THE THINGS WE CAN’T DO ANYMORE
Sandra sits in her small, square sitting room, staring into space. It’s dark out, and it feels much later than it is. She’s hardly been out of the house this week, hasn’t done very much at all. The time has dragged, the empty hours feeling far longer than they really are. Apart from the little lamp on the table next to her armchair, the only other light in the house comes from the TV screen. It flickers, filling the room with different shades and levels of brightness. She has the sound right down, almost off. Some nights she just can’t abide the noise, and this is one of those nights. She doesn’t know what to do with herself. It’s too early for bed. She wants to go to sleep and for it to be morning so she can get up fresh and try again for a better day, though she’s not convinced. At her age, wishing the hours away feels like a risk. She’s almost eighty. Almost gone, she thinks.
Was it all worth it?
She thinks that same thought regularly, but never says it out loud. When she has the energy to go out and see friends, she looks at them and wonders if they ask themselves the same question. She expects they probably do. She doesn’t understand how they can’t. The winding down of her life’s clock is on her mind at all the time. It’s starting to feel like it’s the only thing she ever thinks about.
The house is cold. Her belly’s grumbling non-stop, but her medication dictates that if she eats this late in the day, she’ll be up all night. Besides, there’s nothing much in the kitchen she fancies. There’s nothing much in the kitchen at all.
It feels like her world is gradually slowing down to its inevitable stop. It’s hard, because with time on her hands and so little to do now, she spends a lot of time looking back. She remembers the enthusiasm, the excitement, and the exuberance of youth. She remembers the rush of energy she felt with (almost) every new day. The challenge, the ambitions, the dreams… the sheer wonder of being alive and exploring, feeling her way through the world. She remembers family, friends, games, school, jobs, Christmases, holidays, birthdays, kisses, crushes, arguments, the sun and the snow, the highs and lows . . . she crammed so much into all those years, and yet now all she feels when she looks back is a sense of anticipatory loss and pre-emptive grief, disappointment that having done so much, she didn’t do more. Missed opportunities. Regret.
There’s not enough time left to change anything now.
Whatever the future she’d dreamed about and planned for when she was younger, this wasn’t it.
Sandra feels very alone tonight, very sad.
Her mood these days is permanently flat. There are things she could do, sure, places she could go, but there are two things stopping her: effort and means. Effort, because everything takes ten times the energy it should. Even getting up out of her armchair tonight feels like an uphill battle that she’s been putting off, a monumental exertion to achieve very little. And means, because she can’t think of anything that’s not going to cost her money she doesn’t have. Everything is so expensive these days. Her pension barely sees her from week to week and she’s nothing worth selling. She’s reached the stage where all her worldly possessions are impossibly valuable to her and yet, at the same time, completely worthless to anyone else. Take the fur-lined boots she wears around the house, for example. She’d get maybe a quid for them (not that anyone would want to buy them, state they’re in), yet she couldn’t afford to be without them. Her feet would freeze. And don’t even get me started on the cost of the heating, she warns herself. She wears outdoor coats indoors and sits here under blankets because she’s worried about ending up with a bill she doesn’t have the means to pay.
She rubs her cold hands together and looks at them. When did I get so old? She thinks she looks fragile. Her skin, she thinks, is almost see-through.
And she thinks back to the days when she’d go out with her friends, wearing next to nothing even in the middle of winter, when their friendship and the fun and the booze and the ciggies and the promise of a fumble and a kiss with a bloke kept them all as warm as they ever wanted to be. She remembers seeing old ladies’ hands when she was young. They always reminded her of porcelain. Aging is an inevitability, but it’s still a shock when you don’t feet that different but the face you see in the mirror is as wrinkled and tired as the biddies you remember from years and years ago.
Dancing. Remember dancing?
And swimming, too. She used to love swimming. She’d go two or three times a week when she could.
She used to cook for the family. Loved having everyone around on a Sunday for a roast.
Even shopping… the noise of the shops, the bustle of the pavements, the chatter on the bus there and back, loaded up with carrier bags.
Bloody hell, even reminiscing is tiring these days. She can hardly keep her eyes open. Her head’s nodding.
