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Short Stories by George Donald

Charlie

The old oak tree offered him some protection from the bright sunlight with its large, sprawling branches that overhung the pavement. He stood silently watching the gate across the road, waiting patiently for her to arrive. He had no interest in what time of day it was, simply aware that the sun had passed its zenith and was now beginning to slowly make its way past the rooftops towards the horizon. His day had begun early and he had stood by her bedroom door and watch her dress, listening as she laughed and giggled. She knew that he loved her with unswerving devotion, as she loved him. He sighed and wished she was here with him, right now. He thought of her as he had last seen her, thinking then it might be for the last time, her curly red hair, bright eyes and dimpled cheeks, her mouth permanently creased in a smile. Katie was his whole life and he couldn't imagine a time before.

When she'd been brought her home from the hospital, just five years previously, he had at first resented the attention bestowed upon her, fearing that she would replace him in June's affection. But it hadn't quite worked out that way. At first June had concentrated all her attention on the new baby and it seemed Katie was oblivious to him, her smiles and cries of delight reserved for her mother, but gradually she had come to accept that Charlie was there also, caring for and loving her without question.

He glanced at the parents waiting for their children, grouped together or standing alone. He was indifferent to them and could not guess what was going through their minds. They had seen him stood there and wondered at his presence. He was not to know that his long hair and scruffy appearance had caused some of them to be suspicious of him, wondering what reason he had to wait for the school to empty. He watched as the elderly man arrive in the old, beat up car and after parking the wreck in a nearby side street, observed with curious eyes as first the man dressed in a yellow fluorescent coat then stooped low in the boot and removed the large lollipop stick. Finally, he placed a bright orange cap on his head and with one wary eye on Charlie, walked toward the metal fence that separated the school gate from the roadway. He paid no attention to the old man's suspicious glare. It didn't trouble him either that a few of the parents whispered as they nudged each other and pointed towards him.

He thought again of that morning, Katie's unhappy face as she realised that he would not be walking with her to the gate, her eyes turning to tears when June calmly explained to the sobbing girl that he might be leaving for good. He knew how brave June was, holding back her own tears lest Katie see how upset she was. It almost broke his heart to think of her growing up without him, never seeing her mature into the lovely young woman he knew she would be. He remembered the happy times they had shared, watching with contentment as June had bathed the small, wriggly baby in the plastic bath before the roaring fire, seeing her taking her first tentative step, hearing with surprise her first spoken word. He had comforted June when Katie had fallen ill with pleurisy, worried with her through the trying times when the first teeth forced their painful way through the small, tender gums.

A police patrol car slowly cruised past, the officers turning their heads to stare curiously at Charlie. He had nothing to hide and returned their gaze with a clear conscience. He wasn't afraid of them. Nothing would prevent him from seeing Katie today. His mind turned to the scare that he and June had about his health, the worry that he might not survive yet another examination. The heartstopping news that his illness might be staved off by a regular course of medicine, though no promises had been made, was received with relief, almost like a stay of execution. June had hugged him with joy, the tears streaming down her face. He could hardly wait for Katie to see him, anxious for her to know that, at least for the time being, he was going to be all right.

He glanced again at the growing crowd of parents, some of whom now seemed to have accepted his presence while others cast a furtive smile towards him. He thought, just for a moment, that one of them, a young woman, was about to approach to speak with him, but she seem to change her mind and turned instead to converse with a friend standing nearby. He wasn't offended and knew that his appearance could be daunting. He had always been a kind of solitary figure and never encouraged companionship from strangers. During his life with June, she had come to accept he was comfortable with just family or close friends. In the distance, a bell rang and the parents shuffled their feet nervously, each vying for the pole position nearest the gate. Those who stood on Charlie's side of the road began to make their way to a point opposite the school gate where they knew the old man with the lollipop stick would safely escort their kids across the road. A buzz of conversation broke out among the adults, their long wait almost over. Charlie became restless, his eagerness to see Katie overcoming his usual laconic attitude.

He watched as a horde of children rushed to evacuate the double doors of the main buildings and began streaming across the wide expanse of concreted playground towards the narrow metal gates at the exit. He grew anxious, unable to spot her among the screaming, excited children. Then he saw the small red head, bobbing about at the rear and he felt his heart beat that little bit faster, his throat tightened and his breath exhaled in rapid spurts. The pain in his chest achingly reminded him he was supposed to take things easy, but the excitement of seeing Katie was almost too much for him. As he watched, he could see the old man had difficulty trying to stem the tide of human flotsam funnelling its way towards the narrow gate where the children began to push and shove at each other in their efforts to squeeze through. He saw the lollipop stick being brandished like a hand held barrier as the pensioner tried to steer his charges onto a selected part of the pavement. He gritted his teeth as Katie joined the packed group, vowing that if the man hit her with the stick, accident or not, he would go for him. Be careful! his mind screamed at the lollipop man, but then to Charlie's relief, he saw the stick being raised to the upright position and the children sternly told to wait. The man pompously stepped into the middle of the road to halt the one small car and then solemnly waved the laughing children across, urging them to walk, Charlie clearly heard, and not to run. Some, he was pleased to see included Katie, did as they were told while others ignored the old man and bolted to where their parents stood or run past him.

His attention was taken by Katie and so he wasn't aware of the fearful stares of some of the children as they passed him by, deliberately slowing their pace, their eyes upon him all the while. He watched as Katie's head twisted back and forth, searching among the crowd for June. He was tempted to walk forward and reveal himself, but the dull ache in his chest had grown worse and he knew that to run forward to greet the little girl might provoke more pain. With increasing impatience, he waited for Katie to see him. His very being wanted to cry out, that he was here, waiting for her. How he loved this little, red haired girl.

At last she saw him, her eyes lighting up in gleeful surprise and ran towards him, her school satchel bouncing against her slim back, blazer undone and school tie flapping as she ran. He could see she had been crying and his heart almost broke at her grief. The crowd of adults and children scattered, their eyes watching the little, flame haired girl running towards him.
"Charlie!" she screamed with delight and threw her arms about him, kissing and hugging him, her love obvious to all. He didn't notice the relieved smiles of the adults or the curious stares of their children. No longer did they see him as the longhaired, scruffy stranger. Someone who was loved by a little girl as he was couldn't be a threat after all, they silently decided. Charlie's heart melted as Katie, her arms tightly wrapped about his neck, whispered in his ear that she thought she'd never see him again, that she loved him more than anything in the world.

Her arm thrown carelessly around him and happier than he had been for a long time, the large but old, scruffy dog and the little, red haired girl walked home together.