The Sight of Her at Dawn
When I think of the time that Arthur went missing, my first memory is always of how cold it was that night. I remember seeing spiders’ webs, seemingly deserted. I recall them exactly, stark between the new box hedge plants and dark azaleas, crystalline in the light of the full moon, as the young police officer walked me towards his police car. Even before I arrived at The Home late that afternoon I had this horrible sensation, a nagging sensation, that it would be the last time I ever saw him. Now I was not sure if I would ever see him again at all.
~ ~ ~
Agreeing that Arthur should be cared for in The Sunrise Home is one of the hardest decisions I had ever had to make. But in those times at least Arthur could agree that it was for the best. It’s not that he was becoming a burden for me, but that he was a danger to himself. I was constantly having to find new places to hide the car keys, just in case he decided to take an early morning drive to nowhere, only to wonder why he had arrived there at all. And then decide to walk from the car to find himself in the same predicament. They have a word in the home for folks like Arthur: he was a Wanderer.
We made the decision when sitting out on the patio one morning. We always liked to get up early together and watch the sunrise as we drank a cup of morning tea before taking our breakfast. We always had done, weather permitting. And Arthur would always say to the sun as she climbed into the sky, “Ride on, beauty.”
When he was diagnosed I’d been warned about how quickly he would be likely to deteriorate. But nothing can prepare you for watching on, helpless, as the man you have loved for more than three-quarters of your life wastes from his body; leaves from a fallen tree. He had become a shadow: eyes and breath and faint heartbeats in a skeleton. He’d been such a strong man all his life, with a wit faster and sharper than the helicopter rotor blades he used to make.
Once he was settled in the home we never saw the sun rise together. I don’t know if he ever watched it rise alone. I don’t know much of what thoughts he found. But we would sit out in the evenings now and again to watch the sun go down. The irony of being in The Sunrise Home watching sundown often brought tears to my eyes. It was all that we had left together; waiting for an end.
I’d bring him fish and bread. We’d eat them with oils, vinegar, and on occasion a single glass of red wine that he was not really permitted to take. The son of a friend of mine once made marijuana cakes for me take, having read that they might assist Arthur’s symptoms. We didn’t eat them though, sweet as the thought was. I gave them to a young carer, who blushed as he took them from me. He looked as though he knew what to do with them. But really Arthur could have been sitting out on that veranda with anyone. He often didn’t seem aware that he was sitting with anyone. There was as little light left in his eyes as there was in the day.
I’d roll up his sleeve and point out his tattoo. ‘Sweetheart’ it read. He’d had it inked before he went out to war – like most of the boys did for their girl back home – and said that he’d be taking a piece of my heart with him. It was still with him and it always would be. He’d simply stare at the love heart as I held his sleeve and reminded him that it was for me. Once he shocked me by saying, as we looked upon the worn, spread ink, “Battle. Bloodshed.” He looked deep into the darkening sky. “Silence.”
As the shadows lengthened and the light faded, as the air grew chill, Arthur would become irritable, moaning to the disappeared sun, to the night, using words I’d scarcely heard pass his lips through all the years. The sudden change in his face, the thinning of his lips, his white clenched fists, terrified me. There was no pacifying him until the carers came and did what they had to do, saints that they are. That was why he was no longer allowed within range of his chessboard, made by his own hand. That was one of the reasons why they had to institutionalise him in the first instance. But mostly it was for his wandering.
~ ~ ~
Arthur began to talk less and less. Even his random ramblings soon ceased completely. I’d still go and see him every day at that point, safe in his secure guarded unit. I had been told that it was healthy for him to keep a routine, much as it was for me. I’d bring items – photos, and his old paintings and drawings – to add to his little personalised memory box. He showed little interest. The box was always where I had last left it, dusty beneath the bed. I’d play him some of our old favourite songs: Chris Barber and Ottilie Patterson, Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine, Yehudi Menuhin. But on compact discs now, not the old 78s that we use to dance to, mildewed in the old attic. There were few signs of recognition. He didn’t even frown any more when he looked at the cover pictures, just stared straight through them. And he would just stare, until I distracted him or took the cover out of his view. He was fading fast; the sun in late autumn.
I’d still bring him crossword puzzles and books, though I knew he could barely read in those days, even if he had the concentration to. But most times I’d find him staring at the pages or the covers in that same fashion, held in this long, bone fingers. Mostly I found him just staring, still not even frown upon his brow. One time I found one of the crossword books open. My heart inked upon his arm almost broke when I read the only word written across the middle of the puzzle in spiky little letters, so unlike the fine copperplate script of his days, in a nine letter clue.
