Forgetting to remember, by Chris Brunt
It’s important to bring a sandwich with you. A nice mug of tea wouldn’t go amiss either, though it never stays warm long enough and you’re bound to look like some sort of nutter sitting alone on a park bench drinking from an oversized Manchester City mug. I know what you’re thinking, but a full thermos flask would be wasted on someone like me.
“Why not fill it up half way?” you ask.
Well, I’ve had difficulty getting the balance right. It’s always too weak or too strong. Either way, it’s just no good. Besides, I couldn’t justify squandering three tea bags in one go, especially when it’s not me who pays for them. My bladder can’t carry more than one cup at a time. These days it bursts at the seams imagining the weight of three full cups of tea. At a push I could manage two, but who wants to take the risk? I certainly don’t. What would I do if I didn’t get back in time and ended up making a mess of myself? I wouldn’t live that one down. They barely trust me now, I dread to think what they’d say if I came back with a sodden trouser leg and an empty thermos.
“How do you explain this, Mr Waterton?” I wouldn’t know where to start. It’d only end in them locking me up and never letting me out again.
“He can’t go anywhere, not without supervision,” they’d say.
I won’t have them take this away from me, not after everything else I’ve lost. That’s what happens you know when you get old. You lose things. Your looks go first, they vanish all at once and there’s nothing but leathery creases sagging down against obsolete flaps of flesh where once a youthful masculine jawline stood. When I do deign to glance at myself in the mirror, I don’t see me anymore. I can’t see past those huge spotty ears and fluffy eyebrows crisscrossing an old man’s face.
“I don’t know you.” I like to protest. “I don’t care for the look of this fellow.” I laughed aloud, cajoling the nurses into sterile smirks. Deluded in their youth, none of them seem to realise what they’ve got, or what they’re bound to lose. We didn’t, so why should they be any different?
I don’t mind. I dislike complainers and I don’t much like complaining myself. I do it sometimes just to wind them up. The truth is, I’ve had a good life, what I can remember of it anyway. Oh, I whine, I moan. I even fart aloud and snigger under my breath, watching as everyone backs away an inch or two. But that’s just the benefit of being old. That’s all part of the deal. I’m happy to embrace my role within the world. I’m now one of ‘those lot,’ the old buggers waiting for the bell to toll.
I come here most days. What I really mean is that they ‘allow’ me to come here most days. I won’t phrase it like that, though. Not today. Today I’m going be positive. Midsummer is the time to be optimistic. Today I’m going to be in a good mood. One of those where every breath you take tastes sweeter than the last. I feel it in the air, floating around hard against my cheeks. I suck it in and swallow it down, wincing at its cold freshness, revelling at the sensation as it slivers inside my throat, tingling and vaguely painful, until it reaches my lungs and quickens my innards. I may be old, but I am alive. My feet move with a virile laxity, bouncing upon the balls of my shoe soles. My free arm sways beside me, as if I were a gallant foot soldier in the King’s Army. My features warm up and twitch until they form a crude smile as I notice my bench sitting there obediently, unoccupied, waiting for my arrival: loyal and loving, my last companion.
Yes, that’s all very well, but, as I was saying, one must have the right sandwich. Forget the tea. Damn the tea. Dash the tea against the rocks. Nothing else matters if the sandwich is all wrong. I insist upon making it myself. The nurses object but I know they’re likely to relent if I just carry on without heeding them, throwing them defiant looks as if I were hinting at a hunger strike.
“Oh, that’s just Mr Waterton’s way. He’s like that. He prefers to make his own sandwiches.”
Yes, I do. They’d have a revolt on their hands otherwise.
These things have to be done properly. It’s a precise business we’re dealing with. Full-breasted white bread with thick springy crusts and a light layer of homemade jam, cut into triangular segments. That’s how I like it. It cannot be otherwise. It has to be thus. They know that now. I’ve told them several times.
You must hear me when I say this; what I meant by ‘homemade jam’ was most likely not what you envisaged. Yes, that’s right, I do not, in fact, cannot make my own jam. That is because they don’t allow me to make my own jam. Still, someone somewhere has to make the stuff before I buy it in the shop and so it is, at least in a fashion, homemade. That is what we old-timers call a fact.
Hear this too; you may have wondered, why I, of all people, omitted, or rather failed to mention butter. Ha! That’s where you’re wrong. I did not fail to mention any butter. The omission was nothing short of intentional. It was, and is, a simple and straightforward fact. One cannot apply butter to one’s sandwich without expecting the buttery-butterness of one’s butter to interfere with the delicate taste of one’s homemade jam. So, as you will observe, I had no intention of mentioning butter at all, and only mention it now as a way of declaring my strict aversion to the stuff. That is also a fact. A fact I have explained many a time to these nurses.
