When their talk had stumbled into one of those cavernous silences, he began to fidget with the buttons on his shirt. He blew his nose. He scratched at something on his knee. He found some wax in his left ear. He coughed politely. He said, There’s something I’d like to tell you, though I’ve never told another soul.
She thought: Ah, and so it goes. She thought: There has been some scandal. She thought: He is a gambler. She thought: He is a homosexual. She thought: He is married, a Don Juan, a heartbreaker, a scoundrel. She thought: He is a war criminal, and they will take him away to jail. She thought: Oh my dear God, he is a Mormon.
He said: You see, it’s just that I – I never – well, you see, I never really read. I only buy books for the colours. They look so lovely, like flowers. I arrange them like my mother used to arrange bouquets of gardenias in the kitchen. But I never read them. Not a single page. Not anymore.
She said: My daughter says I love the opera. She always takes me. She got season tickets last year. Before the music starts I turn my hearing aids off. The silence, it’s just so, I don’t know, so – calm.
He said: When I get a new one, I always read the back, just in case someone asks about it. So I'll look like I’ve read it.
She said: Sometimes I even turn them off when my daughter comes to visit. My how that one prattles, she’s every inch her father.
He said: I cheat on the Sunday crosswords.
She said: It was me who drove my husband’s car into the pole. He was so sad, so disappointed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him. I said someone else must have done it while I was shopping. He went to his grave believing that, Lord rest him, poor dear sweet kind man.
He said: Some days when I wake up tired, I don’t have the strength to change my underwear. I slip a clean pair in the laundry basket so the nurses won’t know. They count them, you know. They’re watching everything, keeping records.
She said: Sometimes I can’t control my – you know, my – sometimes I think I might be a little – what's the word? – incontinent? The nurses all know. But I try to hide it all the same. I sometimes think it’s the worst thing about growing old.
He said: The bladder.
She said: Not specifically. Just the way I'm always so – embarrassed.
He said: I don’t really like the bingo. I just thought you’d enjoy it. I just wanted to be with you, that's all.
She said: Now that you mention it, I suppose I don’t really care much for bingo either. Not like I used to.
And then she smiled shyly, like a girl.
Beside the goldfish pond hedged with roses he took her hand, and, after a few fumbling false starts, squinting and panting from exertion, he pressed it to his lips. Their hands were still touching when the nurses wheeled them back up the path, side by side across the green lawn and into the common room, where one or two other residents looked up, blinking in surprise, as though for a moment they had caught a sudden faint scent of something sweet, like a summer garden or a house where children play or one of those milkbars with the big bright jars of six-a-penny lollies in the window.