The old man paused and leant against the hospital gates, regaining his strength. The dull ache in the pit of his stomach and the feathery tickling in his chest brought on a weak cough.
It was, he reflected a lifetime of fags and booze catching up to him. He could not complain, having lasted longer than most of his contemporaries.
As he leant against the rough stone pillar of the gateway, he reflected that the good doctor Sumners would not have approved of this outing, had he known of it. The good doctor could not understand that sometimes there is nothing that could or should be done.
And besides, he had an appointment to keep.
It was an appointment many years in the making and one that he could not miss, but it was a meeting that he would rather make in the clean, fresh air of the evening.
The numbing fatigue had retreated slightly now, though it would never go completely, and the old man resumed his journey. He leant heavily on his polished wooden stick.
The walking stick had been a present from his nephew and without it he would not have been able to make this journey. He was grateful to the boy (he still thought of him as a boy, even grown and with a family of his own) though the boy would also have disapproved of this journey.
The older he grew, the old man thought, the more protective his descendents became.
He needed to cross the road now. It was a busy road and quite wide. In his younger days, he would have made a run for it between the traffic but now he must wait for a clear space before he could risk the crossing.
As he stood at the curb, he watched the traffic. It was all going one way at this time of day, away from the city centre. The far carriageway was clear but the nearer was filled solid with an endless line of hurrying metal, rushing their occupants home to hearth and family.
One young man, less rushed than the rest, stopped and waved the old man across the road in front of him. The old man waved his thank you at the small black saloon and stepped across the road, walking as fast as he dared and using his stick as much as possible to hurry his journey. Despite his rush it took him more time than he would have liked to cross the road but the young man was in no way impatient at his slow speed. This was, he reflected, unusual in one so young.
Across the road, when he finally made the trip, there was a short walk up a small pathway to the gates of the park that he had stared at so longingly and so long from his hospital bed. It was green and living, the perfect antithesis to the stark and sterile white of the hospital walls, with only the first faint touches of the golden death of autumn colouring the trees. Beyond the trees there was a wide expanse of manicured green lawn as yet untouched by the season and used, now as often, by a group of boys for a rough game of cricket. Beyond the makeshift cricket pitch there was a small lake line with paths and bench seating. This was the old mans destination.
To get to the benches the old man skirted the boys makeshift pitch, giving it as wide a berth as he felt necessary. As he rounded the head of the pitch, cutting the corner slightly, there was a great outcry from the boys and when he looked, they were all staring in his direction.
For a moment he thought they were all staring at him but then he saw the hard red ball between them, getting closer. He stopped to watch, trying to judge where the ball would come to rest. It hit the ground a few yards from him and rolled along to finish up at his feet.
The old man bent down in reflex action to take the ball and found too late that he could neither reach it nor straighten up again. He clasped at his stick for support and tried to lever himself erect with its help.
In the moments before he could panic, a boy who had been running for the ball came up to him and took his arm, helping hi back to his feet. The old man smiled and thanked him but the boy was already running back to rejoin the game, throwing the ball as he ran. The old man watched his running figure for a few yards and then resumed his own journey.
I could almost hate him for his youth and energy, the old man thought, but it is too late for me to be jealous of my own lost youth.
Still, he thought, I wish I had that energy now, when I realise how precious and fleeting it is. He remembered other times and other days when his own body had been as swift and obedient as that of the cricketting boys, days when he too could turn lithe and graceful without the thousand aches and twinges with which his body now reminded him of its age and decay. In this warm reverie he reached the lake and its benches and sat, choosing a seat from which he could watch the boys at play.
The boys continued with their game. Every so often one of them, the one who had helped him, shot a sly glance in his direction, playing to the audience. This brought a smile to the old mans face.
He was still smiling when the other appeared, unseen and unheard as usual.
"There must be cricket on the telly," the other said, "they never play the game now unless it's on the telly."
The old man nodded.
"I was just thinking," he said, " I was not much older than them when we first met."
"In a muddy wet forest on a hill with bullets flying past our heads."
"I wanted to run." The old mans voice was hushed.
"But you didn't."
The old man laughed ironically. "I don't think I knew how, but I wanted to, god how I wanted to." He sat back against the bench and his eyes lost their focus." Of all the times we've met since. I've never been so frightened as I was then. I was nothing but a child, proud of my new uniform, going into a war I could never hope to understand. In that forest a child died and a man was born."
"You were an officer and a gentleman, and a hero."
"Ha. I was a little boy who bought a commission and didn't know how scared he would be. I had no right to lead those men into battle when my only qualification was money and a few contacts."
"But lead them you did, and you lead them well. They respected you."
"Respect? For a seventeen year old boy in a tailored uniform playing at soldier on a battlefield. Did you know, I didn't need to shave once throughout that entire war?"
"Do you think it's a beard that makes a man? Or the lack of one that makes a boy? There were many older and hairier than you who behaved less creditably."
