Since the death of my wife five months ago, I spend most the day walking around the park at the back of my new home. The pressing loneliness brought about by her death has lead me on a constant search for anything that can fill the growing hole inside my aging heart. When she died, I lost more than just a wife and soulmate, I lost the one thing in this world that truly kept me happy.
Now I’m all alone, no kids, no siblings, no cousins, no nephews or nieces and very few friends left. It seems time has passed me by, leaving an old man behind while all else drifts into quiet solitude - It’s this quiet solitude I now so greatly desire.
The sound of traffic next to my home fills me with an unexplainable despair that keeps my mind on edge. The sound of children playing in the streets takes me back to a time when I played in the sun with my five brothers and sisters and yet I can’t stand the constant reminder of what used to be. I was a middle child, the oldest of three brothers but younger than my two sisters. One by one they each succumbed to old age, my youngest brother being the final to go at the tender age of sixty-eight. Being seventy-five myself, I can’t help shake the feeling that all my good days are behind me and my body is past the point of supporting my still active mind.
The park is the only place I can get some real quiet, so I spend all the time I can wandering through the lush green overgrowth. I’d moved here just a couple of months after my wife’s death as I couldn’t stand to be in the house I shared with her for almost fifty years. The walls reminded me of her face and the smell of her hair lingered on our bedroom as if she’d never left. I couldn’t take it and my only option was to move away from what had become a constant reminder of lost love.
Now my true home is the outdoors. I wake in the morning, make my regular breakfast of scrambled egg on toast, fill my coffee flask up to the top, lace up my worn-out walking boots and set off into the wilderness for the brunt of the day.
I like to stay out for as long as the daylight will let me - My lunch comes courtesy of a small little café that sits peacefully at the bottom of the Dene and my dinner is followed a few hours later at the same destination. They know me well; I’ve been there enough and the staff knows to leave me alone besides a few friendly smiles in my direction. It’s just the way I like it - I’m too old to be making new friends and my social nature feels out of place in the modern world.
What I enjoy most are the long walks on the sheltered path by the river. The sound of water is relaxing, and it allows me to phase out from the worries of the world. Most of my time is spent remembering the past and I gradually feel myself slip into the honey trap that presents itself to anyone in my position.
And that’s how it is, my days follow the same old routine, besides the weekly trip to the shops, doctors and bi-weekly visit to the hairdressers. I have occasional visitors, most often social workers sent across by charitable organizations that feel obliged to keep an old man company but occasionally I do get to see an old friend. It’s nice to catch up. Most of my friends are around the same age and have dealt with the same stuff I have with over the last few years, however, they always seem better off. They have families, kid’s, grandkids, and in a few cases, even great-grandchildren. They have something to live for, something I can no longer relate to and that’s family.
I’m kept alive by the peace of the outdoors. I’d never been much of an outdoors person, in fact, I’d always regarded myself as somewhat of a hermit, something I was more than satisfied with for most my life. It took something truly tragic to change my frame of mind, something tragic to allow me to find joy in that which I’d never done previously.
My normal route along the river takes me three miles through tall trees and green grass. Halfway along there’s an old stone bridge that arches over the flowing water just twenty ft below. The bridge was a beauty to behold, it must have been over a hundred years old and sat with a level of grace that only comes to something that stands the test of time. Plants weave their way in and out the large stone blocks, portraying a web of shaded green lines that lead all the way down to the riverbank. The bridge always reminded me of her - I’d spent a few priceless moments with her on top this very bridge and I still felt the same warm feeling walking across as if she was still by my side. Truth is, this might be the reason I spend most my time here.
I walk across this bridge once a day, twice if I have the energy to do another round trip of the park and not once have I seen another soul crossing. It took me by surprise then you can imagine, to one day see a young girl stroll across the bridge at precisely the moment I made the walk up the curved arch. She must have been no older than twenty, her long blond hair stretched down from her head, past her shoulders and halfway to her waist. She dressed strange, at least for someone of her age, wearing long baggy clothes that kept her completely obscured besides her pale face poking through the abundance of hair. Her face had a sombre sadness to it, a look that spoke a thousand words and shed light to her turmoil within. She was pretty, though, flawless pale skin that shimmered in the midday sunlight, with her blue eyes shimmering even brighter. I could barely take my eyes of this strange figure, a figure that soon rested itself lonely on the midpoint of the bridge.
She paused, took a few seconds to stare at the river below, then perched herself atop the side of the bridge with her feet dangling over the edge. She seemed not to notice me, so I decide to make myself known so as to not scare her.
“Beautiful Day” I state, loud enough for her to hear but not loud enough for her to be startled “And an even more beautiful bridge”.
