The rain hammered down over Tim’s hunched back, making a rattling noise as the water reverberated from his plastic overcoat. It was a rare extremity for Bournemouth weather, but the old man didn’t seem to care. He just plodded along his garden paving in green wellington boots. As a booming roll of thunder shook the earth a gust of wind knocked the hat on his head to the ground. Only a few wisps of white hair remained underneath, but Tim looked up at the sky with a smile. As he bent to retrieve his hat, the stone steps ahead of him grew progressively further apart and the garden began to slant downwards so that water streamed in muddy banks to his side. The slope steepened and so Tim stumbled downwards until the ground tapered to a small enclave.
On top of the hill carefully tended tulips and roses plateaued. The grass was mown to circumvent a graceful water feature. But the enclave at the bottom was wild. Where grass still had the strength to grow underneath an oppressive rock wall, it wisped randomly up towards waist height. All around him, muddy puddles greedily engorged themselves on the rainwater. But Tim didn’t seem to mind. He walked over to a cracked stone bench which was half crumbled into the earth and he sat. He sat down on the bench, in the midst of the fierce storm and rested his chin gently in his hands. After a time, he reached into the pocket of his raincoat and withdrew a cigar. It took him several efforts to light in the pouring rain, but he eventually managed. And so he was sat, umbrellared by his cheap plastic hat as the smoke from his cigar teased his nostrils before eventually surrendering to the fierce weather.
The storm calmed and the rain slowed to a drizzle. With a sigh, Tim rose to his feet. His knees now struggled with the walk back up the hill, and he was not helped by the bulky wellington boots on his feet. But with a grunt he pulled himself up to the well-kept garden and began on the path back to his house, taking care to wipe off as much mud as possible. He pushed open the patio doors and exhaled as he walked into his house. Standing there with her hands on her hips was a plump woman in her late forties.
‘You,’ she exclaimed with a quiver of her lips, ‘will catch your death of cold.’
Tim looked down at his rain-drenched figure as though in astonishment, but he winked mischievously as he hung the clothes up on a peg. ‘Me?’ Tim replied. ‘A man who fought for his country. Who has lived to be eighty-six years of age? Now come on Margaret.’
‘Honestly,’ Margaret reprimanded, unable to help herself from smiling, ‘you have to look after yourself, you’re not a young man anymore.’
‘What is the point of breathing if you can’t live?’
‘Just look after yourself! Do it for me if nothing else! What would I do without you to clean for?’ Margaret light-heartedly pinched his arm as she calmed down. Her tone softened as she came to rest her hand on top of Tim’s. ‘Any news on Dawn?’
Tim stared blankly before responding, ‘I’m on my way now.’
‘Give her my love, won’t you.’
‘I will my dear, thank you so much. You know, you know that she struggles now... to...’
‘I know.’ Margaret continued as she patted Tim’s arm.
Tim cleared his throat and picked up his car keys. He walked out of the front door and raised himself into a green Ford. The car purred to life with the windscreen wipers pushing away the lingering rain. Soon Tim was faced by a light blue door with the name Dawn Smith engraved on it. As he entered, he saw that his daughter was sleeping. Her greying hair was matted beneath her on the plain bed. A family photo stood on the bedside table. It was a relief when she was like this, so he sat in a thick armchair to her side and looked down upon his only child. Her rythmatic breathing reassured him and he relaxed. Tim reached into his pocket and reverently withdrew a tatty piece of paper.
The old man’s glazed expression was drawn from the letter as his daughter began to shake her head from side to side. He knew she was about to wake and so he folded the letter and placed it back in his pocket. He placed his hand on his daughter’s arm. Her eyes began to twitch and shortly afterwards her left eye cracked open. She jerked her head up in shock, in the way of one unfamiliar with their surroundings. Dawn scanned her bedroom in distress. Tim stroked her arm until her attention came to focus on the man to her side.
‘Who are you?’ She asked.
Tim’s body shook, it was the question that always got him. But he forced himself to control his emotions. ‘It’s me dear.’ He replied. ‘It’s your father. Remember?’
He carried on looking at his daughter as she tried to process the response. The look on her face was one he had seen a hundred times, but each time the confusion and the sadness failed to dull.
‘Oh.’ Dawn replied, ‘I don’t... I don’t...’
