Part 1.17

Joe returns with two pints of Doombar ale, and sits down heavily. We’re at the Spotted Dog, the only decent pub in Islington, and one that tends to draw a different crowd from the usual hoard of lager louts that frequent the bars and pubs in this area.  The pub is quiet, and in the hearth a large fire roars to ward off the bad weather.  I like to imagine that we are not in Islington, but in a little Norfolk country pub. 

Before he died, my father would sometimes take us with him to his local, where we’d sit staring quietly at the flames.  Joe was with foster parents at the time, having been abandoned as a baby, and he loved my father dearly.  I knew that my father, though a man of few words and even fewer overt emotions, had a soft spot for Joe.  An intensely practical man, he owned a small boat engine repair business in Stokesby.  He was trustworthy and honest, so did good trade.  Joe and I often helped him over weekends in return for some pocket money, and through this we grew to share my father’s wonder of mechanics. 

“Are you going to take the charity gig then, lover boy?” said Joe, interrupting my reverie.

“I think so,” I reply, ignoring the jibe. “Just to try it out, mind you.  It all feels a bit sudden.”

“At our age there isn’t time to be measured,” he says. “Go for it, Aaron.”

I smile, knowing I will, and that my hesitation is fooling no one.  I am clearly smitten by the little Elsbeth, and spending more time in her presence is a no brainer.  I have been alone for too long.

The bell rings for last orders but we drink up and head our separate ways.  It’s raining heavily so I walk home as quickly as the old knee will let me.  A group of hooded youths loiter around the entrance to my block of flats, talking in low tones, but they step aside to let me through.  I am filled with an unfamiliar fear, but try not to show it, passing by without speaking.  As I walk up the stairwell I hear them laugh out loud and am filled with anger at my timidity.  Old age is a cruel business.

At my flat, I find Harry curled up outside my door.  When he sees me, he comes to nuzzle my legs.  I reach down to scratch him behind his ears.  “Hello, fella, nice to see you.”  We enter the flat together, and I give him a saucer of milk before I head off to bed. Soon I am sleeping, and my dreams are filled with piles of endless junk that need sorting out, hooded figures lurking in the dark, and memories of long ago.

Part 1.16

The train pulled away from Stokesby station, meandering through grasslands mottled with dopey-eyed sheep. We had about an hour to go before reaching Paddington, after which would come a further three-hour train journey to Bristol, so I decided to settle down with a book.
"You're not seriously going to read the whole time?" Joe asked, scowling.
"And why not?"
"Because, old man, I am terribly bored and we need some female company."
"Joe, you go ahead. I'm not in the mood." Molly’s farewell tears were still vivid in my mind.
"You never are,” he replied, “but that's why I'm here." Joe snatched the book from my hands and darted out of the compartment.
I leaped up after him shouting, "Hey!", but he was already running and whooping, half way down the corridor.

