Wednesday, March 7

Waiting For Happy Hour

ARNOLD AND his cane came along the path to where another gentleman was already sat, centrally occupying the tribute-marked park bench. Arnold Royce was blind and old and this evening, at a half past four, was not wearing anything on his wrists. He had never been married but was often inclined to say otherwise—‘Yes, I had a wife once . . . Marie, but she, er, killed herself. It was very sad. I don’t wanna talk about it.’ No one understood why he lied about having a make-believe wife who was suicidal but the story tickled him and as soon as he had a moment’s peace after telling it, he would chuckle so hard his eyes watered. The cane was held in the air—it rarely touched the ground—and he knew the way exactly to the park bench where his friend was just finishing his fifth time-killing cigarette. He eyed Arnold.
‘You find me,’ Arnold said ‘somewhere in this goddamn town that sells decent ice cream and, I swear, I’ll make you a knight of the realm.’
‘You wouldn’t make the owner of the ice cream parlour a knight of the realm?’
‘God no! That bastard should’ve made his presence known sooner!’
He lowered himself on to the bench, where his friend had made space, and let out a groan. He was only eight years older than his friend. His friend was called Turquoise Manders and he was eighty-years-old. Turquoise had a skull that looked like a poorly-plucked chicken carcass, corn fed in colour, and with deep eyes that were very blue. If Turquoise was a series of triangles then Arnold was a pentagon. The two of them reclined on the bench. Turquoise pulled out another cigarette while his company caught his breath. The cane rattled in diagonal silver between them.
‘There was an ice cream parlous I visited once, down in Devon, and, let me tell you, they sold the most delicious ice cream and I walked along the beach licking it. You know how much I hate eating ice cream in public but eating that ice cream on the beach was one of the finest things I’ve done besides learn how to shit.’
‘Ice cream’s ice cream.’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘My grandma bought an ice cream making machine off a door-to-door salesman once and it tasted disgusting.’
‘I like the sound of your grandma. I should’ve been your grandpa.’
The pair of them chuckled and coughed. They sat there in the reclined familiarity only silently expressed between two invincible friends. The park was quiet. The children that had filled it after school slowly went their way home for dinner. Paths worn out in the grass by lazy feet sliced lines all around, from an entrance to an exit, one side to another. It was dusk and the sun was lying on its side. All was shady blue except for what the sun painted pink in its casual dying. Every weekday the two old men came down to the park for fresh air and to wait for happy hour. Happy hour started at five down the Red Tunic—an old royalist hangout that served piss for a good price and that was empty enough so that one could get served in minutes by a woman who clung to life like a dog clings to rubbish spilled from a bin. She bared her teeth and let the beer drip down her arm. She turned the TV down when someone asked for it up. She turned the TV up when someone asked for it down. She despised Arnold. But for now the sun was almost away. The buildings and treetops around the park sifted what light they could from the air that the birds swam through. Turquoise patted down the hair on top of his head; there was not much but it fingered the wind and he did not like it when it did that. Once he was happy that it was all straight he said to Arnold—‘How comes you were late?’
Arnold shook, turned his head and pouted. His friend watched him do all of this and then looked again at the buildings. ‘I had to take my wristwatch to get batteries put in it. It stopped last night. Can you believe it?’
‘What do you need a watch for? You’re blind.’
Arnold wiped the corners of his mouth and thought a little bit more about ice cream. The wind was picking up. ‘I like to hear it tick.’
‘You ever heard a wristwatch tick?’
‘I suppose so,’ said Turquoise.
‘Either you have or you haven’t.’
Turquoise sensed that his friend was becoming irritated. It
did not happen often between them. Arnold’s head wavered in the air, half expecting a response. Turquoise checked the time on his own watch, started to lift it to his ear, then thought not to—‘Yeah, OK, then. I have. I’ve heard a watch tick and I’ve heard the town hall clock ring in the New Year.’
Arnold waved his hand in the air.
A stray dog walked up to the bench. It was a Staf’ and it must have asked if either of them had any spare change, because Turquoise spat—‘No, I don’t. Now, go away.’ The dog walked off with slightly less movement in its tail.
‘What was your grandma like, Turq, the one who made her own ice cream?’
‘I don’t remember a great deal about her, honestly. She never said much. She let my grandpa do all the talking. My mum never liked her. Found her annoying. She was annoying. She made bad ice cream, too. She’d just sit there, smoking, staring out the window. Looking back now I guess she was pretty sad but as a kid you don’t recognise sadness like that.’
The wind had started to whistle over the park. Within the wind was the warmth of the day but that would go soon enough and then you would be left with only cold wind and cold ears. The Staf’ was on the other side of the park now, lying down, walking in a circle then lying down again.
Arnold rubbed the bristles around his mouth—‘Horace says he’s about to be a grandpa . . . did you hear him say that the other day? . . . Yeah, he says he can’t wait. He says he’s more excited for his goddamn grandkids than he was for his own kids, you know?’
‘I don’t listen to Horace, mate. That bastard’ll talk the wallpaper out of that pub.’ It was almost five o clock. Although Turquoise was sure that Arnold could not hear him check his watch, he was mistaken. Arnold heard, over the wind, Turq’s sleeve raise then the very mild ticking of Turq’s watch. Turquoise checked his watch very often, especially around this time. The two of them were waiting for happy hour.
‘You were telling me about why you wear a watch? I never heard of a blind man wearing a watch.’
Arnold laughed loudly. It was a false laugh and poorly veiled his discomfort at having to answer the question before he’d had a drink. He took a deep breath and checked that his cane was still between them. ‘I ain’t got no sense of time, Turq. I ain’t got no kids and I ain’t got no grandkids, not like Horace is gonna have. I can’t see people age. I can’t see the sun rise or set. I can’t see leaves change colour. All I can do is feel the wrinkles in my skin and hear the ticking of my wristwatch. It’s a comfort to know that time is passing, to know that this,’ and he emphasised ‘this’, ‘is not forever. Now, it might not mean much to you but it does to me. Dogs have no sense of time, Turq, they don’t, someone told me that long ago and I never forgot it. Dogs don’t have no sense of time. Think about it. They just wake up every morning and that is that. They don’t ever even think they might not wake up one morning. I like to lie in bed and listen to the ticking of my wristwatch. I enjoy it. I do. It tells me, clear’s a bell, that time is passing.’
‘I never even noticed you wearing a watch.’
‘Well, I do. I bought it myself on my eightieth birthday and last night—at around ten—it stopped. That watch battery lasted me eight years. The fella in the jewellers says it’ll cost me eighteen-pound-ninety to get a new battery put in it.’
Turquoise laughed but it was as nervous as Arnold’s had been earlier. ‘You imagine the look that jeweller must a-given you!’
Arnold laughed a roar and the pair laughed a roar. They were genuine laughs that shook the park bench. Down the other end of the park, the snoozing Staf’ lifted his head—if only to wish that it could sleep in peace—and went back to rest.
‘Eighteen-pound-ninety. . .’ Arnold swung his pentagonal skull.
‘I understand what you mean, Arnold. I think I understand what you mean.’ Turquoise glanced at his watch, for he was unsure how much time had passed since he last glanced at it. ‘That Staf’ is still over there. It’s laid down now.’
‘Perhaps we should a-thrown it a coin.’
‘Shall we go to the Tunic? It’ll be five o clock by the time we get there. If not, I don’t think Mary’ll grudge us an early start.’
‘We’ll dawdle. Let’s take our time.’
They walked close to the Staf’, who looked up, realised that there was no coin coming, and lay back to rest.

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