Harry liked to sit under the shade of the plane tree in the schoolyard on market day, next to the Salvation Army’s tent, drinking tea. His stroke had only partially deprived his left arm of life and seeing that he only ever used it to belt the dog or scratch his nuts he was happy to be left with the one occupation.
He looked up as a deeper shadow slid across the tin table, and he watched as Scoresby sat his cup down and dragged over a plastic chair. Harry smiled as their eyes met.
‘ G’day mate, alright then?’
Scoresby grunted through a doughty mouthful of saveloy and breadroll, Harry kept the smile up and ran an old hand over his forehead – he spoke as if their conversation had only just suffered an interruption.
‘ You wouldn’t reckon I would be goin’ onto eighty-seven next year would you?’
Harry’s wife of sixty-five years had recently died in a small windowless room on the the third floor of a nursing home not ten miles distant from the house they had shared for all their married life. The only part of her that remembered him when he came to see her was her hand.
Her once clear eyes long blinded by cataracts, her memory ruthlessly scoured by Alzheimers, legs sodden with a gangrenous discharge that had confounded him for weeks – she would clasp his warm hand with her own cold and taloned claw the instant he laid it down softly by her side.
How she gripped him, and they would sit together for wordless hours with only an intermittent tremor their communication. The girl who once could never be silent. His sparrow.
Dick sat heavily on the chair between Scoresby and Harry, and he squinted by turn at both of them, then he pulled out an old Players cloth bag from his pocket and dug out the makings from its grimy depths. He sat with the cigarette paper stuck to his bottom lip and as he rolled a worm of tobacco onto his palm his gluey eyes roamed all over the market throngs all around.
‘Not a bad roll-up.’
Dicks’ fingers were large and spaded out into nicotine dyed sheaths that all held tight and deep wedges of old soil and other scrape matter between their ragged edges and the finger ends they capped.
He pinched the narrow smoke between his lips and pulled in hard as he set it afire, then he breathed away the blue smoke turned grey and in the doing showed his companions a half-toothed old mouth. A mouth of snaggled and old ivoried prongs that stood remnant there, and prominent, like old tombstones, as he ogled a buxom islander in a short silk skirt twaddle past.
‘ Wouldn’t have ’em in my day, ‘ he said. ‘ only good for workin’ in a mine with the lights off ask me.’
Harry shifted a mite, uneasy, then he rose up from his seat, and with half a wave of grace from his good arm he farewelled the usurper of his shady retreat.
Two uniformed constables slowly clopped past and stopped to watch a vermilion-haired woman set up her guitar and amp box. She had a tattoo of a convict chain around her neck and a bone thin child sat passively on a rug at her feet looking up into the faces of the two policemen.
They moved on.
‘ Dunno who told her she could sing,’ offered Dick as the girl sat her bony rump on a wooden stool and crooned her way into an Irish lament. Though he sat back there after a while and accepted a mug of tea from one of the tent ladies and as the girl sang his eyes cleared some and his gnarled fingers slowly ceased their eternal wrestling.