In spite of the jolting of the train, and the incessant ache in her left hip, Bea decided the day wasn’t going to be too bad after all. Sure, she hadn’t planned to leave so late, but now the sun outside was shining, and the journey was going quicker than she’d planned. As she stared out the window and up at the cloudless sky, she began to believe the day might actually go off without a hitch.

“Chaffley-on-Sea?!” The woman in the aisle next to them practically exploded out of her seat, waking Herb with a violent start. Bea hissed angrily, but patted the back of her husband’s hand soothingly.

“Wha-wha-?” Herb’s head twisted from left to right, his eyes still bleary from sleep.

“Shhh,” Bea said, staring poison-tipped daggers at the woman beside them. “We’re almost there now.”

“Bea?” Herb murmured, pulling his hand out of hers. She tried to ignore how sharply he did this. He rubbed his eyes with crooked fingers, then gave her a furious glance. “Where are we?”

“On the train, Herby,” she whispered.

“Train? But what about –?”

“Never mind that,” Bea instructed, taking his hand again. He tried to wrestle it away, but this time she was expecting it, and was able to show off her strength. After a moment he gave up the struggle. “Why don’t you try getting back to sleep? Eh?”

“Where are we going, love?” The anger was seeping out of his eyes, replaced instead by that weary confusion that she hated so much.

“You know where we’re going,” she snapped, prying open her bag with one hand, whilst holding onto him with the other. She needed to find him something to eat. Food usually did the trick at distracting him; it had in the past, anyway. Her eyes flickered briefly to the large Tesco bag, considering the sandwiches she had packed this morning. No, Bea thought, those are for the picnic. If she had to resort to that, she may as well label the day a disaster already.

Eventually, after much rummaging, she managed to extract an old Werther’s Original that had been hiding in one of the corners. She was just about to start unwrapping it when she realised Herb had drifted back to sleep. Bea smiled to herself, dropped the sweet back into the bag, then gently pulled her hand free. Her husband shifted slightly, but his eyes remained closed. Bea heaved a quiet sigh of relief. Having him distracted by food was good, having him fast asleep was even better.

If he was asleep, he wasn’t confused. And if he wasn’t confused, he wasn’t likely to cause a scene. After the events of this morning, the last thing Bea wanted was any more excitement. Fortunately, the woman whose outburst had woken Herb in the first place had disappeared. That meant Bea was confident the rest of the journey would be relatively calm. Feeling the gentle rocking of the train, the old woman felt her eyelids grow heavier and a series of yawns press their way out of her. But she couldn’t fall asleep, no matter how tempting the idea was. She needed to stay awake in case Herb woke again. Instead, after rubbing her eyes to try and shift some of the sleep out of them, Bea stared out the window at the landscape rapidly rolling by.

She was still stunned at how well her plan had worked out. Well, perhaps calling it a plan was a little too charitable. She had simply snuck Herb out of the home whilst the nurse was fetching the pair of them a drink. Even then, Bea had a suspicion that, had she asked, of course she would have been allowed to walk out with her husband for a day trip. The problem, of course, had been their daughters. The three of them were the ones paying for the hospice – and why shouldn’t they? Bea had been against the idea from the very beginning, so she was buggered if she was going to help pay for it. But, as they now viewed Herb’s welfare as their personal responsibility, they would certainly not have appreciated him being taken out for a long-distanced jaunt. The one Bea had to elude in today’s escape had been Janice. Out of the three girls, she was the easiest one to distract. In fact, that was probably the easiest part of the whole day. All Bea had to do was point out how the hospice did not provide low-fat, cruelty-free, soya milk, and Janice went running to grab the emergency supply she kept in her boot. That was Bea’s chance.

As soon as both the nurse and Janice were out of the room, she had flung Herb’s light jacket around his shoulders, plopped his flat-cap on his slightly-egg shaped head, then scurried him out of the building. Scurried, perhaps wasn’t the best way to describe the movements of two people in their mid-eighties, but they got as close to it as they could in their condition. Around the back they were picked up by their neighbour, Zaya, who, for a crisp twenty-pound note, had agreed to act as the pair of pensioners’ getaway driver.

“Have a nice day, Mrs Elroy, Mr Elroy,” Zaya had said, helping the two of them into the train station with their bags.

“Thank you, Zaya,” Bea had said, her face glowing with the excitement. She then placed another twenty-pounds into the boy’s hand. “And remember, not a word of this to the girls,” she added with a wink.

“Don’t you worry,” he answered with a wide grin. “They won’t hear anything from me!”

She knew she was being reckless, but Bea couldn’t help but smile. For the first time in years, she felt like a young and wild fifty-two-year-old. Of course, she’d have to face the firing squad later. Janice would be so furious she’d probably do that thing where she enunciated every word very carefully. Then there’d be Fiona and Louisa. Fiona, the mother of five boys, might be a little more forgiving towards this act of rebellion. But Louisa? No. To that woman, her word was law. Even when she had only been a teenager, Bea had been reluctant to argue with her. She had a way of piercing you with her cold blue eyes that made you shiver all over. It was a look, Herb said, she had inherited from Bea.

Combined, the trio would be a force to be reckoned with. They’d probably ground her. But, Bea thought, it was a price worth paying. She took a sleeping Herb by the hand and gripped it softly. Today was going to be their day. It had to be.

*

“Where the Hell are we?”

The confused anger was back in Herb’s eyes, this time as strong as a fire. He was looking furiously around, his hands opening and closing into fists, whilst she struggled with her purse and the two bags she had looped over her shoulder.

“You know where we are,” Bea said impatiently. No one had bothered offering the pair help whilst getting off the train, and the journey up the stairs from the platform had been an arduous one with her disgruntled hip. Now, as they stood outside the station, Herb was entirely awake, and edging on the precipice of becoming Trouble.

“Where then?” he snapped.

“Chaffley.”

“Chaffley?”

“That’s right.”

“I’ve been to Chaffley before.”

“I know, dear.”

