Friday, 18 September 2009

Wherefore Art Thou

“Old men are twice children.”
Greek Proverb

Wherefore Art Thou

In a way it’s a funny thing to have someone go missing on you in broad daylight.
Only funny is the wrong word to use.
It began so innocuously. “I’m just going into Marks to get some paste.” The old ladies’ message was simple, unexceptional. So unexcitingly familiar that the old man’s attention, honed by over fifty years of somewhat uneventful marriage, was non-existent. So routinely ordinary that he as usual made no comment. Not even enquiring as to the type of paste to be purchased.
“You sit on the seat there and I’ll be back in no time.”
Probably the hundred thousandth request, order, instruction, command in a marriage approaching twenty thousand days!
Not one to argue, of any case glad of the rest from the humdrum tasks required of 21st century man, Edward, the old man did as he was told. “She who must be obeyed,” he thought to himself wistfully.
Edward surveyed all around him with interest, anything was preferable to queuing in boring old M and S.
People of all shapes, sizes, colours and creeds passed by; some hurried, others sauntering, seemingly with all the time in the world. Men in turbans, women in chadors. People in uniforms: nurses, care workers, shop assistants, but not a police uniform in sight. Blonds with black roots, shaven headed men and dark men sporting afros. Mobile phones in constant use, conveying messages seldom of importance, in Chinese, Urdu, Russian, Tamil and even English! Drinks were consumed and the cans or bottles discarded; sometimes in the bins provided, more often not: Pepsi, Coca Cola, Lucosade, Carling Black Label and supermarket cider.
Adolescent, pretty black girls greeted each other, like long lost friends meeting after years apart. Young lovers caressed, oblivious to those around them! A proud father pushed his offspring in an expensive, state of the art buggy. The wife issued instructions before vanishing for equally expensive hair and beauty treatment.
“Make sure he keeps his hat on, don’t feed him chips and watch out for him chucking his dummy!”
Grey suited businessmen passed by, attaché cases to hand, their earnest talk concerning high finance and credit.
A balloon seller plied his trade, his brightly coloured offerings attracting children’s pennies, or rather parent’s pounds.
Young men handed out fliers advertising ‘Monday Madness, Funky House Dance, RnB, with student DJ Tom Ralston.’
Chinese musicians played haunting oriental music on obscure instruments, inviting passers-bys to purchase CD’s, ‘one hour long, price £10.’
An abundance of T-shirts and leisure tops on show, their messages often obscure: International Karate Open and Weekly Warrior, both worn by extremely slightly built individuals. A football shirt announced Sandu no 10, probably self-explanatory. But what, Edward wondered, was the significance of the number 54 top of a rather large middle aged lady; or for that matter, number 93 on the back of a lady of similar proportions? Racing Extreme, Hey Ho Let’s Go, Guns and Roses other adult choices, plus a very pink Glitter Princess, a child’s choice.
An overweight, obviously unfit, ill individual walked slowly, with difficulty up to the bench housing Edward and another elderly gentleman. Reluctantly he flopped down, produced a crumpled cigarette from his pockets and lit up. Coughing loudly he inhaled, to the distaste and dismay of his fellow travellers.
Edward left the bench and. walked slowly up the street, unhurried, taking in the street’s offerings.
Nationwide, Nat West, Lush, Top Shop; Miss Selfridge, BHS and Shoe Zone; Manor Pharmacy, Reveal Records, Optical Express and Bradford and Bingley.
Ann Summers, their customers, usually confident young women, striding in without a moments hesitation. But occasionally middle-aged ladies, ill at ease, heads down, hoping that no one had witnessed their entering an obvious den of iniquity!
Sales and offers designed to seduce, reminding of the adage, ‘Let the buyer beware.’ The NTL sales van suggested in large letters on its side ‘Save money now.’ Ilkeston-Co-op Travel exhorted, ‘Seven nights on Malta, £149, pay nothing until next year.’ BHS offered ‘30% off some items, 75% off others.’ A large street sign reminded that ‘insurance is free on a Kia car.’ Going Places told of ‘Commission Free Foreign Currency.’ ‘GNT’s gold card discount, 40%.’ The Works, ‘the place for half price artist’s materials.’ The Carphone Warehouse informed, ‘Free calls for life for BT customers.’ One hour film processing and instant food. Live now, pay later, a world beyond Edward’s comprehension!
His wandering had tired him and he was grateful to find another seat, this time empty and a fair distance from his original resting place.
The ornamental clock at the end of the street struck the hour, interrupting Edward’s deliberations. He had become so preoccupied with his observational perambulations that he had clean forgotten why he was in the town in the first place! No mean feat where Doris was concerned. He was unsure how long she had been gone, for he wore no watch. Doris always said he would only lose it, of any case she decided who did what, when, and where so as to make a watch, certainly from Edward’s viewpoint, redundant.
What if she didn’t come back! The possibility, never before contemplated, amused. him greatly. No more nagging. No more, “Wipe your feet! Take your shoes off! You’re spilling that! Why can’t you be more careful?”
