Zero becomes one, 17:00 changes to 17:01. Michael picks up his phone and takes a deep breath which does not feel deep enough; he can almost feel, or not feel, the edges of his lungs remain static, flat. He types the year of his birth into the lock screen and, when the phone is open, presses his finger onto the Mail App. The signal is so poor here it takes a few seconds for it to show ‘checking for mail’ and then it takes a few seconds more to show ‘downloading two of two’. He takes another breath which again, is not deep enough; it actually feels as though he is holding his breath. The two emails download and neither of them are the one he is waiting for; they are barely even worth reading and so he slides his finger across the screen, deleting them one after the other.

He tosses the phone onto the bed, though he would rather throw it across the room, possibly even shouting some shapeless word as he does so. This is how he feels every Friday at this time as he checks his email and sees that the one he is waiting for is not there; once, near the beginning, he did throw his phone against the wall, breaking it, forcing him to replace it, spending money he did not have, even as he opted to buy the cheapest phone available, a small flip phone with buttons that were almost the size of his fingertips, and one that he could not go online with, staying late in work to check his email at 17:01, six months passing before he was eligible for a free upgrade to a smartphone on which he could once more go online.

The email he waits for – has been waiting for what seems like a lifetime, more than a lifetime, the minutes and hours and days and months stretched beyond any normal limit, any normal life – is from his solicitor. If she has not emailed him, that mean his wife’s – his ex-wife! After three years he should remember that, to refer to her as his ex-wife – it means that his ex-wife’s solicitor has not contacted his solicitor and another week has passed in which Michael’s life occupies a limbo-like existence, not one thing or another, but something caught in between, one that does not feel like it can even be termed an ‘existence’ for he does not feel as though he is existing but only surviving.

He picks up his phone again and looks at the screen, the picture of his son smiling at him. He will check it again just before six, even though he knows his solicitor finishes work at five; it allows him to hold onto the smallest corner of hope even if it is simply, futilely, delaying the inevitable. He puts the phone back on the bed, the picture of his son disappearing as the screen goes black. He sighs and look at the bedsit he sits in, the bedsit he lives – survives – in, everything a body supposedly needs to live all contained in one small space roughly the size of the dining-room and kitchen in the house that is still his house but no longer his home.

He hates bringing his son here, almost as much as he hates that he only gets to see him every second weekend. But there is nowhere else he can bring him for their weekends together, though he tries to fill those days with going to the cinema or McDonalds, toyshops and occasionally the zoo, whatever he can do to limit the amount of time that they have to spend here; it breaks his heart every time he wakes in the morning, lying on a blow-up bed on the floor, and looks up at his son asleep in the single bed, looking so small and vulnerable, and also, and this is the greater heartbreak by far, as though he does not belong in such a place, like those pictures in the news of a child separated from their parents, their eyes wide with tears and fear, pictures which slice through Michael’s heart every time he sees them, doubly so as his first instinct is to hold his son, ensure he is safe, but of course, there is only ever empty space – empty yet full of absence – beside him.

He is only eight, his son, and gives no indication that he is particularly perturbed by being in this small bedsit, simply happy to be spending time with his father, but that was sure to change as he got older, as he became nine, ten, slowly – but not slow enough – slowly but surely approaching his teenage years. Michael takes some solace in the fact that he will not still be living here by then, but he has been telling himself that for so long now that it is a weak comfort.

It is all dependent on whether his ex-wife will buy him out of the family home, hence the wait for an email from his solicitor. During mediation, in the months after they had separated, and while he had still believed that this separation was only temporary, that his wife would remember that they loved each other, even as she informed him that she was closing their joint account and she would prefer if he did not come to the house, she had agreed that she would buy him out. They had agreed on a sum that was far below what he would be legally entitled to, but which he was happy to take if for no other reason than he did not want to put the roof over his son’s head at risk. But a week after the agreement, verbally made, with a written agreement to be signed the following week, she said the bank had given her the wrong information, and she would not be able to buy him out at all.

