The kite hung in the air, wings hunched, head down, its beak a dagger aimed for the plunge. Connie let her gaze linger, too numb to care about the potential peril of keeping her focus off the road. The stillness of the bird suspended above the streaming motorway seemed to hold some promise of comfort, if only she could think how to extract it. Her brain was jumpy from lack of sleep. Hour after hour, night after night, week after week, of self-interrogation. The pros. The cons. What to do. She had become her own torturer. But now there was the bird. Poised. A rusty glint on a grey canvas.
She dragged her eyes back to the windscreen. Two miles to the turning. One hour for the lunch. Two more for the journey home. Three hours and it would all be done with. Anyone else and she would have cancelled. Your other man, Jake liked to call Henry, during the days when he still cared enough to tease. He has no family of his own and I guess I remind him of Dad, Connie would counter, enjoying the ribbing, while inwardly marvelling herself at such commitment to someone fifty years older than her, someone with whom she had absolutely nothing in common beyond the fact that he had once taught her father Latin. It was only at the funeral that they had become acquainted, Henry pinning her into inane conversation over the throat-clogging canapés and never quite letting go.
The lunch, agreed upon so easily back in the carefree days of mid-summer, had been glowering from the empty landscape of Connie’s calendar all through the autumn. Her life might have imploded, but there it sat, huge and immoveable as a mountain. Henry, being Henry, had phoned that morning to check she was coming, his thunderous voice barking pleasantries and advising her to take care on the ring road. There had been a letter too, arriving earlier in the week, a plump pearl among the pagoda of junk mail on her doormat. Connie had lunged for it, wild, dumb hope flaring that it might be a missive from Jake. It had been an especially bad day, following on from an especially bad night. A day of vomiting and curtains drawn. Her mouth tasted like sour beer, beyond the salvation of solace or toothpaste. Recognising Henry’s spikey upright hand on the envelope, Connie’s spirits had plummeted to a new low. She had torn the flap open bitterly, managing to cut a finger, so that soon little dots of blood danced among Henry’s sentences:
He was looking forward to seeing her.
Greedy birds were wolfing crumbs from his back window sill.
The street tree had shed its petticoats of leaves in such drifts he could barely open his front door.
His sign-off was an illegible flourish. Beside it he had written: “There are tears for passing things” (Virgil).
Connie had screwed the letter into a missile and hurled it into the sea of other detritus carpeting the floor of her flat. Virgil. Good grief.
For a few miraculous moments Connie thought Henry wasn’t at home. It took effort to wait, to not focus on the ugly fuzz of her reflection in the opaque glass panels of the door. That so formless a creature had, until recently, earned money on stage in front of audiences seemed implausible. Laughable. She stole another glance and suddenly there was the old man, filling her image with his own, a great big blur approaching from the other side, arms outstretched, like some blind leviathan surfacing for air.
‘Hoorah!’ he shouted, fumbling to release the chains and locks designed to offer protection from the feral estate kids who liked to loiter, yelling obscenities and posting rubbish through the letterbox. He was in his green tweed jacket, faded almost yellow with age, its cuffs threadbare round his big liver-spotted hands. A white silk handkerchief dangled like an over-blown lily from the breast pocket, matching the one tied round his scrawny neck. ‘Welcome to my humble abode. Soup and curry await, courtesy of marvellous Morrisons and the wizardry of the microwave. Ah, the magic of modernity and alleluia for alliteration. How are you my dear, in need of sustenance, I hope?’
His height was always a shock. It made her think of a mighty tree, gnarled, and knotted, its limbs hanging loosely, ready to fall. There was a new slowness in the way he stooped to plant a kiss on her cheek – always one, never two – and a faint tremor in the finger that directed her attention to the coat hook behind the door. Across his nose and cheeks pale rough patches of dead skin had started running rampant, like lichen. We are all dying anyway, Connie told herself, hanging up her coat, it makes no difference when.
‘Follow me if you dare. For wine! And women! And song! Tra-la-la.’ He raised an arm and clicked his fingers before turning to edge back the way he had come, leaning all the way along the wall for support, his worn baggy cords billowing round his thin legs. ‘Allow me to rejoice in your company. Tiddly om pompom.’
There were rules for lunch. Ways of doing things. Protocol. Henry was fastidious. Jake always used to laugh when she told him about it. The kitchen was as small as cupboard; but Henry, as always, had laid its tiny Formica table with an old damask cloth, thin as muslin, two linen napkins, four glasses, two for water, two for wine, and an array of ancient silver cutlery, including a spoon for soup, and a separate one for dessert. In a chipped saucer a small cube of butter sported a miniature knife with a mother-of-pearl handle, its blade sheathed in the soft yellow pat like some tiny Excalibur challenging extraction.
