The pavement is narrow here. They elbow against him as they pass. He remonstrates; they laugh at him, the children. Nervous laughter, child laughter.
“I’m not frightened of an old man!” One of them says. “He looks like a paedophile, du’nn’ee? You’re a paedophile, mister! Dirty old ****!”
Maybe it is a conceit, he thinks, to assume the little boy’s remarks are directed at him. I am old, he protests in the silence of himself. That is my only crime. The heinous effrontery of age, the obscenity of blemished flesh, of that crime alone, am I guilty. Yet it qualifies as another milestone on his descent into chaos, another small reminder that the narrow path to darkness is nearing its (and his) conclusion. He turns for home, fleeing in his hesitant gait for the four walls that have become ever more a refuge with the advancing years. Inside his house he need not face a hostile world, or openly parade his profane old age. Here he may sit with his book, seeing, not the black of the words or the white of the page, but the crinkled parchment of his hands, their yellowing skin, the veins ever bluer, the brown freckles that grow and multiply. He can study a new language, shutting his mind to the truth that he will never travel abroad again. Is not learning a virtue in itself?
“Did you pick up your pills?” His wife asks, knowing.
“No.” Had that been the motivation which thrust him onto the street, put him out there? “I forgot. I can get them tomorrow.”
She smiles at him, her sad eyes filled with an understanding she is powerless to express. She has been a good wife to him, faithful and selfless in her care as the storm clouds of his greater years gather above them both. But there is no ‘both’ anymore, no unity. Love, however deep, has transmuted into a bond of duty, and she moves around him in a different world, tidying, cooking for him, suffering the harsher edges of his fragility. She has her own life, her ordered world. She has her friends, she has her faith: he has none.
He will not detain her long, she tells those friends. Day by day she watches him fade, reads the terror in his eyes, the self-disgust. Within the carapace of his four walls he treads the path to the end of each day, always aware how time is speeding past. He is waiting for the one absolute certainty – afraid of it, unable to close his mind to it, reluctant, even in jest, to speak its name. He goes to bed each night, carrying it like a raven on his shoulder, knowing it may strike before he wakes.
He seems to be in a restaurant that is not unfamiliar, although he cannot recall when he might have been there before. There are many tables, spruce with starched table-cloths, red on white, and there are firm, reassuring upright chairs. He is the only customer. A waitress brings coffee to his table. Once again, he feels he knows her too, although he cannot remember where or when they might have met. She wears a uniform blue, he thinks, though he cannot say for sure. Of just this he may be certain – she has the loveliness of innocence. Such is the unspoiled softness of her cheek as she stoops to serve him he cannot forebear, but must reach up to stroke it with his hand.
He starts back, alarmed at his transgression. He stammers: “I’m sorry! I don’t know what came over me!”
Her reply is gentle. “It’s all right. It’s meant to be.”
She does not draw back, the girl, but stoops so she is closer to him; so he can feel a brief zephyr of her breath upon his face. Her eyes meet his, and they seem to say that if he kissed her that would be all right, too.
“I know you.” He says, although if he were truthful he does not.
“Do you?” Her smile is like a shaft of sunlight through rain, as she murmurs, “I seem to be affected by you.”
He begins to rise from his chair, until only inches separate their lips.
And he wakes.
For some hours into the new day the perfection of the girl is radiant in his mind; he cannot forget the sweetness of her voice; his heart is full and hopeful. When next he dreams, might she be there, awaiting him? And if she is, will their lips be joined in the honesty of that unaccomplished kiss?
But no matter how strong his desire, though he may deliberately put her image in his mind each time he finds himself slipping into sleep, she does not come again. A week passes, then two. He has pictured her walking hand in hand with him along the pathway to the beach, her bare feet splashing in the shallows, the wind in her hair. All that, and yet he does not dream of her – or dream at all.
Then, one day when waking of itself is pain, he hears that voice again. “You do not know me, but you will.”
The words are spoken so sweetly and so clearly he cannot do other than understand their meaning. It is a promise. For now he must be patient, keep her in his heart as an uncorrupted memory, because when the time comes he must recognise her face again.
In his twentieth year of another time, of maybe another place, he will be sitting in a restaurant with clean red tablecloths where he goes to read the research on his thesis, and a girl will come to serve him coffee, and he will not know her, but his heart, his innermost soul will remember. He will gently stroke her cheek and she will smile because her heart has remembered too.
With this certain image for his future tightly wrapped inside his mind he is ready at last to shake off the snakeskin of his years and begin a new journey. When, later that morning, his wife discovers him she can feel no grief, because the expression those shrunken features wears is of peaceful acceptance. He rests content.
Phtot Credit: Alex Blajan at Unsplash