Day 59

Spent most of the day in hospital visiting Elsbeth. Reverend Dave's get-in-free-card appeared to still be working its effect from yesterday, or else I looked so mournful that they took pity on me and let me stay the whole day.

Elsbeth was completely transformed, almost miraculously one might say. She was rosy cheeked and full of her usual humour. There was a constant stream of visitors, mostly from her church, and the phrase "Praise God" was heard a lot. Even the nurses were a little bemused at Elsbeth's quick recovery, given that she was at death's door yesterday.

I don't care if it was miraculous or some wonder drug in the intravenous or Elsbeth's iron constitution - I'm just happy to have her back. I couldn't face another loss.

Reverend Dave (or Rev as the young people call him) sat with me a while after the visitors left, and we chatted to Elsbeth and each other. He must be in his mid thirties, a very hip man of God, full of compassion and wisdom beyond his years. I asked him if he thought that Elsbeth's recovery was because of his prayer. He shrugged and replied, "Does it matter? Whatever happens I firmly believe that my Father knows what he is doing. I'm happy Elsbeth is still with us, but for us death is not a bad thing, its the beginning of great things, so either way it would have been ok."

It struck me that grief is quite a selfish thing really. If Joe was indeed in a better place then I should be happy for him, not miserable because I no longer have him around.

I asked Elsbeth if she minded dying. She looked at me for a long time before replying: "No, of course not. But I think I would miss you."

I almost burst into tears.

Day 58

Elsbeth is seriously ill in the county hospital with double pneumonia.

It all happened in a bit of a blur. I visited her this morning, saw how she was and immediately called the emergency services who whisked her off to hospital. Elsbeth asked me to call Dave, her church pastor, who came straight away.

We sat in the waiting room for what seemed like ages while the hospital staff attended to Elsbeth. They didn't really want to let me see her, but "Reverend" Dave got us in. My heart almost broke when I saw her, frail, wizened little thing in a sea of white, tubes everywhere, just like Joe. Not again!

Dave asked me if I would pray with him. I felt really uncomfortable. Not only do I not really believe in God or the efficacy of prayer, but prayer feels to me like something you do in private and not with someone you've just met. However I relented in the end and Dave prayed, not just for Esbeth's healing, but also for her to be at peace and for God's will to be done.

I don't get that prayer. On the one hand Dave is asking for stuff, yet he's saying do as you like, God. I don't want God to do as he likes. Look what happened to Joe. I want Elsbeth to get better!

Let's face it, looking at this crappy, miserably world we live in, would you surmise a loving Purpose behind it all?

I don't think so.

Mind you I felt the same way when my dad beat my backside for burning down the shed. He claimed he loved me and it was for my own good, but it hurt like hell nonetheless.

Day 57

I went over to Elsbeth's today, only to find that she's been ill with a very nasty flu bug, poor thing. Her normally immaculate place was in quite a bit of disarray so I tidied up a a bit, made her some soup and many cups of hot lemon honey tea.

She wanted to get up but I made her stay in bed and so spent most of the day in her lounge, reading Silas Marner.

Between the chapters I would pause and listen to the silence: the ticking clock, the cars as they drove by, the distant noises of other inhabitants. The blue sky shone brightly through wintery trees and I felt a strange feeling: contentment.

Was this all that it took: a morning of selfless devotion? All those years of unsatisfied material hunger and fruitless toil, and here was the answer, in this doily infested flat of a dear old sick woman who had touched my heart so.

I didn't know whether to feel elated or immensely foolish.

Day 56

Mother's birthday today. At least it would have been if she were still alive.

I remember how we used to make her breakfast in bed: egg on toast, large mug of tea, and a flower from the garden. It was the only day of the year when she was not up at the crack of dawn, preparing breakfast and packed lunches for the rest of us. She was also the last to go to bed and didn't really seem to rest in between.

My enduring memory is of her standing in the kitchen wearing an apron, big welcoming smile on her face, smothering hugs, an ever present ear in times of trouble, the anchor of our household. We all loved her immensely.

Happy birthday, Mummy, wherever you are. I miss you. You had such hopes for me, your bright little engineering student, but look what's become of me. I hope you're not too disappointed.

Day 55

I phoned Jojo today to ask how the Christmas Day festivities went at Fiona's. Jojo seems to have had a good time. The food was catered for since Fiona is too proud of her kitchen to soil it with cooking. Liesel and Tony The Accountant were there too.

Fiona has done well for herself. Not surprising, since self is what she does well. Miaaaow. Anyway, top job in marketing, immaculate place in Chelsea, two Westies, still no husband (can't say I blame her) and looking very good for her age. Its sad that we weren't able to keep it together, but my work, the drink, our differences in age and values were too much and it all collapsed rather badly.

I asked her if they played Spoons. Jojo laughed - they only played sophisticated board games. "Bored games?" I asked. "Daaaad!" was the cross reply.

I have always had a special spot for Jojo. Don't get me wrong, I love both girls immensely, but Liesel reminds me a little of her mother, whereas Jojo is this wild, free spirit that I can identify with better. I wonder how she is getting on with her new man.

Day 54

Boxing day, and the streets outside my new flat are heaving with cars, and believe it or not... SHOPPERS?!

Yes, shoppers hunting for sales or returning unwanted gifts. What a sad state of affairs.

When I was a youngster we kids used to spend boxing day with my grandparents in Norfolk. My grandad had a little boat with which we used to spend hours in the bitter cold navigating the Broads, returning late afternoon to freshly baked bread and turkey left overs.

There was no talk of returning unwanted gifts, or spending money on things we wanted rather than needed. It was about family and being together and cherishing what little we had.

But as today was so lovely, not a cloud in the sky, I decided to venture out despite the pagan hordes, with a sandwich in my pocket, and take a walk along the canal.

I was pleased to find that there were many other like-minded strollers out enjoying the day: couples with pushchairs and rosy-cheeked little cherubs, old couples walking quietly arm in arm, and old timers such as I. Everybody was in a fine mood and nodded Happy Christmas as we passed.

