It had been a year since she passed away. He had got used to her ways, they were as habitual and self-reflexive as taking a pee.
He’d assumed without too much questioning that he would go first, and loneliness an affliction that he would remain unfamiliar with. Throughout their life together, the caresses and kisses had become stamps, reminders of their physicality, as if checking they still occupied different spaces. It wasn’t an intense love by any means. At times they rarely spoke. It was if, on the good days, they were lost within themselves.
He’d never wanted children, until it was too late. The doctors warned her that having children late might endanger her life. Perhaps the choice between her and children made him value her more. As the years passed she became all he had, and despite the slow decline of her health, remained optimistic until the very end.
He still looked at her picture everyday, but mostly now he spent his days at the pub, firstly in the solace of company, and then in alcohol. The pub during the day was a mixture of men escaping the image of the women in their lives. Either escaping from them, or escaping the loneliness of their absence.
Every man an island, each to their own scratching out crosswords or betting slips in silence. Later in the day, workers would come in for a pint after their day and he preferred this time. If only to listen to other men complain about their jobs or the cost of keeping a family, it was better than the telly for company.
A new girl started working during the afternoons, and oddly, it seemed slightly busier. She was in her mid-twenties, quite pretty and very cheerful. He began striking up brief conversations, and he enjoyed her company. She listened intently to what he said, she genuinely seemed interested. They talked about all kinds of things, the newspapers, what was on telly, and about themselves.
He told her about being in the army and all things he got up to and had been through. She seemed fascinated. He liked being interesting and told her something new every time he saw her.
He brought in an old photo of him dressed up in his in this army uniform.
She was very impressed and commented on how handsome and dashing he looked. He went home slightly tipsy and in a good mood.
Suddenly he didn’t feel the presence of the shadow of loneliness hanging over him.
He felt happy, the ache in his old bones didn’t seem so pressing and he looked forward to seeing her.
He returned to the pub over the next few days, and the conversations continued. He always complemented her when he saw her, telling her that she looked nice. She would coyly thank him.
He decided to stay away from the pub for a couple of days because he wanted her to miss him. He’d already decided to get his uniform cleaned and pressed, to be worn on his return. He couldn’t wait to see the look on her face.
He collected his freshly pressed uniform, he put it on and realised how much weight he’d lost since last wearing it. Sickness had a physical form yet she couldn’t fail to be amazed. Before leaving he once again looked at his dead wife’s photo. He’d neglected to do this for some days now but he set out for the pub without dwelling on matters.
He felt positive and happy to be alive for the first time in months. It was like someone unlocking a jail-cell door and the grief began to subside. The sun could be seen in the distant horizon of his future and life was joyful.
He went first to the florist’s to pick a bunch of flowers, he was feeling bold enough to ask her to dinner.
He arrived at the pub feeling like a teenager, with only his sagging skin and enormous bank of memories betraying the butterflies in his stomach.
He walked in to see her standing with a man of about 30 who was talking to her, she nodded and tenderly placed a kiss on the man’s cheek and stepped back behind the bar. She looked over in his direction and smirked, seeing his uniform and blushed slightly. He ordered a drink instinctively, but tried to hide his embarrassment, shuffling off to the first available table. He sat awkwardly, his uniform almost drowning him now, clutching the flowers in his right hand like brandishing a weapon.
Life had moved on. He couldn’t move on, he had fooled himself. He would drain his glass and return to the photo of his wife. He would return home and re-join her once more.