“Do they listen to you, Mr Waterton?” No, of course they don’t listen to me. Haven’t you been listening?
When I come to the park I like to bring a bit of light reading. Though, as you might imagine, I am as particular with this as I am with my sandwiches. When I say ‘light reading’ I don’t mean a three hundred page romance novel, written by some charlatan who has already written dozens of overpriced romance novels, each time with the intention of describing some vain theory surrounding their ideas of love, yet never quite managing it despite their numerous clumsy attempts.
No. I do not mean to say that I read romance novels.
Crosswords are all well and good, but I find them too engrossing. What I seek is mere distraction. A light dunk of one’s hand into the warm pond of escapism. A slight momentary sojourn, while glancing up at the wonders of these beautiful Rowntree surroundings of ours. I don’t seek full-bodied immersion. Only a brisk cleanse.
I used to bring the TV Times with me. I had to stop that after a while as the old buggers back at the nursing home didn’t have a clue what was on the television. Added to that, there’s nothing stranger than seeing an old foolish man sitting alone in the middle of the day on a park bench, reading the TV Times, half a mug of cold tea beside him and a crust of homemade jam dangling from the corner of his lips.
It pays to remain inconspicuous.
A good leaflet will usually do the trick. One or two pages long, soft, laminated pages and often a couple of pictures on the cover and in the central fold. The National Trust is a reliable source for good leaflets.
“Visit Hadrian’s Wall!”
“Come and see Tintagel.”
Anywhere will do.
I like sitting here with my sandwich and a good leaflet. I know it’s not much. I know I used to have more, a lot more. But I’m not bitter about it. I was once an architect. A half decent one too. Back then I dreamt of being special, hoping to build something that would outlast me and several other generations of Watertons. I dreamt of becoming infamous, creating a legend for myself.
In the end I never married and consequently never played my part in the whelping of children. You forget things when you’re old. It’s not very nice, though it is inevitable. I forget why I never had a family, I suspect it had something to do with my grand ambitions. For a time, I wouldn’t let anything get in the way of my work. My dream was to be remembered by everyone, not just my own children.
Joseph played the right game. Oh yes, Mr Rowntree knew what he was doing. I should have followed his lead. No one will ever forget his name, and rightfully so. I suppose that’s one of the few benefits of having children. At least they will live to remember you even if no one else does. Sometimes they even remember the things you happen to forget. When you become old like me, you’ll be thankful for that; my memory is dreadful these days.
I chose another path to the family life. I wanted to make a name for myself, make people remember me for what I’d created. Like the chap who built the Sistine Chapel. He was a visionary, a true original. None of that romance novel fluff. I admit, I would have liked to have known what it felt like to hold my child in my arms and to look into its little blubbery face and recognise something of myself in the sparkle of its eyes. In life we exchange one blessing for another. Perhaps if I had the chance to do it all again I’d choose differently. Maybe I would choose to be a father and a grandfather. Would I have been happy? That’s not the way things are in this world. We cannot go back in time, only forward. I picked one route and you most likely picked another. The trick is to elect a road and to never look back. Forget all the other roads, have no memory of what could have been, and know only what is.
What’s that you say? “All roads lead to the same place.” Damn right they do. Damn shame too, if you care to ask me.
The real tragedy is that I never did build my Sistine Chapel and will, therefore, never be remembered when I die. Sadly, I wasn’t good enough, and no one had the decency to inform me while I was still young. What’s more, I didn’t really commit as one should to such an undertaking. I’d dilly dallied too much too many times. Distracted by this and that, her and they. Too much tarrying for any one man to achieve a thing like that. Never mind.
As I sat on my bench, contemplating thus, brooding thus, I looked up and saw a boy staring at me. He was no more than seven or eight, perhaps nine years old. I can’t remember. I’ve no talent for gauging a child’s age. After all, why should I? There’s no money in it.
The sulking young brute had been playing football. He was a poor excuse for an athlete, though I hadn’t the heart to tell him. His tip-toeing and ineffectual fondlings with that ball of his hadn’t detracted from the serenity of my experience and so I’d kept my mouth shut. But now he just stood and stared at me. The ball sat lifeless by his feet. His dwarfish arms by his sides, his eyebrows cross with me for some unfathomable reason, and his bottom lip poked out as if he were ready to howl like some sort of brat. Still he stared. Pouting evermore. The deeply solemn solemnity of his little glare instantly besieging my tranquil frame of mind, throwing it into disarray, forcing me to discard my National Trust leaflet and cry out in protest.
