Later that day, Gilbert was on the phone to his employer, pleading to be allowed some time off. As soon as he’d taken the call, he’d driven to London. He’d spent the remainder of the night sleeping on the sofa in the home he’d expected to grow old in as his ex-wife kept vigil by her new husband’s hospital bedside. In spite of himself, he’d found this oddly comforting, but it hadn’t been a sustainable situation and he’d agreed to take Olly home to Devon whilst Tanya made the funeral arrangements.
“So, Mr Jonson,” he said, “I’m all he has. His mother’s in no fit state to look after him,”
From the other end of the line, Gilbert could hear Jonson sucking his teeth, “Are there no grandparents?”
Gilbert shook his head, before he realised his employer would be unable to see him. Jonson had that sort of effect on him, “None that could look after him. His mum’s parents are in New Zealand, and my Dad’s in a home. Dementia,” he explained.
“Better no be catching,” said Jonson and, after a pause, “You couldn’t just stick him in front of the telly?”
“He’s shaken up,” said Gilbert and, recognising he hadn’t offered enough to sway Jonson, “He was very close to his stepfather.”
“We need you at the office, Gilbert,” said Jonson. From the tone of voice, Gilbert could picture the expression on his boss’ face: superficial reasonably, falsely understanding, utterly bereft of sympathy.
“But nothing happens this time of year,” pleaded Gilbert, “I’m sure the others can cover me.”
“Now Gilbert,” said Jonson, “Are you telling me you’re supernumerary? What do I want you for if someone else can do your job?”
Gilbert knew his employer wouldn’t hesitate to cut costs if the opportunity presented itself, even if he was already doing the work of two colleagues who’d moved on, “I just mean for a week or so, whilst his mum finds her feet.”
“A week?” said Jonson. “There’ll be no business to come back to if you’re gone that long.”
Rashly, Gilbert suggested, “You wouldn’t have to pay me.”
“I wouldn’t expect to,” said Jonson, “I’m running a business, not a charity.” There was a moment’s hesitation, “If you get in this afternoon, you can keep your job.”
“But, Mr Jonson, the boy’s lost his stepfather”
“’Mr Jonson nothing. Next you’ll be wanting paid for this morning. Now don’t make me regret my generosity. I want you here by twelve.”
“Right,” said Gilbert, wondering if he’d get away with bringing his son into work with him.
“Anything else?” asked Jonson.
“Thank you, sir,” said Gilbert.
Upstairs, he could hear his son’s gentle snoring. He was ten, he supposed, and a sensible boy at the best of times. Perhaps, he’d be safe left to his own devices. He’d always be able to find something to occupy himself.
He looked out of the window; it was still snowing. More insistently now, but not enough he’d be able to use it as an excuse to stay away from work. With a pang of something like guilt, he saw the headless figure of the snowman. Surely what had happened to Ralf had to be coincidental, but he couldn’t let Olly see what he’d done. The boy was still asleep and if he worked quickly, he’d be able to repair the snowman before he woke. Dressing in his winter clothes, Gilbert took himself outside.
It took him a moment to retrieve the snowman’s head and when he did, he placed it on the torso, now swollen with more snowfall. In his anger, he’d obviously caused some serious damage. The once spherical head was now asymmetrical and approximately ovular. The eyes were intact, but the carrot was now bent and bruised and no matter how much Gilbert tried to recreate Ralf’s face, he found himself unable to. After around fifteen minute’s frantic kneading and adjusting, the results were no better. Stepping back, he realised that what he’d done was turn the snowman into an approximation of Jonson, and, unable to resist himself, launched a single punch at the figure’s belly.
Later, he told himself he’d only done it to release tension but, he hadn’t really been surprised when a colleague had called him and told him that Jonson had been hospitalised with a ruptured aortic aneurysm and he wouldn’t be needed at work after all.