(first published in Literally Stories, June 28th, 2022)
He woke abruptly in the lonely bed. It was still dark. The dolorous memories of yesterday’s events knotted his guts and sent him to the bathroom. Downstairs, he fed the clamorous cat and chucked more fuel on the stove – autopiloting.
A pause and a deep breath to consider matters. He switched on the outside light and glanced out the window: as the forecast had predicted, it had snowed overnight, but it was that wet, sticky stuff. No danger of serious drifts on the roads. Last night, just to be on the safe side, he’d driven the van up the track and parked it in the lay-by on the main road. So he would be able to get into town alright. But he wouldn’t go into work, he’d just go into the hospital for the afternoon visiting hours. He’d missed too much work already, but he knew he couldn’t cope with colleagues’ kind and concerned enquiries.
He put some bacon in a pan on the stove and cut a couple of slices of her bread, taken out of the freezer the previous night. After breakfast, he had the strongest craving for a cigarette that he’d experienced since giving up some months ago. He had to get out for a walk. He pulled on his wellies in the porch, fed the hens and the geese, and headed down to the river.
There was pale gold among the clouds in the eastern sky. From the bottom field, he watched the snowplough go past on the road, followed a minute later by the school bus. It stopped beside the lay-by for young Alistair Forbes from Auchenerno Farm. He was fond of little Alistair, but that morning he couldn’t bear to watch him climb aboard. He turned quickly away into the trees.
His were the only footprints in the snow on the path down to the footbridge. He took pleasure in this – putting his imprint on the Earth. The trees were mainly beeches, with a scattering of rowans and scots pine: the smooth boles of the great beeches stretched upwards like a prayer. He was breathing more easily. He reached the footbridge, rested his elbows on the handrail and gazed downstream.
Her smiling post-operative murmurs came back to him. And the kind but empty words of the staff. He tried to concentrate on what he would say when he phoned his and her parents.
Downstream, where the river turned east, the early morning sun now flashed on the white foamed rapids. He looked below to the deep water beneath the bridge, to the inky complexity of the fluid swirls, upwellings, and the little stretches of tranquillity. He treasured those patches of tranquil water.
To his left was the spot where he would sometimes fish for trout, as a treat for her. Or as a peace offering. He realised that he needed to buy some flowers. On his walk back through the trees he would find and cut some rowan twigs still bearing berries, to mix in with the flowers. She had once told him with a smile that rowans were said to ward against evil.
Yesterday, he had only been afforded a brief time beside his daughter’s incubator in the Low Birthweight Baby Unit – his daughter still unnamed and weighing less than a bag of sugar. He was hoping he’d be allowed longer today. A foolish thought repeatedly snagged him: because she was so small that he hadn’t been able to tell whether she had fingernails. He’d be able to take a proper look today.