A short story.
I’ll Look After You
Joe knocked his knuckles against the front door and entered. The air smelt stale as he stepped into the living room.
‘Hello!’ He called. ‘You in, Dad?’
Joe crossed the faded turquoise carpet and placed his briefcase beside the dining table. He picked up a newspaper and eased himself into a chair, flicking through the pages. Joe lifted his head as he heard the toilet flush from down the hall. He loosened his tie and turned a page.
‘Oh, hello, Joe. I wasn’t sure if I heard someone.’ Neil stepped onto the kitchen’s linoleum floor, rubbing his hands down the sides of his slacks.
Joe looked up from the newspaper. ‘How are you, old man?’
‘Can’t complain,’ Neil said, shuffling to the sink. ‘Never does any good anyway. You want a cup of tea?’
‘I’m right thanks, Dad.’
Neil walked through the kitchen into the living room. ‘You want a light on?’
‘Wouldn’t hurt. It’s a bit dim in here.’ He looked up and frowned as he saw Neil’s hollow white-whisker cheeks. ‘You lose some weight, Dad?’
Neil shrugged as he flicked on the switch. ‘Maybe a little.’
He stepped behind Joe and squeezed his son’s shoulder before sinking into a chair beside him. Joe’s eyes scanned the news. The silence nagged at him and he looked at his father. Neil stared at the tabletop, sunken in his seat.
‘Are you okay?’ Joe asked.
Neil looked up and blinked. ‘Hmm? Yeah. Yes. So. How’s Emma? Enjoying university?’
Joe closed the paper, a slight frown stuck to his brow. He sighed. ‘She’s taking it all in her stride. Nothing unsettles her.’ He snorted. ‘Rach and I are the one’s struggling. The house feels bigger without her. Too empty.’
Neil nodded and his gaze sunk back to the tabletop. Joe scratched at his black stubble.
‘So how goes the garden, Dad? Tomatoes must be fruiting by now.’
‘Oh no.’ Neil fiddled with the edge of the newspaper, rolling the pages between his fingers. ‘I haven’t done much gardening. More weeds than anything out there now.’
‘What? When did you stop working in the veggie patch?’
Neil shrugged. Joe leant in.
‘Are you sure you’re all right, Dad? You’re a bit flat today.’
Neil cleared his throat. ‘It’s been a year, you know. A year.’ He heaved in a breath, his chest swelling then deflating. ‘Doesn’t feel like a year.’
‘Oh, Dad.’ Joe scrubbed his fingers through his hair. ‘Shit. I’m an idiot. I didn’t realise. A year today?’
Neil nodded. ‘Just doesn’t feel right, mate. Even now.’
Joe swallowed and studied his father’s lined face. Neil raised his head. Joe saw tears budding in his father’s eyelids. He felt a drop of fear fall through his gut.
‘You missing her?’
Neil nodded and rolled his lips in, his mouth a tight line. ‘Little things get to me. Like she used to make the bed. In fifty-two years of marriage I never noticed the bed was always made. I try to do it now but damn it if I can get the sheets straight.’ He shook his head and sniffed. ‘And I keep a list in my head of things I need to tell her. The list keeps growing, and I know I’ll never say any of them to her, but I can’t let myself forget anything on that list.’
Neil rubbed at his forehead and a small cry slipped from his throat like a child’s call in an empty car park. Joe’s palms were clammy. He stood.
‘Let me get you a tea, Dad.’
Neil nodded from behind his fingers and Joe paced into the kitchen. He flicked the kettle on and relaxed as the roar of the water filled the silence. He leant against the sink and stared out the window. The grass of the back lawn stuck up in clumpy thickets like a bad haircut. Knee-high weeds filled the wide garden bed set against the back fence. A single picket stuck from the soil, the browned tomato vine tied to it stirring in the breeze. Joe wondered how he hadn’t noticed.
The kettle popped and Joe carried the full mugs to the table. He placed the tea between them and sat on the lip of his chair. Neil looked at his hands, gripped tight in his lap. Joe felt the steady pound of his heart while he waited.
‘I don’t know what I’m doing, Joe. Everything’s so much harder. Some days I find myself walking from room to room, just looking in.’ He stared at the ceiling and blinked. ‘It wasn’t meant to be like this.’
Joe’s throat felt dry and he rolled his tongue, looking for moisture.
‘You shouldn’t be here by yourself, Dad. It would get to anyone.’ He licked his lips. ‘Why don’t you come stay with me and Rach? I know you didn’t want to, but it’s not doing you any good staying here.’
Neil looked at the tabletop, his fingers drumming a beat on the wood. Joe’s foot bounced in time and he stilled it. Neil cleared his throat.
‘Yeah,’ he said meeting Joe’s eyes. ‘Yeah, I think you’re right, mate. That’d be good.’ His lips quivered into a smile.
Joe nodded. He stretched his arm out and squeezed Neil’s shoulder. He could feel the knobs of his father’s bones pressing up against his skin. Neil patted Joe’s hand and Joe felt the lack of callouses on his father’s palm.
‘Of course,’ Joe said, blinking. ‘I’ll look after you.’
© 2012 Jonathan Robb