This short story was originally published in an anthology to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Rushmoor Writers. Stories were commissioned on the theme of the anthology title: 'The Thing about Seventy'. The complete anthology is available from Amazon in ebook and paperback.
Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes
by Helen Matthews
The man must have lied about his age but it’s too late now. He’s shaken hands with Manee’s father and paid for a plot of land with almost a sea view where her parents will build their dream home. Her family’s problems, accumulated like sludge in a sewer over the past four years, have been scrubbed away with the stroke of a pen on the marriage certificate. In the photographs of the ceremony everyone is smiling broadly. Everyone, except Manee.
Before agreeing to let her father sign her up with the marriage agency, Manee talked it over with her cousin. Her cousin’s friend’s sister’s daughter had been mail-ordered by an Englishman through the same bridal agency and now lived in a place called Darlington in the north of England.
‘What’s it like there?’ Manee asked her cousin.
‘The sky is grey like funeral ash and it’s always cold,’ said the cousin, ‘but she say her husband let her keep central heating on all through summer because he feel cold too.’
‘And what’s her best advice?’
‘Her advice is - think about the man’s age. Choose wisely.’
Manee nodded, anxiously. Ever since her father yanked her out of her studies because of their family’s financial crisis, she’d been constantly anxious and huddled indoors under a blanket of depression. She’d been studying Pharmacy at the university and, on the day she was told to leave, she went to the library and stole three hefty textbooks, thinking to continue her studies independently. She sat in her room, which wasn’t even a room, just a shack in the garden at her aunt’s place, because her parents had sold their home to pay debts, and stared at a Chemistry text book while a grey mist floated in front of her eyes and blotted out the words.
Four days before the wedding, Manee was introduced to her husband-to-be. She was appalled. He had thick silvery hair, a sun tan, a nice smile and all his own teeth. Where was the leathery wrinkled skin, the folds of lizard flesh under his jawline?
‘I’m seventy,’ the man told her proudly ‘but my friends say I don’t look a day over sixty-two.’
‘Only seventy!’ Manee gulped, remembering her cousin’s advice about age. She’d told her father to tick the box for a fiancé aged eighty-five plus but he must have ignored her. This man looked as if he might live for years, even decades...
And then it would be too late to achieve her ambition to become a pharmacist.
In their honeymoon suite at the best hotel in Pattaya, the man tells her about the plans he’s made with an agency to do the paperwork to get Manee a UK Settlement visa.
‘Don’t worry, honey,’ he says. ‘You’ll easily pass the English proficiency test. Your university course was taught in English, wasn’t it?’
‘Legal marriage in Thailand is recognised in the UK so you’ll get a visa valid for two years and nine months. After that we can apply for another one to take you up to five years.’
Manee’s heart beats faster as she sees her youth and her dreams ticking away. Five years from now, ten years, this man will still be fit and active. But what happens after fifteen years? She won’t be a pharmacist, she won’t even be a nurse, she’ll be a carer.
‘Why is the visa for two point seven five years?’ she asks.
‘To prove to the authorities our marriage is genuine, my love. It is for me. I adore you already.’ He looks solemn, almost sad, as he bends to kiss her but he reeks of whisky. Manee’s father kept refilling his glass. ‘Come here my dearest darling.’ He holds out his arms to her, overbalances and collapses onto the bed.
Manee takes a few steps away.
‘Where are you going?’ he asks.
Shyly she nods towards the bathroom door. ‘There.’
In the bathroom, she peels off her wedding dress and drops it on the floor where it deflates like a soggy meringue. Manee wanted to wear traditional Thai dress but her mother had insisted on wrapping the goods ‘western-style’. She runs a shower and waits.
By the time Manee tiptoes out, the man is fast asleep and snoring.
While they wait for Manee’s visa paperwork, they move to a rented apartment in Bangkok. She knows the man’s name is Stuart and her mother has drummed into her that her role as a wife is to serve him and make sure he keeps on sending money to build the family’s new house on the recently-purchased plot.
At the market she buys chicken and coconut, fresh lime and rice. She hesitates over the fruit called durian. It tastes divine but gives off a stench of tobacco and sulphur. Every evening Stuart eats the meal she cooks, thanks her and drinks moderately until ten o’ clock. Then he wants to make love to her but he can’t seem to manage. He whispers, ‘Sorry,’ and promises he’ll get it sorted out when they’re back in England.
After he falls asleep, Manee gets out her Pharmacy text book and looks up his condition. The name of the drug to treat it begins with ‘v’ – a word she can’t pronounce. She’ll make sure he doesn’t get it. Their lacklustre love life suits her.
