Thursday, April 15, 2021

Opal by Jessica Disney

Opal enjoys long walks around the park near her flat. She always carries a small blue tote bag with a compact umbrella inside, just in case. Today’s afternoon stroll is seemingly no different to any other. Small children from a local school kick a battered football in no particular direction and tired parents sit on picnic benches, relieved to have finished their working day. Traditionally, Opal likes to carry wholemeal bread for the ducks, but instead has settled on fifty-fifty due to shortages of her preferred brand, I assume.

On this particular day, Opal counts seven females, five males and nine ducklings, noting this down in her daily journal. They shuffle towards her and wait impatiently for their daily treat.

Opal never tires of watching the creatures fight over her offerings and plead to her for more. She allocates four slices for the ducks and wraps up the rest to store in her bag, later to be made into sandwiches or toast, I imagine. Then, she stands up, smiles to herself, and heads back to the tower block, satisfied until her next outing.

I silently observed Opal until this ending point, for the twelfth time since I tracked her down.

I close my notepad ready to store it in my coat pocket and remove my sunglasses. Then, I notice Opal stride straight past her entrance path and further down the road. Determined not to let her slip away, I follow, even as she enters an unnerving alleyway and jumps over a fence towards the railway track. She nearly trips several times as she hops through the overgrown grass but doesn’t let this defeat her. Finally, she reaches the embankment and climbs onto the platform. I am fortunately reasonably fit and so find no trouble in mirroring her movements at a safe distance away. We peer at the schedule which tells us the next train to North Brook will arrive in twenty minutes. Opal shakes her head in disgust, pacing up and down the platform edge. Her frustration heightens as a railway operative points out the obvious yellow barrier that she is failing to comply with.

When the carriages arrive, Opal runs to the front coach and hesitates, before tenderly clutching the handrails to assist her up the small step. A few minutes after boarding, a whistle is blown and our journey begins. Opal has chosen a forward-facing window seat and she places her belongings adjacent, ensuring nobody will sit there. When her position allows, I catch a glimpse as she flicks through each page of a dog-eared novel and licks her finger as she does so. Sometimes I hear a faint giggle or a gentle hum, but mostly I sit in silence owing to being situated in the quiet coach. The trolley lady offers tea and coffee, which I decline, but Opal requests a speciality tea with almond milk and four sugars. I watch the genuine disappointment on her face as she is told it shall be standard tea, or none at all.

The train gradually pulls to a halt and its travellers filter out and disperse towards the exit or other platforms. For Opal, the arrival is a huge deal and she takes a while to digest. Ten minutes later she plucks up the courage to join the queue for customer services. When she reaches the desk, I hear her mumble something about tea and ask the unenthusiastic assistant how she can reach Withington Road. Sandra, I make out from her badge, shrugs and hands Opal a town map. The temptation is too hard for me to resist. I demand Sandra directs me to the nearest taxi rank and hurriedly chase after Opal upon receiving this information.

“Excuse me, sorry, I overheard you mention Withington Road. I’m actually heading there myself and wondered if you might want to share a journey. I’ve heard taxis are pretty expensive around here so it will save us both a fortune”

My offer is too good for Opal to refuse and she gladly accepts, following me blindly to the station car park. It feels strange to observe her this close up and I can’t help but be mesmerised by her witchy eyes and matted hair. She is visibly discomforted by my obvious staring and so I look out of the taxi window instead, taking in the urban surroundings. I am startled by an intense voice belonging to Opal.

“I would like to know where you’re going.” she states, twiddling her thumbs.

“My friend's place. She lives here. How about you?”

“Me too.” is her final response before turning her head to lean against the glass.

We exit the vehicle in complete silence and I hand over eight pounds to the driver. Opal still says nothing. I intentionally cross the road but continue walking in the same direction as she. Opal stops at every building, squinting in order to make out the number on each door. I can only assume; she has never visited this friend before.

Opal reaches the gates of a long-stoned driveway. She gently pushes it open and takes in the view which presents itself to her. I am in awe of the architectural masterpiece that demands our attention. My goodness, Opal must have a rich friend, I think.

“Does your friend live here too?” she queries, as I follow behind.

“That’s right.” I say, thankful for her assumption.

I follow her into the daunting yet distinctly charming occupancy and wait a few metres away as she is greeted by a soft-spoken lady.

“Good evening Opal, my dear. Welcome back to Withington hospital. You are always welcome here. In fact, we still have your room waiting for you. Lucky for you it was vacated this morning. Right now, do tell how your mind has been treating you since I last saw you? Are those visions still causing you grief?”

Opal clasps the lady’s hands and turns to face me, I offer an empathetic smile to my mother and she responds with a knowing nod, almost as though she can sense that I am hiding something.

© Jessica Disney

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