When Harry Phillips finally moved into Green Grove Retirement Community the only thing he took with him, besides a suitcase of old clothes, was a small wooden box with a simple flip clasp. He held it on his lap in the taxi from the home he had shared with Shirley, nesting it in both hands like a chalice. The box, large enough to hold a deck of cards, was placed safely on his bedside table and Harry, tired from the drive, decided to have a lie down.
‘What’s in the box?’
The voice woke Harry. He blinked twice, then opened his eyes. An old woman with bright eyes gazed at him, her left hand trailing wrinkled fingers over the box lid.
‘I’m Mags,’ she said. ‘You ain’t brought much with you.’
Harry shuffled up on the bed, reaching a sitting position took time at his age, his eyes fixed on her hand as she traced the carved pattern in the dark wood lid.
‘Harry,’ he said. ‘And there’s nowt in the box you need to see.’
Mags smiled but Harry didn’t. He simply stared and waited.
‘I was told to fetch you for dinner,’ she said, turning on her heels and heading for the door.
Harry stared after her, watched her turn at the door and flash that smile his way again.
‘Don’t take too long or it’ll be cold,’ she said and was gone.
Harry put the box inside the drawer of his bedside table and followed.
After dinner Harry watched a bit of telly with the others, a word quiz with some comedian hosting. He stared blankly at the screen, waiting for it to be okay to be alone and back in his room.
He saw Mags across the room, flashing her smile at the two blokes sharing the sofa with her. She noticed him watching and winked. Harry flushed and turned his eyes back to the screen.
Back in his room, the bedside lamp providing a bubble of light around the head of his bed, Harry took the box from the draw as if picking up a new born. He painfully maneuvered his old bones back onto the bed, settling the box on his lap, the dark wood stark against the white and blue of his pyjamas.
His eyes moved to the door of his room, it remained closed, and only then did he open the box. Inside a pile of paper till receipts were huddled in a deep red velvet lining, arranged chronologically by Harry before he left the home he had shared with Shirley. Those at the bottom, the oldest, were yellowed with age and the pile shifted hue from yellow to white, from bottom to top. Harry took the receipt from the top of the pile, for a cup of coffee from the hospital canteen, he did not need to read the date and time to tell him it was from the evening of the night that Shirley died.
He placed the receipt back on the pile. It was too early for that one.
He lifted the pile up and parted it someway down from the top, placing the newer receipts on the inside of the lid. The receipt at the top of the cut deck was yellow with age. He read the date and time, looked at the address on the top of the receipt and smiled. Cawardine’s. Bridge Street. Two breakfasts. £2.35 each. Two teas, 85p each.
He remembered. This was from when the kids were all grown up. A lazy morning shopping with Shirley. Full English before traipsing after her into clothes shops and knick knack shops and all the other shops she loved to browse. Harry thought of himself, complaining as he waited outside changing rooms, kicking his heels as she looked at ornaments she would never buy. He closed his eyes. He saw his younger self and wanted to shake him, tell him how grateful he should be to be there, in that moment, doing those things. He relaxed back onto the bed, eyes still closed and watched until he fell asleep, his thumb stroking the receipt in his hand.
And just like that he is sat across from Shirley and it is 1998 and she is smiling. He passes her the tomato sauce and she takes it, her hand trailing over his for just a moment. He feels it, warm, soft, he feels it. It is not remembered. It is not dreamt. Harry now is back there then. His body is younger, the 1998 model, Shirley is breathing and eating and smiling opposite him. She sips her tea and he looks at her face, bathed in the light from the shop front window of the café.
You look so beautiful, he says.
She smiles. Leans over the table and kisses his cheek.
Charmer, she says.
When they are finished they head out to the shops. He holds her hand and smiles and never once complains. He waits until she is in the changing room, trying on a skirt, before he lets himself cry.
Harry woke the next morning to find Mags sat beside his bed. She was smiling.
‘Receipts is it?’ she said.
Harry looked at his hand, and, seeing the receipt, put it back in its place in the pile. He closed the box and put it back in the draw.
‘Don’t worry,’ Mags said, ‘I won’t tell.’
Harry pulled the duvet up about himself.
‘Mine’s full of cinema tickets.’ Mags nodded gently to the drawer. ‘Andrew has a box full of bus tickets apparently. Claire’s especially lucky, she kept a diary.’
Harry nodded. ‘Wish I’d done that,’ he said.
‘Everyone here has something like that,’ Mags said.
Harry thought for a moment.
‘Everyone?’ he said.
Mags nodded and winked. ‘And we all keep our treasures by our bedside.’
Harry thought of all the receipts he had piled in his little box and, for the first time in a long while, he smiled.