In the kitchen, he puts the used teacup in the empty stainless steel sink and stands for a few minutes looking out of the window into the back garden. They have lived in this house their whole married life. From time to time, Dorothy has suggested moving – sometimes to another town or to the countryside, sometimes to the sea or even abroad. They could even travel, she said, now that their children were grown up and no longer at home. But he would rather stay where they are. He grew up in this town; he has never lived anywhere else in his life.
The things on the windowsill are Dorothy’s. There is a small frame containing an old photograph of a woman. She is so familiar; she has been on the kitchen windowsill for forty years and he has no doubt looked at her every day, and yet he has no idea, he thinks now, who she is. She looks a lot like his Dorothy – perhaps he knew once that it was a favourite aunt or a grandmother, but if he ever knew he doesn’t know now.
Next to the photograph is an empty vase, and a stone the size of his fist. He picks it up, weighs it on his palm. It has a hole worn through the middle; it is like a cored apple. He wonders how it got there, the hole. Through it he can see his own hand, the naked pinkness, his life line and his love line.
Dorothy listens to a programme called Love Line on a local radio station. Listeners call in with their own stories about how they met someone or lost someone, with proposals and confessions, and then they request a dedication, a love song. Tacky, says Wilfred, sentimental popcorn. He is not one of the world’s great romantics, says Dorothy. She used to tease him about calling in with a request for her, but she hasn’t mentioned it in a while.
The radio isn’t working properly; when he turns it on there is interference, white noise. He picks it up, takes it over to the table and sits down. For a minute, he just holds it, this beautiful, broken old thing, and then he takes a coin out of his pocket, fits it in the slot on top of the plastic case, and twists. The case pops apart.
It is a lovely little transistor radio, a Constant, turquoise and gold. It is the radio Dorothy brought into the antiques shop where he used to work, asking if they did repairs. He wasn’t supposed to, said Wilfred, not unless she was selling. He looked at the Vulcan 6T-200 she was holding, her slender thumb with its polished nail toying with the dial. It was foreign; he hadn’t seen one before. He didn’t know how it worked, what he would find if he prised open the case. But yes, said Wilfred, he could do it.
After they were married, it drove Dorothy mad to find their things in bits all the time – the component parts of the record player all over the carpet, her music box disassembled on the sofa, the mess of stuff all over the kitchen table. She worried about small, crucial pieces getting lost – slipping down behind the sofa cushions, rolling under the fridge, dropping between the floorboards. She told him off for tinkering with things that weren’t broken, things that weren’t his, for having such busy little fingers.
Dorothy, confined to bed now by her illness, frets about the downstairs rooms she can’t see. She imagines Wilfred pottering about dismantling their things; she imagines the dishes and the washing and the dirt piling up. She has to rely on him to keep it all in good order. She says to him, “All as it should be?” “All as it should be,” he says, holding out his dishpan hands as proof.
To look at her, he thinks, you wouldn’t suspect a thing. You wouldn’t know that beneath her clear skin a tumour is eating her alive; you wouldn’t know that her calm, grey eyes are going blind. She is losing her memory; she has lost the feeling in her toes. “When I’m better,” she said, “we’ll go walking again, and I need new walking boots.” “Yes, love,” he said, taking her dirty cup from the bedside table.
Wilfred sits quietly gutting the radio on the kitchen table, on the plastic tablecloth. The tablecloth depicts the changing seasons. Tiny screws lie at the base of the autumn tree like strange windfall. His right arm rests on winter; the thinning elbow of his cardigan presses against the bare tree, against the snow, against the cold plastic.
When Dorothy got ill, he didn’t change the channel; he listened to her programme while he washed up, and caught himself singing (Just one smile…) while he dried (Just one kiss…). But mostly he moves about in silence, in socks on the carpet, while Dorothy sleeps upstairs. He feels like a stealthy burglar, quietly rooting through drawers, looking for everyday things which Dorothy has always been in charge of, looking for paper on which to write a letter to his brother-in-law, looking for her recipes so that he can make Dorothy her favourite dessert. He has never written to his brother-in-law or made a dessert in his life; these things are in Dorothy’s domain. He feels like a trespasser in Dorothy’s house, going through a stranger’s things.
He found her scrapbook of favourite recipes in the big bottom drawer in the kitchen, with annotations in pencil – nice cold the next day, tinned is fine, good with almonds. Her favourite dessert is tiramisu; it is the first thing she ever made for him. The pencilled note says, Wilfred didn’t like it.
She is very tidy, Dorothy, but she is a hoarder. In the same drawer, he found a serviette from a café, a handful of seashells, old theatre and concert programmes, a small fluffy toy he once won at a fairground – a cheap thing which she has kept all this time. He found birthday cards – To Dorothy, they said each year, with love from Wilfred – and the cursory postcards he sent her when he was away from the family on business trips, and half a dozen letters, aged and faded, the postmarks almost as old as their youngest daughter. He took them out and read them, and it was like falling through a hole in time .My darling, they said to Dorothy, who was still so young. He leaned his weight on the kitchen counter, the pages quivering from the slight tremble in his fingers. I love you, they said, and Yours always. He is not, Dorothy has said, an emotional man, but, reading these old letters he found that his cheeks had become wet. He dried them on his shirt cuff, and then he pulled the sleeve of his cardigan down over the damp cuff. He put the letters back in their envelopes and put them back in the drawer; he put everything back the way it had been, keeping it all in good order.
