Third prize 2020


Cane Life By Alexis Wolfe

It’s time for them to leave. My son Danny and his fiancée Rachel. 
Danny, I could put up with indefinitely. When he was small, I assumed, I hoped, given his condition, that he’d never leave home. That was when I was essential to him and often thought it would be better for him to die before me.
But Rachel, after three nights, I’ve totally had enough of Rachel.
I drive them to the station. We pull into a huge blue badge space, next to the entrance. I miss the disability parking perk. Sometimes I used to take Danny with me on errands, to avoid having to walk too far to the supermarket entrance or so I could park right outside the Post Office.
“Would you two mind hanging on for just a few minutes?” Rachel asks from the back seat. “Just spotted that pharmacy and I need to grab something.” She reaches a hand into the front and squeezes Danny’s upper arm. I glance over and watch as his hand moves across his chest to tap her fingers.
“Won’t be a sec!” Rachel’s out of the car in a flash. In the rear-view mirror I watch her layered, hippy skirt, ruffling in the wind, a bright scarf trailing behind her like a contrail as she marches away.
“I guess we could get out,” I say to Danny. “Fetch your luggage out the boot.”
Neither of us make a move. This is it, my big chance to talk to my boy without her. I say boy, but he’s nearly twenty-six now. Rachel’s been by his side every minute of the long weekend, leaving us no opportunity for a one to one chat. But now that I’m up on stage, I open my mouth and find I’ve no song to sing or I’ve forgotten my lines or something.
“It’s been lovely to see you.” I deliberately don’t say you both.
Danny nods.
“Great to see you too, Mum. And for you to get to know Rachel better. Before, you know …”
“Mmmm.”
I know he means the wedding, but half of me still hopes that the wedding won’t actually happen. That he’ll see sense. It’s not that I don’t like her. She’s a perfectly nice girl. I’m not one of those mothers who doesn’t think any girl is good enough. It’s just, she’s always there, his arm tucked through hers. All weekend it’s annoyed me.
“She’s great, isn’t she?” Danny cuts in.
“What?”
“Rachel.”
“Marvellous,” I say. “She’s marvellous.”
Things he used to do by himself, things I spent hours, months, years, working on: stepping on to escalators, managing alone in public toilets, and now she’s guiding him everywhere, waiting outside the disabled loos, buying tickets for them both, ordering for him. Yet he barely notices.
Rachel returns, tapping on his window, grasping his elbow the moment he’s out of the car. As if she needs him as an anchor to ground her, otherwise she might just float away. I’m being mean, she’s actually a lovely girl. But he’ll be rendered helpless in no time. You have to keep practising those independence skills. Use them or lose them.
I bid Rachel goodbye, gently patting her back. She pulls away from me quickly and begins to load herself up with luggage. I pull Danny in for a long hug. He smells of my vanilla shower gel and his stubble is rough on my cheek. He must have missed a bit, so perhaps she isn’t shaving his chin yet.
“Thanks for having us, Mum.”
“It’s still your home,” I correct him. “You can come back anytime you want.”
I hope he gets the message. I look him up and down, tall and smart in his dark jeans and polo shirt. Thankfully he’s not adopted her floaty hippy fashions.
“Where’s your cane?” I whisper.
“Rachel,” he calls over the car roof. “Where’s my cane?”
“I’ve folded and packed it in the case,” she calls back.
“Could you pull it out?” I ask.
“He won’t need it on the train, Mary,” she says.
I bite my tongue. That cane is his eyes, I want to say. I want to tell her to unzip her suitcase and pass the bloody thing over right now. But I look over at Danny and he just shrugs. She links his arm and the two of them, pulling trolley bags behind them, make their way into the ticket hall. Before they enter, both turn around and wave, and I wave back. I know it’s pointless because he won’t see, but I do it anyway, I’ve never been able to stop myself.
I while away the afternoon window shopping, not wanting to return to the quiet empty rooms. It’s always worse immediately after he leaves.
Later, back home, I make myself supper. I already had all the ingredients for Danny’s favourite, a spicy chilli con carne I’d planned to make on Saturday, but Danny had insisted we go to a new vegetarian restaurant in town. It would be easier for me, he’d said, because Rachel was a vegan. So tonight, I’ve made the chilli. It’s a shame he won’t get any, he’ll be back in Bristol eating lentils or something. No wonder he looks so skinny. But I’ll eat it for us both, in a celebration of how far he’s come.
I knew the moment Danny was born his eyes didn’t look right. One definitely looked smaller than the other, its iris cloudy. When he cried, the smaller left eye screwed up tight, whilst the right remained wide open and seldom appeared to blink.
