The Centenarian's Counsel

by Rob Ganley

When Simon Ward glanced at the clock in the corner of the community room, his great grandmother sat bolt upright and started talking.

�I never loved him.�

Her voice was firm, carrying a note he�d not heard before. Gone was the singsong melody he�d grown up with these last 15 years.

Simon edged his chair closer to her. Visiting hours ended at 11.30, and a handful of people were already leaving.

�Your great grandfather, Simon. I never loved him.�

She reached out and held his hand. It felt like a sparrow might feel resting on his palm. For many years now she�d sat in her wheelchair, resembling a grey pillow in need of plumping, and he�d listened to her make mental leaps back through the decades. Most of the folk at the home were time travellers. Sometimes she was a child on the fells in Cumbria with her father, grouse-beating or sheep-dipping. A moment�s pause and she�d be practising her scales in readiness to top the bill at a Drury Lane music hall. Another jump-cut saw her flag-waving on the Mall as Queen Elizabeth rolled by in her golden state coach on her Coronation Day. But she couldn�t remember receiving the telegram from that same Queen a few years back.

�Go on Nanna, I�m listening.�

Simon removed a pudgy hand from where it hid his pimpled chin.

�I was 15 when I lost my true love to the Great War. His name was Stanley. He was 17 and so handsome in his uniform. He picked wild flowers and he showed me how to dance a waltz on the sand in the moonlight��

Nanna paused for breath and they watched as old Smokin� Joe, the last resident left in the community room, was wheeled out. Unlike the boxer, he got his name for pipe smoking. He gave them a thumbs up.

�Remember folks, time�s marching on. I wish I knew where it was going!�

The carer wheeling him smiled at Simon and, not looking where she was going, stubbed her toe on the door frame. He heard her curse, then Smokin� Joe�s admonishment:

�You wouldn�t use language like that if my mother was here.�

�Before he went away,� said Nanna, �he� got me in the family way.�

It took a second to realise she didn�t mean Joe.

Simon had been visiting his great grandmother weekly in the home for three years. What had started as a school project, to earn credits for social science, had turned into a labour of not exactly love, but affection. Other classmates had treated it like a day trip to a freakshow. They quickly gave up, declaring it smelled of piss, but Simon saw past the residents� sunken faces. He�d grown attached to them, and didn�t notice the catheters and paraphernalia of old age anymore. Annie, 89, would collar him when he came in and tell him how she�d sneaked into the bathroom at wash time and grabbed a glimpse of sexy Arthur�s bum. At 80, Arthur had youth on his side. Bert, 82, had medals for single-handedly storming a tank during the Second World War. Irene, 91, was a high class call girl in the 1930s. They didn�t care what people thought, they just wanted to put their lives on the record. For his part, he�d sing to them, or talk about the weather.

But Nanna�s revelation was a shock.

�It broke my father�s heart but I had that baby. I had to give him away. I still wonder what happened to him.�

She was struggling with her breathing.

�Stanley died in battle. I never had chance to tell him about our baby.�

Her old blue eyes were weeping more than usual.

�My father sent me away. I�d shamed the family. I met your great grandfather when I was 19. I told him my family were all dead. He was the kindest man I ever met, a good man, and he looked after me. But I never loved him. I missed Stanley and I still do. Are you courting, Simon?�

�No, Nanna, I�m not,� he said, his face flaring in embarrassment.

�When you find someone you love, don�t waste a moment.�

Her head was dipping now, her chin nearing her sternum.

�I�m tired.�

Simon watched an orderly wheel her away before getting up to leave. He stepped out onto the tree-lined avenue, where heat shimmer rose off the tarmac road, and walked briskly and lightly. The rest of his classmates would be in maths class now. He�d missed a lot of school lately. With his thick glasses, his weight and his mannerisms, he was fodder for bullying. They punched his arms black and blue.

None of that mattered now though. He felt blessed with a century�s wisdom, and things seemed in perspective like never before. He broke into a light run as he rounded the corner of Larch Mews. Not a moment to waste.

Matthew Clarke, his best, his only friend, was sitting at the window reading. Matthew was off school with laryngitis and looked up as Simon approached. He waved and smiled.

Simon knocked once, and murmured his line once in practice:

�I love you.�

Matthew opened the door to a flood of sunlight.

BIO: Rob Ganley lives in south west London with his wife (and child, due any day now). He is a magazine editor, but in his spare time writing prose fiction is his first love. His novel, The Hypnotist�s Wife, reached the Bestseller Chart at recently.