Edward Gills had gone to the Lakeside Tearoom every day after work for the past 20 years. He knew every face in every seat and in his mind, had become great friends with all of them. It was not surprising that on a day like today the old man would be wishing he’d taken the time to make more friends. His wife had always warned him that he should be more sociable. But he was never the type to worry about loneliness, until now. Having been told he was now officially too old to work at the construction company, tomorrow would be the start of his mundane life centred around an armchair and a space heater. He hadn’t been accepting of his fate but Ricky hadn’t given him much of a choice in the matter.
“Look mate, I’m sorry. You’re a good worker but insurance won’t cover you anymore.”
He didn’t look sorry. Actually, he looked relieved. Compared to Edward, Ricky was little more than a child and his eager eyes had noticed the trembles starting in his oldest worker’s hands. It wasn’t something he was happy to do, Edward knew that. Ricky and Edward had spent many evenings sat together while their wives nattered away. For a while they had almost been friends but after the evening dinners stopped so did the conversations about anything other than brick suppliers and drill bits.
“You should be happy; half the guys here would love to be in your shoes.”
Edward grunted, they were more than welcome to them. He was a good worker, even if he had gotten a little slower recently he was still the best Ricky had. But he could tell it was pointless; Ricky was a stubborn git when he wanted to be. As much as Edward wanted to, he knew he couldn’t blame Ricky for taking care of his business. If the roles were reversed Edward would have done the same thing. Besides, the guys at work had really tried to make his last day a good one. Even though Edward was probably the least sociable person any of them knew, they had all spent the day trying to make him smile. What they lacked in finesse they made up for with enthusiasm, they were like excitable puppies wanting nothing more than to please. If only they could think of some comedic material that didn’t involve the word grandpa. Every time Edward faked a laugh he could feel Ricky cringe with embarrassment. The truth is if it had been any other day Edward probably would have found their desperation hilarious but the finality of his retirement had sucked away what was left of his sense of humour.
Then finally as they all sat outside eating ham and cheese sandwiches lovingly supplied by Ricky’s wife, Edward was presented with his grand parting gift. Everyone gathered excitably as he was handed obnoxiously large gold balloons with the words ‘happy retirement’ scrawled across them in brightly coloured letters. He had attempted to be grateful but it was thickly coated in unintentional sarcasm and as he carried them with him to the tearoom that evening it felt like he had a neon sign hanging above him that screamed OLD MAN to passers-by. As if it wasn’t obvious enough by his slowly sinking eyes and pale skin. Now here he was, sat at his favourite table overlooking the lake with nothing to show for his life except some gold balloons that had already started to wilt. Strangely he thought he liked them better now, they were more like him.
“Excuse me, I didn’t order this.”
Amid his self-involved reminiscing Edward almost hadn’t noticed the large slab of chocolate cake being slid onto the table in front of him.
“Oh I know, it’s on the house. You looked like you needed a treat, to celebrate your big day.”
Edward groaned inwardly at the unfamiliar voice and looked up in surprise to see someone he’d never met before. He could hear his wife’s voice in the back of his head and feel her squeeze on his hand in that gentle yet demanding way. “Be nice dear.”
The girl didn’t look any older then 22, with a mass of untamed blonde curls that fell past her shoulders. The only attempt she had made to control the swirl of hair was to pull two strands back with a hair pin revealing strikingly deep brown eyes. She had the kind of smile that you only see on a very specific person. It was a smile untouched by troubles, with a spark of innocence that still reached her eyes. It was the kind of smile that is usually wiped away by your teenage years, when the troubles of the world become real.
“You ain’t been here long, have you?”
Everyone in town knew Edward’s retirement was nothing to be celebrated, it had been spreading throughout town for weeks. Meanwhile Edward had been letting himself slowly descending into self-important misery until it became so infectious that people decided it best to avoid him rather than try to cheer him up.
“No sir, I just moved here a few weeks ago, I’m Rebecca.”
Her name was followed by an expectant pause and the old man stifled a sigh. He could hear his wife’s voice full of eager questions. “Ask her where she’s from. Is she staying with family? Do you think she’d like to have dinner with us next week?”
If she had been sat with him then Edward wouldn’t have needed to speak, she would have filled the silences with polite conversation and he could enjoy his overpriced tea in peace.
“I’m Edward, look love the cake was a sweet idea but I’m not in the mood for celebrating.”
“You aren’t happy you’ve retired?”