No more, “You’ve had two pints, why do you want any more? Slow down, you’re going too fast! Mind that cyclist! Don’t talk with your mouth full! Don’t slurp! Don’t slouch! Stand up straight! Don’t mumble! Stop scratching your head! Where’s your hanky? Don’t interrupt, in fact don’t breathe!”
Time continued to pass, and almost imperceptibly Edward’s mood began to change. Unsure as to how long his wife had been away, he felt the first pangs of uncertainty and anxiety. The sun beat down, increasing his discomfort. His choice of clothing betrayed a septuagenarian tendency to expect inclement weather, whatever the season, and dress accordingly. “We don’t want to be bedridden with a chill, and thus a nuisance to others do we?” his other half was wont to impress upon him, if even so much as an open necked shirt was suggested as summer apparel! The old man sat uncomfortably in his woollen vest, woollen socks, and woollen shirt, his unbuttoned topcoat his only concession to summer days. He began to sweat, in part due to the weather, but also induced by feelings of panic.
A thousand thoughts raced through his mind.” Where was she? Surely a pot of paste didn’t take this long? How long was it? The Lord only knows. Perhaps she’s been kidnapped? But who would kidnap a seventy year old? Why would they do that? For ransom, surely not! How would he raise money if it were so? Murdered because the ransom was not forthcoming, fed to the pigs like Mrs Muriel MacKay, the kidnapped wife of a newspaper magnate!”
His imagination knew no bounds. ”Perhaps she’s run away, left me for another man? Surely I’d have noticed the tell tale signs? Mind you, she had seemed happier recently. Perhaps it wasn’t just the new wallpaper. Has she had an accident? Is she stuck in a lift? Has she lost her memory?” The questions hurtled round the old man’s mind, increasing his discomfort.
He realised, with not a little embarrassment, that he could not remember what his wife was wearing. Fifty years of complacency, fifty years of taking his wife for granted. Never ever apart, yet never really together!
He thought of telephoning but to whom he had no idea. Plus he didn’t own a mobile phone, didn’t carry a mobile phone and, equally important, he’d no idea how to use a mobile phone.
He thought too of the police but it was not a serious possibility.
“You’ve lost your wife, sir, now when was that, sir? You’re not sure when, sir. She’s gone for some paste and not come back. Oh dear, it’s not exactly crime of the century, is it sir! Give us a ring if she doesn’t turn up in, say, six months, sir. Good day, sir!”
As his discomfort increased, Edward imagined those around him were becoming less acceptable, more threatening. He noticed an abundance of tattoos and body piercing; tattoos on ears and necks, chests, breasts and legs. Piercings through lips, noses, eyebrows, tongues and torsos.
An old man, the worse for drink leered at a minimally dressed pubescent child. Cyclists weaved through the pedestrians, causing women with children and pensioners alike to scatter. Four teenagers, one noticeably pregnant, mouthed obscenities at passers-by, their actions creating both fear and consternation.
A teenage beggar rose from his position in a shop doorway, collected up his blanket, lit his umpteenth cigarette and went on his way, his flea ridden dog in tow. No doubt to his home in the suburbs, and probably his plasma television with its ultra sound system.
Harassed mothers harangued misbehaving offspring, increasingly tired as the day wore on. A very disabled young man struggled to manoeuvre an ancient wheelchair over the block paving, a surface unhelpful to his endeavours, onlookers indifferent and uncaring. The Big Issue seller stood, tattooed and silent, arm held out but his wares disregarded, his plight ignored.
People at the cash dispensers clutched purses and wallets tightly, eyeing up all and sundry as they withdrew their fortunes, seeing danger where it probably didn’t exist. Even a single, grey, ladies boot lying on the pavement became an ominous object, its owner unknown, the reason for its solitary existence suspicious.
Edward noticed the St Peter’s Church banner extolled, “Cling only to what is necessary.” The banner for the local newspaper informed, depressingly, “Petrol breaks the £1 barrier,” and “Archdeacon pleads for return of grave body.”
Edward tried to remain calm, in control, but numbness overwhelmed him. His heartbeat increased and he fumbled for his tablets, his hands visibly shaking. He took two tablets, though his prescription forbad it.
He became aware of a warm feeling and he realised with horror that he had wet himself. His anxiety increased, He felt lost, lonely, dependent, helpless and not a little fearful. His heart pounded, and, as if in sympathy, the sky darkened and the sun vanished behind the gathering clouds. A light breeze signalled an oncoming storm.
Tears welled up in his eyes and he began to sob. Those around him became blurs and he felt himself fading. He tried to fight, but to no avail. He tried to call out, but no sound came. He saw the outline of a female apparition, surely an angel, coming towards him. He held open his arms and the apparition called his name. “Edward, where on earth have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”


Rosaria Williams said...

My goodness, this is a gripping story, Ken. It is so descriptive of both the environment-time and place, and the state of mind, the fear seeping in, trapped like the sweat of an overdressed septagenarian. It is a universal statement, only, told extremely well. I loved it!

Charmaine said...

What a story! Almost had me in tears with Edward at the end. I really enjoyed it, thank you!