Mary looked around the room. It had been the sitting-room since she and Ernest had married, over forty years ago. Nigel had grown up in this house. Now he had children of his own and Ernest had been dead for five years.
Nigel said that the house was too big for just one person, that she ought to move out. Lately, he was becoming more insistent. You should move somewhere smaller. You’re not getting any younger, and what’s the point of having four bedrooms? He was right, of course. The three bedrooms she didn’t use spent their time with the doors closed, gathering dust.
Nigel had started to bring brochures around – glossy ones about residential homes. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to look, at first. But he’d always been persistent, even as a child, and he hadn’t lost any of it. Eventually, she’d looked at the brochures, just to get some peace. But even the brightest ones, with colourful glossy pictures of sunlit rooms with happy, silver-haired grandmas and grandpas in them, had been depressing. Residential homes were for old people – she wasn’t old. But they made her feel old – old and tired and grey.
She caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. White hair, crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes, and the once-smooth skin of her neck folded and wrinkled. She was old. She hated the mirror for telling her the truth – but she hated this mirror anyway. She had detested it ever since Ernest had bought it; she thought it pretentious.
The room hadn’t changed since Ernest’s death. His clients had complimented him on his décor, but Mary had always disliked it. Pretentious, just like the mirror. Ernest always said that clients had to be impressed, and they wouldn’t be impressed by old-fashioned wallpaper and faded curtains.
Nigel had said that his father was right – it was important to make the right impression. In fact, Lisa and I are looking for a new place – somewhere bigger.
She had given in, in the end, even though the thought of going into one of those places made her feel heavy and dull. She had seen some of the inmates – she couldn’t help thinking of them as inmates. Like some kind of prison. They just sat watching television, dwindling away. In one, she had been told that they went on a trip once a month, in a bus. They had gone all the way to Bournemouth one time, wasn’t that wonderful? And they played bingo every Thursday night. But only for chocolate bars, of course.
Bingo for chocolate bars! Was that all she was good for? A month after moving into one of those homes, it probably would be. Even as she had stepped over the threshold, she had felt the slower pace of life trying to force her into the kind of mindset that played bingo for chocolate bars every Thursday and thought a trip to Bournemouth was exciting. It wasn’t life – it was death.
But she had given way and agreed to move into one of the homes. She, who had wanted to do so much! She had wanted to see the world. But then she had married Ernest.
Of course, residential homes are quite expensive, Nigel had said. And you don’t get state help until you’ve spent all your money. It would be better if you made the house, for instance, over to me and Lisa as a deed of gift.
Nigel was neatly putting her away, like furniture he didn’t need any more. Taking the house and sending her to live in an old people’s home. Well, she wouldn’t do it. She was going to act while Nigel wasn’t around to stop her. She wasn’t going to watch herself dwindle into a mindless shell, playing bingo for chocolate bars and going on the bus to Bournemouth. She wasn’t going to die there, with no dignity.
By the time Nigel came, with the papers for the deed of gift for making the house over to him, she would be gone. She had decided weeks ago. It had taken time to plan. She wasn’t going to be one of those people who didn’t even cancel the milk. She had already written the letter, explaining. It had been a hard decision to make – well, of course. But, deep inside, she supposed that she had known for a long time that she was going to do it. It was why she had never had the house redecorated, why she had carried on living with the curtains and carpets and wallpaper that Ernest had chosen. The relics of a marriage that had been a mistake from the start. But Ernest would never have heard of a divorce – what would his clients have thought? And there had been Nigel to think of.
But now Nigel was grown up, and trying to control her just the way Ernest had done. Well, after this, she would be out of his reach forever.
It seemed strange – the preparations of the last three weeks. Going to the chemist for the tablets. Cancelling the milk and papers. When the man at the paper shop had asked her whether she was going away, she had told him that she was moving into a residential home – well, she could hardly tell him the truth: he might have told Nigel, who would have tried to stop her.
The doorbell rang cheerfully. She jumped up – he was early!
She went to the door and opened it.
Charlie was standing on the step in his sports jacket and slacks, his car parked on the drive. He gave her that special smile he saved just for her, and presented her with a single red rose.
“Are you ready, beloved?” he asked.
“Oh, yes!” Now it was time, she was excited, just like being a young girl again. “I’ll get my case.”
He loaded the case into the boot of the car while she locked the door. She had already switched off the electricity and turned off the water and gas. They got into the car and Mary took the packet of tablets from her handbag. They each swallowed a tablet, and then he reached out and pulled her close to him. She squeaked, and then returned the kiss passionately. Somehow, the fact that all the neighbours were no doubt watching made it even better.
She had been attracted to Charlie when she had joined the art class four years ago, and the attraction had been mutual. When Charlie had asked her to marry him, she had hesitated. What about Nigel? Then she had realised that Nigel didn’t matter. Nigel had his own life now – and, at long last, it was time that she had her own life, with a man she loved and who loved her.
And now they were on their way to Gretna Green; they would spend their honeymoon in Africa. Africa on safari, seeing lions and crocodiles and elephants. At first she had thought that Africa was a bit far – after all, neither of them would see seventy again and eighty was looming. But Charlie’s enthusiasm had been infectious. She had asked the pharmacist when she had gone to get the malaria tablets; he had been encouraging, removing the last of her doubts.
And now she was going to live at last! She was going to travel and see the world – she and Charlie would see it together. They would grow old together – someday. But not yet; there was too much to do. There was a whole world out there, and they were going to see as much of it as they possibly could.