"And many that behaved more. It's not the lack of the need to shave that bothers me about then, but the lack of experience. I knew nothing about war, nothing about the world, and yet I was put in charge of men far older and more experience than myself, and their lives depended on my decisions. Some of them died because of the orders I gave, I can't help thinking they might have survived if I was more experienced."
"Perhaps. But in war people are going to die anyway. You can't stop it; it's the nature of conflict. As for experience, you gained plenty in that war, enough to help you later on, in other wars."
"But I didn't fight in any other wars, I just reported them."
"That's what I mean. You learnt that war is hell and you spent the rest of your life telling other people that. You sometimes got into a lot of trouble for that."
The old man sighed and turned his attention once more to the cricket match.
The sides had changed over and his erstwhile helper was preparing to bat. An older boy scowled and stared in perfect imitation of a demon bowler then began his run up. It was fifteen paces to the single twig that marked the bowlers stump and on each of those paces the boy wound himself more and more tense until the last pace when, as his foot touched the ground beside the stump, He released all his coiled energy in a single burst of movement, a blur of arms and legs from which the ball emerged, rocketing straight for the piled coats and jumpers that marked the batsmans' stump. The boy between moved his bat in an almost lazy arch, which somehow connected with the speeding ball and sent it flying towards the gates of the park. He did not move. A six was agreed.
"Was it worth it," the old man asked, " will their lives be any the better for mine?"
"Difficult to say," replied the other, "the real question should be, will their lives be any the worse for yours. So long as the answer to that is no, then you've lived well enough."
"That's a very cynical viewpoint."
Well, I'm a very cynical being. It goes with the job."
They turned their attention to the match before them.
The ball was retrieved and returned to the bowler. His scowl and the tension in his body showed his determination to avenge the six. He started his run, screwing himself up even more than before, running towards the bowlers stump as if to crush it beneath his feet. The ball flew from his explosion like a bullet from a gun, bypassing the waiting batsman and smashing apart the waiting wool and cloth wicket.
The boy with the bat relaxed into defeat, shoulders slumped, bat and head both hanging limp, one from the shoulders, the other from the fingertips. He walked off the pitch towards a gaggle of his waiting comrades, bat held slightly out waiting the next aspirant.
"This seems as good a time as any to go." Commented the other.
"So soon?" then the old man nodded and tried to stand. His body betrayed him once again and he held his arms out to where the other stood behind him. "You'll have to help me."
The other took his arms in a grip that was as strong as ever, "Of course," he said, "that's what friends are for."
Walking from the crease, Joe felt a little flush of embarrassment at having been bowled so quickly. Still, he reflected, he had scored a six against the best bowler in the school. He wondered if the old man had been watching as he scored it. He shot a quick glance towards the bench where the old man sat and had a brief fantasy. The old man was a secret scout for the MCC and soon he would come over to Joe and say that Joe was a natural and how would he like to play for England in the next test. Joe would be the greatest player that had ever lived and would single handedly win the test for England. Every body would cheer and the newspapers would print his picture under headlines like 'Greatest player of the age saves the day for England'. The old man sat still and quiet on the bench, his head hanging forward. He looked asleep.
Richard was next up to bat and he gave Joe a sympathetic grin as he took the bat from his fingers. Joe grinned back. By the time he joined the others where they sat on the grass he had forgotten his defeat and fantasy both. The game went on.
As teatime approached it was getting close, last man in and only nine runs in it. Unfortunately the last man in was Michael, a skinny kid who hadn't been know to score more than three runs since the gang had known him. Worse still the bowler was Ant, the same one who had bowled out Joe himself, and the best in the school. It didn't look very hopeful.
The first bowl was a wide and for a change Michael didn't try to go for it. The second was on target but so fast that he was lucky just to stop it. The third ball he managed to hit quite well and got two runs off, the forth and fifth he missed completely. The next ball, Michael hit, more by luck than by anything else and knocked over the heads of the fielders for a very good six.
The boys sitting around Joe cheered and yelled and Joe joined in at first and then looked over towards the seated man.
The old man had not moved since Joe last looked at him. His head still hung slumped over his chest and his hands hung loosely in his lap. The polished wooden stick he carried had fallen to the ground and lay, unregarded, on the grass. Joe frowned and remembered the tired look on the old mans face and the way he needed to be helped to his feet after bending for the ball. Joe wondered if the old man was asleep or if he could not get up off the bench. Joe looked at the old man for a long time and while he looked he could not see the slightest sign of movement. He was beginning to become concerned when he was dragged away from his vigil by an elbow roughly digging into his ribs.
"Did you see that, for Christ' sake>" The boy beside him was staring in disgust over the field. The stumps were down and Michael was trudging slowly back to the group, head bowed and bat swinging sullenly from his hand. The fielders were laughing and cheering and hugging each other in jubilation. The boy beside Joe grimaced in disgust.
"What a Pratt."
