The Grey-Haired Man

The grey-haired man was back again today. He sat there for a few minutes, which isn’t very long for him. Then he looked out across the street and started the engine.

He always pulls out carefully though there’s hardly any traffic. People don’t drive down our road because it doesn’t lead anywhere. If you came here, you’d probably be visiting someone who lived in one of the long row of identical houses. The houses were built on only one side of the street so each house gets a nice view of the field on the other side.

The other people who come here are dog lovers. They park near the gate to the field. It’s an exciting moment when the boot opens and the dog jumps out. Mum and I used to try to guess what sort of dog it would be just from looking at the car. In general, the smaller the car, the smaller the dog. But oddly, people with small dogs tend to have two or three. So their total dog volume is about the same. We called the game “What Dog?” Mum would have been sad if I had lost, so I tried to win to make her happy. But it always seemed to turn out a draw. We would watch together as the owners walked politely around the edge of the field while the dogs ran across the middle and went to the toilet on the crops.

*     *     *

He doesn’t do anything. He just sits very quietly with his big driving-gloved hands resting on the steering wheel. He’s not really looking at anything and not making any noise. In fact, that’s the most striking thing about him. Even in a quiet street like ours, he is the quietest thing.

When a car engine stops it’s not usually the last sound you hear. Usually, there’s a car door closing at least and possibly voices, then a garden gate or a front door banging shut. But when the grey-haired man pulls up and stops his engine, that’s all he does. And the bits of your brain that connect to your ears are waiting for something else.

Then he sits there. How long he sits there can vary, sometimes it’s a couple of hours. But what he does is always the same. He does absolutely nothing. He doesn’t fidget or look bored. He doesn’t pick at things with his fingers or stroke the wood on the dashboard. He doesn’t look round if a door slams or another car parks close up behind him.

*     *     *

Mum spent the morning tidying my room. It isn’t untidy. It’s very neat these days, Mum has tidied it several times already.

She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away.

My room is at the back of the house. It’s the best room because it has a multi-coloured light shade. It looks quite small but it has cupboards built into the wall along two sides. If you took them out it would actually be quite a big room. The cupboards are very useful for putting things in when they have been on the floor too long. They are also good for security, for storing things that you don’t want other people to see. The top cupboard is best for this. All my personal projects are stored up there. It’s not very convenient but at least other people can’t steal your ideas. I kept other things up there too. I kept my fossils and my Doctor Who swap cards. I collected sixty-two Doctor Who cards and kept them in good condition. I made some good swaps, there are a few valuable cards in there. If anyone ever gave me money for birthdays or Christmas I always spent it on swap cards.

The walls in my room are plain blue. We painted it with a roller because this gives the best finish. I did have a poster of the TARDIS and a map of the ancient world. The map, which was still quite large even though it was on a scale 1: 40 000 000, peeled off the wall in the night. It left a terrible mark.

The drawers are built-in too. There are two large drawers underneath my sporting equipment shelf: the shirts and T-shirts drawer and the jumper drawer. That’s what Mum was tidying. She took everything out of my shirts and T-shirts drawer and unfolded them all, one by one. She laid each one out flat on the floor and stroked the chest. Then she folded them properly and put them away. She looked through some of my other clothes that were hanging up in the wardrobe. She especially looked at my big jeans that Nanny brought me back from her holiday in America. They had buttons on the fly. They were for growing into.

*     *     *

He never comes in the evening when Dad’s at home. He usually comes at lunchtime and he can stay until about three o’clock when the kids get out of school. Not that there are any kids on our street, which is a shame. It’s mostly old people, Mum and Dad are probably the youngest people living here now.

Having said that he doesn’t ever do anything, he did something. He moved. That was all, it was just a movement. But he is usually so still. It had been a cold, boring day, not windy or rainy. The sun was white and fierce, poking out of the sky. It must have been coming at him through the front windscreen. He reached up and pulled at the visor. Then he watched his gloves as they came down again in front of his face.

