Pictures on a Wall

Colette Coen

Alec told Monika to meet him in a coffee shop two buses away, a chain where the young ones behind the counter barely look up as they go through their script. His wife Margaret’s friends were unlikely to travel so far, but he scanned faces as he weaved through buggies just in case any of this got back to her. He ignored an empty couch, knowing that his hip wouldn’t get him back up again, and chose a table with upright chairs instead.

* * *

Margaret had never been interested in the computer. In fact, she was never done complaining about how he wasted too much time on it. But leisure was what retirement was meant to be about, that and family, it was just Margaret didn’t see it that way.

Facebook had been a revelation to Alec – every programme and magazine article seemed to end with the blue symbol and it pricked his curiosity. He never thought for a moment that six months later he would be sitting in a café with Charlie at his side for moral support, waiting. Old fool. It was only right that Charlie should be here since he was the one who had started it all. One night at the bowling club he’d told Alec that he’d Friend him. ‘But I’m already your friend,’ Alec had replied.

‘Not like that, you daft bugger, on Facebook.’

‘Oh,’ said Alec, ‘I’ve just been Liking Terry’s Chocolate Orange and Top Gear.’

‘No, you Friend people too, that’s the fun of it, look up old girlfriends and put a bit of spice in your life.’

By the time he got home that night there was a request from Charlie, and when he responded, he magically got a list of other men from the club and some from Charlie’s old regiment suggesting Alec might know them too. He did know some of them, and by the next Friday he had 34 friends, each one coming with a list of others he might know. He sat for hours, reading through their posts, even figured out how to have a conversation when the little message box popped up in the corner, and that folk were online if a green light appeared next to their name. Margaret tutted loudly when she passed what they still referred to as the spare room even though it was where he housed his laptop, his clothes, and his bed. It seemed to be acceptable that she went out for coffee, but for him to spend a little bit of time doing what he enjoyed, oh no. Tut, Tut, Tut. Her coffees went on all day as well and sometimes it was just a chop under the grill and chips in the oven for dinner, with the pleasure of having to listen to second-hand tales of woe with Margaret’s added commentary.

‘Carol says Gordon’s knee has gone again, but maybe if he got out of that infernal armchair he wouldn’t have so much bother.’

Alec corrected her, ‘It’s shrapnel from the Falklands.’

‘What? How would you know?’

‘I’ve messaged him,’ Alec said, ‘I’m going to Skype him once I get the camera set up.’

Margaret’s rolled eyes told him that his contribution to the conversation was less valid than hers, so he didn’t dare tell her that he’d found her bridesmaid, Nell, or the first girl he ever kissed. They were all waiting there to be found, posting photos of themselves as girls and as the women they had become. He tuned out Margaret’s prattle. Violet was there, the light still sparkling out from her pale green eyes, the way it had when he’d walked her along the prom and kissed her lips. They’d yielded the way Margaret’s never did. He should have known then, that Margaret’s pursed little mouth was made like that for a reason – for bitterness and vitriol – not for loving. He could remember Violet’s laugh, the way it made his spine tingle with joy, but she’d been sent away to spend a summer with a sick aunt, and when she came back Margaret had taken her place.

Violet hadn’t shrunk though with the rejection, in fact she married within a year, had five kids, 12 grandkids and was coming up for her Ruby Wedding. He scrolled through the photos on her page, Violet and Jim, surrounded by generations of more sparkling green eyes, and he found himself crying for the first time in years. He had only one child as after he was born Margaret declared she was never going through that again.

When he was working he’d gone to bed each night exhausted by revenue figures and profit margins, but after the retirement cards had been thrown in the bin he’d found it more difficult to sleep. Something nagged at the back of his mind, younger green eyes than Violet’s sneaked into his dreams – Monika. Persisted until he knew what he had to do – Monika. He woke with purpose.

Margaret was getting a perm and then meeting Carol for lunch, so he had plenty of time. He turned on his computer the minute she closed the front door and went straight to the search box. Her surname was unusual, spelt with all the letters in the wrong place, Margaret had said, but it was an easy one to remember. The site filtered as he typed, but he was still surprised that he had more than a dozen to choose from. He ruled out the Eastern Europeans and the Americans and was left with only two whose status showed they lived in the UK. The first just had a standard silhouette; while the second profile picture was of a pink gerbera. He could always message both, he thought, but his eye kept being drawn back to the long thin petals of the flower. She’d worn pink the first time they met. ‘Tacky,’ Margaret had said, ‘not at all what I was expecting.’

Alec’s hands began to tremble as he clicked to make a Friend Request. He’d been composing the message half the night, but it didn’t flow as well now that he struggled to find each key. ‘I know it has been far too long, and I’m ashamed of that, but if you are the girl I remember you’ll have pity on an old man and accept me as your friend.’ She accepted his request within hours and opened up her life to him through the pictures on her wall.

A grin danced across his face the whole day and he couldn’t believe that Margaret didn’t comment when she got back, but she never much looked at him these days.

* * *

‘Will you recognise them?’ Charlie asked as he tried to squeeze another cup out of his teapot.

‘Of course, I’ve seen the photos.’

‘Aye, well, I’ve seen many photos, and believe me, the camera does lie.’

‘Well, you should know better than going on blind dates at your age.’