‘Shhhhhh.’ Tim reassured. ‘I know. It’s ok. It’s ok.’
Dawn turned her head away from the stranger as a tear fell down her cheek to rest on the pillow beneath her. They remained in that position for many minutes, Tim’s hand resting on his daughters arm. Eventually Dawn twisted to face the man at her side, her mind still searching for recognition. Failing, she looked at him with a curiosity. After several moments she noticed a long scar on his right bicep, something clicked deep within her.
‘Where did you get that?’ She asked, pointing at the scar.
Tim smiled, it was typical. His Dawn, asking the one question he had always tried to protect her from. ‘Where did I get that?’ Tim replied, ‘September the twenty-third, nineteen thirty-five is where, in a flat in Dorset.’
‘Tim.’ A shrill voice shouted, ‘Tim! Dinner’s ready.’
‘I’m coming,’ the young teenage voice replied, ‘what is it?’
But there was no response, and so the fourteen year old placed down his book and rose to his feet. He looked around. A single bed behind him was crammed into the small space, taking up fully half of his room. A solitary blanket lay on the worn mattress. Above, the window filtered what was left of the day’s light through murky glass. Across the room a wooden shelf struggled to attach itself to the crumbling plaster. Tim had to balance the few books he had just perfectly, the slightest pressure would cause the plank to crash to the floor. Sighing, the teenager stepped out to the landing. His mother tried to greet him with a smile as she faced him from the kitchen table. Will looked at the stove and sink behind his mother, seeing how she had tried to clean the pots and pans. The thick stew that was to be their dinner would not shift from the iron cookware. But it was not his surroundings that upset the teenage boy as much as the appearance of his mother.
As she smiled from the rackety wooden chair, her hair fell over her face in an uncontrolled cascade. It shot erratically in every direction, as though someone was hovering over her head with a particularly strong magnet. He noticed that she had intentionally pushed handfuls of the coarse brown hair over one side of her face, so that only one eye could be seen. He pretended not to notice and returned her smile.
‘I cooked meat stew,’ she said, ‘your favourite.’
Tim didn’t have the heart to remind her that he had given up meat earlier that year, after a previous meal had bedridden him. He still hadn’t regained the weight.
‘It looks lovely!’
‘You’re a good boy,’ his mother was shaking as she continued to smile at her son, reaching across to pat his hand warmly, ‘you’re such a good boy.’
Tim just smiled back and began to pick at the stew with his knife and fork. He was careful to ensure that all the meat was returned to the wooden bowl as he spooned sodden vegetables and the sauce into his mouth. He looked up to watch his mother raise a full fork. As she did so, a gust of air blew the hair away from the side of her face, revealing a swollen red and black eye. Looking at her son in shock, knowing that he had seen, she dropped the food. The fork dropped to the floor with a thud.
‘Now look... now look what I’ve done,’ she stammered, ‘I have to clean this mess up, I have to clean before...’
Tim watched as his mother rose and walked to the sink with her back to him. He saw her body begin to shudder up and down as she began to weep. The young man just sat silently, watching his mother cry. As he stared, almost blankly, the familiar thump of footsteps and clinking of glass distracted him. His mother clearly heard the sound as well because her body jolted to attention and she raced to retrieve a worn broom. The front door jerked back on its hinges with a boom and a waft of sweat and stale ale entered the kitchen as a voice began to shout, ‘I’m home!’
There was no response and a looming figure soon emerged in the doorway. Dressed in the slacks and shirt of his work, his father was swaying as he raised an almost empty bottle of liquor to his lips. He crossed the kitchen, resting the drink on the table as he leant in to kiss his wife. She flinched as his beard scraped her skin, but the man was too drunk to notice.
‘How was your day?’ She asked.
The man sighed deeply before responding, ‘Terrible. I’m just an honest man, trying to make an honest living. You wouldn’t believe some of things...’ Tim’s father lost his trail of thought and his sentence slurred off as he sat down in what had been his wife’s chair. As he began to ravenously scoop the meal into his mouth with his fingers, his attention was slowly drawn to the pile of food on the floor. ‘What.’ Tim’s father clenched his fists as tried to control his temper, ‘Is that?’
‘I was just... I was just about to clean it.’ Tim’s mother whimpered. The broom in her hand shook like a leaf.
