“Young man, please tell me you're not serious?” May looked across at Tom, who was busy pouring their tea.
“I certainly am,” he replied, sitting down and helping himself to a ginger biscuit. “And why not?”
“Why not? Well, it's not for the likes of me for starters,” laughed May. “It's for youngsters like you and Sue. Quiet now it's starting.”
May settled back in her recliner and put her feet up.
A camera zoomed to an eager, suited and booted, young man. With slicked-back hair, sunbed tan, and neon-white teeth, he grinned professionally into the camera, as the studio audience applauded.
“It's Sunday night and it's Love Hearts! The show where you, and your love heart, can win big. Just by proving how well you know each other! And don't forget! Every week, one lucky couple gets to take home the big prize! But we're still waiting for that special couple! So come on all you lovebirds out there! Get dialling and win that jackpot!”
“Look at him!” Tom dunked another ginger biscuit into his tea. “Bet he took hours to get ready...He's probably got a season ticket to the beauty parlour!”
“Oh Tom don't be silly! Watch out! That ginger biscuit is going to...”
“I know May... I know... I'm an expert at dunking biscuits, you know that. Haven't lost one yet.”
“Shh! This is where they introduce this week's contestants.”
May polished her glasses and fiddled with her hearing aid.
“Just look at the lot they've got lined up this week,” Tom said with exasperation. “You telling me they know all about each other? Looks like they're just bits of kids. What do they know about love, life and romance?”
“Shh!” said May, raising the volume with the remote control.
“Well if you're going to watch, and you don't think we would stand a chance against that lot, then I'll be getting on with the washing-up then.” Tom made his way to the kitchen with the tea tray.
“And don't forget to...”
“Yes I know! I know! Empty the tea leaves into the bin and not the sink,” he finished, as he squirted lemon washing-up liquid into a bowl of steaming water.
* * * *
“Tom said what?”
“Tom said we should enter that reality show. You know the one? Love Hearts. It's on Sunday nights.”
May was talking to her friend Sue the following morning, as they did their weekly wash in the laundry room.
“But he can't mean it surely?” Sue tipped her washing into a plastic basket. “You do realise he loves to pull your leg? He's a bit of a dreamer too.”
“Well he had that look on his face. You know the one? The determined look I call it,” May imitated Tom's determined look.
“I can't say that I do,” Sue laughed as she caught sight of May's expression. “But then you know Tom better than me.”
“Well not really. He only arrived here in February.”
“And now it's September, and he's been round yours for tea almost every Sunday night, sits at our table for Bingo, and makes sure he sits next to you every film night,” Sue added meaningfully.
“Don't be silly, he could easily be sitting next to you as well. And I think he really likes you!”
May struggled to stand, as her washing machine finished.
“Don't worry I'll get it,” Sue tugged at the door of the machine.
“He's lonely though,” continued May. “He's all jokey on the outside, but he's got no family here. His wife passed away some years ago. He's got a son in America. But I don't think his army pension would stretch to airfares, I'm sure that's why he thought we could enter the show.”
May paused. “They've just had a baby. Tom's first grandchild. They do that Skype thing, you know, over the internet, but it's not the same as having a real cuddle is it?”
May sorted through her damp washing. “And by the way, there's no harm in a bit of companionship now and again Sue,” She said firmly.
And Sue knew, from experience, that when that particular tone of voice crept into their conversation, it meant the end of the topic.
* * * *
It was Wednesday night, and Wednesday night at Castleview Retirement Home meant Bingo! It was a regular event on the social calendar, and most residents looked forward to it. Not only did it break the monotony of the week, but meant that the weekend was just around the corner. The room began to fill up and Sue and Tom were seated at their usual table, waiting for May.
“She's late. Unlike May to be late for Bingo,” said Sue glancing at her watch.
“Her grand-daughter might be on the phone again,” replied Tom. “I think the baby gets colic sometimes, so May gives her a bit of advice. Or it could be her rheumatism playing up. I got her a hot water bottle. I read that the warmth could help with the ache. If she doesn't come down soon, I'll go up and give her door a knock. Just to make sure that she's ok.”
“Eyes Down!” called out the entertainments manager, everyone instantly obeyed, peering expectantly at their Bingo cards. All except for Tom. He kept a concerned eye on the door.
* * * *
A few days later, the resident's lounge was humming again with the sound of light-hearted banter.
“Hi Bert how's the hip? Any better today?” May was chatting to old friends, as she moved across the room, leaning heavily on her walking frame.
“Betty! How are you my dear? I saw that little black cat outside your door again today, maybe we should leave out some water and biscuits?”
“Over here May!” called Sue from across the room, standing up and waving.
“Is your rheumatism playing up again?” she asked as May came closer, “perhaps you need a drop of cod liver oil?” Sue suggested with a smile
“I need a drop of something,” agreed May, smiling back at her. “You look pretty tonight Sue. Is that a new jumper? Pink really suits you.”