I almost forgot this morning's rant. Almost.

Day 53

Christmas day began with a hangover. I had not had anything to drink since Joe's death, but last night's feast was too good to pass up, so I overindulged and regretted it this morning.

So when Elsbeth made a surprise appearance this morning I was not in the best of shape, but bless her she took that in her stride and asked me if I wanted to join her for Christmas lunch. I honestly did not feel like eating anything ever again, but as you know I have trouble refusing her.

Lunch, however turned out not to be quite what I expected. It was at her church, in a hall full of tables with all sorts of people, being served and entertained by the church youngsters, and all for free. It was very touching. I wondered if these youngsters and people like Elsbeth didn't have anything better to do with their time.

But then is there anything better to do on Christmas day than to shine a little light into the lives of those who ordinarily have very little to smile about? I think not.

Day 52

Christmas Eve with Jojo, Liesel and Tony the Accountant. I bet you'll never guess what we had to eat...


Yes, meat on skewers, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, baguette, salads, dips, and lots of wine. A bit bizarre, and too yuppie for my liking, but very fine nonetheless. Liesel's home is immaculate - I'm guessing she gets a cleaner in - leather sofas, chrome trimmings, fine art on the walls (original prints only), silver candlesticks, Italian tiles.

They need children to sort them out. One projectile puke on the Armani pullover and your world changes forever! Heh-heh.

After the fondue we played silly games, my two favourites being Pass The Pigs, and Spoons.

Spoons is worth explaining as its hilarious fun. Basically you sit around a table, with spoons placed in the middle, one less spoon than there are people. A deck of cards is then taken and cards removed so that there is only one set per person. So for four people you would only keep the A, K, Q and J in all suits. These are then shuffled and dealt so that each person ends up with 4 cards. Then on a regular beat, everyone passes a card left, saying "pass". The first person to get all cards in a set then grabs a spoon and everyone follows. The person to fail to get a spoon loses a point. This carries on until someone has lost six times (S, P, O, O, N, S).

Be warned, it gets violent. :)

Well Merry Christmas to all. I hope you got to spend it with someone you love.

Day 51

Fool, fool, fool...

I decided to do a big food shop to stock up my empty cupboards, completely forgetting that for the rest of the world its time for last minute Christmas food shopping!! What an idiot. Sainsbury's was heaving with people. I tried to get in an out quickly with a basket but it rapidly got too heavy so I had to find a trolley. That's when the real troubles began. Busy aisles, muppets going the wrong way, people browsing rather than using shopping lists, and to make things worse they had decided to move everything around since I last went (which granted was 5 years ago.) I was in there for over an hour! One's Christmas spirit wears thin after a while, and some tense exchanges were had.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I have been invited to Liesel's place along with Jojo. Fiona won't be there, thankfully - she has the Christmas Day slot. I thought about asking Elsbeth along but she does her own thing with the church, and anyway, she's not family (yet).

Day 50

Move day, and to my horror, Elsbeth, Jojo and Liesel arrived at the same time at my front door. I was dumbstruck, but fortunately Elsbeth took charge and introduced herself to the girls. Jojo gave me a sly wink while Liesel just raised an eyebrow in that oh so condescending manner of hers. I felt very small indeed.

Then there was Harry. He was snoozing on my bed when I lay the box on its side and placed the freshly opened can of tuna inside. He was over in an instant but not inclined initially to go into the box. We waited anxiously while he sniffed around the edges mewing. Eventually he ventured in and quick as a flash - I didn't know I could still move that fast - I turned the box back onto its base and closed the lid. Harry kicked up an almighty fuss and I thought he was going to tear the box to shreds, but he eventually calmed down to an ominous growl.

We carried the boxes to Liesel's car and drove to my new home just a few blocks away. I was glad to see the back of that hovel and move somewhere legally mine (in terms of living rights at least).

Jojo had brought a bottle of champagne and some salmon sandwiches with which we toasted in my new place. Elsbeth and the girls got on famously, but most of the giggling seemed to be at my expense. Oh well.

Harry seems at last to have forgiven me. I think the dish of cream helped smooth the way. I'll keep him indoors for a little while to let him get used to living here.

My new bed is very comfortable and its been a long day so I bid you good night.

Day 49

Went to the internet caffè as usual this morning to type up my diary post. The place was empty as always - not many people awake at 9.10am on a Sunday morning - apart from a young man hunched over his keyboard. He didn't look up when I entered. I cast a quick glance at his screen and saw that he was on!

It was quite a surreal moment. I wonder how many of us bloggers pass each other on the street daily without realising that we are in fact best of internet friends? Of course I was too timid to find out if we knew each other and got on with my stuff instead. This is Britain after all.

It has been a slightly sad day - Emily finally regained her strength and with a final cheeky look my way fluttered off into the wild blue yonder. I decided that I was going to have a go at capturing Harry tomorrow and obtained a can of wet cat food and a very sturdy box with a lid. Hopefully he'll turn up tonight.

Eva Cassidy's "Fields of Gold" is on the radio at the moment. What a gorgeous love song. Speaking of which, Elsbeth offered to help me move tomorrow. Unfortunately so have Jojo and Liesel, so its crunch time. My girls are going to have a field day with this little bit of juicy gossip. Sigh.

Day 48

Council called today and said I can move on Monday. The place is a one room apartment in a small block, and is very sparsely furnished but perfect for my needs as I only have one or two boxes of possessions - the rest was left by the previous occupant of this hovel who left in quite a hurry.

However I also have Harry and now Emma. Emma should hopefully be well enough by the end of this weekend so that she'll be able to fly away, but Harry is a different matter altogether. He's become a much more regular visitor so I might venture to say that he considers this his home. I'd like to take him with me, but that's going to be tricky. I don't have a cat box, or a pliable cat. I thought about luring him into a cardboard box with some food and then closing it quickly. That could work but he'd never forgive me and I'm not sure the box would survive the trip.

I can see this is going to keep me awake all night.

