They had been friends for ever. When he started forgetting things, at first they had a little laugh, but when he asked, What’s your appendix, when he meant agenda, he seriously began to worry. He was shocked when one day he asked him, Who are you? Are you my brother Ken? Which was surprising, as Dan was an only child. He was finally diagnosed with dementia. Sixty-six seemed too young to become struck with Alzheimer’s, but he was grateful that the poor chap had no other medical symptoms. He was physically unimpaired, had a good appetite, which were both good for someone who liked walking and good food.
He, Pete, or Peter aka Pedro, was determined that he was going to do everything in his power to ensure that his unfortunate friend had a comfortable life. After a career in academia, money was never an issue, they both had rather more than what they needed. Dan had never married, after being rebuffed when he was seventeen. He really had nobody in the world. Apart from Peter.
Pete checked Homes, first on-line, and later visited the short list that he had made. Finally he booked him in The Cherry Orchard fifteen minutes’ walk from his own house in Esher. He, Peter had been particularly fond of Anton Chekhov, and that must have an important factor in the choice. Exorbitant, but easily affordable.
Although retired, he was doing some research for a book he might want to write on Chekhov’s contemporaries, and he made time for a daily visit to the Orchard. When he mentioned this to Harriet, she demurred. Do you mean we’re never going on holiday? He admitted that he had not thought of this. No, he said, we will; I’ll think of something when the time comes.
The first year he went to the Cherry Orchard every afternoon without fail. Usually Dan recognised him, greeted him effusively, but not always. His speech had become a bit slurred, and he was often lost for words, when he would ask to borrow that thing you sharpen at one end to write with and can rub out with a rubber, or that thing that you rub against the side of a box to produce a flame. Pete often had to guess what his poor friend might be wanting to say, and did his darnedest to keep the conversation going, but this was becoming increasingly difficult. They would sometimes go for a walk on the extensive grounds of the Home, but he had an idea that Dan was beginning to dislike this.
He gradually admitted to himself, but not to Harriet, that it had become a chore rather than a pleasure of seeing his best friend. But he had promised himself that he would never going to let go. Dan would undoubtedly do the same if the roles were reversed.
He and Dan had been more than brothers. He had been his Best Man. The kids loved Uncle Dan, although behind his back they would mimic his slight stutter. He had reacted against Hilary calling him Dan. Uncle Dan to you, young lady he had said unsmilingly.
The family, which now included Hilary’s partner Sybil, had been planning for a holiday in Oregon, and the idea of Dan all alone at the Orchard for four weeks was simply unacceptable to him. Why don’t you go with the kids? he had said to Harriet. When she demurred, with a lump in his throat he said, If nobody visits Dan, he’ll be disconsolate, I can live without a holiday. But you’ve told me that half the time he doesn’t even know who you are, she said. Aye, he responded, but half the time he does.
In truth mostly Dan seemed to have no idea who he was. After the first six months, he barely spoke, and had to be more or less dragged for the regular walks they took together. However, strangely enough, music and singing kept them connected. Bob Dylan for instance. He would start whistling Come you Masters of war… and Dan’s eyes would light up, and he would attempt to whistle You that build the big guns… He marvelled at how his friend remembered the lyrics of songs they had loved and shared: The Beatles, George Brassens, Françoise Hardy…
No darling, he said, I am not abandoning my dearest friend.
A few weeks later, the deterioration became more marked. Only about once a week did he seem to recognise who he was. He normally stayed at least an hour when he visited, and in three years he had never once missed crossing the threshold of the Orchard. When he began dreaming of Dan’s funeral, he knew that his subconscious was telling him something that he had long suspected. He only kept up with the visits out of a sense of duty.
After Oregon Harriet knew not to suggest family holidays. The daughters had their own families now, and fortunately Mona was now widowed and the sisters took their holidays together.
Ten years on, he had a bad toothache once and missed a visit to the Orchard for the first time. He was convinced that his friend wouldn’t even notice, but when he went back the following day, the latter looked angry, and wouldn’t even acknowledge his presence. When he took his hand he pulled it away, and the expression on his face changed to one of bewilderment rather than anger. He opened his mouth, in what seemed to Peter to be an attempt at speaking. He was making some sort of effort, and only produced vague squawks. It was very painful to watch. Then he calmed down and he managed to utter something. Peter thought that the nearest he could make out of it were the words “grey fries”. This gave him some comfort. Even if the words were meaningless, they showed some sort of reaction. When the time came to leave, he mouthed these two words again. He would be trying in vain to pierce the mystery of these two words for weeks afterwards.
Not unexpectedly he then became completely silent. Not only he stopped talking, he was now making no sound at all, no humming, no singing, no squawking. A mute swan. Just a sad face with dribble dripping down the corners of either lips.
After three weeks of this, he conceded to himself, there was no point doing this, it benefited neither of them. But he was a stubborn man, and did this for thirteen years. But now, he told himself, the time had come to put an end to this useless exercise.
At first he would call The Orchard every two or three days, then it became every week, then every four weeks. It was always the same. There was no change either way. He ate well, slept well, had few tantrums, and seemed healthy.
Peter had kept well over the years, and was mentally and physically active, and had not entirely given up on the idea of his book. He wondered, without any resentment, whether his poor friend’s condition had been the brake on his ambition, and thought that if it was, it did not matter.
It was going to be his eightieth birthday and he was in Epsom at Tesco’s when he realised with a shock that he hadn’t phoned the Home for one whole year, and had not visited in five. He left the trolley full of shopping in the aisle and rushed out, hailed a cab, and asked to be taken to the Home in Ewell. Dan looked frail, but did not seem in a bad way. He approached him, took his hand, and his oldest friend pushed it away. He went through the same movements as last time, trying to speak, and again he seemed to recognise the same two words, gay fries. He had never forgotten them, and he still had no idea.
He promised himself that he would visit his friend again soon, but before he could make it, Dan passed.
He was embarrassed that at the funeral he was crying his eyes out, and had no control over this. Suddenly he remembered, as clearly as if it were yesterday, his eighteenth birthday, when the two of them were both freshers at Edinburgh. Some friends had wanted to buy him a drink and they had gone to celebrate at the Greyfriar’s pub next to the cemetery where Greyfriar’s Bobby kept a vigil at the tomb of his dead master. That was the first time the two of them had met.
At the Greyfriar’s. Gay Fries