A Deserving Father – Part 2

a photograph of a cobblestone street, with a fence on its left side and trees surrounding it. a pink scard is in the foreground, floating.

by Giulia Mastrantoni
Catch up on Part 1 here

Content warning: suicidal ideation

Russell enjoyed the sunlight very much. That was why, years before, he had put up a real fight with Hilary to buy a house with large windows. Hilary wasn’t supposed to clean them, of course! They could hire someone to do it, Russell kept telling her. But Hilary was of the view that if you buy a house, then you are committing to taking care of it personally, large windows included. And who did Russell think would end up cleaning them? Hilary had argued. In the end, they had a real housing plan written down, in which everything was duly detailed, from the number of times each of them could have guests over during the week, to how they would split everyday chores. Hilary was a well-organised, beautiful woman, who always had a plan for everything. Russell knew he was lucky to have her. She was bossy, yet practical and charmable; just perfect for him. If only he had loved her! But you can’t have everything in life, and Russell was pretty happy with what he had.

He breathed heavily, trying to keep his mind empty of any kind of thought. He hadn’t slept much, but he was used to that. He was constantly struggling with the quality of his sleep. His eyes were circled in black, a worrying sign for Russell, considering that his growing age made it increasingly difficult to fix any imperfections on his face. That was why that morning, just as he was about to head off, he had decided to grab his sunglasses. He hated them because as a kid he had had to wear glasses to correct his eyesight. Stupid astigmatism! At the age of twenty-five, he had decided to undergo eye surgery. He had never worn glasses since, except for his grey Ray-Bans which he picked up from the drawer only on the sunniest summer days. That morning, it wasn’t sunny and most people would have opted to leave their sunglasses at home, but he was not amenable to others seeing his darkened skin.

The bench was cold under Russell’s thighs. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it would get colder and colder as winter approached. He hated winter and would gladly spend his days travelling hemispheres only to chase the summer. He looked around and noticed a book on a bench just a few metres away. Nobody seemed to have noticed it, nor to be looking for a misplaced book. How long had it been since the book had been forgotten on the bench? Russell stood up and walked there. Persuasion; an interesting title. The cover didn’t reveal much of the content; it was very plain. Wasn’t it what potential readers looked at, when browsing through the shelves of a book shop? Who would buy something so plain-looking, in such a pale shade of pink? Maybe he could read a few pages later on in the day. 

If he had had a chance to do so, he would have remembered studying Jane Austen in high school and enjoying it. He would have remembered having read the novel in a couple of afternoons, as he was confined to bed with a nasty flu. He would have remembered being particularly disappointed because he hadn’t been able to go to the maison for a whole week. He would have remembered that Persuasion had been his only pick-me-up that week, along with chocolate chip biscuits. He would have remembered all of this fondly, and perhaps he would have even remembered of when he had tried to write a different ending for the novel, one where Anne and Wentworth found new lovers right after their first break-up and moved on with their lives, but he never got the opportunity to flip through the pages; life had other plans for him.

The train arrived and stopped. Russell walked to the doors, which he opened with a smooth move. He stepped inside the carriage, quite uninterested in the people who were already sitting there. Nevertheless, he took great care in taking off his sunglasses as charmingly as possible. It was practically deserted, he noted; most people travelled between Richmond and Box Hill, perhaps they even got to Blackburn, but very few got on at Mitcham and went all the way to Belgr– 

What was that? A woman was sitting at the back of the carriage. She looked exactly like–

Russell froze. The carriage became quiet. Life stopped. He stood there, trying to remain still, his legs trembling slightly; he could barely keep his eyes fixed on Juanita. What was she doing here? He managed to stand for barely a second, then he made his way to the front of the carriage. He needed to sit down. He didn’t dare to turn around again and check if the woman was still there. Maybe she wasn’t, maybe he had imagined her. He walked slowly, as if trying not to catch her attention, but he was in a rush to reach the front end of the carriage. She was sitting in the back, far from the only other passenger, a homeless guy. Russell stood next to the guy, and took a deep breath. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, it must be that. Hallucinating was an aftermath of continuous lack of sleep.

Juanita was dead. He knew that she was dead, she had been for quite a while now; almost four years. She was just a scary memory, nothing more. How could she be sitting on a train to Bel–? And that’s when it struck him: she used to travel to Belgrave. She used to work there in those last few months of her life. He remembered that now. They had already sort of broken up, but once she had sent him a picture of the sunrise together with a short text: 

I am on the train to Belgrave, beauty is chasing me. Why aren’t you?

