The air is thick, weighted with tobacco smoke although no one will be expected in this room for at least another hour. As if powered by resentment at the interruption of its period of rest, the air freshener hisses a floral cloud into the room. As the scent of tulips does battle with that of stale tobacco, the silence is broken by a cough from the area of a much-worn armchair. The yellow cloud of stale tobacco absorbs the floral scent with ease, even as more smoke, blue tendrils when fresh, emerges from the bowl of a clay pipe, blackened with age. As the coughing subsides, the sound of fingers drumming on a hard surface arises from the wash of background noise mistaken for silence. The hard surface is a small wooden table to the left of the armchair, and the drumming speeds up, stops, and then begins again – slowly building to its former speed.
The chair’s occupant, known to those few that still cared as Gerald, was a singularly unremarkable fellow. His hair was a uniform shade of grey, his nose perhaps a little larger than average, and the beginnings of whiskers on his cheeks were more likely the result of laziness rather than design. The pipe which hung down from his lip plumed clouds of bright blue smoke, which obscured much of his facial features and created a close lying mist around his ears. The smoke also appeared to be making the old chap’s eyes water; although anyone taking the time to look closer would form a different opinion. Those eyes stared out into the room with brightness and intensity which was much at odds with the man slouched in his chair, wrapped in a bottle green cardigan and beige trousers. To the casual observer he was staring over the top of steepled fingertips at a rather dull lemon coloured wall about four feet from his chair; he was in fact staring at a spot in the middle. A spot as unremarkable as Gerald himself, consisting as it did of mostly empty air. He appeared to be judging reality itself; and, on the basis of those eyes, reality was clearly being found wanting.
In fact, Gerald cared neither for lemon gloss paint nor empty space; he cared for surprisingly little and as such had not left his chair in some time. How much time he couldn’t be sure, but the ache in his back told him it was at least three, maybe as many as five nights since he climbed upstairs and slept in a bed. Not that he slept much. What he mostly did was sit awake and watch the battle between tobacco and tulips; he thought that as long as his tobacco supplies held up, it was a battle he could watch for a long time. His passion appeared to be spent, which was by no means unusual for a man in his eighties – Gerald was sure his ballroom days were behind him, and had been since before anyone had heard of ‘Strictly Come Prancing’ or whatever it was called. What he thought about was the shock of finding that last burst of passion, the shock of realising that your temper could get the better of you a good half a century after the ‘angry young man’ tag would no longer fit. Gerald thought about the day he had kicked Lilly out of their home.
He and Lilly had been just seventeen when they’d gotten married surrounded by strangers in the Scottish highlands. Too young by one year to marry at home, they’d slipped over the border two days after Lilly had told him she was “in trouble”. The first of four children was born seven months later, the last a few weeks before Lilly’s fortieth birthday, and of course there were grandchildren and in recent years a great grandchild. Gerald’s love for her had matured throughout the years, grown beyond a physical attraction into a fast, firm friendship based on love and respect. The physical side of their relationship had nonetheless remained healthy up until the time of Gerald’s first stroke a dozen or so years before. Lilly had taken on the job of caring for him with the same determination and gentle touch with which she had done everything throughout her life; yet she could not stop Gerald feeling useless. What sort of man needed his wife to help him get dressed, to eat and to go out and sit looking at the garden he could no longer tend. No sort of a man at all, Gerald knew that; and their relationship suffered for his knowledge. A knowledge that Lilly dismissed as nonsense, but which gnawed away at Gerald throughout the night and even more so the days his wife left the house to work or shop.
On those days, time seemed to stretch out beyond sight and into forever as the seconds counted by the clock on the mantelpiece seemed to fall dead to the carpet. The television provided neither amusement nor companionship; though Gerald seldom switched it off, preferring even the monotonous chat of the idiots it featured to the silence. It was in the silence that his thoughts seemed to gain strength, to gather together before making a charge for him. The constant noise of the television set forced them into the background at least until Lilly returned to make him a cup of tea and tell him tales of her day. Dull as these tales would have seemed to most people, Gerald fell upon them simply to hear something of the world outside his own head. Worse than his thoughts was the loneliness, when Lilly returned it was a relief just to hear her voice, to have the company of another person. To feel wanted.
