Better late than Never.
It was a childhood day and the sun was gently warm. The light was as bright as a halo on a newly painted fresco and the early Autumn colours were kind and friendly. Morning soft air wrapped itself around him like a fresh wool blanket and grey squirrels sprang from tree to tree like ballbearings in a pin-ball machine. The protective arms of Mother Nature gave him a hug and a maternal breeze hummed lullabies. Jim Broadbent sat on a bench in the park and praised the day.
There was a garden at the residential home but it was too cultivated for him. The flowers were planted in rows and there was a symmetry to the placing of the bushes. The grass was cut to regulation length and even the insects seemed to conform to a pattern. The residents, too, were tended and cared for, protected by their money from the savagery of survival and grown weak and over-sensitive.
Jim went to the park nearly every day; sometimes because he wanted to but often because he needed to get away from the Westwood Residential Home and its ten inmates. He was the only man living there. There had been three others but they had died and now there were just ten old women and himself. Few of them were younger than eighty and he had several years to go before he reached that venerable age. They spent their days slumped down like cushions in over-soft armchairs and occasionally made oft-repeated comments.
In the living-room, where the residents breached the gap between getting up and going back to bed, conversation had been replaced by a long drawn-out silence puntuated only by sighs. A new arrival would sometimes instigate a few days of desultory communication but it soon settled down and sank like a bucket of water thrown into a lake. Once upon a time the television had been left on from morning to night and played at a very high volume but the practice ceased when it was realised that nobody was watching.
Jim had considered moving to another home where the average age was much lower but after visiting one and finding the conversation to be both banal and constant he came to the conclusion that no conversation at all was better than idle chatter. The food was good at the home, his room was adequate, and he could always escape to the park which was just minutes away.
He looked at his watch in order to confirm what his stomach was telling him. Lunch-time was approaching and, as it was Tuesday, he would be eating ham salad. Many people were coming into the park now and filling up the benches. They all had newspapers or books and packs of sandwiches. Some had vacuum flasks of coffee or tea. They were mostly young. Soon he was the only one sat by himself. The sight of so many people eating made him uncomfortable. His peaceful feeling was slipping away and he tried to hang on to it by ignoring the diners but everywhere he looked a meal was in progress. The birds dug for worms, the squirrels munched nuts and the ants carried crumbs home to their families. Jim was suddenly very hungry. He was about to get up and leave when a woman he recognised from the home came walking along the path and sat down on the bench.
"Good morning," she smiled and Jim was taken aback. He was unused to being addressed so directly. At the home the nurses and helpers all conversed with a third person seen only by them.
"How's Mr. Broadbent today?" they would say and look right past him. Why didn't they ask Mr. Broadbent himself?
"Good morning" he replied to the woman and bowed his head a little.
"You live at Westwood, don't you? I've seen you there." she said
"Yes, but I try to get away as much as possible. It's like sitting in a graveyard without the birdsong."
"I know what you mean. It even smells of death." she agreed.
"That's why I come here; to be among the living. It's the first time I have seen you here." he said.
"I usually go to another, smaller park a bit further away but today my legs are tired so I made do with coming here. It's very nice."
"Yes. It's a very good park."
A small squirrel inched its way closer to a piece of bread that lay on the ground close to their feet.
"My name's Molly." she said.
"I'm Jim." he replied.
They talked about the weather and the approach of winter and, an hour later, returned together to the home and sat next to each other at lunch. They ate in silence as any conversation immediately became the focal point for all eyes in the room and they did not wish to be stared at. After lunch they went for a walk around the town and stopped at the museum to see an exhibition of impressionist paintings.
"Let's not go back for tea," she said, "Let's take tea in town. I know a splendid cafe."
Jim wished never to go back. He was feeling happier than he had done in a long time.
"It'll be my treat." he said.
From then on they were inseperable, except at night when they parted reluctantly and went to their own beds. Even in sleep they kept each other company in their dreams. Each morning, about eight o' clock, Jim and Molly walked into the dining room looking for each other and the first to arrive was always disappointed not to be welcomed by a smile. A small table was arranged where they could dine together, alone, in the corner of the room. Molly brought a candle and most evenings they ate by its enchanting, romantic glow. Sometimes Jim bought a bottle of wine and they toasted their good fortune in finding each other.
"Better late than never," he often said.
There was always a vase of flowers on the table.
They found they had many things in common and shared similar interests. They had the same musical tastes and both enjoyed good food. Jim preferred a steak cooked medium while Molly would rather have it rare but it was a long time since either of them had eaten steak and so the discrepancy was only hypothetical. She wiped crumbs from his waistcoat and told him he was messy. He was glad that someone cared. On cold, windy days he advised her to wear a scarf and she welcomed his concern.
They went to lunch time concerts of chamber music and matinee performances at the theatre. In the street she held his arm and slowed her pace to suit his. He opened doors for her and shielded her from the crush of bodies in busy situations. She changed her hair-style, bought her first new dress for ten years, and found it exciting to look at herself in the mirror. He walked more erect when he was with her and felt fifty years younger when she smiled at him.
The passion he thought was long gone re-emerged, transformed from the larva of confused, adolescent feelings into the brilliant butterfly of mature emotions. Sometimes he looked at her and a painful, pleasurable ecstasy welled up inside, his mouth grew dry and his senses tingled. At these time he ached with desire and throbbed with longing. She filled his waking thoughts and entered his dreams. He listened to her voice and heard the gently hum of eternity; looked into her eyes and witnessed the miracle of timelessness.
Most mornings, after breakfast, they went for a walk but if the weather was too bad they sat together in the drawing room and read books. Now they had each other it was easy to stay at home and do very little. They spent more and more time sitting in adjacent armchairs holding hands and sharing an unspoken desire. On fine days they sat in the garden and remarked on how pretty it was. They were kind and considerate to each other and neither grew tired of the other's company. They exchanged birthday cards and swapped presents at Christmas. Molly knitted Jim a scarf. They were madly in love although they never, ever spoke of it.
As time passed, they said less and less until whole days would pass when not a word would be spoken. Messages were passed from hand to hand with a tightening of the grip, a gentle squeeze or a stroke of the fingers. They looked at each other a lot and whole conversations were conducted from eyes to eyes. It was tiring to talk and they had discovered it was unnecessary, until he asked her to marry him. Then he had to use words.
"Molly. I've known you for some time now and I think you're a lovely woman. I thought to myself, we spends so much time together we might as well be married and then I thought, that's not a bad idea. So that's what I'm trying to say. I love you Molly, with all of my heart, so will you marry me?"
She acted coy and said that she would think about it but later that day Jim told the matron that he intended marrying Molly. The matron smiled and asked if she would be invited.
The matron broke the news to a nurse.
"Mr. Broadbent has proposed to Mrs. Broadbent."
"But they're already married."
"I know, but isn't it sweet, at his age?"
"It's a bit spooky."
"That he don't remember he's been married to her for fifty years."
"That happens a lot."
That evening the matron spoke with Molly, alone.
"You'll have to tell him. You can't marry the person you're already married to."
"He doesn't need to know," said Molly, "It would only make him confused. We'll arrange a false wedding, here at the home. We could use actors if we wanted to."
"All right," said the matron, "if you wish but I still don't understand why you won't tell him the truth."
"I don't want him to remember who he was. Mr. Broadbent was never a good husband. We stayed together out of habit. Jim loves me more than my husband ever did and I love him much more than I ever did my husband. In fact, I feel loved for the first time in my life and I like it. Better late than never."
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