Here we all are, it’s March already! I know what you’re thinking: ‘Holy fudgesticks’, but worry not, because here for your entertainment is the March instalment of my Short Story challenge from last year.
No edits, no changes, just the way I left it 12 months ago…
Don had heard about having ‘out-of-body experiences’ before, but he never expected to be having one of his own, and certainly not on the night before his daughter’s wedding. It started quite innocuously, when he was lying in the bath reading through his speech. One minute he was making a mental note to drop the story about Mary’s 18th Birthday drunken karaoke episode, the next he felt a feeling of detachment and he could see himself there, in the water, the suds beginning to dissipate, uncovering his large frame crammed into the bath tub.
“Christ, this is weird,” he thought to himself. He hovered in the room for a moment, before edging out of the open door onto the upstairs landing. He made his way towards the bedroom he shared with Maureen, his wife of thirty two years, and was about to push open the door when the sound of splashing water came from the bathroom. He stopped, waiting for something to happen, and when nothing did, he tried to push the door open. But nothing happened. He tried again – nothing. He decided to go with brute force and thrust his hand against the door, only to see his hand go straight through. Raising his eyebrows with curiosity, Don stepped through the door and was confronted by the sight of Maureen lay on the bed, her nightie rolled back to reveal her legs, and a bowl of something gloopy looking next to her. Don assumed this was the wax that she’d told him about, and stood where he was, admiring his wife’s still athletic looking body, defying her age and managing to get him all excitable every time he saw it in its full glory. Which wasn’t very often these days he was sad to admit. As Maureen applied the wax to her left leg, then rubbed a strip of whatever it was over the wax, Don wanted to move closer, but found himself rooted to the spot. Maureen paused, picked up a box and studied it for a moment before taking hold of the strip and tugging quickly. She let out a small whimper, and Don had to chuckle to himself at the lengths women go to in their vanity. He sighed and walked back through the door onto the landing. He didn’t know how long these ‘out-of-body experiences’ usually lasted, but with this being new to him, he decided to go with it.
Things took a turn for the worst then, just as the front door opened. Mary had been out having a last minute run through with her bridesmaid Selina at the hotel and had called before he got into the bath to say she was bringing them all some fish and chips for supper. She came in and closed the front door behind her. When she turned around Don was suddenly aware that he was possibly stark bollock naked. He looked down to find he was wearing a grey jumper and blue jeans. Before he knew what had happened, he somehow found himself transported to a strange place, a place that looked like the entrance hall to a big building. People were milling around, some chatting to each other, and to his right there were escalators going both up and down. Don looked around for a clue to where he was, and decided that he wanted to get back home for supper. He walked around looking for a way out, but there wasn’t one that he could see. He headed to the escalators to see if there were any clues there. Nothing. A young man was stood to his right, and Don turned to speak to him.
“How do I get out of here?” He asked. The man looked at him blankly. “No idea, mate. I was hoping you could tell me!” Don shrugged his shoulders. It was only then that he noticed a reception desk to the side of the hall. He gesticulated to the young man with a nod of his head and together they made their way through the growing throng of people towards the desk. Don, being the elder of the two, took control. He strode up to the desk and waited for the little black suited man with jet black hair, slicked back, to acknowledge his existence.
“Excuse me,” Don began. “Can you tell me how to get out of here? I want to go home, but I can’t seem to find the exit.”
The young man piped up. “Same here, actually. I’ve got to get back to feed my mum’s cat.”
The man on reception looked at them both with a sympathetic look. Don immediately felt a little nervous. He smiled and consulted his hand-held computer (Don had half an idea they were called tablets or something these days). Before the man could provide any more answers, a phone on the desk rang out. He smiled again, this time more apologetically, and picked up the receiver. Don turned to the younger chap beside him.
“What brought you here?” He asked.
“Well, I’m not sure,” the young man replied. “One minute I was crossing the road, the next I was here. How about you?”
“I was having a bath, then I had one of those out-of-body experiences, but I seem to have got stuck here somehow.” Don smiled awkwardly. “I’m Don, by the way,” he added, holding out his hand. The young man took it and they shook hands.
“I’m Ben.” Don had a thought and looked down at their shaking hands, and his mind cast back to when he was at home, and couldn’t touch anything. What did all this mean? His thoughts were interrupted by a polite cough from the receptionist. Don dragged his mind back to the present.
“Mr Pickles, I have some news for you,” he said, quite matter-of-factly. Don did a double take when he heard his name used.