He has bright cheeks, as though he’s been burnt by the wind. They hang off his face covered in a dry pink crust. Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

When his gloves fell back to the wheel he stared at them. Then he pulled them off and looked at his bare hands.

*     *     *

Above them, his eyes are round and watery. You can see more of his eyeball than you can of most people’s. So it’s a relief every time he blinks.

Mum was doing some cooking. The main difference between when Mum cooks and when Dad cooks is that Mum never uses a book. Whereas, Dad is constantly checking the instructions. There are other differences too. Dad needs to have a drink when he cooks and he needs music on and no one to come in and ask him questions. You can’t ask him questions about anything, not even about what he’s doing. Especially not about what he’s doing. Mum would let me join in. I had special jobs and she would call me in to help her. The thing I was best at was tossing the salad. Even Dad said he could really taste the difference when I’d tossed the salad.

Dad came in and saw Mum cooking. He looked relieved to see her bustling to and fro in the kitchen, throwing things in a bowl. She never weighs anything out. She always guesses but she guesses exactly right. And if she guesses wrong it just makes it taste different but better. Then she tries to remember what she did wrong so she can do it on purpose next time. Unlike Dad’s experiments which have to be thrown away.

Dad gave her a little kiss on the cheek and then he left her to it. Recently, most of their meals have been from the freezer. Nanny cooks lots of the same meals and brings them round in plastic containers. She says they have to eat.

Dad smiled at Mum’s back as she was cooking. His smile faded when he saw what she had cooked. She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

That was one of my other jobs, laying the table. I always made sure everything was lined up very neatly at exactly ninety degrees. That’s what Mum did. She made right angles with the spoon just touching the top of the knife and fork so the food couldn’t escape before it was eaten. Then she served it up, fish fingers with fried potatoes and peas. Nice little garden peas like green sweets and a piece of buttered bread so you could make a fish finger sandwich. In the oven she had hidden a syrup pudding. It was waiting there for the ice cream. Most people assume boys like custard best but that’s not the case. Mum always gave me ice cream. It’s quite like custard but it’s really helpful if the syrup is too hot.

“I made all his favourites,” Mum said and smiled down at her plate.

“I can see that,” said Dad.

*     *     *

He has had to change his parking spot because Mum saw him. She was walking to the post box. She usually walks the other way, to the shop across the main road.

I liked going to the shop with Mum. I wasn’t ever supposed to go there on my own. She would give me coins so that I could buy swap cards. Going to the shop always put Mum in a good mood too. She would buy a chocolate bar and we’d break up all the squares and share it fifty-fifty. She told me not to tell Dad and although I never did, Dad had a way of finding the empty wrappers and getting to the truth.

Mum had a letter to post. She was feeling for the letter in her bag as she walked along and eventually she had to stop walking and look for it properly. She stopped right in front of his car. As she pulled the letter out, she saw him. He was watching through the windscreen. He was wearing his thick black coat with white flecks on the shoulder. Mum turned around and walked quickly back to the house with the letter still in her hand. He could have jumped out of the car and run after her down the street. He could have caught up with her before she reached the house. Later, when Dad got home, Mum didn’t tell him that she’d seen anyone.

*     *     *

Mum seems to have got worse since then. She spends a lot of time in the bath. Last Monday she stayed in the bath all afternoon. She was still there when Dad got home from work. Dad went into the kitchen and clattered the breakfast dishes into the sink. He switched on the radio and turned the volume up loud. Then he switched it off again. Then he ran upstairs and leaned his forehead against the bathroom door.

“You can’t carry on like this.”

But she just stayed there, she wouldn’t get out.

She laid it all out on the table and she laid three places. Dad caught her hand but she carried on. She put the spoon across the top between the knife and fork to make a bridge, like I used to.

Then Dad looked really tired. He went downstairs again and stood in the middle of the lounge with his hands in his pockets. He walked over to the window and looked out at the field. There was the outline of a man and his dog balancing on the path that led across the top of the hill. They didn’t seem to be moving. Dad scratched the stubble on his cheek and looked to see if there was anyone else out there but there wasn’t.

