Jim sat at his kitchen table. The laminated fake pine sucking the heat out of his cup of tea. He could hear the first bird of the day tweeting in the tree outside, he didn’t know what kind of bird it was, or tree. The early bird catches the worm, he said in his mind. There was no point in speaking out loud.
He stared out of the window. The sky was empty; streaks of cloud lit by the distant sun floated like a pink undercurrent on a dark lake. The streetlights were still on, the orange glow rising in the distance like a false dawn. His eyesight wasn’t good enough to see the individual street lights far off in the distance anymore. He remembered looking at the patterns of the street lights. If any blinked he wondering what the name of the street was that had the faulty light; just something he distractedly found himself thinking about now and again. But now he couldn’t do that anymore. Was it going to be a nice day? Was that the faint howl of wind he heard outside the window? He lifted in his seat a little to check. Nothing. He had half expected to see a fine mist of rain sweeping past that nearest streetlight there, and it would have been just his luck if there was.
The tea was only half-finished and now it was cold. He’d been letting his mind wander and had forgotten about it. He knew that later he would think about the tea when he was cold at a bus stop somewhere and wish he had drunk it all.. Was it time to move yet? He looked at his watch. He had to shift it around his thin wrist to see the face. He remembers the day his wife gave it to him. His wife; the thought of her comes into his head like a speeding train as he runs his finger over the cool watch face. He is transported back to that time, so deep and clear that it almost causes him physical pain. He supposes that is the grief. People talk about grieving but nobody really describes it- so how do people know when they are really feeling it? For him this is it, that pain in the centre of his chest, under his ribs, somewhere in the space between there and his heart- like a pocket of gas. Although if it was a pocket of gas then it would have escaped when the doctors had opened his chest up. It puzzles him how feelings can cause pain but in no real physical place that can be opened up and looked at or fixed, like they occur in another dimension of yourself. He supposes this is why people talk about souls. Maybe that’s what it is then, he thinks to himself.
The sky has lightened only a little. Has he been sitting here too long? What was the time again? He looks again because he didn’t take it in the last time. Time to move. There are more birds chirping outside. Will it be a clear day today? He goes to the sink and holds his cup under the cold water for a few seconds, taking care not to get his fingers wet. That would be the last thing he wants to feel; the chill of cold water on his fingertips before he goes out the door. He doesn’t have gloves. He left them on a bus but he hadn’t bothered to check if anyone had handed them in, that would have been a waste of time.
He looks out the window one more time to see if there are any cars on the move out there. Nothing. Is he too early, right enough? Is everyone else still fast asleep, not even thinking about getting up yet? It had snowed the other day and there are white mounds on the grass court. He would have to watch out for hidden dog shit on the pavement underneath patches of snow. Why did people let their dogs shit on the pavement? That was a mystery to him. That didn’t happen everywhere of course, in other places they took pride in their streets. Not like here, not anymore. When him and his wife had bought this flat in 1963 this place was pristine. They had an inside toilet and a bath, and more cupboard space than they knew what to do with. They had nice neighbours, and people still swept their own stairs. Now there was only him and the lassie underneath in the whole close. She had three young weans and he had never seen her with a man the whole time she lived there, but he didn’t judge, she was a nice lassie. He tightened the cold water tap as he walked past to leave the kitchen. He wasn’t as good at tightening things anymore, his strength wasn’t what it used to be and sometimes when he went to bend his fingers they would only move a little bit, even though his brain had told them to move a lot. That was him getting really old, he told himself.
He opened his front door and stepped outside. The chill in the air struck him. He struggled for a minute with the lock on the door. It had always been stiff but these days it seemed to cause him real problems. He turned round to face the air and the day. The sky was only a little lighter still, a few more clouds had streaked across the sky now; a deep orange colour. He couldn’t tell if it would be cloudy or clear day yet. He heard the hiss of a bus stopping at the bottom of his street and the noise of a car accelerating soon after. People were awake.
