, shower, hob and dog basket. He would see the flat when he was ready to go up.

Porridge had, in fact, taken up residence below the pool table, where he was fed a regular supply of bacon crisps and could avoid being stroked by every person who entered the pub. The initial excitement of being the official pub canine had worn off and he was feeling the familial discord keenly.

“There you go, mate. £2.70, please. You not got work tomorrow then?”

Simon fumbled with the stack of coins in front of him.
What was this, his sixth? Seventh?
“Yup. I’m returning to sick-notes for phantom sciatica and kids with ear infections. Can’t wait.”

“Must get a bit repetitive. Surprised you're not always ill, all those people bringing their germs to you. Hey, you must get pretty well paid, though, not being funny, if you know what I mean.” Steve colored slightly.

“S’alright, Steve. I don’t mind. Pay’s not bad.” Simon winced, hearing himself slur slightly.

“Why you renting that dump upstairs then, mate? Not being funny or anything, but you could afford a much better bachelor pad than that. One of those swanky studio jobbies in the mill in town would have done you. They’ve got a swimming pool in there, you know. Bye guys, thanks.” Steve waved the last group of pool players off and took the glasses they had brought back to the bar. “I mean, upstairs is alright for the young ‘uns but it’s not exactly the kind of pad you’re used to, is it?”

Simon put his hand down to pat Porridge, who had emerged, yawning, from the under the pool table. “They couldn’t sell most of those flats you know, in the mill. They’ve ended up leasing it all out to the council. Place is packed with DSS and asylum seekers. Not exactly the water-side living for affluent professionals that they advertised.” Simon checked himself, his snobbery both surprising and embarrassing him, as usual. “Anyway, I’m not into all that minimalist, thirty-something professional loft lifestyle anyway. You have to climb a ladder to get to your bed. Speaking of bed …”

“Yeah, but even so, mate, you could probably find something better than upstairs. Don’t get me wrong, I like having you round here and Porridge is a great hoover, I just wondered why you’d take such a dive on, when you could afford somewhere a bit nicer. Not being funny, like.”

Simon shrugged off the question. “I just want to stay around here. That’s my family home over there.” He gestured out the window into the dark street. “All my memories, all our hopes. I just want to be close to Sarah. Or Sarah’s home. I dunno. Can’t be bothered looking for anywhere else, anyway. No point. All I need’s a bed. Oh shit.”

“What?”

“Bed. I forgot a duvet. Don’t suppose there’s anything up there is there?” Simon drained his pint and hopped off the barstool.

Steve shook his head. “Nah, sorry mate. I don’t think I’ve got anything spare either. Only have a few bits and pieces myself, you know how it is.”

Simon nodded. Steve’s wife had left him two years before, which had led him to give up his job as a mechanical engineer at a prestigious international company and buy a boozer in a backwater. Judging by the rotation of his wardrobe, the man only owned two shirts and a football top. He lived on takeaways and was on first name terms with every delivery driver in town.

“That’s alright, Steve. Need to take the mutt for a walk anyway. I’ll pop back home. Come on, Porridge.” The dog stretched and trotted over to the door. “Will you be open when I get back?”

Steve flipped off the lights on the beer pumps. “Probably not, mate. I’ve just about finished down here, to be honest. If you look on the key ring I gave you, there are two different keys. The bronze one will open the kitchen door in your flat – just nip up the fire escape by the kitchen bins.”

“Okay, will do. I could do with walking a bit of this beer off anyway.” Simon swallowed a belch. “’Scuse me. Clear head for the morning and all that. Are you not eating tonight?” Simon glanced pointlessly around, searching for Steve’s usual pizza box.

“Nah. Got a Pot Noodle upstairs. Bombay Bad Boy flavor. Can’t go wrong. Do you want me to stick your bag in the flat on my way past?”

“If you could.” Simon kicked the bag. “Watch it, it’s heavy.”

“No problem, mate. Used to beer kegs, aren’t I? Tell you what, I’ll even put a Pot Noodle in your kitchen for you if you like. You can call it a house-warming present.”

“Um ... smashing. Thanks.”

* * *

As Simon slipped through the back gate of his property, he was surprised, considering the late hour, to see the lights still on in the conservatory. He walked as quietly as possible across the gravel courtyard that flanked the rear of the house. He made his way, somewhat unsteadily, toward the back door to the conservatory, recalling the duvet that was stashed to the side of the sofa. It had been used during the day for Sarah in recent weeks. Porridge’s dog basket was also near the back door. He could slip in and out without Melissa even noticing. Simon looked up at their bedroom window and noted that the light was out.
Must be in bed already
,
he thought. She was not in the habit of going to bed late.

He approached the door, idly noticing that the light in the conservatory was cold and flickering. Splashes of colored light intermittently dappled the windows.
Telly’s still on. Bugger.

Simon peered through the small gap between the conservatory blinds and the wooden doorframe, cursing Melissa for having insisted on such a tight customized and expensive fit. He could see very little beyond the strips of clear glass. Porridge trundled off to sniff his garden as Simon moved along the windows, trying to see if Melissa was still up, the half-centimeter slither of clear glass beside each blind his only viewpoint. A shape on the sofa that might be Melissa. A wine glass on the floor. A hand, trailing along the ground. An empty bottle. A smashed glass. Teddy bears. A red teddy. A teddy bear that should not be red.