Joe looked about him at his teammates sitting in various attitudes of defeat and dejection and then back at the old man, still unmoving on the bench. He made a decision.
As Joe stood up, his neighbor looked at him.
"Hey where are you off to?"
"Nowhere," said Joe, "just going to see if that old blokes alright."
The other boy shrugged and watched as Joe made his way to the bench.
The ambulance was gone, carrying the old man back across the road. The police were finally gone after taking statements from anyone they could find. Only the boys were left and the doctor from across the road. The doctor, whose patient the old man was, stood looking at the bench, turning the old mans stick about in his fingers, lost in thought. The boys were silent for once, watching him.
Finally, Joe plucked up the courage to speak, diffidently.
"Sir, I was wondering, was there anything we could have done. I mean to help him..."
"What? Oh." The doctor turned to look at #Joe and smiled sadly. "No, there was nothing anyone could have done. He was dying and he knew it."
"Oh." Joe frowned. "I guess it must have made him sad. He didn't look sad, just tired."
The Doctor chuckled.
"He probably was. He didn't mind death, at his age it held no fear for him." The doctor looked back at the boys sad face and frowned in thought. Then he gently reached out and caressed the boys cheek.
"He was a remarkable man. He lived more than any of us will here, you shouldn't grieve for him. He was ready to go and few of us can ever say that." The doctor smiled and patted the boys cheek. "He used to say that at his age death didn't chase him any more, you had to make an appointment and see if he could fit you in. If we can all live as long and as well as him, we should all be happy."
The doctor gave the boys cheek a final pat and then let it go.
"I'd better be going." He held up the walking stick. "I'll take this back for his next of kin. Well, goodbye. Don't feel too bad."
With this he turned and walked back to the park gates and the hospital beyond.
The boys stood watching until he was out of sight through the trees and then stood in a silent, awkward group. The conversation, when it started was stunted and desultory. Comments about the game went unheard and unnoticed behind thoughts of the old man. Finally Richard suggested they should all go home since it was well passed teatime. Gratefully they all agreed and slowly went their separate ways.
For a while Richard and Joe walked silently together, out of the park and along the road. At last the came to the place where Richard turned off and up the cul-de-sac that led to his home. They paused in silence for a few seconds until Richard spoke.
"See you at school tomorrow."
"Sure," mumbled Joe, "see you."
Richard nodded and walked up the path of the cul-de-sac. Joe watched for a dozen yards or so and then walked on.
Joe's mind was on automatic as he walked, his thoughts elsewhere. He saw only the face of the old man smiling in gratitude as he was helped to his feet. Why would a dying man leave the comfort of his hospital bed to die in the open air surrounded by unseeing strangers? The problem occupied Joes' whole attention. He had never seen death in the flesh before; to him it was safe and sanitised, locked away behind the TV screen. He could not imagine why anyone would want to take it out of its secure prison and out into the streets and parks of the real world. Unseeing he turned a corner to make his way up the New Road. He thought about the doctors words and wondered if there would ever come a time when he too would welcome death, see it as a friend. He turned to cross the road. His head moved in the motion of checking the traffic but he saw nothing and moved out unheeding.
The noise of air horns broke him out of his reverie and he turned to their source to see an approaching truck bear down on him, already filling his vision. For a moment he thought he would never move again until his reflexes took control, throwing him backwards.
The truck whistled past just inches from his nose and he could feel its breath moving the fine hairs of his cheek, its canvass sides passing like a never ending train filling his vision as he stood, frozen in time.
Then it was gone and he staggered backwards onto the curb, heart pumping, breath gasping, falling back onto unexpected softness.
The boy lay back, panting helpless, too weak to move while two strong arms held him tight to warm firmness and calmed his quivering flesh. A soft voice whispered in his ear like the wind through the trees, "Hush it," said, "you're alright now," and the arms tightened, holding the boy as he tried to scream through frozen lungs.
His groaning gasps continued and he clutched the encircling arms, squeezing into their embrace as his only contact with the safe world of the flesh until the quivering of his own had stopped.
As he relaxed and regained his control the boy realised the liberty he was taking with a strangers arms and flushed with embarrassment.
He dropped the others arms and stepped out of his embrace.
He turned to face the other and found himself looking at a boy of about his own age, dark and ordinary, a stranger whose face provoked a nagging sense of familiarity. The other was smiling in amusement.
"I'm sorry," Joe said with a slight sweeping gesture of his hands, "I had a bit of a shock."
"That's alright," said the other, "I'm just glad I could help."
Joe looked up and smiled back at him.
"Yea, I'm glad you were there too. Thanks. I'm called Joe, by the way." He stuck out his hand.
The other placed his hand shyly in Joes' but remained silent. Joe shook his hand and waited, then, as the other remained silent.
"Well," Joe prompted, " who are you?"
"Oh." The other started and looked flustered, then thought for a brief instant.
"Just call me a friend."