Solis Café was a hotspot for the artists, poets, and creators of London. It was also a sanctuary for Malcom Whitby who, despite his age, enjoyed relaxing with younger generations. He would usually sit on a bar stool by the window, as he found that’s where the coolest people sat. Luckily if an old person walked in they would never sit on a chair without support anyway. He enjoyed talking with young people, they always seemed interested in his life story, or they were just too polite to tell him to shut up. He would always romanticise his biography because he found as a young man you would be prone to question your existence and destination in life.
But today he had to sit outside. Poppy, his black labradoodle, had kept him company on his midday litter pick and would be a talking point for his walk with Roger that afternoon. Malcom had sewn the extinction rebellion symbol on her lead and the students that worked there loved that, and they loved him for it. Everyone in the village felt that Malcom was on their side. He appreciated the quietness sitting outside brought today. Luckily it was late March, and the weather was pleasant: slightly sunny with a cool breeze pervading the air.
Gemma brought out Malcom’s tea and shortbread, and a few treats for Poppy.
“Did Michelle not join you today? She is okay isn’t she?” Gemma asked, holding a treat out for Poppy, waiting for her to sit.
Michelle had joined Malcom for a coffee last week, but she got upset when she couldn’t keep up a conversation with Gemma.
“No Gem, don’t worry!” Malcom put a hand on her shoulder. “She’s feeling much better than she was the other day! I’m meeting a friend at half past for a chat, his wife’s recently passed. Mitch thought we better have a talk, man to man.”
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that, were you close?” asked Gemma.
“Yeah, the four of us are, were, school friends. It’s hit Mitch pretty hard but I’m sure she’ll be back for a cake on Friday,” laughed Malcom. He felt slightly uncomfortable talking about death. He knew it had been closing in on his ilk for a while now, but it was still hard. In fact, he felt nervous about meeting Roger, but he had said on the phone after Julie’s passing that he was fine, relieved actually. She wasn’t in pain anymore.
After twenty minutes, Malcom hopped off the bar stool, stretched his legs, left £2 on the small dessert plate, and departed for the park opposite. He strolled amiably, smiling at passers-by, letting children come up to pet Poppy. He didn’t have to rush; he had ten minutes to spare before he was scheduled to meet his friend. Malcom hated being late and he hated people who were. Unluckily for him, Roger always got caught up in chatting with young women he found attractive. He spent the whole of Julie’s funeral reception talking to Malcom’s seventeen-year-old granddaughter. Roger was known for being a bit of a creep around the village. He didn’t mean to be, he would argue ‘I’m just being friendly. Jesus Christ, you can’t even compliment a woman nowadays without getting accused of being a pervert!’ Malcom was always embarrassed by Roger’s ignorance, but he had to be loyal, they had been friends since they were young.
Malcom had met his wife, Michelle, at secondary school. They became close on the last Friday before the summer holidays in 1959, and this was the feeling he had always associated with her, a kind of fun and forthcoming freedom. Michelle told Malcom he stood out to her because he had blonde hair but strikingly dark eyebrows. He was also a popular well-liked guy because he was funny and friendly to everyone. She liked how he nicknamed her ‘Mitch’ long before they started dating. And when Michelle found out Malcolm was the one who, with Roger’s help, stole a clock every Friday to baffle and bemuse the teachers, she liked him even more, and she knew she had to introduce Roger to Julie.
Julie was Michelle’s best friend. Roger was Malcom’s best friend, so it was inevitable Roger and Julie would eventually get together. They weren’t as strong of a match as Malcolm and Michelle, but they loved each other and got through life. Julie was sometimes jealous of the Whitbys’ relationship and reputation around the village, but she kept that to herself.
Malcom waited at the top of Bloomsbury Square for five minutes after the allotted time. He huffed, and went searching for Roger. Of course, he found him in the completely wrong place with a stranger’s baby in his arms.
“I told you to meet me at the top of the park! And give that bloody baby back to its mother!” shouted Malcom.
“This is the top!” Roger said, smirking at his dramatic friend, swapping the baby for a cuddle with the excited Poppy. Malcom rolled his eyes “This is the bottom you berk!”
Roger wasn’t fazed by Malcom’s stubbornness, “Well you should’ve been more specific.”
The two men proceeded to have a ‘discussion’ about which way was north and why it was unacceptable to take a baby from its pram and cuddle it like it’s yours. Roger tittered, and they started to walk through the arched-shaped trees.
The sun disappeared behind the clouds, so Malcom was glad he wore his khaki raincoat. It looked like it was about to spit. Roger on the other hand was only wearing a beige jumper over a red shirt to keep him warm. He said he’d packed away his coats on the first day of March in excitement for his impending summer.