He was three days old when the doctor, wearing a strange contraption, a light mounted on a headpiece, forced open his right eyelid. Danny turned red faced and choked on his gurgling screams. Next, she attempted to prise open the left eye, which had almost vanished completely with the force he exerted to keep it closed. The doctor proved no match for the baby and gave up, having never seen Danny’s left eye.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “There’s no eye there.”  She’d appeared annoyed at having to report this fact. I’d exchanged glances with the nurse. We both knew this was nonsense, we’d seen it. I'd been staring at Danny almost constantly for the last 48 hours.
“So …” the doctor’s irritated voice grew louder, “his eyes have not developed.” Her announcement to the whole of the special baby care unit meant other parents stopped gazing into their baby’s incubators and stared in my direction. The nurse intervened and ushered us both to a small room in the Parenting suite where doctors were supposed to dish out bad news. In a space arranged to look like a real sitting room with sofa and armchairs, side tables and lamps, the doctor repeated exactly what she’d already told me in public. She didn’t mention retinal colobomas, clefts of the eye, things I’d learn about later. Her message was blunt: this child has no vision, no hope. As she left, the nurse pressed tissues into my hand. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I sigh, spooning a generous portion of chilli into a bowl. It smells good. Since when was Rachel a bloody vegan? I could freeze a portion for him, but who knows when he’ll next be back. He’s always saying how busy work is.  
That doctor, with her diagnosis and low expectations had been wrong. Later, we got a second opinion from another doctor who was optimistic Danny would have some vision in one eye. He’ll make the most of it, she said. From that moment onwards, I made sure he did.
I sink down onto the sofa, my steaming bowl clouding up my glasses. We were a great team, Danny and I, especially after his father left. We never needed anyone else. Yet, now look at me; chilli con carne for one. Maybe we all lose our children in the end, one way or another. Even if just to another woman. To another woman called Rachel. I spoon a huge forkful of chilli into my mouth. It tastes good. My eyes are on the brink of watering and I feel the spices clearing my sinuses. Danny would have loved it.
This is the eye which is going to get him through was how the second doctor had phrased it. And get him through it did. Look at him now, working in local radio, living with his girlfriend, getting married. He had me to thank for all that, not Rachel.
I continue eating by the log burner, my legs toasting, my throat tingling from the chilli. The phone rings. I snatch up the receiver.
“Danny?”
“Just letting you know we’re home, alright, Mum.”
“I was wondering.”
“Sorry, we got back about half an hour ago.”
“You better go and cook some supper,” I say, “you must be hungry, you barely ate anything at lunch.”
“Rach’s making something, but, Mum …”
“What’s she cooking?” I interrupt. Hoping it’s not just veggies. He needs plenty of protein.
“We’ve got some news.”
“What news?”
“It’s Rach …” he says. I knew it. She’s finished with him. Her little ‘help the world’ phase is done and now she’s bored being a carer. I knew it was just a matter of time. 
“It’s OK,” I say. “I’m here if you need to come home.”
“What? Mum?” he says. And then more words, in a tumble, “Rach is pregnant!”
What?
“We are having a baby!” His voice is joyous. “Can you believe it?”
“Good-ness-me.” I force the words out.
“You’re going to be a Grandma!”
“I am,” I say. “Wow.”
Silence.
I hear his laughter over the line. Then a mumble I can’t make out. He must be talking to her, with his hand over the receiver.
“Well,” I say. I’ve no idea if he’s listening or not. But I want to go. “Please give Rachel my congratulations.”
“I will,” he says. “She’s here now. Wanna talk to her?”
“No… No, it’s fine. Just pass on my best wishes.” I need time to think. To work out what’s just happened. We say our goodbyes and I hang up. I return to my bowl of chilli, left on the floor by the log burner, but it’s gone cold. It makes a dull thud as I scrape it into the bin.
Danny had always been a loner. He didn’t have friends at school, he had helpers. He made his own hobbies. When the whole world had been made small by Google, he spent ages with that little orange man who provides the street view. Placing him on a map of our neighborhood and looking through his eyes, borrowing his vision. Holding an iPad up close he could see the houses, streets and landmarks which were inaccessible as we flashed past them in the car or on foot. Orange man was probably Danny’s very best mate.
But now he has Rachel.
Why can’t he see?
He’s blind to it. Now she has him captive, locked down. There’s no way he can escape now. Still, maybe a baby will keep Rachel so busy that she’ll have to let Danny off the hook a bit. I can only hope.
     He’d only met Rachel because of me. Because he’d got to university. She’d been assigned as his student buddy, meant to introduce him to the student union bar, help him familiarize himself with the layout of the campus. But Rachel had clearly introduced him to way more than the campus, familiarizing him with the topography of her body and its many curves. He’d never even had a girlfriend before.
     Rachel might share his bed now, but I was the one who sat up late, night after night, typing up children’s books into large print. Experimenting with different papers, spacing and fonts.
