This Old Man


Jacqueline Grima

Email: jgrima@sky.com


It was when they resurfaced Chester Road that they took away the bus shelter.  It had been vandalised too many times, the glass smashed, the red paint daubed with black-inked obscenities and there wasn’t enough money, the council said, to keep refurbishing it.  So, in its place, a pole appeared with a timetable attached.  This caused outrage amongst the local pensioners, many of whom, myself included, relied on the shelter for their winter trips to town.  I added my name to the petition for its return.  Yet it wasn’t my shopping at the forefront of my mind.  I had another reason for the twist in my heart every time I rounded the corner and noted that it had gone.  It was under that shelter that I first spoke to you.

            I had been waiting for the number 27 to take me into town to get a birthday present for Mam.  A trip to town was a bit of an adventure then, a special occasion that required a good frock and my Christmas shoes, pinching at my toes.  The lack of an umbrella on an unexpectedly wet day had meant I had run all the way from the house, arriving at the bus stop flushed and out of breath with my fringe stuck to my forehead.  How silly I must have looked, like a little girl.

            You were there and, as I tried to catch my breath, you smiled at me, a lazy smile that reached your eyes.  I looked at the ground, trying to straighten my damp hair.  I remembered you.  You had come to our house once, about a year before, to help Dad mend the roof.  It had been raining then too and my bedroom ceiling had leaked.  You often come into my mind now when it rains.

            You didn’t speak to me at the house, had hardly noticed me at all it seemed, but, at the bus-stop, you did and I blushed.  You seemed not to notice that I could hardly speak but my shyness crippled me then.  After all, I was only fifteen and you were married.

            The bus seemed to take an age.  You remarked on the weather and asked after the roof and asked me did I know that the war had ended.  I remembered Dad saying you hadn’t fought in the war because you were some kind of objector.

            The bus came and I got on, praying you would not feel obliged to sit next to me.  You answered my prayer, not for the last time, and let me go in front of you, smiling your goodbye as you walked to the back of the bus while I sat up front.

            The next time I saw you, I was dry and you were with your wife.  As I left the bakers, a fresh bloomer for Mam clutched in my hands, you were coming in and we almost collided.  A smile of recognition touched your lips as your wife, ignoring me, approached the counter.  At the bus-stop I had kept a distance of six feet or so between us.  At the house I hadn’t even been that near.  Now I could smell you.  I could see the blue of your eyes, the slight stubble on your top lip, the sprinkling of grey that littered your sideburns.  When you winked at me it made my tummy hurt.  I looked away.  I hurried out, my head ducked.

            When I saw you again, I felt like your best friend.  The day was warm, the heat sticking my blouse to my skin and, walking the longest route to the shop, I passed you, digging your garden, your shirtsleeves rolled to your elbows and sweat patches darkening your underarms.

            You stopped digging, picked up a can of beer from the path and, after sipping from it, offered it to me.  My reply, a deep-rooted blush and a dumb shake of the head, once again seemed to go unnoticed by you.  Dad would’ve belted me if I’d drunk beer.  Not to mention what he would’ve done to you for offering it. 

            It was about a year later that your wife died.  I’d known she was expecting because I had seen her about town with a swollen belly.  There were ‘complications’, Mam said, and the baby was lost too.  Before it happened Mam had knitted a matinee jacket and matching bootees, the same pattern she used for everybody.  I hid one of the bootees in the shed.  Mam found it and blamed the dog.

            Half the village turned out for the funeral.  Your wife had been young and pretty and worked for the WVS.  She had never had so much as a smile for me.  I sat at the back of the church between Mam in her funeral frock and Dad in his Sunday suit and tried to catch your eye.  I wanted you to know that I was there, supporting you.  You didn’t look at me.

            It was six months after that that you made me pregnant.  I had started to bunk off school because you were lonely, you said, and needed company.  You showed me the best way to comfort you.  My body began to change and I knew it wasn’t right.  One night I sat at the top of the stairs and listened to Mam cry and Dad shout.  I went to my room but Dad threw open the door and punched me full in the belly.  That was when I started to bleed, more blood than I’d ever seen.  Mam cleaned me up and put me to bed.  I thought it would have been a boy and, in my head, I called him William.

            I never knew if Dad worked out it was you or if you just left the village anyway.  All I knew was that you didn’t say goodbye.  I cried a lot at first.  Mam thought I was crying over the baby and told me I would get over it, that I should pull myself together, people had been through worse.  She didn’t look at me as she spoke.

            At nineteen I got married.  It was a quick courtship and Mam and Dad liked Jimmy well enough.  He was from the other side of the village, a hard worker who had been at the colliery since he left school at fourteen.  There were no children but we didn’t mourn what we didn’t have.

            Jimmy’s lungs gave up when he was forty-five as did those of many others who had worked down the pit most of their lives.  His pension was good, which meant a quiet life for me without financial hardship.

            When you came back to the village, I heard you had come back to die.  You moved into a house not far from mine and were infrequently visited by a daughter from your second marriage whose mother’s whereabouts I did not know and did not ask about.  You were pale and thin and not as handsome as I remembered.  Your face had shrivelled somehow.

            Again I began to keep you company.  The occasional visit at first, with the odd bag of groceries, a newspaper which I would read aloud.  Then, as your health worsened, I came to you daily, feeding you, dressing you, the mother I never was.  Eventually, when you could stand it no more, I put a pillow over your face and helped you die.

            Your funeral was quiet.  Your daughter, me, a handful of villagers who knew you from old.  I wore my funeral frock and Christmas shoes and, now, the only time I see you is if I catch the number 27 to the crem.  I hardly use the bus any more.  With the shelter gone, the rain is almost too hard to bear.


©2011 Jacqueline Grima

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