Emma on the other hand is very cute. I left the shoe box on the table next to the open window, hoping to lure her out, but she just hopped on to the edge of the box and looked at me briefly before returning to her little bed which I made from cotton wool. She repeated this game of peekaboo a good few times.

She's sleeping at the moment. A fine plan indeed.

Day 47

Met Elsbeth this morning at the charity chop and helped out again. I noticed that she put me to work at the back again, sorting out donations, rather than "front office" where my dour expression would scare away all but the most hardened punters. She was only working in the morning so she asked me back to her place.

Just for lunch mind you. At my age, assuming the old fella still even works, I'm not sure the ticker would be up to any more strenuous activity, if you get my drift.

Elsbeth's place is just around the corner from where I'll be moving to next week, a charming little flat with flowery decor and doilies everywhere. Elsbeth, like many women of a certain age, is into knitting and crocheting, and uses any excuse to doily. Yes, even the loo had one of those little woollen figurines sitting astride of a spare loo roll. All of that is a bit too finicky for me - I just do crotchety.

We chatted over a lovely cup of tea and sandwiches. Just so you know, I hate tea. I traveled a fair bit with my work and acquired a taste for fine coffee. Tea is just nasty, and as for herb tea, well - tastes like something the dog peed on. So why didn't I say anything? Dunno, something about accepting a gift because of the spirit it is given in, rather than rejecting it and the giver. I'm sure she wouldn't have been offended, but it seemed discourteous to do so.

I stayed there for ages, but Elsbeth didn't seem to mind. She is a lovely lady whom its a privilege to be around. I wonder what she sees in me?

Emily (my injured Robin, aka Harry's attempted lunch) is doing much better and is calmer around me. I gave her some more ancient bird seed which she seems to like. I had another go at setting her free but she's not having any of that. Robins are beautiful little creatures, bright orange chests and face, tiny beak and fat little bodies. Harry has disappeared again so Emily is safe for now, but its something to watch.

Well its been a splendid day and life is good for a change.

My interview

Well I never. I didn't realise there were so many people reading my ramblings. Some Damn Expat has sent me something called a Meme.

Basically I have to answer these interview questions she sent me, and then if anyone posts a comment here saying "Interview Me" then I get to email them some interview questions of my own which they have to answer on their blog. And so on...

My questions from That Damn Expat:

1. I have been your follower for only a few days. Tell me about yourself in five sentences or less.

Name's Aaron and I was born and bred in Norfolk, England, 64 years ago. I am a retired engineer, ex-husband, father of two gorgeous girls (now women) who still love me. Alchol and excessive work ruined my life and I now live in a squat in North London near a canal, but am moving very soon to a council flat. I recently lost my best friend Joe to TB, but met a dear Christian woman called Elsbeth who occupies many of my thoughts. I mostly keep to myself but have recently been adopted by a fat, conceited Ginger Tabby cat called Harry, who just yesterday bought home a new lodger (or was it lunch?), a Robin whom I have dubbed Emily.

2. You call yourself an „old fart". What wisdom do you have to impart on us youngsters?

Carpe Diem (seize the day). Follow your dreams and make the most of every day. The secret to happiness is caring about others, not things.

3. Name the best thing you got to see/live through.

The birth of my two daughters. People go on about how scared they are of babies and the responsibilities they bring, but nothing in life that is worth getting comes easy. There is nothing in this world like a child falling asleep in your arms. Complete love and trust in a fun little bundle.

4. Name the worst thing you got to see/live through.

Divorce. Marriage is a beautiful thing - individuals becoming one through their love and commitment. Its not always easy, and it takes willpower as much as heart, but its worth it. The death of a marriage is one of the saddest things in life.

5. If you could live your life again, would you do anything differently? Explain.

I would have focused less on my career and things, and more on people. At the end of the day you take nothing with you, and all that remains are the hearts you have touched.

Day 46

I think its time for a little rant. I've not been my usual cantankerous self of late and frankly I miss it.

Christmas irritates me immensely. What I mean is, for the church-going folk its a time to celebrate Christ's birth, joy to the world and all that, which is fine, but for the rest of us its either a time when we remember we have some token faith and rush off to Carol services to feel good about ourselves, or its a time of absolute excess and partying, more like the pagan festival Christmas replaced. In both cases its nothing to do with the true spirit of the occasion which is reminding us to be kind to each other and to care for those who have nothing.

I partly blame the retailers who already start stocking Christmas things in October, just as we have barely recovered from Halloween, that other irritating festival!! That's one good thing about this recession: less rampant materialism as people tighten their belts.

There, I feel much better.

My little Robin has recovered in its shoe box but doesn't seem inclined to fly away. I located some very old bird seed in the cupboard (don't ask) and gave it some to eat. The poor thing cowered shivering in the corner, but after I closed the box again I could hear scrabbling and chomping.

Harry is very bothered by the Robin whom I have dubbed Emily. I suppose for him it must be like living next to a fine steakhouse. Poor chap.

I've not been out for a few days – feeling a bit under the weather with cough and cold. I miss Elsbeth. I'll try to get out tomorrow and see her.

Day 45

Couldn't sleep last night, eventually gave up trying and got up at some ungodly hour. I couldn't face being holed up indoors so took a walk. The sky was clear and lit by a gentle blue glow provided by the waning moon and the approaching dawn.

I walked along the canal, passing leafless trees with menacing, clawlike branches. All was quiet. A man lay huddled in a bus shelter, wrapped in a sleeping bag, tightly clutching his possessions. The air was cold but very cleansing.

I again pondered existence, and the purpose of it all. It feels incomprehensible to me that existence and our self-awareness are cosmic accidents that have no meaning. Why do we search for meaning if there is no meaning? Why do we ponder what is out there beyond the confines of this universe if there is nothing? Joe used to say that its because each of us has a God shaped hole that needs filling. I used to disagree violently, dismissing God and Afterlife as remnants of a more superstitious age, but now as my life enters the last lap these brave words feel ever so slightly foolish.

I don't know that there is nothing else, so if that something else requires something of me in this life than perhaps I should investigate. Is it possible to know without a doubt what that something is? Is there only one way, or many? What if I'm wrong?