And now here they were, three years later, letters passing between their solicitors at a ridiculous cost, his wife agreeing once more to buy him out, for a vastly lower amount than before, and yet refusing to commit to any date to sign any agreement. His solicitor continues to send letters to her solicitor, politely giving them until such a date before they would take the situation to court. Always within a week of the date his ex-wife’s solicitor would send a letter, apologising for the delay, offering some blatantly empty excuse, requesting an extension, only for the whole charade to begin again. It felt like a deliberate rebuke of their sixteen years of marriage, one driven deeper when he discovered that his ex-wife’s new boyfriend was now living in the house, a fact he only discovered because his son had mentioned it to him on one of their weekends, the boyfriend in question being someone she had worked with for years, someone who Michael had spoken to from time to time, begging the question of how long the relationship had been in existence. Michael never would have imagined his wife capable of an affair, but he would never have imagined her ending their marriage either.

It was Christmas Eve when she told him she no longer loved him. They were sitting at the kitchen table wrapping the last of the Christmas presents – presents for their parents, he thinks – and she had coughed, clearing her throat. She spoke clearly, slowly, the words leaving her mouth with a practiced ease, each word clearly decided upon before she spoke – Michael had wondered, later, if when she had been deciding upon the best way to tell him, the most suitable words to use, had she done so in the confines of her head or had she spoken them aloud, an actor rehearing lines, though why he wondered this he did not know – so there was no possibility that he misheard. At that very moment he had been cutting a sheet of wrapping paper with some scissors, the sound of the paper parting before the blades like a hiss, and as he lifted his head to look at her, his heart rushing wetly into his throat, his hand continued moving, and that hiss became all he could hear.

Michael looks again at the room which is now his home. Normally he would not be here at this time, he’d just be leaving work, but when he woke this morning, he had felt a weight which seemed to exist in him in a non-physical way, though it felt no less heavy. He has felt that way from time to time since the end of the marriage, but it seems to be worsening of late. His doctor had told him depression was a natural response to what he had being going through and had prescribed him tablets, but after filling the prescription once he hadn’t filled it again, not just because he didn’t like the side effects – a seeming increase of the weight, and a tiredness that made him struggle to stay awake during the day, even in work – but because he simply could not afford them. He was still paying towards the mortgage of the house – at the suggestion of his solicitor, who said it would stand to him if they had to go to court – while also paying maintenance for his son and the rent for the bedsit – an amount that was in no one equivalent to its size or condition – not to mention the solicitor’s costs, so he had little money left at the end of each month, most of which he spent on his son and on their weekends together.

He picks up the phone again and notes the time: 17.35. He will check his email shortly and then – then? – seeing no email, the last of his hope crushed beneath that heavy weight, he will probably go to bed early and not rise until he goes to work on Monday, at which point he will check his email regularly – sometimes every five minutes – hoping for some contact from his solicitor, until he once more finds himself on Friday evening, checking his email and fighting the urge to throw his phone across the room, or in this case, out the window of his car, because it will be his weekend to see his son, and he will be parked outside the house that is no longer his home, waiting for him to come out. He will have no time to feel that heavy weight, or, at least, acknowledge it, so intent will he be on filling two weeks into two days, drinking as much of his son in as possible. And on the Sunday evening, as he brings his son back, hugging him hard, telling him he loves him, he will be filled with a surety, fuelled by the joy of spending time with his son, that come the Monday he will hear from his solicitor and the process of being bought out will begin; the disappointment that comes at the end of those Mondays – the email not coming, his life remaining in limbo – is so severe, so savage, it feels akin to the pain he felt in the weeks after his wife told him she didn’t love him anymore, and he will be shocked, genuinely shocked, that the day has ended without hearing from his solicitor, like he is a child himself who had been promised some long coveted toy – the promise being the hope fuelled by the weekend spent with his son, and because of that all the more sure, all the more guaranteed – only to be told no, no, you can’t have it.

He picks up his phone. Only five minutes have passed since last he checked it. But he does not want to wait any longer, so he taps his year of birth into the screen, presses on the Mail App and waits, the signal as weak as ever.

by Edward Lee

Edward Lee’s poetry, short stories, non-fiction and photography have been published in magazines in Ireland, England and America, including The Stinging Fly, Skylight 47, Acumen, The Blue Nib and Poetry Wales. He is currently working on a novel. He also makes musical noise under the names Ayahuasca Collective, Orson Carroll, Lego Figures Fighting, and Pale Blond Boy. His blog/website can be found at https://edwardmlee.wordpress.com

Photo credit: Jordan Benton

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