“Hi, my name’s Claire and I’m…” I looked at myself in the mirror, swallowing the words I didn’t quite know how to say. The person there looked so uncertain. meanwhile the room behind her was sure of what it was. White walls, white tiles, white floor, white towels, white shower curtain. It was bold in its dullness.
“Hi,” I heaved a deep sigh as I forced myself to regurgitate the words, “my name’s Claire and I’m…”
There isn’t any point to this. I shoved some anti-bacterial hand wash into my bag and turned away. What a stupid thing to even try.
The TV was on in the hotel room. Benjy stared transfixed and gurgled to himself, fingers in his mouth. He seemed happy enough, although it didn’t take much to get him there. The boy never really got upset by anything unless he was tired, and judging by my own lack of yawning and yearning for caffeine, he’d actually managed to sleep through the night.
“…Squally showers heading across Scotland but the rest of the country should enjoy they sun at some point this afternoon,” a cheery was pointing at the weather map. She was grandmotherly. This room was much of the same, but the walls were magenta, the window barely opened; the only splash of colour came from the brown furniture and a few of my belongings scattered over the place. If the sky was lighter on the cloud there’d be some blue to admire too.
Humiliation hot on my heels, I tidied away the scattered pieces. Benjy struggled as I forced him into his shoes.
“Come on boy,” he smiled in my arms, “let’s start snooping.”
The hotel corridor was sterile, a maid trudged, her trolley trundled. She smiled, I looked away. Most people were already out, the day long since started. But someone was in the lift. He was gangly, awkward. I was awkward, stooped. He stared. Benjy was hanging from the harness, secure. I still kept a hand on him.
Red crept up my cheeks. He looked for too long, I felt his eyes there even though I never looked at them. I just knew they were judging.
Time stretched, every second lingered, falling reluctantly into the past. Floors went by.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
Eventually we reached the ground floor. I hurried out, still feeling his judgement with me. There were women in the lobby, they whispered to each other. I hurried faster.
Outside brought relief for a little while, but there were others. I fled, a gentle pace, still holding Benjy in his harness, my head bowed. The London traffic filled the air with noise and pollution. The sky above breaking its promise of sun.
It didn’t matter, of course, I was heading to the Tube. Weather wasn’t important there.
Benjy enjoyed the Tube, he liked people, he liked the attention. He knew when to act and react and everyone loved him for it. A few people smiled at him, one man pulled faces. I looked on from the sideline, caught in headlights. I didn’t want to tell Benjy off for being sociable, but I didn’t like the attention.
I pictured the future, an older Benjy with an older me. There was respect in his eyes, there was life in mine. In a blink the image was gone. Back to the present, back on the fluorescent-lit Tube with its assortment of adverts and colourful squiggles on the map. Reading it did not come naturally. Changes in the Underground were a nightmare to me. Still, I fought through, emerged into the street at the foot of a hill. The sun was out now, promise fulfilled.
“Ma. Mmmm,” Benjy called out, stretching a hand.
“Yeah,” I cooed back at him, “you like it, don’t you? The sun.” He just smiled and wriggled his legs again. There was a slight laugh, I think he found my accent funny, especially surrounded by all these Londoners.
I wasn’t far up the hill when my pocket buzzed. It took a few seconds to realise it was my phone. I fished it out, the number a stranger.
Hesitantly, I answered. And immediately bombarded by a familiar Canadian accent.
“Claire? Is that you?” She asked, a little louder than she needed to.
Relief. She was worried. I didn’t know why.
“Where are you now?”
“I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
“Has it been a while?.”
She paused in her talk, I paused on the hill, eager to keep my breathing intact.
I looked down at him, he smiled.
“Happy. He’s happy.”
“Good. Good,” a pause, “you don’t sound it.”
I started up the hill again. Ignored the statement.
“When are you coming home, honey?” She sounded a little desperate. I imagined her hand combing its way through her light brown hair. A nervous habit, one I’d inherited.
“Look, I know things weren’t easy here, not after Chris anyway – ” She paused at my sharp intake of breath. “- but you can’t keep doing this. Benjy needs to be at home. He needs stability at such an early age.”
He was waving at a passing stranger. They smiled at him.
“So you said.”
“I need to go.”
“I have something booked. I’ll speak to you later, mum.”
I clicked the phone off before she finished her goodbye. As soon as the line was dead I regretted it. Closing down that one link to home. But I wasn’t ready.
We were in a park now. Greenest grass, picturesque lake, children’s laughter on the air. I marched through, head down. On the other side was my destination. A place he’d always wanted to visit. Highgate Cemetery. But he wasn’t here. He couldn’t be. So it was just us. Me and Benjy. Benjy and I.
There was a man talking. People were already in there. The tour had started. I looked at my phone, five minutes late.
An image, unbidden, flitted into my head. Me, standing in front of them all. Benjy bouncing in his harness, unaware of those judging looks.
“Hi,” I would say, “my name’s Claire and I’m grieving.”