Joe Bell 66

He considered a moment. ‘No,’ he said, and shook his head. I’ll tell you why. If she was in this city I’d have seen her. You take a man that likes to walk, a man like me, a man’s been walking in the streets going on ten or twelve years, and all those years he’s got his eye out for one person, and nobody’s ever her, don’t it stand to reason she’s not there? I see pieces of her all the time, a flat little bottom, any skinny girl that walks fast and straight – ‘ He paused, as though too aware of how intently I was looking at him. ‘You think I’m round the bend?’

‘It’s just that I didn’t know you’d been in love with her. Not like that.’

I was sorry I’d said it; it disconcerted him. He scooped up the photographs and put them back in their envelope. I looked at my watch. I hadn’t any place to go, but I thought it was better to leave.

‘Hold on’ he said, gripping my wrist. ‘Sure I loved her. But it wasn’t that I wanted to touch her.’ And he added, without smiling: ‘Not that I don’t think about that side of things. Even at my age, and I’ll be sixty-seven January ten. It’s a peculiar fact – but, the older I grow, that side of things seems to be on my mind more and more. I don’t remember thinking about it so much even when I was a youngster and it’s every other minute. Maybe the older you grow and the less easy it is to put thought into action, maybe that’s why it gets all locked up in your head and becomes a burden. Whenever I read in the paper about an old man disgracing himself, I know it’s because of this burden. But’ – he poured himself a jigger of whisky and swallowed it neat – ‘I’ll never disgrace myself. And I swear, it never crossed my mind about Holly. You can love somebody without it being like that. You keep them a stranger who’s a friend.’