“What have I got to be happy about?”
“Time.” She spoke as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Time is useless if you’ve got nothing to do with it.”
“Then find something to do with it. Smell the flowers or something.”
Before he could reply she was gone. Leaving behind nothing but a whiff of perfume and the slice of cake. “How disappointing.” His wife’s voice was as clear as if she were sat across from him but he ignored it.
When Edward got back to his lifeless home his mind lingered on the strange new girl in town. It wasn’t often that newcomers arrived in Clearlake so they usually caused quite a stir but she seemed to have slipped in completely unnoticed. Or perhaps he was too wrapped up in his own failure of a life to notice it. Either way Edward found her curious, people in Clearlake don’t talk to each other the way she did. They find it safer to stick to politely impersonal topics of conversation like gardening. Reclined in his tattered armchair Edward closed his eyes and turned Rebecca’s words over and over in his mind. “Smell the flowers or something.” Yeah…or something.
As he looked over to the empty armchair across the room it’s cushion still perfectly placed, Edward imagined his wife’s reaction to the new waitress.
“She’s very pretty and so friendly! We should have friends round for dinner and invite her, to make sure she meets everyone.”
“I’m sure she’ll meet plenty of people at the tearoom dear.”
“Yes, but it will be nice for her to meet people outside of her work.”
“I’m sure she will.”
“Which is why I am going to organise this dinner. We can invite Ricky won’t that be lovely?”
“I’m sure it will my love.”
The voice faded into the air and Edward sighed deeply. It was only 8 o’clock but his eyelids were already drooping with the weight of sleep and his body ached from his last day of work. Deep down he had hoped if he spent today working far harder than necessary Ricky would reconsider making him retire but it was a ridiculous notion.
The next day Edward woke up at a loss for what to do, he had followed such a strict routine for so long that he had no idea what he was supposed to do with an empty day. For a while he sat in his armchair pondering the possibilities but none of his ideas seemed very appealing. As he peered around his lifeless living room he felt his worst fears surge upwards; that there was nothing more in his life then an uncomfortably old armchair and a cheap space heater. Edward groaned at his reflection in the television, he looked just like his father had a year before he died. His eyes were droopy and lacking the spark of youthful excitement, his cheeks were pale and his hair was little more than mist resting on the top of his head. He had spent his youth refusing to accept there was an end to life. We all like to believe that maybe we’re that one lucky person who won’t ever have to grow up. Who has been blessed with eternal life. But none of us are free from the rules of time, a fact that was becoming more apparent to Edward Gills every day.
“Why don’t you go out and see people? You can’t sit and wallow here all day.”
Edward groaned at the echo bouncing from his mind to the empty armchair. For a while he tried to ignore it but every few moments the same words ran through the room again.
“Fine.” Edward stood up slowly, cursing his creaky knees. “I’ll go and wallow at the tearoom instead.”
The Tearoom was practically empty when Edward arrived, there were only three customers all sitting silently over steaming cups, Edward nodded politely to each of them as he shuffled slowly to his usual table. He wasn’t sure why he acknowledged them, it wasn’t like any of them had ever spoken to him but it felt rude to ignore them. It took him a moment to notice but something was different about his table. A great bundle of wild flowers had been delicately arranged as a centre piece. When he looked around he saw that none of the other tables had been decorated, only his.
“Smell the flowers.” Edward muttered to himself with an almost smile playing on his lips as he leant forward inhaling their sweetness. “Oh, isn’t she sweet….” For a moment, it felt like the smile wasn’t his but his wife’s breaking through from the back corners of his mind.
“Do you like them?”
The old man jumped slightly as Rebecca appeared clutching his cup of tea, she had rushed over so eagerly that her hair was still bouncing behind her as she spoke.
“So, what are you doing here in the middle of the day?”
“I’m retired, remember?”
“So, you have your first day of complete freedom and you couldn’t think of anything better to do then sit here?”
Rebecca placed his tea in front of him and frowned with curiosity.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re very nosy?”
“I prefer the term curious.” Rebecca slid into the seat opposite the old man without waiting for invitation and leant her elbow awkwardly on the edge of the table. “Explain something to me, you have a future completely free of any responsibility and you are planning to do nothing with it?”
“What gave you that idea?”
“You said so yesterday. Why wouldn’t you make epic plans or see old friends? Travel the world!”
Edward sighed at the blunt attitude of this relative stranger. “Because I’m a grumpy old man.”
