I approached the building with trepidation. Although I had been mentally preparing myself for this moment for several days, I knew that I was not ready. I doubted if I ever would be.
I stopped and sat down on an old, wooden seat. The noise of the traffic was a distant hum. The early summer sunshine was warm on my back. The sweet fragrance of roses drifted on the breeze from the nearby bed and mingled in my nostrils with the smell of newly mown grass. It was quiet and peaceful. As I sat there, relishing the sensations, in my mind I was young again….
It was 1950 and I was eighteen years old. I had gone to the coast to find summer work. People were getting over the war and starting to take holidays again. I got a job in one of the new amusement parks that were springing up along, what was to become, the Golden Mile. It paid quite well and gave me the opportunity to meet lots of girls – which was my number one preoccupation in those days. The trouble was, having met them I didn’t know what to do….
A couple of old ladies, out for an afternoon walk, passed by having two conversations at the same time, as old people often do. It reminded me again of why I was here….
I had taken lodgings in a cheap guest house that was mostly frequented by struggling actors, appearing in summer season at the Winter Gardens. Mary was the landlady. She must have been at least thirty five, almost old enough to be my mother. She was tall, slim, beautiful, and worldly wise. I smiled to myself, as I recalled the day I accidentally saw her dressed in only her underclothes, and the fantasies it had fuelled for nights to come. She was unhappy and lonely, and I didn’t know. She had lost her husband in the war. He had been a pilot and had been shot down over occupied France in 1940. He had spent two years in a prisoner of war camp, before he was shot trying to escape.
Mary had seduced me. There was no getting away from the fact. I had been far too shy and nervous to have dared initiate anything. She taught me well. I became a man during that long, hot summer. I became infatuated with her. I had asked her to marry me….
I smiled again at the memories, and then shuddered as I wondered what life would have been like if she had accepted my proposal. The old lady inside the home would still have been my wife.
Slowly, I got up. The rheumatism was starting to get worse again. The signs of old age creeping up were all too frequent now. I felt every one of my sixty years. I wondered how long it would be before I too was confined to one of these places.
I barely had time to look around, as I entered the home, before an officious looking nurse in a blue starched uniform and a white cap approached me.
“Can I help you, sir?” Her tone suggested I was severely interrupting her routine by my presence.
“My name is Jones. I have come to visit Mary Pickering,” I told her as politely as I could muster. “Could you please take me to her?”
“Relation are you?”
“Actually, I’m a very old friend,” I told her.
“She’s down in the main sitting room at the end of the corridor,” she gesticulated in the general direction and made as if to leave.
“Please can you take me down? I haven’t seen her for nearly forty years.”
The nurse looked at me with a disdainful expression which clearly said ‘gold digger’ and led the way down the corridor without a word.
I desperately felt the need to explain myself to her, to justify my visit. I felt afraid again, things were already going wrong. “She wrote to me, you see, and asked me to come and visit. How is she keeping?”
The nurse stopped and looked me straight in the eyes. For the first time I saw some compassion in them. “She is dying, Mr. Jones. She is dying.”
It was as if a dark cloud had passed over the sun and spoilt a happy picnic on the beach. I now knew for certain that this visit was a mistake. Had it not been for the nurse, I would have turned tail and run, there and then. Instead I gritted my teeth and entered the large sitting room.
The impressions of that moment will remain indelibly etched into my memory, as long as I live. Old people sat all around the outside of the room. They sat mainly in silence, except for those that chattered away to themselves, and stared into the middle distance. Perhaps they saw visions of better days, when they were young. Perhaps they strove for glimpses of an unknown future. Perhaps they were simply bored out of their minds. As I entered the room, hopeful, expectant eyes turned towards me and then registered disappointment. The room smelt of old people, stale urine, and disinfectant. The room felt like a waiting room – a waiting room for death. I felt physically sick.
