by Christine Howe
Gerald’s eyes no longer brightened on seeing Joyce, but he would raise his shaggy eyebrows when she sat down and took his hands in hers. These days it was all about clinging to the little positives. Was it preferable to lose your other half suddenly, or to have this disappearing-into-the woods sort of loss, wanting to beckon him back? Joyce visited twice a week at The Magnolias where Gerald was cared for, but captive.
She bent to give him a hug, but he wrestled himself free of her embrace.
‘Lewis,’ he said, ‘Lewis.’ His voice was growly and cross.
‘Who’s this Lewis?’ A care assistant rustled by in her plastic apron, dispensing tea in beakers and drinking cups. ‘He says Lewis all the time now.’
Joyce shook her head. ‘I’ve no idea.’ To Gerald she said, ‘Tell me about Lewis. Shall I bring the photo album next time and we’ll look for him? Yes?’
Gerald mumbled, and withdrew his hand from Joyce’s patting. She watched him eat gingerbread and drink his tea; calm only when eating. He was restless these days, pacing about the lounge while the more sedentary residents tracked his movements like spectators at a sporting fixture.
Back at home Joyce phoned their daughter Catherine. ‘Did your dad ever mention someone called Lewis? He’s got this Lewis on his mind.’
‘Inspector Morse’s sidekick?’ Catherine laughed. ‘Honestly Mum, it could be anyone.’
Joyce frowned. In her mind’s eye she saw Gerald pacing, eyes not brightening on seeing her, arms pushing her away.
For her next visit she put the photo album in her shopping bag, together with short-sleeved shirts for Gerald to wear in the warmer weather and a pack of his favourite caramel wafers. She called in at the library before catching the bus and found an illustrated book of dog breeds, and put that in the shopping bag too. The bag was heavy and it dragged on her arm as she toiled up the hill from the bus stop to The Magnolias. Gerald resisted when she went to greet him with a hug. It wasn’t an aggressive resistance, just a firm push away.
‘Still repeating Lewis,’ a care assistant said chirpily. ‘Not solved the mystery yet?’
‘Doing my best.’
‘Well, not to worry. He enjoys his meals and he’s a good sleeper. Doris over there says toodle-oo from morning ’til night.’
Beneath the cheeriness Joyce sensed that having to listen to both toodle-oo and Lewis endlessly repeated during an eight-hour shift was wearing. She smiled in acceptance of the young woman’s attempted comfort; words as sugared as the cake now being dished out with the afternoon cup of tea.She opened the dog book and began to turn the pages.
Gerald jabbed a sticky finger at a page. He’d marked the image of an Old English Sheepdog with a smear of butter icing. Unlikely that such a large dog could have been the family pet.
‘Oh, clever you — you’ve remembered the dog from those paint adverts.’
A spark had been ignited in a dark recess of Gerald’s mind. Another little positive. She took a tissue from her handbag and wiped the page clean. Next, she tried him with the photo album, which they had looked at together several times, but not with the Lewis objective.
‘Catherine.’ He pointed at their daughter squinting into the sun on a holiday photo. Another achievement to chalk up that day, but still no Lewis.
That night Joyce lay awake. How could it be that in all their years of marriage Gerald hadn’t mentioned Lewis? Or perhaps he had related an anecdote about him and she had been inattentive, his words and the name drifting over her head like a balloon while she concentrated on her cross-stitch. If she had failed him then, she mustn’t fail him now. In the darkness she wiped her eyes. Etched in her memory would be his repetition of Lewis and his endless circuits of the care home lounge fuelled by his frustration.
Their next significant wedding anniversary would be Diamond, if Gerald lived long enough to greet it. The thing with a long marriage was that it seemed like your whole life and all your experience.
By the time the sun came up she was cheerful, though gritty-eyed. She’d identified other avenues to pursue in the search for Lewis, so those sleepless hours hadn’t been wasted. Lewis could be a former colleague at Fraser’s, or a pal from the carpet bowls club. Gerald and their neighbour Sydney had gone off to play carpet bowls every Wednesday afternoon with their bowling shoes in drawstring bags, until Gerald had become too unwell to play.
Sydney was hanging out his washing and she called to him, ‘Sydney, did Gerald ever mention someone called Lewis? Bowls club maybe?’
Sydney shook his head. ‘Why?’
‘He’s got this Lewis on his mind and I don’t know who he is, or was. Any ideas?’
Sydney picked up his laundry basket. ‘Didn’t Gerald do National Service? Maybe Lewis hails from that time.’
He scuttled back indoors, leaving Joyce standing by her empty washing line. She hadn’t seen any photographs of Gerald on National Service. She would look in the sideboard for their large manila envelope labelled Miscellaneous Photos. Joyce found the envelope and in it a photograph of a Fraser’s staff Christmas meal from thirty years before. It hadn’t made it into the album as the photo was a poor one of Joyce, catching her with a forkful of turkey half-way to her mouth. Several potential candidates for Lewis, though. From the bus that day she admired people’s front gardens. The season inspired hope.
She was completing her entry in the signing-in book, glancing at the clock on the wall, when a care assistant passed by and said, ‘Your Gerald has a visitor. It’s the mystery man, Lewis. Been here an hour.’
Joyce dropped the signing-in Biro on its tethering string and rushed to the dementia wing. Through the toughened glass panel of the lounge door, she saw Gerald with a man she’d never met, a man who held Gerald’s hands in his. Faces in the lounge turned to look at her, but she had eyes only for Gerald and Lewis. Gerald bent forward and rested his head on the other man’s shoulder, his face turned in to his neck. A sob rose in Joyce’s throat.
‘What a burden you’ve carried all these years,’ she whispered, her breath misting the glass.
She turned away, and deposited her shopping bag containing more summer shirts and a further supply of caramel wafers in the corridor outside Gerald’s room door. And then, touching the wall with her hand to steady herself, she made her way back to the main entrance.
‘Not staying for a cup of tea today, Joyce?’ a care assistant called after her.
Over her shoulder she said, ‘No, I’ll let Gerald enjoy Lewis’s visit. They’ve waited a long time.’
‘I’ll sign you out. It’s not like you to forget.’
Joyce hurried away, down the hill to the bus stop. Gerald’s retreat into the woods had come to a temporary halt. Hers had only just begun.
Christine Howe lives in Cumbria and is a member of Carlisle Writers’ Group. The urge to generate some words of her own came after the passage of many books through her hands while working in libraries. She is currently planning her fifth novel and hopes to find a publisher for at least one of the other four. In 2020 she was awarded second prize in the Louise Walters Books Page 100 competition. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies such as The Best of CaféLit, shortlisted in a Flash 500 competition and is featured in the Carlisle Writers’ Group latest anthology and on their blog: https://carlislewritersgroup.wordpress.com/
Christine’s own blog, Writing from a Small Place, can be found at https://christinemhowewrites.wordpress.com
On Twitter she is @christimhowe