There was an unbearable silence for several moments as Tim’s father stared at his balled hands. As he watched, Tim could see his father’s breathing quicken and his face getting redder and redder, until the chair slid ominously back and he began to rise to his feet.
‘No.’ Tim protested with a quiet weep. ‘No.’
But his father didn’t hear him and he lifted himself, and next, his scarred calloused fists. As the large man stood over the kneeling figure of his wife, he rained his fists down. Normally, he was careful to hit her in the ribs or the legs, but on days where he was especially angry, or drunk, he went for her face. Tim watched as a white tooth flew from his mother’s mouth, sailing out in a river of blood. And he could take no more.
The fourteen year old jumped from his chair onto the rickety wooden table. He lifted the nearly empty bottle of liquor and smashed the glass onto his father’s head.
‘And that’s how I got my scar.’ Tim said. ‘My scar, three cracked ribs, a broken wrist and the loss of a tooth.’ The old man fingered a gap in his mouth. ‘On September the twenty-third, nineteen thirty-five.’
There was a silence in the hospice room before Dawn looked at the man to her side in astonishment. ‘I didn’t know that.’ Then she paused to think for a second, ‘Did I?’
‘No my dear. You never knew that.’
It seemed to Tim that there was a flicker of recognition in Dawn’s eyes and he squeezed his daughter’s arm once more.
‘Dad.’ Dawn said, as though saying a foreign word. She smiled afterwards. There was a silence for some time as Dawn lay thinking. ‘Dad,’ she started again, ‘I can’t remember... I can’t remember who my mother was.’ She looked away awkwardly after saying the sentence.
‘It’s ok dear.’ Tim said with a smile, fingering the golden ring on his wedding finger. ‘She was a writer, exactly like you are.’
‘Go on.’ Dawn implored.
‘Oh yes, she was a writer. And so talented, much too talented for a daft fool like me. You should have seen the things she used to write, they could reduce a grown man to tears.’ Tim’s eyes sparkled as he talked. ‘And beautiful too, did I tell you that she was beautiful?’
Dawn smiled at the affectionate tone in her father’s voice, ‘So, how did you two meet?’
‘Oh, but we were childhood sweethearts.’ Tim replied, ‘From the day I threw mud in her hair on the village common I knew we would be married.’
‘And how old were you then?’
‘I was six and she was five!’ They both shared a laugh then. It was a deep and innocent feeling. Tim readjusted his hand and they sat there in silence for several moments.
‘But dad?’ Dawn asked with a slight hesitancy, ‘Where is she now?’
‘Timothy David Smith, I am not having this child out of wedlock. You hear me?’
Tim looked at his pregnant fiancée with a grim smile. She keeled over again on the street, breathing rapidly as she faced her knees. Her blond hair bobbed over the top of her head as the buns that had been fixed for her wedding rocked in the gentle breeze. Sweet perfume wafted towards Tim’s nose as he glanced up at the church clock. The time was almost twelve pm, it was at least an hour before the ceremony was supposed to start. He looked up and down Milham’s road, in the small town of Fernham, near Bournemouth. The street was empty except for a trickle of friends and family arriving early for the wedding. Tim’s best man ran from across the street, his wedding suit trailing in the air behind him.
‘Tim, Sylvia,’ he panted, ‘what’s wrong?’
Sylvia glared up at him from her keeling position, still holding her stomach in agony.
‘You needs a doctor!’ The best man continued, preparing to run down the street.
‘Stop.’ Sylvia hissed. ‘I am not having this child until I’m married, do you understand?’
The best man caught Tim’s eye in desperation. Tim shrugged at his friend before kneeling and holding his fiancée’s hand.
‘I’ll only ask once.’ Tim said, ‘You’re sure about this?’
‘More than anything,’ Sylvia paused to let out a yell of anguish, ‘more than anything else in this world.’
One last look at the resolution in her eyes was enough to finally turn Tim against his better instinct. ‘Ok,’ he conceded, ‘stay with her,’ he stated to his best man.
Tim ran the short distance into the church, startling the priest who was leaning against the pew.
‘Father, father,’ Tim blurted, ‘you must help me. It’s an emergency.’
‘Calm down,’ the priest replied with a gentle smile, ‘what seems to be the problem?’
Tim hurriedly explained the situation.
‘But, you must understand.’ The priest said, ‘It is not as simple as me saying a few words. There must be registers, witnesses, there are procedures. You must tell your fiancée to find a doctor.’