“This way then.”

He adopted determined expression, stood as straight as the years piled on his shoulders allowed, and then promptly stepped out into the road. Letting out a startled yelp, Bea scurried after him. She had already seen the car, so what was she thinking? They’d both be smeared across the road before she could even brush his anorak. Luckily the driver had quicker instincts. The car screeched to a halt; its bumper stopping less than a foot from Herb’s hip. Bea held up an apologetic hand to the young driver, then tried to quicken her pace.

The old woman felt the glaring eyes of the woman behind the wheel boring into the back of her skull. Finally, once she and her husband had set foot on the other side of the road, the car went hurtling forward again.

“Driving too fast anyway,” Bea murmured. She then turned a furious glower onto her husband. The man was already starting to shuffle down the street. “Stop wandering off!” Bea yelled, latching onto his arm and dragging him back.

“What are you doing?” Herb grumbled, shaking her off.

“You don’t know where you’re going!”

“You just told me I did!”

“No, I said you know where you are, not where we’re going!”

“What’s the bloody difference?!”

“Everything!” Bea snapped. “And don’t swear.”

“Bloody’s not swearing,” Herb mumbled bitterly. “Remember? We had that half-hour argument with Louisa about it.”

Bea stared at her husband, agog. That argument had been over forty years ago; Even Bea had forgotten about it. But he had . . . sure, he’d gotten the wrong daughter, but she could forgive him that. Bea sighed, then gave a strangled scream of frustration. She had left the bags on the other side of the road. She could still see them, leaning against the bench. If she was quick, she thought, she could nip over, grab them, and be back before Herb had a chance to drift away. The idea was almost laughable. It had been a good, few years since she’d done anything quickly.

But she’d have to risk it. Those goodies, even on special offer, had cost her an arm-and-a-leg. She rested a hand on Herb’s elbow. He was staring intently at a chain-link fence.

“Herb?” she said gently. “Herb!”

His eyes switched over to her. “What?”

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Back? Where are you going?”

“I’m just popping across the road.” She stepped off the pavement. Herb followed.

“Well, I’ll come with you.”

“No! You stay here. I’ll only be a moment.”

“Where are you going?”

“I’ve told you!”

“You’re going to Chaffley?” Herb sounded offended. “And you’re leaving me? Here?”

“No, Herb, we’re in Chaffley.”

“Then where are you going, woman?” He was getting angry now. She could see his nostrils beginning to puff open.

“Don’t you take that attitude with me, Herbert,” Bea said, attempting to sound stern. “I have told you that I am crossing the road to fetch our bags, and then I am coming back. I want you to stay here, and do not move. Am I clear?”

Herb stared at her for a few tense moments. He was chewing the inside of his cheeks whilst clenching and unclenching his hands. Bea poised herself for an outburst. But it never came. He simply turned his attention back onto the fence. She slowly relaxed. That had been close.

After checking for any manic motorists, Bea made the journey across the road at a pace she would describe as quite swift. She paused on the other side, taking a moment to get her breath back, then glanced over to where she had left Herb. He was still standing there, staring at the fence. She could see his lips moving. Perhaps he was arguing with himself, or someone only he could see. Knowing she couldn’t afford to do so, Bea lowered herself onto the bench and watched her husband. A voice in her head suddenly asked whether this whole day had been a good idea. A voice that sounded a lot like Louisa. Any doubts Bea ever had about her husband usually arrived sounding like Louisa. After all, she had been the first to put her foot down about Herb.

“We have to take his license away, mum,” she had said, sitting at the kitchen table and tapping her nail against the coffee mug. Bea had been standing at the kitchen sink, wishing she had been anywhere else.

“I can hear you,” Herb had grumbled, standing in the doorway and fixing a sour glare onto his daughter.

“You could have hurt someone, dad!”

“Don’t be so dramatic,”

“You mounted the pavement!”

“I barely clipped the curb.”

“This isn’t the first time, mum,” Louisa had said, rounding back onto her mother. “And it’s not going to be the last.”

“You’re not taking away my license!” Herb argued. Bea remembered feeling a flash of fear as she watched the anger twist his face into an unfamiliar shape.

“And give you a chance to actually run someone over? No chance,” Louisa snapped, matching her dad’s ugly look of fury.

“Is there anything else we can do?” Bea asked.

Louisa frowned at her, then at Herb. “He could take a test.”

“A test?” Herb snapped. “What sort of bloody test?”

“Herb!”

“We’ll talk to your GP; he’ll give us the exact one we need. Let’s be honest, something’s not right. Is it?”

Herb’s eyes had practically flown out his head; his fury had momentarily stunned him into silence. Louisa ignored his reaction and carried on, her eyes never leaving Bea’s. “He’s been forgetting things, the driving’s been getting worse for months, and what about his fall?”

Now he turned his anger onto Bea. “You told her?!”

“I had to,” Bea responded, though her voice had sounded weak.

He went on staring at her for what felt like hours, the both of them did. She was pinned between two indomitable forces, and just the intensity of their glares made her exhausted. Eventually she had heaved a defeated sigh. “I can’t force you to do anything, Herb,” she had admitted. He gave a victorious smirk at this. “But I can ask,” she added.

The smile faltered. He now looked like a scolded child. “I’m fine,” he murmured, now it was his voice that had lost its strength.

“Take the test,” Louisa had said, “and find out for sure.”

Herb looked from his wife, and then to his daughter. “If I take this test, and I pass,” he said, some of the brashness returning, “I get to keep my license, right?”

Louisa’s eyes flickered briefly towards Bea. “Sure,” she said. “If the doctor says there’s nothing wrong, you can keep your license.”

The next week Louisa took them to see a specialist. Herb did not pass the test, nor did he keep his license. Often, when she lay in bed, Bea cursed herself for asking. It was foolish, she knew, but she often thought that getting those results had opened the floodgates. Every minor symptom she had been ignoring suddenly intensified. The eight months since that trip to the doctor had been the worst of her life.

