Goodbye, Your Grace

Pamella Laird

© Copyright 2023 by Pamella Laird

Photo by Aaron Lefler on Unsplash
Photo by Aaron Lefler on Unsplash

After my husband, James’ (known to his friends as Jock) death, I ‘inherited’ an elderly friend of his from one of his Clubs. Max was everything and more than I have expressed, and although this happened many years ago, I miss him still.

I can’t remember when Max first called me ‘Your Grace.’ It’s become a catch-word—an impish form of the respect we share.

Shoulders slumped, coffee mug in hand, tears well on his reddened ‘old-man’ eyelids, as he gazes out of the café window onto a bleak, rain-spattered street.

“I’ve made the worst mistake of my life. Shouldn’t have allowed Paul to persuade me to leave the city. After one year with me on the farm, he’s moseyed off overseas and left me—alone—abandoned.”

I glance over my steaming coffee. From his glum expression, this blow and the lonely days following, are a knock-back for the ninety-four-year-old veteran. His dejected voice signals he’s lost hope of a reunion with his son and a few last mellow years on the avocado farm. I can tell from his woebegone expression—he’s dreading coming to terms with the ordeal of his own company in the days ahead.

I reach for the hand lying on the tabletop. “You weren’t to know.” He rotates his wrist to grasp mine as if he’s found a foxhole in the Libyan Desert. “I wish I could change things for you.” But there’s worse to come—I’ve news for him that I’m dreading telling.

His wistful smile reflects a tiny light in his grey eyes, “The trouble is, Your Grace, I’m the last of my army mates—I must be indestructible.”

‘Indestructible!’ has become his favourite word.

“Do you really think so? I smile, “I wouldn’t have you any other way.”

He grunts, “There’s no one left—from college—from work—no family now.”  He drains his mug, plonks it down and stares into the line of cold froth.

Knowing Max’s daughter died at 32 and his wife over twenty years ago, I feel the sting of my own tears and wish a genie would appear to make his greatest wish come true. “You’re still you and I’m still me, so we can laugh together. Remember your video of the drunken butler and his fancy duchess?” Apart from classical music, this little slice of nonsense seems to be his main diversion from his otherwise aimless days.

A smile crinkles his eyes, grows deeper and turns into a face-changing grin. “How could I forget?”

We’ve watched the old-time farce so many times. Does he see himself as the butler and I, his neighbour some thirty years younger, the duchess? At those times, his eyes danced in the laughter of his 20-year-old self. We’ve never discussed his charming adjustment of my first name, but I take it as a compliment and a mark of our mutual affection.

Max looks up, “Three years since Paul went.” He releases my hand and dabs his eyes. “I can’t stay in the middle of this empty farm by myself. You shouldn’t have to watch out for me; you’ve your own family. I’ve met the new owners—once—all they want is the rent in their letter-box—they’re not interested in me.” His gaze returns to the window and puddled street. “Don’t worry, I’ll be okay.”

It’s seven years since Max sold up in the city. Soon after he arrived, I called in, as neighbours do, to meet and welcome the new resident.

He told me, “I needed to be close to the only family I have left. This little cottage on Paul’s farm was a godsend at the time. But at what cost? I never thought it through, Your Grace.”

“You did it for all the right reasons.”

He added that his city home by a stream and handy to all the shops, had sold quickly and he’d reluctantly left his remaining old school friends and the clubs and groups which had been a part of his long life. He leaned on his elbows and smiled. “I thought so then, but I didn’t expect to be left by myself.”

“All the same, it must have been hard.” I leaned back thinking how I can help? I’d heard this sort of story so many times and it was never a happy one.

“Even then, never thought I’d miss my mates as I do. I’d drive up to Old Boy meetings, funerals, whatever. Not now. Can’t stand the mad traffic these days.” Max, then in his mid 80’s, sighs, “I didn’t reckon on Paul’s long work-hours.“

About the time Max moved to the farm, my husband Jock and I, met up with Max at the local Friendship Club.

“After two years, I realised I’d made a terrible mistake, but it was too late.  I’d lost personal contact with my old friends except by email or Messenger.”

Jock said, “Have another one, Max,” and returned with two foaming glasses. He knew from his own farm-life—Max would see little of Paul. He smiled, “What about a dog for company? They can be great companions, look on the supermarket noticeboard.”