I found an early morning bakery and bought a couple warm bread rolls and a cup of coffee. Fine, simple things. Life, for all its terror and sadness, is also full of great beauties and wonders; resonances perhaps of a Creator who is infinitely beautiful and wondrous and perhaps regrets the little freewill experiment.

I returned to the flat and found that Harry was playing with a new friend, a little Robin, still alive and apparently unharmed, but very distressed. I rescued the poor creature, put it in a shoebox in a dark corner to try and calm it down. Harry was not very impressed at all.

Day 44

I read a very sad story in my Readers Digest about a young boy who was trying to save up enough money to buy and hour of his hard working dad's time.

Long hours in less than ideal personal circumstances is one of the harsh realities of today's life. Is it possible to escape the rat race? I don't know – I never succeeded. I saw very little of my girls when they were younger, as I sought to progress my engineering career. I blamed Fiona for her constant hankering after things, but if I'm honest, my own pride and ambition were my downfall. I took on too much, trying to reach the top. I had all my priorities wrong, ended up getting stressed out of my mind, almost losing everything I loved most, and ended up at the bottom instead, a broken drunk squatting in a one room hovel.

Day 43

A quiet, reflective day.

Yesterday's events have left a mark on me that won't go away. Its a bit dramatic but I felt that I had met goodness personified. I'm under no illusions – humans are imperfect creatures - but there was something: a peace, a joy, a certainty that I've never had. I know I think too much, but this is really bothering me.

So I decided to take my mind of things with some home cooked Chilli Con Carne. I have all the spices so just needed some minced meat and kidney beans from the shops. I noticed with some pleasure that I walked straight past the drinks aisle without stopping.

The Chilli was very fine indeed, lots of fresh coriander, cumin and chillies. I sometimes throw in carrot, celery, mushrooms etc but today it was just mince and kidney beans. I can scarcely move now, I ate so much.

Harry has just arrived. Best give him something to eat. I'll miss the old fellow when I move.

Day 42

Elsbeth asked me if I wanted to go to church with her this morning.

I knew I would have to cross this bridge some day. It was the same with Joe - for some reason these Christians feel that they have to save you. I don't really feel like I need saving but since I have difficulty saying no to Elsbeth I went along.

The church ended up being an ugly hall full of plastic chairs, not a beautiful edifice such as they used to build. I guess we have the Reformation to thank for that. Real shame in my opinion.

As we arrived they were serving coffee and cakes. The coffee was surprisingly good and helped ease the winter chill in my bones. I bumped into some of the youngsters from the soup kitchen who gave me a very warm welcome and seemed genuinely glad to see me.

The service started and people made their way to sit down, some carrying their coffees with them. There was a band up front, no organ, playing modern sounding tunes, though I recognised some of the words from older hymns I learned at school. People sang exuberantly, some lifting their hands or clapping, some just standing quietly with their eyes closed muttering something. After a couple notices, the minister stood up and spoke for about half an hour on the Church. I didn't realise that the term refers to people, not buildings. After that a closing song, and something called "The Grace" where everybody blesses each other. All very strange but touching.

Elsbeth had to visit someone in hospital afterwards so I took my leave and pondered the morning's events. Many people find religion a turn off, mostly because of the people who follow those religions, but this was different. The same thing that shone out of Joe and Elsbeth was there: a light, a fragrance almost. I am left with a feeling of empty longing.

Day 41

Not sure what got into me, but this morning I packed a couple of sandwiches and headed towards the bridge in the hope of seeing the homeless man from yesterday. He wasn't there so I gave the sandwich to someone begging for change on the way back home. He didn't seem very impressed by my gracious gift. I guess its harder to buy booze with a cheese sandwich.

It was a fine day so I decided to take a long walk along the canal before returning home to a cup of coffee and my newspaper. I don't know why I bother with the news, so depressing. Why is it that people are more interested in bad news than good news? Perhaps its that apart from a morbid fascination with the suffering of others, we feel good that we are better off than those we read about.

Harry lies asleep on my bed, dreaming of great escapades involving the fairer sex, as I write and stare out the window. Life has taken quite a turn recently: Joe's death, Jojo's transformation, Harry, my new place, and Elsbeth. There's almost no reason to be a miserable old fart any more.

Day 40

I met Elsbeth today in the park and we chatted a while. She invited me to help her this evening at the soup kitchen her church does. I really wasn't sure I wanted to do this, lots of strangers and all, but she has persuasive ways that one.

So I wrapped up warmly and met her at the bridge where many of the local homeless gather. We were joined by a minibus load of youngsters from her church and served hot bowls of soup and bread to the locals. There was no evangelistic agenda, just soup, smiles and happy chatter. I like that.

I struck up a conversation with an old fellow. Actually he wasn't that old, just weather worn. I asked him why he slept rough. Turns out he had had it all: 2.4 children, great house, high profile City job, and just walked away from it all because he couldn't face the responsibility and stress any more. I know the feeling.

Lucky for me I still see the kids and have some hope of redeeming myself, but this guy will be found one day frozen and alone in the gutter.

I didn't know what to say so told him my name and where I lived and said to contact me if he needed anything.

Probably not the wisest or safest move but what have I got to lose?

Day 39

Today I decided it was time for a grand clear out in preparation for my move in a few weeks. I managed 2 boxes full of stuff, including 2 swollen cans of fish from the back of the cupboard, various tattered clothing items, newspapers, magazines, broken crockery and my prized bedside lamp which has not worked in months and was mauled last week by Harry in a fit of distemper.

I'm not a particularly sentimental chap but I kept various bits of memorabilia: a photo of the girls, a poem Jojo wrote for me when she was 8, Liesel's drawing of our now long dead pet dog Hoover, a copy of "Pilgrim's Progress" given to me by Joe for my birthday, and a picture of Fiona and me on honeymoon in Paris. Happier times all round.

Mind you, since Elsbeth and Harry arrived on the scene its been pretty ok. I think I'll try and see Elsbeth tomorrow.

