It’s a bloody miserable day, pissing down, summers were never like this when I was younger. The thing is, at eighty four, you dare not go out in the rain unless you want to risk some fatal influenza type ailment. This is when Swallow House is at its worst. These dreadful inmates are the only alternative to staying in my rooms. I could of course go to painting lessons with those half-witted old biddies, God forbid! I stamp about, debating whether to knock on Geoff’s door but I have a feeling he’ll be pouring over his particle physics journals.
I had a letter from David, they are all well and he will come and see me next week when he comes to London on business. I want to see him of course but I know the trip down here will be a hassle for him. Sometimes I think it would be better if I were dead, and then he can get on with his life without worrying about me all the time. I never used to think like this till I fell down the bloody stairs. I cannot escape the fact that I am an old idiot who really brings little to the world. It is hard to remember that I am one of the lucky ones. I’m rich and warm and looked after, I have my hearing, my sight and I’m in pretty good shape despite my arthritis and of course my shitty leg. My memory plays tricks but it’s still pretty good. At least, I think so.
University was a complete failure for me, all the other students had come straight from school, I was strangely advanced from my fellow students, ten months in the army had made such a difference. I suffered from acute sexual deprivation, after the ministrations of Nurse Anna I just couldn’t think of anything else. Sex, was my obsession. My studies were came a distant second, in lectures I scanned the halls for attractive girls in the hope that I could create a carnal liaison. I succeeded more than once, but those affairs were, as far as I remember, rather unsatisfactory because the young women fell so far short of Nurse Anna and her undoubted skills. At the end of my first year I was advised either to leave the College or possibly take another subject, following a catastrophic failure in my first year exams.
I am confused now, but thinking back I was confused then too. I was becoming a serial failure, first the army, now University. I felt ashamed of myself and felt I’d let Mum and Walter down.
“Mum, I think I’m going to get a job.” The summer winds blew the apple blossoms gently against the conservatory windows. The kitchen was Mum’s palace, spick and span. Stone flags on the floor, the cast iron stove, the brand new washing machine with its twin tubs. It was as modern as any kitchen in 1952.
“Don’t be silly you have to go back to college and get your degree.”
I clutched the letter of dismissal in my pocket, I had been waiting three weeks to break the news – I’d had the boot.
“Mum I’m not going back,…I failed my first years exams, it’s over…sorry.”
To be fair to Mum, she didn’t weep and wail as I expected, she just stopped peeling the potatoes, shrugged. In that shrug, I can see now, the disappointment, the sorrow and the love. In that almost unnoticeable twitch of her delicate frame my Mum swallowed her disappointment, reached down and made the decision to support this useless boy that was me. There was a moment of quiet and then she said,
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ve applied to Kitchco for a job as a salesman.”
“A salesman! I don’t think Walter will like that, let’s see if he can get you a job in his business. I’m sure he’ll find you something, he wants you there I know.”
“Mum, I’m not going to work for or with Walter, ….I think he’s a great guy, but I must make it on my own, no handouts, he’s already made you happy and both Jen and I think he’s worth his weight in gold, and he’s done so much for us, I’m sorry Mum but I have to make a go of it on my own.”
I hated the idea of becoming a salesman for plastic kitchen appliances, but there was something in me that wouldn’t fall back on dear old Walter. There followed several heated debates about my future, but I limped off to my interview with Louis Mills a rather jolly fellow, who thought that plastics were the future of the world. Mills also got it into his head that I was some sort of war hero. To my everlasting shame I did nothing to put him right. And so it was I acquired my second hand Ford 8 and for the next year careered around the West Country and Wales flogging plastic kitchen ware.
The Ford 8 was splendidly reliable, it cost sixty pounds and did not have a heater. I got a pal of mine to rig up a fan heater which plugged into the innards of the dashboard. I used to call the car ‘black beauty’ and I talked to ‘her’ all the time, urging her up the hills and down the valleys of Wales and Dartmoor.
It was 1952, the great exhibition was over, my sales of plastic bowls, whisks spoons et al had exceeded Kitchco’s expectations, and I was invited to take up a senior post in London where, I was informed, I could double my commission income practically overnight.
In the meantime Walter had bought me a bicycle, a sporty type with drop handlebars. It was a great and thoughtful gift because pushing pedals was about the only thing I could do with my gammy leg. The bike was my keep fit option for the next thirty years. God bless Walter.
