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Mike’s left me in charge, so I’ll be home late again. Mandy won’t be happy, but then again she never is.
Outside the wind is howling, the streets are empty. But inside here, it’s quiet. Just the same old regulars who’ve decided to ignore the weather warnings. Clive’s sat at a table by the door, his border collie at his feet, head between paws. Mac is on the fruit machine, swearing as he feeds coins hand over fist into the slot. Rick is supping his fifth pint. There’s another hour till closing, so he’ll get probably get another two or three in by then. I wouldn’t say he was drunk, but fact is, it’s hard to tell with him. He’s got to be mid-50s, though he looks older and has been drinking his whole life – you can tell by his face; pink and bloated, with a nose like a fat raw sausage. His elbows are on the bar top; forearms overlap and his forehead is scrunched up, deep in thought. He’s staring into his pint glass, looking like he doesn’t want to go home, like home’s about the last place on earth he wants to be right now. That’s something I can sympathise with. I’m here eating a packet of roasted peanuts. I’m supposed to be cutting down, to keep the weight off, but I eat when I’m bored. And I’ve been bored too long.
Time is going slow. I text Laura. “How’s things.”
I clean some wine glasses, polishing them to give me something to do. My phone vibrates. A reply from Laura. “Bored. Coming over?”
I feel a burst of excitement. Her straight blonde hair seems exotic compared to the wavy brown of Mandy’s. As does her golden tan to Mandy’s pale white.
There’s a flash of light outside, followed by a snap of thunder. I look up and see Rick. Still looking glum. “You okay, Rick?” I say. “Your missus got your tea ready?”
His bushy eyebrows wriggle. He looks up at me. Shakes his head.
“Why is that?” I say.
He gets talking about his son, Sean. He’s in trouble with the police again and this time it’s more serious. Assault. I try and gauge what happened – maybe it wasn’t that bad. Rick goes on to explain how Sean had apparently battered his girlfriend so bad she had to be kept in hospital; broken ribs, fractured eye socket, the works.
“What set him off,” I ask.
“She came home late from work.”
My first instinct is to laugh, though I’m not sure why, and looking at his face I can see this is no laughing matter. “Oh,” I say.
Rick puffs out his cheeks and blows. I can see him struggling to get his head around what’s happened. It starts raining hard. I look out of the window. The wind is whistling outside, firing raindrops at the glass.
The first time I met Sean was when Rick brought him in for his 18th birthday and I poured his first pint. Sean was average height and broad, strong-looking. But there was something about him, I mean you could tell. I don’t know how else to explain it. Just that I knew what Rick had told us about Sean was true. It was there to see.
Rick starts telling me again. How that when Sean was seven years old, he was hit by a car. Young lads, high on weed and drink and speeding meant that Sean had been flung more than 30 feet into the air. He was critical for six weeks. “Should have died instantly. But he didn’t,” Rick says.
As his wife stayed by Sean’s bedside in hospital, Rick was at work. He drove lorries all over Europe; besides needing the money, he wanted to do something useful. It occupied him, distracted him from the truth. He tells me that before the accident he had been happy, he just didn’t realise it at the time.
Rick looks at me in a way that conveys his need for me to understand. He says that as he drove, he prayed continuously for a miracle. He laughs. Despite being Roman Catholic, he didn’t go to church, but even so, he had prayed. On each road, in Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands, he whispered those prayers. Each night he would call home and speak to his wife, Francine, who gave him the updates: the news neither good nor bad. The same. By the sixth week Francine explained that the doctors were coming to the conclusion that there was no prospect of recovery and that the treatments were simply prolonging the dying process. That it may be time to withdraw support. “To let him go,” as they said. When Francine asked Rick what he thought about it, he was at a service station in Twente. He was looking out the window and a lorry emblazoned with the words A New Dawn pulled in. Rick told Francine to ask the doctors for a few more days. And the doctors agreed. And on the last day Sean woke up.
Even then, the doctors had said not to raise their hopes. Sean would be substantially brain damaged, they said. But over the weeks Sean began to recover. Slowly. At first, he could only move his right hand, then his left. He then began to speak, but not as before, it was slurred, but he was improving rapidly, and soon, following physiotherapy, he was walking. Rick’s eyes glowed as he told me this. Tears welled up as he explained how doctors nevertheless insisted Sean would never make a full recovery. “Managing his expectations,” they called it. But Rick was determined to prove them wrong. And Sean did recover. Sort of. Despite the hopelessness of the situation. He made it.
He made it. Rick told me this story how many times and each time when it came to the end, I felt uplifted by this story of this miracle. It was as if, somehow, Rick himself had brought it about, in the cabin of his 18-wheeler lorry, scattering those prayers over thousands of miles of tarmac all over Europe. That he may not have accomplished much in his life but he had done something good. But now listening to him tell the story again, he doesn’t look the same, he seems frail and unsure. Like he’s no longer trying to convince me that a miracle had taken place, but himself.
By closing Rick is slumped on the bar. I call him a cab, and with the help of Mac and Clive, we lift him off the stool and out to the taxi without getting too wet.
After clearing everything, I lock up. I get in the car and drive, but I don’t go home or to Laura’s either. I keep driving, over dark and wet streets. And I think about Rick, driving all those miles, and of Sean asleep in hospital, unaware of the storm outside, and of Francine waiting at his bedside.
And after a while, I pull over to the side of the road and wait for the sun to creep up from the horizon.