Day 38

Jojo popped in today for a cup of coffee. She looked completely transformed! Dress, makeup, little handbag. No hiking boots, jeans or ponytail. A beautiful young woman replaced the scruffy tomboy I've known all my life.

I, being the subtle fellow that I am, asked her straight out what was going on. She actually blushed! Heh-heh. Turns out she has found love, just when we'd all given up on her. His name is David - they met through the hiking club. From her descriptions of him he must be a fine fellow indeed, towering hulk of a man with big sensitive hands and gentle eyes, knowledgeable about all things, and funny too! I didn't realise such men actually existed.

I jest, but I'm very happy for her. Jojo was always a little envious of Liesel who has had boys chasing her most of her life, finally settling down with Tony the accountant. Tony, bless him, is a devoted husband, but dull as dishwater. You know what they say about accountants? What does an accountant use for contraceptive? His personality. :) They seem happy together but there are still no grandchildren for me to dote on. I've been meaning to ask Liesel about this but somethings are better left alone.

So Jojo has met this fellow and has been transformed into a glowing beauty. I hope he doesn't hurt her.

I didn't tell Jojo about Elsbeth. Not sure why. I suppose I'm embarassed at being so in love at my age.

Harry made another guest appearance. My new worry is what to do about him when I move. Getting him into a cat cage, assuming I even had one, is not going to happen if he has anything to do with it. Harry is not exactly feral but is fiercely independent nonetheless. Sadly I think I'll have to say goodbye to him.

Day 37

Got up at the crack of dawn to meet Elsbeth at the tube station where we caught the District line to Victoria Station to board our tour bus. I use the phrase tour bus with extreme generosity since it quickly became apparent why the tickets were so cheap – the bus was old, mean and completely lacking in any comfort or amenities whatsoever. We were glad to get chewing gum free seats.

This didn't dampen our spirits however, as we boarded along with 50 or so other old fogeys, many sporting very blue rinses. The trip took just under 2 hours, weaving through South East London and the lush Kentish countryside, the Garden of England, to eventually arrive at Royal Tunbridge Wells. Its a small and very upmarket town who's inhabitants I'm guessing are very fond of the Royal association. English towns have generally lost their identity, tending to have similar centres with the same array of dull shops adorning the High Street, but Tunbridge Wells manages to preserve some of its heritage in its Pantiles area, a very picturesque part of the town which also hosts the spring that used to serve the Spa. I don't recommend drinking the water, though – it tastes vile. Not surprising Henry VIII was such a disagreeable fellow.

We wandered about for a good few hours, avoiding the shopping centres and Christmas crowds as much as possible. Elsbeth and I enjoy each other's company without feeling the need to make conversation which suits me immensely as I find conversation quite tiresome.

Its been a good day, and to top it all Harry has returned, looking fat as ever. He even let me stroke him.

Day 36

My despair is behind me for now. Feelings like that are so irrational: two people can look at the same situation, one with great sorrow, the other with great joy. So quite often "pull yourself together" is the perfect advice.

I cleaned my flat, left some milk outside for Harry in case he pitches up, went food shopping, and visited Elsbeth at the charity shop. She was busy as ever, a ray of sunshine, full of the joy of life - such a contrast to my last few days.

We arranged to go on a bus day trip tomorrow since its her day off. Royal Tunbridge Wells. Apparently it has a famous Spa that the royals of old frequented. Not my thing, but it'll make a nice change from my otherwise boring norm.

I got a letter from the Council today - they at last have a place for me to stay. Its just up the road. I move in 2 weeks time. Such a weight off my shoulders. I read in the news today of some poor chap sleeping rough who was beaten up and set on fire while he slept. Who said humans are the pinnacle of evolution?

How can the same gene pool produce such scumbags as well as people like Joe and Elsbeth?

Day 35

Despair. Deep, dark, destructive despair. I've not had a bout this bad in ages and it hit me like a led balloon. I don't know what brought it on, perhaps it was something about the gloomy, grey skies, or the worry about the numerous eviction notices. Harry's absence has also troubled me quite a bit - I've become quite fond of that overweight bundle of conceit.

Despair has no life, no energy, no hope, just a gloomy sludge that pulls every glimmer of light inexorably downwards towards endless darkness.

So I haven't felt like writing.

At least until today.

There was a knock on the door, the first since Joe's departure. It was Elsbeth. She was worried about me and had found out where I lived by asking around. I was so touched by that act of friendship that the despair evaporated instantly. If I believed in angels I would surely wonder if she was of that kind.

Tomorrow I will go for a walk, do some food shopping and clean up this hovel. Can't be entertaining angels in this pigsty!

Day 28

Still troubled by yesterday's thoughts of death and non-existence, I went out and visited Elsbeth at her Oxfam charity shop. I offered my help and was put to sorting out donations at the back. Great piles of clothing and odds and ends, most of it in surprisingly good condition. People have too much if they can give this sort of stuff away.

We ate sandwiches together for lunch. Elsbeth I guess could see I was not in good form so it was a subdued affair. We parted after lunch as I had to buy some food, and anyhow needed time to think.

Its tugging at my soul, this issue of existence and non-existence. Why do I exist? Why do I care? The world is just material and has no business being aware of itself. Just causes trouble.

Harry has not been around lately. Slightly worried. I hope he's ok. Its nice having another living thing around. The absence of life and relationship makes for a very cold world.

Day 27

Elsbeth said something today that troubled me.

We were talking about old age and lives passed, and dying, when she said suddenly that she was not afraid of death. Its not that I have a morbid preoccupation with it, but its not something I particularly look forward to. First there is the process of dying (assuming I don't get run over by a bus), which is unpleasant enough as our life fizzles out and we fall part. But more than that there is the death part. No more Aaron. I cease to exist. If I were just a collection of lucky cells with no awareness of self that wouldn't be a problem, but by some further fluke, this bunch of cells became "I", and "I" does not want to be extinguished.

And if there is some sort of afterlife, and all this talk of God has some truth to it, then being extinguished might be the best of all possible worlds!