Stuart’s ardour for sightseeing remains undimmed so they traipse around the capital visiting the Grand Palace and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. He has a FitBit and tells her they’ve walked 15,000 or 20,000 steps. Manee’s feet throb with pain but Stuart looks fitter and younger every day.
At last the paperwork is sorted. They fly to England and take a taxi to Stuart’s house in south London. The roads are busy with traffic but compared to Bangkok it’s nothing. As she waits on the kerbside for him to pay the taxi, she sniffs the air and the smell of diesel mingled with exhaust fumes reminds her of home.
They sit in the kitchen with their suitcases around their feet and, while he’s making tea, Manee senses a sudden movement in the hallway and feels a chill draught. She shivers. Stuart is a widower. His wife died five years ago. Manee’s family are Buddhist but they also believe in spirits, good ghosts, bad ghosts and sometimes they leave offerings of food and drink for the spirits of ancient ancestors. Has Stuart’s wife returned from the dead to see this young bride he has brought home to replace her?
He notices she’s shivering and asks what’s wrong.
‘I was thinking about your wife,’ says Manee.
This puts Stuart in a confiding mood. ‘After Jilly died, five years ago, I didn’t see much point in retirement,’ he says, ‘so I carried on working part time as an accountant at my old firm. But now I have you, my darling, it’s time to enjoy life and travel.’
‘Travel?’ That doesn’t sound so bad. In Thailand she’s seen old people disembarking from cruise ships and lying on beaches. And seeing Europe, she’d like that.
‘A cruise?’ she suggests, brightening up.
Stuart shakes his head and wrinkles his brow. ‘That’s for old folk. Not people like us in the prime of life. I was thinking we could walk the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, or tackle El Camino in Spain – the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.’ He opens a cupboard and pulls out a bundle of maps. ‘We’ll get into training this spring. First we’ll walk Offa’s Dyke and then make a start on the south-west coastal path.’
‘How far is that?’
‘Six hundred and thirty miles. But we don’t have to do it all.’
Manee glances down at her tiny feet in the Jimmy Choo high heeled sandals Stuart bought for her in Bangkok. They are fake, of course, but wearing them gives her a thrill.
‘I can’t manage,’ she replies in a flat voice.
‘Nonsense, I’ll enrol you at the gym. You’ll soon get into shape.’
Stuart gives her a tour of the house and opens the door to the master bedroom. The green and black tapestry curtains are not fully drawn so she can see dust motes dancing in a shaft of light. There’s a matching tapestry bedspread, hanging down low onto the floor.
‘We can move back in here tonight,’ he says. ‘Since Jilly died I’ve been sleeping in a single bed in the box room.’
A restless night passes with no lovemaking. Next morning, Stuart sets off to tie up some loose ends at his office and Manee flings open the windows to let in a breeze. She hoovers, dusts and polishes. That bedspread will have to go but Stuart’s cat is sitting sprawled across it.
‘Push off, Mitzy,’ she says, tugging at the cover. Hundreds of mites and fleas escape confinement and bite her. After she’s stopped itching, she pokes the hoover extension underneath the bed but it hits an obstruction. She kneels down and peers into the darkness. Dozens of boxes. Some with a fading photo of the contents stuck onto the lid. She drags them out. The boxes contain beautiful shoes: leather and suede, black, blue and red, all with high heels. While she was asleep in this bed last night, the territory beneath it still belonged to the spirit of his dead wife Jilly. Horror mingles with desire as Manee slides her tiny feet into a pair of red leather stilettos, seven sizes too large, and totters a couple of paces.
Her phone rings and distracts her. It’s Stuart calling from his office.
‘Great news, honey. I went to the doc this morning and he’s written me an – um – prescription. For – you know. They’ll be sending it down to the chemist and it’ll be ready to collect later today. Could you?’
‘Sure,’ says Manee.
Stuart explains where to find the chemist. It’s just a ten minute walk away. Before setting off, Manee takes her pharmacy text books out of her suitcase and studies the photographs of the drug she now knows is called Viagra. It’s blue and an unusual diamond shape and the name is scored into every pill. Drat! She opens up a search engine, grateful that Stuart set it all up on her phone, and taps in some keywords. She finds what she was looking for in a newspaper article with the headline Viagra Goes Generic. She remembers learning about this on her degree course. The article is illustrated with a photo of the new generic pill. It’s white and comes in a basic round shape.
Manee stands in line and collects Stuart’s prescription. At the same time, she picks up two packets of Paracetamol. Back home in the kitchen, keeping an anxious eye on the door, she takes the blister pack of pills out of its box and teases the foil back off the packaging. Most people think this is impossible to do but, in her university vacations, Manee had a job in a local pharmacy and they taught her this trick. They used it to extract premium drugs from their factory packaging, which they then sold at a huge mark-up on the internet, while substituting fakes in the original packets.