Bea’s head suddenly snapped up. Had she started to doze off? Panic began to claw inside her chest. Then her eyes fell on Herb. He had finished his argument, and was now staring lazily over towards she sat. No, she thought, she hadn’t fallen asleep. But she had drifted off. She hauled herself to her feet and started tottering back to her husband. She paused, mumbled something under her breath, then turned around. “Almost forgot the blasted bags,” she said, snatching up the two carriers. Then, after an elderly jog across the road, Bea returned to the other side. Herb was watching with a now all too familiar look of confusion.

“What’s in the bag?” he asked, instantly reaching to take one.

“It’s a surprise,” Bea said breathlessly, pulling the bags out of his reach.

He frowned at that. “I need a drink.”

“I can sort that out,” Bea declared, already starting to rifle through one of the carriers. “I’ve got some apple juice, you like apple juice –”

“What about coffee?” Herb asked, trying to take a peek at whatever she had packed.

“No,” Bea said with a defeated sigh. “I didn’t bring any coffee.”

“Oh,” he said, staring at her dumbly for a moment. “Shall we get one then? My treat?”

*

“Why do you look so satisfied?”

Edie offered her a coy grin as she flicked an errant lock of hair behind her ear. “I’ve just been dancing with a soldier,” she said, as if this was the crowning achievement of her short life.

Bea had offered her a critical glare. “Really?”

“All right,” her best friend replied with a small shrug. “He’s just doing his national service, but it still counts!”

“I didn’t know this town was near a base?”

“It doesn’t,” Edie said, taking a hearty gulp of her drink. “It’s the next town over. But he’s got the weekend off, and so he’s spending it at his aunt’s, just like us!”

“Does everyone have an aunt living in Chaffley?” Bea had asked. It would have explained why the town was so frightfully dull. She had agreed to spend a week with Edie at her aunt and uncle’s, little realising that the only entertainment on offer was this dance. A woman of her youth could only suffer so many games of bridge.

“He has a friend,” Edie said, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively. She then nodded ever so subtly towards the two young men standing awkwardly in the corner of the hall. Bea, fiddling with the straw in her drink, stared at the pair. “The friend had better not be the one with the egg-shaped head,” she had declared sourly.

“You think I’m giving up the one with the moustache?”

“Oh, please, your aunt has better facial hair than that.”

“How many times do I need to ask you not to bring that up?”

Bea offered a meek smile, then turned back to the two soldiers. She hadn’t been entirely honest with Edie. The truth was, once she’d lain eyes on that young, awkward-looking man, she knew she’d never be able to look away. There was a softness to his eyes that she found hypnotic. He kept glancing over to where she stood. When he realised she was watching him, the corners of his lips turned up in an embarrassed smile. Finally, he and his friend made their way over. His friend, the limp excuse of a moustache dangling on his upper lip, gave the pair what he must have assumed was a dashing grin. “May we have this dance?” he asked, holding his hand out to Edie.

“All right,” she said, slapping her drink down on the table and grabbing a hold of the proffered hand. Instantly the pair were gone, leaving Bea alone with the stranger.

He cleared his throat nervously. “I’m . . . Herbert,” he said, smiling weakly.

“Beatrice,” she responded, feeling her cheeks begin to burn. “But friends call me Bea.”

“Right,” he said. There was a moment of silence, then he suddenly gave a start. “Right! Yes, dancing. Erm – would you . . . like to?”

Bea nodded. “Yes,” she said, very much liking to. She had taken his hand, and that had been that. She never imagined she’d still be holding it over sixty years later. She also never imagined that she’d be returning to that dull little town. The idea only came up between the pair as a joke. Every year they used to say: “Let’s spend our next anniversary in Chaffley.” And then laugh at how ludicrous it sounded. Now, as she led Herb down the streets like a clueless child, Bea wished the idea had stayed a joke.

When she was nineteen the town had seemed painfully slow to her; every passing hour crawled along with nothing to distract or entertain her. Now, when she was on the wrong side of eighty and her own movements were dull and laboured, she realised that Chaffley-on-Sea was practically standing still. Aside from a lick of paint here and there, the town appeared unchanged. As she trudged along the streets, carefully avoiding the many cracked portions of pavement, she tumbled back all those decades. There were points she could almost hear Edie chattering away beside her.

She glanced over her shoulder. Herb was trotting slightly behind her, his eyes staring ahead. Bea quickly turned away. Whatever she had hoped to achieve by returning to Chaffley now seemed a childish dream. Right now, she thought, she’d be lucky if she could even find somewhere to buy a coffee.

“There’s a place.”

Bea snapped back round. There he was again. The same old alertness in his otherwise soft eyes. He was staring across the road. A café was sitting wedged between a betting shop and a closed-down salon. Bea gave his hand a squeeze. “Good job I have you around,” she said with a weak smile. “Otherwise, I’d have walked straight past!”

With that, and after instinctively pulling Herb closer, she hurried across. She was just approaching the door when a man burst out and nearly walked straight into Herb. He reeled slightly when he saw the elderly pair.

“Oh, sorry,” he murmured, annoyance flickering briefly over his face.

If he was his usual self, Bea knew Herb was about to snap back a sour remark. “No harm done,” she quickly said, gifting the stranger an undeserved smile. She gave Herb another tug, then went to pass into the café.

“They’re closed,” the stranger declared.

Bea stared at the door, then to the deliverer of such news. “Closed?” she snapped, the single thread of patience in her head fraying a little more. “But it’s barely past lunch!”

The man gave a careless shrug. “I know,” he said, “but they kicked me out, saying that they were closed.” With that, he turned away and marched down the street. Bea watched him go, then rounded again on the door. She gave it a slight push. When it yielded, she gave a determined nod. Closed or open, she didn’t care. She was getting a coffee. Bea pushed again, then almost fell flat on her face as the door was wrenched wide open by another young man.

