Harold was fascinated with the veins in his hands. Each morning, he would wake up, listening to the sound of his bones creaking as he dragged his weary body out of bed, and then he would go and sit in his chair by the window. No words were spoken. No thoughts were in his mind. He was blank, quiet and empty until the moment he let his bony bottom fall against the old pink cushioned chair. Harold would place his hands out on his lap and simply look down to study them.
It had become a fascination of his.
An odd fascination, of that he was well aware. At ninety-four years old, Harold knew that his days were limited. Family would come and go from the nursing home. They would help him brush the hair on his head where his stiff muscles would no longer allow him to reach. They would chat to him about the news, their voices taking on a similar tone to that people adopt when they speak to babies. They’d talk about the weather or the small garden that surrounded his current residence. They’d walk in with smiles stretched high into their cheeks, just never quite high enough for those smiles to reach their eyes. They’d pretend they wanted to be there, like Harold couldn’t see right through them or every false compliment they gave him.
Not that it mattered to him. He was grateful for any effort at all, given the fact that the majority of the poor beggars in that home didn’t have a soul they could rely on to visit. He was lucky to have a family who cared, a family who pretended they wanted to be there, just to make him feel a little better.
Yet, no matter what the days had in store for him, he always made a point to sit in his chair and study the thick, squishy veins that now sat prominently under his speckled skin.
When did they appear? he thought to himself. One minute he had been youthful, walking around town with a girl on each arm. Then he met Thea and in the blink of an eye, he was a father to four boys, a grandfather to nine grandchildren and he spent the majority of his time digging out weeds from his beloved garden.
Never once, though, in all his life prior to his entry to the nursing home, had he registered the moment that those big blue veins had started to rise under his skin.
It was a sign of age that taunted him daily, even in his sleep. It took him back to his youth where Harold could remember sitting on his grandpa’s knee, tracing his fingers over the thick veins of his grandpa’s hand, and every night he would ask the same question:
“Why do they stick out so much? Tell me again, gramps.”
His grandfather would place a sad smile on his face and answer, “It’s because my veins are so full of life, Harold. I’ve lived so long, they’re full to bursting now.”
“Bursting?” Harold would gasp in surprise, as though he hadn’t already heard the story a hundred times before.
“What happens when they do burst?”
His grandfather would sigh and try to hide the sadness in his voice, but Harold always saw it there in his eyes. “I go to another world to live another life with new veins that are empty, waiting to be filled.”
“Can I go with you?”
“No, child. I’m afraid you can’t. You have to stay here and fill your own body up with a lifetime full of memories first.”
“But that will take forever,” Harold cried.
“Hopefully.” His grandfather smiled.
It was just another day, and as Harold stared down at his hands on that cold, frosty morning, he felt his heart beat harder against his frail chest once again. He felt his fingers ache from the temperatures. He felt the rush of blood to his head when the panic started to take over, but as always, he remained still. Frozen. A little bit numb to the life that he was fortunate to have still beating through him.
Eventually, the door creaked open and the nurse walked in, her voice booming, cutting through the silence.
“Good morning, Harold,” she called out to him.
He didn’t look up. He knew that the nurse wasn’t looking his way or expecting an answer. It was the same thing they did every morning. They would waltz through the door, their eyes aimed high at the ceiling so they didn’t have to stare misery in the face. As long as they could pretend that Harold was fine, he was fine and their job was done.
Turning his hands over, he began to study his palms, and he allowed himself to think of all the wonderful, magical things he’d held in them.
The first time he touched his wife beneath her blouse and the shiver that ran through her body.
The first time he traced the length of her spine right before they made love.
The first time he held her hand as her new husband.
The first time he held his firstborn child, Zach, worrying suddenly how weak he seemed with the weight of his world now in his grip.
The first time he cleaned his child’s play wounds.
The last time he brushed his mother’s hair back from her face before he kissed her forehead and said goodbye when she died.
The last time the pad of his thumb brushed over his darling Thea’s lips.
The last time his hands had been able to get a solid grip on the trowel he loved to spend so much time with in the garden.
So many firsts. Too many, they were uncountable.
So many lasts. Too many, they were unforgettable.
But my God, what a life he had had. What a life he had held on to with a white-knuckle grip, and how blessed he had been. How blessed he was that, even though they failed to show him their love the way they used to, his family still cared. They still showed up. They still tried.
A small smile tried to tug on one corner of Harold’s mouth, but he quickly twitched his lips and remained straight faced. He had no desire for the nurse to see any kind of relief on his face and hang around. Small talk and polite conversation were no longer his forte.
Still, she appeared before him soon enough and she went about her usual checks, fussing, brushing his hair away from his face, trying to move all the ornaments that sat proudly like memory trophies on his window ledge.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it, Harold? The air is very crisp.”
He thought about how horrible the day was and how the low temperatures made him feel as though he was the Tin Man from that film Thea used to watch all the time.
Daring to peek up from under his bushy, overgrown eyebrows, he glanced the nurse’s way. It was the one he neither cared for or despised, so he quickly looked back down at his hands again.
“Always so full of conversation,” she said through an obvious smile as she walked over to his bed and began to straighten out his pillows and sheets. “That’s alright by me. I know you’re not a morning person. You remind me of my husband. He doesn’t speak to anyone until it’s after lunch and he’s had at least four cups of coffee.” She laughed, more to herself than with him, and carried on with her business.