Can I be blamed for being unable to believe something that has so little tangibility? I'm not looking for proof of God, just some sense of reality like I know the wind is real because I feel it and I observe it fluttering flags.

Lots of people seem to have this sense. Elsbeth has it in excess, hovering around her like an aura, an aroma, a breath of fresh air, a raison d'etre.

I have nothing but memories, many failures, a few successes, and a countdown.

Day 26

I decided today to face up to what I have obviously been avoiding that last few days: a walk to the park, and Elsbeth.

So I did, and she was there, just about to leave. Perhaps my face betrayed my feelings and perhaps she took pity on me, but anyhow she asked me if I liked walking and wanted to stroll along the canal with her.

This has easily been one of my most pleasant days in recent times. The sun shone wanly, full of hope, through cold clouds, and there was little or no wind, so we walked and talked together for miles like old friends.

I discovered that she is a widow of some 10 years, has one son slightly older than my children (but then I did start late), lives up the road, loves reading, helps out at the local charity shop, is an excellent, kind listener, and believe it or not is a devout Christian. What is it with my choices?? I can see Joe laughing wherever he is.

I think Elsbeth and I will get along just fine. We're meeting again tomorrow for another walk.

Harry has just made a guest appearance but is not interested in eating it seems.

Actually, neither am I, silly old lovestruck fool that I am.

Day 25

I felt much better today so decided to take walk in different direction and ended up on a grass hill with quite a decent view of the City. I sat there a long while on a park bench and munched on a jam sandwich. Some kids flying a kite nearby reminded me of that book "The Kite Runner" which came out as a film recently; a fabulous book about love, honour and forgiveness in the face of evil and adversity. There's something about suffering children that touches even the most hardened old soul.

Its been a reflective, grey sort of day, as if a cloud of great sadness has descended on me and coloured my mood. With old age comes too much time, opportunities to reflect, but unfortunately too few people to share those reflections with; particularly the younger generation who know it all and aren't interested in the ramblings of an old duffer.

In order to cheer myself up I decided to make a big pot of lentil stew with a nice chunk of Speck the butcher no longer wanted. It was my favourite dish as a child.

Unfortunately lentils give me serious wind, so its a good thing I live on my own.

Day 24

Still feeling pretty ill and tired of reading so I stared out the window for most of the day. From my window one can only see a bit of the canal through an alleyway, so its not much of a view, but its better than counting the flowers on the wallpaper. I watched the cars drive by, the pedestrians on the pavement below huddled against the biting wind, and people in the apartments opposite busy with their daily chores or just lounging about. Don't these people have jobs to go to?

That's the one thing I don't like about the Welfare State here in Britain. I know it does look after the truly needy, but the absence of it would certainly encourage a lot more people to go to work, or else starve. I know I am a heartless old bar steward but I can't abide laziness. I worked hard all my life until I retired. I also drank hard but that's another matter. The point is I didn't scrounge off others.

Joe would have probably popped in to say hello had he still been alive. I miss the old blighter. He was one of the few genuinely selfless people I knew – always had time for others.

I wonder what people will say about me after I'm gone. Miserable old fart? Loner? Probably. Good father? Debatable, even though the girls do love me. Good husband? I don't know. Marriage is complicated, and blame for its failure rarely lies at the feet of only one party. In my case, I drank, but why did I drink? Did Fiona drive me to it? Was she lonely because I worked too hard? Did her constant demand for things force me to work so hard? Was she looking to things to replace something I failed to give her? I thought I loved her, but perhaps that wasn't enough.

I read an article in Readers Digest, that font of all reception room education, about “Love Languages”. Awful title, but very interesting nonetheless. It was all about how we give and receive love in different ways, so two people could potentially love each other and yet not be meeting each other's needs. I wonder if that's what happened to Fiona and me?

Oh well, no sense pondering now about things gone by I guess, but I do wonder if I learned anything.

Day 23

I slept very well last night, but I feel ill today. I guess the last few days of activity have caught up with me. Or perhaps I have the love-bug, heh-heh. Silly old fool, Aaron.

The weather has turned again and it looks like sleet outside. A perfect day for being bed bound. I picked up a much read copy of Thomas Hardy's "Far from the madding crowd". I love the opening:

"When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.

His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people of the parish and the drunken section, -- that is, he went to church, but yawned privately by the time the con-gegation reached the Nicene creed, and thought of what there would be for dinner when he meant to be listening to the sermon."

I wish I could write like that. "When Aaron smiled, his face was lost in a sea of wrinkles and mirth on which floated two deep pools of sorrow." Hey, that's not bad, if a little fluffy.

Its been very quiet of late in the building. Those binned eviction notices weigh heavily on my mind.

Back to my book methinks. Harry hasn't budged all day. I think his lady friends will have to wait until the weather improves.

Day 22

Sunday. I was woken up by church bells this morning. Bloody nuisance they are. Don't they know nobody's coming?

Joe once dragged me along to his church. I think it was a Baptist place. Ugly as sin the building was. I'll say one thing about the Church of England - they know how to build beautiful churches. The church service was a dismal affair. An old woman on a piano leading baleful tunes, a long-winded preacher going on about irrelevant things that may have happened centuries ago. The people were very nice though. Made me feel right at home. The coffee tasted like drain water but nobody seemed to mind. I wonder why they bother? Religion is dead. Antiquated beliefs from a more superstitious ignorant time.

I took a walk along the canal, and saw that she was sitting in the park, reading. I decided to act my age so went in and sat in my usual place. Our eyes met and we smiled at each other. I felt like a flustered youngster finding first love but managed to talk about the nice weather we were having. I watched her as she spoke: gentle movements, bright eyes, shy smile. I'm not a great talker, but it was easy talking to her. We talked about everything: books, people, our lives. I discovered her name is Elsbeth. Elsbeth, that has a lovely mystical ring to it.

I don't know about love at first sight, but she is a fine woman and I hope to see her again soon.

Harry liked his new food and I suppose dreams of great chases as he warms my feet.

Another good day.

