Bleak North - Photos, Stories and Reflections from the Highlands

The Waiting Room

His was a single garret room. The bathroom and toilet, shared with others, was situated at the end of a narrow corridor on the floor below. The kitchen where he could cook his meals and, perhaps, occasionally indulge in a cup of tea, was on the ground floor. It was not a kitchen where one would generally linger long in the expectation of pleasant conversation with other residents. It was a perfunctory, cold space, unclean in the manner of all shared spaces where there is no agreed responsibility for maintenance. It was a kitchen where one performed the necessities of the day and from which one escaped as soon as possible. It was a feature shared by much of the rest of the narrow Edwardian terraced house.


One approached the garret room up two flights of stairs which grew narrower, darker and dingier as they progressed. It was as if at each step one sacrificed along with light a little hope, a little optimism until, standing outside the discoloured cream door, one was aware of nothing short of despair.


It was a desperation that was immediately compounded as the door opened unsteadily within its aging frame upon the old man’s room. But before one could truly appreciate its interior it was necessary to overcome a spontaneous and almost irresistible desire to flee the stale air which surged over and around one with unwelcomed closeness.


I felt immediately nauseous. I allowed the air free passage to the liberty of the stair well, where it immediately squatted like an unwelcomed refugee. Having donned face mask and gloves, I proceeded to enter the room.


An iron framed single bed occupied one corner, a stained and misshapen mattress barely concealed by a threadbare sheet and a duvet contemptuously cast aside and half hanging on the floor. The pillow still carried the imprint of the head that had rested there.


The opposite wall was partially filled by a lead paned, single glazed window to which the ceiling and walls converged, reducing both height and width to dimensions which would have required a man of anything above modest height to stoop to enter. Within this space were a bare wooden table, such as one might find discarded in a skip or acquire for a pittance in a down market auction house. A single chair, of matching quality, faced the window. It was pushed half back as if the occupant had recently risen from it and would presently return. A book, a few sheets of paper torn from a loose leaf pad, a magazine, a pen, a pencil and – incongruously – a coaster portraying a bowl of fading roses, - were the sole items occupying the surface of the table.


The occupant’s tiny, uneven writing covered several of the sheets of paper. It was the writing of a man who had returned to the craft after many years of neglect only to find that his fingers had grown too large for the pen and his movements too coarse and gross for the technical requirements of writing. The writing which covered the pages seemed to consist of annotations from the book that lay beside them. It was a history of the social and political upheavals of the years following the Second World War.


It was a library book, now long overdue.


There was also a heavily corrected page upon which the writer had begun work upon an autobiography. Whether he had given up in despair or had cast it aside with a view to continuing at a later date was not apparent. That he had struggled, even on this first page, to adequately express all that he desired, was evident in the increasing frenzy of the corrections.


The first sentences, written with painstaking deliberation and grandeur, made it quite clear that here was a man who was embarking on an epic journey to the ruined cities of his own past.


‘My life, (it said), although it had its beginnings in a small market town in the north of England in 1957, could only be said to have truly realised itself when, in 1976, I met Amanda. My death, which I now await with equanimity, occurred with hers in 2001.’


After this strong beginning it returned predictably to his early childhood and his schooling. I did not read any further.


A bookcase, which only revealed itself as one entered fully and could note its position, was hiding pathetically behinds the door, pressed against the wall as if embarrassed by its inadequacy. The space occupied by the wall was not large but, nonetheless, the bookcase seemed shrunken and misplaced. It seemed to complement those shrivelled pieces of discarded orange peel which had dried and curled on the threadbare floor covering, which had similarly withdrawn into itself to reveal a surround of uneven, cold, creaking boards.


There were some books on its shelves. They lay where they had fallen, like so many neglected corpses. A flimsy covering of parasitic dust had settled over them. It was an eclectic mix – books about the history of the 20th Century, nineteenth and early 20th Century novels, a couple of texts from more recent writers. There were no texts of what might be described as a lighter nature. All were heavy, dark tomes, hard backed and with tiny print, obviously gathered cheaply from the shelves of charity shops and second hand booksellers.


A tiny radiant, electric fire, which had long since lost its radiance and whose glow seemed buried deep within dark coals mirrored in its resentful inadequacy the bookcase which it faced. A single high backed armchair, well worn, a newspaper on the floor beside it, was drawn close as if to jealously absorb every drop of heat the ailing fire could produce.


It was a room that made one think of decay and lingering death. Life, like the fire, had held on there by the slenderest means – one could hardly understand how. Whatever hope or optimism there might have been, it seemed to me, was present only in the books and the writings.