“How do you know my name?” He asked suspiciously.
“We have been expecting you, sir. As we have been expecting you too,” he turned to address Ben. “Mr Shotton.” Both Don and Ben exchanged confused and slightly uneasy looks.
“How?” Ben stammered.
“I’m not at liberty to divulge that information, I’m afraid, sir. But if you would both like to head over to the escalators someone will be on hand to guide you to your destinations.” He reached under the desk and brought up two cards. He handed them out to Don and Ben, and before either of them could question him further, they were barged aside by a group of men in Army combat gear.
Don started to head towards the escalators in a daze, trying to work out what the hell was going on. Ben seemed a bit more with it, so he took Don’s arm and guided him over to the escalators. Once they arrived, they were met by a tall-ish blonde woman in a bright white dress. She smiled at them and held her hand out for the cards they had been given. Ben handed her his, and she checked it. She smiled pleasantly at Ben and motioned him over to the escalator that seemed to be going up. Ben turned to Don and patted his arm. “See you later maybe. It was nice meeting you, Don, albeit briefly.” Don looked blankly at him, and tried to force a smile. Ben patted his arm again, and taking the card back from the woman strode off to the escalator. He appeared to take a deep breath before stepping on, and then he ascended up and out of view. Don felt a weight in his stomach, and then a sharp tug, as if someone had stabbed him and twisted the knife. A wave of nausea hit him, and he had to crouch and put his head down to steady himself and prevent his legs giving way. The woman in white smiled at him, and before he knew what was happening, she took him by the hand and led him over to where a few chairs were set out against the wall. She sat him down and before he could thank her, she’d gone back to where she’d been stood.
As Don was trying to regain his composure, he noticed the sudden presence of someone sat next to him. He didn’t immediately acknowledge their appearance, and was startled when he heard an American accented voice talking.
“Y’all don’t look too healthy there,” a distinctly male voice drawled. Don had never liked Americans, since his mother had been wooed and seduced away from home by an American GI during the war. He closed his eyes and hoped to be left alone. He was out of luck.
“Then again, if you were healthy, ya probly wouldn’t be here, would ya?” Rather than interpret Don’s silence as a signal to leave him alone, the voice continued. “Cos there ain’t none of us here healthy any more. That’s for sure.” Don opened his eyes and cast a furtive glance to the man sat next to him. He didn’t see much, just a pair of feet clad in black trainers and white cotton socks.
“How’d you get here?” The voice went on. “I’ll bet it was your heart. Am I right or am I right?” Don sat up slowly and deliberately. He turned to face the owner of the voice and came face to face with a spotty looking adolescent male. His hair was crew cut, and he wore wire rimmed round glasses. He smiled at Don, and Don noticed his slightly large front teeth, like a rabbit.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Don said softly, but firmly.
“What?!” The manchild exclaimed. “You gotta be kidding me?!”
“No,” Don said. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Well, fuck me. Shall I tell you how I got here? Give you a clue, like?” He leaned closer in to Don, until his beer and garlic breath was making Don feel like heaving. “I went to school this morning, and I took my daddy’s rifle with me. I took care of a few folks I didn’t care for. Then I took care of myself,” he whispered. Don pulled away and stared at the manchild in disbelief.
“I’ll leave you to think about that, nice to meet you.” And with that, he stood up and sauntered over to the escalator that went down and stepped on without even a hesitation. Don stared after him, the nausea coming over him again, and a feeling that he’d just been hit by a bus.
