John did not remember the drive from the airport to the hotel. He was jolted back to reality by the taxi driver’s curt observation that they had reached their destination. Tired and apathetic, John thrust a twenty dollar note in the driver’s general direction and ambled into the hotel lobby. Blinking as his eyes slowly adjusted to the brighter lighting, John paused before approaching the check –in-desk. The young, twenty-something attendant looked up at John expectantly, boredom etched into her attractive face. John glanced up, his eyes wandering across her name-tag. He was taken aback. Alison.
Confusion swam through him. This was not Alison. This girl was too young and too blonde. Her hair framed her alabaster face and bright blue eyes in a post-modern mockery of Alison’s down-to-earth, natural blonde. John shook his head in a futile attempt to wipe the memories from his fatigued mind,
“Can I help you, Sir?”
John, stuttered his reply, “I… I… should have a reservation. Uh,… John Blakewell”
The not-Alison typed something into her computer as John struggled to stop comparing her to his Alison.
He was once again jerked out of his reverie, “Ah yes, room five-one-four. Here is your swipe card. Check-out is 10am. Did you require anything, Sir? A wake-up call, perhaps? The restaurant is closed now, but I can have the kitchen send something up to your room if you would like.”
John’s reply was slow as he fought the urge to say the kitchen should send her up.
He shook his head in reply, before reconsidering, “Actually a seven am wake-up call would be good.” He paused as if struggling with a decision he knew the proper answer to, “and have a bottle of bourbon sent up. The best stuff you’ve got.”
John turned away without waiting for a reply and strode towards the elevators. The ride in the lift was interminable, the Christmas carols that played seemingly incessant in their insidious cheer.
He had been in his room for maybe five minutes. Just long enough to take his jacket and shoes off and to loosen his tie. He had just sat on the edge of the bed, his weary head cradled in his trembling hands.
Suddenly, a loud knock reverberated throughout the room. John was halfway to his feet, adrenaline pulsing through him, his heart rising to his throat, when he realised that it was most likely just his bourbon. Trying to calm himself, and feeling foolish for his reaction, he slowly walked to the door. He opened it just enough to snatch the bottle of bourbon from the service boy’s hands and bid the boy a curt thankyou. He closed the door hurriedly and grabbed a glass from the bar stand.
John sat on the end of the bed for what felt like an eternity, staring at the unopened bottle. It was probably foolish to drink tonight. Still, it wasn’t like he was doing it because he had to. His father had just died. He was well within his rights to drink himself into oblivion and back again. It was a harmless way of forgetting today’s events, if only for a few short hours.
The crack that emanated as he broke the seal on the bottle was as sweet a sound as John had ever heard. It sent a shiver through his body. He savoured the anticipation of his first taste of the perfect bourbon. He breathed deeply of the fumes before taking a mouthful straight from the bottle. It had never tasted better. Men wrote of the sweet taste of freedom, John thought, he didn’t need the sweet taste of freedom. Bourbon was more than enough. He savoured the first mouthful, extracting every ounce of the burning flavour. The second mouthful followed a few scant seconds later, and was nearly as invigorating. By the end of the third mouthful, John was ready to just swig the entire bottle.
He sat there, vainly trying to drown his sorrows. Steadily he became drunker and drunker. After an entire conversation with the near-empty bottle in his hands and another with the lamp that he could not quite work out how to switch off, he crawled up the bed to put himself to sleep. He wrestled with the quilt, trying to get under it and failing the miserable fashion that only a drunk can accomplish. Entangled, he gave a roar of pure frustration and cast the quilt onto the floor. It took him with it, cracking his head on the bedside table as he fell. Reaching up to the source of the drink-blunted pain, he drew back a bloodied hand. Dazed and drunk, he slowly extricated himself from the tangle of quilt and sheet. Dragging himself back onto the bed, he collapsed in an exhausted heap. Sleep and unconsciousness slowly claimed his drunken mind.
John’s breath caught in his throat as he abruptly halted in his hurried passage to the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Fear and disbelief stole action and movement from him. He stood there watching, without seeing, the streams of people coming and going through the sliding doors. A hundred thoughts rushed through his head. Why had it happened? Hell, what had actually happened? The phone call had replayed itself in his mind a hundred times in the twenty minutes it had taken him to run from the police building halfway across the city proper.