Much to Kitchco’s disappointment I joined a company in Bristol, again in sales but this time in construction and engineering and I acquired a tiny flat just opposite the Cathedral Green. My new car was bright and new, I thought it was the bee’s knees. I still went regularly to the hospital and it was there that I met Margaret Davies. It wasn’t love at first sight or anything like that, true she was attractive, but I was unsure of myself, new job, new flat, new town. I thought nothing more about the pretty physiotherapist.
After my third physio session, there she was again, petit, efficient, and neat, she had dark hair, lovely green grey eyes. She remarked on how much stronger my leg had become.
“It’s my bike, I cycle a lot now and that keeps my leg working.”
“Good boy,” she smiled down on me as she massaged the area at the bottom of my calf. “What else do you do then?”
“What do mean, what else do I do?”
She smiled again, an impish grin that transformed her face into a round radiant sun. It was then that I was dazzled.
I summed up the courage and invited her to supper in a rather posh place in Clifton. It was an old fashioned date and the beginning of my growing up as far as the opposite sex was concerned. And so our great romance grew, I fell in love, never to fall out of it whilst my lovely Margaret walked the earth.
We married the spring of 1954, and bought our first house for one thousand two hundred and fifty pounds. Margaret’s mum and dad and Walter supported us through those years when a Television was a luxury and fridge/freezers an American dream.
Margaret taught me love. She taught me to care like I’d never cared before, she taught me patience, and she taught what a home is. We were blissfully happy, we did everything together, we cycled, we went to the pub, we watched the local rugby team, we made lots of lovely friends. I hated it when I had to go away on business, and I just adored coming home.
After two years we tried to start a family, we tried and tried and much fun it was. A year then two passed, still no baby. Margaret as ever took it in her stride, “plenty of time” she said, “after all we’re having fun.”
And have fun we did, whilst at the same time I was getting on well in my career. Promotions came, my responsibilities grew and all the time Margaret encouraged me not to worry about her but to enjoy my work.
The clock though was ticking, six years had passed since we married, and it was my Mum who was the first outsider to ask about the prospects of a family. Time had flown, Margaret was now the supervisory Physio at the hospital and I was in charge of major contracts for my firm. The baby had somehow become an illusion for me though Margaret never stopped referring to “maybe tonight” whenever we had sex.
We were reluctant, but following Mum’s prod, we started thinking hard and trying our best to get my beautiful wife pregnant. We started by planning intercourse to coincide with dates in Margaret’s cycle, this went on for another year, still no luck. From then on we began to try to organise health examinations, sperm counts, x-rays, and another two years passed. Margaret now carried with her every moment the haunted look of a mother perhaps not to be.
On my thirtieth birthday I was invited to join the board of the company and also to buy shares, since we needed working capital for a very big contract for the Middle East. They were exciting times, busy, frenetic and demanding but the business prospects looked good. Within a year however the whole pack of cards collapsed. I was out of work with a huge mortgage and Margaret devoted all her energies to keeping my morale up as I desperately searched for a new job.
There were nights when we cried together, afraid of what tomorrow might bring. Margaret cried for the baby she seemed fated not to have and once more I was haunted by failure.
I think looking back it was me that became depressed, I couldn’t afford Christmas presents and Margaret spent nights making things like chocolates and cakes which she wrapped to look as if they were from the poshest shop on the planet.
I sometimes believe that in some ways that time was the best Christmas we ever had. Despite the hard times we relied absolutely on each other, there was no one else, just us struggling, but happily together.
I’ve not had Christmas here yet, it has lost all its meaning now. David wants to fly me to his home in Atlanta but that seems a step too far. Any way my first concern is to be alive at Christmas, four months to go.
Another dreadful summer, is it me? Or are British summers always awful? The sky is dull and a fine drizzle falls. Maybe I’ll go out to lunch, if Geoff will come.
Sometimes I go back to my old home village, but the taxi ride is long and tortuous and I’ve already noted that everyone has moved on, it’s getting on for a year since I fell, there are a few friends but they are getting on with their lives, I feel as if I’m an intruder, my old friends are just that; old! They’re busy looking after themselves, they’ve all got dogs which they treat as child substitutes and I’m bound to say they aggravate me. When Johanna was alive she was a positive dynamo and organised all sorts of things from W.I. stalls, village fetes and I don’t know what else. The local Pub which was the epicentre of our lives but has recently changed hands with brutal rapidity and the new people are, as far as I’m concerned, from an alien planet.