‘Cut us some bread, my dear, and I shall cook.’
Connie sawed at a little brick of a white loaf while Henry slid things in and out of his microwave, pressing buttons and proclaiming in triumph at every ping. The table was soon crammed, full soup bowls on their place mats and a silver foil dish of yellow rice and curry wedged in between, floating under a halo of steam. ‘And now we dine,’ cried Henry, performing a matador swirl with his tea towel before sitting down.
‘Claret, my dear?’ He reached for the dusty half full bottle before she could answer. The happiness was coming off him in waves, a heat. A curl of his long grey hair had fallen across his forehead like a roguish question mark. ‘It warms the cockles and wears well, I find.’
Connie felt the knots in her stomach tighten as he poured. Claret was his favourite thing. A treasured treat, saved, she knew, to share with her. Under the lea of the tablecloth she entwined her fingers in her lap, holding on to herself. The air in the kitchen was icy – Henry could only afford a single electric heater which he kept by the armchair in his front room – yet her palms were damp and her scalp burned. Under her nose the soup heaved, a thick beige blanket, bulging with lumps. She had a sudden, tempting vision of diving along the narrow hallway into Henry’s little cubicle of a bathroom, hugging the toilet bowl like a lover as she flung every last drop of the contents of her stomach – her life – down its inviting snowy throat.
‘Just a drop, thanks Henry. I’m driving remember.’ She raised a hand, delivering the best rendition she could manage of a rueful smile.
‘Ah, yes. Quite right. Good girl. And tell me now, how’s that young beau of yours?’
Connie allowed her gaze to meet the old man’s, mustering a sudden calm. Lunching with Henry was a mountain and she was scaling it. On the wall above his head the hands of his wall clock were jerking onwards. It was just a question of hanging on. Stamina. Breathing. Like in the yoga classes she had once taken, a million years ago when life was good and made sense. ‘Jake? He’s fine. Busy directing a play in North London.’
As she spoke, an image floated into her mind, of Jake as she had found him two months before, lying on his side on top of their bed covers, one arm curled protectively round the waist of the youth whom she recognised as Luke Pargiter, the lead in his new play. They were both asleep, lithe and ivory limbed, two perfectly aligned brackets on a rumpled page. The sheets had been clean, changed by her that morning and for a split second this had affronted Connie more than the betrayal.
‘Though Jake’s not young, he’s forty.’ She threw the comment out as a conversational scrap - Henry needed feeding – but her mind hovered like the red kite over its target, still processing what it saw. She had returned to the flat because she had news. Such news. Joy had been thudding in her chest like a heartbeat as she bounded up the stairs.
She had shouted. She had wept. But even in the unravelling misery there had been no question in her mind of letting Jake go. It was a midlife crisis. Some natural exploration. Jake was beautiful, open, emotional. Who would not want to share his bed? Besides, how could you let go of the person who had found you? The person who had believed in you, who had made you. There had been such chasms of loss in her and Jake had filled them all. ‘I am your Other Half,’ he liked to say, ‘I complete you.’
But now it turned out that Luke completed him. Luke, whom she kept glimpsing through the window as they tore their life in two, sitting on the front garden wall, his honey hair on fire in the sun, jigging to something streaming through his headphones. Within an hour Jake was packed and gone. Ten years undone, in a finger-click.
Henry evidently found her remark amusing. ‘Forty!’ he chortled, blithely displaying the collapsing graveyard inside his mouth. ‘Nothing has truly happened by forty. Nothing! Which makes you, my dear, a whippersnapper. Whippersnapper, j’accuse!’ There was a sparkle in his rheumy blue eyes and rivulets of soup on his crusty chin. ‘How true that youth is wasted on the young!’ He whooped again, clapping his hands. ‘And now.’ He threw a pointed look at her full bowl. ‘Eat and talk. Tell me of your latest endeavours. Feed my hungry soul.’
‘There are no endeavours.’ Connie swirled her spoon, shovelling at the chunks. She could feel her small pool of energy ebbing away. Swallowing anything felt impossible. ‘It’s been quiet,’ she added, striving for a tone of firm dispassion, afraid of arousing the old man’s curiosity. Henry could be a terrier with a bone when he wanted, chivvying and insistent. It was the schoolmaster in him, she guessed, coupled with the peculiar disinhibition of old age. ‘Taking a bit of break. It has suited me fine.’
‘Resting, eh? That doesn’t mean not eating, does it?’ he persisted, wagging a chastising finger at her untouched soup. ‘It’s haddock, you know.’ He sounded hurt.
Connie cast a glance at the wall-clock for comfort as she forced the spoon to her lips. My throat is just a muscle, she told herself. It is mine to command. Like my life.