He looked up briefly to mumble half an apology, before letting his eyes snap back down to the mobile in his hands. Bea’s bitterness was only slightly eclipsed by the guilty pang the sight of that phone brought her. She instantly thought of the mobile lying mostly forgotten at the bottom of her handbag. How many times had her daughters tried getting in touch by now? Tucking this thought at the bottom of the list of things she needed to worry about, Bea tried the door again.

This time it didn’t budge. Her head flicked up to see an imperious looking woman snapping the last of the door’s locks, before twisting the door’s sign from ‘open’ to ‘closed’. Bea gave the door a sharp tap with her knuckles. The woman turned back and flashed a questioning glower.

“We’d like a coffee, please,” Bea said as sourly as she could manage.

“We’re closed,” the woman announced, pointing to the sign.

“But it’s only half-one!”

“We’re still closed.”

Bea did not usually get angry. Vexed, quite often. Tired? Almost always. But, right now, her mind was steaming past these and straight to fury. “I’ll – I’ll – I’ll report you to trading standards!” she announced.

The woman on the other side of the door gave her a long, iron-tipped stare. Slowly, she began turning the locks back. She opened it a few centimetres. “Just a coffee,” she said.

Bea nodded, going to take a step. The barista stopped her. “Nothing else,” she added. “No pastries, no sandwiches, no polite little chats about the weather. Got it?”

“I understand,” Bea said through gritted teeth.

After another pause, the woman opened the door fully, allowing Bea to step inside with Herb in tow. The pair were marched up to the counter where, once she had the barrier between her and the pensioners, the barista rounded on them. “What did you want?” she demanded. Obviously, the etiquette of customer service had never been introduced to this woman. If it had, it seemed she had garrotted it with some piano wire.

“A coffee,” Bea said, adding with some force: “Please.”

“Great,” the barista said with the sweetness of a lemon. “What do you want?”

Bea paused. Had she heard that right? “I’d – I’d like a coffee, please.”

She could see the woman straining not to roll her eyes. “Yes, and what would you like? We have cappuccino, latte, Frappuccino, espresso, mocha, flat white, flat black, americano, cortado. Or, if you wanted an iced coffee, we have –”

The elderly woman held up her hand, her head was beginning to swim. “Out of all of those . . . drinks,” Bea said, trying to collect her erratic thoughts. “Which one is closest to just being a coffee?”

The barista fixed her with a stare that could have boiled water. She was just opening her mouth when a middle-aged-looking man emerged from a back room. “I’m all ready when you are – oh, hello,” he stumbled to a halt when he spotted Bea and Herb standing awkwardly by the counter.

“Steven!” the woman exclaimed, grinning like a hungry alligator. “Some customers for you. They’d like two coffees.”

This Steven, a clueless look on his face, stared from the woman to the elderly couple. “Oh,” he mumbled. “All right. What sort of –?”

“Just plain coffee,” the barista said, pouncing from behind the counter and towards the back of the café. “Think you can manage it? Great. Lock up when you’re done, bye!”

“I’ll see you at six then, right?” But the woman was gone.

The new barista turned an embarrassed grin towards Bea and Herb. “Two coffees then?”

“Excuse me,” Bea said, leaning towards the man as he stepped behind the counter. “But is there a manager I could speak to?”

“That was her, I’m afraid,” Steven said apologetically. “She’s a bit of an acquired taste.”

Arsenic is an acquired taste, Bea thought. That woman was just plain bad.

“So, what brings you to Chaffley?” the barista asked, squaring up to the coffee machine.

“How did you know we’re not local?”

“No one in town is brave enough to stand up to Marian!” the man said. His laugh was so infectious, Bea couldn’t help but feel herself begin to smile.

“My husband and I met here,” she said, patting Herb’s hand.

“Really?” Steven said, pouncing back as some water jetted out of the machine. “Me and my wife met here as well! How long have you been married?”

“Sixty-two years.”

The man gave a low whistle. “That is impressive!” he declared.

“Yourself?”

“Twenty-five.”

Bea nodded. She didn’t know why, but she found herself enjoying this man’s company. He had an odd charm to him. “The first twenty are the challenge,” she said, trying to sound as sage as she was old. “The rest are easy.”

Steven began to squirm as the coffee slowly started pouring into two cups. “There might not be a ‘rest’.” He suddenly blushed, realising he had spoken aloud.

“Ah,” she said. Things finally clicked into place. That certainly explained why a middle-aged man, seemingly terrified of the coffee machine before him, was working as a barista.

But, she reminded herself, it wasn’t her place to judge. “Oh well,” she said. “Some things work out easily, and some don’t.”

“I’m guessing you’re back for a little trip down memory lane?” the man said, placing down two cups and acting as if Bea hadn’t said a word.

The older woman offered him a strained smile. “Something like that,” she mumbled, her eyes sliding over to Herb.

He was looking at the man with a curious intensity in his eyes. “Who are you?” he suddenly asked.

Steven flashed the man a wide grin. “My name’s Steven,” he said cheerfully. “What’s yours?”

Though the barista was smiling, Bea felt a cannonball of dread land in her gut. She recognised that hawkish tone in her husband’s voice. “What are you doing here?” he snapped, his cheeks flushing slightly.

“Herb,” Bea murmured, taking a hold of his hand. “This nice man works here.”

“Works here?” Herb said, rounding his angry eyes onto her. “Works where? Where am I?”

Now a look of concern was edging into the middle-aged man’s eyes. “We’re at a coffee shop, Herb,” Bea said, trying to sound calm, but all too aware that the thunder of panic was beginning to sound in her head. “Remember? You said you wanted a coffee?”

“No, thank you, I don’t want one,” Herb said, giving his head a sharp shake.

“You said you wanted one.”

“Why would I want one?” her husband suddenly barked, wrenching his hand free. “Why would I want one when I’ve just had one?”

“Herb –”

“I’ve just had one! Louisa got it for me! Where is she? Where is Louisa?”

“Louisa’s not here, Herb!”