She instantly turns to face me but swings back round once realizing its just a lonely old man. So, I approach even closer - The way she sits on the edge is unsettling and I can’t bear to leave someone alone who is clearly in distress.
“Do you mind if I sit with you?” I ask in a soft voice.
Her perplexed face turns to face me again, but she averts her gaze just moments after.
“I guess so” She finally replies “But I wasn’t expecting anyone to walk by”.
“I know” I agree with a nod of the head “Part of the reason I walk down here”.
With that, I spot a faint smile spread across her face. She still faces away from the bridge, legs dangling below and I decide to adopt the same position. She seems dissatisfied with the actions of such an old man and looks to play good Samaritan.
“Are you sure you should be doing that?” She says as I swing my legs around.
“What?” I reply “An old man can’t live on the edge?”.
I look down to see the water running fast below me. My legs dangle backward and forward with the faint breeze and the unfamiliar weightlessness feels nice. I can feel my heart beating faster in my chest - It seems this is more than enough excitement for a seventy-five-year-old.
“You know I come to this bridge all the time and have never seen another soul. Can I ask what brings you down here?” I enquire with a friendly voice.
“Just stuff I guess” She replies.
“Yeah, it’s the “stuff” that gets me as well” I answer back “Nothing a good walk can’t solve though”.
I try my best to engage her in conversation but she’s reluctant to do so. She keeps her head forward while looking down between her swinging legs. The locks of her hair still obscure the side of her face and all I can make out is the tip of her nose poking through. My attempts at conversations are repeatedly squashed, so I decide to take a different approach.
“I bet you I can hit that tree over there” I state, pointing to a large oak fifty ft down the stream.
My fingers wander to the cracks in the bridge’s stonework and grab a large bit of loose rock that pulls off with relative ease.
She looks up and stares intently at the tree in question.
“I doubt it” She replies, head falling back down.
“How about this. If I hit it, you owe me a drink from the café down the way. If I miss, I’ll leave you alone. Deal?” I ask, my open hand outstretched towards her.
With an intrigued look on her face, she turns to face me. She looks down at my hand, back up at my face, then outstretches her own petite hand.
“Deal” She agrees with confidence.
I’ll try not blow my own trumpet, but I was somewhat of a prodigy with a baseball back in the day. I’d been the captain of the high school team and even managed to score a date with one of the cheerleaders with a very similar bet. Needless to say, I was confident.
The tree was in my sights and with a long pause I stretched my arm back over my head, kept my free hand grasped tightly to the side of the bridge and brought the other around with all the force I could muster. Surprised with my own strength, I struggle to keep a firm grip on the bridge and must stop myself from slipping over the edge. In front, the large stone drifts through the air with both set of eyes fixed tightly on it. It glides gracefully down towards the large oak but the wind suddenly picks up and the rocks changes course to veer it away from the oak and into an adjacent tree. The rock clips off an outstretched branch, bounces back on itself and strikes the large oak just two ft off the ground.
“That counts, I think,” I say with a hint of laughter in my voice. “Not bad for an old man, ey?”
She tries to hold back a laugh but struggles to keep her lips together. Once again she puts her head between her legs to obscure her face from vision and proceeds to let out a muffled giggle.
“You look a lot nicer when you’re smiling you know,” I say to her. “But anyway, I think you owe me a drink, don’t you?”
She pops back up wiping a few tears from her face. She now seems more lively and her face lights up with a hint of joy that spreads a similar smile across my own face.
“I don’t think I have any money” She replies with a guilty voice.
“Tell you what, I’ll let you off today, but I expect to see you down here tomorrow to repay the debt. Otherwise, you’re just ripping off a vulnerable man. Deal?”
Again, I outstretch my wrinkled hand in her direction and keep my eyes focused on her. At first, she is reluctant, but with another grin she stretches out her own hand to meet mine.
“Deal” She replies.
With that, I say my goodbye and continue through the park.
Later in the day, I struggle to get the young girl out of my thoughts. I’m curious as to what would get a young pretty girl, with all her life ahead of her, so down in the dumps. I remember back to my late teens and early twenties. I was a happy go lucky guy who spent most of his time chasing girls and listening to the early rock music of the late fifties and early sixties. I guess times have changed - kids these days struggle to stay worry free from a world where everyone is being judged twenty-four/seven. I can try and listen to her trouble’s but I may never truly understand.
The next morning, I woke with a strange and unusual anticipation for the day ahead. I felt a feeling of excitement, a feeling that has become foreign to me over the last six months. These days I have next to nothing to get excited about - My day has conformed to a consistent routine that remains unbroken for ninety-nine% of the time and the few disruptions I do experience, are unwelcome moments I have no control over. Keeping a routine can be important for a man my age but occasionally that bit of variety adds a well-needed bit of spice to the day.
