The old man continued to sit on his bench. He is waiting and watching an intentionally unkempt corner of the garden. ‘The Unkempt Corner’ in fact, proper noun. All other corners are meticulously snipped, trained, swept, trimmed, blooming and flourishing. But this corner is different, it serves a different purpose.
His wife is sitting inside. She is old and frail, more than he, but he loves her and he cares for her. He prepares her meals and helps her dress. He bathes her and massages the stiffness from her feet and curled toes. She loves him but shows it differently. Can only show it differently. Her tightening grip on his hand. Quiet smiles. Beautiful words either whispered or communicated by gentle eyes, heavy lidded with age and wearied illness. They are the passages through which he gazes at the past. The dances, the adventures, the arguments, oh my goodness the arguments!
He sees the time that he proposed under the flowering Magnolia tree. Too nervous to speak, he had barely stuttered the question before she answered with a leap and a shower of overjoyed kisses. They were married less than a year later. A small service and reception was all that they could afford but they wouldn’t have changed a moment of it. A few of their friends had a swing band and offered to play as their gift to them. They all danced until the early hours. His mum, uncharacteristically tipsy on sherry, tripped on a stray dancefloor handbag and almost toppled the cake table. Luckily, Maggie the maid of honour had managed to catch her mid-tumble and then sat her back down with a strong cup of tea and stronger instructions to stay seated for a good hour at the very least. For it was Maggie who had made the two-tier, beautifully decorated fruit cake as her present to them and thankfully she was a lioness of maternal protection over it.
As he looks into her eyes he remembers more the times they talked until the early hours rather than the times they didn’t. He sees their first car, a Morris 1000 (nicknamed Susan for a reason long forgotten), pretty much clapped out even when they bought it. How they’d ever survived their honeymoon road trip touring around Scotland was anyone’s guess. The things they’d seen and done together would give them things to talk about for all of the years afterwards. Temporary silences often broken with a ‘Do you remember when…?’
Glen Coe and the midges. Driving up the near vertical, snow fringed Applecross pass that could have ended in an early and irreconcilable divorce. The delicious fresh scallops they’d eaten whilst sat on a pub bench next to the bay where they’d been harvested that very morning. They’d watched a stag and a doe running across the road right in front of the car, testing poor Susan’s brakes with a screech of protest that made the pair of animals stop and turn back with unconcerned, majestic curiosity. She’d even seen an elusive pine marten scurry past in Abriachan Wood whilst he was busy scanning the murky waters of Loch Ness with his father’s binoculars. She’d tease him about that afterwards, anytime that he’d miss something important pass by right in front of his nose. ‘Aww, you’re not still looking for Nessie, are you sweetie?’
The long roads and the longer laughter. The warm days holding hands and the cold nights bound tightly in each other’s arms. They’d never have dreamed of how they’d still be together over sixty years later. Still there for each other, still making the other smile.
He sees in her eyes a swirl of memories. The many trips to Italy with his sister, staying at their friend’s house in the northern Sardinian hills. The seaside walks, drinking tea on the bench and watching the foolhardy swimmers. He sees their children growing up. He sees the times when they made him proud and the times they got it wrong. When their eldest had stolen from the local shop and he’d found what he’d taken hidden in the back of his t-shirt drawer. He’d confronted him, marched him back to the shop, made him apologise to the owner through rivers of tears and then had him work there for free for the next four Saturdays to make up for it. No-one will think that we are a bad family, he’d told him in no uncertain terms.
Adjacent to that memory was another, more comfortable to recount. Again their eldest, years later and minus the urges of teenage kleptomania, went on to graduate with a first class business degree even though his childhood sweetheart had left him only four months before the exams. He sees the international haulage business that he then went on to build up from scratch with only one old van and the £200 that they’d scrambled around to start him off.
He sees their middle daughter travelling the entire world at least twice in her twenties, the places that she’d been to, the things that she’d done. He remembers a slurred phone call at four in the morning from Sydney at Christmas because she’d gotten drunk on the beach and forgotten the time difference. He sees her difficulties to find her feet coming home, always restless, always looking for what was around the next corner and never pausing to see what was already there. ‘I wish you’d just meet someone and settle down’, he would say. ‘I meet plenty of people thank you very much’, she would reply with a wide-eyed, whetted laugh. She’d learnt that oversharing always shut his well-meaning advice down with an embarrassed conversational change.
He sees their youngest, chewing on carrot sticks from his high chair and trying so hard to copy his siblings. He hears his baby babble as he joins in conversations, nodding his head with everyone else as if he had understood every word. Their youngest was now fifty six and grandfather himself, just. It didn’t quite seem possible.
He thought about all of the advice they had given (requested or not), the talks, the trying to be good parents. Just learn from it, they would say, we love you. Just open your eyes up next time, you’ll be okay, these things happen to everyone. You can always come home if you need to, we’ll always have space for you.
Now, sitting on his bench outside and watching ‘The Unkempt Corner’ he finally sees the seagull that he’d been waiting for sauntering awkwardly across the grass.
“A little late this morning aren’t we, girl?” he says quietly to her, as is his habit, careful not to send her skyward.
She chooses to swing her hips rather than step. The old attendant’s face creases (corners of eyes, corners of mouth) perceptively only to himself. The bird approaches a terracotta dish that lives under the bush and was topped up with fresh water by a helpful neighbour with a more supple back only an hour before. It was hidden away from those who don’t look and those who don’t notice such things. She gives two quick side glances with small, circular eyes and then her beak dives into the cool water. The bridge of her forehead pushes the surface leaves apart. Head shoots up, beak tip pointed to the clouds, neck stretched and extended. Gulp, gulp. Repeat. Gulp, gulp. Turn and saunter awkwardly away again. Refreshed, she spreads her wings and flies. The old man’s facial creases are perceptible to himself no longer. His waiting finished he is content, gets up and goes back inside. He chats to his wife, he rearranges the cushions supporting her lower back and helps her to drink a cup of tea. In her eyes he sees everything. She gives his hand a gentle squeeze and they are happy, neither has ever wanted anything else.