Four people sit at a table set for five. Their heads are bowed and hands linked as the oldest says grace. A candle burns on the sideboard. Light from its skipping flame is splintered into coloured shards by the crystal holder. Beside it sits a photograph of a middle aged man, dark hair flecked with grey, creases round his blue eyes. He smiles at the incomplete circle round the table.
The family follows the same ritual every year. The table is lost under the weight of dishes offering up his favourite foods. In those first years, the feast of roast ham, sweet potatoes, gherkins, and profiteroles was barely touched. The conversation fixed on him. Talk swung from cheerful anecdotes to quiet reflection on the small acts that defined him. Inevitably the conversation would turn to those final moments spent with him, and the iniquity of circumstance that put him in such a time and place as to become part of the horror.
His mother would recall the weekend before when he had dropped by to put up a shelf. Afterwards, they sat shooting the breeze in the yard as she rewarded him with a beer. With each retelling, her voice breaks as she notes that the shelf remains standing.
The kids relived the hurried final dinner. Their excited conversation revolved around the city sites he might visit outside the conference. Presents were discussed. She wanted a snow globe and he a baseball cap, and promises were made to bring back these fragments of city glamour.
His wife remembered stirring in the darkness of the early morning. She had reached across the bed and felt his warmth on the sheets, but drifted back to sleep before he returned to the room to gather his case and leave. She hadn’t even heard the cab. She didn’t share the other nights when she had woken in the small hours and reached over to feel the cool of an unshared bed; the nights of working late and trips out of town.
At some point the conversation would falter and silence would settle over the table, until someone vocalised the shared thought: how could he be gone?
The family had prayed, hoped, pleaded that he had not been in the building even though the timing of his meeting coincided perfectly with its fall. Maybe he had slept in. Maybe he had skipped work for the day to enjoy the distractions of the city. But he didn’t call and scouring the city’s hospitals, shelters and police records returned no evidence of his escape. He was gone and denial turned to resignation. A memorial service was held and a stone placed at the head of the empty grave.
By this, the sixth anniversary, the script is growing tired and the actors around the table are beginning to ad lib. Unrelated topics from current affairs to neighbourhood gossip creep in. Still each pays vigil and the meal finishes, as always, with a toast to a loved and missed father, husband, son. The small gathering raise their glasses first to the empty place, then to the smiling image on the sideboard, and join together in remembrance.
* * *
A man huddles in a doorway, shielding his silhouette from the passing patrol car. They will move him on, or even worse, throw him in the back of the vehicle; another bum to be dumped in the menacing chaos of the shelter. More than once they have asked ‘Haven’t you got a home to go to?’
He doesn’t know. He thinks he may have had once, but no thought comes with certainty.
There are lapses when the fog in his brain thins and the images solidify. He remembers the noise, the dust, the running. He sees blue sky swamped with a grey flooding cloud, paper flakes dancing in the currents of the blast. He recalls the smallest fragments coming to earth so much slower than their source. So many people, all the same colour as the cloud masking the sky. Screams, sirens, silence.
After a while, the running slowed to a walk. He has walked ever since and never left the city. At the start there were people who gave out soup and blankets. Hungry and cold, he wonders where they are now.
He twists his head round the corner of the doorway. The patrol car has passed. There is a trash can just a few yards up with what looks like a burger box on the top. He pulls himself upright and moves towards it, pushing his matted hair back from a face engraved with the dirt of the streets. The disarray makes him look older; on close inspection the bright blue of his eyes and the basecoat of black in his hair suggest a man of younger years.
There is nothing in the burger box but the discarded gherkin. The best bit he thinks, pushing the shred into his mouth. As he continues down the broad avenue, red, white and blue memorial lights from the skyline’s tallest tower play on the back of his tattered jacket. The city remembers for him.
* * *
The chatter of the television spills through the apartment. In the lounge, the furniture has been pushed back into a battalion of wallflowers. The table, unfolded in full for the evening’s dinner, stands with authority in the centre. It is draped in a white linen cloth, the corner of which has been snagged by the hand of the small boy penned into a high chair beside the kitchen door.
A puff of steam billows from the tiny kitchen, forced out by the slam of an oven door. The child drops the cloth and corkscrews round to the source of the noise. One hand wavers under the weight of his bottle and the top of his lip shines with a cocktail of mucus and milk.
The woman backs out the kitchen bearing aloft a platter. The child squeals a welcome, and unwinds to follow her progress across the room. She talks to him as she deposits the ham on the table and fusses the place settings. Though more at home in the commotion of her office, she likes to ensure that they sit down to a traditional dinner on this day. She sees the small hand reach out for the profiteroles and swaps the dessert for the lesser temptation of a plate of string beans.
At the sound of his key in the lock, she turns off the television. She knows he doesn’t like it being on this time of year. This day should be a celebration he insists, the day that marks the true beginning of their family.
He hangs his jacket on a hook at the door and kisses his wife and child. She pours the wine while he freshens up.
At the table, she reaches across and clasps his hands. As they quietly give thanks, the young child beats a tattoo on the tray of his high chair and babbles a counter melody to their ceremony.
The prayer ended, they begin the meal and remember his arrival in the city with little but the promise of their future. She was the reason he left everything. She looks at her husband, then back to her son. The boy is his perfect image with sharp blue eyes and the dark fluff on his small head. She tries not to think of his life before them.
* * *
The room is silent except for the rhythmic shush of the ventilator and the tone of the machine recording the robotic pumping of his heart. The nurse smoothes the undisturbed bedclothes and flicks on the lamp near his head. Its yellow glow contrasts with the grey of her patient’s skin and hair.
She checks the urine bag at the side of the bed and notes the output on his chart. It is her habit to talk quietly to him whilst performing her routine checks. She tells him about the weather as she gently squeezes his fingers for absent reflexes, and updates him on the baseball scores as she watches the blue of his irises respond to her pen torch.
She knows she is his only company in this lonely black vigil. The chart reads John Doe but she calls him Joe. She thinks he looks like a Joe. New colleagues ask the same questions about this ‘life’ and she tells each the same thing. He was found in an alley, with no identification, his body so broken as to be barely recognisable; yet his story was no more than a side note to the catastrophic suffering on that day. The hospital reached out but nobody came looking. Sometimes there is no-one, or perhaps he just wasn’t where he was supposed to be. A nurse knows only too well the breadth and depth of the secrets people keep.
As she leaves, she flicks off the light and gently pulls the door shut behind her. There he will stay, unloved and neither loving nor living: a shadow of life past, present and future.
SHEILA SCOTT is a part-writer, part-scientist who most enjoys sitting with pen and paper turning idle thoughts into short narratives and illustrative doodles. She has lived in Scotland most of her life with one happy decade in Yorkshire, and recently completed the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University. Her work has appeared in Causeway, the Cabinet of Heed, Poetic Republic’s 2015 Anthology and Qmunicate magazine, and her first short story was shortlisted for Arachne Press 2014 Solstice Shorts. She also helps lead the New Writing Showcase Glasgow. She has an intermittently hyperactive Twitter account under the pseudonym @MAHenry20.
Image: Myriams-Fotos via Pixabay