He walked over to the telephone and dialed Nanny’s number. Dad left a message on her answer machine. It took him a while to get going after the beep sounded, so when he did start talking there wasn’t much time.

“Hi, it’s Stewart. It’s us. It’s difficult. Could you come round?”

Mum stood behind him in her towel. “What did you have to call her for? She’s upset enough as it is.”

“Well, I had to do something. Things are getting worse.”

“How could things get any worse?” Mum asked. Dad didn’t know the answer to that.

*     *     *

He’s been here every day for the last couple of weeks. He just sits very quietly. He never brings a book but recently he has the car radio on sometimes. He listens to the type of music that doesn’t have any singing, just lots of violins. It’s a very gentle noise. It’s good music for sitting quietly and it means he’s not completely on his own. He has a noise with him. The music can grow though. At times it gets bigger and bigger and pounds on the car doors.

I like him. It surprised me when I realised it. But I do quite like him. He’s got a kind, saggy face and he moves slowly. I wonder if he’s got a wife, like Mum but a bit older probably and not as pretty. She must wonder where he is all the time when he’s sitting parked up in our road with his driving gloves on. She is probably thinking he should be at home helping her around the house.

*     *     *

Nanny came round, it was raining and she’d had to walk from the bus stop. She gave Mum a special long hug and her umbrella dripped onto Mum’s trouser leg making a damp patch. Dad was still holding onto the latch and hovering in front of the door, as though Nanny might turn around and try to leave. When Nanny let go Mum was still leaning in to her like she couldn’t stand herself up again. Dad was looking at Nanny, straight at her without looking away or blinking. Nanny looked about in a general way and then said.

“Hello, dear. How are you?” She kissed him nicely on the cheek.

“We’re managing,” said Dad and he found the confidence to let go of the front door.

“You might be,” said Mum.

“Would you like a cup of tea, love?” said Dad. The question seemed too simple and that made it difficult to answer.

“I think we should have some tea,” Nanny said, to help her.

Dad went into the kitchen. He lined three mugs up in a row. He made normal tea for himself and Nanny, fruit tea for Mum. It made the kitchen smell of jam. Dad put the kettle down but he didn’t let go of it.

While he was gone Nanny and Mum waited for the tea to come. They didn’t say anything. They could talk about the tea when it arrived.

Dad put two mugs down on the table and went back to the kitchen. Nanny looked up and watched him go. Then she asked quietly, “Why don’t you come and stay with me for a bit, dear?” But he heard her from the doorway and turned round.

“Why don’t you, love?” Mum looked at him as though he had offended her.

“Right, I’ll go and pack my stuff then.” She went upstairs without her tea. Dad stroked his finger round the top of Mum’s mug. He seemed to know not to look straight at Nanny now.

*     *     *

So, Mum went to stay with Nanny for a few days. She took her to the seaside and on a shopping trip but Mum didn’t buy anything. I wish Mum had stayed there longer. Nanny is good at looking after her, much better than Dad. Even when he is trying really hard to be nice he sounds a little bit like he is telling her off.  Nanny strokes Mum’s hair as though she was a little girl.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

Since she got back from Nanny’s she has barely stepped outside the house. She used to love little walks, even just around the block. The leaves are on the floor and there’s conkers now. Mum is good at conkers.

She always noticed things when we went for walks. “Look at that silly duck!” I tried to point out funny things too. We did it to make each other smile. Dad didn’t point things out so much. He would just grab me and hold me upside down. I quite liked it but I couldn’t do it back to him.

Mum spends her days inside the house, sorting through drawers, especially photographs. She endlessly rearranges the photographs. She writes long descriptions on the back. Where we were, how we got there, who was with us, how long we stayed, where we ate our lunch. Everything she can remember. She files them in date order.

It’s getting to the point that there aren’t many left to organize. She’s slowing down, taking longer over every detail. Added to which, she’s losing concentration. She’s getting distracted. She lays the photos out on the bed and then just sits next to them and gazes out of the window. She watches the local cats patrolling. She watches the postman’s legs marching along driveways. She looks out over the field on the other side of the road and watches the farmer shuttling up and down.