“Well, what’s it all about?” I cawed after him, his glare remaining as stubborn as his defiant stance.
“What do you want?” I screeched.
He didn’t move. I had half a mind to run up to him and kick his ball into oblivion. Had I been thirty years younger I might have done. Instead, he continued to stare, unabashed and without explanation. I left soon afterwards, parting from my loyal sanctuary and hobbling back to the ninnies and nurses.
I returned the next day and discovered my peaceful sanctum ambushed once again. I strode around the corner, my eyes eager to catch sight of my bench sitting expectantly, waiting to receive me. Yet, as I did, I was confronted by that same boy. This time he was standing on top of the bench, his ungainly feet muddying the varnish and his crude expression harrying me with each step.
“What is he playing at?” I asked myself, certain this was all part of some deviant ploy of his, an underhand attack upon a poor senior citizen. My first thought was to alert the authorities. If he wouldn’t listen to reason then perhaps they would. I hadn’t seen any official signage in the park, but I was damn sure standing on benches with muddied feet was not in the least bit permissible. I didn’t know what to do and so left with my jam sandwich and what looked like a particularly intriguing leaflet about Stonehenge.
The next day I arrived at the park early, determined to avail myself of that fiendish child. Why wasn’t the little creep in school? What was his game? I didn’t care, as long as I got my bench back. As long as I could sit in peace and enjoy the beauty of the trees and squirrels, I wouldn’t have cared a jot for that boy.
When I arrived he wasn’t there. I breathed a sigh, happy in solitude. I sat down triumphantly and enjoyed my morning. When leaving I noted an abandoned football, seated amidst the expertly trimmed grass and delicately mounted hyacinths, (the custodians of the park were nothing if not fastidious in their gardening duties).
The ball belonged to the boy.
“The youth of today!” I scoffed, thinking how little appreciation they showed for their own material possessions. In a moment of excitement I took up the ball and carried it home with me, believing that, in doing so, I would be teaching the young fellow a thing or two about values.
In the nursing home I dodged the peculiar expressions thrown at me by the nurses.
“I found it,” I told them, referring to the football. “There’s no foul play here, I assure you.”
As I bustled through the corridor heading towards my room, passing the quarters of my elderly peers, I observed a small figure seated at the end of the hall. Its legs dangled limply, barely reaching the ground. I approached, straining my eyes and perking my ears as a means of detecting who it was. I soon realised this person was sitting outside my room. My room? A guest? A visitor?
“Who is that?” I uttered, incredulously, still clinging to the football I’d commandeered at the park.
“Well, why would it be…” My feet alighted the carpet, carrying me ever closer to this small being who sat huddled in the chair, its small legs inches from the ground.
“No…” I mocked myself. “Of course it isn’t.”
It was. It was he. Have you guessed yet? It was the small child, seated in a hard-backed plastic and steel chair, positioned outside my room. He was in tears, floods of the stuff. His miniature chest heaving enigmatically with each bitter breath he took.
He’d spotted me.
“Sh-she-sh-she’s gone!” He expelled, struggling to verbalise his sorrow.
Still I approached.
Seeing the child, his football still in my grasp, I swiftly jettisoned it, throwing it through an open door, gifting the aged occupant with the spherical trinket.
“She’s dead!” He persisted, looking at me expectantly, as if I had some part to play in his tale.
“Who’s dead?” I asked him when I reached the door of my room.
“Grandad, she’s dead!” He cried out at me.
He looked up at me, tears stinging his little eyeballs. “She’s dead, granddad.” He repeated, addressing me with this unfamiliar title.
He pointed an indignant finger, attached to an indignant arm, nudging it through the doorway of my room, his eyes never leaving mine.
“Grandma is dead.” He bemoaned, evoking something within me.
I turned and saw several nurses all hustled inside my room. I saw my empty single bed, just as I’d left it with the quilt neatly folded and tucked in under the mattress. I stepped forward and was astonished to find another single bed that had not been there that morning, or at least not to my recollection. It stood inches from the mine and was occupied by a stiff, shrunken figure, whose skin had turned pale and transparent. The woman was unmoving and almost certainly dead.
“Who is she?” I asked them, though none answered me.
“Granddad?” The boy shouted.
“What…” My mouth lolling.
“She’s dead, Granddad.” The child came into the room and slid his tiny dwarf’s hand into mine, rubbing his face with the other.
Then I remembered.
“It’s Grandma.” The boy reminded me, just as he did every day.