Edward was trying hard not to show just how worried he was. He was sitting down, which at his age was both sensible and a full-time occupation, whilst watching Jenny play with her best friend. He was determined that Jenny should not pick up on any of his concerns. She was still too young to understand and, anyway, there was no point in worrying her unnecessarily. The trouble was, Edward was not convinced it would be worrying her unnecessarily. He was becoming increasingly conscious that, irrespective of her young age, certain truths would have to be faced sooner rather than later.
Age itself was one facet of Edward’s concerns: in particular, his ever advancing years in relation to Jenny’s extreme youth. She had come to live with him when his daughter and her husband were killed in a motorway traffic incident. It had seemed the only possible way forward at the time, but now Jenny was five and he was eighty-four he was worried the powers that be within the local Social Services Department were growing increasingly uncomfortable with the situation and in particular, it seemed, the age difference between Jenny and him. Edward himself was only too aware that, notwithstanding his family’s natural longevity, the chances of him living for anything more than another nine or ten years at the outside were impossibly slight and how capable he’d be of looking after Jenny as he got progressively older was anybody’s guess. He had no family other than Jenny, so who would look after her when, not if, he passed on before she had finished growing up?
Jenny was sublimely unaware of Edward’s worries. At this moment in time she was happily perched on a step half way up the stairs and two steps above the one occupied by her best friend Abby. Jenny was dressed in her best Sunday frock of dark red velvet with its trim white lace collar and was very, very conscious of the need to keep her clothes clean. She and Abby had been entertaining themselves by telling one another stories. When the possibility of acting out some of the stories came up Jenny decided it would be better if the acting game took place in her bedroom, where any increase in activity and noise levels would be less of a disturbance to Edward.
Downstairs in his armchair, Edward watched while Jenny stood up, carefully brushed down her best and most favourite dress and carried on up the stairs to her bedroom. She was a very precise and solemn little girl. Edward wondered if this was because of her mother’s death or because of his advancing years. It couldn’t be much fun for a youngster living in a house where the only other occupant was an elderly man in his eighties. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that she had developed such a strong tie to Abby.
Upstairs in the bedroom the acting up game was proceeding apace. Whilst a livelier activity than the sedentary story telling on the staircase, it was still far from rumbustious by usual childhood standards. Edward was able to hear at least half of what was going on.
“…but if you are playing the mummy then you have to pretend to be dead.”
“Because that’s the way it is.”
“Yes, if you want to, but you still have to be dead.”
“Daddies always die too.”
It was Jenny’s childish voice that Edward was listening to and what he heard just added to his worries. It was clearly the tale of Happy Families that was being acted out upstairs – again. Happy Families was Jenny’s favourite story and game and she was always playing it with Abby. In fact, they seemed to play little else. It was far from happy, though. In Jenny’s version Mummy and Daddy always ended up dead.
“No, if you’re the daddy you have to die so I can hold your hand.”
Jenny’s best friend was normally extremely compliant, so Edward was surprised there seemed to be some form of minor insurrection taking place upstairs. Come to think of it, Abby had appeared to grow increasingly challenging of Jenny over the last few days. Edward was not sure if this was a good sign or a bad one. He adored Jenny and wanted more than anything to see her happy, but he was not convinced her relationship with Abby was an entirely healthy one. Also, he knew all too well that Social Services were not comfortable with the Jenny and Abby situation and their friendship would inevitably become another cross on the interminable check lists the department representatives were always carrying these days. Although he hated himself for admitting it, it would be no bad thing if Jenny fell out naturally with Abby. It would certainly save Edward the difficulty of tackling the issue direct with Jenny; something he was dreading having to do.
At that moment, Jenny came downstairs.
“Where’s Abby?” Edward tried to keep the question neutral sounding.
“Upstairs in my bedroom. I came down to give you a hug and to ask for a drink, please.”
If Edward was disappointed by this response, he didn’t let it show. He just dealt with it in the same way he tried not to let his ongoing worry show: he absorbed it inside himself. He stood up very slowly and with Jenny close beside him, made his less than steady way into the kitchen.
“What flavour would you like?”
“Choose for me.”
“Orange?” She always had orange.
Edward slowly and carefully made up a glass of orange squash and handed it to Jenny. She took it equally carefully, said thank you and then just stood there waiting. Even before Jenny finally asked, Edward knew what the matter was.
