It was a cold night and Laura was glad she had the sense to bring her coat. There was a nip in the air that signalled the coming of winter, but she stubbornly kept her schedule unchanged. As she eased her car into a free parking space, a feeling of resignation took over. The last thing she wanted to do after a long day at work was to visit her father, but she couldn't bring herself to stop coming either.
She firmly wrapped the coat around her and breathed through her nose to calm herself as she made her way to the hospital building. Once inside, routine took over and she settled into a brisk trot, took the elevator up to the twelfth level and made her way to a wing of the hospital set aside for those with special needs. A nurse she recognised spotted her and approached.
'Hello, Miss Dawson. This way, please.'
'How is he?'
The nurse smiled, but there was an unmistakeable tinge of sadness. It was a smile Laura knew well and she regularly employed it herself. She had far too many opportunities to use it.
'He's waiting for you.'
The evasion did not go unnoticed. Laura sighed and the familiar mixture of relief and despair welled up inside, threatening to overwhelm her. Her father never failed to wait for her since he was admitted two
Their walk brought them past a few wards. A quick peek told her that the old gentleman who always spoke in rhyme was still here, happily chatting away to his visitor, who was undoubtedly annoyed by the lyrical speech but demonstrating a remarkable amount of patience by talking back and encouraging more conversation. His neighbour, a woman who looked to be in her fifties, was studiously working her way through a children's storybook, struggling to get the sounds right. After surviving a stroke, she had virtually lost her ability to speak, although she could read and write perfectly well.
If only my father was as lucky, Laura thought bitterly.
Her routine was interrupted as she found that the next ward was empty. Its previous occupant had been involved in an accident and found himself paralysed from the waist down. He, too, was a musician. A violinist. Laura had grown accustomed to his presence and whenever she came to visit she stopped by to talk with him as well.
Her step faltered and the nurse looked at her with some concern. 'Are you okay, Miss Dawson?'
'Yes, I'm fine. Daniel, I mean, the patient in this ward, what happened to him?'
'He recovered enough to go home. They sent him back with crutches, said he'll be able to walk fine again in another year.'
Although she felt a small measure of happiness for the man's recovery, it was overshadowed by jealousy. The ward was empty again. Another happy ending, another recovery, but she was still here, visiting her father.
She smiled and moved on.
They came at last to the common room, a cosy place where a sofa leaned against one wall and old magazines and newspapers were arranged neatly on a rack next to it. A collection of chairs cluttered around a coffee table in the centre of the room. Tucked away in one corner was a television set, while a piano stood at ceremony next to it.
Her father was there, dressed in the polka-dotted uniform of patients. He sat in one of the cushier chairs – the same sturdy wooden one with blue padding that was slightly faded. There was a slim chance that he chose it himself as opposed to being led there by a nurse. Laura didn't know, but she entertained that hope. It brought her a small measure of comfort to imagine that he could still think.
His posture was perfect and it was almost impossible to tell that he had all but lost his mind. The only indication of that was the way he simply sat there, gazing at the piano with such intensity that it was both frightening and pitiful.
'I'll be off now, Miss Dawson. If you need anything, just call,' the nurse said.
Laura acknowledged her with a quiet murmur of thanks. The nurse closed the door behind her. For a long while, Laura simply stood there, watching her father as he watched the piano. There was so much that she wanted to say, but speaking to him only to have him stare back was a trial she could no longer put herself through.
The silence became unbearable. She walked past him, paused to give his shoulder a brief squeeze, and took her place at the piano. The worn leather seat was comfortable. Familiar. She could almost call it her own piano. She danced her fingers over the keys, running through the scales in her head but careful not to touch them just yet. She wanted the moment to be magical. She wanted, no, needed to believe.
Heart racing, she began.
The change was so abrupt that it never failed to take her breath away. Her father came to life and walked over to stand next to the piano and watch her. He fixed her with that heart-warming smile she knew so well from her childhood days and as long as she played, he would keep smiling at her.
So she allowed herself to get lost in the music, and in the imagined love of her father.
Pain? Yes, there it was.
He drank something, not knowing what it was.
He ate something, not knowing what it was either.
Was he sleeping? Awake?
It was confusing.
