Mr. Hobbs, a retired Physics teacher of 30 years, and my neighbour for what had been all my life, drew back the curtain concealing the upstairs window of his terraced house. He was stoutly perched in his wheel-chair, and was aided by a young nurse wearing a white hospital-cap and gown, who knelt by his side.
Stricken by Lymphatic cancer for 11 months, it was the first time I had seen him since his sickness had taken hold. His skin was now loose and ashen-colored and it drooped loosely around what appeared now only to be a shrunken skull.
His right index finger was coursing itself along the windows-edge, dancing like a small, battered twig. Like his wearied eyes, it was directing itself out towards the cross-river ferry-boat, where earlier a young Polish man had driven his vehicle off the ferry’s ramp, into the depths of the river and down into its bowels.
I had been disturbed from sleep by the sound of a helicopter thundering over-head. I quickly fled down the stairs and out onto the patio of my front-garden, where a scene of utter chaos was quickly unfolding. Already there was extreme activity on the water – small punts, rusted fishing vessels and young men in dinghies were jetting over the river’s swell.
Many people were gathered by the quay; mothers held tightly to young children perched on the wall, boisterous teenagers spread rumours amongst one another, and couples – old and young – stood back, stone-faced, watching the ebb of the tide and the hopes of survival drowning in it.
It was then I had noticed my dying neighbour at the window. His sights set firmly upon the river, he was now smoking through the funnel of a thin pipe, sending a plume of smoke around him and the young nurse.
His appearance startled me more than the scene on the river; the accident, it was rumoured, had caused one, if not two, deaths, but this man, Old Mr. Hobbs, seemed to have resurrected from the strangle-holds of near-death, to have one last foray into life, summoned by the wild draw of human destruction.
The following morning, as the sun sent shafts of dense light down from the brown, furrowed hills, he was there again, this time accompanied by his withered old cat, Mr. Boots. The cat curled its fluffy tail around the man’s arm, and licked at the dew that ran from one end of the window to the other side.
I queered my mother on his appearance, but was told not to pry
“He has cancer, Frank. Do not stare,” she said.
“But when you’re alive, surely you just keep running from death, no matter what?” I replied.
“We all need something to cling, too, no matter what, son.”
On the strand, small search parties in threes and fives gathered , lashing thin scythes at lumps of seaweed. A shoe was retrieved, followed later by a cassette tape. A tattered sweater was found impaled upon a fishing hook, but it was found to be of no consequence to the fading search.
After a few days, the ferry resumed service, and interest in the lost man diminished. For six days and nights, little boats with swaying lamps slowly trudged the river. Looking out my bedroom window in the early hours, all I could see were the lights, and they looked like small hovering candles traversing the wilderness, whose flames were slowly quenched as time extinguished hope.
But throughout, Mr. Hobb’s appearance at the window was permanent, his tired eyes like crushed berries surveying the tide like a fading guardian of the river. Though compelled by his obsessive watching, I at times became embarrassed by my watching of him. Yet his eyes never met mine, they never left the vast blue, stretching out and pulling off around the harbour. And when drawn by the open curtain of the house next door, mine never left him; I sometimes wondered if he was not awaiting the finding of the lost man, but a part of himself lost through impending death.
On the fourteenth day, a body was found on a clump of rocks in shallow tide by a young man searching for crabs under the stones of a small strand. It was rumoured that when the arm of the body was touched, its skin slid off like a thin layer of film. The story was covered on the evening news, right after the main story that a celebrity had outed themselves as gay.
That night, as a heavy moon hung low, casting an empowering gloss over the harbour, the river was lit up and everything was soundless. There was no wind. Every house on the terrace had its curtains drawn. I never saw my neighbour again.
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