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Reading Hour

by Jodie Carpenter

I’ve grown used to the smell, but I know it’s there: the fake scent of Pine wood pumped out of the plug-in air freshener, which fails to mask the undercurrent of vegetable dinners.

Amy’s on reception duty today. She flicks her turquoise hair out of her face and smiles, ‘Hi.’

‘Hey,’ I nod, as I scrawl my name in the sign-in book. ‘How’re you doing?’

‘I’m good. Hey, I think I saw you the other day, walking your dog?’

‘Yeah, that was probably me.’

‘A husky?’ I nod. ‘It was such a cutie!’

‘Come over and say hello next time,’ I straighten up, putting the lid back on the pen.

‘Okay,’ she flushes. ‘So, what book is it today?’

I flip open my satchel and pull out a hefty tome. ‘I thought we’d give Game of Thrones a go.’

‘Wow,’ Amy widens her kohl-rimmed eyes. ‘Interesting choice. All that sex and violence will certainly liven up your reading hour.’

‘I thought it would make a change.’

‘It certainly will. Have fun!’

I give a little wave before heading off. The pea-green carpet muffles the sound of my boots as I walk down the long cigarette-smoke yellow corridor. The colours are supposed to be calming, but they always have the opposite effect on me.

I turn into the TV room and scan the circle of seats. She’s in her usual spot furthest from the TV, next to Alan who is dozing, his head tucked into his chest. I walk over to her, picking my way around visitors and foot stools. 

‘Afternoon, Helen,’ I say. She continues to stare out of the window. I sit in the spare seat next to her and turn to face the window too. 

We watch a cluster of birds pecking at the feeder, their tiny wings beating as fast as my heart. There’s a small one with a red face and yellow and black wings. 

‘I wonder what that bird is?’ I say, pointing to it, pretending I don’t know.

‘It’s a goldfinch. Don’t they teach you anything at school these days?’

‘Not, really. They’re too busy forcing us to learn what the actual hell Pythagoras’ Theorem is and to memorise entire Shakespeare plays.’

She tuts. ‘Useless. When I was at school, they taught you real things that mattered.’

I gasp. ‘What, you mean I’m not going to get to use the periodic table in real life?’

‘I won’t stop you if you want to.’

I laugh and open my satchel. ‘I’ve got a new book for us today.’

Her forehead wrinkles. ‘A book? What for?’

‘To read, silly.’

‘Why are you reading me a book?’

‘Because I do every Tuesday? I volunteer here, remember?’

‘Why?’

‘To put it on my CV to help me get into uni,’ I say and she laughs. 

‘And here was me thinking you liked the company of older women.’

‘That too.’

‘Oh, stop it. A good looking lad like you, I bet you’ve got them queuing up for you.’

‘Yet there’s no one else I’d rather be with,’ I nudge her with my elbow. ‘Now, shall we get started?’

I crack the spine open in my lap and start reading the words aloud. 

I flick my eyes up at her as I read, gauging her reaction to the story. She sits with a half-smile on her face, still staring out of the window. I’m wondering if she’s actually listening until I get to the part about Ned finding the direwolf pups and Jon naming his Ghost. She smiles and says, ‘Ghost is a good name for a dog. I’ll have to remember that.’

My heart pitter patters, ‘Yeah, it’s an awesome name.’

I’ve been reading for around 40 minutes when my voice starts cracking. I stop to sip my tea when she suddenly puts her hand on my arm, almost spilling my drink. I look into her dark eyes, as familiar as my own. 

‘I like Bran. He’s my favourite Stark.’

‘He is pretty cool.’

‘Did I ever tell you I named my son after him?’

‘Your son?’ I say, carefully.

‘Yes. He even has the same dark hair and eyes as Bran. Like you.’

My thoughts skitter around. ‘You’ve never told me about your son before.’

‘He’s a good boy. I’m sure you’d like him.’

My eyes prickle. ‘Where is he now?’

‘Where’s who?’

‘Bran? Your son?’ 

‘My…son?’ her eyes widen. ‘I’m a mom?’

‘No, no, my mistake,’ I say, afraid of stressing her out. ‘I meant Bran in the book.’

‘Oh. Okay.’

We fall quiet. I scrub my hands across my face and turn back to the book. ‘You remember reading this before then?’

‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.’

‘Nevermind,’ I say, trying to keep my exasperation out of that one word. ‘I, uh. I’ve got to head off now anyway. Homework.’ I stand up, pulling my bag over my shoulder. 

‘It’s good to hear you’re doing your homework, but why are you telling me?’

‘No reason,’ I don’t know what to do with my arms when I say goodbye. I never do. ‘I’ll see you next week then. Same time, same place?’

‘I’ll be here. I’m always here.’ Her eyes burn into mine and for a moment, I’m sure she’s remembered. But then they glaze over and she turns back to the window again.

‘Goodbye,’ I say before walking out. She doesn’t respond.

I lean against the wall outside the door and exhale loudly, my fringe fluttering upwards. 

‘You alright, love?’ a hand gently squeezes my arm. I look up and see Julie in her uniform, her hair neatly pulled back. 

I give a weak smile. ‘Yeah, just drained, you know? I thought she had a breakthrough today.’

Her own smile is sympathetic. ‘It’s must be hard, especially when you get your hopes up. But it’s good of you to keep coming. That’s all you can do for her – keep coming and being there for her.’

‘Thanks, Julie.’

‘You take care of yourself now, Brandon.’

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