“May Abby have a glass of orange squash too, please?”
Edward turned slowly back to the sink and painstakingly mimed the act of making another glass of squash. Then he handed the make-believe drink to Jenny, who accepted it gravely, said thank you and proceeded to take the two drinks carefully back upstairs with her.
“Do you need any help with those?” said Edward to her retreating back.
“No thank you. I can manage and Abby can always help me.”
Edward winced. The relationship with Abby didn’t really seem to be getting any weaker. With Social Services increasingly in the frame, he needed it to be. There had been a couple of high profile child-care disasters in the last year or so and the check-list-wielding social workers were hyper-sensitive and on the case, determined there would be no repetition on their patch. They were waiting, he was sure; just looking for an excuse to intervene with him and Jenny. He didn’t want the thing with Abby to be the straw that broke the institutional camel’s back. Then again, Jenny was only five. Surely an imaginary friend was not a major mental health issue when one was only five? Yet Edward himself, if he was honest, was not comfortable with the nature of Jenny’s friendship with Abby. The ongoing morbidity of their games, Jenny’s trusting reliance on Abby, the fact she only ever played with Abby and had no real friends of her own age were all equally disquieting. And yet, and yet; Jenny was so devoted to Abby, derived so much pleasure from her supposed company and seemed so happy now, having already experienced enough unhappiness in her young life to have sunk a full grown adult, that he hadn’t the heart to disillusion her about Abby. He was not totally sure he could, come to that; so strong were the little girl’s ties to her imaginary best friend.
Up in her bedroom Jenny was laughing loudly, by her standards, at something Abby had said or done. Edward was not prepared to take such happiness, however false, away from her. There was little enough joy in the real world; Edward was only too aware of it. If it were not for Jenny, the only thing he would have left to look forward to now was death. She was the source of his own late flowering happiness and he was not going to deprive her of what she, in her innocence, had given him. She would grow out of the friendship eventually. In the meantime he’d find a way to hold off Social Services; small-minded, check-list tickers, each and every one of them. His blood pressure rose just thinking about the comments made by the last snooping busy-body who had come calling,
“But Mr Thomas, the little girl’s not real. This really isn’t healthy.”
Healthy: what did the silly cow know about being healthy after all his Jenny had been through? He’d show them. He might be elderly, but he was still capable of putting up a good fight and he’d not give up without one. He’d write letters, he’d phone them, he’d turn up at their offices; he’d make them see the truth of it, but first he’d have a sit down and maybe a little nap. He wasn’t as young as he used to be and his heart was pumping a bit too wildly for comfort.
Edward lay back in his chair and shut his eyes. As he started to drift off he sensed Jenny come quietly down the stairs and perch herself on the arm of his chair. She took one of his large but increasingly strengthless hands in both of hers and gently cradled it. Edward smiled to himself, but no one else would ever know.
There was a great deal of paperwork in the Social Services offices and it had taken a while to get processed. The social worker finalising the case file on Mr. Edward Thomas was secretly grateful for this. It had given her a valuable bit of leeway. Otherwise it would have fallen to her to have had Mr Thomas admitted against his strongly articulated wishes into a care home. Fortunately, he had passed away peacefully in his own home and in his own armchair before all the necessary formalities had been completed. The poor old soul had been badly affected by the death of his wife, but appeared to have finally lost his grasp on reality when, so soon after, his daughter Jennifer and her husband had been killed tragically and rather horrifically in a multiple pile-up on the motorway. In his distress Mr Thomas had become convinced his daughter was a little girl again and was living with him. Nothing the social worker could say or do would convince him otherwise; in some ways, if she was honest, she hadn’t really wanted to. Before the little girl had “arrived” he had been inconsolable and constantly saying the only thing he had left to look forward to was dying. His mood had noticeably changed once Jenny turned up and, for once in these cases, it had changed for the better: the onset of this type of dementia normally caused negative mood swings and hallucinations, not beneficial ones. She had been disinclined to take what little comfort he had found for himself away from him, though it would have come to that sooner rather than later. Still, she thought as she closed his case file, his troubles were all over now. If there was a heaven, she hoped he’d found himself an angel.
J.S.Watts has published The Submerged Sea (poetry), Dempsey & Windle; Witchlight
Picture source: Azreey