Part 1.15

Amy has unwittingly snapped me out of my gloomy self-absorption, so later that morning I phone Joe to arrange meeting for a drink later, and then take advantage of a break in the weather to go for a walk.  I head for the park but don’t expect anyone to be there because of the rain, and indeed, it is deserted. I decide to walk on along the canal instead.  Against the steady hum of London city life, birds chirp brightly amongst dripping branches, and the occasional canal barge squeaks against its moorings.  The sun peeps briefly from behind a grey tumble of clouds and lights up the trees in a shower of glistening raindrops.  I stop and gaze at this display and am for a moment actually glad to be alive.
Startled, I turn around.  Elsbeth is standing behind me, smiling. 
“Am I interrupting?” she continues.
I return her smile, conscious of reddening cheeks.  “Just admiring the sights,” I mumble.
She looks up at the sparkling trees.  “Yes, gorgeous,” then turns to me. “I was wondering about you – haven’t seen you in a little while.  I thought perhaps I’d scared you off.”
I gaze with amazement at this precocious little woman in front of me, and then gather myself.  “I wasn’t feeling well.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.  But you are feeling better now?”
“Yes.  Just taking advantage of a break in the weather.”
“Me too.  Fancy a stroll?”
“That would be nice.”
So we do, heading further up the canal, towards Rosemary Gardens, where we stroll for twenty minutes along dappled, tree-lined paths, before finally turning around and ending up back at the playground.
“I need to go back to work,” she says.  “It’s just up there. Cancer Research.”
“The charity shop?”
“Yes.  I help out there as a volunteer.  Nothing much, just sorting out donations, arranging displays and so on, but I like it.”
“Sounds fun,” I say, not really meaning it.
She turns her head sharply, and with flashing eyes replies, “It is for a good cause. My husband, Tom, died of cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to be flippant.” 
“It’s fine,” she replies.  “It’s not everyone’s passion, and it has been ten years since he passed on.”  After a pause, she adds “Well, it’s been nice chatting to you.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
She peers at me intently.  “You don’t have to.”
“I want to.”  And seeing her searching expression, I add, “Really.”
“Well okay then.  It’s this way.”
We head up St Peter’s Street, just a few blocks from the Packington Estate where I live, and arrive at a little shop nestled between Boot’s Pharmacy and Fred’s Chippery. The window is filled with a motley array of unwanted items hoping for a new lease of life.  I wonder if these places make any money at all.  Certainly nothing in the window sparked any interest in me.  Everything looks faded and tired.
“Want to come inside?” she asks.
I don’t particularly, but I say yes, and we enter.  A little bell above our heads rings as the door opens and an elderly chap behind the till notes our arrival.  He looks as dusty and worn as the items in the shop.
“Hello Elsbeth.  Nice walk?”
“Yes, James, thank you,” she replies, then points to me.  “This is Aaron. He’s just having a little look.”
“Oh, well, please do,” he replies brightly. “We welcome anyone interested in volunteering.”
I begin to splutter before Elsbeth jumps in with “Oh, no! I’m just showing Aaron where I work.” 
She pauses and looks towards me, waiting for confirmation, but then in a rare moment of heart over mind, I hear myself saying, “Well, I could help out today if you like.  I don’t have anything pressing on.”
And that was that.  I was put to work out the back, sorting donations into large heaps.  It was absolutely chaotic, but since I was alone there, I decided to implement a production line, the first decision point being whether to keep the item or pass it on, the next being the type of item, and then finally whether the item needed repair or washing.  After an hour of work the chaos had been replaced with an orderly row of heaps.
The door opens and Elsbeth walks in.
“Grief!  What have you been up to?”
I can’t work out whether she is pleased or not, so I begin to explain, but she only laughs at my expression. “It looks marvellous, Aaron!  I think we’ll have to promote you to chief sorter-outer.  You wouldn’t have line management responsibilities, but you would be allowed an extra biscuit with your tea.  How does that sound?”
I’m not sure if I really want to commit to an unexpected career in unwanted items, and Elsbeth senses my hesitation. “It would just be two days a week.  We usually don’t get that many donations.”
I make my second heart decision of the day, and reply, “Only if I get embossed business cards.”
“I’m sure we can sort something out, if you don’t mind them being in someone else’s name.”
We laugh together, and I want to reach forward and touch her, but have used up my courage for the day.

Part 1.14

“That one over there looks like a poodle,” said Molly, pointing at a cloud that ambled by amidst a tumble of its friends, watched over by a bright sun hanging high in the blue summer sky.
I squinted at it, incredulously, hating the game. It was a cloud, and it looked like a cloud not a poodle, because it was simply that: a cloud.
“It looks like a fish to me,” I replied sarcastically.
Molly raised herself up on one elbow, her curls falling like a shower of amber around her pale, freckled face. “Aaron, you’re impossible.” I grinned and pulled her towards me in order to kiss her. She struggled with mock resistance but we were soon rolling, laughing amidst the daisies and wild, sweet-smelling Norfolk grasses.
Later, Molly lay cradled against me under her grandmother’s patch quilt picnic blanket, her naked body soft and perfumed against my skin. She tousled my hair with her fingers while I lay with my eyes closed. “I love you, Aaron,” she said, snuggling up close for comfort.
“Uhuh,” I replied, but my mind was far away, daydreaming of journeys, university, and a future that I was certain waited with bated breath for my arrival.

