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The Old Man, What I See

By: JDG Chambers on the 17th April 2010 at 2:34pm

Life - Short story - Romance

 

 Both signs say the same thing: employees of the social club must wash their hands after using the toilet.

I catch sight of the Old Man when he moves to the sink. He squints at the laminated paper blue-tacked to the wall next to the mirror. ‘Please’ and ‘Os gwelwch yn dda’. ‘Thank you’ and ‘Diolch yn fawr’.

He used to be an employee here. He was a bilingual employee as well. Then he was forced to retire, and now he drinks alone in the social club. But he is still bilingual, which is more than can be said for most men in South Wales. Can you read both of the signs?

Forget it. I shouldn’t have asked. It’s not important. You don’t remember him working here. No one does anymore.

Okay, fine, he used to work in the nickel works next door, but the social club shares the same toilet block. I am standing in it right now. So let’s say he’ll wash his hands because good manners are slower to forget, and leave it at that.

Who’s going to argue with him? We’ve already established that you don’t remember him. That leaves all the other employees of the nickel works who ignore his lone body crumpled into his lone seat in front of his lone table he has dragged into the far corner of the social club.

Nickel workers congregate on the tables closest to the bar. The Old Man faces his table away from their oblivious eyes. He allies his run-down wooden chair to the slashed and cigarette-burned leather couch that nobody sits on.

He brings a cushion from home. The Indian sari patchwork cover was a present. He sits on his cushion sipping his ale and he watches the neglected couch spew foam stuffing out of its split wounds. Sometimes he rips up beer mats to repair the damage.

The interior walls are insulated with framed photographs of po-faced Welsh rugby players from the moustache era. They frown next to the smiling winners of the amateur golf tournament.

Ceiling dandruff flakes off the white tiles and falls onto the shoulder of the faded turquoise carpet. Trampling steel-capped boots cause the floor to squeak and wheeze like a trembling asthmatic trampoline.

No one’s coming to sit on the couch opposite the Old Man. He isn’t saving anyone a seat.  He’s alone.  Have I not made that clear?  No one says hello to him around here.

No one except me, that is. Well…I recognise him. I remember the old body that worked the heavy machinery at the Aztec Nickel Works for 49 years. But I don’t say hello to him either. I prefer to think of the Old Man as he used to be, as a much younger man. I always have done.

An unsteady hand turns the ‘H’ on the bathroom sink counter-clockwise. I hear the Old Man’s wedding band tap against the faucet. The gold used to slide off his ring finger. Now his swollen knuckles and his calluses keep it bolted on.  He doesn’t want to take it off. He wants to keep her with him at all times.

I see him reach for the hand-moulded soap wallowing in the slop tray of the adjacent Edwardian washbasin. The sinks might be Victorian, but I can’t tell king from queen anymore. I guess old age remembers us all.

The senescent hand testing the water looks as unsexed as the cracked egg-white porcelain. I see the steam reach my eyes before the temperature scalds his fingertips.

Bugger me!’ he mouths in silence as he turns on the cold tap.

I see his pursed lips break the surface of his immaculate white beard. You may assume he kisses his lips in pain or concentration. He might be sucking the stripes off an Everton mint. But I know the real reason he is chewing his mouth… 

He doesn’t like wearing his dentures. He likes to explore his bare gums with his tongue. The naked sensation reminds him of his childhood anticipation of the tooth fairy.

That old girl made off with his real teeth a long time ago. He keeps her leaving present in a glass of effervescent denture cleanser next to his bed.

He doesn’t care if his missing incisors scare the young barmaids at the social club. He is too old to care. He is too...erm…long in the tooth for a cheeky word to Brianna or Anna-Louise or Courtney.

These new fangled names make it impossible for him to know where he stands. Where are they from? Who are their parents? Whatever happened to traditional Welsh names?

Where are the girls like Rhiannon and Angharad and Delyth he courted at the same time as the tooth fairy? He used to take them to the one-screen cinema in the village. One of them he even took down the aisle.  Now his memories of them rattle around in his head like an empty beer bottle being kicked through the abandoned cinema.

