It was the week before William had ended up in the hospital that the pains had started in earnest. He was sat outside a church when the first stab of pain hit him in his chest. Of the dozens of churches in the town William only likes to sit in the vicinity of churches that at least several hundreds of years old. He had once said - when the suit he was wearing was new and he’d worn it to the office - that churches built within the last few decades were more like arcades than places of worship. His colleagues had laughed with him at the time, but the more he thought about it he began to believe that they were laughing at him really. It didn’t bother him now, nothing did. Since Beryl was gone the only permanent things were the buildings.
William knew that he could not get any sense of reverence for a place built with red brick and without stained glass windows. He had tried for several years to find a good church to be in until, in his own opinion, he knew far too much about the inside of churches. None of them ever fit him. The people inside them were also ill-matched to his needs.
The last church he’d truly felt comfortable in was the one he’d been in with his wife, when they’d been on a walking holiday in the Cotswolds. They had stopped off in Gloucester and visited the tiny Beatrix Potter shop before spending a pleasant few hours inside the huge cathedral and surrounding grounds.
William drags a smile out of his memory as he sees himself and Beryl sitting quietly together in The Lady Chapel as the sunlight streams through the stained glass windows and makes patterns dance at their feet. They turn to each other spontaneously, reach out and share a gentle squeeze of the hand before returning to their own separate thoughts.
In recent years the only time William was really quiet was when he was in or near a church. He stopped believing in God when Beryl got her diagnosis. Prayers became like whiffs of smoke from a late-night bonfire. But the lure of the big buildings, especially the churches, kept pulling him back in. It was more than his job that made him seek out those familiar spaces.
Beryl was not that keen on old buildings but she saw the joy it brought to her Wills, as she alone called him, so she suggested many visits to ancient buildings just so that she could see that extra look of pleasure on his face. Then she would return to her own thoughts knowing he was happy.
In the early years Beryl loved the country walks when they would clamber, hand-in-hand, through unfamiliar country side, discovering new paths together. Then, as the decades and the familiar country paths wore away the bit she liked the best was the resting between the walks. Once she’d got to 55 it wasn’t as much fun for her as it had been two decades earlier. ‘True enough,’ she mused to herself, ‘it keeps me fit and I can get around much better than the ladies from the W.I. but I’d much rather have a dog to walk with than all these endless country walks from post A to post B – and they all look the same in the end.’ She never said that to William though. There was a lot that they didn’t talk about. They’d talked about dogs when they were first married, in their twenties, William had said that it’d be better to wait for a while, to see, when the children came along, he said. They never came, neither did the dog.
It was over dinner on their twentieth anniversary that William had confessed to Beryl that he never really liked dogs anyway. Beryl already knew this, of course, but she acted surprised. It made her wonder if he didn’t really want the children either. They were supposed to be a package deal.
That Friday morning it was the bench that William was sat on that was the only thing preventing him from dropping to the ground as he struggled to breathe. It was not the one that he’d had erected for Beryl a year after her death, it was one on the other side of the church. This one caught the sunrise and gave William a good view of all the people on their way to work. He thought that they scurried like beetles. No one seemed to look at anyone else. All they looked at were the machines in their hands. The connection was an invisible one – on waves that floated in the air. William never used his mobile phone after Beryl went. He didn’t see the point. His connection was in solid things. That’s why he liked the building. The church – that wasn’t going anywhere. The solid wooden benches – they were fixed into the concrete. Permanent. That’s where the consistent sun would be in the afternoon – Beryl’s bench. William liked to see the sunset when he was near Beryl.
After reaching into one of his many pockets for a handkerchief William had found a loose piece of cloth that could have once been a handkerchief with his initials in the corner. There was something raised on the material, it may have been the once blue lettering reading WJC: his initials. Beryl used to buy him a new set every birthday and Christmas. He’d come to expect it. The cloth he found was now used to wipe his clammy forehead. He hoped it was from Beryl. He missed her. William looked at the dirty rag in his hand and then shrugged. It was a lopsided shrug. He had difficulty raising his left arm, his strongest arm, so he’d had to rifle through his belongings with the weaker right one. Now he gave in to the reality that he was losing even more control over his body. He felt like his body was undergoing a partial landslide.
After that first unexpected incident there was another one a few hours later, then they seemed to come at more regular intervals. He didn’t fight them or try to get any help. As often as he talked to random people in the street about everything from God to politics but his favourite subject was always buildings. But he never talked about his own home. It was still a beautiful building. He’d designed it himself. He would walk past it occasionally but never go in. William never said much about himself. He wasn’t interested in himself any more, so why, he wondered, would strangers be curious? Especially now that his time was nearly over.