Day 21

I love market day: colourful stalls and people, smells that delight, sounds of life everywhere, delicious goodies, and lots of cheap crap.

I bought some fresh fruit and veg, the apples all the way from New Zealand. I thought briefly about carbon footprints and eyed the overpriced Braeburns, but then went for the cheaper option. Environmentalism is a middle-class pastime – the rest of us can't afford it. Harry got some proper cat food. Five different meats in a can? The beast will be eating better than me.

The sun made a brief appearance so I sat on a bench and watched the world go by. A couple joggers in lycra, families laughing, couples in a world of their own, old timers walking dogs that looked their owners. Heh-heh, who are you calling “old timer”? I read a great definition of old age in Readers Digest. "Old age is when your morning face IS your face".

A good day.

Day 20

I heard someone on the radio saying that it was completely illogical to believe in God. I didn't understand that. Why is it illogical? Sure there are some odd things about God like predestination and freewill that seem contradictory, but if there is a God and he is all the things they say about him (or her or them), then surely we're not going to understand everything? Does my world disappear into a puff of illogic because I can't explain where we come from, or why I have morals, or why I even think I exist?

Where is Joe when you need him? I wonder if he is in heaven or if he believed in the wrong God?

Harry has just looked at me with those condescending cat's eyes of his so I guess its time to turn out the light.

Day 19

I sat on the bus most of today, touring the City and using my pensioner's pass to the full. Its not that I needed a tour – I've lived here most of my life – but I needed something to do that didn't involve walking to the park. Really silly, I know, but at my age one has to accept one's deficiencies – too set to change.

I like travelling on the bus – its warm and soporific, and good for people watching.

People are very interesting, all shapes and sizes and colours. I like guessing. The woman teetering on high heels in the corner with a beer bottle in her hand. Why is she drunk? Is she happy or sad? The old man opposite me with a laptop and email printouts. Is it his business? Who is Sarah Jenkins? A customer? His boss? And so on. Hours of fun.

Other times I just gazed through the rain spattered window at the cars and houses and people rushing by, all with somewhere to go and more purpose than an old fart loitering on the bus for a day. Now and then my tired bearded reflection would stare back at me, slightly accusingly I thought. Its strange looking at one's reflection up close. Deep wrinkles. Hair sprouting in all sorts of unwanted places. Has it come to this? I still feel 20 in many respects. Perhaps wiser, perhaps calmer, but this? Old, doddery, unshaven, tired. Where have the years gone? What do I have to show for it? Ex-wife. Dead friends. Memories noone cares about.

I thought of Jojo and Liesel, and now Harry lying on my feet.

It could be worse, a lot worse, you daft egit.

Day 18

Well I never.

I went on my usual walk today, and in a complete daze sat on a different park bench. Her park bench. Suddenly she was there, smiling at me. I smiled back furtively, mumbled something about the weather and a pressing engagement and hurried off.

She had a nice smile. The glow of an ember in a cold room.

There was a notice on the front door when I got back, an eviction notice. I tore it up and binned it with the rest.

Harry seems to be a permanent resident. I wonder if I should find him a collar. Mind you, that smacks of ownership, and our relationship is not like that. Harry comes and goes as he pleases. I like having him around as long as he doesn't pee on the bed.

I decided to wash the long overdue dishes but found I didn't have any detergent. Oh well.

Day 16

Slept very badly last night. I kept on seeing Joe in my dreams, lying in that bed, leering at me with a deathly grin.

Dawn was a welcome sight. I got up early, let Harry out and went for an early morning walk. The City was still sleeping and an eerie mist hung over the canal. I walked many miles, heart aching for my friend.

Grief is selfish; Joe's last years were pretty miserable and he's probably better off. Depends on whether you think not existing is better than existing in pain. I miss him, and it hurts, selfish or not, I don't care.

Jojo phoned today to cheer me up with a joke. “How did the man die in a bowl of muesli?” “A raisin pulled him under”. Its funny on so many dubious levels. Raisin should be currant in case you missed it. She has such a quirky sense of humour, like her old Dad, and it brought a wry smile to my lips. I've noticed a change in her - she was wearing makeup the other day. I wonder what's going on.

I heard crying at the neighbours. I think he's left for good. Life can be pretty crap.

Harry brought me a little mouse as a gift but kept the head for himself. Ugh.

Day 15

Missed a few diary entries. Buried Joe yesterday and haven't felt like writing much.

Only Amy, Liesel, Jojo and I were at the grave. Fiona was doing her nails I suppose. I used to love that woman with such a passion. Not sure where it all went wrong. Can't blame it all on the drink, surely?

I miss Joe terribly.

Day 8

Joe died last night. The doctors wouldn't tell me exactly why – presumably because I'm not kin. Bastards.

I don't have words to express the depth of sadness and loss that I feel tonight.

Harry is asleep on the bed and keeps my feet warm as I write. His purring contentment is a stark contrast to my emptiness.

Day 7

Harry was still there this morning, so I gave have him some milk and let him out to do what cats do. Harry is a large, ginger tabby with a stomach that scrapes the ground as he walks. I do wonder how he does it, probably scrounges food from every tenant in the block.

I called the hospital to see about Joe. He had come to, so I trekked across the City to see him. He still didn't look great but had some more colour about him. It was Tuberculosis he said, quite severe, but he reckoned he was on the mend. I had brought him some grapes and a newspaper. Why do people always bring grapes to hospitals?

I didn't stay long, as he was tired. I hope he'll be alright.

Harry was there again in front of my door, so I seem to have a new flat mate.

Day 6

Got a call today from Amy, Joe's neighbour. Joe was in hospital. They had found him collapsed in the stairwell. The hospital was unfortunately at the other end of the City so it took me over over an hour to get there by Tube.

He looked awful, a crumpled collection of skin and bones in a sea of white linen, surrounded by beeping machines and colourless tubes. I sat with him a while as he slept and thought about the years we had seen together. Joe lost his family in WW2 and soon became a member of ours. The girls loved Uncle Joe when they were little and used to squeal with delight as he played silly games with them. Fiona liked him well enough I suppose, but he was too wild for her – she always did like to be in control. It saddened me to see this husk of man, my dearest and only friend, lying there, once so strong and full of zest for life, now poised on the brink of eternity.

