By S.D. BROWN.
I AM AN old man growing older. I am 103 years old soon to be 104, all being well. How it unfolds. I have been married four times. Two of my wives died, god bless them, and one of them divorced me. The end of that marriage was a while coming but looked something like this.
We were sitting at the breakfast table and my third wife looked across at me.
‘You scrawny little squirrel,’ she suddenly announced. I looked at her blankly for a moment pushing the word squirrel this way and that trying to make sense of it.
‘That’s right,’ she said, ‘you heard me,’ and then, pausing for effect it seemed, she added, ‘I want a divorce. I want to get out of here and away from you and this life forever!’ She stood up and left the room slamming the door behind her. Moments later she opened the door just enough to poke her head through and shouted, ‘And let me tell you this, you’re a lousy artist too, bloody lousy and no mistake!’ She slammed the door again.
I leaned over and took a piece of toast off of her plate and began to eat it with a quiet determination. If we were, as seemed likely, to be dividing our assets in the very near future, this seemed as good a place as any to start.
As for my fourth wife, sadly I have no idea where she might be or what happened to her. It’s many years ago now of course. She was displaying the beginnings of dementia. We both knew but neither of us chose to mention it. There was a corner of our life where we stacked items to either gather dust or to decay with neglect. This was just such an item for just such a corner. Her decline had been slow but relentless and she relied on me to take the lead in most everyday comings and goings. I was always happy to do so.
At the time of her disappearance we were at the coast taking a short break. We were on the beach. I was watching the light dance and swirl against the advancing waves. I was squinting, shielding my eyes with my hand not really aware of her for the moment. I was holding my sketchbook in my other hand. I don’t know how, but I suddenly found myself in the midst of an argument with her. She was shouting and gesticulating. There were tears in her eyes. Try as I might I can not remember what the argument was about or how it started. I can recall a lady sitting in a deckchair with a scarf around her head looking at us and the sound of the seagulls squawking overhead. I can even bring to mind how the light played with the colours and shadows of the sea as it crashed against the shingled beach, but the origin of the argument and the argument itself remain a mystery.
She turned and began to trudge over the pebbles towards the promenade. I watched her go. I should have hurried after her but neglected to do so. A moment’s release of the grip of care that had hither to held firm. It haunts me still. Then suddenly galvanised I moved swiftly onto the promenade searching for her among the throng of holidaymakers who were drifting aimlessly this way and that. I thought that I caught sight of her and quickened my step. The smell of hotdogs and candy floss crowded the air, the seagulls flapping and swooping the heat of the day pressing hard against me. Again I thought I saw her and then she was gone swallowed up by those around her. I made my way to the hotel, breathless and drenched in sweat. The lobby was empty. I went up the stairs two steps at a time and reached our room searching for air and desperately afraid. The door was locked, but then it had to be as she had no key. I opened it to see if she had asked to be let in, if somehow she had miraculously got inside the locked door. The room was empty, the curtains were half drawn, sunlight stretching across the bare floor. There was silence.
ALL THAT COULD be done was done. The police were involved, posters, bulletins, I even made an appearance on the local news appealing for help. But no, she was gone, spirited away somehow never to be fathomed, never to be found. And now I sometimes dream that it was me who went to the wrong hotel and it is she who is sitting on the bed in our hotel, swinging her legs and straightening the creases from her dress. Waiting for me to take her hand and lead her though the maze that was our life together. She would be 92 were she still alive, but I have no faith in that now. How it unfolds.