12 across: A demonstration of great strength
The word Arthur had scrawled was LIVING. Like the box of his memories, the page was covered in dust, and clearly had been for some months. I found it hard to visit him daily, as if that was all that I too had left to live for.
When you have had a beautiful life it should be allowed to just end, not waste away. When check becomes checkmate a game does not continue. If you fall from the top it’s best if it’s over in seconds. The long, slow fall brings the most pain. Unless you don’t know that you’re falling: that just hurts those who are around you.
~ ~ ~
The sight of the secure unit always struck me with fear. Hidden deep behind the beautiful old buildings, the neat lawns and the sculpted bushes, the hanging baskets and the immaculate flowerbeds – the cheerful face of The Sunrise Home – stood a purpose-built block, always in shadow, forever untouched by the sun. It might have been imported from Germany after Hitler’s armies were left no one to sacrifice. It had the look of a building that has seen a thousand horrors, but can’t wait long enough for the next; as if it had absorbed the soul and spirit of those inside; anthropomorphic, with cruel intent. So the tormenting fear that I would never again see the man who I had loved more than love arrived with me at The Unit that day. The man who had for three years been housed on these loveless grounds, indeed who’s soul and spirit had been drained. Why would a shadow kept behind locked doors not be found where he had been left? I couldn’t rationalise. I think that feeling of fear must have been lying dormant in my breast for some time. On that late afternoon it was in my throat.
I was shown through the main doors, the receptionist here less welcoming, more business-like than the lovely caring ladies in the residential buildings. The receptionists here with their coffin-lid smiles and a streak of prison guard facsimile. And, of course, there were actual guards prowling the corridors. I had brought no fish, nor bread, oil or discreet wine. This was not a place for an honest and loved man. Perhaps deep within his malfunctioning mind Arthur agreed. For when I was shown to his tiny little room – or cell – he was not there.
The guard with me checked beneath the steel cot. He checked in the dank en suite bathroom, behind the shower curtain . . . No Arthur.
The guard looked like a man who would rather be out on a field playing rugby, or perhaps wringing the necks of chickens. He was dark skinned, perhaps with Iberian ancestry. I don’t know if they play rugby in Spain. He would have been perfectly suited to the role of villain in one of Arthur’s spaghetti westerns. His lips wore a natural sneer; his close-lidded eyes glinted hard-edged suspicion. He checked everywhere that he had already checked and then muttered something like, “Must be in the communal sitting room.”
I’d been inside the communal sitting room before. It always struck me as a kind of purgatory, lost souls waiting to be moved along to somewhere yet unknown. Presumably they had all been loved once in their lives. It struck me that most of the seven sitting in there would still be loved. But yet here they were.
Not one of them was Arthur.
An elderly man with kindly eyes looked up at me, a confused half-smile on his dry, grey lips. “Mary?” he asked me. “Is that Mary? You’ve come to see me at last! Oh, my sweet chicken, I’ve missed you.” He clapped his hands together, holding them there expectantly, a lop-sided grin hanging from his lips.
“Sorry, honey,” I replied. “I’m not Mary. But I’m sure that she’ll be right here soon.”
“Are you sure you’re not her?” he asked in a raspy croak, his words slurred, drawled.
“Well, if you see her,” he continued, “if you see Mary, please will you remind her to keep her thickest woollies close by? See, there’s an ice age coming soon. I can feel it in my bones, Mary. It’s getting cold now. The long winter’s going to come.”
Even in this surreal moment, how strange that the confused man should be waiting upon Mary. Mary was our chosen name for the baby girl that we used to dream of. The chosen boy’s name was David. Arthur and I were never blessed to name a child of our own. But I never stopped dreaming of Mary and David, all the same. In a way I was as alone as Arthur, wherever he was.
Whilst I was trying to summon a smile by way of response, the guard continued to stalk around the living room, his glare darting from one resident to the next, then back, as if he couldn’t trust his first glance. He stomped around a corner into a little alcove with fitted kitchen cupboards, a kettle, and a sorry-looking orchid with browned leaves. The smell like a putrid chicken stock was rather unsettling my stomach. He stomped past me, an expletive passing his tongue, perhaps forgetting that I wasn’t one of the inmates of this strange hospice. My back began to hurt but I was afraid that if I sat down then I would be consider as one of the lost souls, never to leave this place.
