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Empty Shell

"Can so much be accomplished in such a brief meeting?"
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Competition Entry: A New Years Do-Over

Author's Notes

"No ghosts, no fantasy, no sci-fi or time travel, maybe a little mystery, but just ordinary people."

I sat at the back of the hall, as far away from the blare and screech of the music as possible. Did they still call this tuneless, booming stuff music? Gone were the days when you could hear the words and whistle the tune. No way to shut out the laughter and screams of the arm-waving, drink-stoked partygoers on the dance floor. Not that I blamed their exuberance. Hell, it was New Year’s Eve. On how many such nights over the years had I been one of these so-happy people. 

But those were yesterdays. Days when I, with my dear lady, Marie, would look forward to a brighter future on this evening. And we had achieved that, hadn’t we? Comfortable, able to travel afar, in a love that our two children, Jack and Sally, appeared to have emulated. Life had been so gentle with us. But it all turned around when Marie was taken from me after forty-five years of marriage. The only mercy was that her illness had been brief and pain-free, but oh, so sudden.

I was sure that losing my mainstay had brought on my coronary two years later. Now loneliness was only tempered by the feeling that I was only waiting for God to make his mind up about me.  

What a miserable old bugger I had become. This happy environment was so out of place for my mood. I glanced at my watch. Not long until midnight. Then the uproar would really begin. Time to be away before that starts.

“Are you all right?”

About to rise, I looked up, surprised at the sight of a tall, elegant lady, bathed in the sheen of a dark green gown, which emphasised her curvaceousness.

I wondered how long it had been since the alluring look of this lady would have set my blood stirring. Without ever having a thought of dishonouring my Marie, time was, when the sight of a beautiful woman would arouse me. But now? This lovely lady pleased my eye, and that was all.

Surprised by her arrival, and her question, I said, “Why should you ask that?”

She looked a little startled to be there herself, but her smile was charming as she replied, “I was on my way to the car park. From over there I saw you, sitting alone, and thought you looked, if you’ll excuse me, rather grey. I don’t know what urged me to come across. I’m Sonia Garson, by the way.”

“Harry Rogan,” I told her.

Strange, she should mention me looking grey. Maybe that’s what had made me so miserable, I had been feeling a little below par, “I’m tired. Past my bedtime.” I waved my hand towards  the dancers, “And this is no longer my scene.”

She sighed, “Me neither. What is your scene?”

What a strange question, I was thinking, but laughed as I answered, “My scene is home, feet up, telly on, snooze.”

She surprised me further by moving around the table and sitting beside me. I had been about to call for a taxi but felt strangely comforted by having her close. I had to ask, “Why would you care?”

Her lips pouted and she shrugged, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I really don’t know what impelled me. Maybe because you reminded me of my father. He had silver hair. You want me to go?”

The idea of her just walking away had no appeal at all, but all I could manage was a non-committal, “It’s a free country.”

She smiled, nodded, and asked, “Do you feel so old?”

Be honest, Harry. “Lately, yes.” Then, suddenly very daring, I added, “But attractive young ladies no longer scare me.”

Now she laughed, “Young?  I’m forty-three. Call that young?”

I knew that it was not often that a woman was so open about her age. I was able to retort easily, “It is if you’re seventy-seven.”

There was a brief awkward silence between us, before, her face clearly saddened,  she told me, ”My father was seventy when he passed.”  

Grim-faced only briefly, her dark eyes were bright as she turned to face me full-on, and I caught the first whiff of delicate lavender perfume. God, yes, it was a beautiful face, as she said, “May I ask you a rather silly, and perhaps annoying, question?” She saw the dubious look on my face, and she laughed, “Nothing naughty.”

What could I do but say, “Go ahead?”

“On this special night if you could be granted one wish what would it be?”

I hardly hesitated, “Undoubtedly, have my wife back. She died four years ago.”

Telling it, still brought a lump to my throat, but I saw it made this Sonia look away, brush at an eye, before turning back to me, “I’m sorry. I know that pain well. But reincarnations don’t work. I’ve tried that.”

That comment had my head full of questions, I sensed she wasn’t talking about her father. As emotion filled our silence, she pressed on, ”One wish?”

What else could it be? I suggested that I wanted my family to stay safe and healthy.

“No. A wish for yourself personally.”

She seemed so determined, but I had one ready-made, “Staying alive.”

“I’m sure the Bee-Gees would be pleased,” she laughed.

“That’s been my New Year’s resolution for the past three years,” I admitted.

“And it’s worked. So far. Has it been worth it?”

“What do you mean?”