*     *     *

Mum was watching yesterday. She had seen him long before he rang the bell. Perhaps she recognized his car as it parked up right outside. He didn’t get out straight away. He sat in his car looking over at the house. It took quite a long time for him to finish doing that. He ran his hand over his hair.

His hair is definitely grey but only overall. On average his hair is grey. If you looked at the individual hairs they are actually lots of different colours. Some are still thick, coarse and black. While others are fine white hairs that look like they would fall off in your hand if you touched them. It is cut very short so you can see the fold of flesh at the back of his skull where it settles onto his neck.

Mum was a little girl once, she was Nanny’s little girl. That’s probably why, when Mum woke up in the morning and curled into a ball with her fists in her eyes, Nanny heard her. Even though she didn’t make any noise.

When she saw him from the upstairs window she sat back on the bed. She didn’t go running downstairs but when the doorbell eventually rang Mum was standing behind the door. She clicked the latch on the mortice lock and held her breath. The grey-haired man was moving on the other side. She edged away from the door. As she slid across the mirror in the hall she watched herself, creeping backwards. She stopped and looked for a moment. He rang the doorbell a little bit so it didn’t make too much noise, as if trying not to wake a baby. But there was no baby.

She didn’t look like she was going to move.  She looked like she was going to do “pretending not to be in.” But there are criteria that must be met for that. For instance, you mustn’t have the telly on and you should turn the light off in the hall. It’s best if you haven’t left a bike on the front lawn.

Today, Mum was meeting all the criteria. She could have stayed on the bed or even crouched down on the other side by the wardrobe, just to make sure. That is a very secret spot. I used to jump out at Dad from that spot and he was always really surprised. Once I did it and he nearly died of a heart attack.

But she gave up really quickly. He only rang the bell that once and then just stayed in the porch. He didn’t look irritated and keep pressing the bell like Mum did when we went to visit people who weren’t home. Looking back, they could have just been pretending too. They could all have been in the upstairs bedroom lying behind the bed with the telly off. Mum might have realised this, which would explain why she got so irritated.

Then she cleared her throat, so they would both know that she was home. He moved his shoes around. Mum unlocked the door and opened it. He lifted up his hand to show her that he was holding a box of chocolates and then he lifted up the other hand which held a bunch of big white flowers.

Mum looked beautiful, standing there with the sun coming through the coloured glass chimes and twinkling onto her face. “You shouldn’t have,” she said. The grey-haired man dropped his hands, so the flowers were all hanging upside down.

“Do you want to come in?” Mum asked, without making any room in the doorway.

“Thank you,” he said. Then they stood there in silence and it was a very silent silence. Mum pushed the door closed a little.

“Please…take these,” he said, waving the flowers about a bit. Mum put out a hand and took them. She didn’t say thank you or give him a smile. She closed the door and the grey-haired man stood in the porch. He was still holding the chocolates. He walked back to his car as though his legs were tired.

At teatime, Mum told Dad about it. “He was here.”

“Oh Christ,” said Dad.

“He brought flowers.”

“Flowers? Jesus, can’t he see how creepy that is?  He’s unhinged.”

“He’s just sad.”

*     *     *

The grey-haired man did look sad, leaning forwards, his head resting in his hands. That’s what he was doing that day when Mum first saw him. He was sitting on the side of the big main road just past the shop. A policeman was talking to him. He had his head in his hands. His legs were shaking. His car was parked on the verge and he was sitting beside it.

He was especially quiet today. He really didn’t stay long, just a few minutes. A gull was barking at him from a gate post. After he’d started the engine he looked over at the field. Then he checked the mirrors and tugged his big car awkwardly away.

Alison GibbAlison Gibb lives in Brighton, England with her husband and two young sons. She has previously lived and worked in London and New Zealand. She is a Doctor specialising in the care of vulnerable and homeless patients. She completed an MA in Creative Writing and Authorship at Sussex University.