The phone rings several times while Madeline combs her soft grey locks in the mirror and looks at her reflection. She wonders how it was that she went from thirty-five to sixty-five. Where did the years in between slip by? She looks at her body in the mirror. She tries to lift up her sagging breasts and hide the wrinkled stretch marks on her stomach. When did I grow old? And how did I never realise it. I thought I would be prepared for such a transition. I thought I would know exactly when I became old. But one morning I woke up with stiff joints that hurt in all weathers. Whoever said joints only hurt when it rained clearly did not know what they were talking about.
She looks past the brilliant light of the hot June sun streaming through her window and into her past. It seems only a couple of days ago that she was walking around the park with Tom. She sees Tom proposing to her over dinner with the family. Every one bursts into applause even though they already knew they were going to get married one day. They had been friends since childhood and were crazy about each other.
Over the years she had taught English literature to students in Kilburn where she lived. Harry, helped her. He would take Year 9 and 10 while she took the sixth form students. Together they would pore over books for endless hours, trying to find a way to make them interesting to teach. She had grown fond of him as they sat together lamenting their students’ poor knowledge and laughing over their spelling mistakes. She went to drop off some books at Harry’s place and ended up staying the night.
Knowing that he still had feelings for her, Harry left for America a couple of months after marrying Elaine. Madeline had never once thought about him after that. It was only recently that someone had mentioned that Elaine had left him years ago. She wonders how he is. She wonders what it was that made her think about him now. I am growing old. My memories are growing fainter. I want to remember what my life was like, before I forget.
Tom taught her how to drive a car for the first time. She always forgot to release the clutch and the brake together causing the car to stop with a forward jerk. They laughed at her numerous failed attempts. Of course, two years after that she was driving the car better than him. She was always very competitive, she knew that. She loved him. He drove her mad sometimes, granted.
She liked it when they argued because he was nicer to her afterwards, bringing her flowers and letting her keep the remote for an extra half hour just so she could finish watching EastEnders or Emmerdale. She admitted to herself that while she felt a little bit guilty teasing him, she looked forward to being pampered afterwards. In the nearly forty years of their marriage, he had not realized that fact and continued to get snappish at the slightest provocation. That is until his stroke, nearly five years ago.
She looks at the mirror again hoping that it would show her one or two less wrinkles and grey hair than it did five minutes ago. The mirror politely declines. Sighing she puts on dark brownish lipstick. She figures she is too old to use red lipstick again. A smile plays on her lips. She is not sad, she thinks. She just wishes she had had more time to prepare for it. There was so much more she wanted to do before getting old.
She is meeting her old school friends in a few hours. She wonders if she would be too self-conscious among them. She doesn’t know. She hadn’t seen them for nearly thirty years. You think you’ll have all the time in the world when your children grow up, but you really don’t. She picks up her bag and heads for the door.
Before leaving, she remembers to adjust his pillows to make him more comfortable. He is acting all grumpy with the nurses as they try to feed him. But when Madeline enters he calms down. She strokes her husband’s hair lovingly and gives special instructions to the assistant nurses.
She remembers to pocket the cell phone in her purse. She had asked Betty to teach her how to use it. Betty forgot when she came from Nottingham with her three little children last month. She is always running after those kids anyway. Who can blame her for forgetting? Madeline thinks, smiling. She loves her grandchildren but they deserve to be told no, once in a while. Betty spoils them. Her conversations with Tom would always start with a shake of the head and words to that effect and he would nod in agreement. He couldn’t do much more.
She searches for her keys after repeating the instructions. She finally finds the keys in the kitchen and wonders when she left them there. She puts her hand on the door knob for an instant, wondering if she has forgotten anything and then walks outside. The weather is warm but a cool breeze is blowing. She gets inside her little Yaris with a dent near the side bumper. I always meant to get it fixed but I forgot, she thinks. She has been forgetting a lot of things lately. Stress, I suppose, she shrugs. She drives carefully.
She reaches the restaurant a little early. With all her arrangements beforehand, she is still early. I can never be late; the habit is drilled into me by father.
She powders her nose and her mind drifts to Tom reading every night with little Betty before bedtime even sometimes when he came home late. She thinks of that summer when Betty was seven and they spent weeks in picnics and parties and travelling across the country and of Tom cracking jokes in the car to make Betty laugh. She smiles, she loved his little jokes even though she knew most of them by heart. She now repeats them to him, every day, which makes him smile.
