The Way We Were

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
An elderly couple go back into their past, as one of them is taken by dementia. They were always friends, but was there something more?

Submitted: March 08, 2016

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Submitted: March 08, 2016

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Ellen sat on the wooden park bench, enjoying the signs of the changing season. The breezes that wafted over the park lake were growing cooler, clouds greyer and the rhythm of life moving slower.

Ellen was not alone on her bench. Beside her, always on her left, was Harry. Like her, his handsome face has been affected by the many years of life they had experienced together.

They met as children living next door to each other. First their mothers introduced them, then they went to the same schools, even university. Friends from the very beginning, and this park was their special place. Having retired years ago, it was their weekly ritual to come to the lake in the park, have chips and talk. They’d never had any family of their own, but always had each other. The park was the place of their childhood, youth and adulthood, so naturally it was the place of their elder years.

Ellen picked a chip from the crumpled butcher’s paper on her lap, plopping it in her mouth and licking the salt and grease from her fingers. She turned to the left, offering Harry the chips. He appeared melancholy, staring into space with a blank look.

He had been silent the whole time, absent-mindedly picking at the chips, eyes shifting from place to place. The two had been sitting there for half an hour. Ellen had met Harry, said hello and sat on the bench.

“How was the week?” Ellen asked.

“It was okay.” 

A long pause.

“Anything happen?”

“Not really.”

 

+++

 

A young and buoyant Harry drove through the town. Winter was hanging on a bit longer that year, the cool winds and rain stubbornly lingering. It was not raining today, although shallow puddles remained as warnings, and slight chilling breezes reminded everyone not to be fooled by the sunshine.

He parked his car on the side of the road, getting out with a bounce in his step. Although the sky was scattered with clouds, they were white wooly things, harmless. Ducks quacked on water and on land, tiny fluffy ducklings obediently following their parents. A few people were walking the concrete path around the lake, some with dogs, others quietly gossiping.

Harry found the green painted bench that was their spot, checking for hidden puddles. The bench was dry, so he sat patiently. He’d brought bread for the ducks as usual, but this would be no normal outing at the park with Ellen.

He searched for her curly brown hair and soft face. He remembered Ellen as a young girl, knobby knees and ill-proportioned. She’d grown into a beautiful woman, but it had still taken him another twenty years to appreciate this. Twenty years of dating; of relationships that went nowhere, waiting for ‘the right one’ to come and sit next to him. Harry had been blind.

He spotted Ellen walking down the path, holding her butcher’s paper parcel. He smiled. He had been so stupid.

“Hey there Harry! How’s the week been?” Ellen gave him a light kiss on the cheek before sitting beside him.

“Great! The shop is doing great since the Macintosh computer came out.”

Ellen sat close beside him on the bench, placing the package between their legs. Steam wafted out, filling their noses with the smell of vegetable oil, salt and fried potatoes.

“What about that girl you started dating?” 

Ellen grabbed a handful of chips, unceremoniously stuffing her face. Harry picked up three and carefully chewed them, enjoying the warmth of each morsel. 

“I’ve ended it. That relationship was going nowhere.”

Ellen nodded. Harry thought he caught a flash of relief on her face, but it was gone too soon. Ellen turned her head to him and smiled.

“Better luck next time.” She joked. “She’s out there waiting for you, somewhere.”

Harry smiled again, touching the lump in his pocket.

He smiled wide and chuckled to himself.

“Yes she is.”

 

+++

 

“Did you bring the bread?” Ellen asked quietly.

Harry frowned again.

“I must have forgotten it again.” Harry absent-mindedly chewed on a chip.

“No matter, Harry. I’ll give the birds some of my chips instead. They’ve gone cold anyway.”

Ellen pushed the limp chips into a pile and tossed them away onto the moist grass. Pigeons, ducks and seagulls battled like gladiators over the offering.

Observing the spectacle, Ellen got up. Harry wasn’t in a good mood today, a developing pattern over the weeks. She was tired of it. She knew men became cranky in the later years, but this was ridiculous. 

“Harry, I’ve got to go. My niece and nephew have come back from holiday, so I’ll be visiting them for two weeks in inter-state. You’ll be fine without me, right?” 

He took his time to answer.

“Yeah. Have fun.”

Ellen sighed and walked away to her car.

She thought about how Harry had been, how he was now. He was almost unrecognisable. The once happy and spirited man was now slow and sad. Ellen mourned for the old Harry, her constant friend and companion. Ellen didn’t like to think of it, but she knew why Harry had changed, why he was always sad. She knew but denied it.

She denied it all the way to the airport.

 

+++

 

Harry was kneeling on the cold concrete, frozen in place. All he could do was repeat the last word Ellen had said in his mind. After a minute of stillness, he managed to say it aloud.

“No?”

His whole world was shattered. She had said no. 

No.

“I’m sorry Harry, I can’t marry you.” worry was creeping on her face as she saw Harry’s reaction.

Her words we simple, but to Harry they felt like spears being thrust in his chest.

“Why not? We’ve been together since we were children! We know each other better than anyone else, and you say no?” He couldn’t control his tone. Panic, anger, betrayal and despair were shaking his composure to pieces.

