OF BENJAMIN MORRIS"
Was it a small dog? Or perhaps a largish cat? Was it still just about alive or sadly dead? A surrounding bed of autumnally auburn and russet leaves made it really difficult to make out the precise form. A fresh wind contrived to make it hard to determine whether the animal was still breathing or it was simply the flapping of the sodden leaves. Squinting his eyes in the fading light and leaning forward to look down the embankment, Benjamin Morris tried to fathom the nature of the object that had caught his attention.
The morning had started like all the others in the past couple of months. He had slept late and it had taken a positive act of will to leave the bed. His body felt like a dead weight and his mind like a soaked sponge. Both were suffused with the sheer misery of depression.
It had been like this since he had been made redundant several months ago – one more anonymous victim of the recession. Of course, the company had been really sensitive and kind and caring. They were going to let him go; he was free to pursue other options; it was a chance to fulfill his potential.
As if life hadn't been tough enough. He had married young and they had quickly had two children. The sparkle had left the relationship while the kids were still young and his wife had abandoned him as soon as they had both departed home for university. Until then, he hadn't realised that almost all of their friends were in fact her friends.
Living alone, he had begun to slide down an incline starting with corrosive self pity, moving through lack of self esteem, to an absence of any self worth. The loss of his job represented the edge of a precipice and he had tumbled into a pit of despair that appeared deeper and deeper and darker and darker.
In his blackest moments, he had contemplated the notion of suicide – although he had not admitted that to his doctor. But it was not a realistic option. That would require effort and he could barely drag himself out of bed. It would involve facing death and he could hardly even confront life.
Eventually he had been forced to admit that he needed help and his doctor had prescribed anti-depressants. Apparently they took some weeks to 'kick in' and he was still waiting for the dead engine of his life to splutter back into action.
He had found that what did help a little was walking. Quick walking. Up a hill. He lived on the edge of the city at the foot of a hill that provided just the therapeutic opportunity that he needed if only he could motivate himself to leave the cocoon of home.
Any feeble excuse would do to justify not going for a walk. Today's rationalisation was the forecast of repeated heavy showers and there had indeed been regular downpours throughout the day. But the rain clouds seemed now to have done their worst and he decided that he could manage a short ambulation before it became too dark. It might even raise his spirits a little.
This was how Benjamin Morris found himself staring down at the seemingly still form at the foot of the overgrown and leaf-strewn bank. He felt more moved than for many weeks by the plight of this creature who seemed in some way to be a representation of his own situation. He moved to the very edge of the pathway and leaned further over to peer into the gathering opacity. Seconds passed. He seemed incapable of making a decision.
Somewhere, almost in his subconscious, he became aware of a rhythmic sound, a quiet, even patter that quickly grew in volume. He felt rather than saw the jogger rush behind him and race off down the hill. It was a second or two before he realised that the runner had unknowingly caught him with an elbow and nudged him over the point of equilibrium.
As he tumbled over the edge of the embankment, his body turned a little to face the bottom of the hill. The jogger was already some distance away, retreating rapidly, but he caught a glimpse of his bright orange T-shirt. Bizarrely his last thought was how much he had always hated orange clothing – far too garish.
Sometime later, he came round, his head throbbing. It took a little while for him to work out where he was and what had happened. He had slid head first down the wet, grassy bank and slammed into the base of a tree trunk at the bottom of the dip. He struggled over on to his back where he could lie flat, his eyes still locked closed. He had the strange notion that he could just lie here and leave all his troubles behind. In time, the vegetation would claim him and he would become a part of the terrain.
It was an absurd idea, of course, so eventually he forced himself to prise open his eyes. He knew that he was badly concussed because stars were dancing in front of his vision. But then he came to appreciate that they really were stars because it was now dark. He still had no inclination to move. His resolve was finally engaged when large plops of rain, oddly refreshing, began to strike him in the face.
It was time to make a move. He struggled unsteadily onto his feet and manoeuvred to commence climbing up the slope to the pathway. He immediately slipped on the soaked grass and caught his foot in the root of the tree that had already been unkind enough to strike him on the head. As he fell flat, his ankle twisted and a bolt of sharp pain shot up his leg.
Once again, he lay still. This time face down on the ground, his ankle pulsing with an intensity that perversely made him feel more alive than for some time. He was not sure whether his ankle was broken or just very badly sprained. Either way, he was not confident that he could manage to make it to the top of the embankment. He could call on his mobile for an ambulance. Or at least he could have done if he had remembered to bring his mobile with him. Depression aids forgetfulness – and now stupidly he was paying the price.
Using the tree trunk as a temporary crutch, he slowly hauled himself upright and then commenced his ascent. The latest shower was now in full flood which added to the precariousness of his situation. Almost immediately his ankle gave way and he pitched forward onto his chest and knees, cursing in acute pain as he did so.
Using elbows and knees as some kind of support, he slowly and laboriously and very ungainly pulled himself up the slope, using scrubs and clumps of grass as leverage. He was tantalisingly near the top when he lost his grip and bounced and bumped all the back down the wet grass incline, his face catching in the loose growth, his nose and mouth filling with muddy soil. He snorted and spat out the earth, smelling cat piss and tasting dog shit.
In the midst of his humiliation and frustration, he remembered something. Was that animal still there? Since he was back at base camp, he might as well look for it, although nearness to the creature was now more than counterbalanced by inky blackness. He fumbled around the undergrowth with wet and sticky hands, feeling around the area where he thought he had earlier seen the body.
Ah – that was it! Except 'it' was no animal at all. It was simply a disgarded brown handbag. His first inclination was to ignore it and resume his labours. But then he reasoned that the bag was why he was here and securing it would be some kind of justification for his efforts.