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Part 1.13

There is a muted knock on the door, but I ignore it.  For a while all is quiet and I begin to return to my reveries.  The knocking continues.  Sighing, I get up and walk slowly to the door and open it.  The young girl from upstairs is standing there.
“Oh, hello again,” I say, as brightly as I can muster.
She stands before me shyly, in the same frock she wore the last time I saw her, a light floral affair that hangs loosely on her slight frame.  I wait patiently.
“Er, are your lights working?” she asks.
I reach over to the wall switch with my right hand and click it on.  The bare light bulb above our heads begins to radiate reluctantly.  “Appears so,”  I reply. “Are yours not?”
She shakes her head.  “No, and Jed’s away at the moment. I don’t know what to do.”
“I can take a look if you like?”
She smiles gratefully.  “Would you?  It’s just I don’t really know anyone in the building, and you and I met the other day.”
“So we did,” I reply, “and Harry.”
She looks confused, so I add, “The cat.”
“Anyway,” I continue, “let me get my key.”
I grab the keys from the wall hook and follow her up the stairs.
Her flat is like mine, with one bedroom, a lounge-diner, kitchenette and bathroom, but hers has been cared for.  “A woman’s touch” was the phrase I liked to use before Fiona my wife weaned me off it, it being sexist and all... apparently.  The place is tidy and homely, adorned with little knick-knacks that complement rather than clash.  The window is framed by delicate floral curtains tied back with pink ribbons. 
She waits while I take in the scene, but then clears her throat, and I return to the present.  “Ah, yes, sorry, the lights. Well, the first thing is to check the fuse box.”
As I suspect, she doesn’t know where that is, but a few minutes searching locates it in one of the kitchen cupboards.  The mains switch has tripped, so I flip it back on.  Fortunately it remains up and all the lights in the apartment go on at once.
“Whoa, that’s a lot of light!” I cry.
The girl smiles an apology.  “I like to have the lights on when I’m alone.”
“Perhaps the circuit was overloaded.  That can cause it to turn off, particularly if you’re using several appliances at the same time.”
We stand in awkward silence for a moment, and then I say, “Well, I’d best be going.”
“Uh, thank you so much, but … wouldn’t you like a cup of tea or something?”
For a second, I consider declining and returning to my grey room, but then I look at her hopeful expression and reply with a smile, “A cup of tea would be lovely.”
It is only later that day that I recall her name is Amy.  Amy and Jed - an unlikely pairing; they’d been living together for about a year, apparently.  Amy worked part-time as a shop assistant at Burton’s, while Jed was some sort of salesman.  She was a bit vague on exactly what he sold, which was curious, as was the subtle melancholy that hung around her, tingeing her otherwise bright demeanour.

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Part 1.12

It was Mother calling. I sensed urgency in her voice and dropped the wooden figurine I’d been whittling at for the past hour.  I ran back to the house.
She stood distraught in the kitchen, tears flowing.
“What's the matter, Mother?”
“It’s your father. There's been an accident on one of the boats. A freak wave washed him overboard.”
“Is he okay?”
She broke down sobbing, and thus my little world collapsed for the first time.  I put my arms around my mother and we stood weeping together. George looked on with big, sad, soulful eyes, sensing in his animal psyche our great loss.

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Part 1.11

I don’t leave the flat for a few days, and have only an occasional Harry for company, as much as a cat can ever be called company.  Joe phones a few times to check on me and to suggest a drink, but I am not in the mood.  I spend the slow-passing days in reflection, pondering the younger me, so full of hopes and dreams, and wonder what that younger man would say now.
“Look at you, old man,” he might say.  “A sorry wreck you are.”
I wouldn’t know how to respond, or even whether he’d listen to anything this old man had to say.

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Part 1.10

The mist lay thick and cold over the fields. George had run ahead in his endless search for the perfect, most interesting scent. I stood still. There was absolutely no sound and I imagined being in a cloud on top of a distant mountain, surveying a world covered with ice.  What mark would I leave on this world? What difference did I want to make? Did it matter what I wanted or what I did? Was there a point to it all? My parents never went to church or talked about God, and neither did most of my friends. All that remained of a once vast Christian empire was an old, parish church bell that called the faithful few every Sunday morning, amidst much cursing from my father who was trying to sleep in.
I once asked my father if there was a God. He scoffed and said that God was like the Easter Bunny, a story for children. I had then thought to ask why so many grown-ups believed in God and not the Easter Bunny. But he was in an odd mood that morning.
“Aaron, you're a fine young man, and you know I'm proud of you, don't you?”
“Yes, Father, of course I do.”
“Yes, you’re a man now, off to university next year.  I can scarcely believe it.  You will keep an eye on your mother when I’m gone?”
  I first thought he was speaking about his next stint away at sea, starting tomorrow, but something in his eyes was amiss.  I felt uneasy. “Father, what do you mean?”
He didn't answer at once, his eyes focused dreamily on the setting sun over the waters.  Then he said, “Ah, don't mind me, Son; I think I'm just tired.  Will you look at that sunset?  What a fine thing it is.”
He put his arm around me, and drew me close.  There we stood, two men, my father and I, together, for what turned out to be the last time.