Sunlight streamed in through a gap in the curtains. It was still early, perhaps eight or nine in the morning. James Dawson woke to find himself alone in bed. The clock on the bedside table told him that it was precisely half past eight on a Saturday, so his wife must be up and about already, tending to her beloved roses out on the veranda. He lingered in the warmth of the covers, luxuriating in the peace of the moment.
A strange sense of déjà vu drew him out of his contentment and he shivered slightly, disconcerted by the feeling for no apparent reason. Before he could think any further on it, the sensation passed and James reluctantly left the comfort of the bed.
As he went through the morning routine of washing up, he thought he could hear someone playing the piano in the living room. Either his wife was done with the roses, or she had found some new inspiration for a piece and had decided that the roses could wait. He dressed and went down to find Laura, not his wife, sitting at the instrument with her eyes closed and a serene look on her face as she played. The piece sounded familiar, perhaps one of his wife's older creations, but with new embellishments.
Not wanting to interrupt, he quietly slipped over and stood by the piano to watch with a smile on his face.
'You always just stand there,' she murmured. Her eyes were still closed as she continued to play.
James blinked, startled out of his reverie by his discovery. In reply, he merely grinned, though he knew she couldn't see him. He was content with just listening. There was always time to talk later, once the music ended.
As always, he could sense the piece coming to a close long before it actually did. His daughter's whole countenance would change as a strange melancholy descended, as if she was saddened that the piece was almost over. She would trot out the last few bars with a certain relish while at the same time seeming to want to prolong it. He never really understood it, but for some reason he feared to ever question her about it.
The last note hung in the air, heavy with sadness. She stared at the piano, disconsolate. Suddenly, she stood to embrace him and he awkwardly returned the gesture.
'I love you, dad,' she whispered.
When she drew away he was surprised to find that she was on the verge of tears but before he could say another word, she turned and fled.
The nurse had been eavesdropping outside and she smiled with some embarrassment when Laura found her by the door. 'You play very well, Miss Dawson,' she said.
'It was my mother, she taught me since I was eight.' Laura sighed and rubbed her eyes.
'You should go home and get some rest, you look tired.'
Laura made a non-committal noise. 'If anything comes up…'
'We'll let you know.'
'Thank you.' Not wanting to stay a moment longer, Laura left the nurse to bring her father back to his bed. She quickly made her way back and once she was alone in her car, she cried.
Her cell phone started ringing. Laura took a moment to calm her breathing and answered it. 'Hello?'
'Laura, dear, are you coming back for dinner?'
'Mom,' Laura's voice faltered. 'I don't think I can do this anymore.'
'You're at the hospital?' Her mother's voice sounded strained all of a sudden.
'He's not getting better, Mom. It's been two years and he's still the same.' Laura's desperation was beginning to overwhelm her, and she started sobbing.
'Laura, listen, there's nothing you or I can do.' She paused and for a moment Laura imagined her mother throwing away the keys to a portion of her heart. 'If you don't want to see him anymore…'
'If I don't visit, will you?'
'I… I can't promise that, dear.'
'Why not? Play for him for once. I know it does something, I can see the way he changes when I play. Maybe if you try too, then-'
'I can't, Laura. I just can't anymore. Ever since he went in… it's been so hard.' She was pleading now, but Laura wasn't feeling particularly merciful.
'You never tried,' she spat into the phone, and the venom in her voice surprised even her. 'You never spoke to him even when you visited, never even pretended he could hear. All you did was sit in a corner and try to wish it all away, and after a year you gave up on him and-'
'Yes you did!' Laura half-screamed, almost hysterical, unable to stop now that the years she spent in bitter silence were screaming for justification. 'You gave up on him, you left him for dead! And if not for me, you wouldn't remember him at all!'
There was a ringing silence. After awhile, Laura could hear crying from the other end of the phone.
'That's not true,' her mother managed to say. 'I think of him everyday.' The next moment, the line went dead.
Laura slumped in the seat and laid her head on the wheel. For a very long time, all she could do was sit there, so filled with grief and rage that her whole body felt numb. The distant noise of cars on the highway seemed to belong to an entirely different world with no pain, no tears, no suffering. She could close her eyes and imagine that she was merely dreaming and that when she woke, the world would be right.
Eventually, though, she had to face the reality of her situation. Laura collected herself and with a rueful smile at her reflection in the rear-view mirror, she started the engine.
