Robin walked along the corridor to Uncle Ralph’s room, a journey she could have made with her eyes closed. Usually he would have been in the residents’ lounge, beating his friends at cards. Instead, today her uncle sat on his bed by the window, combing his hair, minus his usual cordial smile.
She kissed his forehead when he stiffly stood up, and watched as he lowered himself into his armchair. Robin knew better than to offer to help. Instead she handed over a Tupperware box before sitting down opposite. He prised off the lid.
He savoured the first bite of one of his favourite biscuits and then sighed.
‘Best get on with it.’ He passed her the letter, the reason he’d texted last night.
Her eyes skimmed the page; it was from Faye’s neighbour, Blanche. Robin remembered her kindness well. So Faye had slipped partway down… the loft ladder? A pang of longing shot through her chest. Robin had climbed those ladders numerous times a day in her teens, they always had been rickety. Broken wrist… bruised ribs… won’t accept any help… What would she have been doing up there?
‘How did Blanche know where you live?’ Robin asked, not looking up from the letter.
‘Faye’s mentioned Moss Lodge to her.’ He finished his biscuit and put down the box, then struggled to thread his watch strap through the keeper. Robin ignored the pursed lips as she leant over and did it for him. ‘She’s as stubborn as they come,’ he continued. ‘If you ask me, she won’t have any problem convincing the hospital she can manage, once they’ve discharged her next week. I’ve tried ringing her mobile to make her see she has to involve the authorities, to get the necessary support, but she’s not picking up.’
A sense of discomfort flickered inside her and Robin stared at the crumbs in her uncle’s grey, bristly beard.
‘Maybe this is fate – you’ve nothing else to do at the moment, what with being made redundant.’ He gave her a look and she forced a bright smile, despite her stomach churning. Her payout wouldn’t last forever and she’d already received several job rejection emails.
‘Now don’t you try to dress it up, Uncle Ralph, just go ahead and give it to me straight.’
‘It’s a chance to take a break in the Peak District, the autumn leaf fall there is outstanding.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘Feel any better?’
Robin shook her head. Going back there, facing Faye’s disapproving stares and comments once more, she’d feel like a child again.
‘Imagine me living with Faye. We wouldn’t last two seconds.’
‘But it’s down to us to look after her, she hasn’t got anyone else and I promised your dad, brother to brother, that I’d always look out for her.’
Robin sat very still. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you? And why haven’t I ever known that?’
‘I couldn’t tell you when you were younger, you were so damn angry about everything. I didn’t want you to run away from me as well.’ His voice softened. ‘When Alan died it was as if I’d inherited my very own family, a sister-in-law and a niece – who became so much more. I wouldn’t change a thing, other than wanting my brother back – and wishing you and your mother had made it up. You’re as pig-headed as each other.’
Robin winced. She was nothing like Faye. ‘I can’t go to Stonedale.’
‘Can’t or won’t, Missy?’
He still spoke to her as if she wore dental braces and the centre of her world was the Sunday night Top 40 and Girl Scene magazine’s Dear Debbie problem page, and for a split second she wanted to go back to her teenage years and be that young girl again. Robin shook her head. There was no going back. She helped herself to another biscuit and put the whole thing in at once.
Uncle Ralph reached into the box again too, but his fingers faltered. ‘Please love, do it for me – I can’t let Alan down.’
* * *
Back in her flat, that night, Robin tried to zone out in front of her favourite dance show but the slick, glitzy performances didn’t captivate her. She forced down a salmon salad, her usual Saturday night meal. As eleven o’clock approached she laid out her gym kit; Sunday mornings always meant an hour on the treadmill. Rain was due tomorrow so she searched the small, square lounge looking for her umbrella, but despite the tidiness, she couldn’t find it. After brushing her teeth for two minutes Robin got undressed. Her wardrobe comprised of starched lines and taupes, with the discreet, executive look she’d honed over the years.
She climbed into bed and thought back to what Uncle Ralph was asking of her. Before leaving she’d wrapped both her hands around one of his – a hand that had helped her so much over the years, wiping away teenage tears of frustration, filling in forms with her as she learnt to open bank accounts, a hand that had held her arm firmly as he walked her up the aisle.
Robin had tried to pay him back as she got older, to clear the debt he never called in – in small ways at first, like making his evening meal occasionally and then, as time passed, more significant opportunities arose. She nursed him through bronchitis and, from time to time, he’d go on holiday with Robin, her husband, Todd, and their daughter, Amber, before their marriage ended. In the last year or two she’d cut his hair, although perhaps that wasn’t much of a favour.
Robin hadn’t seen her mother since Amber was born, eighteen years now. Uncle Ralph looked so tired these days; how would Faye have aged? Or would time have treated her more kindly, without a difficult daughter around? Robin had barely looked at her uncle when she’d first moved in with him, because he looked so like his brother, her dad, with the same cleft chin and gentle tone. A runaway teenager must have made his life much harder.
Robin turned onto her side and hugged her knees, squinting through the darkness at her bedside cactus.
‘It’s a good thing you don’t need frequent watering,’ she whispered. ‘I’m taking a break in the Peak District, the autumn leaf fall there is outstanding.’
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