Here and there were a few indications that an effort had at one time been made to render it more homely. There were a number of photographs loosely pinned to the wall and now curling in distorted angles away from each other. A mug, a spoon, a comb lay on the bookcase top beside a framed fading wedding photograph, a cheap radio and a carriage clock. A half empty glass of water lay on the floor by the bed. A book lay open, face down beside it. I smiled to note its title, ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville. It was difficult to imagine Ahab here; perhaps an aged, dying Ishmael, I thought.  


There were a number of boxes under the bed, no doubt containing clothing and other personal items for which there was no space in the room other than a tiny cupboard, between the fire and the window, cut into the wall and hidden by a small door.


It was to the photographs that I turned first. Most had been taken many years previously. I handled them with strange reverence. Even though their owner was dead, it still felt intrusive to peer like this, without invitation.


Here, there was a young man and woman on a crowded seaside promenade. I looked idly for clues to its locality but it could have been any one of a number of cheap, unattractive locations. It was the sort of place you visited when you were young, when sea, sun, sand, ice cream, fish and chips, plastic glasses, sweaty dance floors, vomit stained streets and late nights seemed to possess an attraction that later years could not recapture. She worse a garland of flowers and he sported a straw hat. They looked happy.


They had just emerged from one of many seaside attractions, perhaps an Undersea Adventure, a Waxworks or perhaps the lounge bar of a hotel where their chatter had been drowned periodically by a smartly dressed singer and a four piece band. They had been intercepted by a street photographer and had succumbed to his pitch and posed like so many other couples before them. Now they would head to the beach where they would spend a lazy afternoon of sea, sand and kisses, before the increasing chill would draw them back to the boarding house and the six o’clock three course meal. Afterwards they would dress and head out to the dim lights and the crowded dance floors, the cinema and the cabaret. Night would seduce them back to the tiny bedroom, the cold sheets and the intimate closeness of warm bodies.


Another photograph, taken a few years later, and there they were, recognisable still, with two other people, perhaps twenty or thirty years older. They had recently emerged from the back door of a small, red bricked terraced house. The door, freshly painted a light blue, is clearly visible behind them adjacent to what must have been a kitchen window with a white painted frame. They are at some distance from the house and are posing together on the lawn of a narrow back garden. It is a sunny day in summer. The flowers that surround the lawn and those that overflow the boxes beside the narrow concrete path and the door are noticeably bright and vivid in a firework display of colour. The same enthusiasm is evident in the bright eyes and smiles of the younger couple. He holds her, pulling her affectionately close. She glances towards him, her smile expanding into laughter. The older couple pose standing slightly apart and their eyes look at the camera.


Shortly after taking the photograph the group would have adjourned indoors for tea and cakes in the living room. A similarity in posture of the two women, and a likeness in the narrowness of the face, which in both cases is of a petite oval character, indicates that these are her parents. They have travelled some distance and have been staying in a nearby bed and breakfast, the terrace being rather small for them all and the furnishings not sufficient for their needs. The young couple are probably saving for a guest bed or a sofa bed which will ensure future visits are more intimate and of a longer duration. They will have many plans for the future – children, a car, holidays, a new vacuum cleaner, a food processor, pets. Amanda has always wanted a dog.


That they are happy we cannot doubt. The smiles are not posed and strained; they are joyful and exuberant. Even the older couple have regained something of the vigour of their youth from the infectious glow of the younger couple. They look as their narrowing perspectives have suddenly been opened and they too have a future and some hope of late flowering joy.


It is uncertain who is pressing the shutter of the lens but it seems likely that a self timer has been used.


There is no photograph of his parents, brothers or sisters, leading one to assume, perhaps, that he was an only child and that his parents had died some years previously. Perhaps he holds her especially tight for fear he may lose her.


There are few other photographs. One clearly shows the couple again, now in their mid to late thirties and developing a more relaxed and corpulent physique. From my enquiries I am aware that by this stage he has a regular job, working for the post office. It is work that has many advantages for him. He has regular holidays and sufficient time off to continue to improve his garden and to maintain the house. It is steady, secure work. Amanda has a part time job of her own, as a classroom assistant in the local primary school. She enjoys working with children.


Unfortunately the couple never managed to have a child of their own. It is a cause of much regret and one can be drawn to believe that a certain sadness in her eyes, in one photograph where she is surrounded by a small group of six or seven year old children, briefly betrays a germ of silent grief.


However, they have each other and a photograph taken in a local club, where they are surrounded by a group of similarly aged people, would suggest they have managed their disappointment and have a close bond and wider friendships that have strengthened them in their adversity. Once again they are looking at each other; they are laughing with their friends but their eyes still speak to each other alone.