By the time she turned into the driveway of the house, it was already past midnight. All the lights were off, so her mother was probably asleep, if sleep would come to anyone after what had just happened. Since she still hadn't had her dinner, she went to the kitchen to see if there was anything in the fridge she could munch on.
When she switched the lights on, the sight of her mother sitting at the kitchen counter startled her.
'Mom! Why are you sitting in the dark?' With a pang of guilt she noticed the cordless phone in her mother's hand.
'I've kept some dinner for you,' she said, attempting to sound normal. 'And there's some ice-cream in the freezer, I made it in the afternoon.'
Laura found that she couldn't say anything. To avoid the moment of confrontation, she went to the fridge and found two plates of spaghetti and a big bowl of sauce in cling-wrap. Wordlessly, she went about heating up the food in the microwave. The only sound in the kitchen was its steady hum and dings as Laura heated up both plates and the sauce. When that was done, she brought everything to the counter and pulled another chair to sit facing her mother.
'You haven't eaten either, have you?' Laura asked tentatively. The only response she got was a nod. Not knowing what to say, Laura poured the sauce and offered a plate to her mother. There was a moment of hesitation before she took the plate and started twirling spaghetti around her fork.
'Mom, I'm sorry.'
'It's nothing,' she shook her head in dismissal and started to eat. Laura decided to do the same. 'I still care, you know,' her mother said unexpectedly. 'It's just… seeing him now, and remembering what he was like…'
It struck Laura then just how frail her mother looked, hunched over her plate and trying resolutely not to cry. Her slender fingers, a pianist's fingers, were trembling with suppressed emotion as they gripped the utensils. Her eyes, once bright and piercing, were now sunken and haunted. Grief was slowly wasting her away and now that Laura had calmed down enough to think rationally, she felt ashamed for what she had said earlier.
'I know what it feels like,' her mother continued. 'Heavens, don't you think I know? You can't stop playing for him for the same reason I can't bring myself to see him. I want to keep thinking of him the way he used to be.'
'The music,' Laura pleaded. 'It helps. I can see it.'
'But I can't.' Her mother took a deep, shuddering breath.
'Just once, Mom. Come and play for him, just once.'
'It's not some kind of miracle cure, Laura,' her mother said, and her voice broke slightly. She struggled to keep her voice level and continued. 'No matter how hard I wish it was.'
She returned her attention to the food and focused on eating. For the rest of the meal, neither of them continued on that topic and instead ate in silence. When they were done, Laura washed up and by some silent consent, both of them retired to bed.
The next week passed much like any other week, but Laura carried the extra weight of guilt. Neither she nor her mother wanted to bring up what had happened that night, yet it hung over them like a cloud and it was beginning to wear Laura down. Friday came much too quickly for her liking, but decided not to press her mother further. She would visit her father again, by herself, as usual.
'Oh come on!'
Laura shook her head and started clearing her desk. 'I've got something to do.'
Her colleague, Alice, laughed incredulously and Laura knew what was coming next. It was almost a sort of routine, a habit, for her to be questioned. 'It's Friday! What's so important that you've got do it tonight?'
For a moment, Laura considered answering truthfully. There was so much on her mind – her father, the argument she had with her mother, Daniel's sudden discharge – that it felt as though she would burst if she didn't find some sort of release. But she decided against it. There was no need to burden others with her personal affairs when they wouldn't be able to do a thing about it.
So, as their jest dictated, Laura simply fixed Alice with a stare. For her efforts she got an exasperated sigh from her colleague. 'I wish you'd tell me what you do every Friday. It's the best time to have a good night out.'
'It doesn't matter,' Laura said, snapping her bag shut and getting up to leave. 'Look, I'm sorry,' she sighed and continued. 'It's been a long week for me and I just need to have some time off, okay?'
This time, Alice refused to be brushed off so easily. Real concern was there, underneath the curiosity that they turned into a game between them every week. 'It's not that. You're just never free on Fridays for some reason.' She opened the office door for Laura. 'Listen, if there's anything, you can talk to me, you know that, right?'
Laura hesitated as she stepped over the threshold and turned to look at her friend. 'Alice…'
'Thanks,' Laura said simply. Then she was off, a forlorn figure huddled in her coat, rushing to the warmth and solitude of her car.
