Daniel pulls his aubergine-colored compact car into a parking spot outside his one bedroom flat in Bar Hill, a post – WWII purpose-built community, four miles outside of Cambridge, along the A14. A mix of houses and flats, the buildings are nearly identical: bland, brown brick row homes with shared parking areas. A stranger could easily get lost in its maze of look-alike homes. It is just dark, and the lights are starting to come on in some of the other houses in his developmen
The Chinese family across the way – a husband, his wife and their two young kids – are busy in their kitchen, about to sit down to their evening meal.
From the passenger seat, Daniel grabs a lone shopping bag of groceries. Sometimes he wonders, “what is the point?” It is easier to stop at the pub down the street, have a pint, and maybe a word or two with someone else eating alone at the bar. But sometimes that just seems pathetic and he would rather not feel that way tonight. Besides, the most convenient pub, between work and home, is full of knob heads whom he wants nothing to do with. And because he works in the neighborhood general practice, he knows too many of the locals who drink here, and he knows their secrets.
He unlocks his front door and climbs the stairs to the first floor of his flat. The living room, dining room and kitchen are one big open room with large windows on each wall. During the day, the flat is full of light. This was the first rental out of many he saw that wasn’t utterly depressing after Carol ended their decade-long relationship. He has a compact kitchen table, a two-person leather couch, and a TV. Nothing else. His walls are bare. He has never really settled in and his flat feels more like a hotel room than a home – though to be honest, he knows that most hotel rooms feel homier than this.
He puts his groceries on the kitchen counter, takes off his coat and hangs it in the closet. He looks around and shakes his head. 52 years old, renting a one bedroom flat; he still can’t believe that this is where he is at this point in his life. It has been nearly a year since Carol asked him to move out of the house they shared. He thought their separation was temporary, that she would miss him once they lived apart and ask him to come home.
Daniel makes himself a vegetable stir fry. Dammit! He has forgotten the soy sauce. He always seems to forget at least one key ingredient. Just today, he told his friend Adit, a young doctor at the practice where he works, that he thinks he might have early onset dementia. “Early onset?”, his friend joked. He eats his plain stir fry with the BBC on the television for company and spends the rest of the night on his tablet, reading Wikipedia and going down the rabbit hole that is the internet until he falls asleep.
The next day he is up at half seven. He pulls the curtain back to look out the window, checking the weather. He sees the Chinese family, across the way, already up, and watches as they get into their car to drive to school. The 8-year-old son looks up at Daniel’s window and waves. Daniel lets go of the curtain and steps back from the window. He hates the thought that they might think him a sad, lonely, old guy, with nothing better to do but watch them from his window, or worse – a pedo.
He checks his watch. He is running late, so he foregoes a shower, brushes his teeth and puts on deodorant. Pours his coffee into a travel mug and heads out to work at The National Health Service.
He is at his desk by 8:30. Hazel is working today and so is Marian. He is the practice manager.
Marian is nice and pretty and good at her job. She is kind to the patients and patient with the opioid addicts who come in with fake ailments in the hope of scoring drugs.
Hazel on the other hand is a fucking idiot in Daniel’s opinion. She has been working at the NHS for over three years, but every day seems like her first day. Hazel is a never-ending well of misinformation. Just yesterday, a patient told her that they were deathly allergic to eggs and asked if there was egg in the flu vaccine they were about to receive. She said, “No egg, but I can’t say for sure it doesn’t contain eggplant.” Daniel could not believe his ears and once again he found himself jumping out of his chair to correct the situation. “Maybe she is the one with early onset dementia,” he thinks.
The morning passes without incident. At lunch, Daniel eats packaged sushi from Tesco at his desk. A strung-out waif of a woman not even thirty waits to see a doctor. She is passed out, chin to her chest, slumped in a chair. Her four-year-old daughter plays with the buttons on her mom’s sweater as she sleeps. She talks quietly to herself, whispering encouraging words to the buttons as she tries to correctly match button to buttonhole. Daniel passes on his way to the toilet. The little girl looks up at him.
She says, “Sleeping Beauty won’t wake up”.
Daniel stops. He sees this all the time. Wasted people living wasted lives. It is heartbreaking really. He smiles at the child.
“Would you like to draw while Sleeping Beauty sleeps?”
Daniel is good with people and he knows it. He has achieved Care Navigator Gold status in the mandatory empathy training that all NHS employees must complete. On his resume, he lists “communicates well with people from all different backgrounds in all different situations” as one of his strengths. On his Facebook profile, he lists one word to describe himself: “kind.” The child nods and Daniel walks to his desk and gets a pen and piece of paper.
On his way home, Owen, his eldest son, a police officer, texts him.
Owen lives about an hour away with his younger sister and mom, Daniel’s ex-wife Nicola. They live in the house that Daniel and Nicola bought together when they were first married. Daniel remembers the pride he felt the morning he signed the papers and the agent handed him the keys. A homeowner, with a decent job, a wife, and a baby on the way! Life felt so promising. This was before Daniel realized just how incompatible he and Nicola were; before Nicola’s resentment at giving up a career to be a stay-at-home mom and frustration at Daniel’s long hours made her hate him; before that hate grew so large that she wished he would get into a car crash on his way home from work, so that she didn’t have to see his expectant face, coming through the front door at the end of the day – so hopeful, thinking that maybe today would be better, that she might show him just a little bit of affection for a change.
But the days were never better, and Daniel and Nicola divorced when Owen and his daughter, Elisha, were just 7 and 5. Losing the house and his children is Daniel’s biggest regret. He longs for the days when his children were little, when their compact bodies were constantly by his side, holding his hand, and discussing in their small voices the difference between their English, mom’s proper English accent and their dad’s Scottish lilt.
Daniel worries about Owen. As a police officer, Owen has seen unimaginable things – suicides, domestic violence, fatal car crashes. Just the other day, Owen called him after a particularly bad day. He and his partner were the first officers to respond to a car accident. A young dog had run away from his elderly owner, into the street, and was hit by a car. The dog was seriously injured, still breathing, but with a large gash to his neck. His owner was distraught, and so were the bystanders who had witnessed the scene. Owen rode in the back of the police car to the veterinary hospital with the dog’s head in his lap. The dog didn’t survive and Owen was heartbroken. He has always loved animals, ever since he was a little boy.
At a light, Daniel quickly reads Owen’s text: “Was on duty today and popped into a shop to get a drink. There was a little chap there with his mum – I gave him a high five. He gave me a huge smile. Small things like that take no time at all and they mean a great deal to little people.”
Daniel smiles. Owen is only 22, not that far away from being a little chap himself, Daniel thinks. When Daniel was 22, he remembers how, like Owen, adult he felt. He was living in Edinburgh at the time, working at a pub, taking a break from University while he figured out what to do with his life.
He thinks again of an American girl he met one night at the pub in January of that year. They had got on quite well (she came back to his flat and slept with him) and even though it was just one night, thirty years ago, he has never been able to shake thoughts of their connection. In fact, they have kept in touch on and off over the years.
“Maybe I will send her a message when I get home.”