‘Pass it over here,’ Henry said gently. ‘I’ll polish it off. I know your bird appetite.’
The urge to weep was violent and almost worse than wanting to be sick. Connie sat back, gripping the sides of her chair, as he took her bowl. Why was he kind to her, this crumbling house of a man? What did he really know about anything? What did he really feel? To live so long should make you wise; but Henry never talked of big things, only small ones. If he had wisdom to offer on any sort of grand scale, she had seen no inkling of it.
Henry drank straight from her bowl, guzzling, chomping and grinning wolfishly. He then stacked it neatly into his and began dishing out hefty portions of the curry and rice onto fresh plates. ‘We plough the fields and splatter…’ he sang, as the food slopped and splashed like paint across the white china.
Connie’s eyes swung at the clock again. The hands were slowing. Her heart galloped. Maybe time would stop. Maybe she would be trapped, here at this rickety table, forever. Trapped with Henry, whose cramped, cold impoverished world contained nothing good that she could see, nothing worth celebrating, nothing worth loving, and yet into which the old man nonetheless threw himself with all the verve and gusto of a diver summersaulting off a top board.
She prayed he would tire soon, as he sometimes had in the past, his pale eye lids sliding up and down like faulty blinds and his words growing saggy, like wet knitting. He would fight it, as he always did, by singing one of his funny ditties or reciting a poem, or listing all the menial tasks he had lined up for the rest of the day – gardening, reading, cleaning, Henry was never still.
But there was no sign of fatigue in him yet. He had moved onto a favourite subject, the intricate structure of language and the mighty power of words to open avenues of thought. ‘Let the meaning find the word, that’s what the great George Orwell said; so much chaos stems from lazy or pompous obfuscation.’ Connie, who had once found such remarks interesting, taking them back to Jake like unexpected treasures, nodded absently. The curry was taking all her concentration. She was aware of each morsel tracking down into her belly, creating a new small heaviness to sit beside the other not-so-small one that she had wanted to tell Jake about that day. Sometimes, it seemed to throb as it grew. A ticking bomb.
‘Henry, I really have to go now.’ She found she was scraping back her chair, standing up, seizing her bag. They hadn’t even reached Henry’s favourite course – the cheese. Two blocks, one orange, one white, both chiselled by previous recent onslaughts, sat ready on a board next to a clutch of black grapes and an open packet of Jacobs Cream Crackers. The dessert would follow that. Walnut whip, probably. Henry loved a walnut whip. She was aware of him looking at her, astonished, disappointed. But her own need to be gone was like a shield to all onslaughts. Misery entitled you to selfishness.
‘The traffic – you understand.’
‘Of course, my dear, of course. You are so good to have come. It has been a delight.’ He was regrouping, digging deep into his chivalry. It made her want to run, to flee the scene of her meanness. He began levering himself out of his chair. ‘Allow me to see you to the –‘
‘NO. I mean no, thank you.’ Connie was half out of the kitchen, her coat in her sights. She waved – a flap of one hand. She didn’t kiss his crusty head.
‘Let us meet again,’ he called after her, ‘before too long. When – if – you have time.’
‘Oh yes, let’s.’ Connie slammed the door and ran through the drifts of dead leaves. A lie could be a gift, she told herself, something for someone to hang on to.
Safely behind the wheel, Connie’s body thrummed briefly with something like elation. The mountain was behind her. All she had to do was get home, back to the reward of the tablets that she had counted out and lined up on the bathroom window sill, prescribed over the months by a doctor who had no notion that it was the not-taking of them – the stockpiling – that eased her fitful nightly attempts at sleep.
She swung out of her parking space and did a three point turn before speeding off, away from Henry and back towards the main road. Within a couple of minutes however, she was pulling up behind a queue of cars. Ahead, blue lights flashed and a policeman was waving his arms. Soon, the vehicles in front of her began to turn round. Connie, gipping the steering wheel, did not move. She could not drive back past Henry’s. He might be by the window. He might recognise her car. His dashed hopes might be raised.
But the policeman did not care for her terrors. As she edged forwards, filling the spaces left by the turning cars, he marched at her, windmilling his arms like an airport marshal, the blue lights behind him fireworks in the darkening November sky.
As she approached Henry’s squat pebble-dash block, Connie clamped her jaw and accelerated. But a kid on a bike swooped out in front of her and she had to brake. She glanced sideways in the same instant and there was Henry, slumped on his door step, his long tree legs half buried under the duvet of leaves.
