#22 I Saw My Wife Walking Down The Road
Welcome to the 22nd installation of Story Press. This week, an old man sees someone from his past and he does his best to reach them and to speak to them.
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#22 I Saw My Wife Walking Down The Road
I am an old man, but rather than feel everything a little less because I have felt it all before, I feel everything a little more, like I’m feeling it for my last time. An ordinarily emotional scene in a movie is painstaking, a walk in the sun is like running a marathon in the desert, a hug from my grandson is a profound act of affection. This is how my life is now, and rather than enjoy it, I find myself feeling anxious.
And my anxiety is reinforced by goings on that, to me, just don’t add up.
Last week, for example, I went for lunch with my son, his wife, and my grandson. We sat out on the terrace in the heat at a local pizza place. I sported my worn out, sky blue Palm Beach cap, with the two palm trees reaching out stitched on. It kept the sun out of my face. I sat in the shade so as not to overheat.
George, my grandson, ran around the table and I caught him like a fish in a net. Lizzie, my son Mike’s wife, sat leaning back in her chair, sipping on her Bloody Mary, soaking up the sun on her golden arms and chest, reflecting on why her company hadn't yet given her the promotion she deserves. Mike watched George run, but in a way like he wasn’t taking it in at all. He must have heard Lizzie talk about this all before.
We had long since finished our food, but were enjoying the weather, talking and drinking cool drinks in the precious time we had together. I was waiting for George to run a ring around the table once more, and just as he ran around Lizzie’s back, I looked up and made eye contact with the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.
My jaw must have dropped right out of my mouth. The woman gave a smile, and all of a sudden, I was taken back fifty years, to when I met my wife, Anne. That was her. It could only have been her. She had the self-same smile, the way it creased slightly at the corners, the same casual dress she used to wear to Margate beach in the summer, the same walk, back straight, shoulders arched back. It had to be her.
I know now, and I knew then, that the reality of the situation was that it could not have been her. Anne died ten years earlier. I have thought of her every day since, spent many moments hoping that I’ll turn a corner, open the front door, answer the phone or whatever else, and she’ll be there, smiling to me, the voice on the other end of the line to welcome me. But she never is. Never has been. And the only explanation for that is she never can be. And I realised that the woman I saw was not Anne as she might be today, but as she was when we met.
Despite all this, I did the only thing anybody would do. I leaned both of my hands on the arms of my chair, raised myself up, slid the chair back, side-stepped my way around the table, and dismounted the terrace.
‘Where are you going?’ little George asked me.
‘I won’t be five minutes. I’ve just seen someone I once knew well, from work. I’ll be back in five minutes.’
Lizzie and Mike looked at one another, but I didn't give them time to protest. They probably think I’ve lost my marbles anyway, but if I looked at them for some sort of permission, or approval, well, that just gives them a door to making decisions that don’t need to be deferred to them.
‘Five minutes,’ I reiterated, reaching a hand out to them with my five fingers, just in case they’d forgotten how to count.
Turning to the direction Anne went, I saw her up ahead, approaching a small T-junction, and I moved as quickly as possible to start closing the gap between us. For an old man, I don’t have a walking stick and I like to think I can move when I need to. I’ve never been a runner; instead, I swim. This means I’m fit as can be, and my joints aren’t all arthritic and shot to pieces.
A car careened out in front of Anne, meaning she had to wait to cross the road. I did what I could to make headway, and when I thought I was far enough from the terrace, I called out: ‘Anne!’
Just as she stepped out into the road, she turned and looked at me. She smiled. I’m sure she did. It was her. It had to be. She lifted a hand and I thought she was going to wave at me, but she pulled the long, silky-dark hair that was blowing in front of her, back out of her face.
She stepped into the road, her long legs reaching out from her dress. I stuttered forward and when I reached the junction, no cars were coming so I stepped across it as quickly as I could.
I was getting closer now, but not nearly as close as I’d like. I wasn’t sure she could even hear me.
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At the next cross, she looked back, and then turned down the road so I could no longer see her. I moved as quickly as I could, and sweat started to gather at the point my brow met the hem of my Palm Beach cap. I pulled the hat down, reached the corner and looked up for her.
Now, she was closer than I expected. I could see her quite clearly. It almost made me stop in wonder. It really was her.
‘Can’t you keep up?’ she called out playfully. The smile on her face was unrelenting, and it made me smile too. Our relationship was just like this, always fun, always self-deprecating.
I tried to reply, ‘Of course I can, I’m just getting started,’ but the words struggled to come out while I moved. As I got closer, about ten metres or so, I wanted to stop, to talk to her, to ask her why she was here, what she was doing here.
But just as I was processing what I might do next, she turned, opened the gate to the house beside us, strode through it and entered the house. The door was wide open. I too entered the gate, but paused on the cusp of the front door. Whose house was this? What right did she have to canter through here like it was her own? Was it her own? Had she moved here?
Light poured through from the rear of the house down the corridor, casting Anne in a silhouette. She strode confidently along the corridor and through into the kitchen. She kicked open its door and disappeared behind it.
I followed. If anything, I had to get her out of there before the owners saw us. I hobbled forward with as much energy as I had. Entering the kitchen, there was a blindingly white light filling the room. My arm shot up, in a reflex, to protect my eyes. It took several moments for them to adjust. When they did I took in the room. It was a kitchen so modern that I felt like the oldest thing in it, by far. It had modern lights hanging over an island, a sink with a movable head on a coil and probably one of those taps that with an instant produces an endless stream of the most boiling water. I thought of the kitchen Anne and I shared in our first home: a first floor flat in the city. We were lucky to have clear water at all, let alone hot water. You could hear the old woman in the street shouting at children, a constant gritty stream of old cars motoring by. Anne called it the jailhouse, but she did it with a smile.
She was nowhere to be seen by this point. At the back corner of the room, a white door swung open. When I passed through it, I saw Anne down the end of the garden, crouching under the branch of a tree and passing behind it where I could no longer see. I powered as fast as I could down the garden and followed where she had gone.
There was a gap in the fence which opened up into an alley. Two ways. Both vacant. I had lost her. I didn’t know which way to go. Left, a tall lamp post and some shrubbery peeling out from the place where the fence meets the tarmac. Right, a bend. Given I couldn’t see her, I thought going right would be my best bet. I followed up the path, which was longer than I thought.
As I walked, and the gravel slid under my trainers, the image came back to me of Anne in the hospital before she died. Her hair was thin, most of it had fallen out, and her skin was a colour I have never seen before. Yellow, but not like tan. She looked like cold soup. It had all happened within a couple of days. One moment she was pruning flowers in the garden, listening to the radio. The next moment, doctors were throwing information at her in bucket-loads, and they’d attached tubes to her arms and all I could think of was that she looked scared, like she’d woken up in a horror film. All I could do was hold her hand and to tell her I wouldn’t go away.
But I did. She did.
When I reached the corner and turned up ahead, she was not there. There was a door in the fence. I opened it up and walked into the garden beyond. It belonged to the pizza place. There were people sitting around drinking beer under umbrellas and eating slices of pizza, the smell of cooked dough stirring in the air. I passed through the restaurant looking for Anne, but she was nowhere to be seen. Through the glass, Mike, George and Lizzie were just where I left them, sitting around the table on the front terrace.
I watched them for a while. How much they’ve all grown. I remember when Mike was George’s size, and Anne watched him running around tables.
I stepped out onto the terrace and reclaimed my seat.
George, with a smile, jumped up at my return and ran around the table again until I caught him in my net. I ruffled my fingers in his hair and looked up to the sun glaring down on us.