I've been here for five and a half years now, two short of the record for the longest stay. Three inmates have enjoyed a longer wait, two of which aren't exactly aware of the fact and the other they keep hidden away somewhere in a back room. Now and again I can hear her alarming outbursts echo from deep within the bowels of the building and up through the space between the outside wall and the chipboard partition behind my bed. I've got used to hearing the tirade of abuse that fills the silence between meals, and the crazed screams that wake me during the night, it's a part of the place.
I'm eighty-nine next birthday but I don't feel my age, and people say I don't look it. I assume they're being complementary by telling me I don't look that old, I think they struggle to think of anything else to say, but I'm okay with that. Age, as they say, is just a number after all.
I think there are eighteen of us here at 'Sunnybank Home for the Elderley,' but the turnover varies according to the time lag between the 'outgoing' and 'incoming' residents. I see them come and go from my window every few months, one day it'll be me being wheeled out across the driveway on the blue metal gurney to the ambulance, unless there is no ambulance in which case it'll be the black van of doom.
My window is my life. I can't walk very easily and I sit here every day watching the world and its people. It's like looking at a silent, plotless play where actors walk about the stage unscripted, the scenery changing with the rising sun and the curtain falling with the evening shadows. But it's my life now and it's all I have.
I notice more now than when I was younger, especially the backdrop to the performance that plays out each day in the park and on the road below my balcony seat high up here in my room. The landscape changes more than it ever did when I was busy chasing trains and meetings, it seems more real, more alive. Now, in April, the crocuses have finished, the daffodils are just going over and the tulips have just begun to paint the scenery with little brushstrokes of pinks, reds and purples. The cherry trees are in full bloom and the woods are a haze of gentle greens.
I watch children playing on the grass while their tired parents sit faced-up to the fragile sun like little sunflowers, and I see young couples strolling love-eyed through the breezy trees and waving blooms.
When there is little else to do, everything that's left becomes more valuable.
There's so much to look at now and my days are full well before the show, curtain up six-thirty am.
The performance has gathered pace, the early light and warmer days throwing the performers headlong into their roles without so much as a read-through. From the opening the scene is set, chants and screams from players that kick and bounce footballs, screaming babies and blubbering toddlers. Masked bandits wander about the patchy grass and along the paths, faces half-covered against sprays of virus-leaden mists from joggers that swerve and weave around like giant termites.
In the distance I can see the boat that has cruised along the estuary from the coast. Depending on the tides it moors up on the quay by the car park where its expectant passengers disembark in careful steps, eager for fish and chips, crab-nets and ice cream. They wander goggle-eyed along the embankment searching eagerly for a bench in the sun. On the hottest days the park will fill with holiday makers that lie tired and spread-eagled on the grass until the tide takes them back to their hot cars by the sea.
The entertainment often builds quickly, the first act bringing the players out into the park where they walk, talk and sit among the flowering shrubs and trees. A couple cross the road from the quay and flop down on to the grass by a little stream. I watched them as they argued, arms flailing and fingers pointing like comic strip pictures. I could image speech bubbles above their heads filled with exclamation marks and random punctuation. The man was about thirty, thin with black curly hair and a red face. She was younger but thinner still, peroxide-white hair falling over her eyes as she flicked her head about in anger. I notice the details that give soul to a character. I settled down in my balcony seat and watched the scene play out until they sorted their differences with a lingering and passionate kiss.
The curtain came down on this day, as it always had when the sun dropped low to the horizon and the shadows cast their cool shade on the river and fields. I drew the blinds on my window to the world and turned on my television. A double-knock told me to keep my distance and I sat down in my crumpled leather armchair awaiting the arrival of dinner. A figure appeared in the doorway, menacing in its plastic body suit and full face mask. A mumbled voice told me to enjoy my food and to leave the tray outside the door when I'd finished.
I usually slept well, my dreams being frequent and vivid. They were mostly muddled adaptations of things I'd seen and imagined during the day, sometimes confused, always lucid. I lay down under a single sheet and let myself drift away into a cinema world where rivers flowed deep and fast through tropical rainforests, explorers travelled across sun-parched deserts and where young lovers cuddled beneath ancient oaks.
I woke at some point in the dead of night and put on the side light. The house seemed strangely quiet, as if the sound had been switched off, and in the silence I searched for some interest that would spark the long night hours before dawn. My walls were covered with photographs of many of the films I'd acted in since I'd finished theatre school. Black and white pictures of half-remembered movies and forgotten plots, colourful prints of second rate films and redundant actors. I let myself drift away into a past where my world was rich with deception and intrigue, charm and magic.
The curtain came up on a landscape of russet tones and reddish tints that flushed the trees and bathed the ground with a scattering of fallen leaves. The backdrop of blue had been painted with a wash of orange from the frail autumn sun and the shadows lengthened across the stage. The players stood wrapped against the morning chill, I settled myself and waited for the show to begin.
Young mothers pushed and weaved their prams through gabbles of school-bound children that flopped along in silent lines, neck-ties half mast and scuffed shoes kicking at stones on the pathway.
A homeless lady sat between the bags of her life, her unfocused stare looking back to the years before sickness took her mind and threw it to the streets. And a suited man leant against a fence jabbering silent words into his phone. The scene was set.
I made thatched cottages and rose gardens for the mothers and a never-ending Christmas for the children. I let the man rule a million pound business that filled his dreams, and I gave the poor lady hope. At the end of the day I put music to it all, songs that sang of enchantment, ambition and joy.
Skeleton branches dripped with melting ice and the grass lay white from frost. Just a few players remained, rushing stage-left through the sleety rain that lashed against their anorak costumes and blew their hats to the wind.
The empty jetty pushed its way out into the shallow estuary where black-winged gulls sifted the mud and paddled the dwindling pools of brackish water. Out there, on a bench by the quay, I thought I saw a lady. I leant forwards as far as I dare and with my nose against the window smiled a smile I thought I'd forgotten. She turned and faced me, but I couldn't see her through the skein of cold rain that blistered the glass and blurred the stage. She moved with grace, slightly bent but still with strength and poise. And then I recognised the elegant beauty of my wife as she danced and sang to an audience of one.
She stood below my balcony and looked up at me. I left the film with its dreary plot and lifeless script and let the curtain drop before the performance came to an end. This leading lady would share the stage with her co-star once more.