So here I am. I had two children by my third wife, the one with whom I shared toast in her absence. Bernard and Mavis. I think their names tell their own story. My preferred choice of name for Bernard was Pablo, after the genius Picasso, and Mavis I wanted to call Frida, after the great Mexican artist Kahlo de Rivera. ‘If you really have settled on the name Frida,’ my wife said, ‘you better get a dog.’ So it was they were named in her image. Neither of them, much to my anguish then, seemed to have an artistic bone in their body. They took to calling me ‘the dauber’ behind my back and latterly to my face. Bernard became a travelling salesman, more travelling than selling as far as I could tell. Eventually after drifting here and there he emigrated to Australia. I think of him now sitting on a veranda in Alice Springs or wherever, drinking, what I believe is affectionately called a tinny, watching the sun burn a hole in the horizon. If I were sitting next to him, I would say this to him. ‘I’m sorry Bernard, I got so much of it all wrong, forgive me,’ and Bernard, true to form, would say nothing and just sip from his tin of lager in a slow steady fashion. When there is no way back there is no first step of a journey that can be usefully taken.
Mavis was a sweet child who grew, by degrees, to become pinched faced and sullen. She seemed to ask so much of life but gave so little in exchange, curled up, as she was, in the shadow of her mother. She craved money and chased men whom she thought could be the source. She was built for the task, having strong calves and a willingness to go the distance. I know I was an embarrassment to her, she would rather I was a bank manager or solicitor, or even a plumber than an artist, a mere painter, a dauber. She was never prepared to visit my studio and found the smell of turpentine offensive. My wife took her side in the small skirmishes that often find their way into family life and there was less and less contact between us over the years. She left home whilst I was holding a retrospective in Cardiff. My wife had refused to come. ‘I’ve seen it all before,’ she said. I patiently explained that that was the nature of a retrospective and that painting something new for it may seem counter-productive. On my return my wife was not ready to say where Mavis had gone but clearly a man had been in tow, with the implication being, that I was to blame for her leaving. As Picasso said in a different context, ‘Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.’ If I could be with Mavis now what would I say? No doubt a regretful acknowledgement of my failings as a father would flounder at the first attempt. If I could hold her I would, just one more time with a tenderness only a father can gather. I’ve said as much on many occasions to Mrs Greystone. I know she understands. She listens. She’s a good listener. I welcome that.
I had always thought regret was a wasted emotion but not so these days. I now see regret as an expressive act that leads to reflection, which in turn can refresh and renew. There is not a day that passes I do not think of my children, as they were and how they might be now; when I do not think of my lost wife, of our life together and how it may have spun out. A day in which I do not regret, do not reflect. Who knows, I may be a grandfather or even a great-grandfather? There maybe part of my life unfolding elsewhere in other lives. The one thing I have learnt over my many years is how to really care. If I am asked how I have lived so long, I say it is because I have learnt to care for statistical lives as much as identified lives, imagined lives as much as real lives. And too, added to that, that I don’t hanker for anything in this life anymore. ‘A long hanker will get you every time,’ I tell those who ask with a smile. But then I do hanker after one thing, just the one.
I live in a home for old people. It’s called Meadow Pear Hall. The ‘r’ has slipped on the sign outside so it is affectionately known as Pea Hall by the residents. The home was once a public boarding school, so it already harbours the smells of pee and polish, now add the sting of bleach to the fricassee and the ambience of the place is established. The residents are a varied group of self-professed geriatric has-beens, near-beens and could-have-beens. They have lived a life for themselves, or others, and now merely jostle for position on the final sweep through. Each day may hold flecks of joy, moments of humour and sparks of apprehension too, to puncture their weary existence, and yes, although superficially communal there can be a sense of loneliness and a bleakness that goes unsaid. But then I am fortunate, I have Mrs Greystone, my companion. I will happily chat and pass the time of day with other residents, but it is Mrs Greystone I confide in, share with. How it unfolds.
Routine is a feature of Pea Hall. Whether I thrive on it, or endure it, has not been confirmed either way; everything just seems to takes place and I take place within it. The morning starts with Sandra arriving in my room, after a polite if hurried knock, and my day begins.
‘How are we today Frank?’ She always asks in a jolly fashion.
