If I’m being strictly honest here, it’s a gimmick. And like me, it’s getting old. Fast.
And okay, the doc’ll be thrilled at the exercise, given the givens. After Elenore… well. Let’s just say there’s not much out there of interest, not when home means imagining her pottering about the kitchen, serenading the radio slightly off key because it always makes me laugh. Home means spraying her perfume on her pillow, pretending she’s just brushing her teeth. She’ll be back in a minute or two.
Maybe it’s not much, but it’s peaceful. Outside, the world’s full of noise, and people. Never bothered me so much before. Or maybe it’s just ‘cause now, even though Elle’d always been somewhere in all that chaos, it’s like everyone passing me by (not exactly difficult these days) is chanting ‘she’s gone’ under their breath.
She is. Doesn’t mean the world’s gotta rub my nose in it.
And yet, here I am. Outside. Again. The shopping centres Michael drives me to each day are the sort of pretty that feels dead inside. Cold, dead air, wide smooth walkways and the sort of lights that leave you drunk-dazzled. Bright like a warzone, all those flashes. Glitter glints like sniper rifles when the light hits right.
It is a warzone, in its way. Most people see the walker, move away. Not everyone, though, and every grumbling passer-by, or trolley smacking into my wheels makes me miss the dim, almost airless grace of home, alive with nothing but the thrum of an old radio and the scent of roses.
In my ear, Michael tells me to get ready. Elle’d be unimpressed, me not responding to our own nephew, but needs must. It’s second nature now, not to flinch at the sudden voice in my head. I’ve gotten used to the barely there thud of notebook hitting ground, even learned not to instinctively turn to look for it, to just keep on walking and play deaf old man for all I’m worth. Hearing, at least, hasn’t abandoned me. Yet.
The earpiece hisses quietly as I pass a store that would have made me blush way back when, the glaring red lace of the displays unsettling for far less fun reasons now. ‘Notebook’s been grabbed.’ Good. Maybe this time… ‘Nah, he’s bailing. Be right back.’ Of all the silly things someone could pocket, a notebook has to top the list. It’s small and black, granted, but still impossible to confuse with a wallet. You really that desperate for some chicken scratch notes in your life? Really?
Times like this, I wanna swear. Times like this, I can almost see Elle, disappointed face at the ready. She always said cussing was the sign of a lost cause. Besides, there’s a camera -hidden- trained on me, no doubt hoping for an outburst of some kind to spice up what looks to be the most boring television show of all time. Who’d wanna watch an old man wandering back and forth week after week? Weirdos, that’s who.
In my ear, Michael’s caught up to the would-be thief at the nearest exit, offers up a growled promise to have the man banned if he gets caught stealing again. He won’t, of course. He might be dressed like one, but Michael’s as much a security guard as I am. No, he’s the producer, the director, the Jack of all trades who’ll jump into a silly costume every day and get that little black notebook back so we can try again.
Takes barely five minutes to move to a new spot, and start over.
I used to be better at hiding things. I catch Michael’s reflection in the glass of a store selling overpriced, overly pretty junk. He’s eyeing me like he knows what I refuse to say out loud. My arms ache from pushing the damned walker so long, my legs burn and tingle something fierce. One last try, and we’re done for the day. The notebook hits the floor, maybe a little harder than it should.
I make it to the newsagent before I hear ‘Notebook’s been grab-‘
‘Excuse me, Sir!’ There’s a rush of footsteps, and I choke down the smile, play oblivious until a young woman comes into view, holding out the notebook like an offering. ‘Excuse me, Sir, but I think you dropped this.’
The grin’s genuine as I thank her.
‘Oh, it’s nothing. Anyone’d do the same.’ Apparently not, but I don’t have the heart to tell her that. Not yet, at least.
‘Nonsense. You’ve saved me a lot of time and energy. Will you let me buy you a coffee?’ She gives the supermarket a quick glance, bites her lip and shakes her head ever so slightly. Always the hard sell, these days.
‘You don’t need to thank me.’
‘Then will you let an old man use this as an excuse to have some company?’ Reluctance melts to compassion pretty quick.
‘I’d be honoured.’ She matches my sorry stride all the way to the café, smiles as she pulls out an uncomfortable wooden chair for me and makes space for the walker like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
‘Danielle.’ She pauses a moment. ‘Are you a writer? Only, most people I know who carry notebooks are writers…’ She shrugs, looking uncertain, the way Michael does sometimes when he’s not sure if a question is too invasive, or the right thing to ask in the moment.