He knows what happened: first the cinema disappeared, then they all followed suit. Even the tooth fairy flew away. People learn to tolerate him or move on. So why must the Old Man change? 

I can see he has nowhere to go. He has no one waiting for him at home. Nobody is calling him for his dinner or nagging him about a list of jobs. No more lists of jobs. Not anymore. I have a suspicion he misses his lists of jobs. 

The Old Man could travel. His russet complexion could see him visit Bombay without getting ripped off by the taxi drivers going off-metre from the airport. But he has never been further east of the West of England.

He owes his colour to the overworked coastal breeze that browns his arms, his chest, his nape and the cheeks of his face as it chases the unemployed sun further up the valley. 

I take a closer look at his face. His skin is drawn across his features like cling-film covering an emaciated two-seater Chesterfield. Deep leathery creases connect his button nose and his rosebud mouth to his studded eyeballs buried deeper in their open graves. Only his ears offset the contraction of his facial features, lounging beneath his receding hairline like two plump armrests.

The pay-slip girls used to admire his charming smile and his prominent bone structure. These days other reasons explain the lingering fold lines across his cheeks. He tries to trim his beard without using a mirror. His mouth caved in without the supporting beams of his teeth. He is gradually folding up his body so it will fit in an economical casket and squeeze into the last remaining patch of dirt in the village cemetery. The Old Man doesn’t want to cause a fuss.

He turns off the taps and immerses his hands in the sink. He fishes for the soap to clean his hands. He leans forward. I lose sight of him as he splashes water against his face. When he returns, his face is dripping with water and he is staring at me. His eyes search my face like a lost boy searching for his mother. He’s after direction.

I know there is a solitary half-pint of real ale waiting for him in the bar. I know his Sainsbury’s carrier bag carries his shopping from the village Co-op. And I know his parcel contains diced chicken from the local butcher.

An open recipe book is pitched on his table. The crinkled canvas soaks up residual beer slops as the stubby blue pencil he borrowed from the butcher lies prostrate beneath the cracked book spine tent.

The title of the paperback is ‘Black Cumin’. He purchased the book on black seeds during the current library sell-off. Five pee down from an RRP of £7.99. Seventy pee in total with an old Encyclopaedia Britannica and a novel by Frederick Forsyth.

He has turned the rumpled pages to the recipe he intends to follow:  chicken curry with black cumin. His orange plastic bag contains the ingredients he has ticked off in the finger-grubby margins. 

Every one in Wales is eating curry nowadays. The Old Man passes three takeaways on his way home: the ‘Rene Bengal’, the ‘Raj Bengal’, and the ‘Spice Hut’.

He is changing also. His wife said he would never change. But he is cooking himself a curry. His wife said he would never leave Trebanos…um…I guess she was right with that one.

Ah, his dear wife. The Old Man will always remember her in her forties, young and restless and running out of the door with all of her bags packed under her arm. She will always remember him settled in the social club making promises to travel the world with her one-day.

That day she took away all of his reasons for leaving home. She took off and left him with a two-bedroom cottage full of guilt. But at least the Old Man spends his sleepless nights in his own bed. He says he is happy in Wales. He is happy in the village. Does the Old Man seem happy to you?

The village knows his wife left him. She left the village in search of her own life. She told him he would never leave. He told her she was wrong. The village didn’t want to know.

 

I have watched the village grow old for seventy years. Okay, I can’t remember my first three years, and I was a toddler when the Luftwaffe bombed Swansea so I missed out on all that excitement. But I do remember taking the tram to the beach to escape the heavy black clouds. My mother didn’t like us to go far.

Then I started working at the nickel works - like most young men in the village, and I got married. She wanted children of our own, but we couldn’t. It was my fault.

I used to read about the new motorway bulldozing its way towards us. Now I read the ‘For Sale’ ads in the newspaper selling the village’s easy access to the M4: get on the by-pass at junction 45.