     I feel a bit like when Danny first acquired the iPad and could suddenly do the print size modification himself with a simple swish of his fingers. Redundant.
     A baby. Danny was having a baby. My grandchild.
     My grandchild would have a visually impaired father.
     There were so many angles to this news. Back then, when I held baby Danny in my arms, I felt overwhelming sadness for both of us. I had no idea his lack of vision wouldn’t hold him back. Now I see it granted me super-vision, enabling me to look through people, to see who really cares about us. It’s because of Danny I can see extra, further, deeper, brighter. We’re a package, but I suspect Rachel only cares about half of us.

I wake the following morning and it takes a moment before I remember. Then I’m winded, so short of breath for a few seconds that I can hardly sit up. But I force myself to act. I’ll get dressed and walk. Walking always helps me assimilate the unpalatable.
I take the shortcut across the children’s playground without thinking. But halfway across I pause, standing in the wet grass, realizing: it’s been years. Decade and a half at least. There must have been a very last time here, him aged ten or eleven, neither of us knowing it was a monumental final visit. Not a conscious decision, but the park outgrown alongside toys and clothes.
My playground memories are amber-toned, late afternoon sun making long shadows, although we came here in all weathers. The only place as familiar to him as home, meaning I could release my caution, and his hand, and let him navigate solo.
I sit on the bench near the swings for a moment, remembering this was where I propped his long white cane whilst he played. When he’d first walked, swaying like a drunk, the experts thought he couldn’t be trusted with a cane. He might hurt someone. Instead they gave him a hoople, a white plastic tube bent in a loop, with no sharp point. It had been like carrying a gigantic teardrop.
Sometimes whilst he’d climbed around, I’d stood, both hands resting on his cane, pretending it was mine. Feeling like the centre of the universe as adults steered their children a wide berth around me.
Now spring is coming, the green shoots of crocuses and daffodils, blooms waiting in the wings for their cues. I’d worried he had a cruel streak as he stomped the perimeter railings using his cane to hit daffodils. He’s not trying to hurt them, my ex-husband had explained, they’re just exciting bright-yellow-blurry-things bobbing around.
One minute he was decapitating flowers, the next moving away to live with his girlfriend. All his old canes left behind in the garage, black handles poking out from his father’s old golf bag. Only his longest, lightest, newest graphite cane was not rejected.
The park is empty except for a woman and her toddler using the swings. I take out my phone to text Danny. The woman lifts her child from the swing and they exit the playground. I would have done the same. A lone adult in a playground is often an odd ball. The message leaves with a swoosh, Tell Rachel to take folic acid.
     I calculate the hours spent here, do the playground maths. Nothing’s changed, no new apparatus, the same old climbing frame, its purple and blue paint now peeling and flaking like sunburnt skin. I look around and for a moment it’s hard to believe a three-foot Danny isn’t toddling unsteadily behind the roundabout, that he won’t call to be lifted onto the swings. Higher mummy, higher!
     Honking geese fly overhead in a V shape. Look Danny, geese! I’d have said inadvertently; I was always accidently blurting out Looks. But he’d have turned his face skyward and pretended to see. When he was younger and I witnessed a rainbow or beautiful view, it hurt my eyes. I didn’t want to see things he couldn’t. I’d had to learn he didn’t miss seeing; like I didn’t miss being able to fly.
Danny texts back. She's been taking it for the last three months. Then, a few seconds later. But thanks Mum xx
I drop my phone down into the puddle of my sloppy handbag and that's when I see it. For twenty-two years a cane, gradually increasing in size, stood sentry at our front door and accompanied our every journey. In cinemas or theatres, I would concertina it into quarters and stow it in my handbag. I still keep one folded in the darkness of the slouchy lining, under my gloves and the ripples of random receipts.
The playground is filling up again, the local nursery school have arrived, three teachers and a gaggle of pre-schoolers. I look at these miniature people closely because I’ll have a grandchild soon.
It’s six days until I can speak to Danny again. I call each Sunday but, with Rachel’s interruptions, he usually cuts our conversations short. So now when I want to feel him near me again, I only have to listen to that scuttering scratch of cane across concrete.
I don't make a habit of it. Only when I'm somewhere no one would know me. And these days no one knows me here. From behind dark glasses, I see the toddlers scurrying out of my way as I swing the long white cane in an arc, left to right, left to right, across the playground.
A nursery teacher swoops in to propel two small children out of my path. The panic I generate feels satisfying. Brandishing the cane, I can command pavements, turn heads, carve out space for myself.
It’s wrong, I know.
But I can’t help myself sometimes. I give in to the urge to hear that familiar sound again.
But there is no replacement for the gentle pressure of his arm, linked through my arm.

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