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Part 1.9

“You old dog!” roars Joe with laughter.
He had popped in to see me and saw immediately that something was up.  I did not really want to tell him, but Joe is like a sniffer dog where gossip is concerned.  I endured a good few minutes of his merciless probing and teasing before it occurred to me to ask him why he was visiting.
“Can’t I visit?” he responds, mock hurt in his voice.
“Joe, much as I love you, you never visit unless you want something.”
He laughs, “Okay, I confess.  I have a reason for visiting.”  He turns serious, of a sudden.  “Liesel visited me.”
“Yes,” he grins. “You remember? Your eldest daughter?”
I do not smile, so he carries on.  “She didn’t ask after you.”
I am instantly flooded with a deluge of emotions and break down, weeping, while Joe stands next to me, his arm cradling my shoulders.  “How long is this nonsense going to go on for, old fella?” he asks.

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Part 1.8

I never tired of holding her hand, and still remembered the first time: the tentative reaching out, the awkward intertwining of fingers looking for that perfect match, the sweating of palms that would not be let go.
The breeze played with Molly's long auburn hair, causing it to rise and fall like waves of autumn gold. I could just catch her scent, like musky roses, always wildly exciting.
George bounded towards us joyfully, almost knocking Molly over in the process.
"Down boy!" I shouted angrily, but Molly just laughed.
"Let him be. I'm all right."
I turned to her, gazing at her laughter-filled eyes and freckled dimples. How lovely she is, I thought, and leaned forward to kiss her tenderly on the lips.
"What was that for?" she asked, surprised.
"Because you, Molly,” I replied, “are beautiful to me.”

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Part 1.7

I see her the next day, the young woman from upstairs, as I let the cat out.  She is hurrying, but has to slow because the cat, which I've named Harry, leaps in front of her down the stairwell.  She stops hurriedly and watches his retreating form.
“Do you happen to know whose cat that is?” I ask.
She turns to face me, but shakes her head furtively, clearly unsure of me.
I put on my friendliest smile.  “He just appeared on my window ledge the other day, mewing his little heart out, and has stayed every since.”
She stands still, not saying anything.
“You  okay?” I ask.
She nods and then gives me a shy smile before carrying on down the stairs.  I watch as she leaves. She is pretty, despite a large, ugly bruise on her cheek, and I reckon she must be in her late twenties, a similar age to my Liesel. 
The sun peers brightly over the nearby line of grey buildings, and I resolve to walk to the playground again, hoping to make up for the failings of my previous visit.  I need to wait until lunchtime, however, for that’s when the woman is most likely to be there. I spend the morning tidying up and reading the paper, which, as usual, is full of misery.  Clearly there is business to be made out of bad news, or else newspapers wouldn’t sell.  I wonder why there isn’t more good news; is the world that bad?  Or do people just not care about good news?  Perhaps the implicit good news in the papers is that there are others worse off than the readers.  What a nice race we are.
Noon comes and, with some trepidation, I hurry off along the canal to the playground, but to my dismay she is not there.  Undecided, and a bit out of breath, I sit down and wait, anxiously looking at anyone who approaches.  I notice some concerned looks from the mothers, so decide to head home.
I get up to leave, but suddenly she appears, walking towards her usual bench.  I unintentionally block her way and mumble apologies before stepping to one side.  She smiles at me and takes a seat.  I stand looking around, unwilling to leave, yet feeling awkward and uncertain of what to do next.  Then she speaks with a soft, husky voice: “Would you like to join me?”
I look down at her, and see that she is smiling, clearly enjoying my embarrassment.  I sit down next to her and exerting all my will, extend my hand.  “Aaron,” I mumble, and then with more effort, “My name is Aaron.”
She laughs, and takes my hand in hers – it’s delicate and cool to the touch, contrasting against the coarseness of mine.  “Elsbeth.  Very nice to meet you, at last.” 
We sit quietly for a moment, and then she asks me if I would like to help feed the pigeons. I would prefer to wring their bloody necks, little winged rats that they are, but I nod lamely, and soon I have a gathering of the pests around my feet.  One adventurous little sod leaps up on to the bench, but catches the glint in my eye and scarpers.
Elsbeth and I talk about this and that for a while, but then she says she has to go back to work.  I don’t know what to say, but then she continues, “See you tomorrow, perhaps?”  I mumble an affirmative and watch her as she turns and walks off, her compact frame full of purpose.
I honestly can’t remember what happened after that, but I end up at the shops again, deciding that it is the night for a decent spot of cooking.  I consider buying some wine, but thankfully don’t.

