Tick, tock. Tick, tock. An otherwise silent room. Lying on the master bed is a man old, once young. All his life he’d been one to look forward – to milestones, achievements, joy, and even sorrow. But he’d been recently reminiscing. And as he was wont to do, he started at the beginning: his first memory.
Four years old. A one-time gold-rich town in western Queensland that exists now as little more than a long-haul petrol station, pub, and general store and post office servicing a handful of nearby – to use the word loosely – farms. A hill. And very young Fred, as his parents called him, a tiny-training-wheel-bike atop blur literally screaming down said hill, as his father shouted from its summit: “Hit the brakes! The brakes!”
Then a void, for a while. Fred’s memories of recovering from the injuries, ultimately learning to ride, and attending his first couple of years at primary school not deemed significant enough to swim into his consciousness. Then Mildred.
Grade 5. Both aged 10. Fred put dirt in Mildred’s hair, she gave chase, Fred fell over, grazed his knee, started crying, and Mildred comforted him. Fred got the cane. Mildred comforted him some more.
Focused now. Or perhaps distracted, as men are often both made to be by the fairer sex. Fred’s reminiscence jumped forward and over other perhaps worthy life-events, to more Mildred.
Her face was obscured by a white shroud. He could see nothing else, and hear little but the blood rushing past his ears. From somewhere far away he heard “Do you, Fred, take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” To which he responded: “I do.” Then a return to singular focus on the white veiled figure in front of him. Until the veil disappeared, from his to be tear-blurred vision.
Tears from this recollection had still not dried beneath his eyes when Fred’s mind turned to later, but presently much earlier, years. Years of solitude, for example.
Sunlight would have somewhat penetrated the giant redwood forest’s gently shifting canopy, if not for ever-present northern-Californian fog obscuring it. Fred walked without hurry, his only companions a gnarled, scavenged walking stick, songbirds, and the wind. He looked at a counterfeit, as it turned out, Rolex won in a back-alley Las Vegas poker game. Then wondered why he’d bothered, and instead concentrated on the clearing up ahead. A grassed clearing, still glinting surprisingly bright in the low light from morning dew. A single deer. A fawn, seen upon entrance. It looked up, munching lazily on the wet undergrowth, straight at Fred as he paused in its gaze. Then as he took a single short step forward it bolted, and he smilingly watched it disappear into the trees.
And years of companionship. Of brotherhood.
John lay on a sun-lounge in nothing but his boardshorts, holding a salted margarita glass in sips to his lips. Fred lay beside him, equally boardshorted, waiting for his third drink to arrive. Both watched the ocean heave from beneath a grass umbrella and the noon sun.
“Whack,” simply said John.
“Buckets,” added Fred, as such a generous amount of spray threw from a wave.
“Barrel!” exclaimed John.
“Wooooooo!” shouted the surfer upon exiting the barrel about 100m from the two friends’ view.
“What a morning,” said Fred.
“One of the best,” added John.
“What should we do now?”
“More of this,” John emptied his glass and raised his hand to resort staff for another.
“Bars, then a 7am flight.”
“Fuck no,” said Fred, as a drink appeared in his hand. “Life’s too short,” he concluded to himself before taking a sip.
The group of surfers boiled happily in the warm water during a lull in swell, in anticipation of more to come. The pair on the beach watched with empathetic enjoyment. John decided it was a time for a question of his own, as his drink arrived.
“Have you been thinking about her?”
“No,” replied Fred, lying only in terms of recent past-tense, as of course the question swam Mildred to his mind.
“She can’t be tamed.”
“I don’t want to tame her.”
“What do you want from her?”
“To love her.”
“I asked what you wanted from her, not what you wanted for her.”
“I, also, want to be loved by her.”
Uncharacteristically impatient now, Fred’s thoughts rushed without labour but not complete dismissal over a litany of his life’s triumphs and tragedies. To both his greatest, centered atop a hospital bed.
The two younger siblings, a boy and a girl, stood silently and uncomprehending. The two older, both male, soundlessly shed tears down their as yet beardless cheeks. Their respective mothers, having said final goodbyes to their own mother, wailed on their knees at each bedside; comforted by their standing husbands. And Fred seated quite prostate at the bed’s foot as the hospital machinery sounded its droning detached death knell – he cried yet smiled as he held Mildred’s now lifeless but once so seemingly immortal feet. And decided, inevitably yet indefinitely, to chase his sometimes elusive love one final time into the unknown.
Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Broken now by a gasp, from his younger daughter Milly (short, or perhaps modernised for, of course, Mildred). Right hand over her mouth, she approaches the old man on the bed, Fred, who has reminisced his last. And Milly can’t help but lower her hand, and subtly smile. Because so is her father, no longer breathing, clutching a photo of a not yet middle-aged couple. The man: wearing a tuxedo and a broad, perhaps relieved grin. And the woman: all in white, Fred’s arm over her shoulder, and a veil thrown back to reveal her also and no less smiling face.