‘When I was too old for football I took up cricket. And when I was too old for cricket I took up golf. And I played that for thirty years. And now look.’
By way of illustration, Mr Clark fusses with his dressing-gown cord, as thick as a tail, with a frayed and fluffy end. In fact, Mr Clark has such a long and lugubrious face, his expression so melancholy, I could easily be persuaded it is a tail, and that this is in fact Eeyore, magically – tragically – transformed into a frail old man.
When Mr Clark has achieved something approximating a knot, he sniffs sadly, and then gently replaces his hands right and left on the armrests.
‘So as you can imagine,’ he says, ‘…my current situation is not what you might call an unending round of frivolity.’
‘No. You’ve got a lot on your plate.’
‘I have got a lot on my plate. In fact, I’d go as far as to say, I need a bigger plate.’
It’s true. Things are particularly difficult for Mr Clark these days. Ten years ago he had an operation to correct some crumbling vertebrae in his lower back. But the operation failed, leaving him with reduced mobility and constant pain radiating down his right leg. Surgically there’s nothing more that can be done. The only thing left is to load him up with painkillers and put in carers four times a day. He spends hours in the chair, watching sport on TV, or staring out of the window into the garden.
‘I used to enjoy all that,’ he says. ‘Gardening, I mean. But of course even that’s denied me now. Graham comes round to mow the lawn. He does what he can. But Graham’s not the man he used to be, neither.’
‘I think I met Graham last time I was here’ I say. ‘Hasn’t he got a little Yorkshire Terrier?’
‘Lucy,’ says Mr Clark, sadly. ‘Yes. He adopted her. He used to do some work for Gladys next door. But then she died, and no-one wanted the dog.’
‘That was nice of him.’
‘She’d let Lucy get terrible fat, poor thing. She never used to walk her, y’see? She could hardly walk herself. She’d let her out the back every now and again, and you’d see her gasping, waddling around with her tongue sticking out. Eyes bulging. That’s not a good look, not for anyone.’
‘Still. It sounds like she’s landed on her paws with Graham.’
‘I suppose,’ sighs Mr Clark. ‘She’s slowly getting back to normal. But he ought to watch her round that mower of his. She hasn’t got the sense to avoid it herself. Or the legs.’
The walls of Mr Clark’s front room are covered with pictures: Mr Clark in three-quarter profile with his hair slicked back; Mr Clark throwing himself into a tackle; Mr Clark swiping a bat; Mrs Clark in a Doris Day dress and pearls; Mr and Mrs Clark caught in the flash of a camera at a party; laughing and ducking through a shower of confetti outside a church; assorted babies in prams, in Mrs Clark’s arms, on picnic blankets, faces smeared with jam, waving wooden spoons, crying; kids in school uniforms, in sports day kit, at Christmas parties, red-eyed in the flash amongst piles of tinsel and balloons and wrapping paper; young men and women in mortar boards and gowns, self-consciously holding diploma rolls, or shaking someone’s hand as they accept a certificate; then more babies in more recent pictures, with Mr Clark and his wife bookending the group, and then in the centre with everyone standing round them; then smaller photos of someone sky-diving, posing on a yacht in sunglasses, raising a glass of wine. And last of all, propped up on the mantelpiece, a picture of Mrs Clark on an order of service, some dates in gold leaf, a border of lillies.
‘How did you two meet?’ I ask him.
‘I saw her and her friend Janice in the street, standing outside a jewellery shop. I liked the look of her so I went over and said did she know the way to the Hippodrome? And when she told me I repeated it back all wrong, which made her laugh, and she told me again, and I got it wrong again, and so in the end she said it would save everyone a lot of bother if she just took me there herself. So that’s what she did. And we stopped off in a Lyon’s tea shop, and we only parted company sixty years later.’
He looks down, fiddles with the cord of his dressing-gown again, and shakes his head.
‘I don’t know,’ he sighs.
‘What don’t you know?’
‘All this. I mean – what’s it all for?’
‘I’m sorry you’re feeling so low.’
He lets go of the cord and grips the arms of the chair again, as tightly and purposefully as someone who fully expected to be thrown out at any moment.
‘It’s just so much sitting around,’ he says. ‘It’s probably high-time I went.’