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She had watched him dying for more than a year. The distended belly, the yellow toxic delirium of liver cirrhosis. She watched as ambulance after ambulance took him, tearing at his poisoned skin, haemorrhaging black tar blood. Yet, she succumbed first.

He sat at a table in the dining room. They had shared a double room on the floor above. Dressed in a black Crombie overcoat and a dark suit, his pale face reflected in his white shirt. Sober since her death, out of respect, he returned from the funeral before her children and relatives began the ritual, drinking a path through grief. His sobriety was a condition imposed by her children to allow his attendance at her funeral.

He had met her when she was already lost to alcohol and walking the streets. They needed each other. She, tough and direct, but a woman moving in a vicious world. He a man, fit and strong, but a gentle soul filled with regret and remorse. Together they survived, drifting through their mutual oblivion. Now, he was alone.

We sat across the table from him, the dining room doors locked to give him a sanctuary in the chaotic hostel. My colleague held his hand as we congratulated him on his strength. “You did right by her,” we said, as he stared at a rapidly cooling mug of coffee. We encouraged him, suggesting ways of maintaining his sobriety. We would create havens for him to escape the other residents, he could come here to us at any time, to talk. We would have him eating healthily, taking exercise. His long-estranged brother had made contact, reached out to him. His family were waiting for him the brother had said. He agreed to all of this, enthusiastic about the new start gifted to him through tragedy. We smiled for him, but we knew what would happen.

He let go of my colleague’s hand and went to his room, their room. His cold coffee left untouched on the table.

Flash Fiction by Stephen McGuinness
Picture: Whisky by Phil Long under CC BY 2.0

Published in Spring 2017


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