I wrote our names in the book and asked if he was in his room. You do know that he’s gone upstairs? asked the bright-faced receptionist. No, I said, I didn’t. Yes, he went up last week. He’s so much happier up there, she said, smiling widely. How do I-? Oh, you take the lift up to the second floor. Just knock on the door and someone will let you in.
The lift opened up into a small windowed vestibule, through the windows we could see various figures sitting in high-backed arm chairs or perambulating on wheeled walking frames. A woman was fiddling with the door lock as I pressed a white buzzer. A large black girl in a red t-shirt tapped in a code and opened the door. Yes? I said his name. Come in, come in, she said, shutting the door behind us. Where’s _______? she called out to a colleague. ___________ ‘s over there, he replied, pointing in the direction of small recess lined with chairs. We walked towards it and saw him. He had just made a remark to an elderly figure (I think she was female) who was slumped in the corner. There was a crossword book in his hand. Had he just asked her if he could read it? He looked up from the book as we approached. His face opened with a polite smile but there was no recognition in his face. I told him who I was, kissed his cheek, then knelt down at his feet and took his hand. He seemed to know her name – my mother, his wife. Yes, he said, when I told him I was her daughter, now that is important isn’t it? Then it was gone, that important fact. I was a stranger again – someone nice who’s come to call and who he is happy to let hold his hand. He looked up at him and asked what he did. Retired, eh! You look too young, he said. What did you do? Lecturer eh? Of, course, I’ve retired now, too old to work now.
Surrounded by slumped figures in mainly cardigans and slippers, he seemed overdressed in his chequed Aquascutum shirt and navy-blue blazer but then casual attire was never his thing. He was too big, too hefty for the shorts that he succumbed to wearing in that hot Spanish sun; the socks remained however, though the brogues in the August months were swapped for deck shoes. He looked well, a little thin, but otherwise well. His skin was soft and cool. We said we couldn’t stay long, that we had a long drive back to Wales. Where’ve you been? he asked. Manchester? I know Manchester, I used to work- all over. We talked about Wales, about sailing but he couldn’t find the place names. He knew he’d sailed but couldn’t recall where. All over, he kept saying, all over. I was passing through, he said, passing through when I found this place. I liked it, nice grounds and so on so I thought I’d stay a few days, he said, they look after you well. Yes, we said. I rose to go, kissing him on his cheek. When you come again, he said, rubbing his hands together in that familiar way of his, I can take you for a nice evening out somewhere. Yes, we said. That would be nice. Do come again, he said, it nice to see nice people like you. I turned round to wave at him as we made our way to the door but he had picked up the crossword book again and was engrossed in it. The encounter had been forgotten.
I didn’t get it. A failure, I suppose. They didn’t like it, my idea, the board didn’t like it. It is hard to be stopped in this way. I’ve involved others, I’ve involved them in my dream of a show. What now? Where do I direct all that energy? And direct it I must. No self-pity, Ellen. He said it wasn’t right anyway. People wouldn’t look at it properly in a café, he said. But it was where the café was that mattered, I said. Never mind, he said, we will sort it. Meanwhile, he said, write about it. Write about it. Yes. Yes, I will.
Will you mind, all of you, if I write about you? You moved me so much. I will preserve your privacy, I promise. I was just so touched, so touched by your openness, your willingness to share what you felt with me. I am sorry that I couldn’t make it work. It is hard sometimes always having to generate the work, to make it all happen. I will persevere – but maybe it has all happened for the best. I can say that about my own life – it is mine – though I would never be so crass as to say it about others. How can that plane crash have happened for the best? What good can come from it? Some, maybe, but not now. Now is not the time to think of it, to write of it. It is not my place to pontificate about others’ lives. I keep seeing the work in my head, playing out in my head. How to make it? How to make it better? How to make it happen? Write first and then? Then you will see.
We began watching The Iron Lady last night. She didn’t like it that they began with the dementia, he said. Did she see it then? I asked. No, maybe it wasn’t her but her friends that didn’t like it, he said. I think it shows her vulnerability, I said. I can understand their reasoning, you feel compassion for her this way. Yes. I loved him. No, love him. We went through so much that time in Spain. I saw his fear, his terror even, his vulnerability. Yes, I know he wasn’t a good father, or a husband. He wasn’t kind. But in those months he was dear to me. I still see his rheumy eyes made wide with fear. What is happening? Winny, where is Winny? Now she is gone from his head. There is nothing but this moment, and then the next and the next. Nothing more. Thatcher sees Denis, he is still around her. He is her secret, her comfort. Not so, for him. The photographs are all from before. From before Winny. Winny has been erased. We have been erased. So be it. I can understand. He has been taken back, though few want him. Not now. When all is lost what remains?
Thank you for coming, she was saying, to nobody. Thank you for coming, she was saying, inclining her head, first left and then right to nobody at all.