Once he’d choked back the sick feeling and fought back the tears that followed, Don stood up and made his way over to where the woman was talking to an old lady. He stood patiently as they conversed in a language that was alien to him, but then he’d never really been much further than Scotland or Ireland in his lifetime. And it was becoming increasingly obvious that he wasn’t going to get the chance to broaden his horizons from this point onwards. Don looked around himself again, taking in faces and voices from all around the world, all united by one thing. Eventually, the old lady was satisfied and shuffled off towards the escalator. Don watched her go slowly towards the escalator that went down. He let out a surprised shout and looked in horror at the blonde, who turned to see what the problem was. Don pointed to the old lady. The blonde nodded and turned back to greet a large Hispanic looking man, who appeared quite agitated. Don was overwhelmed by confusion as he watched the old lady slowly disappear downwards. It was all getting a bit much for him, so Don went back to sit down again. He sat and surveyed the scene around him. He knew now, where he was and what it meant. He only wished he could have said his goodbyes to his family, his friends, even his golf club captain. His thoughts were invaded by the sound of a crying baby. Don looked up to see a moses basket on the seat next to him, with a virtually naked baby boy lay inside. He looked around to see if there was an adult around to claim the infant, but no obvious candidates presented themselves. Don peered in and smiled at the baby, trying to calm it down, but having no luck. The poor thing, Don thought, he only looked a few weeks old, if that. Don reached into the basket and picked up the child. He checked the nappy was on properly, as he remembered a few occasions in his parenting experience where he’d picked up Mary only for her nappy to fall off and subsequently got peed on! He cradled the infant in the crook of his arm and began to pace up and down, rocking gently. This took him back to the days when he used to do the same with Mary, when Maureen was suffering from post-natal depression. He had stepped up to give all the support he could, even taking extended holiday from the Council to stay at home. That was probably why he and Mary had such a close bond, or had done. His mind then recalled the miscarriage Maureen suffered two years after Mary, not to mention the heart-breaking stillbirth just eighteen months after that. How he explained to a three-and-a-half year old Mary that the brother or sister she’d been looking forward to wasn’t coming home with mummy, was a memory he didn’t want to conjure up.
Don stood there, gazing down at the child, when he heard a distant scream, and then the room began to twist and buckle around him. He looked around, and the rest of the people were oblivious to it all, as if it wasn’t happening to them. His arms dropped to his side, before in horror he looked down to where the baby should have been, but there was no sign. He was overcome by blackness, and then, a burst of bright light and he was aware that he was lying flat on his back, with all sorts of wires and tubes snaking around him and into him. He tried to move his head to see where he was, but he couldn’t muster the energy. As he looked up at the white, plain ceiling, Maureen came into view. Her eyes were red from crying, her face streaked with dried tears, but there was an air of happiness about her. He tried to smile, and found his mouth as dry as a desert. He was desperate to tell her everything he had experienced, but realised she might not believe him. Before any more could be said, in burst Mary and she threw herself on him.
It was a few days later that Don was told what had happened. As he lay in the bath, he’d had quite a major heart attack. Mary had found him, and called the ambulance. They had just about managed to get his heart pumping enough to get him into the hospital and perform emergency surgery. The frightening thing was that what had seemed like a few hours had actually been two weeks while he lay in a coma. Not surprisingly, the wedding had been postponed. Don stayed in hospital for another two weeks, slowly regaining his strength. His days were initially spent lying in bed reading the endless stream of books that Maureen and Mary provided him with. As he recovered, he began to move around more and by the mid-point of the second week, he received a visit from a young, attractive female physiotherapist who provided him with a load of exercises designed to get him back where he wanted to be – the golf course.
Mary and her fiancé Tom had rearranged their wedding for the weekend after Don’s discharge from hospital (Don felt that ‘release’ was a more apt choice of word) and the night before, Don lay in bed with Maureen and finally told her about his experience, from the feeling of detachment, to the big room, even the American and the baby. He was man enough to cry as he related the whole thing, and as he did so, Maureen stroked his arm soothingly. Don drifted off into a dreamless sleep, praying he’d wake up again the next day to see his only child get married.
Thankfully, Don did wake up. He woke before Maureen, and went downstairs to make breakfast. Ever since his heart attack, Don had been on a strict diet, and that ruled out the prospect of a wedding morning fry up. Instead, he made two cups of tea and poured out some muesli into a bowl for himself with some skimmed milk. For Maureen, he halved a grapefruit, sprinkled a little sugar on it. He put it all on a tray and slowly made his way back upstairs. Maureen was starting to stir as Don took the cup of tea and set it down on her bedside table. She smiled at him all sleepy-eyed and dragged herself up into a sitting position so Don could hand her the grapefruit on a plate. Don hopped back into bed beside her and tucked into his muesli. It was going to take a while for him to get used to it, he knew, and he still craved fried food regularly, but seeing as Maureen had made him ceremonially throw the frying pan into the bin, therein was the major stumbling block.
“Have you got your speech all ready?” Maureen asked him between mouthfuls of grapefruit. Don reached over and opened the drawer in his cabinet, pulling out a piece of lined A4 paper. He handed it to Maureen. She looked at it, then turned it over, and handed it back to him slightly put out.
“It’s blank,” she said.
“That’s right,” Don agreed. “My speech is coming from my heart.” He patted his bare, scarred chest. Maureen shed a tear at this, and gave Don a kiss on the cheek, and a squeeze on the arm.