The ANW test siren continues to go off on the first Monday of each month. It reminds the aging inhabitants of the village that we are still alive…though we will all be dead if a proper meltdown does occur on the first Monday of the month!

I have also watched the picture postcard fading in the kitchen of the Old Man’s home. The Gateway of India, a magnificent colonial arch in Mumbai (or Bombay as it was when she visited India in 1980), is pinned to his fridge by a ‘Got to Go to Goa’ magnet.

Rhiannon wrote her final dedication to him on the plain side of the postcard. Her secret is kept between his rusting heart and the rusting door of his kitchen appliance. Only I know the words: “Off on tour of India. Can’t wait to try all the different food. Don’t expect to be in touch much, if at all. Post offices here not great. Will try and send word when get to Delhi.  Love Nom.”

The parcel containing the postcard and the fridge magnet also contained a sari patterned cushion cover. The Old Man stuffed it with a few of her leftover blouses and he still sits on her present each time he goes to the social club for a drink.

 

The bathroom doors smashes open. I see the Old Man jump up from the sink. Two youths walk in. A spiky-haired boy stands at the sink next to the Old Man and his Indian pig-tailed friend shuts herself in the toilet cubicle.

They have come from the under 18’s disco being held in the function suite next door to the social club.

The boy looks at the Old Man. “Hey old man, quit hogging the mirror or you’ll break it.

The girl’s voice echoes from behind the toilet cubicle door. Yeah, old man. Not everyone has to look at a wrinkly old ball sack.”

Excuse me, the Old Man replies, “there’s a perfectly good mirror in front of you.”

Shut it grandpa, the lady needs to use this one.”

I lose sight of the Old Man as he turns around to address the cubicle. “This is the Gent’s toilets, you know. Shouldn’t you be in the Ladies’ next door?  

Nah, forget that, the door answers him back. “I’m not queuing up for a piss with those mongrels.  

You heard her grandpa. Now get a move on, we haven’t got all day.”

 I see the Old Man’s eyes return to the mirror. He is wishing he could stand up for himself, but his fight is over.

I step to one side to let the Old Man’s reflection skulk away from the mirror. The boy’s fingers pick at his heavily gelled scalp and his prickly spectre jumps into the Old Man’s grave.

“What you looking at?” the boy jeers.

Who are your parents? I counter in a fit of rage. Where are they tonight?

Piss off you wrinkly pervert.

What did you say?

I return the young boy’s stare. I’m waiting for his reaction. I’m standing up to him. His eyelids drop. I’ve won. I raise a smile.

He looks at the sink full of water. His head turns to my sand-coloured trousers. His quick hands cup the water from the sink and soak my crotch before I can raise my hands in helpless defence.

Are you deaf?” the youth snarls. “I said, ‘stop pissing yourself, you wrinkly pervert’. Do you want me to repeat it again?

No, no, no,” I beg him, holding out my hands, “Please, I’ll go. 

 Quick, Shaz,” he shouts, come and see what I’ve done.

I see the Old Man’s face as I hurry past the mirror. He shakes his head at me. A tear roles down his cheek. I collect it in my hand and abandon his reflection in the mirror. I pull open the door and rush out of the toilet.

Using my hands to cover my modesty, I shuffle between the tables and chairs looking like a rotting version of the original sinner. I return to my lone seat at the back of the bar and sit down. Picking up the paperback I bury my face in my recipe. Thank God nobody saw me!

Thoughts of my wife come to me as I wait for my trousers to dry. Nom wanted children. The man that I used to be wished she’d had children. She would never have left me with children. I would have kept her at home.

But that’s all in the past. I’m glad she’s been able to live her life. And when my wife does decide to come back from India, she can taste the curries I’ve been learning to make for her at home. She might be surprised. She might even like the old man that I’ve become.


Comments

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  • City of London, United Kingdom

    hedgehog on the 5th May 2010 at 4:08am

    Brings the characters to life very well - nice twist.