Lilly was, of course, aware of Gerald’s loneliness. All too often when she returned from work or the market, he was still in exactly the same position she had left him in; the exercise sheets the physiotherapist had left him untouched on the table. Over time, as she watched the man she loved slowly be consumed by old age, prevented by his pride from agreeing to outside help; tormented by his fear of a nursing home, her own vitality began to drip away. She’d never have admitted it, not even to herself, but a part of her felt cheated – not by Gerald, but by events. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Gerald (she was certain that she still did), it was more that she felt, well, unappreciated. It was under these circumstances that she met Peter.
After finishing the weekly shop, it was Lilly’s habit to pop into the café near the entrance of the supermarket and have a scone before ringing a taxi to take the shopping home, relying on the gentlemanliness of the driver to assist her with her bags. Not that there were so many gentleman these days, when she had been a girl men wore suits for every occasion and were almost never seen bareheaded. As she daydreamed her eyes set upon the occupant of the next table; an older example of just the sort of chap she had been lamented the extinction of. A deep blue suit jacket and trousers framed a crisp white shirt set off by a perfectly positioned tie, above which was a handsome face with blue eyes which shone with the good humour she had seen in Gerald’s eyes when he was young and filled with spirit. It had been his eyes above all else which had convinced, no ordered her to accept his marriage proposalrather than her parent’s offer to adopt her baby as their own.
Gerald, of course, knew none of this. He knew only that Lilly was returning from the shopping later and later, that the time he spent alone relying on the meaningless babble from the TV set to keep his thoughts at bay was increasing. At first he told himself it wasn’t so, everyone knew that time took longer to pass without anything to fill it and the time seemed longer because he was fixating on it so much. A small, easily ignored part of his mind disagreed. Gerald scolded himself then, for being such a feeble old fool that he was unable to sit in his own living room without worry and for thinking that his Lilly would leave him a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. After all, they had to eat didn’t they? And he could hardly get the shopping himself, could he? A good scolding session would often quiet his mind for a good few hours, and he returned to doing the exercises simply to blot out the thoughts with pain. Yet that tiny part of his mind which seemed to contain all his worst fears and a good deal of his self-pity continued to talk. Quietly at first, no more than a whisper; but over time it became louder and Gerald began to listen.
After he helped her get the shopping into the taxi, Lilly felt obliged to ask the stranger his name, and when she saw him in the café more and more often she told herself no harm could come of it. When she held his hand over the table, it was nothing but a token of friendship. And when she kissed him it was because of the eyes, the eyes that reminded her so much of the man Gerald had been. It was only when she began to meet him not at the café, but at his house nearby that she realised what she was doing, and by then she believed herself unable to stop.
The morning Gerald ended his marriage, and, he was now sure, his life was as unremarkable as he was himself. The weather forecast predicted overcast with dry spells, but failed to mention a rain of ash and glass such as the one which occurred in the lemon-walled living room where Gerald confronted his wife. He started to tell her everything, to explain the loneliness and the despair which filled the hours he spent in his chair waiting for her to return; and when his voice failed him he simply bowed his head and placed the note he had found in her pocket on the table. He had considered other explanations for the note but the change of her face upon seeing the handwriting was enough. He knew, and while he had been ready for excuses, promises and even tears he never expected her to lie. Replaying the scene in his mind a week or so later, his reaction amused him: if the letter was what he believed it to be then she had been lying to him for some time now; he supposed he had still trusted her in some way, still believed she wouldn’t be able to lie to him directly. She had.
Her eyes had given her away, even before she opened her mouth. The way they’d changed when she’d seen the note. As she’d continued to lie he felt his temper rise and when he grabbed her wrists and stared straight into her face it had crumpled and the truth, the apologies and the excuses had flowed out of her then. His first impulse had been to forgive her, to take her into his arms and return to how they’d been for so long he struggled to remember anything else. Squashing that impulse with his fury he’d order her to leave and when she’d refused he’d shoved her away from him and to the ground. The ashtray was in its place adjacent his left hand and he’d hurled it towards the wall without thinking; it broke and fragments of glass had mixed with ash in Lilly’s hair.
Gerald tapped out his pipe into the replacement ashtray and refilled it with black tobacco as the acrid blue smoke made his eyes water so much it slid down his cheeks. He’d run out of tobacco at some point, probably run out of matches before then. He didn’t think that would be a problem. As he pressed the head of a match against the box and struck a light he replayed the shove and the breaking of the ashtray once again. He would never, and could never, forgive Lilly; but he’d have given a great deal to take that moment back.