He started down the stairs at the top of his landing. Were they slippery? He would have to be careful of that, he told himself. He noticed a puddle of yellow paint at the corner of the landing. The young ones had painted some sort of obscure symbols all over the place, over the last lot they had done that is, then poured the remaining yellow paint onto the landing. He would have to be careful not to trace any of that back into his house he told himself.
He was nearly at the bottom of the steps. He lifted his leg and moved his body weight forward but when his foot touched the step his knee bent and kept going, he couldn’t stop it. He crashed forward full on his front at the bottom of the steps like a plank of wood falling off the back of a lorry. He felt the vibration of the impact in every bone in his body. In his younger days he would have got up and laughed and shook it off and went on with his day, probably laughing about it with his work pals even if he did feel a little bruised. But now, at eighty-one years old, he lay shocked and confused. What had happened? He tried to move but his bones didn’t seem to respond. He shuffled himself round onto his side after a few minutes. Inside there was a swelling of emotion he couldn’t place in this situation. Then he realised he was afraid. The cold of the concrete was nipping, draining the heat through his clothes. He tried to move again but it seemed as though his body was like a broken down car, an old banger, he told himself angrily. He couldn’t move. He let his head lean gently onto the concrete allowing his hat to kept the chill off his thin scalp, at least that was something, he thought; although his knee’s throbbed in agony. Somehow he was glad to feel pain and know that he had feeling at all. A silly fall, he said in his mind but he managed to tutt out loud. He had heard this happened to old people all the time and he always wondered how they could just fall over. Well, now he knew, he thought to himself.
He was near the gate of the lassie below him. He tried to listen for the sound of voices or movement inside her flat. Nothing. His arms were still unresponsive by his side, he couldn’t check his watch. The lassie was sure to burst out her door any minute with her weans, taking them to school and nursery, then she would find him and help him up. The cold came in again, right through the layers of his clothes like he knew it would. His thin frame cold; aching to the core. He thought about that tea he hadn’t finished.
The sky was bright now, red and almost shimmering as the sun had risen above the horizon somewhere; he couldn’t see it yet. Was he short of breath? No doubt he was, he was fair winded in that fall there. His knees were aching and the pain was travelling, like the waves of a tide, right up his body. He opened his mouth to speak the pain, to moan or make some other noise to express it. Nothing. Only a throaty breath escaped. He was so tired. Had he not been up for hours now? His head rested on his cap on the concrete. The cold on his nose: his cheeks, his ears stinging, his hands numb and his knees aching.
He heard the lovely sound of all the birds awake now. Thank god for those places here where the birds lived. He came back from that thought to sight of graffiti all over the walls and the stairs in need of a good wash. Was that piss he could smell? Probably. The postman, a thought jolted into his mind, the postman would be here shortly. But as soon as he thought it he knew that was no hope, the postman was lucky to drag himself up to deliver mail around here before mid day never mind as the sun rose. No, he knew it wouldn’t be the postman to help him. Was that another bus hissing at the bottom of the road? He could hear more cars, people going to work.