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Part 1.6

 “Go on, Joe, let me have a puff!” I attempted to grab the cigarette from his hand, but he dodged me.
“Wait, Aaron, I haven't had my third go yet.”
“Hey, someone's coming!” I yelled, noticing an approaching figure.. “Get rid of it! Quickly!”
Joe dropped the cigarette and we scampered off to class, unwittingly leaving it to smoulder quietly in the bushes.
The fire alarm went off as we were sitting in science class.  Someone at the window shouted, “Look, the bicycle shed!” causing the whole class to leap up as one and  rush to the window, while Mr Spithlewait tried in vain to restore order and arrange an evacuation.  Joe looked at me, then at the blazing inferno, which fortunately for the school, was quickly isolated and put out with the help of the fire brigade.
We never found out who had seen us smoking, but somebody did rat on us, because the next day we were summoned to the head’s office.  We headed, hangdog towards the receptionist’s desk. 
“He’s waiting for you,” she said with a stern voice.  “Go straight in.”
Joe opened the door.  Headmaster Jones was sitting behind a large mahogany desk; the walls at either side of it were lined with books.  I looked at the collection with wonder – I’d not been in the office before.  Joe however, stared at his feet, knowing, I guess from experience, what was coming.
“Joseph Albright.  And I see this time you’ve roped young Aaron into your unfortunate schemes.”
Joe was about to reply when the headmaster raised his voice.  “No.  I’m not listening to you anymore.  No more excuses.  This is your final warning.  If I see you one more time in this office, you will be expelled.  Do you understand?”
Joe nodded glumly.
“And as for you,Aaron. Your father will not be very pleased with this, will he?”  I shook my head.  My father and the headmaster were close friends.
Mr Jones stood up from his desk and walked around it slowly, looking sternly at us.  “No, he most certainly won’t.” He then stepped towards a tall cupboard, opened the door, and took out a long, black leather cane... “No.  These things need to be nipped in the bud.” He stood in front of us, flexing the cane with a wicked flourish. 
“Joe, you two have already met, but Aaron, I’d like to introduce you to Hermes.  He was the messenger of the gods, did you know? No?  Oh well, it matters not.
Now, who would like to go first?”

