“And this is you,” says Eva, showing me into my new home.
It’s pleasant enough – The Oaks is very upmarket – but we both know what it really is: death’s waiting room. My things, already delivered, are the pitiful sum of an entire life: trinkets, books, photo albums I haven’t opened in years. At least my wardrobe is a rainbow of velvets and silks.
A vase of spring flowers stands on the table, from Eva, and my eyes prick with tears. How long has it been – if ever – since someone gave me flowers?
There’s a soft thwock from outside: my flat, on the first floor, overlooks the tennis court. A man in tennis gear is exiting the court, an elderly woman on each arm, laughing. His hair is white, but his shoulders are broad, his arms still muscular and tanned.
“Found the quarterback,” I murmur. The kind of guy who would never notice me.
Eva laughs. “That’s Tom. He’s quite popular with the ladies.” I bet.
My new doctor arrives. I notice Eva stealing glances at him as he checks over my medical records, and I don’t blame her – if I were a few years younger, I might have flirted with him myself.
They leave and the room feels empty. I need some air.
When I reach the huge oak in the centre of the retirement village, I stop to rest my aching hips on the bench curving around its trunk. A voice startles me: the jock, a ribbon of sandpaper between his fingers.
“Hi. I’m Tom.”
He’s carving ornate patterns on the arm of the bench: leaves, flowers, birds.
“Oh! It’s beautiful. You’re a woodworker?”
He smiles. “Used to be. Still am when my hands let me. You?”
“I’m… I used to be a travel writer.”
He sighs. “I would have loved to travel. What was your favourite place?”
I laugh. “I can’t choose. It would be like choosing a favourite child.”
“Tell me about them.” So I do. I tell him about haggling for spices in the crowded passages of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, the drifting cherry blossom in Kyoto in spring, the dizzying cliffs of the Italian riviera. After a while he stops carving, closes his eyes and listens so intently I think he’s fallen asleep.
When I’ve finished, he asks, “Do you play chess?” When I say no, he laughs and says he’ll teach me. “Same time tomorrow?”
His chess set is exquisite. “I’ll make you one too,” he tells me. “My shelves are full, and if I offer to make anything for the ladies here they’ll only get the wrong idea.” Subtext: he can offer one to me, because he couldn’t possibly be interested.
“No grandchildren?” I ask, lightly.
He sighs. “No. I never – met the right person. I was engaged once, but for the wrong reasons, so I broke it off. You?”
“No. Same.” Our eyes meet – a fleeting understanding? Or am I kidding myself?
As the branches above us turn green, he teaches me to play chess, and then he carves a set for me. I bring my photo albums, the pages sticking together, and show him places I’ve been and known and loved, and sometimes he carves and sometimes he just closes his eyes and listens.
Then he brings his photographs to show me: cribs that will become family heirlooms, a bookcase for an eccentric professor, a couple of fiddles he made just for the challenge of it.
One day, we find a couple locked in an embrace on what I’ve come to think of as our bench: Eva and the doctor. I wink at her as they disappear toward the doctors’ quarters.
Eva stops by our bench a few weeks later, smiling as she looks from one to the other of us. Above, the leaves are just starting to turn.
I ask about the doctor and she tells us that they’ve split. “I want to focus on work… and honestly? He’s kind of a dick.”
Tom laughs heartily, but after she’s gone, his mood turns. “Sex before marriage, career before a relationship… It’s a different world to the one where we grew up. Makes me wonder how things could have been different…” He sighs. “In the next life, I guess.”
“Do you believe in reincarnation?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I just want to believe I could have a do-over. It’s only when you get to the end you realise what really matters.”
“What would you do differently?”
He shrugs again. “Travel?” He places his hand next to mine, and my blood fizzes. “Be braver.” He slips his hand over mine, and my heart judders in my chest. “And I hope… I hope I would have met you sooner.”
I turn toward him, and our eyes meet, and then he kisses me. And I’m aware of everything and nothing: the thousand sighing leaves above us, his hand cupping my face, the solid bench beneath us and the beating of my heart. He breaks off and smiles at me. “Same time tomorrow?”
I’m woken by hammering on my door. The world outside is cold and grey, shrouded in fog.
Eva. She’s holding something in her hands, but it’s her eyes I notice first: they’re swollen and red.
“I’m sorry. This should get easier, but it never does. And I wanted to be the one to tell you.”
His huge heart: a massive heart attack.
“I think he would have wanted you to have this.”
She hands me the object: a carving of two figures on a bench, hand in hand, their foreheads touching, one with broad shoulders and still-muscular arms. I see the sharp crease in my trousers, the scarf in my pocket, my neat goatee: how clearly he saw me. How much love went into this. How much time we wasted. And across the bottom, the flowing inscription: To Jack, until the next life. All my love, Tom.
* * *
Jennie Stevenson is an English graduate currently working as a freelance content writer. Born and brought up in the north of England, she now lives in southern Sweden with her husband, where they are comfortably outnumbered by their children and pets.