Melissa!”

Simon sprinted to the back door, fumbling with his keys as he discovered the door was locked. The key stuck slightly and he swore as his haste and alcohol intake exacerbated his clumsiness.


Melissa!”

He finally engaged the key correctly and stumbled as he tripped into the room.


Mel’, are you okay?”
Simon’s sense of alarm calmed slightly as he took in the scene.

Melissa stirred on the sofa. “Sime? Don’t feel very well.”

Simon rolled his eyes and swore. “Jesus Christ, Melissa. I thought you were bloody dead. What are you playing at?”

Simon put his hands on his hips, realized that he resembled his own mother in that position, and folded his arms instead. Melissa lay near comatose on the sofa, next to two empty and overturned bottles of red wine on the terracotta tiles. A wine glass lay overturned, a puddle of red wine seeping across the orange tiles and soaking a previously white teddy bear in its path. “What the hell are you doing, Melissa? Look what you’ve done to Sarah’s teddy. Mum bought her this. Jesus, Melissa, look at the state of you.”

Melissa moaned unintelligibly. “Drank too much.”

“Yes I can see that.
Get back, Porridge, there’s glass on the floor. Good boy.
Come on, I’ll have to help you upstairs. What the hell came over you? I thought I was the one who was meant to have a
drinking problem
. Jesus, Melissa, you can hardly sit up.”

Simon, now thoroughly sober, tried to hoist Melissa over his shoulder, but her rag doll demeanor made her a dead weight. He managed to get her to a sitting position, taking all her weight as he dragged her off the sofa. “Whoops, steady. Right – can you walk? That’s it. One step in front of the other. Here we go.”

“Simon, I’m going to be …”

“Oh, Jesus, Melissa. Quick over to the sink, just hold on. Oh, for
fuck’s sake
, Melissa. Oh, oh. Jesus. It’s alright. You’re okay. I’ll never get that clean. Okay, I’ve got you. Don’t cry. You’re just a silly girl who’s drunk too much. I’ll hold your hair back. Hang on, I’ll move the bowl – never mind.”

Melissa retched again, regurgitating Chianti with astonishing power. Simon held her hair back, stroking her shoulders and muttering simple platitudes.
There, there. Better out than in. Let’s get you to bed.

They made it up the stairs, Simon grateful no more red wine was being ejected. He settled her into their bed, and took off her shoes but left her in the pinstriped dress she was wearing. He noted with astonishment a ladder in her tights.

He heaved her into the recovery position and placed a waste paper bin by the bed. Melissa muttered a thank you, then blacked out as Simon backed out of the room.

Downstairs, Simon cleaned out the sink, thoroughly disinfecting the area. He threw away the empty bottles, retrieved the broken glass and straightened the cushions on the sofa. He picked up the teddy bears, which were scattered around the sofa, a number of which were marked with black streaks of mascara. He picked up the teddy that had been stained with wine.
Ruined.

The volume on the television rose suddenly, the late night film giving way to the usual adverts of the off-peak hour.
“We’ve got hundreds of girls, just waiting to chat in your area.”
Simon switched it off.

The room fell silent, the house eerie, dead. The normal clutter and chaos of the family home was gone. The walls held no emotions, no vibrations, only objects. The house was an overcoat. Its soul had departed.

Porridge's nails click clacked over the tiled floor as he made his way over to his master. “We’re going, boy. Come on.” Simon took a tray of dog food from the larder and put it in the bin bag with the unspoilt teddy bears. He rolled up the duvet and tucked it into the dog basket, balanced a pillow on top and threw a slightly slimy and well-chewed rubber chicken on top. Awkwardly, he wedged the load under his arm, his keys in the other hand. “Come on, Porridge, we’re off. I’ve packed Chewy The Chicken. We’re going to our new home.” Simon clipped the lead back onto the dog’s collar and left the house, locking the door behind him.

He did not look back.

Chapter 23

The woman gabbled up another snotty tissue and dropped it on Simon's desk. The moist little ball turned Simon’s stomach. Whilst blood had never bothered him and he could deal with warts, bunions and verucahs with cheerful resignation, damp tissues upset him deeply. Something about the fibers disintegrating under the weight of germ-laden mucus appalled him

He offered his waste paper basket with a tight smile.
“So, Mrs. Foster … Mary, sorry. You’ve been feeling like this since your son moved to New Zealand?”
The woman snuffled an affirmative, dabbing her eyes and rolling another tissue into a damp mish-mash.

“Have you had any weight loss? How is your appetite? Are you eating more, less?” Simon scribbled on the corner of a notepad, concentric circles being his doodle of choice.

“I’m not hungry. I suppose I have lost weight. I just can’t seem to be bothered eating. I can’t be bothered with anything, to be honest.”

“Right.” Simon’s circle widened. He ran out of room on the paper and began another one. “Do you find that you are still engaging in your normal level of social activity, or has that dropped off?”

The woman perked up a bit.
People do enjoy talking about themselves
, thought Simon.

“I don’t want to go out.” The woman began to tear corners from the tissue, causing Simon to shudder. “I used to go to Bingo every Tuesday and Thursday but now it just seems too much of a chore. I don’t even go to the coffee morning at the Community Centre anymore. Everything seems such an effort.”

BOOK: Simon's Choice
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