- Published: 2 July 2018
- ISBN: 9780718185015
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $19.99
Ivy And Abe
Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?
Frank Capra, It’s A Wonderful Life
I’m aware of him looking at me.
Whatever intuitive faculty it is that informs of things we should not be aware of has kicked in.
I begin to feel flustered.
If I look up, will I catch his eye? If I do, will I simply smile in acknowledgement or will I be forced to look away, embarrassed?
I think I know him from somewhere but it’s hard to tell. His face is partly obscured by the hat he’s wearing, the kind Max used to wear when he was a student.
A Greek fisherman’s hat, I had called it, but Richard had said, no, it was a Mao hat. ‘I imagine our son is trying to capture the revolutionary-worker look rather than the Mediterranean fisherman,’ he’d mused. ‘Combined with a touch of Dylan and a dash of Guthrie for good measure.’
Max had been laughably image-conscious at the time but, then, most boys that age are.
Connor, who is just four, is the opposite: totally unaware, even when he comes out with me dressed as a tiger. ‘Oh, look at you. Are you a tiger?’ well-meaning strangers ask, and my grandson shakes his head or sometimes explains that he’s ‘just wearing a tiger costume’.
Today he is a regular little boy in blue shorts and stripy sweater, and I am the one who appears to be an object of curiosity, which is rare in your seventies.
I carry on scanning my items at the till. The self-consciousness of knowing I’m being observed lends an awkward deliberation to the routine act of shopping, moving the bread, croissants and chocolate buttons – to bribe Connor with on the walk back to my flat – from one side of the self-checkout to the other.
Hannah will say, ‘I hope Grandma hasn’t been feeding you too much junk,’ when she comes to collect him after work. But she won’t really be cross with me. Or maybe she will, in private. But if I’m the mother- in- law who meddles, she never lets on.
Eventually, I allow myself a quick sidelong glance. He definitely reminds me of someone, or perhaps it’s just the hat.
I go back to my shopping, scan it all, pay and pick up the bag, meeting his eye now, smiling briefly.
And that would have been it, except he’s finished and paid too.
‘Excuse me.’ He draws alongside.
‘It’s Ivy, isn’t it?’
‘Yes.’ Where do I know him from?
‘Ivy Trent,’ he says, not questioning now.
‘Yes.’ He’s very familiar but from where? Is he a past colleague, someone connected to Lottie and Max’s childhood? Or one of Richard’s friends? He doesn’t seem to fit any of those categories.
‘This is my grandson, Connor.’ I stall for time, hoping for some further clue. ‘I don’t think you’ve met him.’
‘It must be at least sixty years,’ he says, and then, seeing my confusion, he’s about to introduce himself. ‘It’s –’
I get there first. ‘Abe?’ I ask, recognition slowly flooding through me. ‘Abe? Abe McFadden?’
I experience a sudden rush of emotion. There he is. My oldest childhood friend. My closest childhood friend. ‘I can’t believe it.’
An insufficient summary of everything I feel. I’d often thought of him over the years, wondered how he was and hoped life had been kind to him. Kinder than it had been when we were growing up.
Time seems to rewind and then jump.
It’s leapt to a place where Abe and I are five years old, standing shyly in the playground on our first day at primary school. I had seen him and wanted him to be my friend. And then he is, and we’re the kind of friends who are in and out of each other’s houses, part of each other’s families, the kind of friends people refer to in one breath, ‘Ivy’n’Abe’.
I look at him again now. He’s aged but the young Abe is still there, shifting on the spot, unsure what to say. His hair is grey but still thick and slightly unruly, the kind of hair that needs a close cut to tame it, the kind of cut he’s too shy to have because it would expose his face with its peculiarly inviting set.
He smiles now, and I see it in the way the wrinkles appear, in grooves that have deepened over the years: an expression that suggests kindness, coupled with gentle humour and a trace of sadness.
Then my mind leaps to when it happened – the tragedy that would herald the end of our friendship.
And I’m brought back to the present by Connor, who is tugging at my coat. ‘Grandma, I want to feed the ducks.’
‘In a minute,’ I say, stroking his head, still amazed at how happy the silkiness of his hair makes me feel. Being able to look after Connor has injected some real joy back into my life. Children make sense of all the pain and loss.
I wonder if I’d not had children how much harder their father’s death might have been, and if Hannah had not just given birth to Connor, would I have been able to bear it when my brother Jon died almost a year to the day later? In Lottie and Max there are so many traces of my husband that they give me hope, even in my darkest moments. They are physical reminders that life goes on, that the particles of the universe keep on being reconfigured, the sun keeps rising and the world keeps turning on its axis and around the sun, towards new dawns and new seasons.