‘We are fine,’ I reply, ‘or will be as soon as my legs kick in, if you excuse the pun.’ The pun goes unnoticed. My legs are the enemy. They have a mind of their own. Once up and moving they do all that one could reasonably ask of them, they just need a deal of rousing. Just over a year ago Sandra was in a school uniform, now she is a fully fledged Geriatric Support Assistant. She’s not a big girl, but she is, what my third wife would call rather disapprovingly, from ‘farm stock.’ I’ve no complaints. She has a ready smile, if a little over enthusiastic at times.
‘So Frank, are we able to wash ourselves this morning or would you like a hand?’ The idea of the young floozy approaching with a wet flannel at seven in the morning seems to galvanise my legs into action.
‘No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine,’ I say, and I throw back the covers and gingerly swing out my legs.
‘I’ll be back to lend a hand with the buttons and stuff if it helps. I’m just going to wake Mrs Downton. Won’t be a mo.’ She draws the curtains and leaves the room.The light floods in. It is bliss. I go to the window and gaze out at the view and breathe it in. There is so much green so much variety, so much shape, texture, and light in one space, framed by one small window.
PICASSO SAID HE would go for a walk in the forest of Fontainebleau and get green indigestion, and would then have to get rid of the sensation into a picture. I know that feeling. I have lived that feeling. I know what it is to ingest everything around you and feel the compulsion to spill it out onto canvas. I still paint and draw nearly every day. I’m not permitted to use oils in my room so I concentrate on watercolours and sketches these days. I draw so much now. If I had drawn more and married less when I was younger, who knows what I might have achieved? In my middle period, when I was at my best, when I had a sense of control and a vision, when every brush stroke carried meaning and informed the next stroke, I was on fire. I literally burnt into the canvas. I was living with my second wife. She was a painter too. An exquisite abstract painter, both bold and delicate in her execution. We lived for our art, our shared experience of the creative urge to produce, to make new. They were heady days. An exhibition of mine at the time was particularly well-received. The review from The Herald was glowing. It likened my paintings, ‘at their best,’ of course, to have successfully incorporated not only Sickert’s abrasive, impressionism-influenced scenes but also the more finely considered, and meticulous approach, of Spencer’s early work. My work was seen as creating a vision that was both reminiscent, yet distinct in voice. I was ecstatic. We were ecstatic. To have been linked to both Sickert and Spencer, however misplaced, was joyous. It was a high watermark though. A fortnight later my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was twenty-nine. I raged at the cosmos. The cosmos stood its ground.
Sandra returns and bustles into the room.
‘Oh, well done, Frank, we’re dressed.’
‘It’s a knack.’ I tell her.
‘Well, shall we go down to breakfast then?’
She takes my arm and leads me to the top of a small flight of stairs. I stop for a moment and stare at how the sunlight falls through the stained-glass window at the top of the stairs.
‘You all right Frank?’
‘Just looking at how the light falls against that panelled wall. How it dances and shimmers.’ Sandra screws up her face and stares.
‘I chose to drop Art for Home Economics yer know.’
‘That’ll be it then.’ I say with a sigh.
‘Do you want to use the lift or take the stairs?’
‘Stairs is fine.’
‘I’ll walk in front. Hold on to the rail.’
I walk behind her down the stairs. I watch her bottom move this way and that. ‘You’re not dead yet Frank,’ I say to myself.
THE RESIDENTS ARE slowly making their way into the dining room. They like to be up early so they can be ‘in the know’ should anyone have failed to survive the night. Even those who are hard of hearing seem to be able to hear an ambulance siren two miles away! Bill Williams says he is keeping a book on who will be the next to go. ‘You can get good odds on yourself pegging it, given your age Frank,’ he says with a wink. I thank him for his exuberant, if misplaced, concern. I see Mrs Greystone. She is waiting by the door as usual. I give her a cheery wave as I approach. She returns the wave and smiles. There are tables for twos and fours. We sit at a table for two by the window. I ask her how she has slept. She raises her eyebrows. Who sleeps well these days? The waitress comes to our table.