The wedding photograph is of the couple alone and offers little further information. Theirs was no an expensive wedding. There were few flowers and much time was spent debating whether or not an organist was really required. Their clothing is appropriate rather than extravagant. However, it is clear from their expressions that no financial constraint could dampen the excitement of the day.


I find myself wondering if his parents were present or if, even then, he was alone.


There are no further photographs of note.


I notice that the cup on the bookcase has a faded seaside picture. It is of a pier, gaudily lit, with a number of people milling about its turnstiles. Sea and sand are somehow crushed into the view. A sign announces the ‘Follies Revue’ but the names of the stars are unfamiliar. There were words beneath the picture. ‘Happy Days,’ they say.


The clock is engraved. It was presented to the man on his premature retirement from the Post Office some ten years ago. It wishes him many years of happiness. The indications in the room and the evidence I had previously gathered suggest their wishes were perfunctory rather than sincere.


He had worked many years for the post office although in his later years he had been diverted from deliveries to situations where his work could be monitored and where his frequent absences would cause minimum disruption. It was rumoured that after the death of Amanda he had taken to drinking alone in his house.


In her lingering last months Amanda had begged him to look to his future and to plan for the time ahead. He was ashamed that he had been steadfastly unable to accommodate these dying wishes. His desolation began in those desperate weeks and only grew in intensity. In her final hours he had been unable to think of anything but the ways and means by which he could curtail his own existence and subdue the gnawing agony of his grieving.


In the awful aftermath he had simply imploded. When he finally emerged he was alone in a way that he could not initially comprehend. He was aware that his friends tended to avoid him. No-one wanted to listen to his outpourings of despair, night after night. They were sorry for him, of course, but, after all, they had their own worries and their own preoccupations. They wanted to relax over a drink, dominoes or darts and maybe listen to the music. It was too much to expect them to listen to him. It was depressing. Who wanted to think about grief, illness and death on a night out?


He had turned to unfamiliar faces and talked to them. He needed to talk, just like he needed to drink. Otherwise, how could he sleep? It was true that after sleep came waking and that recurring agonising realisation, but the first drinks of the day and the tablets he had been prescribed gradually eased him into numbness. But he needed to talk nonetheless.


He knew he could not allow himself to continue in this manner. Amanda would have admonished him severely. He had soon brought his drinking under control. There were no bottles in the room now and I noted that the one glass contained only water. His latter years appeared to have passed in the conditions to which grief and unhappiness had reduced him.


However, this appearance, I now suspected, was predicated on a false assumption. The cause, – his wife’s premature death – and the consequence, – his disregard for all the niceties of comfortable living - were indeed connected. That was undoubtedly true. However, it was, I was inclined to believe, connected not in the manner of a decline bred of despair, but as a consequence of a clear thought and of decisive judgement.


Amanda, dying, had begged him to look to his future and to plan for the time ahead. He clearly recalled her words. At the time it had been unthinkable to consider a future alone but now he had just sufficient strength to concentrate his mind on respecting and honouring her exhortations.


He had chosen to live like this.


He left the council house which had been their home for twenty years. He disposed of all but the few items I now scrutinised. The bulk of his income, meagre as it was, was donated to the various animal and children charities which Amanda had liked and for which he had gently mocked her. He kept for himself only as much as was required to maintain life, pay the rent and allow him to indulge in the modest luxury of writing and study.


He had made his decision. There would be no desperate action, no empty wallowing. Nor would there be forgetfulness. The future may approach and pass; he would remain still. He would provide himself with nothing but the barest requirements to maintain existence.


He would pass the time with stoic resignation, sitting in the waiting room he had constructed for himself. One day the train would arrive. He no longer watched for it with aching impatience, but he anticipated the relief its arrival would ultimately provide and he thought about it almost daily.


He passed his hours, days and weeks in this one room. He was a traveller, caught between trains, lingering in the darkness on a lonely platform. He looked at his watch, uncertain when the train would arrive. He passed the hours, as travellers do, in a sort of half existence. It was his chosen purgatory where, supplied with the essentials to pass the hours, the books, the papers, a radio, a chair, he would wait to move on. The train was on its way. It was just a matter of time.


It did not surprise me, when I explored the space beneath his bed, to find hidden behind two cardboard boxes stuffed with papers and books, a packed suitcase. He had obviously been preparing for a journey for some time.  


My report completed, I left the room with some relief. I was surprised to find only an hour had passed. It was twelve o’clock and time to find somewhere for lunch. I had entered the room a little before eleven.


‘It seems so many years ago,’ I thought.


I fastened my coat against a sudden chill that swirled restlessly around me.