He sits in room 23 with his thoughts. It is summer and the windows and doors are open. He can taste the sticky scent of lavender and bougainvillea which overrides the ever present antiseptic odour masking decay and pee. He is proud that he is not incontinent. Yet. But then he gets increasingly frustrated that his memory isn’t what it used to be, not for the short-term things. He’s a smart man. He knows what is happening. The past is surfacing with ever increasing clarity and vibrancy, so acutely, that at times it feels like it is reality, that whatever part of his brain houses the here and now is getting clogged up or simply dying. He still has enough marbles though, he knows that. Which at ninety isn’t bad. His brother, across the ditch in Melbourne turns ninety-five this year and he sees him as an example. He’ll keep batting. Eric has his sights on a century.
He has his daily routine. After breakfast he’ll catch up on the paper. Just like he did when he was with the firm. Do the crossword to keep his brain sharp. A carer will pop her head in the door to see if he wants morning tea. His favourite is Kamin, a lissom treacle-skinned girl with perfect teeth and a gleaming smile. She enjoys teasing him. Flirting back chivalrously he feels potent and manly. Small joys. There’s something incomplete about the day when she’s not on shift.
One morning – was it last week or yesterday? – he is surprised by a knock on the door. It isn’t Kamin but a woman, late thirties by his guess, well-dressed and kindly looking. She hesitates.
“Eric? Eric Hinchcliffe?” she says. He nods. Is this a dream? She is familiar.
Angus’ wife? No, they are in California. He continues to look at her and time stops.
His room is compact but neat. Bed made each morning. A small table for reading and penning the occasional letter to his brother Frank. When he moved here he got rid of most of his furniture, save an antique console, his barometer, a handful of framed maps and a few photos. His papers are in a small chest he picked up in Hong Kong. My life distilled he thought.
On the standard issue bedside table, courtesy of Sunset Retirement Homes, stands a picture of Alice when she was nineteen and they had just started courting. She is young and beautiful with wavy dark hair, her eyes full of love and hope and yearning. Not long after it was taken he was posted, flung out to join the fight for justice far away. The night before Eric sailed, Alice and he lay together: both virgins, both full of desire but both unsure of themselves and the future. He can still feel her pressing against him, digging her nails into his back and trembling with surprised pleasure as he greedily entered her. She’s the only woman he’s ever had. Properly. The couple of tarts in the ports don’t count. It was a crazy time, life was cheap.
He lost Alice thirty years ago. She was diagnosed in the September which seemed ironic even at the time – a death sentence in the hope of spring. She died the following July. In the damp darkness of winter she slipped away following her shadow. Eric remembers the numbness, the inability to contemplate living one more day without her, let alone thirty years. Her death was an abyss. Many times he stood on the edge of it, looking in, considering. Alice, his dear, darling Alice. Here she is now, coming to him, smiling prettily, reaching out her hand.
Eric dresses well, nothing fancy but decent pants and a clean, pressed shirt; a merino wool sweater if it is chilly. Looking smart is part of feeling good. At lunch he’ll chat with some of the other residents – he hesitates to use the word inmates, although at times that’s how it feels. Not so many men in here and if he’s honest he quite likes the attention of the ladies as long as it doesn’t fall into fuss. In the afternoon he’ll listen to the radio, or if the weather is clement he’ll take a short stroll round the gardens. Last month he had a fall, nothing serious but the doctor suggested he start using a frame. Bit by bit it goes he thinks. Don’t let me end up dribbling in a wheelchair.
The woman walks in smiling. She extends a hand. He gets half-way up but she indicates for him to sit, as she perches on the side of the bed. She is self-assured. He feels embarrassed that his room clearly doesn’t cater for guests. Before he can apologise she explains: “I telephoned earlier and they said you were here. I hope you don’t mind. I’m Grace, Peter’s daughter.”
Eric registers her accent. She is a relation from England. Eric’s parents emigrated to Auckland in 1913. They sailed on the SS Ruahine. Eric though was born here in Epsom. Later he wandered – the war, Sydney where he and Alice raised Angus (who himself had restless feet), Wellington before coming back home. He does feel that this patch of land in the city is home because it’s where he spent his formative years, the time of self-discovery and denial in equal measure; where he mapped out the man he wanted to become.
Eric’s father was the eldest of eight: Bertie, Ivy, Daisy, Elsie, Colin, Edith, Bessie and Tom. Colin died of fever when he was a baby, so it was left to the two remaining boys to bookend the girls. Did his father Bertie ever feel guilty; did he ever sense that he had abandoned his responsibility by emigrating? But then Daisy came over too, though as Eric’s father told it, she didn’t settle and headed back after a couple of years. In those days it would have been a long journey home with your tail between your legs. So why did Bertie stay? Was his father just stubborn and proud? No. Eric remembers him as happy, relaxed. He and his mother were “progressive” parents. They were pioneers.
