The old woman watched the rain smearing the windows, so that the hunched grey figures outside seemed to swim by, deformed and out of focus, defragmented blurs. The fug of too many bodies packed in a space too small was doing battle with the smell of wet coats and fried onion. The sharp clatter of cutlery echoed off the low ceiling, overpowering the low murmur of voices, though only a few of the customers were talking.
The young man sitting with her smiled. Or winced. She could not tell, but suspected that the growing pile on her side plate was the reason. It was what was left of the complimentary assortment of fancy bacon pieces she had chewed with great care to get all the flavour out, without dislodging her false teeth. He smiled again and coughed, then looked around the run-down “bistro” he had brought her to. Not a chance of a drop of wine or beer for him, since he had to drive her back to the care home afterwards. She looked across at the table to the left and watched the couple, a sturdy pair with the luxury of not needing to talk much at this stage of their lives, raising a glass of red to their lips. The young man sitting with her played with the car keys in his jacket pocket, then spoke:
“A drink, Auntie?”
Her strong gaze was meant to denote blank incomprehension. She liked to do that. He said more loudly:
“A drink, Auntie.”
She nodded this time and watched him catch the waiter’s eye, not an easy task, even in so small a place where even using your knife and fork meant your elbows grazed something or someone. The man hobbled up and pointed his chin at them, as if he were being asked a difficult favour at a very demanding time.
“What will it be, Auntie?”
She surveyed the face in front of her, the young man, he was a boy really, looked quite damp, his fringe wet and plastered to his forehead. Rather unfetching. Yes, of course, Alistair’s boy. She kept forgetting.
“I’m not sure they do it by the glass. Do you?” he asked, looking up at the waiter, who had switched his attention to the rain pummelling the window. The man looked down and scrutinized his notepad.
“By the bottle, sir.’
“They only do it by the bottle, Auntie.”
“That will be fine. A white.”
“But Auntie…. a whole bottle…?”
The waiter was inspecting the ceiling. The young man fingered his collar. Somebody dropped a knife or a fork on the floor.
“A bottle. And I’m having the jam roly-poly after this..." She pointed at what was left on her plate. Her irritation was growing, the boy’s face a reminder of her brother and his solemn ways.
“But I won’t be able to help you drink it, will I? I have to drive. And you can’t take it back, they don’t allow alcohol at the residence, do they?”
The couple alongside leant into each other. The young man was tapping his fingers on his legs. A blast of wind hurled the rain at the window, filling the room with a sudden drumming.
“It’s not a residence, as you put it. It is a bloody home. For old crocks like me. Now just order a bottle. You’re worse than your father.”
When was the last time she’d seen Alistair? A week or two before he died, so that was three years ago. Maybe four. They used to see each other regularly but less so as they got older, until he was only ever visiting her once a year before Christmas. With that wet rag of a wife, now long dead. So now his boy had taken it upon himself to go through the motions with these annual visits. She watched him turn to the waiter and order the wine. There was a prolonged squeal followed by a cold gust of air as the bistro door swung open and a squat man wearing a flat cap shouldered his way in.
“Blimey, weather for ducks out there,” he announced to everyone as he removed his raincoat and hung it, still dripping, on one of the hooks by the door. He stood looking around, still wearing his cap, the waiter ignoring him.
“Mum sends you birthday greetings, and so do Elsie and Stan.”
Silence. So, the wet rag is still alive? How could they tell?
“They couldn’t come. Elsie has a doctor’s appointment or something.’
The bracelets on her skinny arm jangled as she waved the issue away, the bottle of wine had appeared, with the waiter unscrewing the top. Elsie and Stan, the boy’s siblings. She could not remember what they looked like, or when they had last visited. She would have done the same in their place. Why would anyone waste time on an old woman – far better to be honest and not bother, rather than to go through this dutiful charade. and it was not as if she had much money to leave anyone. The waiter filled the wine glass almost to the top and plonked the bottle down on the table. She lifted the glass to her mouth and sipped. She grimaced as if she had sucked a lemon, then put the glass down.
“I should know better than to order wine in a café. And it’s tepid, of course.”
The wine’s bouquet of tired blankets and cat’s piss a reminder that she was soon due back at the care home. She scanned the room and saw the man with the flat cap still waiting to be seated. Outside, the day had darkened, and the rain was cascading down so that the bistro’s window was like the porthole of a washing machine on full cycle. The car was parked four blocks away. She fixed her eyes on her nephew:
“It doesn’t matter. It’s not as if I miss them, your family, I’ve hardly seen any of them since your father died.”
“Auntie… ” he pleaded.
His shoulders slumped. He looked down. There was a long pause.
“We reap what we sow,” she said, and saw that the boy was puzzled, though he said nothing as he took another sip of Coke.
“Fiona and I are getting engaged. We thought you’d like to be the first to know,” he said after a while, recomposing himself with an expectant smile, his head cocked to one side as he waited for her reaction. She considered these marital rituals as frivolities and was formulating an appropriate response when the benevolence in the boy’s eyes stopped her. The momentary confusion made her blurt out:
We reap what we sow, she thought to herself. Why would anybody bother visiting her? She had always kept them at arm’s length and yet this boy still visited and took her out for lunch. But it was too late to change things now. In any case, she was not afraid to die alone, probably at night, in her sleep, or else with one of the plump nurses holding her hand and speaking to her much too loudly. Her bed was comfortable enough and she could always see the rowan tree outside the window. Yes, a nice slow fading away was the likeliest outcome – she could live with that. She never saw Alistair when he was dying, and wondered why. People preferred not to think about it, she supposed, even if others were doing the dying, but that surely changed when you got to be her age. She saw the long corridors of the care home with the doors to each room always left wide open or ajar, each with its occupant lying in bed, or seated watching television, or clutching a zimmer frame and staring out of a window, and all in various states of decomposition, waiting, just waiting.
She looked at the boy again. He was trying to smile, one corner of his mouth pushing up and creasing the smooth skin of the cheek into two neat folds, like two commas. Not a bad looking boy, really. Kind eyes. Like Alistair when he was a student. Family likeness. Maybe for this boy blood was thicker than water. Maybe this was not a dutiful pantomime but plain old-fashioned family loyalty. Nothing wrong with that. She smiled for the first time, reached over and touched his hand. She said softly:
“I don’t want you to worry. We all have to face it alone, and I am quite happy. I promise.”
“Oh, sorry Auntie, I..?”
She took one of her decisive intakes of breath:
“Cancel the roly-poly and get the bill. I’ll pay. I’ll wait here while you get the car. It makes more sense than walking all the way there.”
The young man straightened his back and raised his hand to call the waiter.
The man in the flat cap rubbed his hands and looked on expectantly.
Peter Arscott was born in Peru, went to school in England and later moved to Barcelona where he worked as a teacher and artist. He lives in Herefordshire and has an art and ceramics studio in Ledbury.