‘You’re going to sleep,’ Richard says, watching her.
‘Oh, do you usually close your eyes and snore when you’re awake then?’
‘I wasn’t snoring. Anyway, you’re back then?’
‘Certainly looks that way.’
‘You’ve been gone ages. What have you been up to while I’ve been sitting here?’
He slumps onto the sofa and settles himself in.
‘Oh, this and that.’
‘And that’s all I’m getting, is it?’
‘Nothing interesting to report?’
Sandra watches him over the rim of her glasses. He’s infuriating as always. He’s sitting half in and half out of the lamp light, wearing his favourite shirt underneath his favourite worn and baggy fleece.
‘Aren’t you cold?’ she asks. ‘It’s bitter out tonight. It’s bitter in, come to mention it.’
She pulls her cardigan tighter around her shoulders and adjusts the blanket that’s covering her knees. Even the thought of cold weather makes her feel the temperature more.
He points at the TV. ‘Can you hear that?’
‘What’s the point of having the TV on if you can’t hear it?’
‘I got tired of the noise. Everybody’s shouting all the time. Or arguing. Or both.’
‘What about your soaps? You always loved your soaps.’
‘It’s the soaps I was talking about. Don’t even get me started on the news, I can’t bear to watch it. Better not to know, I say. Whatever’s happening and wherever it is, I can’t do anything about it, can I? Anyway, we can’t get any of the good programmes. I saw a couple of dramas I liked the look of in my magazine.’
‘And what? Did you not hear me? We can’t get them. One’s on the Netflix, and the other is on the Sky TV, and we don’t have them, do we?’
‘You could pay to have them?’
‘We’ve been through this.’
‘Didn’t your friend Mary say her boy could help when she was round here last?’
‘She said I could use his log-on or something, but you need the internet, and we’re not online or whatever.’
‘So why don’t you get that sorted? We always talked about going onto the world-wide web.’
She despairs at him. ‘Are you not listening to me, Richard? Because you have to pay. The internet’s not free, you know.’
‘I thought that was the whole point of it.’
‘Well, that just shows how much you know, doesn’t it.’
He leans back in his seat, face just out of the light. She’s getting shirty with him again. He can’t do right for doing wrong.
After a minute or two has passed, he tries again. ‘What’s the matter, love? You seem awful low this evening.’
She doesn’t answer straightaway.
What does she tell him?
How many times do they have to do this, and what difference will it make?
It feels like she’s got so much to say on the subject. Too much, almost. She doesn’t know where to start or even if there’s any point. They’ve been through this a thousand times already, and even if they do it a thousand times more, it won’t change anything. The conclusion will always be the same. Things are going to get worse, not better. It’s called getting old, that’s what she usually ends up telling him.
‘I’m just tired.’
He shakes his head.
‘Don’t give me that. I know you well enough to know when I’m being fobbed off. There’s more to it. Now try again, Sandy. Tell me what’s up.’
Another pause, then a deep breath, then she speaks, reluctant to dredge up the same old, same old, but knowing that she’s going to, just the same.
‘Is this it?’
‘Is what it?’
‘This!’ she says, getting cross, raising her voice, and gesticulating around the room with her arms.
‘We always loved this house. I mean I know it’s not much, but it’s ours and we—’
‘I’m not talking about the house. You know I’m not.’
Her eyes are glistening. She feels angry that she’s letting her emotions show, and that makes it even harder to hold back the tears.
‘Every single day when I get out of bed, I’ve lost a little bit more.’
‘What do you mean? We can’t get the days back, can we? Are you talking about money, or—?’
‘If you’d just shut up long enough, I’ll tell you!’
He slumps back again, suitably chastised. It’s horrible when she’s on a proper downer like this. Happens regularly, it does. Too regularly. ‘Go on then,’ he says, subdued, ‘tell me.’
‘I was looking through our photo albums again this afternoon. I don’t know why I put myself through it. I thought it might cheer me up, but it just made me feel worse.’
