Jessica clasped my hand in hers, the softness of her young skin against the coarseness of mine. She guided me through the park. I leaned on her and shuffled along, too slow and too heavy. My little daughter was still in there, shining through. Twenty six. Two decades had gone in a blink. And now, clutching my hand, was a young woman. No more fits of giggles or games of hopscotch. No more bedtime stories or campfire songs. No more mending of freshly broken hearts or wiping of teenage tears.
The autumn leaves, a scatter of red, brown and gold, were glued to grey pavement with the morning raindrops. A grey haze was hidden behind the thick arching branches of trees. Some leaves fluttered to the ground as we walked past an oak tree. Jessica gave my hand a gentle squeeze and glanced up at me. Our eyes seemed to tell each other more than words would, as they always had. I followed her gaze. She looked towards the bench across the field from us. A small lady was hunched over, her wrinkles deepened in concentration. She was knitting. A flash of red emerged as she lifted the sweater up to examine her work.
The same flash of red appeared before me. But not in the hands of an old lady, but upon the body of a small child, no bigger than four. Rosie. ‘Rosie in red!’ I heard myself shout. But the words didn’t come from my lips. My voice was young and full of joy. She turned towards me and beamed. Her little cheeks were a rosy red, too. Her mother turned too, carrying little Jessica. Little eyelids fluttered slowly up and down, in and out of the world of sleep. From across the road I watched my three beautiful girls, my family. Fidgeting one hand into her pocket, Kate fumbled for the car key. On finding it at the same moment Jessica began to cry, she dropped them on to the damp pavement. Before I could even see them land the flash of red came and was gone in an instant. Before I could move a muscle my wife’s piercing scream ripped through the air. ‘ROSIE!’ The van was gone in a blur. Crumpled on the pavement, she lay, limbs like a broken doll. All I could see was flashes of crimson blood. Not the rosy red of her cheeks, now ghostly white. Not the cheery red of the little sweater, now smeared with her blood. No, not a rosy red anymore. A dark ugly red. The worst red.
I hadn’t noticed Dad’s silent tears until I looked back from the curious old woman. I had been so fixated on the rhythmic movement of the needles up and down…up and down. He didn’t seem to notice my look of concern; he was in some kind of trance. I stared across the park back to the woman. His body was turned towards her, but his eyes were glazed over, brimming with his tears. Staring at nothing at all. ‘Dad?’ I croaked, my voice hoarse. No answer. ‘Dad?’ I repeated. His lips quivered slightly. This made some of the wrinkles in his mouth curve and deepen. Almost a whisper, he spoke not to me, but the woman it seemed. ‘Rosie.’ The name was so far away, tucked into the dark recesses of my mind, that I had almost forgotten. I held my breath. It was so long ago, I was too young to even remember. Rosie, my older sister I had only known through faded pictures and the few descriptions from Mum and Dad before they shut themselves out of the pain again. I used to visit her grave often and talk to her. I imagined her to be beautiful, like my mother, with her flowing blonde hair and soft green eyes. In pictures she was bright and happy with few teeth, but a giant smile.
‘Rosie in red’ he murmured, slightly louder this time. Then, without any warning a cry was released from him. A sound I had never heard from him before. It was so full of pain. I grabbed his shoulders and stared searchingly into his unfocused eyes. ‘Dad. I’m here.’ I spoke as softly as I could, unable to stop myself trembling. ‘It’s Jessica.’
I dropped my knitting needles. The man opposite me, stared. Not at me-but through me-it seemed. The cry of a wounded animal suddenly filled the air between us. I stood up, but age was not my friend anymore. I grabbed my walking stick and began hobbling towards this man. His poor daughter looked at him, pained and helpless. But as I walked away, clutching the sweater I had been knitting for my grandson, a scarlet red (his favourite colour) I saw that his eyes were fixed upon it. As I moved it towards him, his whole body followed. Like a magnet.
‘I’m sorry.’ his daughter pleaded, ‘ I don’t know what to do.’ Her eyes were brimming with tears. As I reached them, I could see his cheeks were stained with tears. ‘Rosie’ the man whispered so softly, I was surprised to hear it. ‘Rosie?’ I asked, directing my question to the daughter.
‘She…’ she trailed off, worry wrinkling her face. ‘ She died. A long time ago. She was a child, only four.’
Four, I thought. The age my grandson would turn in only a few days time. Without sparing a moment of thought, I held out the sweater to the man and wrapped his fingers around it. Then, I turned and hobbled back to my bench. The words, ‘Thank you’ came from two voices.