Two hours, seventeen minutes, nine seconds left to go, according to the ugly green numbers on my wrist. Why she couldn’t have bought me a normal, wind- up watch for Christmas I don’t know. Can I make the walk today? The weather’s holding up for now but the sky in the distance looks heavy, I could always take the umbrella from out the back; I’ll bring it back tomorrow. I probably should take it, just in case. I want to take the bus if I’m being honest but then I know she’ll ask, ask if I took the bus but then if it does rain she’ll know anyway if I’ve walked. The umbrella might keep my top half dry but my trousers will be all wet and she’ll scold, she’ll say ‘why didn’t you take the bus?’ She’ll say that but she’ll think you silly old fool. What she can’t seem to understand is I’ve got two perfectly good legs, I can walk, so why would I take the bus? This damn knee if it wasn’t for the knee I wouldn’t think twice about walking but now it’s not only my back but my knee as well, and what must I look like perched on this stool like some decrepit old man. I can stand, I would stand if it wasn’t for the damn knee and when it comes to working in this grocery store eight hours a day I’ve got no other choice. ‘Here you go, Dennis love,’ said the manager when she handed me the stool, ‘rest that knee of yours now,’ and it killed me to take the stool, just like it kills me to let her talk to me like that but I have no option in either case.
There’s been a racket going on for the last ten minutes. It’s that young boy over there, he’s making all sorts of noise picking things up, moving them to the wrong place. Apples in with oranges, lettuces and cabbages all mixed up. Put the melon down, I’d say to him, no means no and that would be the end of that but the old fella he’s with can’t barely control that walking stick let alone the kid. God knows I’d be telling him if he was one of mine, making all that noise and what’s that he’s saying now? This damn hearing it’s getting worse but I won’t be telling anyone that, I’m not having anyone think I need some hearing aid, I’m not sticking some thing in my ear for everyone to see might as well walk with a walking stick like the old fella and there’s no chance of that now, no. What would she think of that? She thinks already that I need to take buses and wear big coats like I’m her dad and an old dad for that well I’m not, not that it matters anyway. I’ve seen how she looks at me when she doesn’t know I’m watching. She probably thinks I’m blind as well as deaf and incapable of walking to work well I won’t have it, age is just a number is what she used to say. I used to think she was convincing me but now I see she was trying to convince herself, not that easy though now the years have ticked by and there’s her all pretty still, despite the odd wrinkle, and I see that she’s bothered although she promised she never would be. Well, my fault really. I should have seen through it, I should have known that one day she’d see me not for me but for my age, but I won’t have it. I won’t let her be right, this damn knee and back I’ll fight past it if it’s the last thing I do, I’m not some old man like that old fella over there look at him all bent over on the walking stick and that kid’s still causing a scene, still grabbing this and that while the old fella’s telling him put it down, put it down, at least that’s what I think he’s saying anyway. He’s coming over now, puts the basket on the counter, shakes his head. ‘Mr…’ he says, straining his eyes, trying to read my name tag he is, well if his eyesights failing that ain’t my problem. He’ll just have to do with not knowing my name. Mr Peters, but that’s my business not his. The kids at the back of the shop now laughing his head off while the old fella just shakes his head at me, he’s talking to me, he’s saying ‘kids these days won’t listen, not like the old days, not like when we were kids, eh?’ Not like when we were kids? Silly old fella talking to me like I’m the same as him.
The rain didn’t hold up, went and forgot the umbrella as well, didn’t I. I can’t get that noisy kid out of my head. More I try more I think about it, more I see him. Can just picture him now…
‘Bernie!’ Sshh ma, I think, I wish she would stop calling me, it’s early yet the moon’s only peeking above the chimneys over there and the sky’s still navy blue, not black so I ain’t going inside yet, Ma. I’m spying on Alice, my friend from school, like a soldier. Me and Alice were born two days apart, Ma says we’re like two peas in a pod which makes no sense because neither of us look like peas and even though my house is small it’s bigger than a pod. If I had a gun and Alice and her family were Germans I’d go bang bang bang I’d get them all and they wouldn’t get me not like they got my dad, I’m too quick I’d hide behind things like I am now. I can see her through the gaps in this bush, can see right into her window she’s in the kitchen and she looks lovely, there’s a red, spotty bow in her hair it’s holding up all the yellow strands; maybe I could get her a bow like that after the war, a purple one, Alice loves purple she’s told me so, ‘purple’s my favourite colour,’ she said and I teased her said purple’s a silly girl’s colour but I was only joking, I like purple really just wouldn’t want to tell anyone that. I aim my gun at a bird sat on the roof, bang! I wish it was a gun and not really just a stick I snapped off the bush but one day I’ll have a real gun, I’ll be a solider one day.
‘Bernie Peter Banks! Where are you?’ Go away, ma! I want to keep watching Alice, she’s eating her tea now I wish I could see what she’s eating, I could see if I had binoculars. That’s it, I need binoculars, I know there’s a pair in the special box that Ma keeps by her bed but they were my dad’s and she’d give me one hell of a slap if I took them and she found out, but think how closely I could see Alice then. I bet that food tastes good and the fire’s going too, the orange flames are spitting and giving her kitchen a cosy look and making the shadows out here even darker. It will be warm inside and Ma will have tea on by now but the problem is once I go in I won’t be going out again tonight, that’s for sure.
‘Don’t start, Maggie. I fancied a walk.’
‘Dennis! Look how wet you are, what were you thinking I’ve told you before…’ and she keeps talking something about buses and colds and muddy footsteps but I ain’t listening, told her before I ain’t gonna listen when she talks to me like that so a nice warm cup of tea it is. I’ve been thinking of that cup of tea all the way home so I’m gonna walk straight past her into the kitchen and make myself one. Time was when I’d get in and she’d stick the kettle on second she heard the door, but she stopped doing that around about the same time she started talking to me like an old cripple. I ain’t gonna have it.
