by ben kinkaid · 21/08/2017
“What d…d…do you make of this picture I f…found this morning, John? It was in one of the b…b…boxes upstairs.”
John set his glass down gently, a slight shake to his hand as he centred it on the mat. He took the black and white photograph that Arthur had placed on the bar.
“It looks a bit like the old gang, Art.” He peered at it, holding the faded paper close to his face. “Yes, there’s you and me. And that’s Steph, and Marc, and there is Roger. There are one or two here that even I can’t remember.” He hesitated, lowering the photo. “Elizabeth is there too.”
“The old gang, eh? I r…r…remember the old gang. The class of…of…it was at Langley Park, wasn’t it?” He too had a pint glass, balanced between the green card of the mat and the worn wooden surface of the bar. “E…Elizabeth you say? Someo…one told me something about an Elizabeth not so long ago.” He squinted as he tried to remember, scratching his chin. “Elizabeth.” He looked down at his hands confused.
John patted Arthur’s knee, searching his friend’s face hopefully and then looking away disappointed. Sitting back, he traced the grooves in the old plywood with his fingers, where hundreds of pint glasses had sat before his. The races were on the black and white television in the back corner of the bar, but he couldn’t tell the difference between horse and jockey, even with his glasses on. “Arthur, what’s the name of the winning horse on that TV over there?” He motioned to the corner so Arthur would know where to look.
“Lucky Strike, John, like the s…smokes. The Yanks used to smoke them in F…F…France. I never liked those ones. There was always a cheap...acrid taste after. I used to eat my chocolate rations straight away, to get rid of the…the taste.” He seemed to disappear, gazing at the television as horses ran laps. John watched him slowly open and close his mouth, and he knew he was remembering more than just the taste of Lucky Strike cigarettes and chocolate rations.
“Cadbury’s has come a long way, hasn’t it?” he said.
“Eh, Cad…Cadbury’s? Ah, yes…well…I…you mean the chocolate?” Again Arthur rubbed his fingers over his chin. “I guess so, yes.”
There was still a buzz in John’s ears from that war, but he could hear the murmurs from the tables behind him, the classical tune coming from a near-broken radio in the corner of the room, and the distorted commentary coming from the little brown television. “Arthur, what did you do yesterday?” He raised his glass carefully, the tremor in his hand shaking the pale ale down into his mouth as he listened for his friend’s response.
“Well, like I…I…I do every morning, I…” he tailed off, searching for the answers in his weathered hands again. “That’s right, Bettie and I took Lucy for a walk, down by the river. We w…walked for most of the day actually. When we got b…b…back she made us sandwiches, and we just talked i…in the garden until it started to get cold.”
John murmured, “That sounds pretty good.” They both sat for a moment, thinking quietly. “What did you talk about?” he eventually asked.
“We…I…so many things. P…p…plans for the winter. She’s always wanted to visit Bath – I thought we could go.”
“How is she? And Lucy, how is that old dog?” A smile played over John’s face. Arthur stared at him, and John’s smile vanished. Tugging at his shirt collar and shifting in his seat, he paled, realising he had been caught up in Arthur’s reality. He watched uncomfortably as his friend stood, tensing, clenching his jaw.
“Lucy was put down, John. L…l…last May. You know…you were there with m…me.” Arthur glanced down at his knuckles, his hands gripping the rounded back of a bar stool. He exhaled slowly. “Why would you ask me about m…my dog, John?”
John sat back in his chair, trying to relax his body. He could feel his heart racing. Everything suddenly seemed much louder. “Sorry…I’m sorry, Arthur. My memory…it’s not what it was. It slipped out of my mind.” It was hot, and he wished he had taken his jacket off before he had sat down.
“No, John, that’s n…not it. Your memory is f...f…just fine. Everybody says so.”
John sighed, running his shaking hands down over his face. “Arthur, I need you to know something.” He edged a crease out of his trousers slowly. “You were here with me yesterday.” Arthur’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. “I come and meet you at your house on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and we walk from your house on Chapel Street to this old pub that you love, the Saint George’s Arms.”
Arthur pushed himself away, his face pale, cracked lips parted, eyes wide. “What are you saying, J…John? I was with Bettie. I saw her this m…m…morning. She went to t…the…” He fidgeted, squeezing the fingers on his left hand. “John, I live on Park Avenue, this is Drayton Court!” He looked around quickly and began to raise his voice. “S…s…somebody help! I need h…help!”
“Arthur, please stop,” John began. “This isn’t Drayton Court. We both moved from Ealing in the spring.” He grabbed Arthur’s arm. “Listen to me, please. Let me explain.”
Arthur looked up at him, and John saw that he had been looking at his hands again. As Arthur’s face crumpled, John knew that he understood. “We didn’t walk yesterday, did we J…John? There were n…n…no talks of Bath. No sandwiches in the garden.” His eyes began to water, and he did nothing to stop the tears from rolling down his wrinkled cheeks. He looked down again, his thumb playing over the space where there had once been a ring. “She’s g…gone, isn’t she? My Elizabeth is gone.”
“I’m so sorry, Arthur. It’s been nearly eight months now.” He stood, wiped his own eyes, and held his friend’s head to his chest as he wept. “I’m sorry, Arthur. I’m so sorry.”