Madeline doesn’t have long to wait. Her friends arrive in a few minutes and while they all look the same age; she can’t help but notice that they somehow don’t look old. Am I the only one who has grown old? she wonders. She sips her drink and listens to her friends talk fondly about their grandchildren and not so very fondly about their children.
Though she is smiling politely, part of her keeps thinking that she must get back. Tom will miss me if I stay too long. She barely has time to properly register the taste of the chicken and mushroom linguini on her plate. She rushes through her cocktail, almost causing her brain to freeze with the sudden rush of ice. Before the dessert menu is passed around, she apologises and takes her leave, mumbling some excuse, too proud to explain to her friends that Tom was paralysed from the neck down due to a stroke following a heart attack five years ago.
Her hands are a little cold and slippery as she grips the steering wheel and nearly rushes into an oncoming bus. Stay calm, she tells herself. She finally reaches home to find him sleeping peacefully. She sits by his bedside.
She feels annoyed that she had to leave the restaurant so early. She could have stayed for dessert. How did she know that Tom would sleep peacefully today? He would normally make a fuss with dinner and afterwards would want her to sit by his bedside till he fell asleep. No more reunions, she thinks, all my friends look younger than me, only I seem to have aged. No more meeting people my age.
She looks at Tom again. He seems to be sleeping when the phone rings. He stirs in his sleep. She runs to the phone to pick it up before he should wake.
“Hello, Mum? Is that you? I’ve been trying to reach you for ages.” Betty’s voice sounds chirpy but there is an anxious note in there. “I have been calling for ages. Do you know I was worried, when I couldn’t reach you? Where were you?”
“I met with some old friends who I haven’t seen in years.”
“But Mum, you left dad alone?”
Why don’t you come here and lend a hand? Madeline didn’t say it, but her tired mind thought it. Betty continued talking.
“You know Carol, our next door neighbour? She’s leaving Bill and they’ve been married what nearly twenty years, imagine that. Dan always said he knew their marriage wouldn’t last.”
Talking with her daughter always made her irritable.
“Did you call for something?” there is an edge in her voice which her daughter would have recognized had she been more perceptive.
“The family photos! Where are they?”
“I sent them to you. They must be in the grey carton. Underneath all the stuff you packed. Why did you need three dozen dresses from London?”
“I told you.” Betty speaks in a slow patient voice. “I have no time for myself with the kids and their school and them running into all sorts of scrapes when they are at home. Allison poured my favourite perfume on the carpet, when I was talking on the phone to Dan half an hour ago.”
“Well? I still can’t find them. Mum are you absolutely sure you sent them? You might have forgotten?”
“For God’s sake stop treating me like a child! You cannot find it because you are so disorganized and those little children of yours are always creating a mess and hiding things.” She slams the receiver down. She wants to cry loudly and uncontrollably. She wants to say that she is tired. She has been tired for quite some time. She loves her husband but it is hard taking care of him all the time. She wants rest too. She wants someone looking after her for a change.
She goes into her room and sees a little grey box near the cupboard. It is full of old family photos. Right at the back of the cupboard, scrawled in her neat handwriting is Harry’s number and address copied from the postcard he sent two years ago. She takes the number and picks up the phone. Then she puts it down again without dialling it.
She looks out of her window. The early evening breeze cools her cheeks. She sits down. A bus passes and children with navy grey uniforms pile out of it and skip cheerfully with their friends to their homes. A little further down the street, older boys are playing football in the park. Two women are standing in the street gossiping with each other. In their neighbour’s garden three little girls are playing hopscotch.
One of the nurses comes to the door.
“Your husband.” She says though Madeline has to lean forward to hear her properly. She should get her hearing aid fixed the next time she goes out, she thinks.
She rushes out. Her husband has woken up and is whining like a little schoolboy. She helps the nurses as they turn him over, change his wet sheets, and clean him. She sits down beside him when they leave the room. He finally calms down and looks at her lovingly. She cuddles besides him. He begins to make a noise trying to formulate some words. Only hollow sounds issue from his lips.
“Yes. Yes.’” She says, clinging close to him. Somehow she understands his jumbled up words and his thoughts better than her own. “Yes. Yes.” She whispers again.