For my foreboding feeling upon arriving there that evening, it was of little surprise that Arthur was nowhere to be seen. In part I was secretly pleased that he’d managed to evade his security guards. But I was terrified for him, the man whom I had last seen so unaware of everything around him, so numb and confused. My jostling emotions were not helped when I walked slowly back to the reception to hear the words, “And what if he ends up on a train this time? Or on the tracks?”
“He’s at it again, isn’t he?” said the big security guard – now joined by another – to the receptionist.
“Are you talking about my Arthur?” I asked. They all turned to look at me. “What is he up to again?”
~ ~ ~
Our feet crunched upon gravel as the young police officer walked me to his car. I looked upon the spiders’ webs, sparkling and beautiful. I wondered how many insects caught in a web ever get away. The frost was already crisp on the lawns.
“Missus Kendal,” said the officer, his face as serious-looking as I’ve ever seen a man’s, “as you know, the grounds have been searched and there is still no sign of your husband. All units in the local vicinity have been notified, as well as the local hospitals, petrol garages, taxi firms and the railway station. We’ve literally hundreds of pairs of eyes looking out for Mister Kendal at this very moment. He’ll turn up somewhere, I’m sure.”
They knew that Arthur had left the building wearing only his old pyjamas and a thin dressing gown – the uniform of those incarcerated in the unit. They didn’t see his slippers anywhere so it was assumed that he was wearing those. “Perhaps with a pair of socks,” one officer had added helpfully.
You see, we all knew how bitterly cold the night was. That it was left unspoken conveyed the gravity of Arthur’s predicament. You even hear of dogs accidently left in the garden for the night freezing to death. What chance did anyone offer a frail old man in a dressing gown, maybe with his slippers on, maybe with socks? The look upon the serious young officer’s face reflected my fears for Arthur as he told me, “He’ll turn up somewhere.” I could see that he wanted to tell me that Arthur would turn up alive and well. But he couldn’t. Because neither of us believed that he would.
The secure unit of The Sunrise Home. Arthur had escaped the secure unit as they were moving a new housemate in. The alarms on the doors had been temporarily turned off as the staff came and went, no one noticing as a shambling old man just breezed straight out of the door like a spectre and into the falling of the day. He was a Wanderer and he was wandering.
Before I stepped into the police car the young officer reassured me that the grounds were still being searched intensively, ‘with no stone left unturned.’ They would search until he was found. Or until it was too dark. But that was most likely where he would be found, he told me, ever so politely. Most of the light had already left the day. The last few rays of light painted pink on the wispy underside of the clouds.
The officer would be updated immediately if they found any trace of Arthur, or where he might be. “Do you have any ideas as to where your husband might have gone, Missus Kendal? Any favourite places? I understand your husband’s condition. Has he mentioned anywhere to you recently that he might have been wanting to visit?”
“He doesn’t mention much of anything any more, I’m afraid, young man,” I answered. “When he used to wander off when he was at home he’d be found in places that I’d never even heard of, let alone visited.”
The young officer nodded with a thoughtful Hmmm. “Nowhere at all?”
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “If I think of anything, if anything comes to me, I’ll let you know.” I could hear the shake in my voice as I tried to remain calm. It might have been the cold. The young officer said that we’d take a drive around and see if we can spot Mister Kendal. “Better than just sitting around,” he said.
Again I thought, ‘That’s what Arthur must have thought too.’
~ ~ ~
We drove around for most of the night, popping back to The Home a couple of times when our circuit took us nearby to see if any of those updates had come through. There were none. Rooms were being checked and rechecked. Other residents within the various different buildings had been asked and asked again if they had seen Mister Kendal passing through. The enquiries were replied with no helpful answers. It seemed that Arthur had simply vanished.
I felt partly guilty: what if I hadn’t harboured those thoughts, however unwanted, of never seeing Arthur again? Karma of a sort; serendipity; but with the wellbeing of someone else at stake. Perhaps a part of his brain that was still functioning on a different density embraced my thoughts and had sailed with them. But hope had become as distant as Arthur’s memories, a desert island surrounded by blackness.
~ ~ ~
It has been said that with a new day comes new hope. Still we were driving around. I don’t think that the young officer knew what to do with me. Neither of us wanted to chatter, just staring helplessly in to the frozen night. More than once he had suggested, and with a trace of youthful timidity, that perhaps I should try to get some sleep. He assured me that I’d be awoken if there were any news at all. I told him that I’d rather keep moving, keep driving around, lest my mind betrayed the hope in my heart. He nodded just once.