This time the anger was unmistakable in his eyes. They gave off a spark that made him look more alive than he had in months. “What are you talking about? She was right here! We had a – a conversation with her! I know we did!”

“Is everything all right?” Steven asked, a deep look of worry on his face.

“We’re fine!” Bea snapped, allowing her rubber-band-like patience to whip back onto this poor man.

“Bea – Bea, I – I don’t want to be here anymore.” Herb was looking around the strange place with a new look in his eyes. Bea felt her heart sink as she realised it was fear. “I want to go home,” he mumbled, reaching out for her hand. “Take me home, Bea. I – I want to go home.”

“All – all right, Herb,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “Let’s go home.”

*

“A home? You must be joking!”

Bea glowered at her three daughters, all clustered around the kitchen table. Louisa alone had the strength to match her mother’s gaze. The only time Bea usually saw her children gathered together was at Christmas. So, seeing the trio land on her doorstep on an otherwise unimportant Wednesday, it felt like a spear of ice had dropped down her spine.

“It’s for the best,” Fiona said meekly.

“Whose best exactly?” Bea had snapped, focusing the bulk of her fury onto her middle child.

“His, of course,” she said, turning her eyes back down to the table.

“It’s best for both of you,” Janice added quickly, placing a defensive hand on Fiona’s shoulder.

“He’s best off here,” Bea declared, glaring furiously at her children. “No one knows him like I do. I know what’s best for him. He needs to stay at home. With me.”

“And who’s going to look after you?” Louisa asked, her tongue machete-sharp. “You’re the wrong side of eighty, your hip is long overdue to be replaced, and when exactly did you last have a decent night’s sleep?”

Bea had to fight the urge to raise her hand to the bags growing beneath her eyes. She couldn’t let that small action give the girls’ any more ammunition. “Why can’t I just have the carers come round?” she asked, her voice cracking slightly.

“It’s not enough,” Janice admitted. “Dad’s . . . he’s . . .”

That’s when she had turned her back. The words she knew her daughter had been about to say were ones she didn’t want to hear.

“Shit! Shit! Shit!”

As one unit the women had pounced out of the kitchen to confront this furious ranting. Standing in the doorway, Bea watched her husband stalking up and down the living room.

“Where is it?” he barked. Who he was talking to? She couldn’t guess.

“What are you looking for?” Bea asked, approaching him whilst the girls hung back.

“I can’t find it!” Herb snapped, ripping a cushion off the sofa and hurling it to one side.

“What? What can’t you find?”

“I don’t know; I put it down somewhere, and now it’s gone!”

“What’s gone, Herb?”

Bea was praying that the girls couldn’t hear the panic in her voice. There was a manic energy to her husband. These fits had become more and more frequent over the months, and each time they appeared Bea feared they would never end. Herb’s head snapped up and fixed her with a pair of eyes drowning in fear and confusion. “What are you doing?” he barked, taking a lurching step closer. “Help me look!”

“Look for what, dad?” Janice asked, sweeping aside a frozen Bea. “What have you lost?”

That was when Herb turned on his daughter with an expression that froze Bea’s blood.

“Who are you? What are you doing in my house?”

A frightened gasp escaped Janice and she took a step away.

“Where’s Sarah?” Herb went on, looking away from the women and continuing his search. “Where is she? She’ll know where it is.”

Bea glanced to her left; Janice had retreated back into the kitchen, and in her place stood Louisa. She was staring at her father with a steely gaze and her arms folded over her bosom. Only later would Bea remember that her daughter’s hands had been trembling. “Who’s Sarah, dad?” she asked quietly, trying to gain his attention as he went back to tearing apart the living room.

Louisa took a step closer, then placed a hand on Herb’s shoulder, stopping him dead. “What are you looking for?” she asked again, finding the strength to drag her father down until he was sitting on the sofa.

He slowly looked up at her, his eyes brimming with tears. “I . . . I can’t . . . I can’t remember,” he finally admitted.

As she watched her husband openly weep into their daughter’s arms, Bea realised that the war was lost.

*

Yes, the war may have been lost, but this old woman still had one last battle to fight before surrendering.

She glowered at the announcement board, struggling to decide if she was furious or relieved. She hadn’t wanted to abandon this day out, but she could hardly fight against Herb in his current state. Now, however, the matter was out of her hands. Their little adventure had a second chance.

“The next train doesn’t leave until ten-to-ten?” Bea snapped, rounding on a sour-faced rail-attendant.

He gave an indifferent shrug. “The timetable’s never been regular,” he remarked, scratching a scab on his chin. “On top of that, we’ve got work being done on the tracks.” He gave Bea an unhelpful smile. “The train comes when it comes. Not much call for people to be coming to Chaffley these days.”

“And those of us who’d like to leave?”

Another shrug of the shoulders. “Should have checked when you bought your tickets,” he grumbled.

Bea watched the man tramp away, then turned to Herb. He was looking anxiously up and down the platform. She dropped one of her bags onto the ground, then took her husband’s hand. His head snapped round; his eyes startled as he looked at her. “The train won’t be here for hours yet, Herb,” she announced, trying to lead him back towards the exit.

“What?” he mumbled. “Are we going home?”

“No,” Bea said, slowly shuffling back out of the station. “Not yet, love.”

Herb simply nodded.

Looking at him, and the faraway look in his eyes, Bea wondered whether it was all worth it. Her hand began to inch its way towards the handbag slung over her shoulder. All it would take was one call.

No! She snatched her hand back and curled it into a fist. No matter which one she called, they’d all come trooping down to pick her and Herb up. Then she’d have to face their interrogation. What was she thinking? Why had she done it? What did she hope to achieve? Sure, she didn’t have an exact answer to those questions, just a vague feeling. But that was enough for her. And her three daughters wouldn’t understand that, just as they didn’t understand what Bea was going through.

Yes, she decided. Carrying on with this trip was worth it.

There was a loud gurgling from beside her, like the sound of water hurrying down the drain. Bea glanced at Herb, then tightened her grip around his hand. “How about we finally have that picnic?” she suggested.

