This is a bit more gentle…
The old man is wheeled slowly out by the nurse. She positions him beneath the old oak tree, tucks in his blanket, and makes sure the alert button is on his lap; safely within reach. She gives him a friendly pat of the arm and walks back to the house; she is dying for a break and a cup of tea.
The old man looks across the garden. His garden. At least he had been allowed to return to his own house; the house he was born into, the house he grew up in. The house he had his own children in too – though now they are scattered, like dry leaves after a storm, all over the World – James in America, Amelia in France and Jennifer in Hong Kong. ‘What on earth is she doing in Hong Kong’, he wonders. It was all a bit much to take in. He had travelled, Europe mostly, of course, and one memorable trip to see James and his new family in Arizona – far too hot for him, and he could barely remember James’ children, all grown up now and two with young ones of their own. He would never get to meet them now, that much was certain. He did talk occasionally on the telephone, but to tell the truth, they weren’t close. None of his children were ‘close’. But then he had not been close to his own parents; packed away to boarding school at six – how he had hated that. And hated his father for sending him too.
Now – Laura, his grand-daughter by Amelia, was different; she had come back at eighteen from France and lodged with her grandfather while she went to University. And she had stayed, bless her – she was now his companion. ‘My, she must be thirty by now’, he supposed. ‘She’ll be marrying herself one day and leaving me too. Or rather, I will be leaving her before then. I’ve left the house to her in my will. Plenty of money for the others’, he smiled to himself.
He can hear a blackbird singing somewhere above his head. He looks up but the heavy canopy of leaves hides the bird from view. ‘Ah, this tree’, he thinks. ‘This tree has seen it all’. He can remember when Laura and her brother Robert (what happened to him – he couldn’t recall) had spent their Summer holidays here with Grannie and Grandpa. His wife Eleanor was still alive then, of course. What lovely days they had spent. And here, under this tree was where they had their picnics. Ginger beer and egg and cress sandwiches and Victoria sponge cake. Oh dear, he was dribbling, now where was that hankie – ah here it is. Yes, how he loved playing with little Laura and Robert, it had been a second childhood for him, running around the garden, playing cricket, hide and seek through the bedrooms of the old house, giggling like a child himself.
A child? Had he ever been a child? Certainly not the carefree happy one his grandchildren had been. He was an only child too, he remembered longing for a brother. He had always been terrified of his father, with his moustaches and his ‘discipline’. ‘Ah, bad memories – think of something else. His mother? She was always a shadowy figure’, he could barely recognise her from the few photographs he had. Always escaping, slipping silently out of the room, that was his memory.
“Nerves”. His father dismissed her disappearance with that single word, “Nerves” – and then his Nanny would take him back to the nursery.
As a boy he understood nothing; now he wondered what an awful life he must have led her. She died when he was thirrteen – a stranger to the end.
“Your Mother has died. No need to return until half-term. Do not let this disturb your studies.” That was what his father had written. But then, he cannot remember being that upset at the time.
All too soon he was grown up – at least he was away from school. But straight into the Army and very soon the War. ‘Better not to remember the War’, he thought. Not that he had seen that much action. Boredom mostly, like so much of his life. ‘Ah, no good regretting that now. He’d had a good life. That was what they said, wasn’t it? But how do you know? How do you compare to others?’ We, each of us, are actually as oblivious to what goes on, what thoughts, hopes and dreams, and disappointments of others – as this tree is as unknowing of him sitting there, like so many times before, under its leafy boughs. ‘Morbid thoughts. Must blow them away. Little time left now, must remember the happy times.
Ah his dear Eleanor. Returning after the War and meeting her. Here of all places, in this very house. His father had just got engaged to his second wife. A party for friends and neighbours. Not that it was such a jolly occasion as he remembers. His father barely acknowledging his presence. No change there then. The only two good things were that he met Eleanor here. Actually, he had met her once before, but he had been a sulky boy of ten and she barely eight; he only just recalled her. But my, how she had changed. ‘Bloomed’ – that was the word everyone said about her. “Oh Eleanor, how you have bloomed” people remarked. She was now a real English Rose, and she fell, she tumbled gently, her petals still fresh with the mist of morning, into his lap. He had cherished and watched her flower every year – until she became ill, oh it must be ten years ago now. She died quite quickly in the end; not too much pain.
The other good thing was his father’s death a few weeks later. Driving his Bentley too fast and drunk as well. Died instantly. And before he had re-married, so the house came to him, his only son. A real stroke of luck. But Eleanor was his real prize. To love and have been loved; what a prize that was.
He sighs and looks up again searching for that blackbird. Still singing, still hidden. This tree. Yes, it was here that he first kissed her. His father was out, but fearful of his return they had gone out to the garden and laid down under this very tree. That was their first real kiss, the gentle pressure of her lips on his, stroking the nape of her neck, and those tiny whorls of hair he wound round his fingers. The back of his hand, gliding down her cheek and onto her neck, her splendid long neck, grazing over the twin humps of her collar bones. He had watched the rise and fall of her breasts and felt such immense contentment. Earlier that day they had declared their love for each other. And those kisses were enough, everything else could wait a while. That was the beauty of those innocent days. He had no more idea of female anatomy than how a jet engine worked. These poor youngsters of today with the internet and all ‘knowledge’ at their fingertips and yet….understanding nothing – and caring even less, he suspected. Denying themselves the wonder of discovery, the ecstasy of simply kissing.
But everything has changed now. Almost beyond recognition. Air travel, television, mobile phones and computers. Where would it all end? At least he wouldn’t be here to see it. Three to four weeks at the most the Doctor said. And he’d had nearly two already. Laura knew – but had been sworn to secrecy. The last thing he wanted was his far-flung children flying home in a panic, declaring their love for him and all that nonsense. Better to just go quietly with no fuss.
There’s that blackbird again. He never seems to tire of singing his song. And all to attract a mate. Ha, nothing changes. Where is he? He peers up, trying to discover the bird from the sound alone. He tries to wheel the chair out a bit but it catches in a tree root, he pushes the wheel but the chair stubbornly refuses to move and he feels himself losing balance, the chair is tipping over. Falling oh so slowly, a delicious feeling in a strange way, an abandonment – and no-one to catch him, no-one to put him back in his chair, no nurse to tuck him in and give him morphine. No, none of that, just a delightful toppling over. Here he goes now, gently falling, comfortably wedged into his wheelchair. The house rises up and stands on its end, he sees the tree turn almost a full circle, the panic button flies out in a beautiful arc. Safely out of reach. He lands with the gentlest of bumps and there just there, on that branch he finally sees him, the blackbird, still singing his endless song…ah, bliss.