Once they were both breakfasted and washed, Don and Maureen got all dressed up. Don in his hired morning suit with pale blue waistcoat and cravat, Maureen in a slightly darker shade of blue dress and jacket. There was still another two hours to go until Tom’s dad was due to pick them up to take them to the hotel. Don stood outside in the bright June sunshine, looking around the garden that had been neglected as a result of his incapacitation. He could see that the grass needed cutting, the borders were starting to get overrun with weeds, and the sun deck probably needed a coat of wood preserver. All things to do now he had some time on his hands. Tom’s dad, Eric, picked them up on schedule, and drove them over to the hotel that was hosting the wedding and reception. Don climbed into the passenger seat of the Audi A4, and placed his wooden walking stick, for support, between his legs. Maureen got in the back seat, and Eric shut the doors and got in the driver’s seat and started the engine. He turned to Don.
“I’ll bet you never thought you’d see this day after what you’ve been through, eh?” Don shook his head solemnly and looked at Eric.
“But here I am, and I’m going to enjoy every single moment.” Eric slapped him on the shoulder and they set off.
Mary looked absolutely amazing as she came down the stairs to stand in front of Don outside the closed door of the function room. Don made sure he told Mary that.
“Thanks, dad. I love you.”
“Love you too, Princess,” he replied and gave her a big cuddle. “Now, come on, let’s get you down that aisle to Tom.” The door opened, the music started, and Don released Mary from his grip. They turned to face the front, and off they went. Behind them, Mary’s bridesmaids with Tom’s six year old niece as the flower girl brought up the rear. The ceremony passed without a hitch, although there was an unexpected comedy moment when Tom sneezed at the point when the vicar asks if anyone knows of any reason why they shouldn’t be married. Once Tom and Mary were man and wife, they made their way back down the aisle and Don greeted them both with the biggest of grins. Maureen was busy dabbing the tears from her eyes without disturbing the layers of make-up she’s applied in an attempt to look twenty years younger. As Don watched them go, he wondered what life was going to be like now. He had a son-in-law now, chances are there were going to be grandchildren on their way before too long. He felt a nudge in his back, as Maureen guided him out of the row and down the aisle after the bride and groom, and the groom’s parents Eric and Sheila. Tom and Mary were stood in the restaurant bar with a glass of champagne each when Don and Maureen, followed by Tom’s parents, the best man Glenn and the bridesmaids were shown through to join the traditional pre-reception line-up. Don stood in line with Maureen on one side and Sheila on the other, leaning on his stick for support – it had been quite a long day by now and his legs were getting tired. Line-up over, Don made his way through the various tables accepting congratulations from people he knew, and people he didn’t and happily plonked himself down at the top table. Moments later they were all seated, only for the Master of Ceremonies to startle everyone when he tapped the microphone, causing momentary feedback.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding for the new Mr and Mrs Brotherton.” This was followed by the noise of about a hundred chairs being pushed back on the parquet flooring, and the shuffle of two hundred feet standing up. Don was about to do the same when Maureen held his arm and whispered in his ear to stay sat down. He did so with relief, and joined in the applause as Tom and Mary wound their own way between the tables, smiling happily, holding hands. They reached the top table, and Mary sat next to Don and squeezed his hand that lay on the table. ‘Right,’ thought Don, ‘time for some food, the nerves have given me an appetite.’ He was sadly disappointed though, as the Master of Ceremonies, now stood by the wall at the end of the top table, spoke again.
“I’m sure you’re all ready to eat, and we will get to that.” Don groaned. “But first, Tom and Mary have asked to get the speeches out of the way,” he paused, possibly for effect. “Before the best man gets drunk and runs off with the chief bridesmaid.” Gentle laughter filled the room, and the best man could be heard laughing mock-sarcastically. He didn’t have long to wait for revenge, as he stood up first and began to relate stories of drunkenness, childishness, naughtiness and more, but ultimately stories of close friends that had stuck together for years. As the best man finally sat down to rapturous applause, Don felt a few butterflies in his stomach knowing he was next. He waited to be announced, then slowly stood up to face everyone in the room. He coughed and cleared his throat, and began.
