Stan was a man. Bigger than most. But not in a way that made you look up to him or fear him. Stan was a man who lived mostly in the background. No one knew what he thought or felt.
Like most men, he was a creature of habit. He never came downstairs in his dressing gown. He always arrived fully dressed in his trousers, shirt and cardigan. I never once saw him wear a t-shirt or jeans. While she made us hot buttered toast, Stan sat in his chair at the table by the window. He always sat one side, and she always sat the other. Every morning he had the same breakfast. Half a grapefruit and a cup of tea. He was a polite, neat eater. Though his hand shook as he lifted the spoon to his mouth, we tried not to look.
He always shaved before he ate. You’d see him in the kitchen at the mirror next to the door. I’m not sure why he didn’t shave in the bathroom. Sometimes he would remind me of a very tall Father Christmas. He was a bus driver in his day. A gentleman, they said. But children never believe that old people were ever anything but old. He walked with a stick he seemed proud of. It had badges stuck to it. He was always left behind. Did he mind? Or did he prefer it? I used to feel sorry for him because he walked so slowly with his stick, and she was always in a hurry and wouldn’t wait. She was busy with us. Busy with the life of a woman. But maybe Stan liked the background. Maybe he enjoyed being the scenery.
It was just the way it was and no one questioned it. Did we ever run back to him? Did we ever go to his side to walk and chat? I don’t think so. But I did look back once, when we had gone to see the deer…We hurried on, but I looked back and he was just smiling at the deer, taking his time.
His place was under the house. The cellar was his domain while hers was the kitchen, with the hot bubbling twin tub, and the smell of cakes and gossip. The door to the cellar was maroon, the paint flaking. You ducked your head to go inside, and then stepped down onto the cool dark earth. I want to go there now. I want to see the big chest freezer which was hers and ours – full of ice lollies in the summer and peas we had helped to shell. Is there still a ghost at the back called James?
To the left was another doorway. You were underground, tunneling. Low roof. The smell of earth and rust. Stan had a room. It was his place to go. You weren’t allowed there, but why would you want to? It was full of men’s things for fixing. Work bench and tools. Tin cans and glass jars full of screws and nails. In there, how many hours did he while away in the dark, tinkering? Stan was the fix it man. If something broke you took it to Stan. Bikes and toys. Punctures and dodgy chains. You took it and left it with Stan and it would come back fixed.
In the garden, we made up games and sat in the sun and he grew things. Tomato plants at the bottom against the fence. Peas and beans in the raised bed. Marrows on higher ground. Always marrows. He had a compost heap next to her rotary clothesline. He also had the lounge. He had his chair and she had hers. In between sat a coffee table and a lamp and his jar of boiled sweets.
Stan was a man. Quieter than most. I didn’t feel I could reach out to him or find a way in. I was a child and building my own shell. He was a man that towered above us all, with his Errol Flynn moustache and his neat white hair. She was a firecracker who bitched and moaned and criticized until we cringed for him. But he loved her more than words could tell and you could see it in his eyes and hear it in his words. She was small and fiery, didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a gentleman who never raised a hand. Never raised his voice or answered back. They said that on the day he died she threw herself across his body and sobbed the words, no, no, no.
When he was gone it was too late to ask him what he thought or felt about things. It was too late to slip a small hand into his, or walk at his side and at his pace.
Stan was a man. Better than most.