“Ah, now that’s a good idea,” Herb said cheerfully, a familiar gleam in his eyes. Bea stared into those eyes and knew she’d never be able to explain it to the girls. They’d never understand just how unfair it all was. Hand in hand, the elderly pair made their way down the street.

Given that, together, the couple was well over a hundred-and-fifty years old, their journey was anything but brisk. In spite of the grumbling from both Herb’s and her own stomach, Bea had a plan and was not going to budge from it. Not again, at any rate. The only redeeming quality of Chaffley was its view of the sea. If she was being honest, the view was only good because it meant you no longer had to look at the town. Long ago, when Bea didn’t have the pain in her hips and Herb had all his senses, the two of them had walked along the coast. That had been their first date, the day after the dance.

They were both far too old to go ambling across the sand now though. They found concrete to be an untrustworthy surface at the best of times. Instead, once they had managed to wind their way slowly through the town centre, Bea found them a nice bench to collapse onto.

Once the squalling from her hip settled down, she heaved one of the shopping bags between her and Herb. “Now, what have we got?” she murmured, as if she didn’t already know. “We’ve got a chicken and bacon one,” she went on, pulling out the sandwich. “And an egg salad one. Which do you –?”

“Chicken and bacon,” Herb stated, already taking the sandwich out of her hand. Bea gave a small smile. As if there’d ever been a doubt. As they sat together, munching through their little picnic, Bea began to feel as if nothing had changed at all. It was a foolish thing to think, of course. Things never stayed the same, no matter how much you hoped. Time continued to march on, and people like Bea and Herb would always be trampled. But, for now, sat on that bench with a packet of Jaffa Cakes between them, the old pair could pretend they weren’t in time’s path.

“It hasn’t been too bad of a day,” Bea murmured, more to herself.

Herb grunted noncommittally. His hands, trembling slightly, reached over for another cake.

“Now, how are we getting home?” she added. Waiting for the train was out of the question. They had been out for too long already, and she could only imagine how slowly the journey back would be. As for a taxi, well, she wasn’t made of money. Of course, that left only one alternative. Chewing her bottom lip, Bea pulled the mobile out of the bottom of her bag. The thing had been bought for her about three years ago, and during that time she had used it about six times. She wasn’t even sure she knew how to turn it on. After a few frantic minutes of jabbing at buttons, the little screen slowly bloomed into life. She tensed herself, waiting for – there it was. An orchestra of pings and buzzing erupted from the phone. It vibrated so violently Bea thought it was ready to jump out of her hand. If it did that, and ended up smashed on the ground, then where would she be?

Gradually the attack of noise died down, and Bea mustered the courage to look at the damage. There were forty-seven missed calls, and twenty-two text messages. They must be frantic, she thought, thinking she’d respond to a text. She gave a couple a quick read, though she wasn’t surprised by their contents.

“Where R U?”

“Call us!”

“Is your phone even on?”

A lead ball landed in Bea’s gut. Just what had she been thinking? Had today really, if she was being entirely honest with herself, been worth it? Feeling a familiar sting behind her eyes, Bea glanced over at her husband. He was staring intently out at the ocean, as if it was the most important thing in the whole world.

“Just what’s going on in there?” she murmured.

“Need the loo,” Herb announced, not looking away from the waves.

“What?”

He didn’t need to say it again. She could see the pained, almost panicked expression in his eyes. His hands gripped the corduroy of his trousers, and he started rocking anxiously back and forth. Bea’s blood ran cold. How had she not thought of this? The pair of them were in their eighties, they’d been walking for hours, and they’d each just had a carton of apple juice!

“Oh, Herb, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said, wobbling to her feet. “Are you desperate? Can you wait? I’ll find us a loo, I will.”

He was paying her no attention. His eyes were fixed on the waves. She turned his face towards her. “Can you wait?” she asked again, her voice sounding much calmer than she actually felt.

There was a heart-stopping moment where he said nothing. Then, just as the panic began to crawl up Bea’s throat, Herb gave a weak little nod. She gave a sigh of relief, then started helping him to his feet. “All right then,” she murmured. “There should be some toilets around here somewhere.” She looked up and down the empty road. “I saw the town hall wasn’t too far. Do you think we can make it?”

Herb gave a half-hearted shrug.

“Well, let’s give it a try,” Bea said, attempting to sound cheerful. “But let’s be quick, you’re not the only one who needs to go!”

*

Bea would usually consider herself a patient woman; she had to be these days, what with Herb. But, even before then, she was willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Always give a second chance, that’s what her mother used to say. You never knew when you might be in need of one. Now she felt that patience boil away. The man before her was thoroughly detestable.

After they had hobbled as quickly as they could to the town hall, Bea had been dismayed to find the doors locked. The old woman was clueless as to where else she could find a toilet. What she did know, however, was that there was no chance either of them would make it before there was an accident. With this in mind, and because she was sure she could see the blurry outline of someone far inside the building, she can began rapping her knuckles against the door.

She hadn’t stopped until an annoyed-looking face appeared in the window. “You’re early!” the man announced, raising his voice to be heard through the door.

Bea was baffled. “Early? What are you talking about?”

“Are you not here for the gala?”

“Gala? No, we need the toilet!”

“Toilet?” the man repeated, giving both Bea and Herb a suspicious glance. “Let me just check.”

That had left Bea even more confused. What had he hurried off to check? It had been six decades, but she was sure the toilets would still be there. Eventually, after several minutes of waiting, a second man had appeared. A man Bea decided had to be the worst person she had met in recent memory.

“Yes?” he had asked, his voice dusted with powdered glass. The old woman gave him a cursory glance up and down. A sour look dominated his poorly-tanned face, and his gimlet-like eyes narrowed as he took in the pensioners before him.

“We’d like to use the toilet, please,” Bea said, feeling galled at having to be polite to this man and his obviously dyed hairdo.

