A Happy Accident
A dark shape hurtled towards me. I heard someone shouting, running, the crackling of frosted grass, then I hit the ground. The sky, the blue of a china doll’s eyes, gazed quizzically down at me, and a dog’s sandpaper tongue grazed my cheek.
“Scamp! Here!” The voice, nearer now, repeated the words as I pulled myself up on one elbow, groping around for my stick. The dog moved away and the owner of the voice, a young woman with hair the colour of a bright new penny, bent down and helped me to my feet.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Scamp’s usually well behaved, he’s been to obedience classes, but when he sees a duck …” She gestured towards the nearby lake as she bent down again and picked up my battered old stick. “Are you hurt? I’m so sorry,” she repeated.
“No, only my pride,” I smiled, “though I may have the odd bruise.”
“Perhaps you should sit down for a while. There’s a tea room near the park gates, let me buy you a tea or coffee.”
To my surprise I found myself saying ‘yes’. Perhaps it was because something about her reminded me of Carol when we first met; maybe the bright copper hair, or her slightly lopsided smile. Maybe, though I rarely admitted it to myself, because I was lonely.
The café was fairly quiet; probably because it was Monday morning. The girl chose a table near the window so she could keep an eye on Scamp, tied to a post outside, looking somewhat crestfallen.
The steaming mugs of coffee sat between us on the table. As far as I could make out her eyes were green. She blushed under my gaze.
“It’s my turn to say sorry,” I said. “If I was staring it’s because my sight’s deteriorating. Let’s go back to the beginning. What’s the name of Scamp’s owner?”
For a moment she looked bemused, then laughed. “Ashley”, she said.
“Hello Ashley, I’m Andrew,” I replied. “Do you come here often?”
She laughed again. “I bring Scamp here most days, either before I go to work or, sometimes, after I finish.”
“Where do you work?” Her face seemed familiar.
“At the Stanhope Arms, pulling pints and serving food. Not very glamorous. Do you know it?”
“Yes, but I’ve never visited it. I used to pass it most days on my way to work at Woodthorpe Library.”
“You’re a librarian?”
“I used to be. I loved the job – the books, meeting people – but I had to retire when my sight began to deteriorate.”
“Is that why you use a stick?”
“I used to visit the library a lot three or four years ago, researching art history. I think I remember you.”
“And me you.”
We both laughed.
“I’d better go,” she said, “or I’ll be late for work.”
We walked together to the park gates, Scamp pulling ahead on his lead.
“Do you enjoy your job?” I asked as we reached the road.
“More than I thought I would, but I’m only doing it for a year or so then I’m going back to uni.”
“Are you on a gap year?”
“In a way. I’d completed two years of a Design and Craft Degree, things were going fine, then…” she faltered, looked away, “then my dad was killed in a car crash.”
“I’m sorry,” I murmured, “It must have been a shock.”
“Especially for my mum, she’s been very depressed. She didn’t want me to, but I took a year off uni to be with her.”
I watched them walk away, wishing we could have talked longer, before turning for home, occasionally practising as I went walking with my eyes shut, feeling the way with my stick.
Did I expect to see Ashley and Scamp again? I don’t know, but I hoped to. That brief interlude, apart from the bruises, had made me feel light-hearted, taken me out of myself. I began to walk in the park regularly and a few days later our paths crossed once more. I spotted Scamp first. This time he didn’t bowl me over, but came trotting towards me and greeted me like a long-lost friend, slapping his tail vigorously from side to side. I laid my stick and the flowers I was carrying on a bench and bent to stroke him.
“He never forgets someone he likes,” Ashley said as she joined us. “Pretty flowers, are they for your wife?
“That’s nice. You should bring her to the Stanhope for a meal sometime, her birthday or your anniversary. I’d make sure you got a good table.”
I was surprised to hear myself say, “Probably not. She’s in a care home – dementia.” Surprised because I didn’t talk about it much.
“Oh, that’s sad,” she said.
“She has good and bad days,” I said, trying to appear matter of fact. “The worst are those when she doesn’t know me at all, when I can’t reach her.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, the only noise the hissing of the coffee machine, then she said. “But you still go and see her, whether she knows you or not.”
“She’s still Carol, my wife. When we married I promised to always be there for her, nothing can change that,” I said.
“That’s the right answer,” she said with feeling then jumped up and grabbed Scamp’s lead. “See you soon, Andrew.”
I sat there for a little longer, puzzling over that last remark, the tone of her voice.
Sunday, in particular, when you live alone can be dreary. If the sun shines inviting you outdoors it’s not so bad, although seeing passing couples and families emphasizes your solitude. But on a dreich November day when the grey sky presses down, and rain falls straight as glass rods, my inclination is to draw the curtains and drink one too many measures of single malt. It had been such a day. Before my sight began to deteriorate, I would have jumped into the car and driven to visit Carol. Nowadays I usually went by bus. I looked out again at the remorseless rain, thought of the bus with its steamed up windows and chattering passengers – often with their cell phones glued to their ears – and phoned for a taxi.