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Part 1.5

Joe now lives at the other end of Islington, the posh part, enjoying his early retirement.  I don’t phone him, so he might not be there, but as it’s not raining and I don’t have anything better to do, I head off to the bus stop on Bevan.  A couple of pin-cushioned youngsters, dressed in black, are sitting on the bench groping each other in a frantic embrace.  I clear my throat to warn them of my arrival but am ignored.  Thankfully my wait is a short one and the bus arrives.  I climb aboard, flash my pensioner pass, and find a seat near the front.  The young lovers are still in deadlock as the bus pulls away.  I recall my first tentative kisses with Molly, so long ago, during our frequent walks along the Norfolk Broads around Stokesby, with George running ahead looking for rabbits.  It was for us a deeply private affair and I’m still feeling uncomfortable at the open display of intimacy at the bus stop.
Twenty minutes later I am knocking on Joe’s door.  I have to knock a few times before I hear the sliding of a latch and the door opens.  Joe peers out cautiously but then his face lights up. “Aaron, my old friend, what a lovely surprise, but er … you see,” he continues, still not opening the door fully, “it’s a bit inconvenient at the moment.”
“Inconvenient? What do you mean inconvenient?” 
“Keep it down, old chap.  You know what the neighbours are like.  I’m really sorry, Aaron, but I’m in the middle of something, with uh …”
I finish his sentence, attempting to sound ironic. “A young lady?”
“Ah, yes, precisely. You do understand.”
I should say at this point that Joe is my age, that is, sixty-seven, and decidedly not the better looking of us two, so I am a little flabbergasted to say the least.  “You’re kidding, right?”
He pauses, and then with a laugh opens the door wide. “Fancy some tea?”
I push him playfully to one side and enter.  “Young woman, indeed.”
I follow him into the kitchenette and watch as he puts the kettle on and finds two garish mugs, which he takes from the cupboard.  He turns to look at me, and says apologetically, “Long life milk only.  Hope that’s okay?”  I nod.
“So, how are things?” I ask, as we sit around his frail dining room table.
Joe shrugs, “Same old.  Not much to tell.  Apart from the fact there was another mugging in the alleyway last week.  The police came around asking if anyone had seen or heard anything, but as expected, no one had.”
“Did you?” I ask.
He shakes his head.  “I would have said something.”
“I know.”
“So, what about you?” he asks, taking a sip of tea.
“Oh, its all go my end.  I had a visitor last night.”
Joe raises his eyebrows.
“Just a cat, pawing at my window.  I reckon it must belong to the neighbours.  I let it in because the rain was pelting down.  It left this morning.”
Joe takes another sip of his tea, “Hmmm. So?”
“So what?” I ask.
“Did you see her again?”
“See who?”
Joe snorted. “The woman at the park. You were going to talk to her. Don’t play coy with me.”
“No, I wasn’t. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Were too, you old chicken.”
I sigh, “Look Joe. I’m too old for all of that.”
Joe puts his mug down with clear exasperation.  “That, my friend, is a load of cobblers, and you know it.”
“I don’t know, Joe, some days I feel like I’ve had enough and just want to end it all.  Then like today, life seems okay again.”
Joe looks at me intently.  “All the more reason to get yourself a good woman, my friend.  Look, I know, it’s the same with me: some days are good, some not so good, but that’s the way life is, and our job is to make the most of each opportunity for happiness.  Anyway, it is really nice to see you again.  Fancy a game of chess?”

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Part 1.4

"Wipe your feet, Aaron, and for goodness sake, don’t let that dog come in the house like that.  I have just cleaned!”
I rolled my eyes impishly, but did as I was told, George whining in protest as I shooed him outside. Mother had been baking again, so I helped myself to a large wedge of bread with cheese before going upstairs to get on with some schoolwork. I blew her a kiss as I left.
I heard her clattering around the kitchen, humming an old Suffolk tune she used to sing to me as a child.  The house felt empty again, with Father back to work on the boats, but that soon changed: I heard voices and laughter downstairs, followed soon by the sound of heavy feet on our stairs and the bursting into my room of a thin, freckle-faced young lad with a wild shock of black hair. Joe had arrived.
“Don’t you knock?”I protested, but he clapped me on the back and sat down with a sigh.
“I’m sooo bored, Aaron.  What are we going to do?”
“I am going to do my homework, Joe.”
Joe scrunched up his face in mock imitation. “I am going to do my homework, Joe… Seriously, Aaron.  It is beautiful outside and there are things to do.”
I sighed.  This was familiar ground for us, but I had a report to finish. 
“Just give me half an hour,  okay?”
He stood up and frowned at me, and then replied. “Okay, I’ll play with George for a bit.  At least he understands what fun is.”
I smiled as he strode off and clomped loudly down the stairs, making a juvenile point.