Her face seemed very close as she said, “Well, what have you done with that time?”

Why was she so interested? More importantly why might I have readily responded? Instead, I glanced at my watch.

“In a hurry?” she asked.

“I need to be home by twelve. My son and daughter will be on the phone.”

Her eyes brightened, “Ah, a family. Couldn’t you be with them?”

“My son, Jack, lives in London, and my daughter, Sally, is in Manchester. Now, I need to phone a taxi.”

Sonia asked me where I lived, and as soon as I told her, she was on her feet, “I told you I was heading for the car park. I’m not in the mood for this merriment, and I do pass your estate.”

“Oh, I don’t want to be a----”

“Come on, it’s no bother.”

The idea of being carried home by this lady was certainly appealing and would give the evening something of a lift. We collected our coats and made our way to the underground car park. On the way down, she asked, “And after the cheery calls, what next?”

“If I can stay awake, I’ll have a small whiskey, watch the fireworks on TV with the sound off. Beautiful to see, but too much bloody noise.”

When we reached her car, a sleek, black Lexus, I realised that I was in the company of a well set-up lady. As I snuggled into the cosy, leather-clad passenger seat, and Sonia started the car, she asked, “What then?”

“Excuse me?”

“After the fireworks.”

No hesitation there, “Oh, bed.”

“And tomorrow?” Where was all this going? I turned my head towards her and caught her quick glance.

“Oh, I must sound so nosey. I’m trying to understand why I should be drawn to you.”

Now it was my turn to chuckle, “Oh, thanks a lot.”

Even in the gloom I could see that she blushed, “You know I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that I wondered how you spent your time.”

I thought for only a moment, not wishing to sound too smug, “Sum my days up in just five words; garden, a book, some TV, sifting memories, snoozing.” I laughed, “Oh, maybe I’ll fix a faulty door-knob.”

Sonia was silent for a moment, concentrating on the busy road ahead, “I keep my speed low on nights like this.” She stopped the car at traffic lights, half turned to me, face shaded from the lamplight. “Oh, don’t you have such a rich full life.” God, the sarcasm in her tone was so heavy.

“I have my memories,” I said, trying not to sound sulky.

“Yes, but at your age, with such inactivity, Alzheimer’s lies in wait.”

She set the car moving again as she said, “I’ve seen it happen. Memories can only fill a small space.”

Now she had to be talking of her father, but her face was shaded, only yellowed as the car passed a streetlight. I prompted her, “And then?”

“Life can become an empty shell.” Another quick glance, “Maybe your life needs a reboot.”

“Reboot? Oh, one of these damned technological terms, isn’t it?”

She laughed, “Contemptuous of electronics, are we?”

“Sally, my daughter, bought me an i-phone. It just confuses me. What’s reboot?”

“Starting over with intent.”

“With intent?”

“Have you no friends, or any clubs that—”

I didn’t allow her to finish. There had been a club. And I went on to tell her of the choir club of youngsters aged seven to late teens that I had been so active with.

“Sounds ideal, why did you give it up?”

It was awkward thinking about it, and now, that awkwardness was being compounded by my earlier below par feeling intensifying. “Oh, when I lost my Marie, I lost all –my –enthusiasm.”

Sonia hadn’t noticed my hesitant words as she said, “What’s the use of staying alive if –Harry! Are you all right?”

I wasn’t. A blackness was closing in on me. I heard the screeching of tyres as the car stopped, and I mumbled her name.

Then all was black and there were three black, galloping horses, that I had seen once before. Was there a warm mouth close to mine? Lavender.

My final thought was, ‘God has made his mind up.’

Then nothing.

 

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Voices. First there were voices. No blackness. Beyond my eyelids there was brightness. I cautiously opened my eyes, moving a hand to shield from the glare.  Two vague figures hadn’t noticed my awakening. Was that Sally’s voice? My daughter here so quick? My mind was alert enough for me to realise that I was in a hospital bed.

“Oh, he’s moving. He’s awake.” Sally, with her mother’s face, hurried to my bed. In my weakened state, that face brought tears to my eyes.

“I’ll get the doctor,” the nurse said, and hurried away.

“Sorry, I’m Late, Dad. I had to arrange for the kids. I’ve only just got here.”

Uncertain, slightly confused, I asked, “What time is it?”

“It’s late afternoon.”

“Happy New Year,” I managed, as she squeezed my hand.

“Oh, yes, of yesterday.”

“Yesterday? Have I—”

“Apparently since the first minutes of the year until now the second day of the year.”

Surely that wasn’t possible.

“Have you any pain? Is your heart beating strong? When did you first feel ill?”