Manee flushes the prescription tablets down the toilet and replaces them with Paracetamol tablets in the original bubble pack. Gluing it all back together is challenging and it doesn’t look quite right but it won’t be a problem because she’ll make sure to personally dispense Stuart’s pill.
‘I thought these pills would be blue,’ says Stuart when she serves it to him with a mug of cocoa that night.
‘No, it is a new cheaper, generic version called Sildenafil. See.’ She presents him with the advice leaflet and shows him the packaging. He seems satisfied. Now the only thing she has to worry about is the placebo effect, which she also studied at uni. What if Stuart didn’t really need the pills and it was all down to performance anxiety?
She needn’t have worried. The night is uneventful and, for the first time since her marriage, Manee sleeps soundly.
Stuart wakes early and bright-eyed, leaps out of bed and tells her they’re going for a walk on the South Downs. They drive for miles out into the countryside. Stuart hands her a backpack. It’s tiny compared to the one he’s carrying but it drags on her shoulders and hurts her back. By the time they reach the pub Stuart has chosen for their lunch stop, she’s out of breath and hobbling with blisters on both her heels.
‘This is my fault.’ Stuart can’t stop apologising. ‘I shouldn’t have let you walk in those trainers. Tomorrow we’ll get you fitted for proper walking boots.’
Manee shakes her head. ‘There won’t be a tomorrow. Walking is not me. Along the beach, perhaps? Or in the park. That’s it.’
For several days she sits on the sofa with her feet up while Stuart cleans and cooks and waits for her blisters to heel. He orders a pair of walking boots online but she groans and waves them away.
‘You are seriously joking. I will go dancing, if I must, or a short stroll but hiking for miles, carrying a backpack. No way.’
Stuart seems crestfallen but he’s resourceful. The next day he announces, ‘Perhaps I’ll join the Ramblers.’
‘A walking club.’
Every Tuesday and Saturday, Stuart rises early and joins a fifteen or twenty-mile walk. One of his rambler groups is walking a circuit of the capital called the London Ring and he comes home bursting to talk about it.
‘Tell me in the restaurant,’ says Manee. She’s booked a table at the Mai Thai where she’s made friends with the owner and his wife and often spends afternoons sipping a melon ice drink. Her new friends are eager to know how she’s enjoying married life.
‘It’s okay,’ she replies. It would be wrong to complain. Stuart is kind to her and very generous to her family. Her mother sends her photos of the new family house which is under construction. When Stuart is out, Manee looks at his bank statements and sees he’s sending a lot of money east. Her father and mother have what they want. Stuart should have what he wants but he doesn’t because the Paracetamol he thinks is Viagra doesn’t work. He’s had every test on the planet and been told his heart, lungs and liver are as good as those of a man half his age.
‘I’m starting a Spanish class at the U3A,’ Stuart tells her.
‘What’s that? It sounds like some weird secret society.’
‘It stands for University of the Third Age. It’s for people like me who are retired but young at heart and want to learn new skills. I’d suggest you join us, but you’re not old enough.’ He laughs, as if that joke was actually funny. Even Stuart is going to university. Only she cannot.
Manee rings her cousin’s friend’s sister’s daughter in Darlington and learns that her husband has been given a terminal diagnosis and has just weeks to live. ‘Soon I will own his house, his pension and his cat,’ the woman boasts.
Tell tale signs of her old depression sneak back into Manee’s head. She stops going to see her friends at the Mai Thai and stays indoors, with the curtains drawn, watching daytime TV. Jilly’s shoes are still in a black plastic sack in the bottom of the wardrobe because she can’t motivate herself to take them to the clothes bank for the Air Ambulance.
The U3A hold their meetings at one another’s houses and when it’s Stuart’s turn to host, Manee watches them arrive. It’s a sunny day but some of them are wearing anoraks and others have those fluffy green or purple tops, zipped up to their chins. Manee brings them tea and biscuits and leaves the door ajar so she can stand in the hall and listen. Stuart is telling everyone about his upcoming expedition to walk El Camino with people from his Ramblers club.
‘It will be the experience of a lifetime,’ he says. ‘We’ll see the real Spain. Anyone here fancy joining us?’
Manee peers out from her hiding place and watches the horrified reaction of most of the group. But then a woman, slightly younger than the rest, with yellow frizzy hair and wearing a dress over leggings and sensible lace-up boots, says, ‘I’ll come. I’ll need to get into training though.’
Stuart is ecstatic. ‘Lydia – that would be brilliant. Your fluent Spanish will be such an asset.’
