“Good afternoon,” he says. “I’m looking for my mother and father.”
Between her answering the front door and the gentleman’s first words, Rhona has begun to worry about the coming minutes. She can’t put a name to the chap on her garden path: an octogenarian dressed in a grey Oxford shirt, Adidas tracksuit bottoms, and a pair of hiking boots with outsoles plunged in dollops of wet mud. Silver hair sprouts from his head at random, expanses of scalp empty. Rhona pulls the door closer to nudge against her hip and seal off access to the hall.
“I’m sorry – who is it you’re after?”
“My parents live here,” the man says. “Are they in?”
In the vicinity, much of Wellington Avenue has dissolved behind a winter fog, sunlight to the west radiating all of the vapours and glints of moisture and sparse outlines of terraced houses. Given the afternoon’s temperature it’s no wonder the poor soul is shivering, though Rhona perceives no hint of discomfort on his face, as if the cold registers only with the body and not the mind.
“I’m not sure you’ve got the right place,” she says.
“They won’t have moved without telling me,” the man says. “I’ve kept a note of the address. I’d appreciate if you could double-check.”
“There’s only myself here, unfortunately,” Rhona says. “This is my house.”
“I’m their eldest,” the man says. “Could you let them know Malcolm’s here?”
His entire being puts her in mind of a cobweb, his every muscle fibre and skin cell so tenuous and thinly composed that even a breeze might peel him apart. The earnestness of his inflections, his eyes, and general air of civility make Rhona ashamed of what must be said.
“I don’t think they’re here,” she says. “I don’t think they live here anymore.”
“I’m with you.” Malcolm looks at his toecaps, then the square metres of grass that comprise Rhona’s front garden where birch and sycamore leaves lie blasted across the ground. “I’m their eldest,” he says.
Rhona watches him stroke his fringe against his forehead, the motion repeated continuously, until Malcolm starts welling up. “I’ve not dropped in for a while, I’ll admit that,” he says. “They’ve a right to be upset. I’d be grateful if you could point me in their direction. I’ll need to go after them.”
It’s apparent his distress and uncertainty are inflaming each other. Rhona can’t pinpoint another human on Wellington Avenue who might be searching for him or qualified to assist; it falls on her to decide if she should allow him to roam any further into a present day that he doesn’t accept.
“They must’ve popped out for a wander,” she says. “Do you want to come in and wait for them?”
“I could catch them up.”
“You’re not dressed for it,” Rhona says. “Come in and get a heat.” She reverses a step to pull the door open, gesturing at the interior.
“They must’ve popped out for a wander,” Malcolm says.
He takes care when walking inside, seemingly testing with his feet the structural integrity of doorstep and flooring. Upon closing the door, Rhona attempts to direct Malcolm through to her kitchen; he pauses at the foot of the stairs, however, assessing the hall with eyes that don’t appear to trust themselves.
“This colour scheme isn’t right,” he says.
“Is it not?”
“I wouldn’t have believed they’d take all their photos down,” he says.
“You have a seat in here,” Rhona says, manoeuvring him into a chair at her dinner table. By touching his arm, her palm absorbs his body’s core temperature through his shirt – she cranks up the kitchen’s radiator to its maximum limit.
“They’ve popped out for a wander,” Malcolm says.
“I’m sure they won’t keep you.”
“I’m their eldest.”
Rhona removes one of her Aran jumpers from the clothes airer and slings it about Malcolm’s shoulders. “You hold onto that for me.”
“I don’t think this is mine.”
“You’re fine,” she says. “You’re borrowing it. Malcolm, what’s your surname?”
“Cuddihy,” he says. “There’s three boys and I’m the eldest.”
“Got you,” she says. “And I’m Rhona Semple, so you know.”
“It’s nice to see you again.”
“I’ve only just made your acquaintance,” Rhona says. She notices his trembling has doubled in severity, the patent contrast in the air outdoors and indoors an affront to his nervous system. “I’m going to do you a cup of tea, Malcolm, but I need to step out and make a call first.”