“I’m afraid the town hall is closed today,” he said with a bitter smile. “For a private function.”

“We don’t want to attend,” Bea said impatiently, “we just want to have a wee!”

The man winced, his smile curdling. “My team and I are currently trying to set up a very important charity event,” he explained, his tone chillier than the frozen section at Aldi. “We can’t afford to have a doddery pair of pensioners getting under our feet!”

Bea suddenly felt very, very tired. Her feet were aching from the hours of walking, her hip was beginning to burn, and there was a pulsing behind her eyes. She could feel Herb’s fidgeting getting worse beside her. The time for manners was long gone.

“My husband is very ill,” she snapped, glowering up at the man. “If you don’t let us in to use the toilets then I’ll report this straight to the local media. I’m sure forcing two pensioners to wet themselves on the town hall steps won’t make your charity look very good, now, will it?”

The stranger behind the door stared furiously at the woman. It began to dawn on Bea that he might not be the sort of man who took threats too kindly. He looked the sort of man who might call her bluff, then relish in her inability to follow through. Just as she began to realise how utterly hopeless her position was, the man gave vent to an aggrieved sigh. He flicked the latch on the door, then swung it open, narrowly missing Herb’s nose. “The toilets are up the corridor to your left,” he remarked sourly. “Don’t come into the main hall. You have ten minutes, then I lock the doors again.”

Once both Bea and Herb were inside, the man slammed the door shut and disappeared, not even sparing them a backwards glance.

Bea turned to her husband. Some of his frailty seemed to have melted away, and there was a new awareness in his eyes. For reasons she could never quite explain, that sight hurt her all the more. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” he answered cheerfully, looking around with only the slightest puzzlement.

“Do you still need the loo?” she asked, peering down the corridor.

“The loo? No, no, I’m fine.”

Bea paused. That was not the answer she needed. “You just said you did,” she snapped.

Herb looked offended. “When did I?”

“Just now!” Bea exclaimed. “We walked all the way from the coast because you said you needed to go!”

“Did I? But I don’t . . . I’m not . . .”

She cut him off before he could slip away again. “Well, maybe you could try then?” she suggested, laying a hand on his shoulder and trying to lead him on. “It’ll be a while before we can get home, you know?”

“When are we going home?” he asked, shuffling towards the door to the gent’s toilet.

“Soon, love,” Bea promised. “Soon.”

Herb weakly pushed the door open, then paused on the threshold. He looked back at her, like a child seeking assurance from his mother. “I’m not sure . . .”

“It’s all right,” Bea said, suddenly feeling more tired than she had ever felt in her life. “I’ll be waiting right here for you.”

He gave her one final, worried look, then shambled into the toilets. Once the door softly closed, Bea allowed herself to sag down. The weariness collapsed on top of her like a weighted blanket. Now that he was gone, Bea realised that she too needed the toilet. She glanced at the door to the ladies’ loos. She would only be a moment, she thought. That was enough debating. The pressure had suddenly increased on her bladder.

The old woman cannoned into the toilets, shuffled into a cubicle, then lowered herself down. She heaved a grateful sigh, glad to finally take the weight back off her feet. She’d be out in no time, she thought, her eyelids growing heavy. Herb would never know she was gone, she decided, letting her eyes flutter shut. Only be a moment . . .

*

Bea woke with a jolt, her legs kicking over her bag and sending the contents spilling out.

“Oh no!” she whined, panic scrabbling over her. How could she have been so stupid? Had she really fallen asleep? No, no, she thought. She’d just closed her eyes for a moment, that was all. A jolt of pain suddenly fired from her hip. She let out a hiss, grabbing hold of the toilet-paper dispenser for balance. Once the throbbing dulled slightly, Bea leaned forward and started tidying things back into her bag. That was when she realised: she was no longer alone in the washroom.

“Time to choose. Make up your mind.”

The old woman froze. The phantom voice was right. The whole point of this trip suddenly came barrelling back into Bea’s mind. Wait a minute, she suddenly thought.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry?” Bea called out, her voice cracking slightly.

“What?!” a startled voice exclaimed from behind the stall door.

“Did you say something?” the old woman asked, feeling very much the fool.

“No, just . . . talking to myself.”

“Oh,” Bea said weakly. “I thought you were talking to me.” Of course the stranger hadn’t been speaking to her. Unless Bea had been snoring again, the poor woman probably had no idea she was even there.

“Nope,” was the reply.

Bea nodded. She then paused. “Is everything all right?” she asked. She was suddenly getting vivid flashbacks of standing outside a locked bathroom, trying to comfort one of the girls as they cried over whichever boy broke their heart that month.

“Yes,” the woman responded, sounding on the cusp of irritation. “Everything’s fine.”

“It’s just,” Bea went on, stubborn to the very end. “Whenever someone talks to themselves in a public restroom, it’s usually a sign that things are not okay.” Falling asleep on a toilet was also a sign that things were not okay, but Bea tried to ignore that flaming red flag.

There was a long pause. Bea began to think the woman had gone, tired of being pestered by a faceless voice from the toilets. “Is everything all right?” she asked again, standing up slowly.

“Yes,” the woman finally responded, sounding strangely resolved. “Everything’s fine.”

That’s good then, Bea thought. She was about to say something else, but then she heard the restroom door open, and the sound of footsteps leaving. She was alone again. That was when she was hit with another jolt.

Herb!

He would be waiting, worrying, panicking, even. Ignoring the again rising pain in her hip, Bea staggered to her feet. She hooked the bags up, hurried out of the cubicle, and then back into the corridor.

There were a few people scurrying back and forth. Judging by their matching waistcoats, and the bitter expressions on their faces, Bea guessed they were waiters. But of Herb there was no sign. That’s all right, Bea told herself, trying to calm the rapid beating of her heart. She can’t have been in the loo for that long then. Herb was probably still finishing up. Bea forced herself to check her watch.