Max’s face lit up. Not long after, he found a delightful buddy in a year-old Schnauzer puppy—Gus. Gus’ owner was now in a rest home, so a big plus was his understanding of a slow-moving owner. Gus knew how to avoid tripping Max, so for five or six years, the two were inseparable. He instinctively recognised signs of a day out and would be ready in the car, waiting for his master. A perfect companion but….

As Max trudges on through life, the stealthy deafness triggered by his war service in the Desert threatens greater isolation, even when he’s occasionally back among his city friends. He eventually admits, “I often leave a function early. It’s these stupid hearing aids.” Following several falls, his days become filled with pain and his doctor advises him to use a stick, maybe two, and despite the blow to his pride, he makes full use of them.

I’m impressed with his progress despite the unnerving lurch to his stride.

“What should I do? I don’t belong anywhere.” He leans back with the look of a man crushed by both age and life. The hand holding his whiskey glass develops a noticeable tremor.

I am silent. How to encourage him? “Would you like to come and have a meal with us tonight—a chat with Jock?”

His eyes gleam. “Thank you, what time?”

“About six. Bring Gus, the children love him.”

Max has a short, perfectly trimmed beard he clips himself—the result is a strong resemblance to the handsome Laughing Cavalier. I guess he’s always been a snappy dresser with three-piece suits or tailored tweed jackets, and his stylish presentation has changed little over the years.

He confides, “I’ve two things left on my bucket list. One: to meet up with Paul again. I hope he’ll return so we can be together.” His smile is as wistful as a child looking into a chocolate shop window.

“And the second wish?”

“I want to live to ninety-five. You know, Your Grace, I’m indestructible.”

I always laugh, but as time goes on, I hear of this wish more often and I worry more, as he totters about his tiny sitting room on elbow crutches.

With increasing deafness, he mostly doesn’t hear my knock, so I reluctantly leave a tin of ginger gems or maybe a dish of macaroni cheese on the shelf in his porch. Is he home? Is he alright?

“Please, just come right in. I may be asleep, I may be out, but you’re welcome—just come in.” He has an old-fashioned trust in country living, so I begin to deliver to the kitchen bench.

But I’m concerned when I see no car. Is it still in the garage or has he gone to the local Farmer’s Market? He loves cheeses from a nearby boutique cheese factory, fresh kiwifruit and my home-grown treats. Not hearing a welcoming bark from Gus, have they gone to the local beach as nothing pleases the mind-reading little dog more than snapping at waves.

When Max’s carefully groomed beard begins to lose its neat form, at the same time, I can’t help but notice the weight loss from Max’s once sturdy frame. Often, he tells me he’s had a fall and that worries me even more. I quietly increase my visits to two or three times a week. We continue our sessions with the out-of-control butler and his duchess. Sometimes we do a jig-saw together, it’s always a relief to see him smile.

Occasionally he diverts me with stories of his college or work life; sometimes incidents from army days. He’s a man’s man; his fondly remembered returned service mates are often blended into his chats. Despite recognizing his increasing frailty I, knowing of my own adjustments for the future, finally have to tell Max of the changes ahead. He is pottering in the kitchen.

“Come in, Your Grace, I’ve poured a cup of tea.”

I place warm scones and a jar of raspberry jam on the table. “Just in time, I see.” I spread butter and jam on the scones, and look across at my friend.

“Max, I have news.” Abruptly he looks up. “I’m so sorry, we’ve sold our farm. We’re leaving the district in about six weeks. We’re moving into town—mainly for the children’s education.” I hand a freshly buttered scone with jam across.

Max’s head droops. For twenty seconds he is silent. “I knew it was too good to last. You know, Pamella, you’re very special to me.” Still pensive, he looks up with his time-worn eyes “I hope it all goes well for you.”

“I’m really sorry.” I reach for his hand, “I really didn’t want to have to tell you this. I won’t be able to visit as much, but I’ll see you whenever I can. We’ll play our Duchess/Butler video and laugh together as always. We can keep in touch Max— emails—phone and the occasional trip down from the city.”

Five weeks go by and a local health nurse rings me—Max has fallen and is in a rest home. I drive over, a forty-minute drive.

He looks up as I open the door. Grotesque in an oxygen mask; he beckons me to sit on the bed. I sit beside him and hold a hand just as always. “Hello! Max.”

He struggles to smile and talk. One arm flops to the bed-clothes as he impatiently drags the mask off. I brush the hair back from his forehead. “Thank you for coming,” he gasps between breaths. As I move to gently replace the mask, he whispers, “Goodbye, Your Grace.”

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