On my last visit, I Thought I’d go back and see one of my old pals, Harry Blake, I didn’t ring I just escaped Swallow House in my third week, it was only my second trip out.
Harry’s house was down the lane from Apple Tree Cottage which by the way was shrouded in scaffolding, the usual quiet shattered by the hammering of the philistine builders. The noise struck me like a bolt of pain. I marched with limping resolution to Harry’s house.
The door opened and Doris stood there, she was dressed in an overcoat, and obviously ready to go out. She looked at me as though I’d crawled from under a rock.
“Oh John, what a surprise, look I’m sorry but I’m just on my way to the hospital, Harry’s had a stroke,” she was already locking the door. She turned and without breaking step marched to her car, I limped alongside.
“Is Harry all right? I’m really sorry to hear this Doris, anything I can do?”
She stopped to get into her car, hesitated for a moment. “Look I’m really sorry but I have to go.” She strapped herself in started the engine, then as if in afterthought she wound down the window and called. “I’ll tell him you called.” Then she was gone.
Doris was never one I could warm to, even in the old days, she always behaved as if I was disreputable and Johanna was not altogether be trusted because; a) – she was beautiful and b) – she was a foreigner. I always thought Harry was hard done by. Doris always disapproved of our gents’ night out at the pub every Wednesday. We had a lot of fun and occasionally we drank too much, but we always walked home. Sometimes Harry would come home with me and have a coffee or a drop of scotch. Johanna, always the welcoming hostess, loved him and he always made a fuss of her. He was always fun, always keen to look on the good side. I think he secretly envied Apple Tree House and what a happy home it was.
On the bleak day of my ill planned visit I stood in the road, just empty and lonely. Disappointment shrouded me with a cool handed slap. ‘You can’t go back you old fool’, what are you thinking of?
Harry has since passed away, he was younger than me by a couple of years. I didn’t go to his funeral, I don’t like funerals, I don’t think I’ll have one. No, sod it, a complete waste of money, and I have a sneaking suspicion that no one would come to it anyway.
Before I moved to Apple Tree House, Margaret continued to work in the Hospital, the days passed slowly for her, the prospect of childlessness weighed heavily on her.
I was at work again and somehow fell on my feet and was able to resurrect some of my contacts of old. Things moneywise were beginning to settle down, we even payed the mortgage each month and had a few bucks over. Once again my job wrapped me up, and now looking back, I see that I didn’t focus on my lovely wife. I ignored the tired eyes, the slump in her figure, the loss of weight. As always, Margaret greeted me from my trips abroad, my late nights, and made me feel as though I was a hero, a man who was better than she deserved. Nothing, of course could have been further from the truth. I was nothing but an ambitious dim wit, who basked in success, who loved his job more than I loved my wife. I was so blind, I looked away from what was obvious. My darling girl, my beautiful Margaret was dying. Even when the chips were down, when she had to give up work, I still fooled myself that all would be well. Margaret would keep the home fires burning and I carried on from Qatar to Canada making a ‘successful’ fist of the business.
Then it all came crashing down, her pain could no longer be hidden, her courage could no longer mask her agony. The medics did their best, but looking back, it was an appalling amalgam of incompetence, heroism, courage and physical waste. Margaret died horribly, she died in searing pain where her shrieks of agony echoed around the so called rest or convalescent clinic. I remember the bleakness of that awful place, cancer was known but her case was hopeless. Pain killers were administered with a frugality of such meanness as to defy logic.
I held her, a bag of shattered bones, I hushed her as she screamed and I squeezed her with all the love I had. She died with a gasp that was both ghastly and welcome. That veil that had possessed her had at last been exorcised. I really wished to die with her. My life was in tatters. Emptiness had a new meaning. Margaret’s death had sucked the love from me, my core was empty and it hurt. I was thirty four, a limping old man on his way to an unwanted fortune.
Fifty years on, the August drizzle darkens another day, I pick up a book but I can’t concentrate. Is this what life has to offer? All this blood sweat and tears, for what? ‘Nothing’ is in the room, ‘nothing’, this loneliest companion, how I hate it.