Copyright Adam E. Smith
That young man behind Alice thinks she needs help stepping onto the platform. He doesn’t know that she is a little bit magical and will land squarely even if she tumbles from the train door.
Alice wobbles towards me. She spots my face: her eyes explode and her jaw drops. After years spent teaching young children, she recognises people with exaggerated surprise. It is the reason why old friends like me relish her presence at funerals.
The knee looks weaker than ever, but I do not doubt its special powers. Ever since a car reversed into Alice’s knee when we were sixteen years old, it has predicted the weather. That night in the car park we thought she’d broken it (“Is that even possible? Have you ever heard of someone breaking a knee bone?” old Tommy asked). But after five minutes she was photographing us again – from the ground. “It’s a more artistic angle,” she proclaimed.
Here she is now, in my arms. “Old friends die hard,” Alice says. I tell her that we’re going to a museum first (for me) and then we’ll take a trip (for her). Alice endorses the proposal with a precise nod. A dip of Alice’s head is like the click of a shutter release: it captures something forever. Alice always took the best photographs.
Without seeing the clouds en route to the museum, Alice notes, “We might just make it before the rain.” Her knee, sensing the change in air pressure, must be aching. Inside, Alice tells the steward that she’s going to leave her luggage just there under that table.
Since every shelf and niche in this house is occupied by an antique, Alice and I are reminded of her late parents’ fetish for old objects. While she used to denigrate them for this, I was just happy that they found space for me among the curios. When my dad was in hospital I had nowhere else to go. Each night for that tense week, Tommy and Elizabeth came round and the four of us listened to Elizabeth speak of her parents, who did not know she wasn’t at home. We talked about anything but my dad’s condition. Dad had not lasted long. As I consider this, Alice tilts her head.
Outside, the rain is pouring but Alice strides through it. Inhaling the draft from the Tube entrance, Alice turns to me and says, “It was the best thing you ever did, moving down here. You had to be in London.” While I had stayed around for a few years to take care of Mam after Dad’s kidneys finally gave in, Alice became the first of our generation to leave our hometown. The butcher talked about her for months.
Tenderly, she tells me now that she always thought we would somehow live close to each other. “We haven’t lived in the same town since we were eighteen years old,” she says. I realise that she’s right. Only Alice could have extracted from our separate lives this peculiar fact.
There’s a rally going on down Whitehall. But I have Alice for the weekend and no time for politics. So we squeeze through the throng and make it to Victoria Station for the Brighton train. Alice always loved the coast. Tommy once drew a wonderful picture of Alice as a mermaid. Ambling down towards the sea now, Alice says, “I never thought I’d be here.”
“Brighton?” I ask.
“No, here,” she says. “That life would be this long. And that I’d still be visiting new places.”
“Oh,” I ponder for a moment. “Me neither.”
We plod along the prom like two fat ducks with nowhere to go. I’m busy thinking of the summer I left for London. Tommy thought I’d stay to care for Mam. But ever since Dad’s death, my time felt scarce: your kidneys, the doctor had told me, might not last as long as his.
I don’t know whether Tommy ever understood my decision. He was too selfless, that lad: his heart was never going to survive. When Elizabeth was admitted to hospital towards the end, Tommy had stayed away. Although I did manage to visit, Elizabeth waited until she was alone with Alice before she passed on. Alice and I outlived Tommy too. At his funeral, she told me that he had worked on the trains for forty-five years. “But he never got anywhere,” she said.
It’s tricky for me to pick my way through the shingle but Alice persuades me to join her on the beach. She drops her bag onto the stones and, as pebbles jingle under her weight, Alice’s presence here is fixed. “I want to sit here and wait,” she says.
I am puzzled but agree instinctively that it’s a good idea. Alice is full of good ideas. In fact, I have one of them inside me now. You see, seven years ago, Alice gave me her kidney.
Copyright Adam E. Smith