The next morning Tom had to collect Katie and Carol had arranged to take her father to the hospital. His cancer seemed to have stabilised somewhat, much to her relief, but he had to go in for regular check-ups and Carol preferred to be with him. "When am I going to meet him?" Tom asked as they dressed.
"This week if you like; one day when Katie's at school maybe. I've got Thursday off - we could go then if you like."
"It's a date. I want to interrogate him."
Carol smiled. "What about?"
"You of course."
"Ask to see the baby pictures you mean?"
Tom grinned. "There's that. But knowing you, I thought I might ask for some tips on bringing up Katie."
Carol hugged him. "You're a smooth talker, Tom Fields." They were both half-naked; Tom wished they didn't have to leave the intimacy of that small, cosy bedroom.
"What time will you be coming this afternoon?"
Carol calculated. "About three, I think. I want to make sure I get him settled once he's back home - I like to cook his dinner of a Sunday. He doesn't like me fussing but I know he'd miss it if I stopped. We should have eaten by half-two, so three should be about right."
"You've got the address?"
"Yes; and the telephone number in case I get lost though I'm not sure how just an eighth of a mile down the road. And your little map to make that even less likely. The only thing missing is the native guide."
Tom flicked her with his shirt.
He walked to the Wilkinsons' through sunshine that seemed to radiate from within. The instant he reached it the door opened and Katie flung herself out. "Daddy!" She hugged his legs, all but knocking him off his feet. Behind her in the doorway Mrs. Wilkinson smiled, holding the carrier bag containing Katie's clothes from the day before. "Has she been good?" Tom asked. He knew the answer; the question was for Katie's benefit, an excuse to praise her.
"An angel as ever; I wish I could say the same for Andrew." She looked down at her son with a frown; he ignored her.
"Andrew bit the dog," Katie explained.
Tom fought back a smile. "I don't think you should be telling me what Andrew's been doing," he reprimanded.
"She's coming later, sweetheart."
"I don't know who this Carol is," said Mrs. Wilkinson, "but Katie's been going on and on about her."
Tom laughed with pleasure and affection, ruffling Katie's hair. "You've not even met her yet."
"I know - but she sounds nice."
Making the best of the sunshine, Tom took Katie to a park on their way home. When Katie played he had no chance to relax; she couldn't slide down a slide, swing on a swing, spin on a roundabout without involving him. Other parents sat soaking up the sun on park benches, talking among themselves, reading. Their children seemed no less content than Katie. Perhaps Carol was right. Perhaps he was over protective, giving in to Katie's whims, allowing himself to be too much the centre of her attention. But if it was to change it would have to change slowly; she would have to be weaned. But then, why bother? Time itself would do the trick as she grew older. Things were changing already; why force it? And so they played and so, when they left for lunch, Tom was as tired as Katie.
The meal was simple and hurried; Katie helped with the washing up so losing the time they'd gained. By the time they finished it was five past three.
"Is it nearly time for Carol?"
It was about the tenth time she'd asked since they'd got home. "Any time now sweetheart." He was as excited as she was, looking forward to the three of them together like... what? A family? Well yes, why not? Like a family.
They went into the sitting room and Tom suggested a game of cards while they waited. They spread them across the floor, face down, and settled to trying to find pairs amongst them. The advantage Tom secretly allowed Katie was becoming less necessary every time they played; she had a good memory.
Katie took the last cards and they counted them; Katie had won by just two pairs. "Did you let me win, dad?"
Ouch. "Maybe, just a little bit, but not much; you're getting really good at this."
"You should let yourself win sometimes, you know."
"Not for a long time."
"Alright - I'll win next time."
"Don't tell me - it spoils it."
"Alright - I might win next time."
"Where's Carol? I thought you said she'd be here soon a long time ago."
Tom didn't need to look at his watch to know it was twenty five to four; he'd been checking it regularly. "I don't know my love," he said. It didn't seem like Carol to be late. Then again, it was hard to remember sometimes that they still barely knew each other; perhaps she wasn't the punctual sort.