There were a number of things he had tried to forget about her, such as her eyes, or the fact that she had been carrying a baby. His baby, as much as that mattered. Something was terribly wrong, Russell knew it. His heart was going slower than usual, or perhaps faster; he couldn’t really understand what was happening inside his body. He felt like three hearts were beating inside his chest, but he also felt like he barely had a heart at all. He tried to stand still, but felt as if he were floating; he needed to hold on to something, but his knees wouldn’t let him sit and his hands wouldn’t move. Maybe it was a ghost; surely she couldn’t be real. He looked at her again, praying that the ghost wouldn’t come closer to him. The woman-ghost had quite a prominent baby bump. Juanita had never got that far: she had died sooner than that. 

Perhaps, if this woman was Juanita’s ghost, he could speak to the baby. Russell had always wanted to speak to his baby. He had been sure that, at some point in his life, he would have. Of course, he hadn’t wanted to leave Hilary, nor to acknowledge the paternity of Juanita’s child, but he was positive that someday he would ‘accidentally’ bump into his child and speak to him. He had been ready to break up with Juanita, to bear never seeing her again, even to bury her when she had died. But he had never been ready to part forever from his unborn child. He had always thought that someday he would be able to swing by his child’s school, to steal a glimpse of the little boy. Or girl. He had never wanted to know whether it would be a boy or a girl, but he had always pictured a little boy. When the baby had died, together with Juanita, Russell had not been able to accept it. He had wanted that child to be born, even if he had never wanted the child itself.

He took a few, tentative steps to the furthest seat, then he sat down. The woman-ghost didn’t seem like the miserable young person he had known back then, yet she didn’t look happy. She was very pale, exactly as he remembered her, and her lips were very pink, as if a painter had let some extra colour slip onto them. She was biting her nails, a habit of Juanita’s that he remembered quite well. That one time when he had to get her five different band-aids for five different bleeding fingers was something he hadn’t forgotten. She was wearing a black sweater, which Russell didn’t remember; it suited her. She was a beautiful woman-ghost, that was for sure. And she was carrying his child. It must have been her. Maybe Russell would be able to see the ghost of his unborn baby, if only he asked Juanita to show it to him. He felt his spine shivering, his head getting dizzier, his hands losing their grip on Persuasion. The novel felt heavy, too big to grasp; after all, it carried the weight of Anne and Wentworth’s love. Unable to hold on to the book, Russell dropped it, thus capturing the ghost’s attention. She smiled at him and he understood..

He had known that this day would come. He had been hoping it wouldn’t, but deep down he had known that, at some point, he would have to face the truth. He was painfully breathing. Russell had never been an anxious person, and yet ever since Juanita’s death, he had been struggling, seeing shadows in the darkness, and having hours so panicked he could hardly breathe, which he had tried to hide from Hilary. His heart was hurting, his hands were reaching for something in the pocket of his leather jacket. It had been an automatic gesture, something that perhaps his hand had been waiting to do for a very long time: the day had come. He had been rehearsing for it, but now that it was time he found himself performing the actions like a robot, without putting as much sentiment into them as he should have.

This was something he had never told anyone; he had never even admitted it to himself. Ever since Juanita’s death, Russell had been carrying a weapon with him. At first, it had been to protect himself from the shadows, then to keep him safe when he felt like perhaps the police would identify him. Then things had changed. He had started to toy with the idea of ending that painful struggle that had gone on for far too long. He had started to play with the blade, to see what it felt like to caress his wrists with the cold, sharp side of the knife. He had gone shopping, hunting for a blade that was sharper, scarier, colder. And then another one, and another one, and then he had finally found it; the perfect knife. 

Not a day went by when Russell didn’t take the knife with him when he went out. He had kept the same routine going for years, almost four now. He had always known that someday the urge to end his life would become stronger than anything else, because deep down he knew he had killed his own child, and he should pay for it. And now there she was, Juanita with their baby, calling for Russell to join them wherever it was that they existed now. He should just do it. He should follow her. If she was there waiting for him, maybe she had forgiven him; maybe she would let him become the father he knew he ought to be.

Russell got up, the knife in his hands, the sleeves of the jacket hiding the hands, and he walked up to Juanita. He wanted to become the father that his child had always deserved. A charming, well-dressed father.

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