Poppy was bounding along happily beside her owner. She was only two years old so still had the energy of a joyful puppy. Malcom bought her to cheer Michelle up after her diagnosis, and she certainly did her job. She was so friendly she would greet everyone on her walks, and Malcom swore she was always smiling. Today she was fascinated with an older lady leaning on her zimmer frame with her carer. The two men silently knew she had mistaken this woman for Julie.
The two started and became silent. The stillness between them had started to become awkward, and Malcom knew what he had to say. He slightly stuttered before asking, “So, how are you feeling since we lost Julie?”
“I’m okay, honestly,” answered Roger. “You don’t need to ask. I know it’s painful.”
“I just want you to know I’m here for you,” Malcom said. “What about Simon? My kids are always so worried about losing Mitch?”
“Oh you know Simon, he’s keeping himself busy at work. He’s upset he didn’t come to see her last week when I told him to, but Julie was so pleased to see you before she passed that day,” Roger smiled. Malcom looked on vacantly. He had fallen deep into his imagination.
Roger noticed his pain. “You need to understand we had accepted her death a long time before last week. It was something we knew was approaching. In fact it was coming so slow! Julie sometimes wished it would speed up. And now she’s out of pain, and I can carry on with my life,” Roger said, putting a reassuring arm around Malcolm’s shoulder. This made him feel weird. To a stranger, it looked as though Malcom was the one grieving.
“Look I don’t want to pry but…” Malcom stuttered again “You just…you’re more chipper than I thought you’d be. I know grief is different for everyone but I can’t bear the thought of life without Mitch.”
Michelle had been suffering for a while, two years, just like Julie. It started with her getting confused following recipes and paying for groceries. Then she started forgetting birthdays and names. Suddenly Malcolm and Roger were in the café discussing Alzheimer’s, cancer, and life without their wives. Both their conditions were steady until five months ago when Julie caught a virus that didn’t seem to leave. Her lungs became poisoned with a raging cough that burnt her throat and left her breathless. They had carers come in everyday and Julie insisted Roger to at least join the Whitbys for their traditional Friday dinner together, but it felt wrong. Soon enough the days piled up and neither had been outside for a month.
Roger knew his friend was not afraid of death, but of the lives that are left after.
“Malcom” he said, “please stop worrying. I promise you that when the time comes, it’ll be peaceful and…beautiful in a way. We knew it was time. The sun was setting, we were listening to old music and sat looking into our garden. Actually” He started to smile “a little robin flew down and perched in front of us in the conservatory and “We Have All the Time in The World” came on. Remember from our wedding? Julie clutched my arm, smiled at me, and then she fell asleep. Quietly and gently. It was perfect. And I knew she was happier. And then it was done.”
Malcom looked Roger in the eyes, disbelieving. Roger looked Malcolm in the eyes, knowing his suspicion.
Yes, Julie had been suffering for so long, but the Whitbys had visited her that day, they even had lunch together. She seemed adamant they come when Malcom said they should wait until the weekend, which he assumed was due to her wanting them to see her feeling better. She certainly seemed that way. Julie even managed to gather the strength to pass a box of little memories for Michelle to keep; brimmed with photographs, pressed daisy chains from when the two were 12, and the letters they sent when Julie’s family moved to Wales for a year. It wasn’t a coincidence. It was all perfectly planned out.
“It’s okay,” Malcom said. “I know you did it because you loved her.”
They walked a little further while he contemplated the events. The chilly wind picked up.
“How did you do it?” Malcom asked timidly.
“Her medication,” Roger answered, looking to the ground. “We knew there wouldn’t have been a post-mortem since she was so ill.”
It was clear neither man wanted to talk about it, in fact, there wasn’t much more to talk about anymore.
“We’ve been walking for miles.” Roger laughed, “Perhaps it’s time for us to go and put our feet up!” He went home to an empty house, and sat on the sofa next to the bed they had moved downstairs. Once his son came around to help him throw it away, he knew he could get his life back together again, and things would be okay.
Malcom went home to find Michelle sobbing on the sofa.
“Sorry Mitch! Don’t worry! I’m back!” he called out. She took the chance to look in the box Malcom told her not to touch. He knew he shouldn’t have left her home alone. In her hand, she gripped a black and white picture of the four of them on Julie and Roger’s wedding day. Poppy bounded over to Michelle and jumped on her lap, distracting her.
Quietly and without fuss, Malcom packed up the box, put it back in the cupboard, and stared at Michelle. He noticed her hair was getting long, he would need to trim that later. Michelle rubbed her eyes and turned to the window. She smiled at the birds in the garden that perched on the white chrysanthemum. She could look out there forever.
They sat in silence for a while as the sunlight drained from the room. Eventually, all Malcom could hear was the soft beat of their hearts.
He wondered how far he could go.