I’ve always been a gregarious person, I suppose. I must just have one of those faces; people don’t seem to be threatened by me. They’re always happy to come over and have a little chat, pass the time or unburden themselves a little. That’s why I’m sat here humouring this woman, even though it must be time for dinner pretty soon. She’s rambling on about something, I think it’s her family; I can’t say I’ve really been following it all, but I nod and smile in the appropriate places and it seems to make her happy.
“and Sharon – that’s our Doreen’s youngest, you remember Doreen? – well, her Sharon’s getting married on Thursday, nice young man he is, a bit too nice, if you take my meaning…anyway, they’re getting married Thursday, so after this I’m going into town and looking for some decent shoes – they’re getting married on the front at Thurstaston, which is very nice I suppose, but how am I supposed to wear heels on the beach?”
I’ve never met anyone called Doreen. Sort of an old-fashioned name, really. I don’t expect there are many kids called Doreen around these days. Maybe a couple of the lads, the way things are going. Still, it’s easier just to nod and smile than to make a big issue of it. She’s already mentioned plans for later today, so I wonder whether it would be polite to make hints about going for my dinner yet. I’m trying to take her seriously, but the image of her sinking into the soft sand in her high heels – she’s fifty if she’s a day, and not the smallest of women – has brought a genuine smile to my face for the first time in the conversation.
She seems to pick up on this, and her own smile widens as she looks me in the eyes.
“There you are!”
Well, yes, I’m here. I’ve been here the entire time, listening to you drone on about your extended cousins or whatever they are. I haven’t budged out of this chair, because I’m too polite. There are still a few gentlemen left in this world, say it myself as shouldn’t. Still, it might be about time I got rid of her. No need to be rude about it. If I drop some hints about dinner, maybe she’ll realise it’s time she was on her way.
“Would you care to stay to dinner, since you’re here?”
A frown crosses her great moon face. “You’ve already had dinner. You have dinner at one o’clock, don’t you? Every day.”
Ridiculous. I’ve never been one for strict routines. Besides, if I’d had my dinner I’d know about it, wouldn’t I? All right, I don’t seem to be particularly hungry at the moment, but my Carole always tells me that if I don’t eat dinner then I get all cranky. Blood sugars or some such rubbish.
And I’m certain it’s not past one. I don’t know when it is, precisely, but my body clock is telling me it’s still morning.
“Have you got the time?” I ask her. “I don’t seem to be wearing my…”
I tail off because I’ve glanced at my wrist, where my watch usually is. I’ve not got it on, but that’s not what’s stopped me in my tracks. There’s something wrong with my arm. It appears to be encased in some moth-eaten old cardigan, like I might use to potter about the garden in. But I’m not in the garden, and I never laze about the place in my scruff. The army drilled all that nonsense out of me. I’m always well turned-out, even when we’re not going anywhere. Suit and shirt, tie if we’re expecting company. Some of us still believe in maintaining standards and, besides, Carole’s always told me she likes the way I’m careful about my dress.
But that’s not the thing that really confused me. It’s my hand. There’s something different about my hand. It’s not the tremor – I’ve always had a benign tremor in both hands, have done since childhood, the GP told my mother it was nothing to worry about shortly before he died of alcohol poisoning. It’s…well, it’s the veins, I suppose. And the liver spots. It’s an old-looking hand. All right, I’m no chicken, granted, but it’s strange the way old age creeps up on you like that. In my head I’m still a spry thirty-something, former corporal of the regiment, boss in my own home. Nowadays I take more orders about the house than I ever dare to give. Not that I’d have it any other way, bless her, if she didn’t keep me in check I’d run riot.
The girl takes my pause as permission to speak. “They’re still looking for your watch. Well, they say they are.” She looks around before leaning in close, as though she’s about to share a password in an old spy film. “I think the little foreign one’s had it.” She looks at me significantly, like she’s just told me who did the Ripper murders, and leans back. Daft cow.
I look around the room, seeking support. Maybe someone else can take this odd lady off my hands for a spell, give me a break. I don’t begrudge her some company, poor soul, but surely I’ve done my bit by now. There’s a bunch of old codgers sat about the room, but they’re all ostentatiously ignoring the woman and me, staring blankly at the telly on the wall instead. Can’t say I blame them, really, it’s no more their responsibility than it is mine. Still, I think it’s time I wrapped things up. I’ll go and find Carole, and we’ll get some dinner together. Maybe I’ll treat us to fish and chips on the prom, if it’s nice outside. Heaven knows when we did that last.
“Well, it’s been lovely chatting to you, but I must go and find my wife. If you’ll excuse me…”
I start to lever myself up out of the low chair, but when I place my hand on the arm, the woman puts her own hand over it. A bit surprised, I look at her, and she’s got this peculiar expression on her face, like she’s sad about something but resigned to it as well. It’s the most intelligent expression I’ve seen her pull all day.
“Mum’s gone, dad. Do you remember? Mum isn’t with us any more.”
At first, of course, I don’t know what she’s talking about. I find myself looking around the room for help once more, at all those daft, mute old buggers staring at the idiot box. Then the penny drops, and I know where I am.
I look back at the strange woman holding my hand. Now I’m really looking, I can see traces of Carole in her face, underneath those extra pounds of flesh. She looks tired. There’s no ring on her finger. What did I do wrong, raising her, that she’s so unhappy now?
The understanding must have percolated through to my face, because she looks away, suddenly uncomfortable with her old dad now that he’s finally showing some real emotion. Tears are nettling at the backs of my eyes, though I’m damned if I’ll make a show of myself in this room full of bloody mannequins.
“Anyway, dad, it’s about time I was pushing on. Shoes to buy, you know how it is. I’ll see you after dinner tomorrow, same as always.”
She has a fragile smile on her face, trying to make light of things. I hold on to her hand for a moment. I want to ask her if she comes every day. More to the point, I want to ask her if we go through this routine every day. Do I have a lucid spell every time, or only rarely? Are they getting further apart? How often has she had to explain to me that my wife’s dead? How often do we both have to go through this miserable process?
I try to find the words but they don’t come. I find myself saying the only phrase that comes to mind.
“I love you, Carole.”
My daughter, whatever her name is, seems to accept this. She pats my hand. “I love you too, dad.” Then she walks away, leaving me on my own to grieve for Carole, who died who knows how long ago. For me, it might as well have been today. Which will I forget first – that I have a daughter, or that I haven’t got a wife? Will I forget tonight, or today, only for the two of us to go through it all again tomorrow, like clockwork dancers slowly winding down our interminable routine?
I’m an atheist. Have been since the war. I don’t believe in hell.
I’m sitting alone in a room filled with other useless old folk. They all stare gormlessly at the television, showing no more sign of life than potted plants. I sit with my thoughts for what, to me at least, seems to be a very long time.