a picture of aileen

‘I used to like doing puzzles until my hands got too bad and I couldn’t manage the pieces. Now I have to make do with giant sudoku.’
Aileen is sitting beneath a large colour studio photo of herself and husband Ian taken taken fifty years ago. Maybe Aileen is sitting there because of the light, or maybe it’s because she likes being as close as possible to an image of her life as it used to be. Whatever the reason, it would be difficult to imagine a harsher illustration of the effects of ageing. Portrait Aileen has a pile of golden hair banded at the cloudy peak with a tiara. She’s wearing a tartan skirt and sash, a silken blouse with ruffles, sparkling earrings and a pearl necklace. There’s a radiance to her that the blurry lens and the fancy drapes translates into something soapy but brilliant. Her husband Ian is just as enhanced, plump and red faced as a russet potato, packed into a kilt, waistcoat and bolero-jacket combination, medals and ribbons and pins, and one hand resting on Aileen’s shoulder, maintaining the transfer of power, one to the other. Real-time Aileen is somewhat reduced, of course. She’s sitting in a similarly demure posture, except now she’s in a fluffy blue dressing gown, the bouffant hair has collapsed into sparse threads of grey, and the rings on her fleshless hands hang loose.
‘We ran a restaurant together. For years – oh, way back,’ she says. ‘I loved it. Ian ran the kitchen side of things, I did the books. We both liked to entertain. Burns night we’d have the haggis piped in. You couldn’t wish for a better life. We had all kinds of celebrities. You wouldn’t have heard of them, of course. Then the lease got bought up by a city type, the rent doubled and we had to move on. Still – things change. No-one can help that.’
She coughs a few times. It sounds like someone shovelling rocks. When it passes, she settles herself again.
‘I get so terribly bored,’ she says. ‘Bored. Bored. Bored. Just sitting here.’
‘I bet. What about your family, though? Are they nearby?’
‘Not really,’ she says. ‘They’re spread about the place. They’ve got lives of their own.’
‘Here’s an idea,’ I tell her, warming to the theme. ‘Have you ever thought about putting your memories down? Writing about your grandparents, your mum and dad, that kind of thing? Not just the war – I mean how you and Ian met, all about the restaurant, who came in and out, what you got up to.’
‘I can’t hold a pen, love.’
‘You could get some kind of recording device. They’re pretty cheap these days. The thing is, I bet your grandchildren and great-grandchildren would love to read about these things, in a kind of family history way, with photos and everything. It’d be like one of your puzzles, only you’d be in all the pieces. It’s nice to know where you come from, how it all fits together. What do you think?’
Aileen is silent for a while.
‘No,’ she says at last. ‘Boring.’

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