Second Prize, Nathan Carr Milivoy Webber writing competition 2021

Visiting Time by Liam Hogan

I'm in the day room, sat in the gloom in an easy-clean easy-chair. Even though it's visiting time, there's no-one around. I don't know why.

There was a time I knew everything. I knew the kids in my class, even the ones with difficult names. I knew the words to my favourite song, the longer version with the extra verse that played over the end of cartoon credits. And I knew all the dinosaurs. I would line them up along the rug and call out their names, in case they'd forgotten. I always ended with Tyrannosaurus Rex, the baddest, most terrible lizard of them all, whose roared “Here!” would send the other dinosaurs scurrying for cover, until it was time for roll call once again.

When my dad told me they'd found a new dinosaur, something even bigger than a T-Rex, he couldn't understand why I was so upset. It wasn't the demotion of my favourite. It was because, until then, I'd assumed adults also knew everything.

Mum sat me down when dad lost patience and stomped out. Made toast, with too much margarine. “Not knowing things is good, kiddo,” she said, ruffling my hair. “It's exciting. In the future, in your future, you'll know so much more about the world, about everything, than your father and I.”

I wasn't convinced. Not knowing where dad was at Christmas wasn't exciting, for either of us. Not knowing when he might turn up was unsettling. Not knowing why he didn't, when he said he would, was devastating.

At the point at which he left for good, reasons unknown, I realised I'd peaked. It was all downhill from there, everything I thought I knew called into question. Mum and I moved into a new flat above a hairdressers, and I moved to a new school. I struggled with the new names and with the new lessons. Knowing that neutrons and protons were made out of quarks didn't, it seem, help me to learn chemistry. Every term they tried to teach us something I hadn't even known existed before, and every term I found myself further behind. Even the safety of numbers was replaced with unsolvable Xs and Ys.

I left school with an uncertain future, and not much more. Guess I did alright, despite that. Got a menial job, strung together a menial career. A marriage, two kids. It almost looked like I was coping.

Life kept tripping me up, teaching me how little I knew. Less, it seemed, every year. I didn't know it was going to be the last time I ever saw my daughter. Didn't know, even when I knew that about my wife, even as I was holding her too-fragile hand, what that could possibly mean.

So, what is the future now? You'd be a fool to ask me. I don't know a thing. I don't even know the carers any more, not now that they wear masks, now they hide their faces. I tried to listen as they explained why, but some of them say it's all a hoax, so who really knows?

My son came to see me, with his wife and teenage kid, but the daft buggers didn't come in, just stood waving through the window, the wife blubbing. I ignored them and then felt bad, after. But if they stay out there, what's the point of visiting?

The masked carers keep chasing me back to my room, saying there won't be any visitors, not today, and who knows when? I keep track of the hours, and I know when it's visiting time, I know when to sneak back. That's why I don't turn the telly on, or the lights. They'll only chase me out again.

I have to be here, don't you see? Lots of relatives bring their young kids when they visit, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, and there's a couple of crates of toys for them. In the blue one there are games, jigsaws, picture books, that sort of thing. And in the red crate, among the dolls and cars and farm animals, there's a half-dozen plastic dinosaurs.

They bring them to me, those kids. The parents, and the carers, and even the other residents, encourage it. They bring them, place them on my lap, and look up at me, wide-eyed and expectant.

Because only I know their names.

Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London.