Beginning with the front page, Marta read out the headlines and waited for the nod. If there was a medical or health connection, Dr Cleary would definitely want the full article. The economy was also a must, although he tended to shout “mumbo-jumbo” angrily before she got the end. Politics brought on more heckling. He seemed to know all these people with their unpronounceable names intimately and he didn’t like any of them. The old man remained silent, his head bowed, during accounts of natural disasters or other senseless tragedies.
What made it tiring at first was that she had to pronounce everything right. He would interrupt her five times in a sentence. Inside she would be railing against him but she remained outwardly docile. On the Tuesday of her second week she deliberately forgot the paper but his disappointment was too much for her. She didn’t come empty handed again.
After reading through the first story, she would offer to do some housework but he always refused. Although the house was tidy, it needed a good clean. Marta considered switching with someone else. She was afraid someone might inspect the place and she would get into trouble. But all he wanted with his hour was the newspaper.
Three weeks into the job Marta made a stand. She struck a deal with him that the final fifteen minutes would be given up to cleaning. In this time she raced around with a cloth and disinfectant spray wiping down surfaces, speed vacuumed the hall, stairs and landing or swept and mopped the kitchen floor.
By the New Year the reading time had become less fraught and more interesting. Marta was getting to know the themes and the players. When she tut-tutted over the latest revelations about the minister for transport Dr Cleary chuckled. From then on they read and listened as a team. She would pour a cup of tea for herself and pause to take sips, enjoying his rapt attention.
On a mid-March morning Graham was passing the graveyard on his jogging route and stopped at the entrance. He pushed open the gate and walked down the hill towards the newer graves. It was a heart-soaring day, the first spring warmth in the air, the sky boldly blue. Could it only have been a week before that they had buried his father seemingly in the depths of winter?
All the what-to-do-about-Dad conversations were over. There would be no more late night skype calls from his brother in Australia. For over a year Conor had pestered Graham relentlessly, his anxiety multiplied by distance. A blind 79 year old man cannot live alone, he insisted, as if it were a known natural law. But Graham saw his father once a week and thought he was doing OK. He’s partially sighted, he would remind Conor. I organise the internet shopping. He doesn’t complain.
Graham turned into his father’s row, his sneakers compressing the soft grass. There was a child’s grave on the left complete with paper windmills and toy trucks. He hadn’t noticed it at the funeral but he hadn’t noticed much that day. The wooden crosses on the new graves were all the same. He assumed the last in the row would bear his father’s name but there was a new grave there and Dr John Cleary was now second from the end.
The funeral wreaths that still covered the mound of earth looked surprisingly fresh. Leaning against the thin wooden cross was something new. Graham leaned over to pick it up. In a plastic folder someone had placed that day’s Independent on the grave. Odd, Graham thought, Dad hasn’t read the paper in years.