‘Monika was such a lovely girl, do you remember? You met her once or twice,’ Alec said.

‘Aye, a beauty that’s for sure.’ Charlie had never been one for prying even now when you could access people’s lives with the click of a mouse. ‘I’ll just go and get us another pot of tea.’

When he returned Monika and Anya had arrived at the table. Charlie stood back as Alec hesitantly shook Monika’s hand before taking Anya in his arms and holding her as though he would never let go.

‘I see you’ve made it,’ Charlie said, breaking the magic.

Alec unbuttoned Anya’s coat and sat down with her on his lap. ‘What do you think, Charlie? I told you she was a beauty.’

‘Two beautiful girls,’ Charlie agreed and when no one spoke he broke the silence by asking Monika if Colin was well.

‘Oh yes,’ Monika said, then she turned her gaze to Alec. ‘He misses his parents though.’

Alec coughed and wiped spittle from his mouth before he said, ‘Did you tell him you were coming?’

She shook her head. ‘Did you tell Margaret?’

‘Our little secret,’ Alec said, and he took Anya’s chubby hand and blew a raspberry on to it making her giggle. Monika put her hand protectively across to her daughter, and Alec noticed the wedding ring. ‘That’s new,’ he said.

‘Nearly two years now, we did write.’

Alec nodded. He’d spent hours looking at the photos on her page. Liking each one, adding comments like Hope you enjoyed your day. Sorry we couldn’t be with you. ‘We were on holiday,’ he paused, ‘that was the lie wasn’t it.’

Monika tightened her lips and nodded. ‘I understood,’ she said, ‘but your son did not.’

‘Were your parents there?’

‘Of course,’ she said, her Polish directness cutting through him.

‘And they’ve met Anya?’

‘My mother came over for her birth. We visited last year also.’

Alec stirred his tea slowly. ‘I don’t even really know what happened,’ he said finally. ‘I was at a buyers’ meeting in Carlisle and when I came back…’ He took a sip of his tepid drink and thought how easily he’d let the boy slip away, how easily he’d let all this slip away. ‘You know Margaret – her way or no way.’

‘And you allowed that,’ Monika said half as a statement, half as a question.

‘I don’t know. She wouldn’t talk about it, you see. And the weeks slipped by, then the months.’ He stopped and brought his head up to meet her eye. ‘I was wrong Monika. I hope you can forgive me.’

‘It’s not my forgiveness you need, and not your apology to make. She called me a hoor,’ Monika said with Margaret’s stark Scottish intonation whistling through the last word.

Alec nodded. He’d heard her use the word often enough, but he never imagined that she would say it of her own daughter-in-law. And how did she define it? he wondered for the first time. A blouse too flimsy; a laugh too loud; green eyes with too much sparkle? How many of his friends would she define in such a way, hoors and hoormongers every one of them, sending him crazy videos to watch on YouTube of dancing pensioners living their lives like it wasn’t a sentence.

‘Dad?’ A familiar voice roused him from his thoughts. A word he hadn’t heard properly in years. A word that stabbed like a coronary.

‘You said he didn’t know you were meeting me,’ Alec said.

Colin looked away from his father and directly at his wife. ‘You checked in on FourSquare. I was just round the corner, thought I’d drop in and have a quick coffee. See my girls.’

‘You remember Charlie?’ Alec said, but Charlie had stood up and was putting on his coat, making way for Colin to sit down.

‘I’ll leave you folks to it,’ he said. Then he patted Alec’s shoulder, ‘I’ll message you later.’

Anya launched herself into her dad’s arms and started pulling his nose.

‘You used to do that when you were a nipper,’ Alec said. ‘That and swiping my glasses. You’ve not got your glasses on son. He always was terrible at the school for not wearing them,’ he said to Monika, ‘always getting told off.’

‘I had them lasered.’

‘Never fancied it myself,’ Alec said. Then they all sat in silence until a loud eruption from Anya’s nappy caused Monika to jump up and grab her change bag.

‘What are you doing here, Dad?’ Colin finally asked.

‘I’m not quite sure, son. I got into Facebook,’ he said. ‘All my pals have.’ He stopped for a moment to consider why he really was here before he continued. ‘But, you see, I was just looking at everyone else’s lives – never posting anything of my own. I’ve got no pictures on my wall, none of you, none of your family. I’ve not got much of my life left, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to leave an empty timeline when I’m gone.’

‘What about Mum?’

‘Still a bitch,’ Alec said, and forty years of truth spilled out.

Monika had met someone on the way back from the toilets, and stood with Anya on her hip talking and laughing, letting Colin and Alec re-connect. When she got back to the table Alec asked Colin if he had a smart phone and a spare room.

‘Aye, Dad.’

‘Can I have a borrow?’

‘Of which one?’ Colin asked.

‘Both,’ Alec said and before Colin had a chance to answer he continued, ‘the wee envelope, that’s email right?’ He typed the address he’d set up for Margaret and cc’ed Charlie so he could help her open it. He’d always had a fancy for her, randy old bugger, and it wouldn’t take him long to swoop when Alec changed his status to Single.

‘Four years ago you made me choose between you and Colin. I chose wrong, but it’s not too late to make amends. Take care of yourself, and when someone points a camera at you will you stop being so greeting-faced. You never know, one day you might end up a picture on someone’s wall. Alec.’