“I don’t believe that.”
Rebecca raised an eyebrow so high for a moment Edward thought it would fly away. “Well…that seems like a waste if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask you.”
“Maybe you should have. If you could do anything right now what would it be?”
“You and I both know what it would be. Tell her…I dare you.” Groaning at his inner haunting Edward stretched his legs out wincing slightly.
“I would see my little brother.”
“Why don’t you?”
“We haven’t spoken in years.”
“That’s not a reason not to.”
“He lives far away and I can’t handle travel anymore.”
“Invite him to visit you here, or use a phone.”
“Do you have an answer for everything?”
“Only when people are making excuses.” Rebecca beamed her innocent smile as she plucked a flower from her arrangement and rolled it absently between her fingers as she watched Edward furrow his brow. He didn’t even know why he was still talking to this strange girl who clearly had a misguided understanding of the word boundaries.
“This is really none of your business Rebecca.”
“I know. Why did you stop talking to your brother?”
It was a simple question. But in that moment Edward could feel the memories flashing through his mind. The pair of them playing in the garden, best men at each other’s wedding. Simon holding his hand at the funeral and then nothing more but a half-hearted card on Christmases and birthdays. Sometimes Edward felt like there was a thread connecting people’s lives. Stretching over time, until one day the distances grows too great. Pulled too thin it snaps. Letting two people, once connected, float endlessly apart.
“Sometimes people just grow apart.”
He didn’t look up to notice that he was now speaking to an empty chair. Distracted by a sudden flurry of customers desperate to be served before their lunch break ended, Rebecca had disappeared.
“That girl has a strange effect on you. I’ve never seen someone so young be so insightful.” Edward refused to think of her as insightful, he decided she was nothing more than infuriatingly nosy. However what Edward didn’t realise is that she had planted a seed in his mind and with every passing second it grew until it filled every crevice of his tired old head.
That night Edward did not sit in his tattered armchair as he usually did, instead he stood, staring at his phone. He clutched a tattered piece of paper with scribbled numbers so violently it made his hand shake. It would be so easy to dial but every time he thought he was ready something stopped him. Would his brother be happy to hear from him? They hadn’t spoken in so long; did they really count as brothers anymore? Was it blood or contact that made people family?
The last time they saw each other was two months after Edward lost his wife. Sat around the wobbling dining table eating cheap microwave meals because Edward had never learnt to cook. Simon hadn’t spoken all day, he felt guilty. The pair of them just picked silently at their cardboard food not daring to make eye contact. Since Edward had lost his wife he’d been withdrawn, inconsolable. At first Simon, had never let his brother be alone. Constantly inviting him to family dinners at his house but the sight of a happy family just made Edward worse. He couldn’t stand watching the life he should have had play out in front of him. When he looked at his brother’s family sat around the dinner table he felt like a spectator. It was like turning on his favourite TV show and seeing that they had recast the entire show. Edward Gill’s family had been replaced by younger models receiving the story line he should have been playing.
Silence filled the room in the crushing way that only unspoken thoughts can. Edward wanted to explain why he had been avoiding his brother. Why he had done things like miss his nephews christening, choosing the local pub over the church. But he wasn’t the kind of person who knew how to express emotions like that. Simon was the sensitive one, it’s why he had spent so long trying to help Edward despite repeatedly being drunkenly told to leave him. Even the kindest people in the world have their limits though. Edward knew that, in fact a part of him was relieved to see Simon giving up. It was better for his brother to let him go.
“I should get home to the family.”
“Yeah, Millie will be worrying about you.”
“Love you Teddy…”
As he stood staring blankly at the telephone Edward felt a familiar hand rest softly on his shoulder and smiled.
“You can do this sweetheart. Just take a deep breath and dial.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Oh, Edward yes, it is. You can’t live alone forever.”
“I’m not alone, I have you.”
“I’m not really here Edward. Not anymore.”
“You have to be.”
The hand disappeared from Edwards shoulder leaving a cold tingle that spread through him like melting ice. Spinning round he silently prayed to see his wife’s face but all he saw was an empty armchair staring back at him.
Taking a deep breath Edward held the receiver to his ear and dialled. One ring…was this really a good idea? He could feel his hand trembling at his side and every breath he took was laboured and over thought. Two rings… It felt like hours had passed. His heart was pounding so fast Edward was scared it might run away. Three rings…