As the week wore on and the physical pain destroyed him from the inside out, William had moved about the town less and less. He had his usual routine of visiting cafés and restaurants as they were closing so that he could get the remnants of a good meal. But because he was moving less he didn’t need as much food. He missed being near the bakery. That was the place he liked to visit the best. He’d often hunker down near the back door and wait for one of the bakers to come out for a smoke then they’d give him the burnt or unsold loaves from that shift. It was always warm there as well. The layers he wore were thicker than his bones but they still didn’t keep him warm.
At the bakery it had taken them years to get used to him. He was going to that back alley where the delivery trucks parked each morning longer than some of them had been working at Fresh Bake, so frequently he’d have to give the newcomer time to get used to him being there. However, he increasingly tired of getting accustomed to new routines. After the first four years the old staff started leaving messages about him for the newcomers, so it got easier to get his ‘donations’ as he liked to call them. He’d never actively begged for anything. He just sat in the same place for hours. Sitting, waiting and talking. Talking to himself or to anyone who’d come close enough to listen.
It was easier to get close to him in the first few years after Beryl died because then he still used to wash. After a while his regular contacts didn’t seem to mind his smell so much, but they still didn’t touch him. Nobody did really. Nobody until the ambulance staff had picked him up, and then that nurse. The one who had the pain in her eyes. She smiled at him.
William was slipping away when he started searching his memory for where he’s seen her before. He had a good memory. He could pick out a type of stone, a architectural style or a face without prompting. That’s what got him all his early promotions. He remembered things well. Now he was trying hard to remember this one face in front of him. It wasn’t working. He sighed. Then he remembered as his mind started to get cloudy and the elephant-sized pain shot in a heavy zig-zag from his arm to his chest to his head. Everything else on him was numb. Opening his eyes, William looked at the nurse. She reminded him of Beryl when she was younger, when he was younger. When they were both alive.
They’d met in a cafe on a Saturday morning. It was Beryl’s new Saturday job, she was just starting her third morning and he had noticed her flame-coloured hair as he’d raced past to meet a friend. He was always on the move. People called him a social climber. After circling the shop for the next half-an-hour after he’d spotted her, he’d summoned up the courage to go in and order a drink. That was the only time he’d had a knickerbocker glory. It was the first thing he said when he’d regained the power of speech.
He sat at a table by the window studiously pretending to study the menu when she’d appeared before him.
“Can I take your order?”
“What would you like?” She prompted. “Would you like me to run through today’s specials?”
“Um. I’ll have a ...” He stuttered for a few minutes while looking away from her to the menu.
He wore his nervousness like a new pair of shoes, it made him accidentally knock the menu off the small table, she retrieved it with a smile and handed it back to him.
“Shall I come back when you’ve had time to think about what you’d like?”
“Um. No. No, it’s OK.” He looked to a nearby table where a woman was sat with her child, “I’ll have ... one of those,” he said as he pointed to the long glass sat in front of the smiling girl. He didn’t want her to leave him.
“A knickerbocker glory?” Beryl questioned his choice.
“Is that what they’re called?” He laughed.
“Yes. Are you sure you want one of those?” She smiled at him.
Although Beryl was not supposed to question customers on their choices she couldn’t help it with him. There was something about the way the light shone in his eyes that made her braver that she was used to being.
For a moment she thought his eyes were different colours but she put that down to the new awning at the front of the shop. Her boss, Janice, was always complaining that it hadn’t gone up straight since the day it was installed and as Beryl stood there with her notebook in hand she was sure that that was the cause of the changing colour of his eyes in the sunlight. It was several dates later that she really looked into his eyes and discovered the truth.
William remembered the sickly taste of knickerbocker glory as he was laying in the hospital with the nurse holding his hand. “What a peculiar thought,” he mused to himself. Then he smiled as he thought it was a sign that Beryl had come to meet him.
William knew that Beryl had gone, but this young woman looked the same through his new pain. She had the same colour hair and the same light touch of sadness draped over her shoulders that he had first noticed in Beryl. It was the warmth of her hand and the memory of Beryl that made him wink at her. Then as he closed his eyes he remembered who the stranger was and squeezed her hand. She was the girl who touched his shoulder when he was sleeping on Beryl’s bench one evening. She’d been crying at the other end of the path near a recently dug plot and he’d been sleeping so he hadn’t seen her at first, but as she walked past him she took off her long black scarf and handed it to him.
“Here,” she whispered, “Take this. It may help to keep you warm tonight.”
“Thank you, love,” was all he said as he stuffed it behind him on the bench and returned to dozing some more.
When he woke up a few hours later he found an old sleeping bag next to him with a note saying, “I thought you could use this as well. Keep warm. R x” He knew it was from scarf lady. “Red R” he called her in his mind.
This memory was seen through a one-way mirror. Rosie didn’t recognise him because he had a full beard now and several more layers of grime. When she’d met him that day in st James’ churchyard he only had a small amount of stubble on his face, and he still had a functioning razor with him that he used before he went to sit in the church grounds at weekends – those days were always special to him. He liked to look his best for Beryl.
(Go to Chapter 3)
(Go to Chapter 3)