Albert was smiling, he felt young again. He could feel the butterflies in his stomach frantically fluttering. The nervous excitement bubbling inside him. Was it possible to feel this much love for someone even after sixty three years?
Sixty three glorious and happy years with the love of his life. Mary was the jigsaw piece which slotted perfectly into his soul. Without her, he wouldn’t be complete. Together they had protected and nurtured their three children and watched them grow into content and well adjusted adults. What else was there? That is all a parent can ask for.
Albert fussed with his tie, straightening it and brushing some dust from the left sleeve of his favourite royal blue suit. Would she think he was still handsome? Albert hoped so. He hoped so much these days, it was all he had. He smiled, sad and forlorn. Remembering that Mary used to do his tie for him, her alluring smile as she worked the knot. Irresistible.
As he was gazing at himself in the full length mirror, Albert noticed that he had become soft around the middle. He had never been fat but now, no matter what he did, he was slowly losing the fight. He still looked sharp in a suit though. Mary always said that he was the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes on. Albert knew that she was a flatterer, but he loved her dearly for it. He might have been old but there was no excuse, you must always present your best was his motto. He was just trying to get what hair he had left to sit evenly on his head when he heard the crunching of the gravel on the driveway just below his window.
Albert went downstairs and met his youngest daughter Helen in the front doorway.
“Ready dad?” She smiled then moved forward and embraced him. Her deep auburn hair tickling his face as she kissed his cheek.
Helen helped him into his jacket. She held both of his hands and gazed deeply into his eyes. She looked sad but she was putting on a strong front and hiding it well. Albert knew his baby girl better than anyone and his heart warmed to think that she was being brave for him.
“Come on then, we don’t want to keep mum waiting” she chirped and together they stepped out into the crisp morning air.
As Helen was locking the front door, Albert breathed in deeply. He loved winter. The freshness of everything, the clean, cold air and the way the old snow crunched as his shoes broke the crust on top, reaching the powdery whiteness beneath.
Today will be different I can feel it in the air, he thought.
The short journey was made in silence. They had made it together many times. The excitement and anticipation within Albert never waning although he always showed his stoic face to the world. Deep inside, he held on to the belief that this visit would be the one.
Helen turned the car and they passed through the imposing gates. Two, ever watchful granite Eagles perched on top, their unmoving stone eyes seeming to follow Albert as the passed the threshold. Albert remembered this place during the war. It used to be owned by the Hunter-Wright family but had been commandeered by the government and turned into an aftercare facility for wounded soldiers. He had visited Jack here, he had met Mary here. The first time he saw her, he lost himself in her eyes. The alluring glint with a hint of mischief. He knew then that he would never love another woman.
So many memories. It was as if the beautifully tended gardens and the imposing sandstone blocks held it all within, releasing them to wash over Albert like a wave lapping a sandy beach. He would be flooded with vivid, clear memories only to have the wave recede, pulling some of the sand back into the depths, losing tiny aspects of the thought each time. Colours, names, faces. Was she wearing a red dress on our engagement or was it blue? Which leg had Jack lost? Even the face of his best friend seemed to be fading, evaporating like smoke. Lost to the ages.
“Here we are. Ready dad?” Helen questioned, snapping Albert out of his thoughts.
“I am dear” he smiled warmly back at her.
Helen helped Albert out of the car, she held his hand as they walked up to the grand entrance. The old thick, studded oak doors gone now to be replaced by a modern, automatic opening glass monstrosity which sat on the face of the building like a prosthetic jaw. Opening and closing, devouring all who enter.
Inside, they had tried to keep most of the old features, only instead of smelling like varnished wood and cigars, the place smelled artificial and clinical. The quiet of this grand atrium was almost serene, only broken by the vague, muffled shout or someone crying out from one of the rooms beyond.
“Ah Mr Bailey, lovely to see you. Can I take your jacket?” A plump, red faced young care assistant smiled warmly as she held out her hands.
Albert quietly shrugged out of his jacket and handed it to the woman.
“She’s waiting for you in the conservatory” the girl announced over her shoulder as she hurried off to chat to the young, chiselled man stood at the reception desk.
Helen linked her arm through her dads and together they walked up the sweeping staircase towards the back of the building and the conservatory which looked out over the gardens and the lake. Albert’s pace quickened slightly and Helen looked up at him.
“Please don’t get your hopes up dad. Remember I’m here for you too”.
This saddened Albert, he loved his children unconditionally but his Mary meant so much to him, he couldn’t express it consciously. They were soulmates, they knew every intimate detail about each other but she had been taken from him. This last thought always angered Albert although he knew that he couldn’t cope any longer looking after her at home. The violent outburst had become more frequent, the wandering, it was all too much. He would never admit that of course, he had always been too proud, but he missed her. He missed her so much, it physically pained him. At night, when he was alone, he allowed himself to cry. Part of him was missing. Part of him which he wanted back and he wouldn’t rest until he was whole again.
They approached the conservatory and Helen let go of Albert’s arm, she stopped and waited in the doorway. The morning sunlight glinting off of the glass ornaments on the wicker table ahead of him was sending beautiful prisms of rainbow light dancing away from him as he stepped slowly inside. He was hesitating, please god, let this time be different he thought as he unwittingly rubbed the red scratch on his forearm from the last visit.
Albert couldn’t see Mary. She was sat in a high backed, winged armchair facing the snow covered gardens outside. It was her favourite place where she would relax in private contemplation in her own, unremembered world. Sitting for hours showing no emotion beyond her minds prison.
Albert could see her left arm sitting palm up on the arm rest of the chair. The palm, caught in the brilliant winter sunlight had something sparkling held in it. Albert’s heart fluttered and skipped a beat. It was the emerald engagement ring he had bought so long ago, the ring which had cost him so much more than he could afford back then. The ring which had made Mary’s enchanting features light up as he got down on one knee. The ring which had sat on her finger, year after year matching the deep green of her eyes. He allowed himself to hope.
Albert breathed deeply and put his hand on the back of the chair. This was going to be the time it happened. He knew it.