Pain? Yes, it was still there.
It wasn't physical. It was…
… as though something was missing.
No, not something, someone.
It was confusing.
James was awakened by the sound of a piano. The music scared him for some reason. Unlike the pleasant and dreamy pieces his daughter favoured, this one sounded tragic. He hurried downstairs to find Laura bent over the piano as she played, as if something pained her terribly. He wanted to rush over and comfort her, but something held him back. The sight of her so taken by the music and the sound of her sadness being played out rooted him to the spot. All he could do was slump into a chair and watch her with mounting fear and apprehension.
All of a sudden, she brought the piece to an abrupt end with a jagged crash of notes. Before he could do anything, she started on one of his wife's old pieces, the same one she always played whenever he saw her at the piano, and he felt at a complete loss, too afraid to reach out to her and too confused by her sudden change.
When she brought her recital to an end, he cautiously approached and sat next to her. She looked at him with a mixture of surprise and disbelief and for a moment he considered retreating, afraid that he had overstepped his bounds by breaking into her world so intrusively, but he quickly banished that thought away and embraced her. She stiffened, then tentatively returned the gesture. It was awhile before he noticed she was crying.
'There, there,' he said, drawing her closer and patting her head. She continued to sob into his shoulder.
'Talk to me,' she said. But James didn't know what else he could say, so he simply kept quiet. After a moment, she pulled away and gave him a sad smile before leaving.
'He talked to me,' Laura said to the nurse. 'He came and sat next to me, he hugged me, and he talked to me.'
The nurse was sympathetic, but clinical. 'I'm sorry Miss Dawson, but his condition hasn't improved. He's still the same.'
'He's not the same! He spoke! He responded to me when I cried!' Laura forced out her words between sobs, trying to brush aside the truth with what she felt.
'It may be an isolated incident. He's not responding to any other stimuli. I understand how you feel, Miss Dawson, but your father still hasn't recovered, or even showed any signs of recovery.'
'No, no, you don't understand at all,' Laura whimpered, sinking into a nearby chair. She buried her head in her arms and cried.
No one noticed that the piano in the common room was being played. Laura continued crying and the nurse tried in vain to comfort her. It took them a few moments to notice, and when they did they stared at each other, eyes wide in disbelief. It was the tune Laura always played when she came, the one her mother had composed herself.
'Miss Dawson, wait!' But Laura was on her feet in an instant, dashing towards the common room, past bewildered patients and startled nurses. A snatch of rhyme drifted out of one wards and the garbled noises of someone trying to read aloud came from another, but she ignored them. She burst into the common room, eyes darting around until they finally rested on the piano, where her father was seated.
But it was the woman next to him who was playing.
Laura's mother was there. Her eyes were closed and her fingers worked their magic on the black and white keys. She had probably slipped in unnoticed when Laura was crying outside.
For the second time in as many minutes, Laura collapsed into a chair and cried as her mother continued to play. She poured out all her pent-up emotions, her disappointment, her relief, her longing. When the music faded away, Laura found herself utterly spent. She remained doubled over with the surge of emotions. Distantly, she heard the familiar squeak of leather as someone stood, then uncertain footsteps as someone approached her. She looked up.
'He knows we're here.' It was her mother, eyes shining with tears and a spark of hope. They turned to look at James, who was now laying a trembling hand on the keyboard. He was no longer oblivious to the things around him, but his journey out of that state had robbed him of his strength.
'Dad,' Laura made to get up, but her mother stopped her.
'Wait, Laura,' she began.
'Please,' Laura clasped her hand. 'I've waited two years. Let me talk to him.'
Then, slowly, afraid that her haste and eagerness might chase him back into his madness, she inched her way towards her father. With his back to her, he failed to notice her approach. He continued staring at his hand, attempting to marshal some sort of coordination in them by flexing his fingers.
Laura found that her heart was racing. She was behind him now. Her breathing had quickened. She eased herself down to sit next to him and placed her trembling hand on his.
He jumped slightly at the contact and turned to look directly at her.
'Laura?' He sounded almost as disbelieving as she felt.
'Yes?' She asked, her voice tremulous.
'I've always heard. From the first moment.'
Then father and daughter had their first true embrace in two years, and there was nothing more that needed to be said between them.