SUN AND RAIN By A.L. Clarke
‘Flowers,’ was the first thing he said when he had entered the room. Stupid really.
He held them up, lamely, to show her. She didn’t look.
‘They’re nothing fancy.’ Clashing pink and yellow hyacinths to be precise. But that was the point, he wanted to say. ‘From the Esso.’ He chanced a look at her. ‘Thought that might piss you off. Make you laugh.’
Rose said nothing.
‘I’ll just…’ He set them down at her bedside and glanced around. ‘Weather’s nice, isn’t it?’
‘Well, I mean, better than last week. Remember all those storms we –?’ He stopped himself.
Of course she remembered.
He cleared his throat. ‘I just mean, well, it’s… nice, isn’t it? You know, come October you don’t expect to see the sun anymore. Nice to … see it again.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘W-what’s happened to England, am I right?’ But he silenced himself quickly. Too jovial. He needed to stop sounding like some failed comedian.
‘I like the weather in this country,’ said Rose, unexpectedly.
‘You always have, though I can never understand why.’
She was smiling, too, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes, which remained nothing but stormy. ‘It’s just always there, changing, sure, but always there, wouldn’t you say?’
Lawrence licked his lips, dry as baked tarmac.
‘But I’ve always preferred the rain.’ She spoke louder, as though he too was outside, with the sun. ‘It’s more England, more… us. It’s not like the borrowed time of the sun, which just – just seems to disappear as we start to rely on it.’
Lawrence looked at her; a small frame tucked beneath clinical sheets, living to the beepbeepbeep of her bedside. Though she glared resolutely ahead, he couldn’t help but smile a little. She had always been stubborn.
Ignoring the visitor’s chair, he sat on the floor, cross-legged like a child.
‘Look, I know you don’t like me right now. I know you’re angry, and worst of all I know you have a right to be.’ He said the words quietly, as though he didn’t want her to even hear them. ‘But I’m sorry, Rose. Really sorry. You have to know that.’
She turned to him and he saw the fire still blazing across the side of her face. Lawrence saw a tear collect, then burst. It screamed down her cheek until silenced in the heat of her burns.
‘Tell it to Ben.’
The sun had stopped lashing down when he left the hospital. It rested instead atop the nearby buildings, trickling down to warm the concrete that carved the city. This was one of those rare moments of pause Lawrence’s father had always spoken of.
More out of habit than anything, he reached in his pocket and pulled out his last cigarette, rolling it between finger and thumb without really looking at it. He had been saving it for one-hundred and sixty-six days. But what for, he didn’t really know. A time like this, probably.
He struck down on the lighter three times – always three times – and took a long drag. The almost forgotten sensation wiped his entire body, so that muscles he didn’t even know he had unravelled around him. When he exhaled, he opened his eyes to see the smoke fall and then rise, as though picking itself up, drifting so close to his skin he felt coated in it.
He dropped the cigarette suddenly, as though it had surprised him. It hit the pavement and scattered sparks that died instantly. He stamped on it, harder than was necessary.
Breathing fast, he turned and kicked a dustbin nearby. He regretted it immediately, cursing the pain in his foot.
What had he expected? That a quick smile, an old joke and a stumbled ‘sorry’ was enough? He tried to think this sarcastically, but was unsuccessful, even to himself, and sank onto the steps. He had thought it was enough.
‘Excuse me, boy, but you can’t sit here.’ The voice came from behind him, cool and crisp with the weariness of someone just starting a long shift. ‘Patients come out here for fresh air, smokers are not welcome.’
‘But I’m not a smoker.’ He said automatically.
The woman looked, pointedly, from Lawrence to the abandoned cigarette, still glowing on the pavement. ‘Of course not. But if you have no business at the hospital then I must ask you to move on, or I shall have to call security.’
He got to his feet, and heard the door slide closed behind her. He knew she was right – he had no business there anymore – but it didn’t stop his anger. As he walked past, he noticed a small dent in the side of the bin. He chuckled to himself.
He took a few steps away from the hospital, but hesitated. Without really knowing why, he bent down and picked up the flattened stub of the cigarette. It was still warm; a beating heart in the cold autumn air. It was Ben who had gotten him to give up smoking in the first place. Ironic, really.
He put it back in his coat pocket, and felt it fall to its place between the old Christmas-cracker yoyo and the ripped ticket to see Tottenham. He had always carried them with him, for as long as he could remember. ‘Random crap’, the others had called it. He supposed it was, really.
