More than five minutes after pulling up on the drive Mark was still sat in the car. The engine was off, but the radio mumbled in the background.
He’d not even removed his seatbelt. It was as though its grip gave him the excuse he needed to stay where he was, just the seatbelt that was stopping him from getting out and going into the house, nothing else.
The house. His home. Looking at it now he saw an unremarkable piece of 1930s suburban architecture, with its UPVC windows, pretending to be wood. There was a tiled porch added sometime in the 80s, but still in keeping. A few years ago, he and his wife Becky had decided to buy one of those mock Victorian lampposts, and it now stood just to the right of the house in the centre of a small lawn that hadn’t been lost to the tarmac drive. Over the years, he and Becky had pulled together enough cash to get the odd bit of work done on the house. They were doing their best to make it their own, but they made sure they were never showy. The house fitted in, did what was expected of the upper working-class families who lived in Belvedere Crescent, but aspired to be somewhere else.
She would be here by now. Ella. His sister-in-law. She and her cancer were coming to stay.
When Becky had told him of her plan to have her for Christmas, Mark had said nothing. What could he say? Asking him if it was okay after she’d spoken to Ella meant his hands were tied, and Becky had made sure there’d be no chance of protest by saying she knew he wouldn’t mind.
But she was wrong. He minded deeply, and over the following weeks he made his feelings plain. Not to Becky of course, or anyone at work, or his regular drinking buddies. But he had voiced them. Very loudly, very confidently, in the safety of his car.
Only the windscreen felt the full force of his anger. Anyone driving alongside him must have thought Mark was listening to some annoying politician or so-called expert on the radio, he was so animated. He spat out the words, his upper body lurching forward, his right hand repeatedly banging on the steering wheel, the muscles and tendons in his neck so evident, it was as if the skin had melted into them. His words had ricocheted around the car, and were spat back at him, back into his own ears, mingling with the ones still stuck in his throat, until he was forced to swallow, push them down into his stomach, where they joined the rest of the acid bile.
He glanced at his watch. Over twelve minutes since he’d parked up.
The evening was drawing in, but there was no light on in the front room so he guessed Becky and Ella must be in the kitchen. He imagined the tearful greeting they would have had earlier today, the reassuring hug, the tentative smiles. Becky’s would have come with a look that said how sorry she was, how she’d do everything she could to help Ella, be there for her night and day (regardless of the cost to him and the kids). Ella’s smile would silently acknowledge the offer, let Becky know that she had expected nothing less. It was her due, what she deserved. Not the cancer of course, he didn’t mean she deserved that. Well, not really. No. No he really, really didn’t wish that on her, wouldn’t wish it on anyone. He needed to shut those thoughts away, get them under control.
He expected, by now, the women would be on their second glass of wine. Ella would have persuaded Becky to open one of the really good ones, probably coming out with some clichéd line about ‘living while you can.’
Then again, maybe it wasn’t wine they were drinking. Maybe, in some last minute desperate attempt to boost her chances, Ella had decided to pack in the booze. Maybe Becky had offered, but Ella had said it would be such a shame to waste it, she couldn’t taste anything properly anyway, so tea would do. Yes, perhaps Ella was already playing the martyr, and they were drinking tea. Though in an attempt to still make Ella feel special, he bet that Becky had opened a packet of his favourite biscuits, the posh ones, coated in the finest Belgian milk chocolate.
There, in the car, he continued to play the tender sisterly scene out in his head, saw them lean in to each other, almost fusing at the shoulder, imagined the drop in temperature when he walked into the kitchen.
He checked his watch again. Twenty minutes now. He thought that if he didn’t go in soon, his ready excuse of winding up a phone call from work would look a little sketchy, he so rarely spoke to colleagues outside of the office. His opinion on work matters wasn’t in that much demand.
He wasn’t ready yet, though. He sat in the car, watching as the early evening light changed from a clear blue to pale lilac, the topmost leaves of the neighbourhood trees losing definition and becoming one undulating, ragged line.