Then the telephone rang. His heart sank. "This might be Carol, sweetheart; she might not be able to come."
Katie looked disappointed, but only slightly.
Tom picked up the phone. There was no preamble. "Tom?"
Her voice was weak and he guessed it was her father. "Carol? What's happened?"
"Dad's..." Her voice cracked to a halt.
"Are you at the hospital? I'll come over."
Her breath came in stutters; she was quietly crying.
"Tom, it was horrible." Speaking she couldn't hide the tears. "When I got to his house... I found him. Just lying on the floor. I went to him, but... he was so cold. Tom, he was so cold. I didn't know a person could be so cold."
"Carol, I'm coming over. Where are you?"
In the silence Carol's effort at control was almost palpable. Then "No. No... I'm with Janice. I'm... Tom, I'm sorry, I need time. To recover. To think... I'm sorry, but..." She trailed off into stifled sobbing.
"Carol, I want to help. I'll do anything you want. But if... if you feel you want space... time on your own..."
"Tom, I'm sorry, so sorry... it's not you; it's me..."
"Don't worry, just... don't worry about me. I understand." But he didn't. He didn't understand at all. He wanted to be with her, to help her, to comfort her.
"Oh Tom I'm so sorry..." the tears welling with renewed force. "I'll write. I promise. When it's all over, when I've sorted myself out..."
"Take your time, as long as you want. Don't worry about me but listen, love - you know where I am if you need me. I want you to... I'm here for you. You know that."
"Yes... I know... Tom, I'm sorry..." He heard the receiver knock uncertainly in its cradle then the impersonal burr of the dialling tone.
Tom stood for some time, the receiver still in his hand. His mind was blank beyond the desire to help Carol... but there was nothing he could do. Nothing she would let him do. He so desperately wanted to ring the Wilkinsons to take Katie, to go to the Vine in the hope of finding someone who knew Janice's address, to seek out Carol, comfort her, hold her, just hold her... but he had heard the effort it had taken for Carol to make that call. He had to respect her request to leave her be. If he went now he'd not be going for her sake; he'd be going for his own.
He replaced the receiver.
Tom had seen Katie's sensitivity to his moods before; today he hardly noticed. When she was with him she was silent, hugging him or resting her head on his lap. But most of the time she spent playing alone in her room, leaving Tom to his thoughts, giving him the chance to weep.
He made an effort at tea time but it was too much; chatter lapsed. He didn't eat much. Afterwards they sat quietly together on the sofa, holding each other, until Katie said she was tired and wanted to go to bed early.
She put herself to bed. He went up to give her her usual hug; she seemed disinclined to break it. At last, gently - "Are you alright, dad?"
"Yes sweetheart. I'm fine. I'm fine." His voice was firm with the determination to hold back the grief. Reassured, Katie turned over as if to sleep.
Downstairs again Tom realised he'd told Katie nothing, not even that Carol wouldn't be coming. It was clear she'd guessed Carol might never come.
And with that thought he gave in.
With tears came relief of a sort; he was able to wash the dishes, change the clothes he'd not changed since the evening before for something cooler after a quick shower. It was all automatic, but better than nothing as he realised when he sat again and felt himself sag. He had to do something, find a focus.
As ever in recent spare moments his eyes rested on the typewriter. After their last evening together Lenny's story, too, had memories of Carol. But it was something. And he had to do something.
Expecting little he went to the desk, sat heavily before it. He read the most recent page, remembering Carol's comments. She had wanted to know how it would continue. Perhaps now she never would... but she had wanted to know.
He would continue for her, not in the hope she would read it but because she had wanted to.
He put a new page in the typewriter and tried to gather his thoughts. None came save thoughts of Carol. But he had to try. He had to try. He had to think of Lenny.
Think of Lenny.
And after some time -