“Not a bother,” he says. “Mind and don’t hurt yourself.”
Rhona withdraws to the hallway, searching online for a contact number at Ballaneath’s police station. Selecting the option to dial, she feels nerves boiling over in her abdomen at the thought of more talking on her part. Already this is the most she’s used her voice in months – she’s had no need of it. She’s patched through to a sergeant and manages to describe her situation, mortified over what it must be like to listen to her flustering through each sentence. He isn’t aware of any missing residents from care homes but assures Rhona that an officer will be dispatched to her address; he recommends she sit tight.
Ringing off, Rhona wipes perspiration from her hands on the rear of her blouse, relieved at the silence. She takes a moment to examine the sequence of Malcolm’s bootprints slathered along the length of the hall, clear-cut slaps of muck on the wooden boards; it dawns on her that it must be half a decade since this house has shown traces of someone who isn’t her. Malcolm’s steps lie in front of her like small breaches on the surface of the universe.
In the kitchen Rhona brings him a mug of tea, having finally ascertained that Malcolm takes milk and one sugar after his several failures to respond to the question. The skittish nature of his coordination and fraying grip of his fingers around the cup’s handle forces her to help him lift the drink to his mouth. Thin slavers of tea drip onto his shirtfront; mucus from both nostrils form a droukle at the tip of his nose that Rhona must dab clean with a dod of kitchen roll. Malcolm lets these things happen without comment or reaction, giving Rhona the sense that his functions have powered down to preserve energy. He stares at the wallpaper, eyes like plastic, until his personality fires up again.
“And how’ve you been keeping?”
“No complaints,” Rhona says. “What about yourself?”
“It’s exam season,” Malcolm says. “And them papers won’t mark themselves. I’ve been sleeping at the department some nights.”
“No clue whether I’m coming or going,” he says.
“You should be putting your feet up at your age, should you not.”
“I’m too young to retire.”
“I’m retired,” Rhona says.
Malcolm hesitates, glancing at her with a blend of scepticism and curiosity. “So you are,” he says. “You worked in the chemist’s, didn’t you.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“It was the post office, then.”
“I was thirty-two years in the civil service.”
Malcolm tuts, his expression instantly soured. “I do remember that.”
“You’re fine,” she says. “We’ve never crossed paths, Malcolm.”
“I’m positive you worked in the chemist’s,” he says. “I’d appreciate if you could double-check – I’m sure my mother’s mentioned you. About what time’s she due home?”
“I’m not sure.”
“And I see there’s no sign of Archie or David.”
“My brothers,” he says. “Conspicuous by their absence – but if either of them are short on cash you can guarantee they’ll make an appearance.”
“Have you no other family, Malcolm?”
He laughs, bouncing his shoulders, and Rhona has to catch the sleeve of her jumper as it shucks off his back. “I’ll tell you this for free,” he says. “I’m never having children.”
“I wouldn’t have them for love nor money,” he says. “No offence to you and yours.”
“I’ve no children,” she says. “Can I interest you in something to eat?”
She has an urge to occupy herself. Rhona fetches the fruit loaf parcelled up in tinfoil on the counter and carves off a slice, placing it on a saucer. Malcolm can prise the cake apart using his own fingers but loses purchase when transferring pieces from plate to mouth; sweet crumbs, sultanas and saliva land on Rhona’s table. She reaches out to guide Malcolm’s hand with hers as he feeds himself, keeping him on course. Nobody before, she realises, has sampled any of her efforts at baking; it’s a rare experience to share some element of her life. Malcolm’s enjoyment of it brightens her thoughts, surprising her with absolute contentment.
He downs the last fragment of fruit loaf, breathing hard through his nasal passages as he finishes chewing. “That’s second to none,” he says. “Where’d you buy it from?”
“It’s one of mine,” she says. “But it’s my dad’s recipe. I wish you could taste one he’d made – his were in another league.”
“I very much doubt that.”
“You’ll have to take my word for it.”
