The children who wouldn`t see

                                                                                                                         by Frank Roger


"I'll go and fix breakfast for both of us," George said, his voice reduced to a raucous whisper, just like any other morning. It took him considerable effort to clamber out of bed, and to make his limbs move without too much protest. He washed his face, put on his bathrobe (dressing would be for later) and shuffled toward the kitchen.

Squinting, he peered out the kitchen window. Making out details was scarcely possible without his glasses (now where could he have left them?), but it appeared to be overcast, and the wet sheen that seemed to cover everything probably meant there was a drizzle. Vague shapes were passing through the grayish haze, no doubt people walking briskly past and cars driving by.

People? A vague memory surfaced in his consciousness, and he focused his attention on it until its meaning came back to him. Oh yes, of course. They would have visitors today. His son, his daughter-in-law, and their two kids would drop by this afternoon. He would have to remind Laura of their visit when she came to have breakfast, just in case she had forgotten about it.

A few minutes later the smell of fresh coffee, eggs and bacon, sizzling and sputtering in the pan, and sliced bread being toasted filled the kitchen. "Do you remember who's coming today, darling?" he asked. "Richard and Susan, and their two little kids. It'll be wonderful to see them again. How long has it been? A week? More than a week? No, probably just a week or so. I don't quite recall... do you, darling?"

Reminiscing about his grandchildren brought a sour taste to his mouth, and he pushed his plate away, his breakfast only half finished. Much as he liked to see his son and his family, there was something about the children that bothered him, and on a very deep level. For reasons he would never be able to fathom they didn't treat Laura as a grandmother deserved to be treated. Although the children were always quickly rebuked by their parents, George often had the distinct feeling they chose to ignore poor old Laura. He failed to grasp the reason for this sign of disrespect. Shouldn't grandmother get back as much love as she gave herself?

"I can see you're not very hungry either," George said, noticing Laura's plate, empty and clean as if hardly touched. "Well, I suppose I'd better clear the table then."

Afterwards he felt somewhat tired, although the effort hadn't been all that taxing. Old arms, old legs; lately even the simplest of activities tended to wear him out. "Why don't we sit down and watch some TV?" he told Laura. "Who knows, maybe there'll be something interesting for a change."

He shuffled to the living room, collapsed into the couch, reached for the remote control on the table next to him and found his glasses. So that's where they were, he thought. He put the glasses on, grabbed the remote control and switched on the TV.

"Let's see," he said. "I don't quite feel like watching some news program, do you, darling? Most of the news is so depressing these days, don't you think? I'd rather have something that makes us feel better, some good old-fashioned sitcom. Or a game. What about a quiz, darling? I'm not sure I'll find what we're looking for at this early hour, though. I'm afraid TV just isn't what it used to be. But let me try a few more channels."

Despite his glasses his vision got blurry, and he had difficulties focusing his eyes on the screen. The TV programme didn't make sense to him, until it dawned on him that he had only been watching snippets of various programmes, as he had been drifting into and back out of sleep all the time.

"Laura, darling, I'll switch off the damn thing, if you don't mind," he finally said. "I feel like taking a little nap." The room around him faded into grayness. His journey through the twilight zone between sleep and waking was peopled with vague memories of events and faces too dim to really recognise, a merry-go-round in slow motion that presented a kaleidoscopic overview of his life, an unending string of hazy images and blurred snapshots that had to be related in a way he somehow failed to determine. The journey across this territory shrouded in the mists of old age and obscured by the dusk of approaching oblivion seemed to stretch into infinity. When he finally emerged from it, he felt hungry and prepared a quick lunch for Laura and himself, still a bit dazed, but clear-headed enough to realise what he was doing.

"I can see you're not too hungry," he told Laura. "Never mind. Didn't the doctor say old people like us don't need all that much food? No need to worry. Better to eat when your appetite is back."

After lunch he cast a glance through the window, this time with his glasses on. It was a dreary, drizzly day indeed. The sort of day they would prefer to spend indoors, watching TV and having some conversation and basically taking it easy. Who in his right mind would feel tempted to leave his warm and cosy house and venture outside for a walk, and run the risk of catching a cold - not to mention the more ominous dangers lurking on the streets in this modern age.

"They'll be here any minute now," he told Laura. "Good old Richard and his family. Always a pleasure to welcome them. In the meantime we'd better take a rest. It'll be lively enough with the children around. Remember how exhausted we were last time they came over? It took us some time to recover. We skipped dinner and went to bead early."

He sank back into his comfy chair, and allowed the mists to invade his mind again. He was about to re-enter the twilight zone where he spent so much of his time lately, when the ringing of the bell brought him back to reality.

"Richard! Susan!" Greetings and kisses were exchanged. Human warmth quickly filled the room, a warmth that spread all through his body, exerting an invigorating effect on his heart and soul. The smiling faces, the twinkling eyes, the kind words. And, of course, the highly pitched voices of the children, restlessly scurrying about, all buoyant energy and unbridled vivacity. But barely had the first wave of gentle warmth washed over him and rekindled the fires of grandfatherly love smouldering within him, or a darker presence cast its shadow over the scene, dispelling the charm and the positive feelings that had arisen.

