The beaten heart of Mr Smith

To be honest, Mr Smith he isn’t. But a smith – that he is. So it’s appropriate – and makes a handy pseudonym for – well, let’s call him, Joe.

He’s dressed in black. Not tall, not small and square of frame, in no way fat.

He slumps a little, around the shoulders. Looks weary, a lot, around the face.

Joe’s an artistic soul. Likes to create things, in his forge, from scrap metal finds or freshly hammered iron.

Elephants and giraffes, brought to life on his anvil, lurk in domestic jungles. Dark candelabra light up gothic weddings. A car lamp morphs into the head of a knight – he can’t bear to part with that one, it’s staying at home.

He’s late, Joe. Supposed to he here between ten and eleven – but he isn’t. And wasn’t supposed to be, he says. Never starts work till at least eleven on Monday.

If that seems a trifle tardy for a tradesman artist, think on this – he has three children to look after.

‘So what?’ you might say. ‘So do plenty of single parents.’

Except Joe’s not single. Not married either – and that’s a very big problem for him right now. Because his partner, days after giving birth to the youngest child, had a massive brain haemorrhage.

‘Thank you for the chat,’ he says, as he leaves, more than an hour later. It’s time well spent. The man needs to talk.

The birth certificates don’t list him. He’s had to prove his paternity – and still that’s not enough. Solicitors he can’t afford are multiplying, as they tend to do.

She was in a coma for weeks, his partner. Is paralysed down one whole side.

When she began to recover he took the children to see her. She couldn’t speak, but a smile broke out on her face.

‘I told my son it felt like I’d won the lottery,’ he smiles, looks down at the ground. ‘In the car, on the way home, my son says, “How much have we won, dad?”’

She started to recover, slowly. Can speak twenty words or so. Two of the children’s names are among them – the girls’ – but not the little boy’s. Instead she says, ‘good boy’.

It’s been well more than a year. One side of her skull was cut out to relieve the pressure of her swollen brain. But, in an almost unbearable twist of fate, given Joe’s occupation, the metal plate they put in her head has been rejected.

Joe and the children have moved from her parents’ house, into a rented home. He tries to give them as normal a life as he can, but while Saturday’s free for doing childish things, Sunday’s for visiting mum, miles away in hospital.

He stares out of the window, as he talks, seeing who knows what.

And then, as if to say, ‘I’m sorry. Here, have something nice in your life, no matter how small, today,’ the red squirrel runs along the fence. Sits on the corner post, turns and looks. Waits a moment for Joe to admire him, then jumps across into the pine tree.

Joe talks of gates – so many people now want gates. The creative stuff has to take a back seat. Has to go, really.

A wistful look comes over his face.

‘I did a sliding gate for an old gentleman. Eighty four, he is. His wife died fourteen years ago. When he talked about her his eyes went all shiny.’ He puts a finger to his own shiny eye. Shakes his head. ‘After fourteen years.’

Joe’s sense of time – and what matters – has changed with that random outpouring of blood in his partner’s brain.

He talks of another customer, a soldier, veteran of the Afghan war. He came to the smithy leaning on a stick – it’s touch and go as to whether they can save his leg, Joe says.

And why this particular tale? Ah, well, the soldier, perforce, frequents a centre for rehabilitation. A critical part of the complex is a large, specialist brain injury centre.

‘Don’t give up,’ the wounded ex-soldier tells Joe. Recounts an encounter with a soldier whose injury was so terrible it lost him half his brain. A man who, after several years, can once more eat and drink – and live.

Mr Smith puts away his papers and his measuring tape. Clicks his case shut and slips back into his shoes – taken off in consideration for the carpet.

‘I think I’ll go see the old gentleman on my way home. He lives alone. It must be a lonely life.’

God bless you, Joe.

It was a one-sided chat, but I have a whole skull, can make you a coffee – two sugars, milk, strong – and both my ears are working. You’re very, very welcome.

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