‘Dennis! You just walked past me like you didn’t see me!’ Kettle on, mug out the cupboard, where’s she gone and put those teabags now? I swear she’s hiding them from me, why move teabags from cupboard to cupboard? Bet she’s trying to convince me I’m mad as well as everything else now well I’m not and I’ll show her, she might be younger than me but my mind is saner than hers and I know that for a fact.
‘Dennis! Why won’t you listen to a word I say?’ There’s the damn teabags, hidden in some tin now, are they.
‘You know what, I give up. I’ve had enough, and I mean it this time.’ Kettles boiled, door slams, and silence. Finally.
The calm is unnerving. The clouds are still, they’ve paused in their tracks in shapes and forms that look like dragons chasing squashed figures and my feet are silent upon the street; even the breeze cooling my neck blows with an unusual reserve. The quiet appears new to me yet I can’t remember a different time. Somewhere in the back of my mind is a noise, an anguish, been there for a long time now but I am trapped by the feeling and cannot relate them to any event. Maybe that’s because there was no event, I’m walking the same street I always do, I’m going to go and get a coffee from the little red cafe on the corner, sit by the window and watch nothing pass outside like I do every day. I wonder if Margaret will be there, she’s been there three days this week, if she’s there I hope she speaks to me again and I hope I don’t stutter this time. She’s so young, and beautiful, and she reminds me of someone. I thought of the name Alice when I first saw her, couldn’t tell you why, though. I hope she doesn’t notice the grey stubble in my shaven beard that caught my attention with a blow when I looked in the mirror this morning. When she spoke to me she talked to my eyes, didn’t look once at the scar or my old clothes and I think I really like her. What’s she going to want with me though? Mustn’t get carried away with myself, she’s fifteen years my junior at least and so beautiful but there was something in the way she looked, I knew it somewhere despite the noise and anguish which I wish would shift; even when she asked my name there was an anxiety and I was ashamed to realise I didn’t know, gave her an answer that I’m not sure of myself; a name came from somewhere, Michael Bernard Denning I said but the truth is I think I made it up. January fourteenth 1947 reads the date on the Daily Herald where not a single newspaper on the stand moves in the breeze, yet I feel like every day is January fourteenth 1947. There never was another time.
‘Let me out, ma!’
He’s at it again. Eyes fixed on the patio door, hands gripped to the arm- chair rests, shirt buttons straining over his belly as his breathing quickens. I’ve not seen him blink in the last few minutes, I don’t know what he’s staring at but I know it’s not our garden. The lovely garden with its tomato plants and the little pond he dug, this living room with the patterned Oriental rug that my daughter Alice brought us as a gift from India, our two bedroom, semi-detached, red brick house paid for by my inheritance and his savings, none of it is really ours. It’s mine, but these days he sees nothing but his past. He looks straight past the furniture we chose together, the gold carriage clock I gave him for our anniversary, the photographs of us, my late parents, my two daughters and son and my seven grandchildren; he has no photographs, when I asked why he shrugged and said ‘where’s the need? I don’t need a picture to remember.’ He looks straight past me, he walks less and less through the rooms that I had re- painted and wallpapered in what I see now was a vain attempt to create something that’s ours, and now he rarely moves from that chair. The chair was one of the few things he brought with him when we moved here. The horrible, faded pink, shallow armchair that’s got to be at least twenty years old. It was the day that he turned the armchair from the fireplace to face the window that I knew I’d lost him.
‘There ain’t gonna be any more bombs today, ma, now let me outside!’
I can’t listen any longer. I move towards him with two mugs of tea in my hands. Whether he’s happy with the two sugars I’ve given him today or not I’ll have to wait and see. Some days he likes one sugar in his tea, sometimes two with no milk, sometimes milk and no sugar, sometimes no milk or sugar at all. It’s a small thing but it can be the hardest part, everyone should know how their partner takes their tea, but then I don’t have only one partner; I have three or four. He doesn’t know who he is any more. I put the tea on the mantelpiece and place my hand on his shoulder. ‘Francis, I’ve made you some tea, love.’ It takes a while but eventually he turns to me, slowly, then he smiles. His large, grey eyes are clear, his smile creases his old face further but it’s him, I think, it’s Francis’ smile. I will him to speak.
‘Margaret, you’re looking lovely. I was hoping you’d show.’ He says, finally. The sharp pang never gets easier. ‘How are you today, my darling?’
I rub his shoulder, keep a straight face. An expression I’ve practised. ‘No love, it’s Milly. Remember?’
‘You do look lovely, Margaret.’ His hand reaches towards mine. The fingers that rest on my knuckles are warm, and chubby, and I remind myself that it is still him, the same fingers I’ve held many times. Margaret. His ex-wife. They divorced ten years ago for a reason that I’ve never known. My husband died, nearly fifty years we were married. Then I met Francis in a little coffee shop just outside town, and that was it. I’ll not leave him, no matter how hard it gets.
‘It’s Milly, Francis. Please try, love.’
His eyes shrink as he glances down. He looks away, removes his hand. ‘Francis?’ he mutters, ‘no, no.’ Some days he’s Dennis, others he’s Bernie. He’s even been Michael once or twice. He increasingly knows me as Margaret, I’m rarely Milly to him. Time is the enemy, he gets worse as the days roll by, and I yearn for time to stop, just for a little while. Alice called round the other week and Francis insisted that wasn’t her name; Alice was dead, died in the war, he said, ‘who are you claiming to be my Alice?’
Francis settles back in the chair and looks again towards the window. ‘Looks like rain,’ he says. His thinning hair points in all directions, curls at his ears. I’ll need to trim it for him later.