Bertie was an architect. He carved out a career designing high ceilinged weatherboard houses in Devonport. Last time Eric was taken out for a drive by Angus (would that have been Christmas when he was over with Mary-Ann and the children?) they went along past Narrow Neck and down into the village. They drove past the houses Bertie designed. Originally they were all on big sections. Seeing the subdivisions saddened Eric. The loss of what were once neatly lawned yards to modern upstarts hustling the old villas. His father would have taken an eraser and rubbed them out.
“Space frees our mind,” was one of his sayings.
Eric’s mother and father come back to him regularly. Both in their late thirties. Father hunched over the big English oak table, hair flopping above his eyes, shirt sleeves rolled up and a sea of paper to sail through: designs, first drafts, finished plans, screwed up mistakes abandoned on the floor.
His mother, Eva, always in the background, baking, cooking, catering; her blouse sleeves pushed up to her elbows, the soft hairs on her arms dusted with flour more often than not. She was an active woman, both physically and mentally. Politicised and campaigning she was a supporter of women’s rights, the poor, the sick (body and mind), those of the wrong colour. She spent her life finding a voice for those who didn’t have one, or rather, didn’t know how to use it to be heard. She was an intellectual who made herself accessible.
Eric feels in his bones that it was being here in New Zealand that helped her flourish. Once when he asked her about the old world, she told him that it had constrained her, that here she felt free. Did she miss her family? Yes. Of course. “But my real family is here, with you, Frank and your father,” she would smile softly. “And when a wave of nostalgia hits me I let it wash over me. Then I look at what I gained by coming here, rather than regret what I lost by leaving England,” she finishes.
Grace is poised on the edge of the bed. Petite and neat. He sees the Hinchcliffe nose, long and slim, the family ears, large lobes pierced with a couple of iridescent diamonds, the line of forehead. Her eyes are different though. Must be from her mother he muses. Grace – his cousin Peter’s girl. And there he is. 1944. Repairs being done in a dry dock in London. Peter is in town. Back from a Russian trip, part of a convoy hunting down u-boats. The British government cross with his captain for ramming one in order to sink it. The mission was successful but the damage puts the vessel out of action for a precious month.
The young seamen meet up. Peter hasn’t long turned twenty-one and they go out to celebrate. Two long-lost cousins. Here he is again. Peter in front of him, the picture in his mind as clear as Grace: it converges with her. He can hold out his hand and touch them both; sees himself with a pint of Pommy pale ale, the smoky blue fug of the dingy bar and him and Pete chatting away like old mates, sharing war stories and comparing notes about their homes, half a world away from each other. Two young sailors, who have seen too much too young but skirt away from the brutality, avoid the heroics; reduce it to a matter of fact.
“We’ve moved over here,” she says, jolting him. “We’ve emigrated. Dad told me to look you up. He had a letter from Frank (ah yes, thinks Eric, Frank the great communicator!) saying that you were in Epsom. I rang round the homes - tracked you down.”
She giggles, amused with her detection work. She goes on to tell him about herself, asks him some questions to show that she isn’t bogus, then pulls out some photographs of her father, (his cousin!) and ones of her husband and children - a boy and a girl. He finds himself energised, revitalised and eager to share with her his own stories, to introduce her to his family, all gone in one way or another. She smiles and listens intently. Too soon she rises from the bed and says goodbye. She’ll be back. And she is.
Next week. Or next day. Or next month. The frustrating thing is that Eric is never sure because his mind is unable to compute the present. So she seemingly dips into his life like a small bird coming in to feed but he cannot hold onto the when’s of her coming. She gives him a sense of value, of closeness to his family. She jokes that he is a surrogate. He says she is long-lost. One day she brings her children. He notices the Hinchcliffe ears in the boy who obligingly accepts his hug. He reflects on his own youth and fears his limited future. Eric holds back a swathe of sadness. He hopes to carry on one way or another: in memories and jumbled genes.
Today Eric is sitting in his room as usual. He has completed the crossword. Kamin is calling down the corridor heralding tea. Grace hasn’t visited. Did she come yesterday? Perhaps she will come tomorrow. The sun pushes itself through the narrow window. Its light bursts over a corner of the room. Eric catches it. Now he sees Alice holding out her hand, smiling her pretty smile. He beams. He is twenty-four once more.