Robert came back in the fall. He had hoped to make it by spring, but by March it was too hot and the hospital told him to wait. Besides, he had grown tired of the fighting; they’d kept telling him things weren’t ready, so after a while he just believed it.
Jenny worked that house into a bright sheen once she knew he was coming. She was awfully proud of it and her mother had said it was very clean. She had put the toys and the cot in the living room to make a playroom for Henry. They could take the other room; it had a nice view of the park.
She kept everything as neat as she could. When she knew that the assessors were coming, Henry went out for the day with her mother. She cleaned the house again and got rid of all the toys from the living room. She figured they would stay clear of looking under the beds.
When Jenny opened the door she thought they looked like they were going to sell her something. The man had a jacket across his shoulders and wore a linen scarf that reeked of money. The woman did most of the talking. She was a barrage of questions. Jenny had tried to cover the hole in her jumper but she caught the woman looking. She took it off and folded it neatly over her lap. The woman asked a lot of questions about Henry. Jenny squeezed her hands together under the jumper.
‘How old is Henry?’
‘And how much time do you spend with him?’
Jenny thought it was a rotten thing to ask. She knew what they were getting at. She’d play it safe. ‘I couldn’t say. No more or less that you’d expect, I suppose.’
‘I’m not sure what I should expect.’
‘Well, I get him up. I feed him. He goes to nursery for most of the day. When he comes home he’s quite tired, so I feed him again and then it’s bed.’
‘Of course I play with him. What kind of question is that?’
Jenny knew she shouldn’t have said it like that. She watched the woman write something down and look up and smile nicely at her.
‘I’m just trying to understand how you spend your time with him.’
‘But this is about Robert, isn’t it?’
‘It’s about working out what you need.’
‘Why don’t you just tell me then. You’ve seen him in the hospital. You know what he needs.’
The man came back and sat down on the sofa. ‘It’s cozy.’ He smiled at Jenny again. It was a nice smile.
‘It’s warm in the winter,’ said Jenny. She had tears in her eyes.
The man turned to the woman. ‘No draft.’
‘What’s that mean?’ said Jenny.
‘You need a thru-draft to keep the air clean.’
‘I’ll get a fan then.’
‘No, not like that.’
‘You need an air conditioning unit; the air needs to circulate.’
‘And I suppose that’s another thing you won’t pay for?’
The woman sat forward and touched Jenny’s knee. ‘Look, your house is very nice, but he’ll need space for all the equipment. It won’t be easy for Henry.’
Jenny’s neck prickled. She pinched her hand to stop herself from crying. ‘And not living with his father will be? I’ll get the stupid air conditioner. My parents can pay.’ Jenny’s throat felt sore. She was holding a lot in.
‘What are your parents’ names again?’
‘What’s that to you?’
The woman smiled kindly and stood up. ‘We’ll let you know what you have to do, don’t worry.’
‘In a couple of weeks.’
Jenny stayed sitting when they left. It wasn’t going to make any difference if she was polite or not. She hated them.
Robert had taken to sleeping with a sheet over his head. It’s not as peculiar as it sounds. Hospitals are noisy places and it can be difficult to sleep. He had pulled it over his head by accident some days after he came in. The nurses made an awful racket about it; came busting in and tore the sheet right off him. They told him that he had to sleep with his head above the sheets, but it sounded made up. Only one of the nurses had said it; the others stood back and looked at the floor. Robert nodded and pulled the sheet back over his head. They took to closing his door after that. One of the orderlies said they were worried others would start sleeping the same way.
For the first few weeks, Robert had to lie flat with his legs held up and it made him feel breathless. He was lifted out of the bed once a day to have his dressings changed. The nurses didn’t speak much. They had nice smiles and they would make sure that he felt very comfortable and that it would be over with quickly. All the same, Robert was pleased that Jenny was at home.
When he was moved to the physio ward things got better for him. They worked him hard. The first month he had to learn how to sit up again. He had to squeeze his stomach muscles really tight and just hold it for as long as he could. Once he had done that, they gave him what they called a turntable. He would plant his feet on a gray disc-like board and hold onto the frame. He’d hold himself upright for as long as he could, and try it again without holding anything. By the end of the first month, he could hold himself upright for a few seconds, minutes if he allowed himself to grip the frame.