Harold’s lips parted to protest and a small scowl formed on his forehead. He wanted to tell her that the mornings were his favourite time of day. He wanted to tell her that when he first woke up, he was reflective. He was as optimistic as he was going to be for at least another twenty-four hours. He wanted to share memories of him and Thea drinking cups of tea in their conservatory, the two of them watching the sun slowly rise before their children woke up and demanded their attention. But before he let himself slip, he pressed his lips back together and continued to stare down at those ridiculously prominent veins on his hands.
The nurse moved closer, and without looking up, Harold knew it was time for his daily medication. The bottle of pills rattled in her hand as she unscrewed the cap and placed his dose on the small table in front of him. Then she quickly made her way to the bathroom to get him a half-filled glass of water before she returned and held the drink out in front of him.
His hand shook as he reached up, but she was patient as she waited for him to gain the strength he needed to lift the pills and the water to his mouth. They stuck in his throat like sandy rocks, but he didn’t flinch or show her his discomfort. Once he had finished, Harold looked up at her through wide, helpless eyes and waited for her to say what they always said.
Her soft smile turned into a bright grin as she took the glass from him and tilted her head to the side. “You’re doing well, Harold. You’re doing really well.”
With that, she took off out of the room, reminding him before she left that he only needed to call for them if he required help.
Once the silence surrounded him again, he turned his head to look at the other fascination in his life.
Thea was there. She was always there. Sitting opposite him with a smile on her ghostly face, her eyes alive with that twinkle she had always reserved for him and him alone. He saw her every day. He felt her every second. But he never let anyone know. It terrified him that they might make him take more pills to stop the hallucinations, and Harold knew that if they took his Thea away from him ever again, he wouldn’t have the strength to live for another moment longer.
She was beautiful as she sat quietly in front of him. The Thea that visited him these days was younger than he was – young enough to be his daughter. Her rich, red hair was in thick, bouncy curls, and she was wearing that lovely light blue dress that fell just below her knees and hugged her waist. It was the outfit she’d worn on one of their very first dates and had always been a favourite of his.
She never spoke. He wasn’t even sure that she could, but he loved the fact that she listened so intently, her unspoken words somehow guiding him through the last days of his life.
Allowing himself to smile for the first time that morning, relieved that he could keep his promise for another day – the promise of always giving his best smiles to her until the day he died – Harold blew out a shaky breath and spoke quietly.
“They say I’m doing well, Thea,” he began, his fingers curling into his palms as he felt the rush of blood surge through his cold veins. “But they don’t know how ready I am to be with you now.”
Thea blinked slowly, her smile never fading as she gave him a small, sympathetic nod of her head.
“They say I’m doing well,” he repeated in a whisper. “But I think deep down, they must know that I’m not.”
His wife’s head fell to the side as she stared into his eyes, unleashing her magic on him just like she had done all those years ago.
Harold wished he could rush over there, sweep her up into his arms and press his lips against hers. He wished he could drop her down on the bed, curl around her small, familiar body and fall asleep with her in his arms. He wished he could hear her laugh, or even her cry, just one more time.
He wished and he wished and he wished and he wished until wishing became breathing and breathing became painful once again.
“Get your dancing shoes ready, my darling,” he croaked in another whisper. “When I meet you in heaven, we’re never sitting down again. We’re going to dance for eternity.”
Then he smiled brightly as Thea’s eyes lit up with excitement, and before he knew it, he was laughing that charming laugh he used to own forty years ago, and his wife’s cheeks were blushing, despite their lack of warmth.
Harold’s grandpa had been right all those years ago. His veins were full to the brim now, and that was why they were sat proudly under his skin. He had so many memories… so much love, so much light, so much happiness, it was only a matter of time now before they burst on him.
And he found that, despite his fears, he couldn’t wait for that to happen after all.
Victoria L. James © 2016
Victoria L. James is a teenage girl stuck in a thirty-something year-old’s body. Living somewhere ‘oop north’ in England, she has had a strong passion for words and stories going as far back as she can remember, which she credits to her grandmother and her love of reading anything that was on sale and cheap from the local market stall. Never once did she think she would release a novel, though. At best, she thought her love of language and her ability to create stories in her mind would provide her with a ‘get out of jail free’ card whenever she messed up and her parents were mad at her during her teenage years… and when even that didn’t work out, she thought she was pretty much done for.
When an opportunity presented itself for her to take a back seat from paid working life for a few years, she knew straight away that she had to try and write about a few of these worlds she’d come up with along the way, and quieten all the voices in her head without racking up a heavy psychiatry bill for the pleasure.
Wearing her heart on her sleeve and trying to lighten her friends’ and family’s lives with naff, and more often than not, badly-timed, nineties jokes, she has yet to learn the art of knowing when to shut up. Which is another reason writing became a passion of hers. With pen and paper, there are no limits.
A firm believer in never quitting, with a ridiculous obsession for all things Rocky, she hopes that one day she writes a story that will inspire at least one person out there to keep on going if they’re struggling. Other than that, she’s just a regular old converse wearing, corona sipping, English version of Chandler Bing, who loves and adores her family more than life itself. Oh, and she also has two cats. Every writer has to mention their cats, right?
Thank you so much for taking part Victoria!
To see the full list of authors taking part in this month-long blog tour, [click here]
To find out what “They Say I’m Doing Well” is all about, [click here]