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Part 1.3

The recent days have passed by into gloomy obscurity, but today my spirits seem higher, despite suffering a little from a lack of wine.  I think about venturing out again to buy some, but don’t. 
I decide instead to clean the kitchen and to take a walk along the canal to my favourite bench, where I have a fine view of both the canal strollers and the yummy mummies with their children in the playground.   There I sit, basking in the tree-dappled sunshine and enjoying the almost bucolic scene.
It’s not much of a canal really, and the water is filthy, but it has character of sorts. Mysterious house boats line the banks, some deserted, some containing families or lone farts like me. I'd love to have a boat: I'd spend all my days navigating the canals around the South East. Perhaps I'll win the lottery this week; that of course assumes I do the lottery, which I don't. It saddens me to see the poor fools queuing week after week wasting their money on ridiculous odds. Having said that, in my case the odds are zero.
The kids in the park are very cute; apart from a noisy little brat called Bradley who has his hapless teenage mother wrapped around his nasty little finger, and has already pushed several other children out of his way. I wonder where the dad is … probably holed up at some pub, or fishing along the canal.  A little girl, about six years old, her dark hair in tight ponytails, clambers fearlessly on the climbing frame, away from the carnage below.  I watch with amusement as she ignores the pleas of her mother to be careful - so much like my Jojo at that age, a reckless tomboy scared of nothing.  The memory is painful, so I look away.  I miss the girls. It is so long since I left them that they are no longer girls, but women, perhaps even married with children.  The thought brings a lump to my throat.
Then I notice that she has arrived and is sitting on the bench diagonally opposite me, feeding the pigeons and reading what looks like Silas Marner, one of my favourites.  I’ve noticed her before: an attractive, kindly looking woman in her late fifties, neatly dressed with her shoulder length grey-blonde hair falling about her face.   She turns the page of her book and looks up suddenly, catching me staring.  Our eyes meet for an instant, sending a jolt through me, before I look away, hot with embarrassment.  For an awkward moment I’m unsure what to do next, but then get up hastily and leave.  Out of the corner of my eye I notice with some disappointment that she has returned to her book. I could kick myself for being such a coward.
I decide to take a walk along the canal to Camden lock and catch the bus back.  It’s a good few miles but my bad knee holds out.  Back at home, evening comes and I warm up leftovers for tea.  The sky is now overcast with heavy, dark clouds and soon rain drops start to beat against my window.  I wash up the few dishes and return to the table to read the newspaper. It looks like some thug footballer has been caught with his pants down again and the front page is full of furtive photographs and suggestive headlines.
I am interrupted by a plaintive mewing from outside my window, where a bedraggled ginger cat looks in, pawing at the glass.  Since I live on the fourth floor, this is a rather surprising turn of events. I open the window to let it in, but the cat retreats to the edge of the sill and stares at me intently.  I wait for a moment, the wind driving heavy rain into the room.
“Well, are you coming in?” I say, but the cat just looks at me.
“Suit yourself, but you’ve got two minutes before I close the window.”  I sit down again at the table and watch as the cat continues to eye me suspiciously, mewing at annoying intervals.  After two minutes it has still not moved, so I decide to put a saucer of milk on the floor next to the window to tempt it in.  I do so and return to the table.  The cat takes a tentative step forward, then leaps down onto the floor and begins to lap up the milk, pausing now and then to make sure I’ve not approached.  I don’t move, but watch as the soaked beast finishes the milk, preens itself for a minute, then leaps onto the sofa and lies down on my single faded cushion, purring gently.
“Make yourself at home, why don’t you?”  The cat twitches its ears and for a moment I fear it might run away, but then it lays his head down and closes its eyes.  I step quietly over to the window and close it.  The cat does not move.  I turn off the light and go to bed.
Next day I am awoken by meowing, and get up to find the cat at the front door.
“Do you want to go out?” I ask.  The cat just looks at me.  I don’t know why that should surprise me, and wonder why the hell I was even talking to it.  Senility has clearly crept up on me without my knowing.  I open the door and cat leaps off down the concrete stairwell, a flash of ginger against the drab, graffiti covered walls.
 “My pleasure, cat.”  I say before closing the door.

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Part 1.2

"Aaron, grab the line!"

I dived after the rapidly disappearing fishing line, missed it and hit my head on the boat's edge. Tears welled up, along with a bump on my forehead, and I watched in dismay as the line and our first big fish of the day got away.

"You'll be all right, lad,” said my father, his leathery face crinkling with a smile. “Every fisherman needs a big one that got away story, and you’ll get at least an hour of sympathy from your mother tonight!"

The sun had been out most of the day, keeping the wind down, and we drifted lazily on the sparkling water of the Norfolk Broads, waiting for fish to make up their minds. The long silences were punctuated with occasional manly grunts but not much more. Some days we talked about important things, but that day we just shared the space as father and son, enjoying what seemed to be increasingly rare time together.
The shadows lengthened as the sun drew the day to a close and we rowed back to the shore where our little jetty awaited.  I tied up the boat while my father packed our fishing gear into a waiting wheel-barrow. He had a slow, methodical approach that sometimes irritated me, but that day I just watched patiently as he went through his routine.

Suddenly there was a loud rustle in the reeds behind me, followed by a pair of large paws that all but knocked me over.  I turned, laughing. “George!”

My father looked up and chuckled while our black Labrador bounded around excitedly, barking furiously, his long pink tongue lolling in the breeze. 