She felt the bile suddenly crawl up her throat. She had been in that cubicle for almost half-an-hour. The strength flooded out of her legs, causing her to buckle against the wall. Stupid, stupid, stupid! The whole day had been a stupid, childish idea, and now look where it had gotten her.

No, now wasn’t the time to panic. Wincing slightly, Bea straightened up. Herb was just as old as she was. Who’s to say he was even finished yet? Of course, hanging around this corridor wasn’t going to give her any answers. After taking a moment to steel herself, Bea barged into the men’s toilet. Fortunately, there was no one standing at any of the urinals. Her relief, however, was short-lived. There was also no one in any of the cubicles. Now the panic came unabated.

Bea had lost her husband. Her husband who could barely remember who he was, and needed to be supervised twenty-four-seven. She had lost him. She stumbled out of the toilets, her head snapping up and down the corridor, hoping to catch sight of his shuffling form. She staggered as quickly as she could manage towards the main foyer, but Herb was nowhere to be seen.

Her breath began to quicken, sweat started to prickle the back of her neck, and the furious voices of her daughters began to bark inside her head. How could she have been so careless? This is why he needed to be in a home. Bea couldn’t be trusted to care for him. The tears were running down her face as she made her way out of the town hall. Her knees were trembling, still bereft of any strength. She had to keep one shaking hand pressed against the wall as she stared up and down the street. Her hip was now an almost unbearable burning point of pain. But she couldn’t slow down. She couldn’t rest. Gritting her teeth, and trying to turn the panic into a new reserve of strength, Bea hobbled onwards.

Still snatching glances along each stretch of street, the old woman realised she had to make a choice. Another choice she would, she was sure, get wrong. Bea had to decide which way her husband would have gone. Would he have gone further into the town? Hoping to find some way home? That is, if he was even aware of where he was. Or, would he gave gone closer to the coast? Head back the way they had come? Knowing that every moment of hesitation would cost her, Bea made her decision. As she made her attempt to ignore the pain in her hip, the weariness in her bones, and the panic gnawing in her mind, Bea set off down the street.

How would she explain this to the girls? This childish scheme even she didn’t understand? How could she explain that what hurt most wasn’t seeing the light of familiarity leave Herb’s eyes, but it was watching it come back. Herb’s illness had taught her many things, but the one that hit the heaviest was this: Love isn’t fair. It isn’t equal between lovers. There’s always one who gives too much, and loses more. There’s always one who has to be left behind. Bea wasn’t ready to be left behind. She’d spent decades as part of a pair, she wasn’t sure she could remember what it was like to be alone. Each and every time her husband found his way home Bea knew that, before long, she would be forced to mourn him yet again. She would yet again face the crushing weight of being alone. And so, in order to muster some sort of hope, Bea had begun entertaining the most impossible of notions. Who was to say those moments her husband came back had to be brief? What if there was a way to stop Herb wandering off again? What if Bea was able to find a way to anchor him back to the here and now?

The agony of losing him time and time and time again had soured her against all rational thoughts. No matter the option, no matter the madness, Bea was willing to try it. She didn’t know why, in the end, she had decided on Chaffley. The idea had just come to her during a mid-afternoon nap. Maybe it was because of their ongoing jokes, or maybe she felt it was best to start where it all began. At the time it had seemed flawless and bound to succeed. Now, after the day’s miseries, she was waking up to how utterly hopeless her ploy had been. Bea realised, with a wracking sob, that her daughters had been right all along.

Her stumbling steps fell to a stop. A ragged laugh escaped her lips and relief bathed her aching body. There he was, perched on the bench and staring out at the sea. She knew her husband well enough to know he couldn’t resist the chance to sit down. She took a moment to compose herself, then slowly joined him. Once she was down, she felt the weariness steal over her yet again. It wasn’t just from the day’s exertions, or from the panic his disappearance had induced. She was tired from fighting, for months and months, a battle she knew she would never win. As her eyes began to drift shut, Bea felt Herb’s hand slide into hers.

“I remember this place,” he muttered.

Bea’s eyes snapped open. All fanciful thoughts of napping vanished. Slowly, as if a sudden move might startle him, Bea turned to Herb. He was still staring out at the waves, but there was a new look in his eyes. There was a longing she had never seen before.

“Spent a weekend here once with my old friend Roderick.”

She was stunned. Of course, that was his name. She’d spent the last sixty years thinking it was Rodney. But why? Because Edie had always called his Roddy, that was why. Well, the week that she had been convinced she was head-over-heels for him at any rate. Bea felt her fingers grip Herb’s hand even tighter. He barely noticed. “The whole weekend was a right bore,” he grumbled. “Nothing much to do, except for this dance.” He chuckled slightly at this. “I’m not much of a dancer, never have been, have I? But, as there was nothing else to do, Roderick and I decided to go. At the very least we could both get rat-faced on free beer. But then the strangest thing happened. There was this girl and, from the moment I laid eyes on her, I knew, I just knew.

“I was too nervous to go and talk to her, of course. But Roderick wasn’t, oh no. He marched right over there, dragging me along, and even managed to lure her friend away. That was the first girl I danced with. I didn’t need to get pissed in order to enjoy that night, oh no. I remember afterwards, when I was helping Roderick stumble home, I remember telling him: ‘That’s the woman I’m going to marry.’”

Herb finally turned to look at her. He raised a weathered hand and delicately wiped an errant tear from her cheek. “I just get lost sometimes, Bea” he said, the pain ringing clear in his voice.

Bea took his other hand in hers and held them tight. “I know, love,” she breathed, “I know. And no matter what happens, I’ll always be waiting for you, right here.”

The old man flashed her a weak, grateful smile, then planted a kiss on the back of her hands. He then glanced back at the waves, a frown creasing his features. “How are we getting home?” he asked.

She followed his gaze, watching the fading sunlight make it’s final dance across the water, and then sighed. “Let’s worry about that later,” she said. Without a single thought about what might happen next, Bea lowered her head onto Herb’s shoulder and let her heavy eyes finally shut.

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