An old man sat on a bench. A red scarf wrapped around his neck. The jacket hung loose around a body thin and weak from age. The wrinkles on his face lined the tired eyes that stared across the park at an empty apartment building. All around him people walked by. People of much younger years yet equally tired eyes. Time already taking its toll on those who’ve not yet seen half a life. The old man shook his head as he watched the worn faces walking on towards places where he hoped they would be happier at then where they had been. Such a pity. So much time, much less joy. A truck arrived at the building across the park, joining the others that were already parked in front. The old man swallowed, took his cane and got up. With heavy limbs and aching joints, he made his way across the park. He had to stop halfway to catch his breath. Pain shot up from his knee, but he would not show it. Then, slowly, he continued to the building. His wispy white hair blowing in the autumn breeze.
“Can an old man make one last visit?” He asked one of the men with the yellow construction jackets. The young one, half the old man’s age, looked at him and nodded unsurely. The old man thanked him and struggled past, into the walkway, then stopped to look at the old building properly. The bricks showed the signs of time taking its toll. Cracks had formed in several places where the weight became too much to bear after all these years, much like the frail old man staring up at it. Hello, old friend, the old man thought, a smile spreading on his face. But a looming sense of despair lingered in the back of his mind. The autumn wind blew again and in the mind’s eye of the old man, ninety years of time blew away. The construction workers faded, and most of the other buildings either disappeared completely or were replaced by the previous ones that used to stand in their place. Seasons reversed over and over again until they reached a warm summer afternoon, many, many, years earlier.
A young boy with thick blond hair and strong little bones, bounced up and down as he called out for his mother to hurry up. The woman, gentle and kind the old man remembered her, smiled at the boy with a loving look, one that never faded. The boy had a lifetime ahead, yet he hurried her impatiently up the steps.
“Hurry Mum,” The little boy called again. She struggled up the steps with the two heavy paper bags in hand. The old man watched as she helped the boy push open the door. It felt as though time left the old man’s bones, every ache and weak muscle slipping away as he followed them into the building, all the way to a blue door. A thousand times he saw it open. A thousand times he walked inside.
Picture frames hung on the walls, the photographs changing, replaced through the years. Decades worth of memories captured on pieces of paper. The kitchen’s walls had changed from yellow to white and back to yellow. They were painted three times, a memory for each. He remembered the round the table where they would sit, waiting, with food gone cold for his father to come home. When he’d finally arrive, he would always say, “You didn’t have to wait.” But they would do it anyway. A painful memory the old man kept in the back of his mind of the night their waiting stopped. No more nights did the food have to go cold, no longer would his father come through the door. The tears never seemed to end and his mother’s smile disappeared. Then, as time healed the wound, the tears were wiped away. But the memories stayed.
He remembered the face of every neighbour, although not their names. He recalled their voices and their deeds from a fading part in his memory. He remembered the lady next door who always came to ask for milk and would wind up staying an hour. The man from number 3 helped fix his bicycle while his wife helped patch up his knee. Then there was the woman from upstairs who always told him about her son, the one who never came home. And the electrician from downstairs, who fixed the broken pipe without charge when the pennies ran dry. So many times the neighbours changed, like the seasons outside. So many faces. So much change.
More seasons blew away till they reached a cold winter’s day that brought back the taste and smell of homemade soup. The taste had lasted all through time, making it feel like only yesterday. His mother smiled from in front of the stove. A treasured memory that one, the old man thought. It was one of the last he had left of his mother. An ache passed through his heart. Then the room changed in front of his eyes and she faded away before he could say goodbye.
Again, time passed. This time to a decade after he had left. He’d come home happy and whole, with another in hand. All the memories of his wife had been to many for the old mind to keep, so time left him half to take with into old age. The rest were replaced with memories of two little gifts, children, raised within the same walls he had been. Almost perfect it was. Except for the few slammed doors and raised voices from an angry teenager or two still finding their way. But even those were memories he wouldn’t let go. At least he would not want to, but time never asked. It would come to take them in the night and he would never even know what he’d forgotten…
The time went by in the blink of an eye and he and his wife were alone again. The children gone, left to find homes of their own. Things had changed again but they were happy all the same. One half of a life past, one more to go. They would do it together they said. Grow old and grey with enough wrinkles for every smile. They should have done it together, they should have… But time took her far too soon.
“Don’t worry, love. I’ll be alright.” She’d said one night with cold hands and only half of her left to hold. When morning came, she was gone and he was left. Still holding her hand even though she no longer held his.
All the happiness disappeared. The sunlight faded from the memories. Replaced with a gloomy grey. Beneath the jacket and scarf, the old man felt the cold chill that had haunted him even to the present day. The cold, empty bed. The lonely table. He felt all the aches of his heart that had slowly seeped into his bones over the years. Now bearing the weight of all his troubled times. No wonder bones ache in old age, they draw in all the pain we cannot bear. He remembered the cracked bricks outside and thought, I know what it’s like, my friend. I know. A single tear slipped down his cheek. His lip quivered slightly as he thought of the day they told him the building was being sold.
All his weight returned to him. Every ache coming back at once while the memories disappeared. He stood alone in the empty apartment, another tear rolling down his cheek. He made one last trip through the apartment, with one hand on his cane and the other on the wall. It was like an old friend walking next to him, one that shared all his memories. When he closed the blue door behind him, he felt a weight leave him. With a deep breath he gave it one last look, then made his way back outside.
“Did you live here a long time?” The younger man asked, helping the older down the pathway.
“Eighty years,” The old man answered with a sad smile.
“I’m so sorry.” The young one gave him an empathetic look.
“Don’t feel bad lad. We were made to last, but not forever.” Then the old man returned to the bench to wait. The hours ticked away and the next day he returned to the bench. Again, he waited.
Then, the time came. The men readied everything and the old man closed his eyes, not wanting to see another friend die. A loud explosion, soft to the old man’s ears, brought the building to the ground. A cloud of dust rising from the rubble. Wrinkled eyes opened slowly. He swallowed away the breath caught in his throat. The space where home had been, was empty. He thought of friends long gone, his parents, his wife and now the building, home, that had left him too, and said softly with a smile, “I’ll be there soon.”
And without a doubt, it was true.