‘Looking at photos of my ugly mug is enough to upset anyone,’ he says, and she wants to shout at him and tell him to stop being silly because she’s trying to make a serious point here… but she doesn’t. She knows he means well. She knows she’s lucky to still have him.
‘Mostly I was looking at the holiday pictures. All those times we packed up the car and disappeared off somewhere. Often, we’d book a cheap caravan, remember, but we camped a few times. I found pictures of us sitting drinking outside the tent in Glamorgan, that time we met up with Barry and June and their lot, and that was what set me off.’
‘What, seeing Barry?’
‘No, camping. I couldn’t do it these days. I just couldn’t physically do it.’
‘Not being able to go camping… that’s not such a loss, is it?’
‘No, not in itself, but then I got to thinking about more and more things I can’t do anymore. Dancing. That’s impossible with my knees now, but we used to love going out for a dance on a Saturday night, didn’t we? And just going out for long walks… remember how we’d set out from here of a lunchtime then keep walking and walking until we were miles out of the city. We’d find ourselves a nice little country pub somewhere and have a couple of drinks, then pick ourselves up and walk all the way back again.’
‘Apart from that time we’d had considerably more than a couple of drinks, and we ended up having to catch a lift with that chap we got speaking to and—’
‘—and the lady he had with him who was definitely not his wife! Yes, I remember.’ She pauses for a moment and smiles wistfully, but it’s fleeting. ‘I couldn’t manage anything like those distances these days. Nor could I afford to drink like we used to. The prices are ridiculous.’
‘Come on, love… you’re not telling me this is all about the price of a pint of beer?’
She brushes away another tear and shakes her head.
‘You know full well it isn’t.’
‘Then tell me. Come on, it’s always better to get these things out in the open, isn’t it?’
And she nods her head and takes a deep breath. He’s right, of course, but this is hard. It’s really, really hard. ‘I almost threw the photo albums in the bin,’ she admits.
He’s aghast. ‘Why on earth would you do that?’
‘Because every single picture I looked at just reminded me of all the things we can’t do now, that’s why.’
He sits but doesn’t respond for a moment. What’s he supposed to say to that? That’s just how it is. That’s how life works.
‘So, do you have any regrets?’
‘No more than anyone else.’
‘Do you wish you’d done things different?’
She shrugs and dabs at her face with a tissue. ‘How am I supposed to answer that?’
‘Answer honestly, that’s how.’
‘Then I have to say no, don’t I. I could have made different decisions along the way, of course I could, but if I’d done that, we might not have had the life we had together.’
‘Exactly. My old always mum used to say—’
‘There are no such things as bad decisions, only decisions,’ she interrupts, because she’s had the benefit of her dear departed mother-in-law’s knowledge more times than she can remember.
‘Correct,’ he says. ‘Anyway, I’d go further. I’d say we almost certainly wouldn’t have had our life together. Remember how we met?’
‘As if I could ever forget. You missed your bus and—’
‘And I was late getting into town to meet the boys. By the time I got there they’d already given up hope of me turning up and had gone off drinking. If I’d been more organised and left the house on time, I’d have been out with the lads, and I probably never would have seen you. I’d never have stuck my nose in, and none of this would have happened.’
When he says the word “this” he puts extra emphasis on it and waves his arms around like Sandra did. She doesn’t see him, because she has her eyes closed, drowning in the nostalgia. She’s right back there again in an instant, revisiting the sights and sounds and emotions of those few hours that changed everything for the two of them forever.
‘That night was like a dream to me. It was like something out of a Hollywood film. I was getting all kinds of grief from that awful creep outside the bingo hall, and then—’
‘—and then I turned up. I could see straightaway how uncomfortable you were getting, so I just waded in. I didn’t even stop to think about it, I just made like I’d known you for years. I told him to sling his hook, then took your arm, bold as brass, and walked you straight through the front of the bingo and out the back entrance.’
‘You were such a gentleman. I knew straightaway that you were the one for me. You didn’t try it on with me at all that night. There was just something about the way you looked at me, the way you talked to me . . . confident, but not arrogant. We had a connection right from the very first moment.’
‘When it’s right, it’s right. I’ve always said that, remember?’