“I’ll set him straight next time I see him.”
Rhona grants Malcolm a faint smile. “He’s not with us anymore.”
“I don’t reckon that’s true,” Malcolm says. “I’d appreciate if you could double-check.” He then backhands the empty saucer away from him – it scutters a couple of inches, the movement and sound of china shuddering to its rest on the table a small fright for Rhona.
“Watch yourself,” she says. “Are you alright?”
Mournfulness works itself deep into the slack texture of Malcolm’s features. “Nobody wants to listen to me.” He blinks, both eyes wet like fresh resin. “I’d like to get through a day without the world and his wife pointing out I’m wrong.”
Rhona lets a silence pan out, while Malcolm wipes his cheeks with his wrists.
“I’d like to see my mother and father.”
“I know you do,” Rhona says. “I’ll stay with you until they turn up.”
“Archie and David are conspicuous by their absence.”
“I’m here, though.”
Malcolm nods, his legs vibrating under the table. “I trust I’m not keeping you back.”
“I’ve nowhere to be,” she says. “The only time I venture out is for my messages. I’ll tell you what – none of them lockdowns made the slightest bit of difference to me.”
Malcolm has no reply for her. He fidgets with the drawstrings of his tracksuit bottoms and looks about the kitchen in vague anxiety, potentially searching for something to inspire some language. Rhona intuits that he refuses to defer to any confusion; if he’s at a loss for what to say, it’s essential he move the discussion onto surer ground.
“I’m never going to retire,” he announces. “If I retired, I wouldn’t be long for this world. What made you call it a day at the chemist’s?”
“The civil service,” Rhona says. “I’d done my time. Plus I would’ve rather spent them years doing something else.”
“And what would that’ve been?”
“I wanted to be an actress,” she says. “But I wasn’t up to scratch.”
“I very much doubt that.”
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you’d seen me.”
“Did you make a go of it in the West End?”
“I never got that far,” she laughs. “I did some amateur theatre, and I was an understudy for a couple of plays in Edinburgh – but I caught on there was no chance I was going to be seeing my name up in lights, so I worked as a stagehand for a while.”
She expects Malcolm’s interest to float away from her, his concentration to wane, but Rhona continues to hold his attention. Even if she can’t be certain that he comprehends, it’s a nervous exhilaration to see him listening.
“But I packed that job in after I got into bother,” she says. “I kept standing in the wings to have a gander at what was happening on stage. I loved to get close to the applause at the end of the night, though I didn’t have any right to it. So, I must’ve edged too close on this occasion because the stage manager grabs me by the arm and hauls me to one side. And that man puts the fear of death in me – he’s hissing at me to get out of sight and he points towards the audience and says ‘If you can see them, they can see you.’ He makes me repeat it after him and then marches me backstage, calling me every name under the sun.” Rhona rests a hand on the table, rapping its surface. “That was me told.”
“I’ll set him straight next time I see him,” Malcolm says. With simple decisiveness, he lays his hand on top of Rhona’s, an instant of reassurance – for this she wishes him all of the happiness he can glean in the time he has remaining.
“If I’d had children, I would’ve wanted them to be like you,” he says.
Outdoors, the constable hands over Rhona’s jumper and encourages Malcolm to take his arm as they walk to the patrol car. Rhona stays at her gate beside Stuart Cuddihy, the police having brought him along on the mission to retrieve Malcolm; she prays that no bewilderment filtered through on her face when Stuart introduced himself as Malcolm’s son. He’s an undernourished and reticent forty-something in a business suit, hair a stramash of black and grey curls, a surgical dressing adhered to his cheekbone following last week’s removal of a carcinoma. He alternates between thanking Rhona and apologising, no other phrases available. Both of them watch the constable levering Malcolm into the patrol car’s rear seat, angling his head to prevent impact with the roof.
“This is the second time he’s went off on his tod,” Stuart says. “There’s going to be words with the staff at the home.”
“It’s worked out as well as it could have,” Rhona says.
“It has that.”