The sun sank slowly, lower and lower, until soon it was rendered obsolete by the thousand artificial suns that spiderwebbed across London’s streets each night. Blocking out the stars.
Lawrence was still thinking about the same things – always the same things, these days. But as he looked around, he saw that his feet had taken him to old haunts. He had arrived at a park from long ago, only about three blocks from his own house. He didn’t dare call it ‘home’, especially not to himself.
The park was old, and not in the charming, classical way like art or fine wine, but in an outdated, run-down way that was frankly overrated in nostalgia. But he walked through it anyway. You know, for old times’ sake.
He wondered if they had ever bothered to repair the shattered swing, or if his trainer was still astray in the river. He didn’t look. He didn’t want to find out.
He noticed a small bicycle half concealed in a bush nearby. It had a bike-lock trailing from its back wheel, cut so roughly it would rattle when ridden. He pulled it out of the furrowed branches. It was a girl’s bike – that much was obvious. It wasn’t pink or Barbie, but green camouflage, with a male seat and every inch suffocated in a mish-mash of stickers; from animals to flowers to those little supermarket stickers you found on bananas.
It was the kind of bike that someone stubbornly too small would ride anyway, the kind of girl who would ride downhill with the brakes on. It reminded him of another bike he had known.
On the back was the largest sticker of all, white with typed black print; ‘Property of Nancy Whitman’. The address beneath was just three blocks away. Lawrence untangled the chain from the back wheel and, without really thinking about it, he got on the bike. It was comically too small for him, but no one was around to see.
He experimented with a couple of laps of the park. The brakes were squeaky and pulled the bike to the left. Really, it would have been easier to push it. But it seemed important to ride the bike to its home. A worthwhile distraction.
He cycled towards the streets; busy with footstep-less silence and forgotten wanderings. The bike gave the faint tick-tick-tick of a half-formed clock as Lawrence raced it over cracked pavements and through dark alleyways.
When he was only a street away from Nancy Whitman’s house, he stopped. This was a place he knew, but a place he had avoided for a long time. He looked across the street to the house opposite. Though it was long past midnight, the curtains of the front room remained wide open. Scratching onto his very tip-toe, he peeked over the fence, peering into the screen-like window to see the two people sat inside. The man had his arm around his wife, and they were looking down at something.
Lawrence moved to the gate, resting his hand on the. But he knew he would not go inside; Ben’s hockey stick was still flung across the wall and his running shoes still arranged in artistic disarray. Glancing at the window again, Lawrence could see that the man was crying. They were silent, almost hushed tears, as though he didn’t want to make a scene. Ben’s mother looked beyond such displays of grief. She said something to her husband and they both laughed, but it was a sad laugh. Lawrence didn’t bother wondering why they hadn’t tidied Ben’s things away; he liked that they hadn’t.
He wanted to go in, to say something – to say sorry. So much had been promised in that word, in those five letters.
It was all so quiet. There was no anger, no resistance. Just quiet. He had no right to this moment of theirs, no place in their grief.
He rode on.
He was beginning to understand why Rose didn’t like the sun as much – it was overrated. The night’s darkness was only cracked by nearby lamps, sputtering in and out of life, so that Lawrence could only see a step or two in front. He liked it that way.
Nancy Whitman’s house looked just like the rest, but oddly bare. He walked up the path, pausing a moment by the front door. He realised the lateness of the hour, as well as his position as a teenage boy with a stolen girl’s bike. It probably wouldn’t make the best impression. But he needed to see this through to the end.
He propped the bike neatly against the frame of the door and rang the doorbell, before turning and walking away. Pausing around the corner, he waited. He heard the soft click of a door latch and the sigh of warm, indoor air. He chanced a look. A man stood in the doorway with Nancy Whitman standing behind him, holding the sleeve of her father’s pyjamas rather than his hand.
‘My bike!’ she ran out and, of all things, hugged it.
Lawrence walked away, and as he did so, he heard a cry of ‘Thank you Mr Bike-Finder!’ in the night air. He told himself he had imagined it.
At the end of the road he paused. He looked down the street that led to Ben’s house, and further to his own. His fingers were in his pockets, rolling over and over the burnt cigarette. The cold night air had long extinguished its warmth, but he liked to think he could feel it still beating between his fingers.
He felt something brush his shoulder, like a small breath. He looked up, and smiled. It was a smile just for himself.
He turned and walked back towards the hospital.
Rain was falling.