‘Forgive me father, but I’d sooner batter down the gates of hell.’
‘I could unofficially wed you, then you could renew your vows?’ The priest suggested. The shaking of Tim’s head was his only response. The priest pursed his lips, his soft face obviously unused to frowning. ‘Bring her to me child, I’ll see what I can do.’
Tim raced to bring Sylvia and his best man to the church as the priest ducked through the bell-tower at the back in search of administrators. Several minutes later the bedraggled party stood in St Andrew’s church. Two middle-aged woman, identified as registrars, looked very out of place in their dishevelled clothing. One had obviously just finished the gardening. The rest of the party were sweating and flustered in their formal wedding gear.
‘Dearly beloved,’ the priest began, ‘we are gathered here today.’
Sylvia let out a scream of pain. As soon as the pang passed she looked over at Tim with a warm smile.
‘If you could make it a quick as possible father?’ The best man quipped.
The small congregation laughed, and the priest smiled as he nodded in acknowledgement. Soon after the ceremony had been completed. Tim signed a piece of paper and passed the pen into Sylvia’s shaking hand. As she scrawled her signature a wave of pain overcame her and she collapsed to the stone floor of the church.
‘The doctor’s house is just down the street.’ The priest said, ‘Come with me!’
Tim and his best man picked up the heavily pregnant woman from the stone floor and they carried her between them as they made their way to a detached house. The priest ran ahead and beckoned them from the open door as they rushed to make their way in. Inside, a long wooden table had hurriedly been cleared. A heavily bearded man wearing a vest and trousers beckoned them to put Sylvia on the table. He ran to place some smelling salts under her nose and pried open her eyelids. The three men stood around as she coughed herself awake.
‘She is deep in labour,’ the doctor said, ‘you must all wait outside.’
The priest and the best man went back to the church, coordinating the friends and family who were arriving unexpectedly late for the wedding ceremony. Tim paced backwards and forwards in the pristine little garden of the town doctor. Some time later the door cracked open and the doctor’s tired face appeared. He beckoned Tim.
Inside, covered with a coarse blanket his wife lay sprawled on the wooden table. Crying lustily on her chest was a tiny red baby, punching the air around her face in noisy protest.
‘They’re ok. It’s ok.’ Tim whimpered, rushing to his wife’s side.
‘You are the proud father of a baby girl,’ the doctor said with a faint smile.
‘Sylvia,’ Tim whispered, reaching to hold his wife’s hand, ‘Sylvia, how do you feel?’
‘Dawn.’ Came the tired response.
‘Dawn,’ Sylvia stammered, ‘Dawn.’
Tim looked over at the doctor who ushered him towards the corner of the room.
‘Your daughter is healthy. Unfortunately there were some complications with your wife.’
‘It appears that she has a hereditary condition which affects childbirth. Your wife has lost a lot of blood.’
‘Her mother...’ Tim gasped, ‘her mother died in childbirth. Will. Will she be ok?’ Tim looked physically sick.
‘It’s touch and go,’ the doctor replied, ‘it would always have been a dangerous birth. She should have been advised against conception.’
Tim stared in denial at the doctor’s words as he recalled Sylvia’s reaction to her pregnancy. The joy, the fear, the apprehension that he hadn’t understood. ‘I would like to be alone with my wife now, please.’
‘Of course,’ the doctor replied, ‘I’ll just be next door,’ he nodded across the corridor.
Tim walked over to again stand at his wife’s side, her sleeping figure cradling the baby on her chest.
‘You daft thing,’ he whispered emotionally, ‘why didn’t you tell me?’
Somehow the gentle words reached his wife’s consciousness, because she stirred.
‘Tim?’ She murmured, ‘Tim?’
‘Tim. I’m dying.’ She stated, her voice growing in force.
‘Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine. You’re a fighter.’
‘Tim.’ She repeated. ‘I’m dying, you hear me?’ Tim sat in shock, unable to respond as she continued. ‘Will you do one thing for me?’ She asked. ‘Bring me a pen and paper? And quickly.’
An hour later, Tim rocked backwards and forwards, his arms on his knees, wailing loudly in the doctor’s front room. Only the piercing cry of his new daughter, Dawn, could break through his grief. Almost unfeeling, his looked down at his clenched fist, where he held the letter that had been his final gift from his wife.