“Ladies and gentlemen guests, I would like to say thank you for coming today. You probably thought this day was supposed to happen last month, and I sincerely thank you all for giving your time up again to attend today’s nuptials. I also hope you managed to fit in your clothes after an extra month’s worth of eating. As you know, it was my fault that we’ve had to reschedule this special day, and I have to admit that I wondered if I was going to see my daughter get married. But, here I am.” He paused, and took a deep breath, before continuing. “And here we are, celebrating the marriage of my lovely, beautiful daughter Mary, and her new husband, the incredibly patient and soon to be long-suffering Tom.” This raised a few chuckles, and Don felt a little easier. He carried on for another five minutes or so, completely off the top of his head and from the bottom of his heart. By the end, Mary was in tears on one side, Maureen on the other side of him, and he had to wipe away the salty tears from his own cheek as he sat down. Tom said a few words himself before the Master of Ceremonies brought the speeches to a close and announced the onset of the Wedding Breakfast. This was met with a few ironic cheers, including from Don.
After the puddings were finished, and the waiting staff were clearing up the tables, Don took himself outside onto the terrace for a blast of fresh air. He sat on a bench and looked into the distance, listening to the sound of the birds mixed in with the hum of conversation coming from the room behind him. From the corner of his eye, he saw a suited figure take a seat next to him. He turned to see Tom sat there, looking out into the hotel’s gardens.
“It’s gone pretty damned well, hasn’t it?” Tom said.
“It has indeed. I’m glad I made it,” Don replied.
“So am I, Don. So am I.” Tom smiled. Don held his hand out, Tom lifted his hand up, and they shook hands.
“Welcome to the family, Tom. Fancy a cigar?” With that, Don reached into his inside pocket, and pulled out two hefty cigars. He held one out for Tom, and pulled a silver lighter from his trouser pocket. Tom took the cigar and put it to his mouth. Don bit the end off his and laughed as he lit it and took a few puffs. Tom looked puzzled as he waited for Don to light the cigar. Don gently removed the cigar from between Tom’s lips, and after taking his own out, proceeded to bit the end of Tom’s before replacing it in Tom’s mouth. Only then did Don flip the lighter lid again, offering the light for Tom. He reached in and the end of the cigar began to burn and smoke. Don flipped the lighter shut and put it back in his pocket. Together they sat quietly, looking into the distance and smoking their cigars. When the time came to go back in, Don pulled Tom back.
“This was our little secret treat, okay? Maureen has banned me from smoking since the heart attack, and if she found out, well, she’d kill me!”
Tom nodded and crossed his heart with his finger. “Not a word shall pass my lips, Don. Trust me.”
“Atta boy,” Don smiled, patting Tom on the back, and popping a stick of chewing gum into his mouth. Tom went back in, and Don followed shortly after once he’d checked his clothes for any lingering cigar smell. He went back in just in time to see Tom and Mary having their first dance, and feeling a rush of romance, he took Maureen’s hand and led her onto the dance floor to join in. Together they danced to Elvis Presley singing ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’, and it was like the old days when they’d gone to the clubs and hung around right until the end, just for the slow dance. Maureen leaned forward and put her mouth to Don’s ear.
“Mary chose this for us, you know,” she whispered. Don smiled appreciatively. It was those little things that made him feel glad to be alive these days. The song finished, and they remained on the dance floor to be joined by more guests for something a bit more lively. The opening bars of Barry White’s ‘My First, My Last, My Everything’ blasted from the speakers, and Don, being full of joy and happiness in that moment, twirled Maureen around and took control of that dancefloor.
Six months later, as Don and his golf partner Frank were approaching the sixteenth green, he came over all faint, a pain started snaking up his left arm, he felt short of breath and then the ground came rushing to greet him. The lush green turned to blackness and then Don opened his eyes to find himself back in that familiar place. All around him people were milling about; his eyes were drawn to the black-suited man at the reception desk, then the blonde woman, and those two escalators. He took a deep breath and strode up to the desk. The man gave him that same withering smile and handed him a card and returned to his business. Don looked at the card, baffled by the symbols and colours that adorned it. Feeling a sense of peace, he slowly ambled over to the blonde woman and handed her his card. She glanced at it, then at Don. A smile spread across her face and she handed the card back to him.
“Welcome back, Mr Pickles,” she purred in a voice that reminded him of Pussy Galore from the James Bond film. He almost half-expected her to say something like ‘I’ve been expecting you’ or something along those lines, but she didn’t. She merely lifted her arm and pointed towards the escalator that went up. Don smiled at her, thanked her and made his way across the floor in the direction he’d been indicated. He paused at the bottom of the moving steps, and looked back. He had always thought he’d get to see his life pass before his eyes, or something along those lines at the point of death. This, he thought, was a bit of a let-down. He stepped onto the escalator, and allowed himself to be carried upwards into the unknown.