At least Gloria isn’t dead. She’s awkward to carry in this position. And it’s surprising how even a couple of legs in plaster make her so much heavier. But at least she isn’t dead.
A younger cat might have handled the fall better, though a younger cat probably wouldn’t have jumped from a window six floors up.
That’s the trouble with old age, thinks Albert. Your mind starts failing you just when you need it the most.
He isn’t at that stage yet, but he wonders how it will be in the years to come: who will be there to stop him wandering the streets in his pyjamas or going for a walk on the railway line. He used to tell himself that Gloria would be a stabilizing influence, but it’s hard to claim that now.
Loud voices drift on the air, young men flush with beer. Albert quickens his pace. The streets are already quieter than he would like; a reminder that darkness is a time to lie low.
At moments like this he’s glad to be wearing his official Royal Mail coat, its logo declaring his neutral mission in life, the impartial delivery of post to saints and sinners alike.
Now that retirement is just a few weeks off, he worries whether he’ll be allowed to keep the coat – though he also wonders what he’s supposed to do with it even if he does. He wants to keep wearing it, of course, but he can see that might lead to all sorts of problems: people haranguing him on the street about lost mail, wanting to know why it took four days for a first-class letter to travel ten miles. He’s heard it all in his time. Better, he thinks, just to wear the coat at home sometimes, on Sundays perhaps. But when he imagines the future, it seems every day will feel like a Sunday, so what then?
Gloria miaows, clearly unhappy about, well, everything.
"Look at you. They’ve turned you into a blunt instrument, haven’t they? I could bludgeon someone to death with those legs."
Encouraged by the thought, he walks a little taller, moving deeper into the warren of graffitied tower blocks and shadowy stairwells that he calls home...
For the last forty years, Albert’s night-time ritual has been to watch television. Or not to watch it, but rather sit in front of it. It doesn’t much matter to him what’s on, because it’s all bullshit anyway, the crime dramas and naff talent contests only echoing the violence and mediocrity of everyday life. He just sits there every night, grateful for the company.
Having spent his entire life handling mail, he’s always imagined other people spend their evenings reading and rereading letters from children and dear friends, giggling over their favourite lines and fussing over long and heartfelt replies.
He glances over at the mail he’s received that day, all of it junk. As he’s never owned a home, the glossy flyers offering generous home-equity loans seem specifically designed to make him feel like a non-person, the wrong sort of retiree. "Congratulations on making it to this age. Too bad you got it all wrong."
That’s not to say he never gets personal mail. There are occasional cards from an old friend in Australia, but even they contain nothing but talk of blue skies and grandchildren, and are always written with a slightly dutiful air, the words making their friendship feel more like an obligation.
For a while, after Albert’s wife died, those friendships had become intense and cosseting, almost suffocating in their care and concern. Then they began to fade away, as if all the effort had burned them out. For Albert, it was rather like being in a room when a light-bulb blows. For a brief moment, his friendships had burned bright, and then he found himself sitting alone in the dark.
"We might have emigrated, mightn’t we?"
Gloria glances up at him, but quickly looks away again. It’s obvious he’s speaking to that other presence in the room.
"If Harry and his wife could stay together for fifty years, imagine how well we would have done. They’ve always been such a miserable pair."
He smiles to himself, happy that he can still talk to her like this; that he can still feel her even after all these years. She’s a phantom limb, gone but ever present. And the older he gets, the less it seems to matter that he’s sitting alone talking to himself, the memory of her becoming clearer even as everything around him begins to blur.
Lost and Found is out now, published by Corsair.