His eyes fell on the toys sitting outside the front door of the lassie. Stuff she was throwing out? Aye maybe it was. Her wee one was fair growing up fast she had said. A painful memory flew to the surface as he looked at the discarded wee toys outside her door. His own daughter. She living with a woman in Edinburgh. Her choice of partner didn’t bother him but they rarely spoke, and that made him sad. Her mother had died just before she started Secondary school, when she was twelve. She had been right ill and he knew she wouldn’t live another fortnight; he knew she wouldn’t get to see their lassie in her uniform for ‘the big school’, as she called it. Then, hinging on the sad fact she’d lost track of the days long before, Marie had told her Ma that school started two weeks before it did and turned up at the hospital one morning in her full uniform. He might have suggested it himself but that would have been like admitting how bad it really was, although she must have realised herself. But Marie knew what she was doing. Her Ma was right weak at this point but when she opened her eyes and saw Marie standing there, all smart and grown up looking, her face had lit up like neither of them had seen all year. It was worth the lie to see her happy like that. Marie had sat on the bed with her and let her sweep her hands over her blazer to get rid of imaginary oose; just a habit. Her Ma told her to ” jist go straight there hen, so yir not late for yir first day!”. Oh she was “that proud of her!” she told Marie and she held her hands tight, with more energy than her body could probably afford. Jim knew Marie didn’t want to leave her; didn’t want this moment with her to end -it was the end of everything in a way and they both knew that. But his wife had urged her to go, ”Before yir late hen, I don’t want you to be late!” she said, and Marie knew she had to go to keep up the illusion. Jim had stood up from the chair at the side of his wife’s bed and said he would walk her to the bus stop. Marie told her Ma stories about school that whole week and her Ma said she was ‘Right glad’ she was getting on well at the big school. Jim knew she’d probably held on to make sure of it. She had died in the morning of the Saturday. He’d held her hand to his lips and kissed it softly, tears streamed silently down his face as her breathing slowed. He closed his eyes and remembered her running down the beach in Troon when they were teenagers; he remembered their wedding day and her red hair when it caught the sunlight, he was longing to go home and find her there just as she slipped away.
Had he fallen asleep? He was so deep in that time that it had been like being back there. His wife and the smell of the hospital. How long had he been here? It felt like hours now but it was only a little while wasn’t it? He was so cold he could spit- although he didn’t attempt it. His jaw felt stiff. The sky had flecks of blue through the deep red. All the birds were awake now and it was such a lovely song. He hadn’t heard that in such a long time. Getting up so early to end up here, lying on the concrete, had been worth it just to hear that he told himself- in an attempt to rally his spirits. He closed his eyes, tired and cold; hadn’t he been up so long now? He thought about that tea he had let go cold. Stay awake he told himself, when the lassie came out with her weans he didn’t want to give her a fright thinking he was dead, or give her the trouble of having to wake him up- the silly auld sod.
At least it’s not raining he told himself otherwise she might look out and decide not to venture out the door. He still couldn’t move. His eyes closed again. He didn’t want to look at all the dirty walls and weird symbols scrawled all over the place- this was a depressing experience as it was. At least he had the birds singing he thought, thank god there were places for the wee birds around here.
He tried to go back to the smell of that hospital or the smell of his wife. He could sleep couldn’t he? The lassie would be out the door any minute with her weans and he could wake up before she clocked the sight of him lying on the landing like a sack of potatoes. He would be fixing that tap when he got back to his house he thought, but before that a big cup of hot tea which he would pay full attention to this time for sure.
He drifted in thought, eyes closed. The cold was making his bones feel like frozen metal poles inside his body. Relief, he thought, would be in having a sleep until he had the strength to move or the lassie came out with the weans and got him. Had he been up too early right enough? Maybe he had but he loved to hear these wee birds singing. It was the same exact song he had heard over all the years he had the pleasure to catch it. In those early mornings before work or outside the hospital for a quick smoke before his wife woke up; was it not the same lovely sound? He was sure it was. Here he was now though, lying amongst piss and graffiti on the same stairs he had carried his wife’s coffin down the day he buried her. He didn’t remember hearing birds then but he didn’t let his mind venture into that day. His thoughts quieted a little. Had the sun taken the chill off his body? He didn’t feel that bruising cold as bad now, thank god. Aye, a wee sleep will be just the thing he tells himself. Now that the pain and the cold have subsided he can sleep a bit more comfortable, considering the circumstances, just until the lassie takes her weans to the nursery and helps him up. That‘s all he needs after all, he tells himself; a hand up off this concrete slab, then he can get on with his day and later he will be fixing that tap. But a cup of tea would be first, he would be back at the table with a cup of tea, giving it his full attention in no time. He could close his eyes until then. After all, he was so tired. He closed his eyes.