He dislikes lying to matron. She is, after all, a decent enough person. But if he told her the truth, she would never let him go. She would probably force him to join in more of the activities at the nursing home. He thinks activities a strange choice of word when the home only really has a dimly-lit television lounge, a large, light sitting room filled with green high-backed chairs and another activities area with card tables and board games.
Bill spends his time meandering between these three rooms in the daytime, sitting for a while, watching and listening, before he moves on. He suffers the odd game of draughts or chess with one of his fellow inmates, listening to their wheezing chest, whistling nose or slapping jaws. He dreads an invite to the TV room, as it means enduring the soaps or talk shows that dominate the schedules.
Despite the constant noise around him, of television, nursing staff, coughs, moans and clicking joints, he sometimes finds the silence of his world suffocating. If it is warm enough, he likes to sit on a bench in the garden. He chooses one halfway across the lawn under some birch trees where he sits and listens to the leaves rustling overhead and the wood pigeon’s plaintive call.
He used to like Sundays, the main day for visitors at the home. Not that anyone ever visits him. His friends are either too frail to travel or gone now. He has no children of his own, only nieces and nephews. They send cards at Christmas and on his birthday but they don’t visit. He used to hover nearby when others had visitors, surreptitiously sharing in their conversation and family. That was until one woman complained and he was told not to bother people any more, which had annoyed him. It’s not as if he’d been doing any harm.
Now he dislikes Sundays most of all. In order to avoid them, he has to lie to matron. He doesn’t like doing it but every last Sunday of the month, he visits his old friend Jim Harris in the seaside town where they used to live. Jim is too frail to travel to see Bill. That’s what he tells matron anyway. So she allows him a day pass once a month and he gets the train on his own. To see Jim. He enjoys those visits but is finding them harder. His body aches for a week now after making the trip and he wonders how long he can continue his jaunts.
When his train pulls in at the station, he opens the door and stands for a moment on the step, inhaling the salt air and smell of grease from the chip shop. Those behind him expect him to take his time getting off the train. Those getting on wait awkwardly, not knowing whether or not to help him off. He walks towards the esplanade and sits for a while on a bench, watching the waves rise and fall. If the weather is bad, he doesn’t stop but instead walks on past the arcades and gift shops until he reaches the bright green and orange canopy of the restaurant.
He always chooses a table at the back, looking out over the restaurant and onto the seafront beyond. To his right is the bar and to the left the kitchens. He knows the menu verbatim but he and the Head Waiter go through the ritual of him studying it each time. He sucks on a bread stick, as he considers the choices. He reads the Italian first, pronouncing it perfectly in his head, then savours the description in English underneath.
It is busy today and he eats even more slowly than usual. He hears laughter and the crack of one of those tiresome party poppers: he guesses they are a hen weekend from their high heels, bare legs and short skirts. He is distracted by a squeal as sundae glasses of multi-coloured ice-cream sail towards another party, a family this time. One of the ices has a sparkler in it for the birthday girl with flushed cheeks, cowering in the middle of the table. To his right, he can hear a father rasping commands to a child, sit up, finish your pizza, stop banging the table leg, or we leave right now and go home. A line or two of ‘O sole mio’ rises in a crescendo from a table of lads by the window. He watches the waiter collect their glasses, smiling patiently and bowing his head when they finish, before moving off towards the bar.
At the other window table sits a young couple: she has long blonde hair that she flicks over her shoulders while she talks; her skin is pale and clear and squeezed into a one-shouldered black top; he sits forward awkwardly in a stiff grey shirt and scuffs his feet while he talks. The first date in a proper restaurant, Bill thinks. Her nervous giggle ripples through the restaurant and his embarrassed cough gives them away as the children they still are.
Bill orders an espresso at the end of his meal, although he knows he will pay for it later. He has had such a good evening of people-watching that he feels like rebelling. There will be another month of insipid tea when he gets back to the home. He thinks he deserves a treat. He pockets the mints for the train ride home. The coffee is sharp and hot, so he lets it cool off, as he watches the parties break up and tables clear. Jim would like it here, he thinks to himself. He realises that he has hardly given poor old Jim a thought this evening. But this would be Jim’s kind of place, he is sure. That is, it would be, if Jim actually existed.