As they alighted from the bus, Ray looked round to see if he could tell whether they were going to the old man’s house this time. The boy should have been home hours ago. He didn’t see anything that might distract from their purpose, but then he hadn’t spotted the churchyard, the village school, or the riverside pub either.
The old man pointed to the middle door of three Cotswold terrace cottages, honey coloured stone, weathered grey, with golden lichens niched into the crevices. They made their way very slowly now, the old man leaning heavily on the boy. They paused at the gate for the old man to take the key from his jacket pocket to give to Ray.
‘Door‘. The old man’s voice had lost its authority and sounded tired.
As Ray made his way to the front door down the uneven stone slabs he noted that the neighbours were home, their lights spilling brightly across the small garden, enclosed by a neatly trimmed privet hedge. Perhaps they could look after the old man now. He unlocked the door and opened it wide, using the remaining daylight to locate the light switch. The winter evening was closing in and it was getting cold. He went back to the old man and helped him along the path and into the cottage.
‘Boots‘. – The boy bent down to take off his brown lace up boots.
‘Not You‘. – Ray understood that the man wanted help to change into his slippers. He bent down, undid the laces, and helped the old man out of his boots. As he placed the boots under a table, he noticed a hole in the right sole, mended by placing a thick cardboard insert in the boot. Ray’s last pair of boots was like that; it was alright until it rained. Then your feet got wet. The old man pressed down hard upon the boy’s shoulder as he slid into worn slippers. He gave his tweed cap to Ray and pointed at the hooks, which the boy could only just reach. Ray took off his own cap, rolled it up and put it in his pocket. He licked his fingers and smoothed down his unruly hair.
The old man looked pale. He was coughing now, unable to catch his breath and impatient to get to the threadbare winged chair next to the fireplace. It seemed to take an eternity for them to walk across the living room, and the old man collapsed into the chair.
‘Fire‘. – Ray was surprised at this request. No one would have allowed him to do such an important task at home. A fire had been laid in the stone fireplace, neat little croissants of rolled paper with kindling above and two large logs held in a black iron grate. He located the matches, lit a spill and then lit the paper in three places, starting at the back, just like he’d seen his older brothers do. He blew out the spill and put it back in the jam jar alongside the others. The fire spit and crackled, gradually warmth filled the room.
The man was beginning to look a little better now, his colour had returned. He looked at Ray and for the first time in the day, smiled at him. He had a kind face, when he smiled, and the boy wondered what he would have been like when he wasn’t irritable and grumpy. In fact, he would have liked the old man for a grandfather. He didn’t have a grandfather. His mother’s father was dead, and he had never known his own father, who walked out on the family after he was born. His half baby-brother had grandparents. Despite their efforts to include the boy, he knew they weren’t his grandparents – he knew about things like that and Ray couldn’t accept them – they didn’t belong to him.
‘Tea!’ – Ray made his way to the kitchen; it was cold and smelt of old vegetables.
He filled the kettle underneath the solitary brass tap in the sink and staggered back with the kettle to the stove. He turned on the gas, slid open the waiting box of Swan Vestas, and drew the pink tip down the sandpaper side, in an attempt to get the match to light. He broke two matches in the process, and hid the evidence in his pocket. The matches were damp, he could smell the gas – it congealed in a sour taste at the back of his throat. When he finally got the match to flare, the gas caught with a whoof that startled him. It was harder than he thought. The old man expected him to do these things, unaware that the youngest of six boys, apart from the baby who didn’t count for anything yet, wasn’t trusted to do anything.
‘Boy?’ He went back to the front room.
‘Warm the pot, mind you.’ – Ray nodded.
‘Phone my son. Tell him to come.’ This was a long speech for the old man who began to wheeze and turn a funny grey colour. Ray had noticed the black phone in the hall, they didn’t have one at home, but he was sure he could manage this if the old man knew the number.
Gee Ah Eee, five five three seven – Ray repeated the number over and over ‘till he got to the phone and dialled the number carefully.
‘Hello,’ Ray responded, and suddenly realised he didn’t know what he was supposed to say. He hesitated.
‘Your dad says you should come.’
‘Who is that?’
‘Ray,’ there was a pause. ‘He’s at home,’ said the boy helpfully.
‘What’s the daft old goat doing at home? He’s supposed to be in hospital where the nurses can look after him?’