He hooked the strap of the handbag over a shoulder, so that both hands remained free, and returned to his endeavours. It was exhausting and it was painful but, viewing the bag as a talisman, he found the strength and skill to struggle all the way to the summit.
"Mrs Robertson? You don't know me but my name is Morrison – Benjamin Morrison. I have something for you. May I come in?"
It had taken him five days to make this call. He told himself that he needed time for his ankle – simply a bad sprain – to recover, but the reality was that he now found any kind of social contact quite difficult. He should really have telephoned first but he was afraid that, if he made a pre-arrangement, he might lose the courage to carry it through.
For all the insecurity inside him, he was looking better than for many months. He had had a proper shave, he was dressed smartly, and – a beneficial side effect of depression and not eating much – his middle-aged paunch had almost disappeared.
"You're right, I don't know you, mister whatever your name is. And a total stranger does come over my threshold without a convincing reason."
"It's Benjamin Morris - please call me Ben - and I do understand."
He raised his right arm and held aloft the woman's handbag.
"I think this is yours. I thought that you would want to have the contents returned."
Marion Robertson's expression flicked from surprise through to sadness and on to greeting. "Yes... You better had come in" she conceded.
On the couch in the front living room, Ben told Marion his story. How he had been going through a hard time and how he found walking helpful. This background was, of course, completely unnecessary but she looked like the kind of person one could trust, one who would care, and he so wanted to unburden himself. He went on to explain how he had spotted the object, which at first he had thought might be a cat or dog, and how he had tumbled down the incline and eventually recovered the bag.
He explained that, once he was home and cleaned up, he had opened the handbag. The purse, with its various sections, was there but no cards, no notes, no cash. He assumed it had been snatched for the missing items and then thrown away. And then, underneath gloves, tissues, and other mysteries of the female inclination, he had found the letters, tied in a neat bundle and still undamaged and dry. He assured her that he had not opened them; he had not read anything. It was enough that the correspondence gave him a name and address. He apologised for not coming round sooner. It was the ankle, you see.
All the time he spoke, Marion sat silently opposite him in an armchair, clutching the bag to her chest as if it were a baby. And then she narrated her own story. Her eldest child Emma had left home to go to Edinburgh University to study art history. At the time, Marion did not have a computer and could not receive e-mail, so Emma had written a letter each Sunday, very personal letters saying things she had never said at home and never said in telephone calls.
There were only seven letters because Emma had died before completing her first term – a blood clot from use of the contraceptive pill, such a rare occurrence the doctor had explained. Her death had devastated the family. Something had snapped in the girl's father and a few months later he disappeared, later filing for divorce.
She knew that it was silly to carry around the letters all the time, especially after so long. But it gave her a sense of comfort, a feeling of connectedness.
Marion had been walking to her vehicle in the underground car park at the local shopping centre when she was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground. Once she recovered, she still had her car keys in her hand and her food shopping was scattered all around, but her handbag was gone. That was two months ago. She had never expected to see the letters again, but they meant so much to her and she was overwhelmed to have them returned.
Stories exchanged, emotions shared, Ben and Marion sat in still and silent communion for a few moments, before she inquired: "A nice cup of tea? And a large slice of my homemade lemon drizzle cake?"
"Sounds wonderful" responded Ben enthusiastically.
As she busied herself in the kitchen, he stood up and gazed around the living room. There was a book case stuffed with modern fiction and he bent down to look along the shelves and check the titles, noting that there were many with which he was familiar and comfortable. As he turned to resume his place on the couch, he noticed a novel with bookmark protruding sitting on a coffee table. One of his favourite authors.
"Have you read it? It's this month's selection for my book club." He hadn't been aware that she was at the door.
"Yes – a masterful piece of storytelling, I thought, and brilliant writing as usual. Perhaps her best work yet."
And that simple exchange segued into a long and lively and occasionally robust discussion about one book and one author after another. He delighted in the novelty for recent months of an engaging and stimulating conversation with someone so warm and open and someone with similar interests and predispositions.
"Well", she eventually announced, "you certainly are a bookworm and - with one or two notable exceptions - I admire your taste. You should come along to our book club. First Tuesday of each month. You'd love it."
Yes, he probably would. For some reason, he'd never thought about that kind of activity. And, of course, Marion would be there and, if she hadn't wanted to see him again, she wouldn't have suggested the club, would she?
"Another cup of tea?" she offered.
"Yes, please" he responded effusively. "And any chance of another slice of that wonderful drizzle cake?"
"Of course" she smiled.
Alone again, Ben's blood was racing. He hadn't felt this alive in a long, long time. Perhaps the medication was kicking in at last – it was about bloody time. Maybe it was the sense of achievement of mission accomplished – he had returned the letters to their owner occasioning evident joy to a distressed mother. But, most all, he suspected it was Marion. Until today, he had felt so isolated and so unworthy. Yet here was a woman with whom he felt an instant sense of connection, someone who, in such a short time, had made him feel whole again: valued and validated.
What was he supposed to do now? It was his move – but he no longer knew what the moves were. Come on. How difficult could it be? Only a fool would wait to the next book club meeting when, in any case, she would be surrounded by friends who knew her far better than him. No – he had to act now. He had to ...
There was a banging and crashing in the hallway. Newly elevated to Marion's protector, he moved quickly to investigate the threat. Marion was already in the hallway, looking perfectly relaxed and assisting a young man to manipulate a racing bike into the narrow space.
She turned to him and announced: "Ben, I'd like you to meet my son Edward. He's training for a triathlon."
Benjamin Morris would have recognised that orange T-shirt anywhere.
Published on 12 November 2010
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