‘How are we this morning?’ she asks. I reply that I’m fine. Mrs Greystone says nothing.
‘Well, what are we having today?’
‘A pot of tea for two for a start,’ I say.
‘Thirsty as ever Frank?’ the waitress asks. ‘And what else?’
‘I’ll have a couple of poached eggs on toast.’ I say. Mrs Greystone raises her hand.
‘Nothing for Mrs Greystone at the moment.’
‘Nothing for Mrs Greystone,’ she repeats. ‘That’s ok Frank if you say so.’ I look across at Mrs Greystone. I reach for her hand but she moves it off of the table onto her lap. When the tea is brought I pour our tea.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘I’m going to speak to the Manager again today, and I’m not going to take no for an answer. There are double rooms going begging and I see no reason why we shouldn’t be together if that’s what we want. It is what you want isn’t it?’ She lowers her eyes. I know it’s what she wants, but our hopes have been dashed before.
‘It will be different this time. You’ll see.’ I offer a weak but reassuring smile. I hate to see her upset. Just then Mrs Wallis walks by leaning heavily on the arm of a support assistant. She suddenly turns to me.
‘I was a real looker in the war you know,’
‘Ok Betty, come on now. Let Frank have his breakfast,’ says the support worker.
‘I’m sure you were Mrs Wallis. I don’t doubt it for a moment.’ I reply.
They walk on. I see Mrs Greystone smile. I know what she is thinking. They were all lookers in the blackout. The tense mood is broken and we spend breakfast in quiet companionship, with me chatting about things from time to time and seeking for her smile to brighten my morning.
AFTER BREAKFAST, I make my way to the Manager’s office with as brisk and determined step as my legs would allow. There are two lights above the office door, red and green, there to show, or not, the Manager is engaged. The light shows red. I sit and wait. I am committed to waiting, no matter how long, as I have made a promise to Mrs Greystone to sort things out. Eventually the light turns green and the visitor is at the door saying her goodbyes. I take my chance. As she leaves, I step into the office. The Manager looks up at me.
‘No Frank,’ she says, ‘not now, I’m very busy as you can see,’ indicating the many papers strewn across her desk.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, ‘but this won’t wait, I must speak to you as a matter of urgency.’
‘Frank, we’ve been here before. I’ve told you can not just walk into my office willy-nilly.’
‘Madam,’ I say, drawing myself up to my full five and a half foot of stature; no ‘scrawny little squirrel’ here, I think to myself. ‘Madam,’ I say, ‘let me say this. There will be precious little nilly involved in this morning’s encounter, and out of respect for Mrs Greystone, a total absence of, as you put it, willy. What I wish, we wish, no demand, is that we are permitted to share a room with the person we love. To share our lives, or what remains of them. To be together so we can share the intimacy of saying goodnight and good morning to each other in our own room and in our own way…’
‘Frank,’ she said, trying to interrupt me.
‘No,’ I say, ‘let me finish. I have lost too many loves in my life, far too many. One may still wander god’s good earth for all I know, but I shall not lose another. No indeed I shall not. I just can’t understand your reluctance to help, your unwillingness to support us, damn it! Mrs Greystone is in complete agreement. These are our wishes. I know there are rooms available for couples….’
‘Frank.’ Her voice was more conciliatory, almost tender. ‘Frank, sit down Frank. Please.’ She says quietly.
‘I will not sit. We demand that we move into together before the end of the week.’
‘Frank. Frank you know we have been here before. I do understand, I really do, I want what is best for you but, that said, both you and I know that Mrs Greystone is..’ The phone rings. The Manager reaches for it immediately. She listens intently for a moment. She nods her head and puts her hand up to me to prevent any attempt at interruption.
