'How long is it since we had high tea together?' I asked.
My friend Joe and I were seated in the Westlea Hotel, one of the posher eateries in the town. I had to whisper when I spoke to him, lest anyone should overhear me.
'How is your scone?' asked Joe.
'Palatable,' I replied.
'They always were at the Westlea,' said Joe. 'Do you remember when we used to come here after playing tennis? We'd often have tea and a scone.'
'You were always a better tennis player than me,' I said.
'It's all in the wrist action,' said Joe. 'You always had floppy wrists.'
I looked around the dining-room. There were a dozen folk eating cream teas, most of them elderly. The woman on the table next to me was so interested in our conversation she almost had her elbow on my plate.
'The town's changed a lot since then,' I reflected. 'All these new houses being built on the outskirts. Soon you'll not be able to recognise the place.'
'Don't forget the shops are closing,' said Joe.
'That's the internet,' I said. 'Two clicks of a mouse. You don't have to move from your armchair.'
'Kiss of death for the shops, that,' said Joe.
'Do you remember the Co-op on the High Street?' I asked him.
'My mother,’ I said, ‘could still remember her divvy number till the day she died.’ ‘As could most mothers,’ remarked Joe.
‘And the cashier,’ I added, ‘sat in a central office and sent your change down in a tube along some wires. That always fascinated me.'
'The Co-op had huge chunks of butter and cheese on the counter,' Joe said. 'They used to cut off what you needed, weigh it on an old-fashioned set of scales, and wrap it up in blue paper. None of this plastic packaging that's destroying the oceans.'
‘You can hardly open some of these shrink-wrapped goods,’ I said.
'Those were simpler times,' said Joe. 'The world's the poorer for all this disposable stuff. We never had any money, so we repaired everything that went wrong. We never threw anything away.'
'I know,’ I replied. ‘My dad made me a cart with planks of wood and four pram wheels. A bit of clothes line to steer with, a rudimentary brake that stopped you if you were lucky and hours of fun on Huddleston Hill.'
'Kids these days don't know they're born,' said Joe. 'They sit behind games consoles, goggle-eyed, hardly ever venturing out of the house.'
'We were never in the house,' I said.
'On weekends, and holidays, my mother kicked me out straight after breakfast,' remarked Joe.
'Do you remember we used to play cricket on that narrow piece of land near the burn?' I asked him.
Joe inclined his head.
'We learned to play straight.,’ I said. ‘If you tried a cover-drive the ball would end up in the water. We couldn't afford to lose a ball. That burn was fast-flowing.'
'Filled in, now,' said Joe. 'That strip of land is someone's garden. Those big houses, they swallowed up what we thought was common land.'
'I suppose the town planners did a deal with builders,' I said.
'Brown envelope job,' replied Joe.
The waiter sidled up and asked us if we'd like more tea. I said 'yes' for both of us. He brought a silver teapot and laid it carefully on the table, as if it might spring up and bite him.
'Those were the days,' said Joe. 'You could buy a pack of three Player's Weights for eightpence. No-one bothered to check our ages. I was twelve when I bought my first pack off of old Farley the Grocer. He was only too pleased to sell them to me. Times were hard.'
'You always were a heavy smoker,' I said.
'Never regretted it. I know what it does to your health but I wanted to enjoy my life.' 'You did that. You married well, too.'
'Oh, my Clara. She was a queen,' said Joe. 'Never had a bad word to say about anybody. Always had a smile on her face.'
'Pity she didn't bear you any children,' I said.
'My fault. Low sperm count, the quack said.'
'Yes. Miserly old Scotsman with a heavy moustache and the manner of a chief mourner at a funeral.'
'He was my Uncle Jack's doctor,' I said. 'Treated his chilblains well, I’m told.'
'One of the old school,' remarked Joe. 'We were terrified of him as kids. They say the new doctor looks about thirteen and wears an open-necked shirt.'
'Doctor Morris would turn in his grave,' I said, 'if he knew that.'
I glanced out of one of the big picture windows that fronted the hotel lawn. A magpie was busy searching for something to eat. It was bad luck to see a magpie on its own. His mate hove into view and I heaved a sigh of relief.
'Same with the teachers,' I said. 'Do you remember the geography master, Mr Gordon?'
'I certainly do. Wicked old beggar.'
'If someone disturbed him in class whilst he was at the board, he would pick up the blackboard rubber and hurl it at the offending pupil.'
'Normally Smithy,' said Joe.
'Yes. Smithy wasn't right in the head. They would say he had 'learning difficulties' these days. They would look out for him. The teachers weren't half cruel to him then.'
'Brought it on himself,' said Joe. 'Used to bring caterpillars in matchboxes to school and scare the girls half to death - threatening to put caterpillars down their blouses.'
I broke into a gurgling laugh, like water draining from a sink. Joe had always had the knack of making people laugh.
The woman at the next table was whispering something to her companion, a stern-faced woman with grey hair.
'What do you suppose they're talking about?' I whispered.
'Oh, the usual rubbish, I expect,' said Joe. 'Soap operas, the price of eggs, the length of last week's sermon, the headmaster having a fling with the school secretary, that type of thing.'
'You don't think they're talking about us?'
'Why should they?' said Joe. 'We've nothing to be ashamed of. They can mind their own business, if those two cackling hens are rabbiting on about us.’
I'm sure the stern woman heard Joe, for she gave me a look that would have melted a glacier.
I looked at my watch. It was four-thirty. Soon the sun would start to sink in the west and I would have to think about going home. If I'm honest, after my Linda died, I have found it a struggle to keep going, which is why I welcome these monthly teas with my old friend. It's hard, living in retirement on your own, waking up in an empty bed where once your comely wife lay beside you, and only having the radio for company.
Loneliness and boredom are the two greatest threats to a long life, I think. My two have flown the nest, of course, one to Australia, the other to South Africa, and they do ring me from time to time, when they remember. I was thinking about getting a little dog, but I'm not walking so well these days and I'm frightened I couldn't exercise him properly.
'I suppose you'll be going back soon?' said Joe, reading my thoughts. He's very perceptive.
'Yes. I've a casserole in the slow cooker.'
'Chicken's no good,' said Joe. 'You need iron. You don't get iron from chicken. You get it from beef.'
'Beef's very expensive,' I said. 'I've only got my pension. You have to make do.' 'You can't skimp on food,' said Joe. 'You need to keep your strength up.' 'It's a bit late for that,' I said. 'When you're eighty-three.'
‘You’d best drink your tea, then, before you go.’
I drained the white china cup with its gold rim and replace it on the saucer. ‘This time next month, Joe?’
‘Same time, same place,’ said Joe.
We parted and I walked out into a cold, bleak Market Street and headed home to my little terraced house on Montague Road.
The stern-faced woman called over the waiter. He almost genuflected as he approached her table.
‘That man who’s just left has really annoyed me. He kept mumbling away whilst my friend and I were trying to have a conversation. Something ought to be done about him.’
‘That’s old Mr Simpson,’ said the waiter. ‘He comes here every month, regular as clockwork, and orders high tea.’
‘He keeps muttering to himself. That is so off-putting.’
‘He doesn’t think he’s muttering to himself, madam. He thinks he’s talking to an old friend.’
‘Joe Palfrey. Mr Simpson and he were in the army together. They served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Out on patrol one day, Mr Simpson saw Joe blown to pieces by an IRA bomb. It sort of disarranged his mind.’
Published in Issue #16