‘He wanted to go home,’ said Ray beginning to feel guilty. It really wasn’t his fault. It had been the old man’s idea to leave the hospital. The Nurse had said there were far too many of them crowded round his mother’s bed, and dispatched three of them to wait in the corridor. His two brothers had skived off to the shop for some cigarettes while no one was looking, and he was required to stay in the corridor, on his own, and tell anyone who expressed an interest that they had gone to the toilet. He soon became bored and went into the men’s ward to chat. When the old man had told him to get his clothes out of the locker and help him dress, he was merely being respectful and obedient.
Ray had assumed the old man wanted to get some air, a smoke or something. Someone getting off the bus would have returned the wheelchair to the hospital by now. Anyone would know where to take it; the name of the hospital had been painted in large white letters across the beige canvass back of the chair. It had seemed like a good joke to ride the bus, like wigging off school.
Both times they had got on a bus, the boy thought they were going to old man’s home. He had wanted to help him, but it was time to go home, before he got into trouble. It had been hours since they left the hospital. Someone in the family would have noticed Ray was not at his mother’s bedside, or even in the hospital, by now. The kettle began to whistle.
‘I’ve got to go – will you come?’
‘On my way,’ said the old man’s son and hung up.
Ray looked in the living room, to tell the old man but he seemed to be asleep. The old man looked like spent candle wax, his cheek bones were white and the rest of his face seemed to have lost all structure – wrinkled, grey, deflated.
Ray had put sugar in the old man’s tea. He liked sugar in his own tea and thought the old man would too. He tiptoed across the living room, trying not to let the steel tips to his hand-me-down shoes tap on the stone flags, only able to walk normally when he reached the hearth rug. Ray put the cup down on the table beside the man.
‘Is your dad coming?’ Ray was startled. Perhaps the old man hadn’t been sleep and was just resting. Perhaps he should have asked him about the sugar. The boy was confused at this question and replied that the old man’s son was coming. The old man gestured to a chair, a wooden spindle back chair, and Ray sat.
Soon there was a knock at the door and a man came in. He rolled up his beige cloth cap, placed it in his pocket, slicked down his hair and walked past Ray to the old man.
‘Do you want tea?’ Ray offered.
‘Do you want tea? It’s still hot.’
‘No… No thanks.’
Ray watched as the old man’s son leant over the chair and stroked the soft dandelion hair of the old man.
‘Why dad? Why? Why didn’t you stay in the hospital where they could fix you up? I need you – don’t do this.’
The old man seemed to doze off again and they were both disconcerted when he suddenly grabbed his son’s arm. The skin of his hand was translucent and the blue veins flowed out to his knuckles that sat like polished marbles above the skeletal fingers curled round his son’s arm, he pointed at Ray with his other hand.
‘It’s time. Meet your son – he needs you.’
Ray and the old man’s son looked at each other. The boy would have liked this to be true but didn’t believe it. The old man must be confused. He’d seemed a bit confused at the old school house too. In the end Ray hadn’t known whether the old man, his wife, his son or all three had gone to school there.
‘I need to go home now, my Grandma will be wondering where I am.’ With that, Ray said good-bye to the old man and walked towards the living room door. It seemed stupid to tip toe in front of the stranger and so the steel tips to his shoes tapped out his progress across the room.
‘What’s your name, boy?’ The boy turned toward the old man’s son.
‘Ray – Ray Purvis.’ He blushed, embarrassed somehow at the question.
‘Where’s your mother?’
‘She’s in hospital, so Gran’s looking after us.’
‘Will your Mum be all right?’
‘Suppose so.’ Ray had never contemplated that his mother would not be all right.
‘I’ll be seeing you then.’
The boy looked at the old man, so he could say goodbye but he appeared to have fallen asleep again. The old man’s son began to cry.
‘You’ve killed him.’ He looked directly at Ray, ‘You killed him. You should have left him in hospital.’
Ray thought about this for a moment. The old man wasn’t moving, so perhaps he was dead. He hadn’t touched the old man, so he knew he hadn’t killed him. His brother sometimes threatened to kill him if he borrowed his fishing rod, but he didn’t mean it, and Ray didn’t think this man meant it either. It was what people said when they were upset; it didn’t signify anything.
Ray looked back at the old man; he had never seen anyone that was dead before. The old man looked peaceful and he was smiling. Not a laughing type of smile, but the sort of smile his mother had at the end of the day when she sat down. Ray knew that this was what the old man had wanted. Before he got so tired, he explained it all. He would take his place alongside his wife in the graveyard, like he’d said. It seemed right.
He felt sorry for the old man’s son who was sobbing uncontrollably now; but there was nothing for him to do, so he left the cottage and made his way home.