“You’re a useless drip. What have you ever achieved in sixty-five years? We’re still stuck in this tiny flat and you’ve got bugger all to your name. You’re a ridiculous failure, a waste of space, and that’s why I’m leaving you!”
“Thanks for saving this up for the day after I retire, and I’m feeling really shit,” I shouted to my wife, trying to ignore the pain in my chest. “Kick me when I’d down, why don’t you?”
“You’re never down, David, that’s the point! You’re always cheerful and contented, because you’ve got no ambition! Honestly, you’re pathetic, you must have been christened ‘loser’ in your pram!”
So saying, my wife walked out of our twenty-year marriage, leaving me pretty much shattered by what she had said.
I had to face it. She was right.
I was useless.
An utter failure.
I’ve done the same clerical types of job all my life, earnt a pittance, which was just about enough to buy this tiny flat in a rundown part of town. And I’ve never saved for retirement, so it looked like from now on, I had nothing much to look forward to, except living alone and scrimping and saving and worrying how to make ends meet.
Could I really blame her for leaving me?
As Doris had said, I’m usually fairly upbeat and contented, but not now. Depression ate away at me all day – my first day of retirement from the job where I’d enjoyed the company of colleagues, even if the work had been pretty dreary. And I realised that now I really was completely on my own. It was the first time I’d really taken stock of all that I’d done with my life, or more to the point what I had not done. It’s true that I’d tried to succeed at a few different jobs, but I’d always been too wary of taking big chances, preferring to play it safe, in lacklustre, low-paying employment. I reflected how some of my old friends were riding high now, having saved in pension schemes, invested in this and that, been lucky with the houses they’d bought and so on, and they could go on world cruises, live in their luxury second homes for half the year, play golf and generally enjoy themselves. Others had gone on to produce children and grandchildren who gave them comfort and pride in the future. But I had married late, and although we’d wanted children, it had never happened. Now it seemed that Doris was going to go her own way and leave me for a man she’d only just met, who, she’d taken delight in telling me, was a superb lover, had a large detached house, a Mercedes and an expense account at Harrods.
Maybe it was the stress of leaving the regular routine of my job, plus the terrible shock of the row with Doris that brought on my illness. The chest pains came on again late in the evening, and by the time I called the ambulance it was getting harder and harder to breathe.
A heart attack is no joke, I can tell you.
And feeling like a failure with nothing to live for is a pretty good rehearsal for death.
Yet that was when I had the strangest dream of my life, if you can call it a dream.
“Do you remember me?” said a man whose face was familiar, but I couldn’t recognise him. And then it came to me: I remembered him from when we were both little boys. Although now he had a grey beard and no hair, but he had the same eager features. Derek Harbottle reminded me who he was.
“We used to sit together at the back of the Maths class at school,” he pointed out. “You spent half the time in class not doing your own work, but explaining what the master was writing on the whiteboard at the front of the class, because you knew I couldn’t read it. You were the only one who bothered to tell me that it was my eyesight that was wrong and that everyone else could read the words, and that I wasn’t stupid. Shortly afterwards I told Mum and she got me glasses. After that I never looked back, did really well at school, and now I work in the aeronautical engineering industry and I’m pretty successful.”
“And, David, I can honestly tell you that my success was all thanks to you. Your kindness made all the difference to me, and I’ve always wanted to thank you.”
The next person who came up to me looked as if he was a tramp. An old man in filthy clothes.
“Hello mate. You may not remember me, but you passed me on your way to work every day. I was sleeping rough, and you always gave me a pound or two. It wasn’t just the money I remember, it was the nice way you always talked to me, calling me mate, and smiling, and treating me like a person. You get used to feeling invisible when you’re on the streets. You gave me back my dignity. I’ll never forget you.”
The man just seemed to disappear, replaced this time by a timid looking woman of around my own age.
“David, we worked together at that fast-food restaurant, do you remember, when we were young?” I did remember her. Hopeless Helen, the other members of staff had called her, a butterfingers with charm, who was as nice as pie, but couldn’t help making mistakes. “I really needed the job, but I kept getting everything wrong. And when I dropped that huge tray of lasagne on the floor I was ready to be sacked, but just as the boss arrived you pushed in front of me, and told him that you had dropped it, and you took the flak. I never forgot you doing that for me. I kept that job for just long enough to tide me over when I was in real money trouble. If it hadn’t been for what you did I’d have been in a real jam.”
After that I suppose I must have ‘come back to life’ myself if there is such a way of describing it. They told me I’d been dead for just a few seconds, but I can tell you it seemed much much longer than that.
While I was recovering, I made friends with some of the nurses. Ralph told me how wonderful his home country, the Philippines, was, and Greta waxed lyrical about her beloved India. That was what gave me the idea of taking a trip around the world, just as I had done when I was a student, a time which had been the happiest period of my life. I’d always wanted to see more of the world, to learn about different countries, different people.
A few weeks later it was all arranged, and I was due to depart from Southampton docks on a Sunday evening in September, with only my tent and my rucksack for company, and my heart, thankfully ticking away as it should, thanks to the skill of the surgeons and all the pills I was told to take. I was excited, wondering what the weeks would bring, the friends I’d make, the places I’d see, the adventures I might be having.
That was the moment when I got the call on my mobile from Doris, tearfully telling me that her dream man had been married, and he’d kicked her out, and could we start again.
“But why would you want to live with a waste of space? A failure?” I asked her.
As she mumbled out her excuses, all of a sudden I remembered the words of Rachel, a senior nurse, who’d talked to me in the Intensive Care Unit:
“We see lots of people dying in here,” she had confided in her friendly no-nonsense way. “And it give you a bit of perspective on life. Let me tell you, lad, once you’re gone, no one’s going to remember how big your bank balance was, or whether you had a fancy car. It’s the nice, kind folks that always get remembered.”
There was a loud hooting sound from the ship’s horn and I took my place in the queue to climb on board.
As I cut the call to Doris, I suddenly realised that maybe I wasn’t such a failure after all. . .
That evening, the surgeon who done an emervacny ooperation on me, came to have a word.
“Thanks you very much for saving my life,m” I told him honestly.
“It’s worht it when it’s a nice blokoe like you,” he told me, smllng and leaning closer. “All the team were rooting for you. And the good news is that youor heart muscle is still fine, and the bits and bobs of plumbing I;ve done in your chest should keep you going for a good long while. . . “
A few weeks later my wife came to see me. Apparently her new man friend had been arrested for a string of crimes, was being held on remand and wasn;t expected to leave jail for some years. Their joint bank accoutn had been frozen.
“Daivid, I said some pretty hardh shings to you,” she told me. “And I wanted to tell you how sorry I am. I didn’t mean all those things I said. I made a big mistake. I’d like us to try again.”
“That;s okay,” I told her. “I’ve got juist one thing to say to yuou.”
“What’s that?” She amiled, moring into mky arms.
about your heart attack. I’ve nly just heard about it.”
“No. The hopstial contacted you immediately. You mnever bothered to
An utter failure, A useless waste of space. A loser, who never amoutned to anyting. That was how my wife ghouthg of me.
It seemes to me that when you die, your posseesions go to other people, and the woreld will soon forget you.
But there;s soething they will never forget.
They won’t foget your kindness.