“Do you think so? I find it difficult to find anything that doesn't clash with my rotten red hair. For which I have my Irish grandmother to thank.”
“Well I rather like your hair,” said Tom standing up. “And May's right, you do look rather nice tonight.”
Sue's complexion turned a shade of pink that matched her new jumper, and she was glad Tom hadn't noticed as he was too busy guiding May to her chair.
“Ah that's better Tom. There was a time when I could have run all the way here! Nimble as a girl I was,” said May ruefully as she rubbed her knees. “I hope they've chosen a good film for us tonight.”
“But you're still just a slip of a girl!” said Tom, sitting next to her. And tonight we've got a real treat! It's our favourite. Casablanca.”
“Of all the gin joints,” he began.
“In all the towns in all the world,” May continued.
“She walks into mine,” Tom smiled, and produced a packet of jelly babies.
“My favourite!” Sue glanced across at them both, winking at May, as the opening credits began.
They watched right to the end, accompanied by the occasional snores of cosy residents, lulled off to sleep in the warm, companionable, atmosphere.
“What I can never understand,” began Sue as the lights came on. “Why did Rick let Ilsa go? Why didn't he just get on the plane with her?”
“Rick loved her,” said Tom. 'But I guess he didn't want her to choose between him and her husband. I think they just found each other again too late.”
“Yes,” said May, quietly to herself. “That's what true love is. It's never logical, rarely predictable, but always magical when it happens.”
* * * *
“Is that you Tom? Be a dear and put the kettle on!” called May from her chair. “Sunday's here again and I'm tired out already, not quite sure why.”
“Oh hello yourself May! Mind if I get to sit down first?”
Tom smiled as he walked into the familiar kitchen and filled the kettle.
“I brought your favourite lemon drizzle cake for tea too. It was on offer at the corner shop.” He called out.
But as he arranged the tea cups on the tray, he discovered an identical lemon-drizzle cake, already sliced on a plate.
“Great minds think alike I see! And you don't think we know each other well enough to go on Love Hearts and win all that lovely prize money!”
The opening refrain of Love Hearts began to play, so Tom poured out their tea.
* * * *
“Tom! Thank goodness, there you are!” Sue found him huddled on a bench in the car park, as an ambulance drove slowly out through the gates. He turned. Even in the darkness Sue could see his face was drained with shock, tears rolling down his ashen cheeks.
“She's gone Sue. I only went into the kitchen to make the tea. Me and my crazy dreams about us being on that stupid show.”
“Now listen up Tom. You just listen to me. You gave May a lot of happiness these last few months. I know that. Here, wipe your eyes and blow your nose.”
Her time as a secondary school teacher came in handy sometimes, she thought ruefully to herself, as she offered Tom her handkerchief. Then putting her arm around him she led him inside.
They sat quietly together in the empty reception. After a while, the shaking in his shoulders slowed and Sue reached into her bag.
“Look. I don't know if this is the right time to give you this, but May wanted you to have it. She said that if anything was to happen to her, I had to give you this envelope straight away.”
His hand trembled as he recognised May's distinctive handwriting, but he shook his head, gulping back more tears.
“Let me read it to you,” Sue said with more firmness than she felt.
My dearest Tom,
I just have this funny feeling that I need to get this written today. Me being silly I suppose. But if you're reading this, I guess my intuition was right and I'm on my way to meet my dashing young husband again, who has been waiting for me!
I know it was a dream of yours to enter us into Love Hearts. Such a lark it would have been. And to win all that prize money! And do you know what? I really think we could have done it.
But do you know something else? You have given this old girl more than that prize money ever could. You have given me laughs and plenty of good conversation, not to mention those awful cups of tea! And to see your love for life, meant such a lot to me, which at 91 years of age, is no mean feat young man!
Now get yourself on a plane and go and see your family. You don't need to win any prize money for that. My only condition is that you take Sue with you. She could do with a change of scene from this place.
And by the way, you're both too young to waste the rest of your lives watching old films and playing Bingo! Join the world again just for me!
“So here's looking at you, kid!”
With much love and friendship to you both,
Sue wiped her eyes, and looked inside the envelope. She pulled out two identical folders. Open return flights from Heathrow to Philadelphia, including accommodation. One for Tom and one for herself.
“I can't believe it!” said Tom.
“I can,” said Sue. “May was such a hopeless romantic. That's why she loved to watch old classics like Casablanca and reality shows like Love Hearts.”
“But I do know something,” replied Tom looking around the quiet reception. “This place will never be the same without her.”
Sue rested her head on his shoulder and cried as the loss of her dear friend, overcame her usually stoical nature.
Tom hesitated, then drew her closer, gently stroking her fragrant red hair. Something he had wanted to do for a long time, but had never had quite enough courage.
“Thanks May.” He said quietly.
* * * *