Jenny came alone during his second month of physio. Robert didn’t blame her for leaving Henry behind. They’d agreed it was better that way, but really it wouldn’t have mattered. Henry would have liked it all the same.
‘Well done, Bob.’
Jenny walked around in front and smiled. All her hair was loose and it fell around her shoulders. The physio nurses got up and left without saying anything. Jenny pulled a face and Robert laughed and Jenny laughed too after she saw him. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and sat next to him.
‘I’ve missed you, Robbie.’
Robert angled himself forward onto the metal bar of the turntable. ‘I’ve missed you both like hell.’
‘Henry says, I love you, Daddy.’ Jenny did a voice for Henry and handed Robert a piece of paper with a handprint on it.
‘Has he grown?’
‘Maybe an inch.’ Jenny showed him how small with her thumb and forefinger. ‘My parents have moved in.’
‘They are going to take it in turns with your mother. He’s being spoiled rotten.’
‘I miss him.’
‘He misses you too. He talks about you.’
Jenny leaned in and kissed his cheek. Robert lowered his head onto her chest and she stroked his hair and kissed him again.
‘What have they got you doing?’
‘We’re working on sitting. I can do it now without holding anything. Two weeks ago I couldn’t do that.’
‘That’s good, darling.’
‘A few more weeks and I’ll be home.’
‘Did they tell you that?’
‘No, but I’ll be strong enough.’
‘That’s good. I’ve spoken with occupational health again. They said they’re going to come around and look at the house.’
‘Can we go somewhere quiet?’
Robert got up and pivoted into his chair. They left the physiotherapy hall and came out onto a patio. It looked out across a small courtyard with trees and a stone fountain in the middle. The sky was gray and the grass was wet from rain.
‘Where’s your room?’
‘Over by the fountain.’
‘And you can just come out whenever?’
‘Yes, they don’t mind. They want me to.’
‘They still manage to make it hell.’
‘The physio is hard, that’s all.’
‘I’ll talk to them. I’ll tell them to go easy on you.’
‘No, don’t bother.’
‘No, I will. I’ll talk to Mr Lowry. He’ll ease up if I say.’
‘It’s not him.’
‘Who is it then? I can get them to be nice. Let me try. Please, Robert.’
‘They are nice. Here’s the room.’
‘Oh, it’s small, darling.’
Jenny closed the patio doors and pulled the curtains across. The room was dark.
‘Can you lock the door too?’
Jenny walked over to the door and locked it.
‘Come over here,’ said Robert.
‘Are they horrid to you?’
‘No, they’re fine. I need you. Please. Please, come here.’
Jenny walked over to him.
‘I’ve missed you,’ said Robert.
‘I know. We’ve said that already.’
‘Why are you being like that?’
‘Because you need to rest.’
‘I’ve been resting for months.’
‘I love you.’
‘Yes, I love you too, but you should’ve told me about the physio. I don’t like to think of you like that. I don’t like it.’
‘There’s nothing wrong. Just come closer.’
Robert lay on the bed; all the anxiousness had gone. He felt tired. Jenny ran her fingers through his hair and kissed him.
‘Am I a good wife, Robbie?’
It was raining hard and the smell of damp stone came through the open doors and made Robert cough.
‘I love you,’ said Jenny. She stood up and opened a brown leather holdall. ‘I’ve brought you some books.’ She smiled at him. ‘God, Robbie, don’t look so dead. It’s frightening.’
‘I’m resting. And thank you for the books.’
Robert listened as Jenny fussed around the room. She kissed him goodbye and promised to come again with Henry. The room was a great deal neater.
The late spring brought flowers to the courtyard and the dull greens of winter exploded into light. Robert spent most of his time by the open doors looking out onto the patio. In the mornings the air was cold and he would read and wait for it to warm up. He liked to imagine that his grandfather was with him, and that he was young again. They would be talking about the old times, and about where they came from and what type of people they were.
Robert’s father was a coward but he didn’t mind so much. It’s easy to be a coward. Robert was strong like his grandfather. His father had gone away when he was very young and his grandfather had come to live with them about the same time. He was tall and kind of weathered looking. When he first arrived he had taken Robert fishing. When they got back home he had made Robert gut the fish, and when he cut himself he told him to carry on and clean the kitchen. His mother kept trying to help. She had fussed about it all day; how a boy shouldn’t have to gut his own fish and that his grandfather should let up considering, and that type of thing. For supper his mother had cooked all the fish and they had salted it and eaten it with bread.