“That dog’s as crazy you are, Aaron.”

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Part 1.1

I wake with a start, my head pounding mercilessly against my temples, scarcely daring to open my eyes. I do and gaze painfully at the bleak off-white sky of the ceiling against which a lonely light bulb hangs from a piece of wire.  A cobweb wafts by, propelled by unseen drafts.

It’s my own fault really – too much cheap red wine – but it didn’t help that the upstairs neighbours were pounding the bed springs again, all night.  A nice change from their usual fighting, however.  I don’t know why they bother staying together.  Perhaps they fear becoming what I have become: old and alone.

I continue to lie in, under the covers, consider going back to a troubled sleep. Force of habit drives me out, groaning and stretching, my joints cracking with complaint.  I stand for a moment before the dresser, looking at myself - tall, pale and scrawny, my heavily lined face unremarkable except perhaps for a long shaggy grey beard reminiscent of a sage rather than a fool.  I turn sideways and examine my profile - curved spine, bony hips and protruding rib cage. I wonder how long I’ve looked like a concentration camp escapee rather than a pensioned member of the noble British welfare state.  What the hell has happened to you, Aaron?

Sighing, I put on a threadbare gown and worn slippers, staggering from the bedroom to the kitchen, only to be reminded that, yet again, the dishes need doing.  I will definitely have to tackle them today, but I recall thinking that yesterday too.  I salvage a vaguely clean bowl and spoon from the food-encrusted pile in the sink and fill it with cereal dregs and milk that is rapidly approaching its really-you-ought-to-have-used-it-by-now date.

Breakfast is soon done and the prospect of spending yet another day alone in my crummy Islington council flat fills me with dread. I eventually head off to Sainsbury’s supermarket to get some food, clutching a hastily drafted shopping list in my hand.  The aisles are jam packed with hapless trolley pushers entangled in commercial confusion, and lifting my basket above waist height, I wade through with my gritted teeth.  Just a few things to get: pasta , canned tomatoes and mince for my beloved spaghetti Bolognese, bread, milk, cereal, and then of course, the wine. Ah, yes the wine, ever the wine: sparkling red in the glass like a harlot’s promise, the ruin of all who yield. For a moment I have to pause, fighting the memories and the tears, my wrecked marriage, my ruined career, my estranged daughters.

“Excuse me!”  The voice is accompanied by the sharp nudge of a trolley in my back. I turn to face my antagonist. She is a lean woman of uncertain age dressed in a white track suit, large golden earrings and hair tied back tight enough to produce the effect of a DIY face lift. She glares at me and snarls “Are you going to stand there all day?”

      For a moment I consider beating her to a pulp with my empty basket, but instead I  smile an apology and let her pass, watching her bony hips sway from side to side as they exude a terrifying sexuality that makes my stomach churn. Shrugging my shoulders, I turn to walk in the other direction, soon filling my basket with customary male efficiency. I do not understand the concept of browsing. I come, I see, I buy – that is my motto.

It’s not until I have started queuing at the one-basket-only till, with six people crowding behind me, that I remember the wine. Cursing, I leave my treasured place, watching the gap close hungrily behind me as I stride towards the drinks aisle with the ‘Specials’ shelf - the only wines I can really afford on my meagre pension.  I am not surprised to find it is mostly empty, apart from one lonely, but reduced bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.  I reach forward …

“Excuse me!” The voice is familiar, as is the brutal trolley nudge. “I was going to get that!”

I turn and looked incredulously at the heap of dusty, tracksuit-clad angles before me, my anger slowly rising. “I don’t think so,” I growl, glaring at her.  But she stands, resolute: her hands perched on her hips like a vitriolic teapot. I sigh. Have I not done enough fighting with women for one lifetime? What has come of that?

“You have the wine,” I say, turning to walk back up the aisle. “I didn’t really want it anyway.”

I am soon back at home, surrounded by unpacked shopping, and I sit staring vacantly out the window.  A “room with a view” the chap at the council had said.  Funny guy.  Still, it’s not a bad flat, so I shouldn’t really complain.  At least I have a place now.  Those poor blighters sleeping rough under the bridge are lucky to wake up with their shoes in the morning.  Here, it is dry and everything works, and to be fair to the council comedian, I can see a bit of Regent’s canal ...  just enough to remind me of happier times.

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