An elderly man is sitting perfectly still on a sofa. One hand hangs limply from the armrest, the other trembles on a familiar depression in the upholstery beside him. His head moves with his breath as he stares at the room out of the tops of his eyes. A mirror hangs over an unused fireplace. The mirror frames his head and shoulders with ornate gilt whenever he coaxes himself up onto his poles and, balance corrected, raises his head. There’s a small television on a corner table, its flex wound into a carrier bag. Behind it, window blinds afford a slatted view of flats on the other side of the communal garden. A coffee table in front of him is empty except for two coasters. They carry faded images of a forgotten holiday destination, waves like muffled cars passing by, the roar in his ears of the ocean of silence broken only by the insouciant tick-tock of a clock he never notices unless he listens for it. A mug on the coaster in front of him has the letter N on it. There’s one with a V in the kitchen cabinet.
He straightens his back to initiate movement, like she used to remind him to do. He called it nagging but it was the only way she knew to look after him. Aware of a fullness inside him, he considers the challenge of going, behind a bush in the garden perhaps so he can have a smoke at the same time, the cigarette jutting defiantly out beneath clenched eyes as he cranes his neck up as far as it’ll go. He decides against it. There’s too much inertia to move just at the moment. There’s a bottle next to the sofa if push comes to shove. And there’s plenty of time. Always plenty of time now he’s old.
Is that right? Old? It’s not as if he denies it outright, but this particular morning he mulls over the adjective – old – as if he’s just beginning to learn it, like at school, contemplating first its imprecise implication of age, then its accoutrements of aches and pains, the slowness it ushers in, the frailty of control which sees agency slip away, the vulnerability of having to depend, the loneliness of the loss it’s had time to accrue, and … the disgrace, yes, the shame, of having to receive, of having no further purpose, of being a burden.
For what use is he now?
He allows his mind to wander back. All the things he thought he’d achieved seem to wane like a record fading out. His brow furrows and he closes his eyes, his glasses still on the bridge of his nose so habituated is he to their presence there.
He recalls a restaurant. It just floats into his awareness. He’d made his way down a high street, probably after a row with mum, probably about money, asking the same question in each shop, leaving his number on scraps of paper. Maybe it was lucky timing, a vacancy to be filled before checks and balances made such things more complicated, but anyway, the next day, or perhaps the week after - time distorts memory and memory distorts time - he found himself behind a small bar, organizing drinks that table attendants would rush to fetch for the customers who poured in and out for comfort food at reasonable prices. Set opposite the staircase to the downstairs seating, in an alcove in the long wall of the upstairs dining area, the bar’s confines were so small he had to be careful not to back into anything. But it was his tiny tidy kingdom. He remembers the noise, the bustle, the table staff waiting hectically for him to load their trays, ‘any time today Nick’, the shouts of food plated up from kitchen staff whose accents he couldn’t place but who would produce anything he fancied for his break with a smiling efficiency that always left him slightly awestruck.
And he remembers an elderly man who used to come in for his supper. Moving with two walking sticks in slow motion through the mayhem, he’d head for the same upstairs table every time, leaning slightly against the counter of the bar if the usual table wasn’t free, gnarled hands resting tremulously on his sticks, bald blotched head turned slightly towards the kitchen at the far end of the dining room, looking through the tops of grey eyes and wild eyebrows to correct for the hunch of his back and the droop of his neck. His jacket and tie were faintly crumpled and his flannel trousers were fading around the seat. A grey handkerchief embroidered with N would stick out of one of the pockets.
He was believed to be a composer. One of the kitchen staff had mentioned it. Quite well known he was, apparently. Whenever he inched his way past the bar, Nicholas would imagine musical notes dancing around the old man’s head: crotchets bouncing gently on his crown, quavers hovering around his shoulders, maybe a semiquaver or two playfully hanging off one or both of his ears for a moment, then joining the others in a dance, scattered treble and bass clefs and sharps and flats adding to the mix, the whole ensemble conducted in the time signature of a great musical mind. The dancing notes would swirl around the composer’s head as he headed for his table, taking detours to zoom off to people at other tables before returning to the orchestra pit to swarm inquisitively over the composer’s table, bob around his placemat, and settle on his menu.