Her questions came like machine gun bullets, but there was just one question I needed answering now, “Where’s Sonia?”

My daughter looked strangely puzzled as she stroked her hand over my brow and gave an understanding smile, “There’s nobody called Sonia, Dad. You must have been dreaming.”

For just a second, I was questioning my own sensibilities. Surely I hadn’t dreamed Sonia. But the doctor who had come in at that moment declared, “No dream. Your father is alive because of a Mrs Sonia Garson. In fact, she was the one who found your phone number in his diary.”

The look of shocked surprise on Sally’s face, matched the joyous relief inside me.

The doctor, whose badge told us he was Simon Crozier, took my pulse, checked the monitor over my bed, scribbled on the chart he carried, before pulling up a chair. “Everything looks promising. I do believe you even have a little colour in your cheeks.” He half-turned in his chair so that he could explain to both of us.

“You were so low when the paramedics brought you in we decided to put you into this induced coma while we cleared your arteries.  You now have two more stents in there” He saw me looking down at my bare unmarked chest, and he smiled, “No scars. Your bandaged wrists were our way in.”

I had thought the bandaged wrists were something to do with monitoring.

“And Sonia? Sonia Garson. Is she around?”

Doctor Crozier gave me a serious look as he said, “The paramedics were adamant that were it not for her prompt actions, you’d have been gone before they even reached you. She knew to thump your chest and she gave you what non-professionals call the kiss of life.”

“I wish I had been there for that,” I said, deliberately.

Sally laughed, “Oh, good, Dad, you’ve still got your sense of humour.”

I looked at her seriously, “I’m not joking.”

It was the doctor who laughed, “Your father is right. She was a fine-looking lady. Would you believe she insisted on staying in the waiting room until she could be assured that you were safely through the operation?”

The doctor had a few more things to say including the fact that a nurse would be checking my blood pressure every few hours. “We’ll keep him here for observation for a few days,” he told Sally. “Then it’s home, and three weeks rest.”

“I’ll see to that,” Sally affirmed, making it sound like a threat. “Jack will be up from London tomorrow.”

“Rest for your father now.”

When all was quiet, I lay my head back, thoughts of Sonia stormed through my mind. She had become almost a mystery woman in my head. How many physical hours had I known her? Barely one. And yet, she had done so much more than I deserved. God, imagine her waiting until she knew I was out of danger.

Hospital days did not exactly fly. Different doctors affirmed that my progress was encouraging. My son, Jack, arrived with Sally and they sat and enthused about how much better I seemed. And there was a major fillip each day when a nurse told me that a Mrs Sonia Garson had phoned to check on my recovery.

I was so uplifted by this information that I went to the public phone and made a private call, which when I replaced the receiver left me feeling very satisfied.

At last, my third day was marked for my release. On the morning, I was all packed and awaited Sally’s arrival. Then a nurse came in and handed me an envelope.

“Home instructions?” I asked, as I took it from her, thinking it was rather thin for medical advice.

“No,” the nurse said, “this was left at reception.”

Puzzled, I tore it open. A single small sheet of paper. When I glanced quickly at the sign-off at the bottom, momentarily I felt my heart was reacting. Certainly, my blood pressure must have risen, for there at the end was the name ‘Sonia’.

My hands shaking, I read her words:

Harry,

It gives me such joy to hear of your release today, and that all is well.

To know that the tactics I used, and failed with, on my husband two years ago actually worked on you. The paramedics were so kind.

You couldn’t know but New Year’s Eve was my first time venturing out socially since my loss. I’ve thought and rethought what it was, when I was rushing to get away, that drew me to divert in your direction. What force, what power did you exert? Or is that stupid?

But I’m so grateful that I had a small part in your ‘staying alive’. Believe it or not, it has helped my own sorrow greatly.

Now the major task, Harry, it’s time to fill that empty shell. Use these years well, renew yourself.

I fear that direct contact might spoil the magic of our short time together.

Should you have any thoughts of gratitude, then show it by living some rich years.

May they be long, your friend forever,

Sonia

By the time Sally came to collect me, my tears had dried. I was so much more aware now. I showed Sally the letter.

“You knew about her husband?”

“Nothing. She only concentrated on me.”

As we moved out into the cool morning sunshine, I told her of the phone call I had made. “I’ve fixed to re-join the choir club when I’m fit. Filling my empty shell.”

“Her wishes for you. Such a special lady.”

Tears filled my eyes once more, “Exactly, such a very special lady.”

At that moment, I felt that I wanted to go on forever. Just to please Sonia.

 

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