Purbeck U3A - 2019 Writing Competition
Short Fiction - 2nd Place
The Cloud Catcher - by Veronica Ryder
‘Will you make me a happy ending story, Gran?’ Josh peers over the top of his Pokemon duvet, eyes wide.
Too quiet, too serious for a five year old boy. I wish I knew what was going on in that head of his, beneath the tousled curls.
‘Of course,’ I say, discarding my selection of bedtime books. ‘Gran will make one up, specially for you. Once upon a time, there was a little boy called ….’ I pause deliberately.
‘Josh,’ he whispers. We’ve played this game before.
‘And Josh lived with his Mummy in a big house in a wood …’
‘And Daddy?’ he asks.
My train of thought crashes into the sidings. It breaks my heart that he’s still hoping. I try to be gentle.
‘No, his Daddy wasn’t there any more. He was a very brave soldier who went off to fight some bad people so that Josh and his Mummy could be safe.’
For a moment, I picture my son-in-law, Alex, as he said his last goodbyes to Cathy and Josh before rejoining his unit. Did he know, I wonder, that he wouldn’t be coming home?
‘Did he die?’ asks Josh.
He knows about death. There was, after all, the curious incident of Hamish the hamster, lying cold at the bottom of his cage for no apparent reason, and buried with full military honours beneath the apple tree.
‘Yes,’ I whisper.
‘Is he with the angels in heaven?’
I nod, not trusting myself to speak. There is a long pause, then: ‘So where does he live, Gran?’
For a moment I feel a flash of anger. My daughter should be having this conversation with her son, not me. But Cathy has been locked in her own grief ever since Alex died, incapable of giving anything, not wanting to share her emotions, not letting anyone in.
So here I am: instead of building sandcastles or playing snakes and ladders with my grandson, I am having a discussion about life and death. And I haven’t had the training. I just hope I don’t get the “why?” question. Because I’m damned if I know the answer to that one.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘he’s on his own special cloud where he can look down and make sure you and Mummy are alright. ’Cos he still loves you very much, Josh. Even though he can’t be here.’
Another long pause.
‘What sort of cloud, Gran?’
‘It’s a big cloud, like an island in the sky. And all round the edge there’s a silver light because of all the angels who live there too.’
‘But there’s no silver light at night-time, is there Gran?’
‘That’s because all the angels fold their wings and go to sleep.’
‘And Daddy too?’
‘Yes, Josh, and Daddy too.’
Downstairs, I start to tidy away the remnants of the day. Cathy is at her Bereavement Counselling session. Various self-help books festoon the sofa. I just hope that one of them will remind her that her child needs her now, more than ever, no matter what shape she’s in. It’s his loss too.
Next morning, Cathy slides into the kitchen like a wraith. She looks terrible.
‘Cup of tea, love?’ I ask.
She nods, perches on a stool wrapping her dressing-gown tightly around her as if it will stop her from falling apart.
‘Did you sleep?’ I ask.
She shakes her head. I sense that tears are not far away.
Josh runs in from the garden. He’s already had his breakfast and we’ve talked about what we’ll do today: go for a walk later, down to the pond to feed the ducks. This morning, he’ll do some drawing and colouring.
He goes to the window.
‘There’s lots of clouds up there, Gran,’ he says. ‘I’ve been looking for Daddy’s cloud.’
I glance at Cathy, but she’s not listening.
‘Why don’t you draw us a picture of Daddy’s cloud,’ I suggest, and Josh runs off.
I stack the dishwasher, tidy the kitchen, then go upstairs to tackle the bedrooms. We all have our different ways of coping in a crisis.
Out of the landing window, I can see Josh down by the apple tree, his red anorak glowing like a flame. He’s lying on his back gazing up at the sky. When I look out again, he’s gone. Perhaps he was getting some ideas for his picture.
But when I go downstairs, some time later, his crayons lie abandoned on the kitchen table, and he’s not with Cathy in the lounge.
‘Have you seen Josh?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she says, glancing up from her book.
I go out of the French windows, calling for him. The garden is empty, and the side gate swings open on its rusty hinges.
I panic then. Run back into the house, shouting for Cathy to come and help me. Out of the front door, I look left and right. Which way did he go? Or was he taken - oh no, please God not that. The quiet country road holds no clues, neighbours out at work, next door’s cat asleep on the wall, nothing moving.
I turn left and run down the hill towards the village green. Josh would know this route: the way to the pond where we feed the ducks. My breath is coming in gasps, lungs burning, as I round the corner onto the green.
‘Josh,’ I shout, desperate now. I can’t see him.
And then a flash of red by the pond. He’s on the metal bridge which juts out into the pond beneath the willow tree, he’s leaning over towards the water.
Then everything happens so quickly, yet somehow in slow motion. His feet slip, he tumbles into the water, and at the same moment Cathy hurtles past me and launches herself straight into the pond, grasping Josh by the hood of his anorak even before he has sunk below the surface.
The pond isn’t deep, and soon she’s standing with Josh clasped in her arms as if she will never let him go.
‘What were you doing, Josh?’ she asks as they clamber out onto the bank.
His words escape through chattering teeth, barely coherent. About chasing Daddy’s cloud, and trying to catch it in the pond.
Unbearably he adds: ‘I just wanted to bring Daddy home.’
The pond is calm again now, unruffled, and sure enough the clouds are clearly reflected in the water amongst the water lilies, like a Monet painting. Almost within reach of a small boy who still believes in magic and happy ever after.
I glance over at Cathy and Josh. They are hugging and crying, their tears mingling as she tells him how much she loves him. At last it seems that Josh has his mother back.
Overhead, the sun spills out from behind the largest cloud - an island in the sky. And I think: I couldn’t give Josh what he wanted - a happy ending story, but maybe this could be the first page of a new chapter
© Veronica Ryder April 2019