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Counting the Minutes

by Sandra Crook

I sit opposite him, my chair positioned so I can watch the clock over his left shoulder. Thirty minutes to go.

It’s freezing outside, and after crossing the car park and waiting several minutes to be admitted to the building, my cheeks are burning from the oppressive heat in the visitors’ lounge.

The main door is kept locked to deter those residents who might take it into their heads to wander off into the surrounding neighbourhood. At the moment though, most of those who are without visitors are staring at the television screen, whilst others roll their heads around, desperately seeking something upon which to fix their gaze.

Uncle Joe rubs at the knees of his trousers, pausing now and then to scratch at what appear to be old food stains. When I look up, I find him glaring at me, his eyes dark with anger. We’re still dealing with the matters arising from our last meeting.

“Did you speak to them then... about the cigarettes?”

“I did, Uncle Joe, but they’re adamant. There’s no smoking anywhere in here. It’s a public place... and besides, the doctor said you weren’t to smoke...”

My voice tails away, and I can’t meet his gaze. He knows I’m lying. Why would I speak to them? Half the people in this place can scarcely draw breath, let alone a lungful of second-hand smoke.

There’s a long silence and he fidgets in his chair. Any time now he’ll move on to next item on his agenda, his customary second offensive.

“I could always come and live with you,” he says, right on time, as if this is an idea that has just occurred to him, and not one that he resurrects every time I come to visit.

And then, as if this were not dreadful enough a prospect to contemplate, he twists the knife as well. “It’s not as though you’re married or anything. Haven’t even got a fella, have you?”

“Not at the moment,” I say, uncomfortable now but wounded enough to be more blunt than usual. “Anyway, I haven’t got the space for you.”

“’Course you have, what about that little bedroom at the back?”

The prospect of sharing my home with him, not to mention his 40-a-day habit fills me with something more than dismay — it’s close on outrage.

“Sorry, I’ve got a lodger now,” I lie, “an old friend who’s left her husband. She’ll be with me for a while, she’s nowhere else to go.”

“Neither have I,” he says, with a hint of pathos creeping into his tone; he usually does ‘pathos’ right after ‘spiteful’.

“Yes, you have. You’ve got a nice room of your own here, and lots of company if you want it.”

He emits a harsh bark of laughter, startling those nearest who still have their hearing aids plugged in. He doesn’t want company; he just wants to watch horse-racing on the television and smoke himself to death, neither of which is permitted here.

The clock ticks on. Across the room someone is snoring.

I can see my escape looming. Another seven minutes, I reckon. Then I’ll be out in the car park, trying to clear the smell of stale pee and steamed fish out of my nostrils, taking deep breaths until my own airways threaten to seize up under the onslaught of the cold night air.

“I’m off now, Uncle Joe,” I finally say with relief, knowing that ‘recrimination’ comes under the heading of ‘any other business’ and we’re not through yet.

His eyes fill with tears, and I look away.

“You don’t know what it’s like,” he whines, “longing for something all day long. Something you can’t have. Can’t think of anything else, day or night. Nothing I want more in life, it’s just not worth carrying on without it. It’s a drug, you see, it consumes you... But you, you’d never understand that, would you?”

He turns away and fixes his gaze on the television. He’s done with me now. I’m too exhausted to fix the date of our next meeting.

Out in the car park, I gaze up at the stars twinkling against a velvet backdrop as my breath forms plumes of mist swirling before me.

And I think of you.

I wonder what you’re doing now.

And who might be sharing your evening.

You haven’t rung me for days now. How long, I wonder, before I’ll see you again, and we can snatch a few more fleeting moments together.

My heart stirs at the prospect, yet tears are not far away. It’s simply not fair, wanting something so much that everything else in your life seems to pale into insignificance. Something you know you can never have, and probably never should.

I unlock the car, and sit for a few minutes watching feathered icy patterns forming on the windscreen. Then I turn the heater on, and a patch begins to clear. The night comes into focus again.

Reaching over to the glove compartment, I pull out a half-smoked pack of Silk Cut.

And pushing it deep into my pocket, I make my way back into the building.

Copyright © 2011 by Sandra Crook

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