The nurse pointed to the far corner of the room. I felt eyes follow me as I made my way over. Forty-two years ago, when I last saw Mary, she had been a beautiful woman, in the prime of her life. Time had been cruel. I tried to smile a greeting and hide the shock that I was feeling. Before me sat a tiny, wizened old woman. She was so bent and frail, almost skin and bone. Her back was deformed into a hump, her pallid skin was blotched with red marks and her hair was thin and grey. I would not have known her.
A pair of tired eyes looked up at me from a wrinkled face that was pale and drawn. A smile flashed over her face. Her eyes smiled as well. It was a smile that I had long remembered and cherished. After all this time, she still knew me.
“Welcome John, it’s so good to see you again.” Her voice was almost a whisper.
For a long time we just sat there, her tiny frail hand in mine, and relived our individual memories. I still found it hard to look at her, but I was glad I had come.
Eventually, with an effort which obviously strained her, she began to speak again. She spoke haltingly at first and then seemed to get into her stride. It was a speech she had obviously rehearsed in her head many times.
“I had to see you again before I die, and I’ve not got long to go now,” she said.
“You’ve got plenty of life in you yet,” I lied, trying to sound cheerful.
Her pale blue eyes met mine and our unspoken thoughts passed between us like a bolt of electric current.
“I loved you,” she whispered. “After you, there was never anyone else. There has not been a day since you left that I haven’t thought about you.”
I was stunned by these revelations. “Then why didn’t you marry me when I asked you, when I begged you?” The hurt of rejection was as fresh in my heart as if it were yesterday.
“I wanted to. Oh, so much, I wanted to,” she continued with tears now streaming down her pallid, wrinkled cheeks. “I did it for you. I couldn’t tie you down. You were so young and innocent. You had the whole of your life in front of you. I had to say no. I’m so sorry that I hurt you. I have paid for that hurt every day of my life. Forgive me.”
Fighting back my own tears I offered her my forgiveness.
“Now I have told you, I can rest in peace.”
Mary slumped back in her chair and closed her eyes. The effort of talking and the emotion had drained all of her strength. I reflected on what she had said. How much different might my life have been if only she had said yes?
I sat with her for half an hour. Oblivious to all the others in the room, I talked to her about my life. I told her of my loves and my heartaches, about the happy times and the sad, and above all about my memories of our times. I told her about my regrets about never having had children. I told her that I loved her.
She roused herself again. There was a difference about her now. Somehow she seemed more content. There was a peace behind her eyes that had not been there before.
She struggled to reach her handbag, which was on the floor beside her. Slowly she opened it and withdrew an old, tatty, brown envelope.
“There is something I would like you to have,” she said. She handed me a well-thumbed black and white photograph. “Remember me that way.”
We had our photograph taken on the sea front, by a holiday photographer. The happiness in our faces was plain to see. We were so obviously in love. A week later Mary had made me leave.
On the back of the photograph she had written – my true love and I, one day when we were young.
With tears in my eyes I tried to thank her, but she was asleep again.
Still I sat with her, lost in my memories, staring at the photograph. They had been the best times of my life. Mary had been so beautiful.
I was startled back to reality by the return of the nurse. She had someone with her. I did a double take. The young woman couldn’t have been more than nineteen, but she was the image of Mary in the photograph.
“This is Mr. Jones. Your grandmother apparently wrote to him and asked him to visit.”
The beautiful young face, that was smiling a greeting for her grandmother, was suddenly drained of all colour and the smile faded to a look of shock.
Quickly she recovered her composure and offered me her hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, John, after all this time.”
Hardly had I recovered from the shock of her appearance and now I found that she knew my name. I shook her hand and mumbled something about being pleased to meet her.
She seemed confused. “You don’t know me do you? You never knew? She never told you?”
I looked into her troubled eyes and remembered a time forty-two years ago when I had seen similar eyes.
“My Mother told me about it before she died, but I never believed it. I always thought you had deserted them,” she sobbed.
I struggled to my feet, trying to fathom out what she was saying, and intending to offer her my seat and leave.
Instead she threw herself into my arms and gave me a hug. Through her tears I heard her sob, “Hello grandfather.”