Death has no favourites. It takes us all and then we begin the cycle again as worm food.

I do sometimes wonder about God, about what it would be like if He turned out to exist after all. Be quite a big “Oops!” I suppose.

Joe believes, and that partly explains his constant joy and love for life, despite the complete shite it threw at him. Me I buckled under it and turned into a sad old git. I can't comprehend a God that would allow such things to happen. Joe always said it was a necessary evil, a consequence of our free will, but this bad? Was the experiment worth all this suffering?

Harry was at my front door, mewing plaintively so I let him in and for the first time he didn't go straight for the fridge but made himself at home on the sofa. I don't think I'll tell the neighbours – they don't deserve pets... or oxygen for that matter.

Day 5

Liesel and Jojo dropped by today, bless them. Fiona doesn't know and would go ballistic if she did – court order and all – but my gorgeous girls still love me. They brought some presents, mostly of the edible kind, helped me clean up my place, and played cards. I taught them poker at an early age so they robbed me of every match stick in the house. They stayed a good few hours. I was sad to see them go and cling to the memories of their laughter, touch and smell.

The apartment is very empty tonight but I decided to lay off the wine for a change.

Day 4

Didn't sleep much last night. The neighbours were fighting again, screaming at the top of their voices and throwing things at each other. Sounded like he'd been smiling at some other bird again. She doesn't like that. Eventually he walked out and slammed the door so loudly that my one picture fell off the wall. Fortunately it didn't break. Its a lovely Constable print that I found in a rubbish bin along the nicer parts of the canal.

Decided to go for a walk again along the canal in the hope that She was at the park again. She was, sitting in the same place, feeding the birds. They are really comfortable with her – one even sat on her hand. She looks a bit like what I imagine Mother Theresa to be like: saintly, wrinkled and very kind.

Our eyes met briefly, but I was so embarrassed at being caught sizing her up that I looked away and hurried off. You would think that at 64 one might be a bit more together, right?

I decided to deviate on the way home from my normal route and walk through the back roads for a change. I don't like doing that much because some of the areas are very rough, and groups of loitering youths scare me. I hate being old. In my prime I would have knocked their bloody blocks off.

I wonder where Harry was today. I specially bought some cream for him yesterday.

Yummy left over Spag Bol for tea. Its always better on day two.

Day 3

Well what do you know? It was actually sunny today in good old England. Having shopped yesterday and collected my benefit money along with the rest of the Great Unwashed, I had nothing that needed doing (apart from the dishes but those will keep), so I went for a walk along the canal.

Its not much of a canal and the water is filthy, but it has "character". Mysterious house boats line the banks, some deserted, some containing families or lone farts such as I. I'd love to have a boat. I'd spend all my days navigating the various canals around the South East. Perhaps I'll win the lottery this week.

I sat in the park again and watched the yummy mummies with their children. Surprised I still have any stirrings at my age. The kids were very cute, apart from that little brat called Bradley who has his hapless teenage mother wrapped around his nasty little finger. I wonder where the dad is. Probably holed up on some pub, or fishing along the canal.

She was there again today, feeding the pigeons and reading what looked like Silas Marner. I love that book; reminds me of myself when the girls visit. I wonder who she is. Of course I haven't got the courage to say hello. She looks too good for me anyhow.

I managed a good few miles today. Thankfully the old knee is holding up ok. Felt so good that I even decided to cook something. Spag Bol. You can't beat the old favourites. Got enough left to last me a few days.

Day's caught up with me. Its been such a good day that I ought to be thankful but since there is no God, that would just be silly.


Day 2

Raining again today. I love the rain, the way it drives against the window, especially when curled up in bed. Just need a good woman to share it with. Well, I had all that, but screwed it up, so no point thinking about it.

It was good to see Joe again after so long but its worrying how ill he is. He's lost a lot of weight and I'm sure I saw some blood on his handkerchief. But the old fool won't listen to reason - he hates doctors and hospitals. We managed a few rounds of poker and reminisced over old times. Joe and I go back a long way. I still remember vividly waiting with him outside the headmasters office for a caning after we accidentally burnt the bike shed down with our cigarette stubs. Joe as usual was prepared with his rabbit skin which stuck down his trousers. I still wince at the pain.

I need to stock up on some food today. There's only so many times you cut the mould off bread. Mustn't forget the wine.

The neighbour's cat is outside the window again, poor thing. Better let it in and give it some milk. I wonder if I should give it a name. Harry. Yes, that'll do. Fine name.

Day 1

Woke up with a headache this morning. Probably too much red wine again. Plus the neighbours were at it again. I mean, if they're not killing each other then they are destroying the bed springs and my beauty sleep. Me, I'm single, living in a crummy flat overlooking the canal. I got nobody, no money, nothing.

There I go again, dark thoughts. I should be grateful to even have a place at all. Those poor bastards under the bridge are lucky if they even wake up in the morning. If it's not the cold, it's the guy who fancied your shoes. I was lucky to find this place. I heard from a mate that there was a squatting opportunity. A room with a view as it were. Funny guy.

I should do something useful today. The dishes need doing, but then they did last week too so that could wait I suppose. Maybe I'll visit Joe. We could play cards if he's well enough. That cough has been getting worse but he won't go to the hospital, old fool. "Death trap", says he.

Really miss the kids today. I know I walked out on them and Fiona but it was all too much - working long hours, Fiona nagging me about everything, never satisfied. Then there was the drink. I never could handle it, but I got no self-discipline. I wonder how they are. Does Jojo have a boy friend yet? She's such a tom-boy. Liesel on the other hand doesn't have any problems in that department. What a beauty. Reminds me a lot of Fiona when we were younger; dark and fiery.

There's that cat again, mewing at the window. How does it get up this high? Must have fled from the neighbours again. Think I'll give it some milk.

God, my head hurts.