‘I remember. And then it started to snow, and they’d not long switched the Christmas lights on, and oh, it felt so romantic. You said you’d walk me home, but before we could get anywhere there was that big blizzard, remember? We ended up in that lovely steakhouse just to keep ourselves warm. And we talked and we talked and we talked… it was magical.’
‘And all because I was a disorganised idiot and I missed the bus.’
‘Feels so long ago now, almost like it happened to someone else. So much has happened since then. I wouldn’t last five minutes out in cold like that these days . . .’
She’s thinking about the present again now. The lightness in her voice fades.
‘You’re right, love, it’s hard. It doesn’t feel fair, does it? How did you put it… the things we can’t do anymore… that’s a very good way of putting it, I think. If it’s any consolation, I feel it too. I hate not being able to do the things I used to. It makes me feel like a failure at times, like a useless husband.’
‘Don’t talk like that, you’ll just make me feel worse. You’ve been a wonderful husband. You still are. You keep me company, pick me up when I’m miserable like this…’
‘But I can’t take you out like I used to. I can’t hold your hand…’
‘That’s not your fault.’
‘Doesn’t make me feel any better about it, though. But I’ve done a lot of thinking about this stuff, believe me. I’ve had plenty of time to try and get my head around it. And you know what? I don’t think it matters.’
‘Of course it matters.’
He’s shaking his head. ‘Do you remember Charlie?’
‘The dog? How could I forget her?’
‘Remember when we picked her up from the shelter and brought her back here? Remember all the walks and the laughs and the fun we had with her?’
‘Yes, but what’s Charlie got to do with anything? She’s been gone twice as long as we had her.’
‘We took her on knowing she wouldn’t make old bones, remember? We knew when we agreed to give her a home that she’d end up breaking our hearts, but that didn’t stop us, did it?’
‘I loved every minute we had with her. Except when she had next-door’s cat cornered that time.’
‘Yeah, and when she chewed through the rotten bit of the back door frame and got loose.’
‘But what’s she got to do with anything?’
‘The dog was just an easy example. Whenever you fall in love, you know it’s not going to last forever. That’s impossible. And every day you have together, is one less day you’ve got to look forward to.’
Sandra’s not impressed.
‘I thought you were supposed to be trying to cheer me up.’
‘Well, you’re not doing a very good job of it. The way you’re talking, you make it sound like life’s not worth living at all.’
‘I’m saying the exact opposite to that, and you know it, you stubborn old goat.’
‘There’s no need to be like that, Richard.’
‘Yes, there is! I need you to see it. If I can accept it in my position, then you sure as hell can.’
She looks over at him, exasperated, tears still rolling down her cheeks. ‘What exactly is it you’re saying?’
He really does wish he could hold her hand.
‘I’m saying that time is fleeting. Nothing lasts forever. I’m saying, don’t get upset about the things you can’t do anymore, be thankful and happy for all the things that you did. I know I am.’
She shakes her head. ‘You’re full of nonsense, you are,’ she says, and she gets up from her chair and goes to the kitchen. She fills the kettle with enough water for one mug and switches it on to make her last drink of the day. She leans against the counter as she waits for it to boil.
What’s worse is he’s right, and they both know it.
The important thing is that they had the life that they did. She should look back on it with pride and happiness, not regret that they didn’t have longer or didn’t achieve more. If they’d had twice as long together, it still wouldn’t have been anywhere near long enough. There’s nothing she can do to change things, can’t reverse the aging process, or go back in time, anything like that. If she could, she’d go back in heartbeat and stop Richard from going out to work on the day of the accident. The day he never came home.
But then again, maybe she wouldn’t.
Who knows what might have happened these last twelve years if he’d still been alive? They might have won the lottery and holidayed abroad, or they might not. They might have remained inseparable, or she might have grown tired of him, or he might have had enough of her. She doesn’t think that would have happened, but who knows? She thinks she should tell him, but he gets unbearably smug whenever she admits that he’s right. Anyway, he’s gone by the time she goes back into the other room, and she’s left alone with her memories again.
Thanks for reading
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