There she is, in her favourite easy chair; the plum velour one in the corner, with its matching neighbour just a few inches to the side. She smiles, like you’re an old friend, and you make your way across the lounge, nodding to old Davie and stopping to pick up Edna’s knee rug on the way.
‘Hello, Jean,’ you say.
She says hello back and you sit together not watching Alan Titchmarsh on the flat screen telly on the wall for a while. You wonder if today is going to be a good day.
Mrs McCrone’s daughter Grace, the one that got divorced last year, is on the tea trolley and she smiles at you and Jean as she makes her way around the room. You remember watching her and her sisters when they were wee; playing tea parties in the back garden with their dollies.
‘I’ll be with you in a minute,’ she says, and you tell her there’s no rush. You’ve got all afternoon.
You look out the big bay window to the communal gardens and you ask Jean if she has noticed how chilly the mornings have turned. Your old knees are holding up, but you know that winter is just round the corner and you prefer not to think about the aches and pains that will come along with the colder weather. The flowerbeds that were full of colour all summer long are empty now, and the trees are looking a bit sorry for themselves. You miss the pinks and the yellows and those wee purple anemones. They were Jean’s favourites. She was always the one with the eye for colour.
You used to enjoy walking through the woods at this time of year, especially when the family were young; kicking the leaves under your feet, playing hide and seek with the kids, picking out the best conkers. You ask Jean if she remembers the woods at Culzean.
‘I went there on a school trip,’ she says and you think, not for the first time, that memories are funny things.
‘Jim Gourlay fell in the water,’ she says.
You laugh at the thought of Jim, eighty-two last month, falling in the lake.
‘He’s never changed,’ you say. ‘He’s still as clumsy as ever.’
You decide not to tell her that Jim had a bad fall last week and that he’s in the hospital with a broken hip. Instead, you tell her about the time the three of you climbed the tree at the back of the bowling green. She laughs at the picture of Jim dangling there with his braces caught on the top branch.
‘Oh I wish I’d seen that,’ she says.
Grace comes over with the trolley and pours the teas. She hands Jean her own special mug, the one that says, ‘Jean’s Mug, Tea please, milk and one sugar.’
You remember when young Nancy showed it to you. She was that pleased with herself when she found it on the Internet. She said she could show you how to get your food shopping off the computer, but you told her you’d miss your walk down the street if you did that; even if it does take you twice as long to get back up the hill these days.
‘Do you think Granny will like it?’ she’d asked, and you said of course she would, but you both knew that it wouldn’t make any difference to Jean what it said on the mug.
You catch your breath as Jean dunks her tea biscuit and you wish she wouldn’t do that. You just hope she takes it out again before it gets too soggy.
‘I do like a nice digestive wi’ my tea,’ she says and you tell her that ginger nuts have always been your favourites. Then the pair of you talk about biscuits till you’ve finished your drinks.
You’ve brought the photo albums with you and while you rummage around in the carrier bag you ask Jean if she remembers dancing at The Pavillion.
‘Oh aye,’ she says. ‘My Alec was a grand dancer.’
You find the photo you’re looking for. St Valentine’s Day 1956 it says on the back and you pass it over to Jean. She traces a finger – the one with the gnarled nail from when she shut it in the car door – around the contours of the dancing couple like she’s remembering the moves and the music and you think you can almost hear it yourself. Sweet, sweet, the memories you gave to me … You can almost feel her in your arms, her purple taffeta dress rustling with every turn; the best looking girl in the dance hall.
‘He was a good looking man, my Alec,’ she says, and you swallow the lump in your throat. It’s all you can do not to tell her, but you know she’ll not believe you.
‘He looked a bit like Dean Martin,’ she says.
‘Really?’ you ask. You’ve never heard that one before.
‘Oh aye,’ she says. ‘He was a good looking man, my Alec.’
She starts to hand the photo back, but she stops half way and she looks straight at you, right into your eyes, before looking back at the picture.
‘You look a bit like my Alec,’ she says, and it feels like your heart’s about to burst right out of your chest; it’s beating that loud you can nearly hear it. You hold your breath. Maybe today really is going to be a good one. ‘But you’re a lot older,’ she says, and she asks are there any more pictures in the bag.
You tell her about the new traffic lights and the one way system in the town, about the new neighbours who moved into Mrs McCrone’s old house, and how the bowling club are having a coffee morning on Saturday. She looks at the photo of Nancy and Bill’s wedding. She smiles at the young woman in the picture and even though you shouldn’t, you ask if she knows who it is.
‘I don’t even know who I am some days,’ she says and she’s smiling, but you can see her eyes welling up and you wish you hadn’t asked.
‘She looks a bit like me,’ she says. ‘But that’s no’ my Alec.’
You laugh, though there’s nothing to laugh about, and once you start, it feels like you’re never going to stop. Grace comes over to ask if you’re okay and you try to tell her you’re fine. The tears are running down your cheeks and she thinks you’re crying, but you can’t stop laughing long enough to tell her that you’re not.
‘I said something funny,’ says Jean.
Grace says that it’s good to see you laughing. You give your specs a wipe on the edge of your jumper, pull the hanky out your pocket and wipe your face before reaching in the bag for another photo for Jean.
Somebody has pulled the blinds and you can’t see the gardens anymore. You know the signs. It’s nearly dinner time, nearly time to go, nearly time to leave Jean and you remember all the times you’ve had to leave her; all the times when you’d rather have stayed or taken her in your arms and danced her all the way out the doors. You remember the music. Take one fresh and tender kiss … and you touch Jean’s hand. Add one stolen night of bliss … and you tell her that you are going now. One man, one wife, one love through life … and you start to walk away.
‘Thanks for coming,’ she says and you say you’ll see her tomorrow. She looks like she’s going to say something else but then she notices some fluff on her cardigan and she concentrates on that as you head for the door.
Mr O’Hara,’ says Grace catching up with you. ‘Do you want a lift up the road? I’ve just finished and I’m going past your house anyway.’
‘That would be nice, lass,’ you say, and you take one last look at Jean in her favourite easy chair; the plum velour one in the corner, with its matching neighbour just a few inches to the side.