The old man would always order a lemon tea, in a glass, with the tea bag left in. He was quite particular about that. Nick imagined, after a while, that it must come as a relief that a regular bar boy had arrived and knew his preference even if a table attendant who was new got it wrong. He’d make the tea assiduously: slipping the glass into a metal holder to protect the old man’s fingers, a generous slice of lemon would go in first, then hot water swooshing into the glass from the dispenser, then a tea bag added to the lemony water, a saucer to carry the glass on, a serviette between saucer and glass, two cubes of sugar next to the glass, and a long tea-spoon perched on the saucer. There, that would be perfect. He’d watch the tea being delivered, imagining the sweet lemon infusion somehow adding to the composer’s inspiration, notes and tones taking shape in his mind, perhaps destined for an LP, or perhaps a concert hall full of admiring people. And he’d smile and nod to himself at the idea that he’d contributed in some small way to a rarified world of brilliance and inspiration. Later, the glass would be returned for washing up, the cubes gone, the shrivelled tea bag moulded to the spoon on the saucer, the fruity aroma of the dregs following the tea bag into the broken swing-bin beneath the counter.
Now, on this sofa, surprised all this should be coming back to him, the lines on Nick’s forehead clear a little and the corners of his mouth lift to greet the reverie. In his mind’s eye, the composer’s notes dance towards him, across an aeon of time and space, into this cold lounge, making music with no discernable tune or form but music none-the-less, filling his head, coursing into his chest, suffusing his heart with a feeling of excitement, an effervescence not felt for some time. With neither intention nor effort he lightens from the sadness and the loneliness and encounters a notion that nothing separates him from those days; that in the grand scheme of things it might as well have been yesterday, or earlier today, or even now, that he is there, and here, joined by a golden thread of existence that neutralizes the ravages of time and breaks the shackles of age. Connected once again with noisy customers, pushy table attendants, ebullient chefs and the composer and his lemon tea, a symphony of notes reaches across the arc of his life carrying a wordless message that all has been enough, no more no less, just enough; telling him that everything in his story is an indispensable piece of a mystical puzzle, necessary for the fulfilment of something of which he is, has always been and will always have been no more but no less important a part than anyone or anything else; reminding him that his idea of achievement, of worldly success, of decorations and acclaim and potential and opportunities both seized and squandered is and always has been of his own composition, born of a battle in which there has only ever been one belligerent; assuring him that the lemon tea, along with a myriad other things to which he would never ordinarily have attached any significance whatsoever, was and remains part of a whole, full in its own way, no less important than anything anyone else has done or will ever do; no more complicated than the simple truth that it was and remains an integral piece of a great unfolding of which he can grasp an understanding as much as anyone else.
Tears squeeze from his tired eyes. Years of suffering at this own hand trickle down his cheeks and onto his collar and tie, a sensation at his core of the relief of truth in all its shoulder-shrugging humility. The relief slowly melts into a calm reprieve from incessant restlessness, and gratitude dawns on him like a sunrise.
The memory of the restaurant returns with a subtle focus that wasn’t there before. He can smell goulash and bolognese in the dining room, dregs of wine and coffee in the sink, cigarette butts in the bin; and the clanking of cutlery and crashes of dishes ring out like Russian percussion behind the chorus of shouting voices in the smoke filled dining room. The tea towel around his thumb drapes motionless from the glass he was drying. He sees the composer, at his usual table, his back to him; sees a jowl stop moving, a cheek slowly turning round towards him; sees him putting one arm on the back of the chair and turning his head right round so that their eyes meet. Notes flutter in an eternal presence. The composer smiles. Nick rocks gently on the sofa, his eyes closed, both hands now tremulously turned towards the ceiling as if to receive something. He stands stock-still, returns the composer’s gaze and smiles back, a surge of freedom washing from deep within him to the shoreline of his skin. The composer nods, once, then slowly turns back to his supper, and the boy behind the bar reverts to his work.
Suddenly self-conscious, he returns to the waves of traffic breaking on the windows and the tick-tock of the clock on the wall. He opens his eyes, reaches into his pocket for his handkerchief and blows his nose. Without the heaviness that usually comes to him at this time of the morning, he reconciles himself to the day and shuffles forward, taking his sticks into his gnarled fists, rising laboriously from the sofa with an involuntary expiration that sounds like ‘ha’, straightening as much as he can so he can look out of the tops of his eyes at the mirror, catching his balance. He muses that his reflection is only there when he sees it. Or at least he’s only sure it’s there when he’s looking at it. Maybe it’s always there. How would he know unless he was looking at it? Anyway, he ponders further, the mirror is only one way of seeing his reflection.
He can see it in others.
Smiling now, the composer turns carefully away from the mirror, purposively sets his sticks before him, and makes his way to the kitchen for his mid-morning glass of sweet lemon tea.