He thought about those commercials he saw sometimes on the telly, the ones for Macmillan Nursing. The ones that had slogans like:
“A dad with cancer is still a dad,” or
“A lover with cancer …” or
When he had first seen them, he’d said how clever they were, and how true. A diagnosis of cancer doesn’t stop someone from being the same person with the same personality.
That was true of his best friend at work. When Paul had been told he had prostate cancer, Mark had done his bit to make sure Paul still felt like Paul. He’d made sure they still went to the pub after work on a Friday, especially if the boss had been on their backs. Or he’d fix up a night in with the lads – footy on the telly, lager, and too much pizza. And if Paul said no thanks, he didn’t fancy it, not this time, Mark would put his hand on Paul’s shoulder, give it a quick pat and say “Okay mate, another time.” He’d shift the conversation to that month’s sales figures, which were usually borderline in his case, or start taking the piss out of the latest idea the sales manager had to help ‘improve impact’.
But since he’d found out about Ella coming to stay, he’d felt very differently about those commercials. He resented the fact that the people portrayed were all ‘perfect’ examples of their kind. The father reading his daughter a bedtime story, the sisters hugging, the lovers tenderly holding each other’s hands in bed. Where was the one that showed someone more difficult, more real? Why hadn’t the advertising agency had the balls to make one that said:
“A pain in the arse with cancer is still a pain in the arse…”?
An advert that would confirm what you already knew, that shitty people can still remain shitty, even when diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. You just couldn’t say so. If having cancer didn’t stop you from being a great dad, or a fantastic husband, surely neither would it stop you from being difficult, selfish, inconsiderate, even when veiled beneath an angelic veneer?
Because that was Ella.
It’s how she’d always been and how she would probably be for the rest of her days, however limited. No one knew how well she would respond to the treatment plan the consultant had drawn up. She’d had a few sessions of chemotherapy, but it was still too early to see how well it was working, or to have any kind of clue as to what Ella’s future would be.
For some reason the staff at the hospital insisted on calling the treatment plan a ‘package’, as though it were a day at a spa, or a deal you got when you bought the latest flat screen TV and they added a Blu-Ray player and two free movies. What a stupid way to describe it, Mark thought. What was so wrong about saying how things really are?
Another four minutes gone. Still no movement in the front room. No one had even peered through the window to see if he was alright. Had they even heard him park up on the drive?
He needed to say something to Becky, try not to let his anger show, but say how he really felt about being bulldozed into this. Make the point that Ella’s visit couldn’t go on for too long. What about Christmas Day? Would Ella still be there then? Lying in bed all morning so they couldn’t open their presents, vomiting after her turkey dinner, which she would only have picked at anyway, despite the hours of effort.
He’d say something tonight. Get it sorted. Not in front of Ella, of course. He’d wait until he and Becky were alone, perhaps when they had gone up to bed. Not ideal, but he had no choice now. There’d be no sex tonight, then. Not for a few nights. Maybe not for weeks, or even months. Would he and Becky ever have sex again?
He’d been sitting in the car for almost half an hour. He couldn’t delay any longer. He undid the seat belt and opened the door. He leant over to the passenger seat and picked up his briefcase, took the mobile phone out of its holder on the dashboard, then shut and locked the car. He walked to the porch, fumbling for the house keys in his trouser pocket. He put the key in the lock, started to turn it, then stopped and took it out again. Leaving his briefcase on the ground, he walked back to the car and opened the boot.
The smell hit him immediately… sickly, a little too sweet, cloying. He took out the bouquet of flowers he had bought, to welcome Ella to his home.
Parked Up is Fiona Dye’s first published short story, and the result of the first semester of her degree course at Wolverhampton University. Following a long career in radio and a spell as a freelance events manager, she decided to take a risk and apply to uni.
Fiona is also interested in writing for children, and has been working on some poems. Her other interests include drawing, baking, cake decorating, gardening, and plenty of reading. She lives in Tettenhall.