This was where he sat, where he had sat every day since the nursing home had banned smoking first indoors, and then on the grounds. At one time in his life he might have railed against such an edict, the medals on his chest bore testament to the fact that he was not a quitter, but now, mellowed or cynically resigned by age, he took a chair from the lobby and walked out along the drive, a newspaper under his arm, dragging the chair slowly behind him, its feet leaving a wake of parallel grooves in the gravel. Once outside the gates he placed the chair to one side of the driveway, seated himself upon it, took a single cigar from his pocket and lit it. Here he would remain, regardless of weather, until the paper was read and the cigar reduced to nothing but ash, scattered to the wind.
This was where he watched the world go by. Beyond the pages of his newspaper he caught snapshots of a world no longer his own, a world that seemed somehow reduced by the passage of time. Beneath hooded lids his rheumy eyes took in low slung jeans, pierced belly buttons and Ugg boots. People groped each other on street corners with a relaxed carnality and swore as a matter of course. No one raised their hat. Half of those who passed seemed to have at best a rudimentary command of the English language, some foreigners, others just ignorant. His world was slowly burning away; ash in the wind.
“Did you know him?”
A shake of the head. “Not this ‘un.”
Another day, another funeral. You got used to them living here. At least it was not one of the letters, those dreaded letters telling him a former comrade had fallen to the final enemy, against which he never had a chance. The last one had made him cry, something he had not done since his wife passed, perhaps it had been that tactlessly tactful last line, ‘we thought you should know, if you’re still around.’ Yep; still around.
“Bet they don’t like you smoking.”
“It is bad for your health.”
“War is bad for your health. I didn’t survive that to be scared of a roll of tobacco.”
People stopped to talk to him as he sat there, some regularly, others when they were in the area. Some chatted, some exchanged carbon-copy pleasantries, some simply nodded acknowledgement; still there.
“I guess if you enjoy them.”
“You’ve to savour them right; every puff there’s less left to enjoy. Spoils the end if you let it.”
“Anything interesting in the paper?”
He read it because he always had, and he always had because it was his abiding memory of his father, a man who could back up every pub argument with a fact from today’s edition. A walking encyclopaedia they called him, quite the local celebrity. It had mattered hugely at the time yet seemed so inconsequential now; a pillar of a man reduced to nothing. Only memories remained, and they seemed less solid by the day, crumbling even as he tried to keep a grip on them. Ash in wind.
“Nothing but bad news.”
The world seemed to be crumbling too. War, disaster, famine. Had it always been like that? Probably, but the shrinking world made it more apparent now than it had been then. But if nothing had changed then had all those lives lost in the name of saving the world been lost in vain? Maybe you just did the best you could at the time. Maybe your own world was the only one you could ever hope to improve, the only one that mattered, the only one who’s end had any real meaning.
“Makes you glad you live here eh?”
Sometimes it seemed to his quietly observant eye that there was some balance being maintained, for every immigrant taken in from some unliveable hellhole of a country, some British soldier was sent out there to replace them. Old fashioned views but what did that matter? Soon those views would be gone the way of the soldiers, and the countries, and the ash from his cigar.
“How are you? In yourself.”
He was reduced. Physically he knew that he had become smaller, the ravages of age, the shrinking force of inactivity. But he felt smaller in every sense, as if he no longer filled his body but was inhabiting it like a lonely man in a large house, using fewer and fewer rooms, deferring the point at which the final light goes off.
“I can still smoke.”
“Well that’s good I guess.”
He had never been a leader of nations, but in his way he had shaped his world, he had gained family and friends, his opinions mattered to those around him, his experience had made him sought after. But the friends were gone, the family were distant, his experience was outdated and his opinions viewed at best with a humouring smile. As he slowly burnt away, so too did the space he filled in the world, so that now it barely extended beyond himself.
“Finished me cigar.”
Tomorrow there would be another paper, another cigar, the one to be read, though it never said anything different, the other to be slowly burnt away, one puff at a time.
“Are you here every day?”
“Until I’m not.”
There were always more cigars, but each one was unique, never to be repeated. Burning only happens in one direction, best to just enjoy it, savour while you can.
This is where they found him. The chair sat at the end of the driveway and just to one side. The newspaper folded neatly upon it. A single cigar, unlit, and a matchbox. And a large pile of ash, slowly being distributed in the wind.
© Robin Bailes
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on page, stage, screen and radio, currently working on a screenplay for an independent production company and non-fiction book about silent cinema.