Survivor by Caroline England

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I hadn’t ever really looked at the old man before he lay on the pavement in the September sun, his head cushioned by blood. He’d always been there though, in my office building, which was also his home, a shadow of bones which appeared each morning with transparent hands to scrape up the post and pale misty eyes to examine each envelope. It was only later that I took an interest in the scatter of mail in the communal hallway. But hardly anything ever arrived for him, just an occasional bill, not the tissue of an airmail my imagination had prescribed.

[private]I had popped into my office on a Sunday morning; no appointments that day, even for the affluent and famed who frequented my rooms on Welbeck Street with a variety of cosmetic ailments from warts to wrinkles. I had, for some months now, left a shiny black heavy Le Creuset soup tureen at the office, and my parents were visiting that evening, on their way home from Dolly’s funeral in Florida. And for a reason I could not quite fathom, it seemed inordinately important that the soup tureen be used for the occasion, even though it involved an hour on the train and the tube from my beautiful empty home in the suburbs to the City. Perhaps it was because Daniel had bought it for me; perhaps I wanted him there when my parents arrived, in spirit, if not in person.

“Dolly was with me in the camp,” my mother had responded quietly, when Stephanie and I had noisily expressed our surprise that Mum and Dad were travelling all that way for a second cousin’s funeral, one that Mum didn’t appear to particularly like. Stephanie and I had looked at each other and fallen silent, hopeful, yet fearful, that Mum might elaborate on a subject never discussed. The threads of the past we knew about had been imparted by Dolly herself when she visited, just the once, when we were teenagers. But Mum said nothing further; just that familiar blink, followed by a smile. “There’s still some cake; I hope you girls aren’t on a diet!”

The tureen was heavy and though the brightly coloured thick paper bag supplied by the shop was sturdy, I had a horrible feeling that the bag might break, or the thick rope handles give way, and that the pot would crack; an irretrievable final crack that could never be mended. Daniel had bought it for me shortly before he sent me a text, whilst I was away with Stephanie for the weekend, telling me that he had left. The second text, telling me that he needed time – for what, he didn’t convey – didn’t arrive until two weeks later. But six months had now passed, and Daniel was ready to come home, though not this particular weekend, as he was playing golf in Scotland.

The sun was warm on my face, lifting my spirits, as I walked down the steps towards the street. The weather was balmy; I was still wearing sandals, but there was a stone pressing against the ball of my foot, so I turned to carefully hook the tureen bag onto the railings to slip off my sandal. Afterwards I couldn’t recall whether I had been called, or whether the silent commotion on the pavement ahead had alerted me, but by the time I reached the body, knelt in its blood to take over the cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the distant sound of a siren told me that help was on its way and the fate of the fallen tureen bag was forgotten. “He’s alive. Just,” I said out loud to the soundless street. Then the PCSO, who had saved the old man’s life, began to sob.

As impressionable teenagers, Stephanie and I had waited with eager anticipation to meet Dolly, and she didn’t disappoint us. She was every bit the Jewish Princess Dad had described; beautiful, flamboyant, bejewelled, tanned and so American; she must have been in her fifties at the time but looked not a day over thirty. And boy, could she talk; it seemed as though she never drew breath, so much so that we were relieved when she left, not only for the resumption of normal daily life without a commentary on our physical attributes, or lack of them, but so my sister and I could contemplate and discuss her shock of news.

The PCSO’s name was Luke. His sobbing didn’t stop for some time, not even when I asked him to stay still to inject the hepatitis vaccine, something the Council should have given their volunteers as routine, but failed to do. “I heard his ribs crack,” was all he could repeat at the time. And I took him in my arms and held him like a child, a ridiculously handsome but traumatised twenty-eight-year old child, whose sole ambition was to one day join a police force which had repeatedly rejected him.

“I was ten. I can still see each face,” Dolly had said. “As clearly as I see you now. But don’t look so tragic girls, your mom was too young to remember and besides, you’ll get frown lines, and we can’t have that, can we?” She looked at me then, her head on one side. “You look so like your mother. But it’s wonderful what they can do with noses these days. And Stephanie, my darling, you’ll have to get those teeth fixed if you want to be a dentist …”

I didn’t expect the old man to live; he must have been ninety, at least. Ten percent chance, if that, I told my parents that evening over fish and chips, though I was kinder to Luke at the time. “He wouldn’t have had a chance, but for you,” I told him, “only a week on the job; you were heroic!” Later, when we knew he would survive, it was easier to poke fun at Luke as he doggedly followed the old man’s progress at the hospital, popping into my rooms with my favourite sandwich and a daily report. “You are obsessed; you know that, don’t you?” I’d say. But I said it kindly. Until the old man came home, Luke couldn’t let go. And that I understood.

I never told Daniel about the day the old man fell, though coincidentally, I had a text from him when I returned to my abandoned handbag. He still had issues, the text told me, but he missed me and he loved me; I was his wife. And so Daniel finally came home in the autumn, and the Georgian house in the suburbs once again became ours, filled with sunshine and Daniel’s busy presence. But I was glad to set off at seven each morning, to jostle with the burl of commuters on my way to the peace of my office and to my favourite sandwich at lunch. And of course, to collect the mail, my eyes scanning each envelope as the old man had done.

The old man resumed his pastime of post collector at Christmas, and by the time my mother visited me at the office with a new soup tureen in the spring, I was on speaking terms with him. Only pleasantries in passing, as he stayed only moments, answering my “How are you?” with a hint of an accent I couldn’t quite place, before painfully climbing the stairs. But I felt a connection; he didn’t say anything, but in those milky eyes there was recognition: I think he knew that I had been on the periphery of saving his life, something more than superficial, and it made me feel good.

“In a strange way, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Dolly,” I said to my mother as she flicked through my brochure of some patient’s “before and after” photographs. I kissed her powdery cheek as she placed the heavy box on the desk. This one was from Harrods and matched my other crockery. “Thank you, Mum, it’s beautiful,” I said. “Fancy going to the bother of taking it with him. I wonder if he’s noticed the chip in the lid.” We both smiled for a moment. “And I’m glad you’ve called so early. The post arrives at ten; you’ll be able to see our famous survivor for yourself!”

“Morning!” I said brightly, causing the old man to turn his head at the foot of the stairs. “How are you today?” But he didn’t look at me and nod as usual. He was staring at my mother, his pale eyes seeming to narrow for an instant, before he turned away. I had expected a smile, but my mother’s face was the palest stone and she stood motionless and mute, her brown eyes following the old man’s retreat until we heard the click of his door.

“Is everything all right?” I asked as we strolled arm in arm along the sunlit pavement, over the spot where the old man had bled. For a moment, Mum stopped, turned to my face and then opened her mouth as though to speak. But Mum said nothing; just that familiar blink, followed by a smile. “Everything’s absolutely fine; now, when am I going to meet that nice young man you keep talking about?”[/private]

Caroline England gave up law to write novels, short stories and poems, some of which have been published in magazines such as Transmission, Parameter, Pipeline, Chimera, Lamport Court, Peace and Freedom Press, nr1, This Zine Will Change Your Life, Recusant, Succour, Pen Pusher, Positive Words, Twisted Tongue, 14 Magazine, Radgepacket, White Chimney, Visionary Tongue, Rain Dog, Crannog 20, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Carillon and The Ugly Tree. She is currently working on a novel.

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