He bends over the radio’s innards like a surgeon exploring a patient on the operating table, searching for the fault – looking for something loose, looking for degradation – wanting to fix it; trying, with his set of tiny screwdrivers and his Brasso, to turn back time, to make this old thing like new, as it used to be, as it is supposed to be.
He has never been with another woman. He has never wanted anyone but Dorothy.
They honeymooned in Morecambe. They walked on the beach, Dorothy pausing every few steps to pick up some pretty thing which caught her eye, filling her pockets with empty shells. Wilfred, dawdling beside her, wanted nothing more, wanted nothing to change.
They spent their summer holidays in Morecambe too – every year except one, when Dorothy suggested trying somewhere new. They tried Scarborough, but Wilfred didn’t enjoy it. “It’s not Morecambe,” he said.
The last of the winter light dribbles in through the two small kitchen windows. The outside world, with all its people, all its noise, all its growth and change, seems miles away; the world is these two windows, these two patches of blank, grey sky. It is not even four o’clock but it is getting dark. He switches on the too-bright striplight which Dorothy would be glad to see the back of, along with the rest of the tired old kitchen. Some of the cupboard doors are loose, and the big bottom drawer sticks, and the sink leaks, and the linoleum floor is worse for wear. “When I’m better,” Dorothy said, “we should get a new kitchen – new units, and a sink with a mixer tap, and nice stone tiles on the floor.” A stone floor would be cold in the winter, he said, and mixer taps were unhygienic. He liked it, he said, the way it was, but he would tighten the hinges on the cupboard doors and reseal the sink.
It has been this way for forty years, and it has been just fine, he thinks, so why go making trouble now, why go making all that mess? Has she even looked in that drawer, he wonders – the drawer in which she keeps the recipes she now makes from memory, and the forty-year-old keepsakes, and the faded love letters – in all that time?
And it is just as long since he last took the back off the radio. It has lasted remarkably well. It is simple to fix, as it happens: one deft turn and it is mended; a good clean and polish with a soft cloth and it is restored to its former glory. He puts the two halves of the case together again, snaps them shut, and tests it. It is as good as new. It looks the way it looked when Dorothy returned to the shop at the end of the week, stepping through the doorway and walking towards the counter, her heels loud on the bare floorboards. It looks the way it looked as she turned it over in her hands, admiring his work, as she turned the dial through the stations, found Gene Pitney (I don’t ask for much…) and lingered there, asking what time he finished work.
He puts on the kettle and rinses out the Duchess teacup.
They went to a café and had a pot of tea. He had a scone and Dorothy had a tiramisu. Sinking the prongs of her fork into her dessert, she said, “Italian cakes…” and as her lips closed over the first bite, her face said exquisite. Between mouthfuls, licking her lips, she said, “I’d love to go to Italy.”
He puts the radio under his arm and goes upstairs, climbing slowly to keep the tea steady in its cup, his socks deathly quiet on the stair carpet. He opens the bedroom door and puts the tea down on Dorothy’s bedside table.
“When you write to my brother,” she says, “tell him we’ll come and visit in the summer.”
“I was thinking,” he says, “about making your tiramisu.” Dorothy smiles. “It’s a nice thought, Wilfred,” she says, “but I’m not sure I have the appetite for it, and you’d just make a mess, and anyway I don’t think I have the recipe anymore.” He watches her, trying to see in her unfocused eyes, in her unchanged expression, whether she has forgotten all these things she kept in the big bottom drawer which sticks, but he can’t tell.
“All as it should be?” she asks him.
He reaches out with a dishpan hand and cups the side of her head, her skull and her warmth in the palm of his hand, his thumb stroking her temple. He takes the radio from under his arm, turns it on and tunes it to Dorothy’s favourite station. She smiles. “All as it should be,” he says.
“When I’m better,” says Dorothy, “we should go on a proper holiday. I’ve always wanted to see Italy.” Wilfred sits down on the edge of the bed, picks up the teacup and puts it in Dorothy’s waiting hands. “Yes,” he says, but the romance countries don’t appeal to him.
“This is the wonderful Gene Pitney,” says the DJ, “with a song from 1967, for a very special lady.” Dorothy turns her head towards the radio. The DJ says, “Fiona, this is for you.” She looks away, her failing eyesight sliding over Wilfred’s face. She smiles again, and lifts the teacup towards her mouth. “You’re not one of the world’s great romantics,” she says, finding the rim, touching her lips to what is left of the gilt.He has never wanted anyone but Dorothy. But he has never asked for her favourite song to be played on the radio. He has never taken her to Italy. He is not the sort of man who brings home flowers.