The old man sat on the bench, watching the river. The sky was heavy with clouds, and rain was in the air, making his stiff body shiver beneath his coats and hat. The grass of the vast lawns whistled in the wind. He tugged his scarf a little tighter around his neck before glancing to his left at the manor house at the end of the road. He’d lived and worked in its shadow all his life.
His arms and legs barely moved when he tried to sit up, curse it — he’d been sitting on this bench too long. What had been meant to be a brief rest stop had lasted a half hour, and he decided to abandon his walk for the day. The weather wasn’t right for it anyway. It took several minutes to prise himself off the bench. His unused muscles ached.
“Silly thing,” Rachel laughed, pushing back her long brown hair. “You’ve got to keep dancing.”
“I know, Rachel,” he muttered to the sky. “Aren’t you always telling me that? I’m trying. You know I am. But it gets harder every day.”
They’d grown up together, him and Rachel. He hadn’t realized he loved her until they were both seventeen. Well, he was eighty-seven now, and he still loved her. Didn’t make any difference, though. Never would.
Leaning heavily on his stick, the old man turned away from the house and made his way back along the road to the narrow path that led to his cottage. He was sore all over. He saw Rachel again, standing next to him this time and smiling. “Come on, honey. You can do it. One foot in front of the other, keep moving. That’s it.”
He could see her out of the corner of his eye – blue eyes, blue dress, that mischievous expression. But when he turned to look at her, she’d vanished. She always did.
Finally, step after aching step, he reached the little cottage. His fumbling fingers managed to open the door that didn’t need a key because he had no enemies and nothing worth robbing. Though when he stepped inside he didn’t take off his coat, he was too cold despite the fire dying in the grate. There were some logs in the box, so he put them on the embers, and they caught on quick enough.
He filled the kettle with water somehow although his hands were shaking. He tried to put it over the new fire, but his arm jerked, and it very nearly spilt. Then Rachel’s hand was there, steadying his own. He got the kettle onto the hook, but some water still slopped.
The old man walked shakily to his armchair and sat down. Rachel stood over him.
“Got to keep dancing,” she repeated. “Don’t you forget that.”
He closed his eyes.
Her mother had worked in the kitchen up in the house. His pa used to do the garden. They’d been together always as children, her so bubbly and chatty and he her opposite — quiet, the perfect listener. Theirs had been a special friendship that the other children had accepted and never questioned, and he remembered feeling a peaceful calm whenever she was near.
As they grew older and his father became ill, she was his only confidant, and on his surliest days, she could make his anger fade. He remembered being a little bothered by her kissing other boys, but not being sure why at the time. After all, he’d had girlfriends too, and she’d given him advice. It was when they were seventeen that he began to realize. And then it was almost too late.
He remembered standing outside the village hall not long later and listening to the lively, bouncing music coming from inside as he gripped her hand. They were both excited and nervous and as yet undecided as to how they felt about each other. He was so happy to be with her, but as they walked inside, he kept reminding himself that they were there only as friends.
“Got to keep dancing,” Rachel joked as the music began. He loved how she was always saying that. She said it to his pa every time she came over, and Pa didn’t scowl at her like he did at everything else since the stiffness had settled on him.
Funny thing was, they were both terrible at dancing. They didn’t care, though. They spun round and round, almost knocking the other couples over, faster and faster until they lost their balance and collapsed.
How he got the courage at that moment of all moments he never knew, but he asked her would she like to have dinner right then on the wooden floor. She said “Yes!” straightaway, so quickly they both laughed.
They’d had only two years together before it happened. The ring had been in a little velvet box in his pocket for six months, and the thought of asking her was filling him with trepidation but also a secret hope and excitement. Then she was late one night and looked a little pale, and that was the start of it.
It had taken several weeks before she was properly, tied-to-the-bed ill, and several more before he wasn’t allowed to see her. He waited outside her door day after day as her mother cried and the doctor went back and forth, looking stern and grave. Finally the nurse whispered that he was allowed in to see her. She didn’t say what had brought on this change in the rules, and he didn’t ask.
Rachel was so thin and so white, and her lovely hair was all tangled and matted. He hated remembering her looking like that. Kneeling down beside her bed, he took her hand and held out the ring.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t ask you months ago,” he’d choked, trying not to cry.
She looked down at it and smiled. “Silly boy,” she whispered, her hoarse words coming from cracked lips. “Sure, didn’t you know that I would have said yes?”
Two days later she was dead.
The old man opened his eyes. Rachel stood before him, hands on hips. “Got to keep dancing,” she said.
And he took her hand and they danced. And this time they never stopped.
Carol McGill lives in Dublin, where she spends odious amounts of time procrastinating. She does, however, occasionally have productive periods which result in stories being written. Currently enjoying Transition Year, she is dreading September when the Leaving Cert gets real.