In a dark corner of a village pub sat an old man nursing a pint of bitter. He was there every night without fail, just sitting and staring into the depths of his drink. He had been there for so long that the villagers no longer noticed him. It was like he was another oil painting on the wall or broken piece of furniture that everyone avoided. His hair was white and stuck out crazily around his heavily wrinkled face. He had a dark wooden cane which he used for walking; he was never seen without it. His muddy brown eyes darted curiously around his surroundings every now and then, between long periods of silent brooding. Nobody spoke to him and he spoke to nobody. Even the barman didn’t attempt conversation. He just poured the old man a pint and took the money offered silently. I looked around my new local pub, curious as to why such a sad old soul was being left to fester in the corner, ignored by his neighbours.
I’d not been living here long, but I was being welcomed like I belonged in the little village of Adstock. I had been born there, but my family had moved away when I was two so I don’t remember. My parent’s moved back here after I moved out and went to University. I went straight from Uni to teaching in a school about an hour away. I am ashamed to say that I had only ever visited my parents a handful of times in the intervening years. They had somehow always ended up coming to visit me instead. They lived in Spain now. They won some money on the lottery and bought themselves a beautiful place out there with their own pool and a balcony leading off their bedroom with fantastic views. I was now renting their house from them in Adstock. It wasn’t exactly ideal, but after my husband Matt and I filed for divorce there wasn’t much else I could do. It hadn’t been a bad breakup, there was no adultery, no recriminations, not even any arguments. Matt and I just drifted apart and didn’t know how to get back to each other. Once we had decided not to keep trying to repair the damage in our marriage, I’d said a tearful goodbye and moved out fairly quickly. It hurt so much walking away but I couldn’t face seeing him; feeling the chaotic swarm of emotions that engulfed me when I looked at him. Adstock was far enough away that I didn’t have to see anyone I knew, and nobody here really knew me.
After a few weeks, my curiosity got the better of me and I asked the barman about the man sitting in the corner. I couldn’t bear the desolate look in his eyes or the way he clung to his pint like it was some kind of lifeline. I needed to know what had happened to this poor man that he seemed to have nothing to live for. Of course I had tried talking to him first; his eyes had met mine for a few seconds before he went back to staring at nothing and ignoring everything around him. The barman took his time answering me, he frown slightly in thought and wiped down the bar absent-mindedly.
“John Walters was a scientist. He’s got some fancy letters to go after his name but he refuses to use them. He abandoned his research and went to work on a farm just outside Adstock years ago. I can only tell you the urban myth about him. I can’t tell you how much is true, or how much is exaggerated gossip, here-say, or just plain made up.” He stopped for a moment to serve someone at the other end of the bar and then came back over to me to lean against the pumps.
“When John was in his late 20’s, he was one of the most brilliant minds in the world. He might be now if he permitted himself to use it. He was given an apprenticeship with this mysterious scientific research laboratory. Nobody can remember what it was called exactly, but everyone agrees it had an obscure name like The Lab, The Science Lab, Lab of Learning or something like that. John was obsessed with time travel and rumour has it that he succeeded. At the time, John was in a relationship with a girl called Maria. Maria was beautiful, intelligent, funny, caring, gentle, cheeky, charming; everything a man could possibly want in a woman.
“Like I am sure any man would if they had the ability, John wanted to know what his life would be like in a few years time and whether he would still be with Maria. He tested his time machine on himself and went forward in time by five years. What he found broke his heart. He had married Maria and had twin girls, but she had passed away. He didn’t know how, but he had arrived in the future on the day of her funeral. He watched her mother and sister blame his future self for her death. They shouted and sobbed that it was all his fault and she would still be alive if it wasn’t for him. Understandably, John was horrified at the desolation he glimpsed on his future face. The idea that he had killed the love of his life was a terrifying one. One he didn’t think he could ever live with. He came back to his own time with an aching heart, unable to shake the misery he had seen in the future. He destroyed his machine, quit his dream job at the lab and pushed Maria away. He was afraid to get too close to her, afraid his love for her would ultimately kill her.” The Barman, Mike, broke off his story and looked up at a burst of laughter coming from across the room. It jarred, so removed from the emotion of the story I was being told, and I winced slightly at the sound. The ladies of Adstock had a book club, which was really just an excuse to have a drink and a gossip, and by all accounts were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Mike glanced up the bar to make sure nobody was waiting to be served, and when back to his story.
“The first few months were the most difficult for him. Everyone thought he was crazy for breaking up with Maria, especially because he couldn’t give her a real reason. She could tell he still loved her and tried to win him back but he was adamant that it was for the best this way. In the end she gave up trying but she never got over him and despite dating a few guys she met, nothing ever lasted. John moved away because he couldn’t bear to be near her. Three years later she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. It was inoperable and the doctors told her she only had a year to live. As determined as she was, she survived for almost two years. Maria’s funeral was held on that very same day John thought he had avoided. Maria was still dead, and her mother and sister still blamed him, saying that she hadn’t really lived after he left her, that she would have been more willing to see a doctor if she had been happy and if she had been seen earlier they could have operated. John was devastated. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He had avoided everyone who had even the smallest link to Maria so he hadn’t known she was dying. He didn’t know anything until he had received the dreadful phone call.
“He knew now that he had made a terrible mistake. Not only had he lost the love of his life, but he had removed 5 years worth of memories of her from his life. Worse, he had never had the opportunity to tell her exactly how much she had always meant to him. He should have married her. He should have had children with her. Suddenly he pined desperately for the twin daughters he would never know. Five years before, when he had seen himself alone with two little girls, he had been afraid. He didn’t know how to raise children alone. He never imagined he would be able to do it, let alone long to do it. He never got over the loss of his family and the realisation that he only had himself to blame for the isolation he found himself drowning in.
“He has been working on the Farm outside Adstock ever since, and lives in a tiny cottage on the farmer’s land. He comes here every night to drown his sorrows. He speaks to nobody, and believe me, many many people have tried. All newcomers to Adstock try. You are welcome to, but I don’t suppose it will do much good. You are better off just leaving him to his thoughts.”
The barman fell silent. I was staring at my glass thoughtfully, pondering all I had heard. I felt for the old man sitting in the corner, but the barman was right. There was nothing I could do for him. He was just waiting to die so he could be with his love. In my opinion, Mother Nature was being rather cruel in making him wait such a terribly long time. It also got me thinking about my own situation. I had often thought in the last couple of weeks that I would have been better if I had never met Matt. I had moved away so that I was away from everything that would remind me of him. After hearing John’s story, I couldn’t help but think back over the years I had spent with him. All the times he made me laugh, the times he held me as I cried, all those incredibly tender moments we had shared since we had first met. The thought of not having those memories cut me to the bone. There is no way I could ever give them up. Not for anything in the world. I could feel the tears start to form and my bottom lip trembled. I hastily drained my glass, thanked the barman and left. I kept my head down so that passers by wouldn’t notice the tears as they began to fall. I hurried home and picked up the phone. I hesitated for just a second, took a couple of deep calming breaths, then dialled in the phone number for my old home.
“Matt? It’s Beth. Can….can I come and see you?”