As Tim finished telling his story a teardrop worked its way down his cheek. He rubbed it off with the scar on his bicep. As he did so, his wedding ring caught in the bright light of the hospice room.
‘You never took the ring off?’ Dawn sighed, ‘After all these years?’
‘Never even thought about it.’
Father and daughter sat in silence for many minutes, enjoying each other’s companionship.
‘Dad?’ Dawn whispered. Tim raised his head. ‘Thank you.’
You have nothing to thank me for. It’s my pleasure.’
Another comfortable silence came into the room, before Dawn suddenly shook her head and caught her father’s eye once more.
As Tim gave her his attention, his daughter asked simply, ‘Who are you?’
Tim’s face dropped in anguish.
But something didn’t feel right and he caught a mischievous glint in Dawn’s eye. His sadness turned into joy and he began to chuckle. Dawn too, began to laugh at her simple joke. A minute later they were both speechless as laughter drained the air from their lungs until they couldn’t speak. They sat there, happy and holding hands for some time, until Dawn began to gently snore.
‘Same time tomorrow then.’ Tim said to himself, standing.
It was a Tuesday at two pm in the afternoon when Margaret let herself in. She wiped her shoes on the doormat because of the torrential rain outside. After she had finished her cleaning, she wondered where Tim had gone. Even he couldn’t be outside in this weather. She was just about to leave when a snagging doubt caught her, and so she walked through to the patio. Grabbing a coat from the rack to her side she gingerly walked down the garden. Standing on the verge at the end of the garden she squinted down. To her shock and sadness, she saw Tim sitting on his broken stone bench. He was so enraptured in something it took her several moments to register that he was truly dead. Maybe, he had been hanging on just long enough so that Dawn would go first, that she wouldn’t be alone.
Margaret called an ambulance and then went down to look at the old man one last time. She noticed a scrap of paper pinned to his chest, somehow protected from the elements by his coat. It was the one that he seemed to carry with him everywhere. She pried it from his body and began to read.
Observation tells us that people have their root in childhood. It tells that there is a determinism of life based on an arbitrary carving of the young. Maybe there is truth in the ancient wisdom, but there is also a lie. While all humans are animals, they are also human. The humanity, the ability to rise above the most inauspicious of beginnings and depravity of circumstance is the only challenge worth undertaking. To rise above oneself is the very act of being human. It is the anthropology of our race.
And if each of us amounts to but a single animal, as equal and as equally flawed. What is the difference between us? Some are rich, others happy. Many are beautiful and others not. Which is it that makes one better than another? The answer is unanswerable, because it lies not on the outside, but on the inside. One cannot judge or be judged by what is on display, it is not what one is given by circumstance and birth that marks their contribution and value to their kind. It is what one makes of what they have been given. It is the full, whole dedication of their soul and their spirit to the challenges of life that values their humanity.
A human spirit, a life, is the thing that grows within that circumstance in which we have been arbitrarily imprisoned. The human challenge is to nurture it as we would tend to a flower or a garden. It is thus the ultimate testament to our race yet to some a mystery why the rarest of flowers only grows in the toughest and most exceptional of circumstances. Like all great questions it has the simplest of answers. It is because only the most special of talents, of determinations, can survive in such adversity. In environments where most rightly wither and die, some struggle through their pain carrying with them their scars and broken limbs.
But there are a very special few, who, against all the odds, reach the open air with everything still inside. They nourish from what they have within, repelling what is without. Thus they become that rarest and most special of things. Equal to everyone around them, but with what they have kept and protected on the inside, more than equal. The rarest of flowers, though still just a flower, is what it is because of what it has pushed through to become itself.
And when that flower has grown and bloomed, the life within blossoms and the seeds fall to their side to replenish everything around them. And thus a great cycle is reborn.
Our task is to become that flower.
Margaret then looked up from Tim’s still, peaceful body, trying to follow where the old man’s gaze had been. Hidden, and yet somehow directly in front of her, swaying in the maelstrom of the weather, a previously unseen flower fluttered in the wind. She had never seen anything of such beauty. Margaret wondered to herself how the flower stayed alive in such a lonely, dank place. She supposed that all through the years, that had been Tim’s secret. And as she watched, with one final gust of wind, the storm tore the petals and seeds of that solitary flower, and scattered them into the sky.