“John. It’s Dad. You Mum’s in hospital. It’s not good. Get here soon.” That was quickly followed by the click of his father hanging up. A hundred questions, a hundred worries, shot through his mind. He had staggered backwards and fallen into his chair. His colleagues looked at him askew as they tried to work out what was happening. Before they could think to ask, he had stood again and was sprinting for the front doors, a sea of confused faces watching him run.
Except, that was not how it had happened.
Memory and truth fought within John’s drunken, tormented mind. He’d been younger. Much younger. Only thirteen. He was at school when it happened. It had been lunch time. The principal had come and found him. That is what he remembered. That is what had happened. Hadn’t it?
He was sitting on the bench he always sat on, chatting about the latest TV show, or playing marbles, or trying to avoid Steven, the class bully. Whatever it was he normally did in a normal lunch time. It was normal.
He did not see Mr Menzies coming until he was above the boys, interrupting their cheerful discussions.
“John. I need to talk to you in my office right away, son.”
John sat there confused. He didn’t remember misbehaving. Certainly not badly enough to warrant the principal. There was something in the way Mr Menzies was talking that didn’t seem quite right. He was softer than usual, perhaps even concerned.
Sighing and muttering under his breath, John followed Mr Menzies to the office. Curiosity started welling within him. All the adults were looking at him like there was something wrong with him. The office ladies were all sad, one was crying. They looked worried. John started to feel uncomfortable.
Mr Menzies closed the door behind him and sat down. He pulled his chair closer to the other as he motioned for John to sit in it. As he sat, John looked at Mr Menzies, fear openly shown in his eyes.
Struggling to find the courage, Mr Menzies took a couple of false starts before he finally spoke.
“John. Your Dad rang me a little while ago.”
Mr Menzies paused in fear, before the words tumbled out too fast to be fully understood, “Your mum has been taken to hospital. She’s very sick. He’s on the way back from Sydney now.”
Again, Mr Menzies paused, struggling to find words that didn’t seem empty, “He,… he,… John, he asked me to tell you that your mum is very, she probably.” The pause was longer this time, “John, she probably isn’t going to live. I’m so sorry John.”
John sat there in stunned silence, unable to believe what Mr Menzies was telling him. He remembered all the words and none of the words. It couldn’t be true. His mum would never die. She promised she would always be there for him, that she would always look after him. It could not be. Mr Menzies was lying.
“I’ve asked Mrs Milne to take you to the hospital, John. She’s ready as soon as you are. Your Dad will meet you there and I think your grand parents too. Mrs Milne will stay with you until your Dad or grandparents arrive. Okay? I’m so sorry John. I’ll, I’ll give you a few minutes. Mrs Milne is right outside when you’re ready.
John sat there in silence a moment more. His mind trying to comprehend and accept what it had been told. It was not working. At first his mind refused to believe. It could not be true. There was no way it could be true. It just wasn’t possible. Something inside him clicked. He knew it was true. Je knew, somehow, that he would not make it to the hospital in time. That she was already dead. It was almost like she had somehow already said goodbye. Without knowing how or why, John knew that this all made some sort of sickening, horrible sense. He was furious about it. He launched himself at the retreating figure of Mr Menzies, screaming about the unfairness, screaming about the cruelty. Largely, John’s screams were incoherent and animalistic. Mr Menzies was caught off guard by the first punch that John threw. It caught him on the left eye with surprising strength and nearly knocked him over. Once a state football player, Mr Menzies was easily able to restrain John. Holding him until the frightful anger passed into sobbing. Tenderly, he lifted John, cradling him in his arms, and carried him to Mrs Milne’s waiting car.
John passed the car trip oblivious to anything but his own pain and terror. He regained enough control to be led to the emergency room, tears still rolling freely down his face. After Mrs Milne’s enquiry, the nurses led the two of them in to a side room. With amazing empathy and tenderness, they explained that John’s mother had passed away a short time before.
John would not learn until after his father’s arrival that she had killed herself.
John remembers clinging to Mrs Milne much as one would cling to a life raft in the middle of the tempestuous ocean. It is a vivid memory. A certain memory. There is no doubt about it. He remembers her as a kind lady, with a kind-face that showed her fifty years with tenderness. He remembers her as tall, thin and graceful. Mostly he remembers her compassion, an aura that seemed to envelop him in tender mercy. He remembers her holding him and comforting him for the hours it took his father to arrive.
Some years later, John spoke to his father about Mrs Milne. No one but John had any recollection of her. His father found him in the hospital room where the nurses had told him and Mr Menzies about his mother’s passing. John had spent the day alone, hugging a pillow, the concerned nurses watching over him as best they could.