Exactly as had happened the previous times. For reasons that were totally beyond him, Laura did not get the attention she deserved. He tried to remedy the situation, but knew that he would probably fail, as he had failed on all the previous occasions. "Why don't you tell grandma how you're doing at school?" he asked the children, making sure his voice wasn't edged with the cold despair that was taking possession of him. "I'm sure she's anxious to know how you're doing." He forced his lips into a smile, clasped his hands together until his knuckles went white.

The children turned their heads toward their parents, a forlorn expression on their faces, as if looking for advice on how to deal with the situation. What was wrong with them? Was a little kindness towards their grandmother really too much to ask?

"Dad," Richard said, gently placing a hand on his shoulder. A worried frown creased his forehead. He licked his lips, as if he had to say something but wanted to gain time. "I was going to bring this up later this afternoon, but..." Richard felt clearly uncomfortable with the whole situation.

"Come on, Richard, you know you can tell me anything. Let me hear what bothers you."

"Susan and I have been thinking, dad. We were wondering if you shouldn't consider... er, how can I put it..." An uneasy silence began to build up. George had no idea what his son was driving at. The silence didn't last long, however : it was ruptured by one of the children, the youngest one, Christopher (his name was Christopher, wasn't it? he had trouble recalling names at times), and the rupture was a harsh and painful one.

"Grandpa, why do you stay here all alone? Why can't you see that-" Susan was quick to make her son swallow the rest of his question, but it was too late. George felt as if he had suddenly turned to ice. His body temperature had dropped to zero; his blood had curdled in his veins; his brain was numbed, his thoughts brought to a virtual standstill. What did the boy say? Why was he staying here alone? Alone? Not giving grandma the attention she deserved was one thing, but pretending she wasn't there was really going too far. How on earth had the thought entered the boy's mind? And where had he found the courage to utter such bold nonsense, knowing very well how upset his grandfather would be. Not to mention his grandmother, who had heard these vile words. The boy really deserved some severe punishment, that much was for sure.

Slowly the ice inside him began to thaw. Feeling returned to his body; his blood stirred back into motion; thoughts resurfaced in his mind, slowly, and at first creakingly taking on the shape of rational thinking, unfolding and crystallising into a fitting reaction to what had been said, a reaction everyone present was clearly waiting for.

"We're doing quite well here," he finally managed to say, his voice still broken with the pain and the cold. "We need each other more than ever, of course, but we haven't reached the stage where a nursing home is to be considered. Maybe the day one of us is no longer here it might all be different, but for now..."

"So as long as grandma is still around..." Richard said.

"As long as good old Laura is around there's no reason to worry," he confirmed. "We help each other a lot. That's true. But I'm sure you'll agree that's a good thing."

"But dad," one of the children began, but Susan quickly put her hand before his mouth, keeping inside whatever it was the boy had wanted to say. Perhaps, he thought, shuddering at the very idea, some more utterly dreadful remarks? What possessed these children?

The rest of the afternoon was excruciatingly painful. Richard and Susan did their best to talk about a whole array of subjects chosen for their neutrality, and of no interest whatsoever to him or Laura. The children had been given something to read, and were grudgingly doing so, not saying anything and probably realising they had said too much already. George tried to hide his discomfort and his unhappiness, but he was fairly sure it showed clearly enough. Would this terrible afternoon drag on forever? Was there any point in prolonging this torture of heart and soul?

He felt relieved as Richard suddenly came up with an excuse for them to go, an excuse he was happy to accept. Even though, deep down, he still loved his relatives, even the children, however harshly they had been towards poor old Laura.


Now where was she...?

She had been unusually silent since the incident. Almost as if she (God forbid) really wasn't present...

For a bone-chilling moment he had felt alone, had felt himself engulfed by stark loneliness. It had been as if Christopher had cast an evil spell instead of merely making an unpleasant remark, as if a terrifying prophecy had come true... He'd had the feeling that Laura had disappeared, he had glimpsed a reality in which she was no longer around, in which he was alone here in this big, empty house, clinging to the memory of his deceased wife in a desperate effort to keep himself from losing his mind.

The child, poor Christopher, would never know what anxiety his carelessly spoken words had caused his grandfather.

And grandmother herself as well, of course. One moment there it had slipped his mind what grandmother must have gone through. He shuddered at the very thought. Better not to pursue this line of thinking.

Gradually his peace of mind was restored. He retreated in his comfy chair, and allowed cold reality to recede into the background. Mist came rolling back, and invaded his mind, enveloping him in a warm blanket that proved beneficial to his battered soul.

And then he retreated even further, back into the familiar territory the twilight zone had become, where Laura and many other memories from his past were really still lingering, where nobody shattered his happiness with harsh, uncaring remarks, where he could still find peace and tranquillity. The mist swirled around him in ever thicker layers, obscuring everything he wished not to see. He really ought to spend more time here...



respiro@2000-2004 All rights reserved