Jenny and Henry but mostly Jenny visited each week. Robert would roar into physio in the days between and made good progress. Jenny was pleased but thought that everyone there was horrid and pushing him too hard. She’d get worked up about it and they would try and talk about something else. She couldn’t see the point if he was still there.
That year ran unseasonably hot. By April the grass had shocked into life and the trees plumped their leaves and stretched their branches and the blossom fell to the ground like snow. The wet summer heat affected Robert. Old coughs returned and scars that should have healed became infected and painful. The courtyard grew ugly for him. When the doors were closed he would draw the curtains and sit alone and wait for the pain to go.
The valley came alive that summer. Had Jenny not been alone she would have noticed the change. The lawn grew in small uneven tufts choked by dandelions and weeds but Jenny decided that they were flowers and looked quite fine. Henry liked it all the same. They had got him a playhouse that she’d put up next to the conservatory. She had lay on the cool paving until two in the morning putting it together. That night she had felt quite alone and since then had made a habit of going to bed when it was still light.
The grandparents no longer stayed over. Jenny didn’t need them and it was nice spending the evenings with Henry. Besides, she didn’t feel any less alone if they were there.
Jenny grew to hate the summer. When the mornings were cold and clear she would hope that they would stretch into the evening and the days ahead. Eventually they did.
The assessors were helpful. They came a few weeks later with the news that they had enough that Robert could come home. Henry was at the nursery the day Robert came back. They had planned it like that so they could throw a party for Henry. After the people had gone they went into the conservatory where it was cool.
‘You must think I’m such a sap, Robbie. I thought I’d got it all out of my system.’
‘I cried too.’
‘But I bawled, Robbie. I made a whole scene of it. I think the doctor thought I was crazy. I think I probably am.’
‘Yes, I am.’
Robert looked at the grass and laughed.
Jenny looked at him. ‘I think it’s pretty. It looks like a meadow or something, don’t you think?’
‘What’s Henry think of it?’
‘You should see him, darling. He gets lost in it. He loves it though. You never liked cutting it anyway.’
‘No, I didn’t.’
Jenny walked them back to the living room. She lifted out a carrier bag from the cot and pulled out some bright silver bunting.
‘I’ve become quite handy, Robbie. You’ll see. Not that I want to be or anything but did you see the playhouse?’
‘The one we got him? Yes.’
‘Yes. I put it all together. It came flat packed.’
Robert watched as Jenny reached high up and tacked one end of the bunting to the wall. She quickly moved to the other side and lifted the bunting straight. It had blue lettering on it saying happy birthday. Jenny glanced back at Robert.
‘Don’t look like that, Robbie. What else was I supposed to get?’
They looked at each other and burst out laughing. Jenny walked over to Robert and sat on his knee.
‘I’m terrible really. That playhouse took me until two in the morning. I’m hopeless at it.’
‘I wasn’t thinking that.’
‘I don’t mind, darling. I don’t have to be handy anymore. I love you, darling. You know that don’t you?’
‘I love you more.’
‘Yes, but I mean nothing’s changed. I want you to know that. We’re just the same.’
‘You’re very sweet.’
‘No, it’s important, Robbie. Nothing’s changed. I love you.’
‘Are you crying?’
‘Yes, darling. I’m so silly. I’m making it all about me again.’
Jenny stood up and dried her eyes. She looked at the room and started laughing. She was quite tired. The doorbell rang. Robert and Jenny went to the door and opened it. Henry was jumping up and down and threw himself into Robert. Jenny walked out to the car and helped Robert’s mother bring in supper.
‘Are you happy?’
‘Yes, very much,’ said Jenny.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Otto Alexander has always loved stories. From the adventures of ‘Hal and Roger’ as a boy to re-reading ‘A Farewell to Arms,’ the feeling is always the same, that these characters are alive. His favorite things to read are by Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and the short stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He’s previously been published in Literally Stories and has upcoming publications in Twelve House Books’ Current Short Stories, Vol. One.
You can find him at: https://www.ottoalexander.co.uk/
Photo credits: https://elements.envato.com/user/westend61
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