She reversed into a space and shouted his name before she was fully out of the car. The boy on the bike mimicked her, screeching ‘Hen-er-ee’ as he hoicked his front wheel high like a rearing horse, before letting it crash to the ground and pedalling off. ‘Henry,’ Connie shouted again as she got near. Her voice was hoarse, angry. This was not her plan. To have to deal with the stupid fragile old man, to have to pity him, to have to care.
‘Connie!’ he croaked, half raising an arm. A rake lay beside him, its rusty prongs curled upwards like an open hand. He was wearing gloves the size of gauntlets and old leather lace-up boots that shone from polishing among the dark dead leaves.
‘Are you hurt? I’ll call an ambulance.’ She fumbled in her pocket for her phone.
‘An ambulance?’ Henry let out a dry laugh. ‘Thank you my dear, but happily, that would be somewhat premature. I was simply taking a breather. From the raking,’ he added, as she continued to stare. ‘Harder to get back up, mind you.’ He grimaced as he set about levering himself upright.
Connie remained motionless, watching dumbly. There were two leaves on his head, one sticking out from the crown like an Indian feather, the other poking out roguishly from behind an ear. ‘You came back,’ he said, dusting vigorously at his trousers, ‘I was hoping you would. Was it because you wanted a cup of tea?
Connie was aware she had started crying, although Henry did not seem to have noticed. The tears poured of their own accord, copious and humiliating. It felt as if a stitch had been teased loose and now she was unravelling.
‘Yes, tea. The great British cure for all ills, for the simple reason that it works. Always.’ He placed a firm arm across her trembling shoulders and steered her towards the front door.
‘My life is a mess, Henry.’
‘I had intuited as much. Nil desperandum. Let’s get you inside. I’ll put the kettle on. You wear your heart on your sleeve, like your father.
‘Jake has left me and I am pregnant,’ Connie burst out, aware of some dim trace of meanness in her still, the desire to shock him, make him less kind. It was the kindness that was doing her in. ‘I am going to get rid of it,’ she added fiercely, pushing the sentence through her tears. And me, she wanted to add, but found that the words could not be uttered.
‘Ah. I see. Well such choices are before you. And quite right too.’ He was easing off her coat, tugging the sleeves down over her arms as if she was a helpless toddler. ‘I would only add that any child of yours would be a child I should very much like to meet.’ He picked up her hand, hanging limp and hopeless like the rest of her, and led her slowly, tenderly, into his tiny front room. The place was not just clean and tidy but cosy as a burrow, Connie noticed, looking about her as if for the first time. Every nook was utilised, objects slotted in like jigsaw pieces – a brass lamp, a wicker wastepaper basket, a magazine holder, a sewing box, an upright chair, a footstool, a small television, framed sepia photos peeking out between knick-knacks; and with rows and rows of books circling it all, crammed close, their spines kaleidoscopes of shape and colour.
Beside the armchair the single brilliant orange bar of the heater pulsed with warmth. He gestured towards it. ‘Be seated. I shall return in a trice.’
Connie flopped into the chair and closed her eyes. Soon she was aware only of shuffling footsteps and the faint chime of crockery and metal. When she looked again a mug of tea sat on a spindly circular table beside her, together with a crumpet on a porcelain saucer, fat as a bun and glistening with butter. Henry was ensconced in an upright chair across the room, clutching his own mug of tea, the bendy neck of the brass lamp directed at a book open on his lap. His reading spectacles were perched on the very tip of his long nose and he peered through them to read, chin pressed against his throat, as if viewing the print from a great height.
‘I don’t know what the point is, of anything,’ she said.
‘Neither do I.’ He smiled fondly at her over the top of his spectacles. ‘Sometimes – most of the time – it’s just a case of keeping going and being surprised by the good things that can happen. Like you. You were and are a good thing. Your father asked me to keep an eye on you and nothing has made me happier. Part of the trick, I think, is just to be. Mindfulness, I believe they call it now. I mean, here we are with tea and crumpets and a warm room, and what more really could one want? So many poor souls have less.’
‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘No. But you will, in time. You don’t have to know now.’
Connie took a bite of the crumpet. There was runny honey drizzled in with the butter. The inside was chewy and soft, the outside crisp. She finished it quickly and licked her fingers. ‘Thank you, Henry.’
‘Another? I’ve had two.’ He patted the slight paunch of his stomach.
Connie shook her head. Her eyes were closing again, too heavy to resist. Distantly, she heard the whisper of paper as Henry turned pages. The armchair was unbelievably comfy and the tea and food warm in her belly. She felt as if she had been running and could now stop. Nothing was decided, but Henry was right, nothing had to be resolved now either.
Sleep crept over her like a gentle heat, drawing her down into a deep safe place she had thought never to enter again. She chased a thread of a thought, about the wrongness of being the one in the armchair, the wrongness of ever having presumed to pity an old man, and then she slept.