Short story: 86 Years Old

86 years. 86 years and for what? Nothing.

He’s been sitting staring at the screen for nearly an hour, watching the vertical black line blinking on and off, on and off. He has nothing to write.

It was going to be an epic saga, full of mystery and thrills, full of love and lust, full of adventure and excitement. Instead, it’s a blank page. And it’s going to stay a blank page. Because the more he thinks about it, the less he has to write. The less he has to say. His memoirs, a blank page. His life has meant nothing.

*

He’s achieved plenty, of that there’s no doubt. Company director who took early retirement. Husband of 60 years. Father to three children. But none of it seems to mean anything, to have meant anything.

These things are all tangible. He still has the letter his company gave him when he retired, thanking him for his 40 years of service. He’s still married, can still hug and kiss his wife. His children are grown up, have moved on with families of their own, but they’re only a phone call away, he can visit them or they him, and they can all be together.

The sum of his life’s work can be measured, quantified, it’s physical, and it exists. But it doesn’t mean anything to him.

That isn’t to say he hasn’t enjoyed his life. He loves Barbara, his wife, as much now as he did when he first laid eyes on her 62 years ago. He still gets butterflies as big as the ones when he first asked her out, and he still gets as giddy around her as he did when she said yes. She still makes him smile as much now as she did on their wedding day, she’s as beautiful to him now, 60 years later, as she was on that day, in her perfect white dress, his perfect, beautiful bride.

He’s so proud of his children; John, the headmaster, a wife and three children of his own; Sally, a doctor, no kids yet but happily married; Philip, the starving artist, single but happy. He’s loved them all since the second Barbara gave birth to them, since the second they went from a future event to a present one. Sure, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing, but when is it? For all the ups and downs his children have put him through, he loves them and is deeply, deeply proud of them.

He gave 40 years of his life to one company, and this is something in itself. He worked his way up from an office boy, getting tea for the people one position above office boy, to company director. He was well like by his colleagues, from the new office boys all the way up to his fellow directors. The company threw him a huge party when he finally accepted retirement, and people cried genuine tears at seeing him go. 40 years. To give such an amount of time to one company, it was nearly as much his life and his home as his actual life, and his actual home.

From the outside, he has it all, has always had it all. So why does he feel empty?

*

The vertical black line continues to blink on, blink off. Normally this would make him sleepy, but he doesn’t think he could sleep with three whiskies and some Valium, let alone without. He thinks he knows the emptiness, thinks he understands it. Well, at least, he thinks he’s aware of it. He’s been trying for years and will never understand it. This much he knows. He accepted this fact a long time ago. He won’t stop trying to understand it, and he won’t stop feeling the frustration that comes with failure, but he also knows that failure. He recognises it, and feels comforted by it.

And besides, he’s too old for a breakthrough. If by some miracle he did figure the emptiness out, it might be the death of him. He isn’t sure his heart could take it. He’s an old dog, set in his ways. And in many ways, that’s very much the problem.

60 years with the same woman, 40 years with the same company. A successful career, a successful marriage, three happy children, a good pension. What more could he ask for? He’s the envy of all his friends, all his relatives. On paper, his life is perfect.

*

He remembers the day John was born like it was yesterday. As a matter of fact, it was nearly 50 years ago now, but this is one of the few memories that hasn’t grown hazy. All of what has happened since in his life, this memory is still as clear today as it was the day after. That brown haze that tends to over take memories, to fade and obscure them, to leave them as much a patchwork of guesses as genuine rememberings, seems to have missed this memory out.

He hated seeing Barbara in so much pain; he hated even more that it felt like his fault she was experiencing it. And whilst in a way it was, it had been a mutual decision. The pregnancy itself had been unplanned, but the decision to keep it a joint one. And whilst it might have changed things, he had never for one moment regretted it.

The first time he’d held John in his arms, he’d felt a shift. Not a monumental one, but a tiny one; as if things had moved an inch to the side, things had gotten slightly off kilter. He’d noticed the shift, but paid it no attention; it had been hidden amongst the joy and the tiredness he was feeling. He’d recognise the feeling later, recognise it fairly regularly throughout the intervening years, but by the time he had fully acknowledged it, it was too late.

Which was exactly what the shift was; it was that things were too late.

*

He’d never wanted to spend his entire life in an office, but he’d also never thought that an odd feeling. Did anyone plan to spend their entire adult life going to an office five days a week, sitting at their desk and groaning through a never ending series of tasks?

He’d wanted to travel, to visit as many countries as he could, to learn as much as he could. He’d wanted to write the great American novel, become an overnight sensation, and then spend his millions flying all over the globe. And he’d use his experiences to write more, even better novels. And use the new millions to travel even more. It was a flawless plan.

Except the flaw that it didn’t happen.

*

He’d always clung on to the hope. As the rejections piled up, and they got more and more frequent, and less and less helpful, he’d still clung on to the hope. He was working his way up through the company, but that wasn’t what he did. It wasn’t who he was. He was a writer, he would always be a writer, he was just waiting for the world to notice.

But eventually, the hope had begun to fade. No matter how hard he’d tried to hold onto it, it had begun to slip through his fingers. Like holding onto a block of ice. As it began to thaw, slowly at first, drips rolled across his hands, down his arms, fell to the floor. And then one day, someone had knocked the block of ice out of his hands, and in one fell swoop it had fallen to the floor, and shattered.

John.

*

He’d never resented John. John hadn’t asked to be born, he hadn’t forced his future parents to have sex, to decide not to terminate the pregnancy, to raise him and lead him and make him into a person. John hadn’t forced his parents to have his brother and his sister, he hadn’t forced his father to work more hours at the company, to chase promotions rather than accept them as they fell to him.

John had rarely asked for anything, had always been more of a giver than a taker. And so he couldn’t resent his first child, his first son, the boy who would become a man who would ultimately change him.

For the better?

*

And now here he sits, in the comfortable chair, in his study, the study he made sure the new house has. The new house he and Barbara bought once they no longer needed so much space, once the old house was back down from five inhabitants to two.

He sits in the comfortable chair, looking past his desk and out the window, at the sun filled garden, at the lawn sloping down to the water’s edge. At least this is where he should be looking. He should be looking at all he has gained, and appreciating it. But instead, he looks at the vertical black line blinking on and off, on and off.

He asks himself if it was worth it.

And the page stays blank.

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