“I know, and that’s why I’m saying no. You’re a great friend Harry, I don’t want to lose that. I love you, but not as a wife.” She reached forward to place her hands on his shoulders, trying to get him to look at her. Harry was bent over double, hiding his tears, though he couldn’t hide the sobbing that shook his fragile body. When her touch registered on his skin, Harry pushed her away violently.

“Please don’t be mad at me!” Her voice squealed in panic. She tried to reach for him again, but Harry was already running.

Her senseless, harsh, stabbing words. How could he not be mad! Harry was still gripping the little box with the ring inside. He was nearly crushing it in his white-knuckled grasp.

Falling into his car, Harry drove aimlessly. He glanced at the box, open on the seat. Even with the clouds heavy and grey, blocking the sun, the ring still sparkled tauntingly. Harry saw a road sign. He would reach the cliffs soon, and the waves would be harsh in the wind.

 

+++

 

Ellen drove from the airport, glad to be back home. She came through the town centre, past Harry’s house. From the outside it looked fine, but the windows seemed dirtier, dust was gathering on the curtains. Harry’s pot plants by the door were wilting. Negligence was not in his nature.

Ellen parked her car close by, getting out as swiftly as she could. She knocked on his door, waiting to be let in. With no answer, she knocked again. Still no answer. The door was unlocked, so Ellen turned the knob. With just a crack open, a terrible smell wafted out. The windows were closed, so what ever it was had been building up. Readying herself, Ellen entered.

The house was truly a pigsty. Unwashed dishes lay around the floor and furniture, some with food uneaten. The TV was on, the remote likely tossed somewhere never to be seen since. The tap was running, a small puddle growing on the floor.

“Harry?” 

She found him upstairs, partially dressed and sleeping in bed. After dealing with the water down stairs, Ellen ran Harry a bath. He smelt dirty, likely having not washed for a week. Once awake, she interrogated him.

“What happened? Is everything alright?” 

His dazed and confused look had gotten worse.

“ I was going to have a nap, that’s all.”

 

+++

 

He did nothing, said nothing, felt nothing. Holed up in his house, blinds drawn and everything off, Harry remained so for several weeks. Some may have thought him weak, an idiot, a fool, it did not matter. This was how he would try to deal with it, if he ever could.

Ellen had not made any communication for a week. Once the eighth day came, she called. He smothered the phone in towels. As each week passed, his family visited him one by one. His sister was no help, his mother didn’t care “with that kind of attitude”, his brother just wanted to update him on the shop. Everyone was useless, and often Harry would shout them out of his house in a fury. Lashing out was his way, it made him feel better.

In the fourth week, his father died of a heart attack. Harry found out through a note that his sister pushed through his door, seeing as he wouldn’t touch the phone.

Harry of course went to the funeral, he was tasked with saying the eulogy. The only time Harry looked up was at the end, and it was the worst thing he could have done. There, sitting in the back. Ellen was still as lovely and soft as ever. A rip went through his heart and Harry bolted from the stage to the toilets. He locked himself in a cubicle and vented his pain on the door and walls.

After some time had passed and Harry had calmed down enough to exit the cubicle, he saw his brother had been standing there the whole time. Harry stared into the mirror as his brother told him to get back out there. This was his father’s funeral and one woman was not worth spoiling it. Harry swallowed his pride and pain, burying it deep. His brother was right. Harry went back out and stayed for the rest of the day. But he kept his eyes peeled for Ellen, staying away from her.

Two weeks later, Harry began speaking to Ellen again. They met at a cafe, away from the park to talk and move on. Slowly, they repaired a broken friendship and resumed their old lives.

Time sewed the wound, but it left an ugly scar.

 

+++

 

After cleaning up both Harry and his house, Ellen made an appointment with the doctor. Many tests later, and the result was just what Ellen thought. Dementia. The doctor was not clear on the cause, but he said emotional trauma was likely. It could have been something that happened decades ago, slowly eating away at his mind. By trying to forget it, he had forgotten everything else. 

As Ellen listened to the doctor, she could no longer deny to herself any longer. That day, the day that had caused her, and Harry, so much pain, was purely her own doing. She had been so selfish. By trying to preserve their friendship, Ellen had destroyed it. 

That week Harry moved in with her. She set up the spare room, making sure everything was comfortable. She cooked, cleaned and cared for him. With the help of his family Ellen began cleaning out his house and sorting through his things. With Harry sitting on the bed, she sorted through his wardrobe. She pulled boxes down and sorted the junk from the keepers. Most of it was papers, mementos or secret stashes of collectables. Harry would sometimes look through a box, examine the contents. Occasionally it seemed like it triggered a memory in Harry, but mostly it was like a child examining a strange new object.

Ellen reached for the back of the wardrobe, pulling out a box buried behind the others. It had been covered with layers of old blankets and towels. Ellen sat on the floor, tired. She sat in front of Harry, still perched on the edge of the bed. After peeling the layers of cloth, she dug in. As she rummaged through, Harry stuck his hand into the box. He dived precisely, pulling out a tiny box. It had been stained slightly, but was very recognisable.

Ellen did not know what to say or do, just waited for Harry’s reaction.

He peered at it like it was a puzzle. He opened it, tiny stars dancing on his old worn face. 

Ellen still waited.

“I was going to give this to you.”

Harry picked the ring from it’s nest. It still shone in the light.

“Do you want it?”

Ellen swallowed. 

“Yes.”


© Copyright 2017 Elizabeth Gipps. All rights reserved.

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