Rhona slips her Aran jumper on, the cold grating against her. “I could come and visit him,” she says. “If that’d be alright with yourself.”
“I doubt he’ll remember who you are.”
“He might do.”
Stuart sighs, hands delved in his trouser pockets. “He’s away in a world of his own.”
“Can happen to anyone,” Rhona says. She hears herself falter, the slightest fractures of emotion in her vocal cords. Stuart doesn’t seem to detect it, his focus the patrol car and its open door, Malcolm seated inside conversing with the officer on the pavement.
“It’s tough being around him,” Stuart says. “He’s become very honest.”
Stuart clicks his tongue, eyes lowered, then exhales in a way that suggests a steadying of composure. “That man was a professor of modern history,” he says. “But give it six months and he won’t be able to tell you his own story.”
He knocks the tips of his loafers together, turning to Rhona. “Best we hit the road – I want to thank you again for what you’ve done.”
“Wait a second for me,” she says.
Rhona retreats to the kitchen, bundling up the quarter of fruit loaf in another layer of tinfoil. She smells the cake’s well-fired zest and tangy sweetness – in that scent an essence of her father comes back to thrive in these spaces he used to inhabit with her. More often than not, it’s the closest thing she has to company.
She hurries outside to crouch at the patrol car’s door, setting the fruit loaf down into Malcolm’s hands. “That’s for you,” she says.
“Will you give us a shout when my parents get in?” he says. “They live here.”
“I will do,” she says. “Look after yourself.”
The constable eases the door closed. Stuart pats Rhona on the forearm, expresses his appreciation, and strides to the car’s passenger side.
“Feel free to bring him here again, if that’s what he’d like,” Rhona says. “If it would be of any help, that is. I’d never turn you away.”
There’s no definitive answer from Stuart. He nods, his smile strained, and when he ducks into the car Rhona catches the moment his face changes, the briefest shot of him tearing up. The constable puts his foot down, and the patrol car pulls away into the fog-drenched acreage of Wellington Avenue. Malcolm gives her a single wave through the backseat window, an innocent farewell, that she returns.
Rhona adds a measure of disinfectant to a basin of hot tapwater and carries it into the hall. Malcolm’s separate trails of local mud spatter the route between threshold and kitchen, and she kneels down to scrub the nearest stain. She fails to make another move, however. The smeared designs of Malcolm’s soles stay where they are, and Rhona can’t find the resolve to remove any of them; some overwhelming aversion to wiping the affected areas of floor stays her hand and its sponge.
Rhona abandons the endeavour, sitting instead on the sofa’s armrest in her living room, studying the garden and Ballaneath’s fog through her window. After today, she might start keeping a tally of the days since her most recent conversation. She wouldn’t want to admit her estimate of the number it could reach. Her voice is back in storage, no demand for its use. Five years on from the date her father passed, there’s no one around to recognise that she’s breathing. Norman Semple had exhausted all of his ideas to persuade her to meet people; the fact was Rhona had preferred evenings with him and their episodes of A Touch of Frost, games of solitaire or taste testing another of his fruit loafs. He’d been Rhona’s counterpart, her viable constant, seeing as she’d decided that not everyone was meant to be included in the common experience of life and its ordinary acts of affinity; there wasn’t enough room in all of that for her. She can’t ascertain when she stopped believing in her entitlement to be a real member of the population.
If it came down to it, though, Rhona would have to say that, in the event they meet again, it’s irrelevant that Malcolm Cuddihy may not remember her. What she desires from him again, as she does from anyone else alive, is the mere acknowledgment that she’s a person.
“Get out,” she says.
Rhona puts on her fleece and marches onto her garden path, the front door locked. Half the fog has pulled clear of the terraces – with some scenery well-defined and other parts shifting into clarity, it makes the world look to her as though it’s recently been created, its fresh particles of matter continuing to settle where they should. Ballaneath is there, and it must contain someone keen to speak with her. Rhona isn’t staying in. There’s enough light left in the day.