I knew that I did keep drifting off through the night nevertheless, no matter how much I tried not to. I would jerk awake and see the sympathetic smile of the young officer in the rear-view mirror, eyes dead ahead. He must have been shattered too, poor boy.
As we drove, the sky had just begun to lighten in the east, barely perceptible, the change from black into deep blue. The lights from the town lit still the near sky burnt orange, the colour of distant fire. The sun is always too bright to look at directly, except for at sundown. But it’s hard to take your eyes away from the first sight of her at dawn. It wasn’t until I began to keep a watch for the coming of the new sun that the thought occurred to me.
I’ve always found it hard to come to terms with time. If you were standing in the same place at a different time you might have seen Henry the Eighth going out to sport; you might have seen Winston Churchill address the nation. You might have seen people suffer with the plague. But you can also stand in the same place, with no one around you, and imagine that you’re the only person to have ever looked upon where your gaze lies. No matter where you are or who you are, no matter what timeline of years you live from and to, the sun has lit upon it all – except perhaps upon that nasty little building that had been Arthur’s home for these years. I understood why he had become the Wanderer. With the new day came a new hope.
I sat up straighter in the car seat. I wiped the dry sleep from my eyes. I focused that same fear I’d had of losing Arthur upon finding him.
“You all right, Missus Kendal?” asked the young officer, sounding a little more querulous than he had previously. Weariness, I would suppose.
“Please, just keep driving,” I said as I scoured the roadsides. “May we please head back out towards the countryside again? To the east.”
~ ~ ~
It could indeed have been a scarecrow. That’s what the young officer said he thought it was when he spotted a figure out in the middle of a field; a tiny, hunched, shabby-looking character shambling between the deep furrows. When he pulled the car to the field edge and I opened my door there were the remains of a dead badger just where I would have liked to place my foot. I stepped over it and made my way in to the field.
The sun was teasing the horizon, giving breath to the low morning mist. The smell of moist earth and manure filled the air, the air still fresh with chill, the soil veiled with frost. The morning bird song had commenced. I saw a clamour of rooks encircling the naked silhouettes of the winter trees. My feet sank deep into the ploughed clods of earth. My heart was filled with joy and trepidation, a nervous fear I still recall from when I first started stepping out with Arthur. I could hear church bells. They might have just been in my head, haphazard and loose as a broken bough.
I didn’t want to startle him after his eventful night in nature. I feared that he might try to escape even from me, who might as well be a stranger. Whom he had once scarred upon his skin. Gently tread, I stood beside him, the sun coming for us.
Whether he had sensed my arrival I’ll never be sure. He turned his head slowly towards me. His hair was shambolic, sticking out at all angles. I could see drips at the ends of the long, stiff hairs sprouting from his nose. His skin was grey; parasitic purple veins entwined. His nightclothes were covered in mud and dirt, the dressing gown hanging loose like a stallion’s saddle on a mule. He was wearing no slippers, whether he had left the hateful unit wearing any or not. But his eyes.
His eyes appeared so empty. They were missing their soul. An empty shell. The spirit they’d lived for dark and empty and silent. Lost. Their twinkle slithered away like a teardrop. Gone. He showed no sign of recognition. He turned back to face the sun.
“Look at this field,” he murmured, as many words as I’d heard him say in a long, long time. “Imagine how many ants there are in Victoria Park.”
I couldn’t help myself. I giggled. He always could make me laugh. I pulled my coat closer to me. He turned to me again. The sun had just started to appear with shape. It might have been the glint of the sun in Arthur’s eye, but I truly believe, and always will, that there was something within them. A glimmer of humour in the fleeting light. We were both standing there, waiting for the rising sun as we had together on so many mornings. I had long-since ceased awaiting the coming of day alone.
Then Arthur startled me by taking my hand. Strangely warm. The protruding bones of his fingers felt delicate, the years of muscular labour having worn away. But I felt no vulnerability within him. He was my protector of old. My lifelong companion. “Here she comes,” he said as his dressing gown flapped, catching a breeze. The legs of his pyjama trousers ruffled gently. My hand in his was as natural as it had ever been. Across that wintered field, never was any sunrise we saw together so beautiful.
“Ride on, beauty,” he said to the sun as she climbed slowly upward, bringing with her the day.