As I leave the house, the hot summer sun illuminates the surrounding trees adding a strange green glow to the streets around. It’s unusually quiet. I’m used to seeing the early morning commuters line the streets with traffic but the rush is replaced with a calmness that feels out of place on an average Wednesday morning. I usually exit the house around half 8 and today is no different. I have most of my energy in the morning so it’s important to make the most of the few hours before my midday slump. I just don’t have the same energy levels I used too and each day that passes by takes a greater toll on me than the day before. Leading me even closer to a bedridden vegetable, something I fear more than death itself.
I do hope to see the young girl again - For once it was nice to have another soul to keep me company and I feel she would benefit from the same thing. By the time I left her yesterday, she was warming to my company, so I hope she follows through on her promise.
I walk, as I always do, down my predetermined route along the side of the river. I normally don’t carry a watch but I know the bridge marks the halfway point on my journey so can tell the time based on my proximity to it. I thought to arrive there around midday - I can happily sit waiting to see if the girl arrives and if not, I’ll simply continue my travels. I do hope to see her though.
I arrive at the bridge with the sun still sitting high in the sky. It’s unusually hot and still getting hotter, so I feel slightly more exhausted and tired than I normally would at this point in the walk. I’m more than happy to take a seat for a while, anyway my legs need the rest and I fear the day will come when I’m unable to complete the journey for the first time. I decide to swing my legs off the side of the bridge like I had done the day before. I like the youthful feel of perching myself over the edge, it takes me back to my carefree days as a teenager - It’s the simple pleasures that keep me going. I’m sitting for no longer that fifteen mins before I hear a familiar voice from behind.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” Says a quiet voice from behind.
I immediately realize it’s the sound of a girl’s voice, and it doesn’t take me long to work out who.
“And an even more beautiful bridge” I reply, still facing out towards the river.
She perches herself right next to me - Like yesterday but this time a little closer and looks into the river ahead. She’s visibly more relaxed, her clothes are similar to yesterdays but her hair is tied back in a bun to accent her facial features.
“I believe I owe you this,” he says holding out a small coffee cup, “Thought you might like a hot chocolate”.
“Hot chocolate will do nicely” I reply taking the cup from her hand “Thank you”.
I take a sip from the warm cup and let out a satisfied exhale. It’s the first time I’ve had anything like this in a while and it makes me feel a little nostalgic.
“I thought I’d take the chance to thank you for yesterday,” She says with sincerity.
Her statement takes me back - I’m not sure what she needs to thank me for but I’m touched by the sentiment.
“What for,” I ask, trying to match the sincerity in her voice.
“Just for taking the time to talk to me. I was feeling a bit down and it was nice for someone to take time out their day. Not many people would have done the same”.
Her statement forces a smile across my face and for the first time, I feel embarrassed with the praise.
“You don’t need to thank me” I reply “It was my pleasure”.
Her laid back attitude is mirrored in her increased desire to make conversation. She has a lot to talk about and I’m more than happy to listen. It’s nice to get an insight into the life of the younger generation and her story is a particularly fascinating one.
Her name is Alice, eighteen years old and at a significant crossroads in her life. She’d just finished her education and was struggling to understand her place in the world. I guess everyone at that age worries about the same thing, I know I did. Maybe each generation is not quite as different as I expected.
“I just don’t really know what to do with myself,” She says. “When I was younger I had so much ambition, so many things I wanted to do but here I am, worried about what route to take”
If there’s one thing we all gain with age, it’s the ability to look back at your younger years and work out exactly what you regret. Only then do you realize the things you regret most are missed opportunities, never the risks you decide to take. This is a piece of advice I’ll always try to communicate.
“You know, when I was 18 I had a serious choice to make” I say, trying to sound as wise as possible. “It was 1960, I had just finished high school and I had the choice of either keeping my parents happy and helping out with the family business, going out on my own two feet and trying to get a job or joining the army”
“And what did you decide,” She asks with intrigue.
“Well” I continue “I sat back and tried to think what would make me happy, then pursued that”
“And what was that,” She asks again with increasing curiosity.
I take a second to pause and think back all them long years ago. It’s strange, I struggle to remember certain days just months ago, but I can remember the days around my eighteenth birthday as if I was still a teenager.
“I actually tried my hand at acting believe it or not” I answer.
“And how did that turnout?”
“How did it turn out” I repeat “Within a year I realized that not quite everyone is cut out for show business”.
With that, she lets out a thunderous laugh that disrupts her balance and sends her leaning towards the edge. I manage to grab the back of her shirt at the last minute to rebalance her.