Not anymore, kid. ‘No, just forgetful. It helps me keep track of appointments and groceries, things like that.’ She nods, leaning forward as though genuinely interested in the ramblings of a boring old man. Clearly, she’s a sweet kid. Or lonely, too. ‘It’s silly, I know. These days there’s a million ways to keep track of things that don’t require bringing a pen. But I’m still learning, so keeping it simple. Elenore always took care of the calendar, as she’d say. She was the brains of the operation.’
‘Will you tell me about her?’ How can I say no, a question like that?
In two months of shooting, this is the fourth time I’ve gotten this far, and the first time anyone’s asked about me, or Elle. Or the book. Or anything much, truth be told. The first woman called me a creepy old so-and-so and stormed off. The second had been sweet in his way, though clearly it was the sort of chit-chat reserved for unwelcome strangers, and he’d left before we could get to the point of all this. The third was almost as awkward as the first. Sure, there’d been no snarling or stomping, but she’d scrolled on her phone, refusing to look up and saying nothing whatsoever. She must’ve burned her throat- badly- throwing back that coffee like it was cool water on a summer’s day. I’d been too startled to say anything, and she vanished, too.
Though Danielle thanks the waitress, sincerely, when the drinks arrive, in moments she’s back leaning towards me, listening like I’m not a nuisance. It’s like she forgets the drink, too busy asking questions, wearing a soft, fond smile so much like Elle it makes my heart stutter.
‘She’d have liked you, you know.’
‘I think I’d have liked her, too. It sounds like you had an amazing life together.’
‘We did.’ If I stare hard at the coffee, she’s good enough not to mention it. ‘What about you? What’s your journey been like?’
The smile she gives is far sadder than its predecessors, her story out of place for someone wearing so kind a smile. I can imagine Ella rolling her eyes, calling me hopelessly naïve. She might be right. Danielle’s life’s bigger than mine- not hard- but just as airless. No partner, just a grumpy cat in dire need of a vet trip she can’t afford, and a landlord deciding to move their kid into the apartment mid-way through the lease. Her idea of heaven is a yard where she can plant any flower she pleases without written permission.
I’ve never been a believer in God or angels or any of that stuff- my faith’s always been for hard work, in making things happen. But Elenore? She always said there were moments- maybe four or five in a lifetime if you were particularly lucky- where you could see not just your options, but the way they’d pan out. Fate, she’d called it.
Common sense, I’d reply. She’d laughed every time, tired as the joke got as it aged even faster than we did.
This is the moment. I know the spiel by heart, even without using it yet. Smile, tell her about the show, hand her a cheque for $20,000. Maybe she’d cry, or argue against taking it. The cameras would be revealed. It’d be a whole big, noisy, chaotic thing. Ratings gold, Michael had called it.
The smile I give her must shake, because her hand reaches out, settles over my own. Kid should be out living it up, not wasting her time with a dull old man. She laughs. ‘You’re certainly not dull. And honestly? I like hearing your stories.’
‘I have a confession to make, kiddo.’ She tilts her head, gestures for me to speak, her hand still warm over my own even as her smile slips and falls away. ‘I didn’t drop that book by mistake. I’ve dropped it more times than I’d care to admit. Mostly, people ignore it, or walk off with it, and my nephew gets it back for me. You’re the fourth person to pick it up and return it. First person to sit and actually talk to me, come to that.’
‘O-okay.’ I don’t know when I started studying the table, but I can’t bring myself to look at her. I can list at least thirty things I’d rather do than see her disappointment in me. It seemed like such a good, simple idea at the time. But now? The well-rehearsed congratulations seem cheap. Unbecoming.
‘Elle and I, we didn’t have kids. And now she’s gone, it’s up to me to decide what to do with everything when I’m gone. Oh, I have Michael, my nephew- wonderful man, you’d like him. But he’s well off, and he suggested a better idea than just giving money to him.’
‘Go around dropping notebooks?’ She doesn’t sound mad, at least. More amused, and I can’t help but look up again. Her smile is dimmed with confusion, but it’s there, and that’s enough.
‘He’s a producer. It’s a TV show, some big social commentary thing, he’s better at explaining it than I am. I meet good people, and I give them a cheque. Twenty grand, no strings attached. But now I have a chance, I don’t want to give you that.’
Michael’s voice crackles to life in my ear, asking what the hell I’m doing. And honestly, I don’t know. Breaking character, maybe?
‘Sixty grand, to give to good people. I’m gonna die of old age before I get to two other people who’ll sit long enough for me to get to the point. So I want you to take it.’ She’s shaking her head, overwhelmed, but I press the advantage. ‘Put a deposit on a house, get that garden. Start that life. Please.’
It takes her hours to agree.