‘Has she been given her meds?’ She asks. ‘Has the ambulance been called? ‘ and then, ‘Who is with her? I’m coming now.’ She puts the phone down. ‘I have an emergency Frank. I must go. I’m sorry.’ She reaches the door and turns. ‘This can’t go on Frank, it really can’t. You know my thoughts.’
SHE TURNS AND leaves the room. I sit for a moment in the quiet of her office. The light from a high window, like a blown mist, settles on her scattered papers. I make my way to the door and step into the corridor. Mrs Greystone is waiting by the stairs. I look towards her and shake my head. She makes her way to her room. I stand for a moment unsure of my next move, unsure if my legs will carry me in any direction.
LET ME SAY what I have come to know that makes our relationship so special; it is that I can talk to her about anything, not just the mundane day to day, not just the Pea Hall chitter-chatter, or repeated conversations and shared knitting patterns, or football scores. I can talk art to her. I can talk about the sensation of painting and great painters and paintings. She listens carefully. She is not an artist herself, but she clearly understands what has driven me over the years. She grasps what I have been trying to achieve with my painting, with my life. I have spoken occasionally of the review and my tenuous link to Spencer. I have discussed, many times, his painting known as the Leg of Mutton, the nude study of Spencer and his second wife. Mrs Greystone is not narrow-minded by any means. She appreciates the sexually charged nature of the painting. She is not abashed at the fact that Spencer’s second wife was a lesbian, and in a sexual relationship when they married, and that their union was never, couldn’t be, consummated. She understands a love that is not consummated, and that it is no less real, no less sustaining because of that. We deserve to be together; will be together, I am convinced of that.
ON MOST AFTERNOONS, Mrs Greystone will join me. We walk down to the river that runs through the far end of the grounds. I take my sketch pad with me. We sit on the bench and feel that we are a million miles away from the dull pulse of Pea Hall. We also venture to the rear of the building to enjoy the aspect from there. The landscape is more rugged with rocky crags and sunken chambers. We like its bleakness and the sense of brooding. We sit and let our eyes follow the line of the brow into a large hollow that runs, as a small valley, between the sides of the rocky terrain, which itself seems to rise like steep turrets. Given the events of today, I gather Mrs Greystone will not be joining me, so I make my way to the rear of Pea Hall to sketch. After a while, Cyril, who appears to be wandering aimlessly, comes and sits at the far end of the bench.
‘What are you drawing?’ He asks
‘I’m trying to follow that line there,’ I say pointing, ‘following it into that hollow to capture how it emerges.’ He says nothing. And then.
‘Can you smell manure?’ He is holding his fingers to his nose.
‘Maybe you need to wash your hands Cyril.’
‘What are you drawing?’ He asks
‘Just drawing that bit over there.’ I say with a sigh. We sit in silence for a while.
‘Can you smell manure?’ He asks again.
‘It’s your hands Cyril.’
‘What are you drawing?’
‘I’m going in. I’m getting cold.’ I say. I gather my bits and pieces and begin the walk back into Pea Hall. Over my shoulder I hear Cyril enquire whether I can smell manure.
INSIDE I SEE a small group of female residents chatting by the stairs. I watch them for a moment. Mrs Greystone is with them. She is listening to the chatter. The group then go their separate ways leaving Mrs Greystone alone. I try to catch her eye but she walks away down the corridor. I make my way to my room.
ONCE IN BED, I mull over the day. My legs are already asleep and I plan to join them at the earliest opportunity. I wonder what Home Economics actually is? I decide to ask Mrs Bates, who I think was a Deputy Headteacher. I will try and finish my sketch from the back of the building tomorrow, if Cyril is not on the prowl. And I will tackle the Manager about a room for a couple, and really pin her down this time. And best of all of course, in the morning I will have breakfast with Mrs Greystone. How it unfolds.
S.D.Brown is a writer of fiction, including short stories, novellas, and poetry. He has previously had work published in Acclaim and Platform for Prose.