Manee watches Lydia’s face redden at such praise.
Stuart steps up training for his long distance walk and works hard on his Spanish. Before he sets off, Manee tests him on phrases like Necesito una ambulancia and Tengo intoxicacion alimentaria.
On the day before Stuart leaves, she flies to Thailand to visit her family. At home she’s suddenly become her parents’ favourite child. Their new house, funded by Stuart, is the envy of the neighbours. He is also sending a monthly income. Everyone is happy. No one asks Manee if she is happy.
Stuart returns from Spain with his arm in a sling.
‘Did you need an ambulance?’ Manee asks.
He laughs. ‘No. The others strapped up my wrist and we kept calm and carried on.’
It’s a warm evening and after supper, they sit outside in the garden finishing off a bottle of Rioja.
‘While I was away I’ve been doing a bit of thinking,’ says Stuart, putting down his glass and looking at Manee over the top of his spectacles. ‘There’s something I need to talk to you about. Two things actually.’
Manee gives a little shiver. ‘Tell me one thing,’ she says. ‘Save the other one for tomorrow.’ She and Stuart have so few interests in common. If he has two things to discuss, it makes sense to save one of them for tomorrow.
‘I was thinking life here can’t be much fun for you,’ says Stuart. ‘You and I don’t enjoy the same things …’
Manee holds her breath. What’s coming next?
‘So, I’ve decided,’ says Stuart, ‘you should go back to university – here in London – to complete your Pharmacy degree.’
She’s overwhelmed. ‘Stuart! Thank you!’ Tears flow down her face as she sits on his lap and kisses his hands and face, then kneels down and massages his feet.
‘Come on, love.’ Stuart seems embarrassed at the attention. ‘It’s just a small thing. I can afford it and I’m happy to do it for you.’
That night in bed, Manee edges closer than usual to Stuart and wonders if she might grow fond of him in time.
Next morning Stuart seems almost apologetic as he gets up, leaving Manee in bed, searching the internet to check which universities offer pharmacy degrees. She makes a shortlist – UCL, King’s, Greenwich – then gets up and goes to shower.
When she emerges from the bathroom, she hears a banging sound coming from the small box room where Stuart used to sleep during the five years of his widowhood.
‘What are you doing?’ she asks.
He’s been shifting furniture around. Under the window is a desk that wasn’t there before, a chair with a cushion covered in a flowery fabric and an empty bookcase.
‘This is your study,’ he says. He’s taken all his own books about steam railways and birdwatching out of the book case and stacked them in a pile on the floor.
But there’s something else. When she moved in, Manee spring-cleaned the whole house. She remembers stripping off the plain green duvet cover from the narrow single bed and putting it in the washing machine. She left the bed unmade but now Stuart has made it up with a silk duvet cover, patterned with pink flowers.
‘What’s that for?’ she asks. The bedcover looks a bit girly. ‘Are we expecting guests?’
Stuart sits down and pats the place on the bed beside him. ‘Come and sit here with me, my sweet.’
She does as he asks. ‘What was that other thing you wanted to tell me?’
Stuart swallows and his Adam’s apple bulges in his neck. ‘Manee, you are wonderful. You’ve given me back my youth. Before you, I was a shadow of a man going through the motions of life: work, sleep, eat, rinse, repeat. I’m so happy to give you the chance to complete your Pharmacy degree.’
Well yes, she thinks, that’s all very fine but you’ve told me that already.
‘So you will do your degree and I’ll pay the fees and support you. After that, the future is for you to choose. In the meantime, this is your room, to study – and to sleep...’
What does he mean? She looks at him, perplexed. ‘I don’t understand.’
Stuart cups her chin in his hand, lifts her face and kisses her tenderly on the cheek. ‘Something happened when I was on holiday,’ he says. ‘Between me and Lydia. It made me realise I was foolish, as a man of seventy, thinking I could recapture my youth with a twenty-year-old wife. Lydia is fifty-nine.’
Suddenly everything becomes clear to Manee. Stuart has fallen in love. With Lydia.
‘What does Lydia say about this?’ she asks. ‘Won’t she want me to leave?’
‘Lydia’s in no hurry for us to live together. We’ve agreed to take it slowly. Two years or three – at our age that’s nothing.’
Manee catches sight of her reflection in the dressing table mirror – her long dark hair, slim figure, almond eyes and thinks of Lydia’s yellow, frizzy hair and sensible lace-up boots. ‘How did you know,’ she asks, ‘that Lydia was the one?’
Stuart strokes her hand and fails to hide a secret smile. ‘With Lydia, I didn’t need Viagra.’