When the first shoots of spring begin to appear, I smile inside in a way that I don’t think I used to. No matter how harsh the winter, spring always comes in the end.
‘I just want to speak to this man.’ I look at Abe again and Connor begins rooting around in the shopping bag I’ve asked him to carry.
‘Can the ducks have croissants as well as bread?’
‘No, they’re for me!’
‘Can’t they have one? You don’t need four.’
‘I don’t think they like them, Connor.’
Isn’t there a sign somewhere in the park, asking people not to feed croissants to the ducks? Or is that something I made up? I’m getting increasingly forgetful, these days, as to what actually happened and what might have been a joke or a story, mine or someone else’s.
‘They should try them,’ Connor persists. ‘How do they know if they like something or not, if they haven’t tried it?’
I laugh at him. He’s so like Max, who sounded like me when he was little. Abe smiles. Is he a grandparent too?
‘Can we go now?’
‘Just a minute, darling. This man is someone I used to know a very long time ago, when I was about the same age as you.’
Connor looks up, interested in the solipsistic way that toddlers are when people relate to them in a way they have not previously realized. ‘But you’ve always been old,’ he says, with conviction.
Abe chuckles. ‘You’ve always been young in my mind,’ he says. ‘It’s such a surprise to see you again.’
‘Can we go?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say to Abe. ‘We’re going to the park to feed the ducks. Can you walk with us a little way?’
The way he says it, it’s more than a simple affirmation. It’s as if he’s been waiting for me to ask him and has already decided to drop whatever plans he already had.
‘A redhead, just like you used to be,’ Abe says, smiling at Connor as he throws bread at the ducks. ‘Does your son have red hair too?’
‘No, nor my daughter. It skipped a generation.’
My own hair, which had lightened rather than greyed, had finally turned to a silvery white.
‘And my father’s baldness skipped one too,’ he says, nodding slightly as if to prove to himself that his hair was still there. ‘My son is thinning, though, which seems unfair. But genes have a nasty way of remembering family traits.’
He is musing but of course the sentiment stirred up memories. He doesn’t know. How could he? But he realizes he’s said something.
‘I’m sorry.’ He looks at me. ‘There’s so much to catch up on. I don’t even know where to begin.’
We didn’t get a chance, not then.
‘Connor, why don’t you see if you can spot any frogs?’
‘But I’m hungry.’
‘Would you like a pig?’ Abe fishes in his shopping bag, takes out a clementine and begins peeling it.
Connor looks suspicious but takes the segment.
I smile. ‘You remembered?’
Abe nods. ‘As if it were yesterday.’
It was so good to see him again but Connor is not entirely captivated. It is his day with me. Grandparents are supposed to be the adults who are not constantly distracted by other things.
‘That man’s not coming with us, is he?’ he asks, when I suggest we go to the café for lunch.
‘That’s not very polite —’
But Abe interrupt: ‘No, I have to be getting home.’
I’d established he lived nearby, that he’d worked as a consultant for a firm of landscape architects, had children and grandchildren, but I hadn’t worked out if there was anyone at home waiting for him. And I wanted to know. After all these years, I wanted to know. Was it the sadness I thought I could still see etched in the lines of his face? Was it because of my own loneliness, bearable now but ever present, that I needed to know if it was mirrored in the lives of others, just as I’d wanted to know when I first had children if other people had them too? Or was it simply because I’d carried something of Abe with me throughout my life and sometimes wondered if our friendship might have grown or morphed, if the circumstances had been different?
I read these things, occasionally, stories of people who’d used social media to dig up people from their past, wondering how they might fit into their present, often with disastrous results. Old lovers were allowed to rip through marriages, old friends unearthed in the hope of recreating times that were gone. When I read them, I thought of Abe and wondered, idly, what had become of him, what sort of man he had grown into, and about the people who were part of his life now.
Did I flush when I asked, ‘Is someone waiting for you? Have I held you up?’ I was aware of my hand moving towards my hair, smoothing a stray strand back behind my ear, suddenly conscious of the way I might appear.
‘No. But I’m in your way now, Ivy. Perhaps we could meet up another time.’
‘I’d like that.’
We swapped numbers and he gave me a hug. Then he touched my hair briefly. ‘Ivy Trent,’ he said. ‘Ivy Trent.’
The way he said it made me smile, inside and out, and all the way through.