In spite of the weather, the prospect of seeing Carol, lifted my spirits, it always did. Illogically, I still hoped that she would improve, that her memory would return and that she’d smile at me with more than a flicker of recognition. I paid the taxi driver and walked down Beech House’s drive, beneath the dripping canopy of ancient trees.
Susan, one of the carers, met me at the door. “Carol’s a bit withdrawn today,” she said. “She didn’t eat much lunch, maybe you can persuade her to have something.”
We both knew it was unlikely, but it had to be said. In the last month I’d noticed Carol’s waning interest in food. Sometimes I’d wondered if she’d forgotten how to eat. I found her sitting in her room beside the window, her face in shadow. Nearby, the flowers I’d brought earlier in the week had begun to droop.
“Hello, dear,” I said, giving her a kiss. “How are you today?”
There was no reply. I knew that I should use her name, rather than a term of endearment. If I did so there was more chance of triggering a response, evidence suggested.
“Carol, I’ve had an interesting few days.” I took her cold hand in mine. I told her about Ashley and Scamp – she’d always liked dogs – then I wittered on about this and that until Susan tapped on the door and came in bringing us cups of tea. I shook my head as she drew near.
“I can’t reach her today,” I said.
In my concern at Carol’s silence, I’d forgotten the rose. Since the first days of our marriage, most months I’d bought her a single long stem rose. I removed the Sonia rose from its cellophane wrap and placed it in her hands. She didn’t speak but became agitated, plucking at her skirt.
“It’s a rose, Carol. You’ve always loved roses,” I said.
A tear spilled down her cheek, followed by more. She looked at the flower, then at me, as if about to speak; searching for words that wouldn’t come. I fished around in my pockets for a tissue and carefully wiped her face.
“No!” she said suddenly, “No! No!”
None of it made sense. I felt like punching the door, anything, to relieve my feelings of impotence.
Ten minutes later I was in a taxi. I knew I wasn’t going home, not for a while. I needed warmth, some form of companionship.
“Stanhope Arms, please,” I said.
I saw Ashley as soon as I walked in. Her usually wild red hair was caught back from her face in a chignon, and she was briskly wiping an empty table. Catching sight of me she smiled.
“You’ve come at a good time,” she said, handing me a menu. “The lunch time rush is over. It will be a bit quieter for the next hour or so.”
I didn’t have much of an appetite but I studied the menu looking for something light. Soup seemed the best option.
“Have you been to see your wife today?” she said when she brought it to my table.
“Yes. It wasn’t one of her better days.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you want to be on your own or may I sit with you? I’m due to start my break.”
Of course there was nothing I wanted more. What did we talk about? Nothing of great significance, but I drew strength from her youth, her vitality.
“Do you work every weekend?” I said as she stood to go.
“No, usually alternate weekends. I was supposed to have gone away with Matt – that’s my boyfriend – this weekend for the first time, but I called it off, offered to work Emma’s shift.”
She went quiet for a moment and I wondered whether to ask her why she had backed out, but I didn’t. She would tell me if she wanted to and besides, young people have so many pressures these days.
It was nearly two weeks before I saw Ashley again: I’d begun to think she was walking Scamp elsewhere. My spirits lifted when I saw her coming towards me by the lake in the park.
“I’ve been away,” she said as I stroked Scamp’s head. “I took Mum on a short break to London. She’d never visited Tate Modern and she used to paint when she was younger. Thought it might encourage her to pick up a brush again.”
“That’s a long story,” she sighed.
“I’ve got plenty of time,” I said.
“I sometimes wonder why he’s still around,” she said. “I really like him, think he’s sound, but I thought my dad was.”
“And he wasn’t?”
“No. A few weeks before he died I found out he was having an affair, cheating on Mum. It made me feel sick to the pit of my stomach. I wrestled with whether or not to tell Mum, then he had the car crash. She’ll never know now.”
She looked away, but I had seen a tear slip down her face.
“I’m sorry,” I said, putting my hand over hers. “That was a lot to deal with, but I think you made the right decision.”
“But now I find it hard to trust any man, even Matt.”
I smiled. “I’m a man. You took me into your confidence.”
“But you’re different. You’ve stuck by your wife.”
“Is that what you meant the other week when you said saying I’d always be there for Carol was the right answer.”
“I’m not exceptional; there are lots of men like me. It’s not always easy, but in life we have to trust, to take chances.”
We sat in silence for a while, occasionally throwing Scamp his ball, watching him run back with it.
“I know you’re right,” she said at last. She fastened Scamp’s lead and passed me my stick. “That’s a bit tatty,” she said. “Perhaps I’ll buy you a nice jazzy one for Christmas.”
“Tell Matt I said hello”, I said.
“Will do. Drop into the Stanhope Sunday,” she called “After you’ve visited your wife.”
I watched her go, stepping lightly through the carpet of leaves.
I checked my watch. If I hurried I’d make the 1.25 bus. Today I felt would be a good day. I’d walk Carol outside so she could feel the sun on her face, and she would smile knowing, if only for an instant, that it was me she smiled at.