“But you know what?” I say “I don’t regret a single moment of that failed year. You know why?”.
“Why?” She answers back.
“If I hadn’t, I never would have met my late wife,” I say with a hint of sadness. “My point is, even if something doesn’t work out, you never know what greatness could be hiding in the failure. You never know unless you take the risk”.
My statement seems to resonate with her - She takes a second to sit back and stare intently into the distance and looks to be thinking things over. I give her a minute to compose her thoughts, and sit peacefully while the now descending sun falls behind the distant trees.
“I think I may need to call it a day,” I say, breaking the silence.
I pull my legs around from the side of the bridge and begin to walk off down the curved arch.
“Same again tomorrow?” I hear a voice say behind me.
“Absolutely” I reply with confidence.
And it became a daily occurrence. Each morning I would stroll down the bridge at the same time and find Alice waiting for me, hot chocolate in hand and with a new lease of life for the day ahead. We ended up talking about many things, Jobs, family, the world and beyond. The state of the country, life and even death. I felt she looked up to me in a way that made me feel useful and knowledgeable. Maybe she was just sympathetic to an old man but regardless, it made me feel like I had a newfound purpose in an uneventful life.
I spoke relatively little about my own life, I didn’t want to bore the kid and I was happy to try and understand the problems of a millennial teenager. She did ask a few times about my younger years and I happily obliged but I tried to limit the anecdotes to stories that relay a positive message and offer some worldly advice.
I hope I didn’t bore her. She definitely didn’t bore me and her commitment to our daily meeting, indicates she was more than happy to repay the favour. I never discussed our meetings with anyone else, especially not them patronizing social workers, as I felt it was quiet time away from everything else with someone in a similar boat. It was our form of escapism, a peaceful retreat in a green wonderland and something I knew would have to end soon enough.
“I think I’m moving away,” She tells me one day.
I had suspected something was up from the minute we sat down. She looked nervous with anticipation for what she had to tell me and even decided to bring an extra-large cup of hot chocolate to soften the news.
“Really?” I say in bewilderment “That’s……That’s…Great”.
There’s a tone of disappointment in my voice, a tone I try my hardest to block out. I was disappointed, though, in a selfish and self-reliant way but was equally excited to hear what she had planned.
“Where are you going?”.
“I’ve been thinking about it for some time now, after what you said the other week,” She says with nerves in her voice “. I’ve been given a job working in a bar in Iceland”.
She’d told me before about her fascination with Iceland and tried countless times to describe the beauty of the place. The mountains, the vast volcanic land, the clear nights, I had even considered visiting the place myself after the stories she told.
“Wow, that’s great” I reply, now with clear excitement in my voice. “When do you leave?”.
“A week on Saturday” She answers “. And I’m going to stay with my auntie before I fly, so I might not get to visit again”.
She struggles to get the words out. I can sense a clear feeling of guilt in her voice and her hands are practically shaking with anxiety.
“I’ll say it again” I reply, as assertively as possible. “That’s great. Don’t worry, it may be the best thing you ever do”.
With that, she reaches across and hugs me tightly. I can do nothing but return the tight grip she has on me - The hands that normally grip the side of the bridge so tightly, suddenly let go and wrap themselves around her.
“I guess this will be the last time I see you then,” I say, with a slightly nervous laugh.
The rest of the day flew by quicker than it arrived and for the first time, we stayed well beyond the sunset, talking nonstop into the night. I didn’t want to go but with the brisk wind picking up, I thought it was best to say our goodbyes and go our separate ways. And so we did, we exchanged a final handshake on the highest point of the arch, and each wandered back through the park, towards our homes and into vastly different stages of life.
I returned to the bridge the next day in a strangely positive frame of mind. Yes, I’d lost my friend, the one person I truly looked forward to seeing but I had a newfound excitement for what she was going to achieve in her young and blossoming life. Truth is, this is probably the closest feeling I get to having kids or grandkids of my own and the burning feeling of pride that now resides in me, means more to an old man that all the creatures comforts and luxuries in the world. I don’t feel sad. I feel something quite different from sadness. I feel pleased with everything, pleased with what I’ve done in my life and pleased with all the memories I can cherish until the end of my days. Life is about purpose. We all must find our purpose in life to understand what it means to be truly happy. For fifty-seven years, my purpose was to protect and love my wife. Now that purpose is gone, and all I have left is the memories to keep me happy. Don’t pity me because of that very reason. I’m happy and at the end of your life you will only ask yourself only one question, did I have live a happy and joyful life.If the answer is yes, then you have succeeded in everything you set out to do. Answer yes, and you have truly lived.