I knew. I knew before Mr Leman looked down at his notes, looked at the computer screen and composed himself. I knew before I asked hope to forgive me for my sins and the pain I had caused to others. I knew because Beryl had told me how she had known. She was right I knew long before Mr Leman’s confirmation.
‘You don’t need no one to tell yer ‘E’. I tried to show deep concern. She was not bothered if I smiled, cried, cared or not. Beryl could not care if the whole of the nursing home knew her son was a bastard or her husband believed Angus was his child. She did not care if her pompous daughter (who was her husbands child) knew she’d ‘ad a bit on the side’ with many American airman during the war (‘nine or ten ov ‘em E’) Beryl confided. I liked. No, I loved Beryl.
It was a Thursday morning, the first Thursday morning – Mrs Barnes crowed ‘Ian take Mrs Bayliss to the post office, she want’s to collect her pension’.
I take the wheel chair into the lift to Beryls floor, knocked on her door. I was a big man in those days, as strong as an ox. I wish I had realised just how strong and powerful I was. I picked Beryl up from her recliner and placed her into the chariot. Care staff had dressed her earlier, everyone looked after Beryl, we adored her honesty, everyone admired her, she told me she’d never had an enemy apart from family in her life.. ‘Not a one, ducky, not a one.’ I believed her, still do.
No makeup, her hair cropped like a prep school boy, thick as straw. ‘Give us a frenchie ‘E’ I knew she’d ask and we always laughed, I now know she was not joking, I know this, I really do. If she had had her own teeth I would have! On reflection I should have. The kiss would have taken her back in time and given me an insight to the future. In truth what would the kiss have cost me? Nothing, other than overcoming a, a what, an emotion, a social protocol?
‘I want to see Ms Barnes ‘E.’ Out of her room, into the lift, knock on Matron’s door. ‘Mrs Barnes? Beryl would like a couple of minutes if possible’ ‘Yes Ian, wheel the old goat in’ More laughter. I pushed her in ‘Out you go young man’ I wait out side of the door. Two minutes later Ms Barnes wheels Beryl out ‘Your honoured Ian, Beryl want’s to go to the post office and then to the ‘Lamb’. It’s ok for her to buy you lunch but NO, and I mean no dessert, we don’t want diabetic comas and doctors in the middle of the night do we Beryl?’ The old witch looked up from the chair, god she looked captivating. The mystery of true beauty is without explanation ‘Come on you, lets buy your fragile young body some real sustenance’. How many times has Beryl used similar words to other young men?
For eighteen months or so the Thursday routine never wavered. The Post Office to collect her pension and every penny spent at the Lamb Inn paying for the lunch. Steak and Barolo. Dover sole and Semillon. Lamb and Burgundy. Beef with Baron De Rothschild. ‘Match the meal to the wine ‘E’. A robust wine with strong flavours and delicate and white with light’.
We talked about, love and relationships. Money, poverty and work. Beryl guided me never to go into the Forces ‘It’s a good career but not without its dangers ‘E, many of my lovers died in the war, they were either in the RAF or the Submarine service. I came to think I was a jinx, I did not bother with the cannon fodder, so I joined the WAAF. I do not think bravery is very sensible in the long term ‘E. Become a publican it’s an excellent profession if you can hold your drink’.
‘What do you think to that trollop Leah ‘E. Up the duff and she does not know who the father is!’ Beryl asked. Leah was the daughter of a prominent Methodist Minister who lived in the village. Everyone confided in Beryl and Beryl confided in me and strangely as Beryl confident, they also whispered their secrets in my ear.
The following week Leah told me Beryl had given her ‘two hundred quid’ for an abortion ‘I ‘aven it next week in Brighton’ – Sure enough she did ‘I’m pleased to hear it Ian’ This was the only time Beryl call me Ian, she was angry that Leah had not told her first.
Now and again she’d go off the rails and insist on German wine or Asti with fish and chips or pizza. The great moments, the delicious moments were when we had crepes and Sauternes. ‘Sod the diabetes’. What about Champagne? I once asked ‘For snobs, weddings and Christening’s, all three, a waste of time’. There could be no answer. I learned from life experience Beryl was right.
‘Ian Beryl has cancer and has asked that you look after her are you up to the task?’
‘Yes Ms Barnes I am’ and I was.
The only time I met her son Angus and her daughter (I cannot remember her name) was in the afternoon of the last Sunday of Beryl’s life.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ He asked after seeing me laying on the bed with his mothers head resting upon my chest, her arm tightly clasped around my body. Beryl looked up at her son and daughter and said ..‘Fuck off back to where you came from’ Goodness knows from where she mustered the strength of her voice.
She died the following day. Later the will was read and Beryl had left me her entire fortune of forty-six thousand pounds. I trained for three years as a bar manager after which I purchased (for a song) the lease of then rundown ‘Lamb’. I ran it in the way Beryl had taught me ‘Quality and service, that’s what makes a pub ‘E’.
Twenty years later I retired.
In a moment I am going to close my eye’s and when I wake up I’m going to fight off those American Airmen, I’m going to push away those lovers and all of her friends. I am going to hold Beryl and kiss her, we will be twenty years old again. I am going to give her the French kiss she asked for all those years ago and we will walk together arm in arm, reunited. Beryl is waiting for me, when I hold her again I will be in heaven.