There is an old man in my garden. There is a tall, well dressed, slightly confused-looking, old man stood in my garden. I’d say he’s in his late 70’s, and he’s wearing a suit. He has carefully combed silver hair and a little beard, and shiny black shoes. I noticed him 10 minutes ago when I came out to the kitchen to wash the dishes. He was just stood there, hands behind his back, examining the potted flowers along the back wall by the gate. I live in a terrace house and the walls that enclose my little garden are quite high, so I was understandably shocked to see him. Plus, you know, he shouldn’t be there. I haven’t invited him to come and inspect my, admittedly poor, gardening attempts. I don’t know him from Adam, whoever HE is.
My first impulse was, of course, to go out and confront him. Perhaps shout and wave my hands a lot, like I do when I’m trying to stop that big bastard of a cat from down the road from going to the loo on the flowers out front. For some strange reason though, I couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I chose instead to kind of hide a bit and watch him. He had just stood there, looking around him with a strange little smile on his face. I finally decide, that ten minutes is too long to let a mysterious elderly man stand, uninvited, in your back yard and remain unchallenged, so I open the door and walk out.
“Um..ex..excuse me?”, I stammer authoritatively, adding a small cough for emphasis, “what are you..I mean, who are you?”. The old man turns slowly, and looks at me with much the same level of surprised interest as he did the plants in the garden. “Is this…heaven?”, he murmurs, “No”, I reply, “This is Burnage. You’re in Burnage, Manchester”. “Oh”, he says, obviously disappointed. “Is it…the future?”, he asks hopefully. “Well that depends, really, doesn’t it? What year do you think it is?”, I respond. His eyes flash briefly, “2014, it was November 2014! What year is this?”, “Right, well it’s 2014, mate. It’s still November 2014. Look, what are you doing in my back garden?”, I enquire testily. His eyes grow sad and his face drops. He looks around a bit, “Well I’m not dead, and I’ve not travelled through time”, he sighs and says “I’ve no bloody idea, son”.
I bring him inside and sit him down. He tells me his name is Henry Wilson, he’s 76 years old and is from Bolton. He seems sane and clear minded to me, as clear minded as I am anyway. All he remembers is getting up, dressing himself, and walking out the door to get the paper. He got to the end of the street and then the next thing, he was in my garden. As you can imagine, I ask him to repeat that last bit a few times. I make some tea as I decide what to do with him, and after asking Henry for the umpteenth time if he remembers anything else about how he got here, I go into the living room to get my phone. I figure maybe there’s someone at home he can call, and also, I need to take a photo of him so I can talk about this on various social media sites. Suddenly I hear a loud noise and run back in to find the mug of tea I gave him smashed across the kitchen floor and Henry nowhere to be seen. I look in the pantry, I look upstairs, I look out in the garden, but he has gone. Disappeared. I spend the rest of the afternoon worrying alot about my sanity, trying desperately to think of a rational explanation for all of this. He must have just legged it, right? Yeah, the 76 year old ran out the back door and vaulted the wall in a split second. I find myself googling things like ‘mysterious old men appearances’ and ‘elderly teleportation Bolton’ with predictably rubbish results. My cat, Bruce, enters the kitchen via his noisy cat-flap and makes a point of sniffing around the chair Henry apparently sat on before moving on. “What does that mean?”, I sigh at him. He looks up, then down, then wanders off, not one shit given about my possible mental breakdown. Eventually I fall asleep on my sofa, after coming to the shaky conclusion that Henry was my brain’s way of saying, “You need more rest, and possibly medication”.
I awake with a start. That feeling when you think you’ve heard a noise, or a voice, but once you’re awake there’s only silence. Well, this was like that feeling, but after a minute or two, the chilling sound of an old Boltonian filled the house. “HELLO?? IT’S ME, HENRY. I’M IN YOUR KITCHEN AGAIN”. It’s bright outside. Sunday morning. I shuffle blearily to the door, and there before me is the Incredible Vanishing Mr. Wilson. “Hello again, son. I’m awful sorry about this. I’ve made an appearance again”. “WHAT IS GOING ON?!” I shout, helpfully. “I know, I know, believe me young man, I’m just as confused as you”. I poke him in the arm. “Ow”, he says, and pokes me back. “Are you a ghost? Have you come to warn me of something?” I ask, aware instantly of how silly that sounds. “No, I’m not a ghost. And as far as warnings go, I wouldn’t go poking me again. I’m an old man, son, I bruise easy”, he says, rubbing his arm. At a loss, I make more tea, my default visitor-mode kicking in. This time, however, I keep my eyes on him as much as possible, as he tells me what happened yesterday. “So, I was sat, cup in hand, here in your house, then a flash of light and I was suddenly in my shed at home, whereupon I fell on my arse”, he winces, the memory still raw and painful, “so I went inside and tried to make sense of it all, but it were no use. Today I got up and fetched the papers, I like a good long read of a Sunday, anyway I went and got them, came back, sat down, and BOOM”. I jump, spilling milk on myself, “Back here, again”. I ask if there’s anyone he needs to call, a wife, children perhaps, but he just shakes his head, “Just me”.
We decide to see how long it takes before whatever the hell is happening to us happens again. I make some cheese toasties for lunch, and we sit in the living room watching Colombo. It’s actually quite nice, and Henry turns out to be good company. He gasps at the villain’s wicked plan, points out actors that he knows throughout, and he is chuffed when the scruffy cop finally solves the case. After the show finishes, we sit in silence for a bit, both obviously now waiting for the disappearing trick to occur. When, after a bit, it doesn’t, we start the awkward chit-chat. He asks me about myself, what I do, where I’m from, and then I do the same. “I were a baker for many years, nothing fancy mind, just bread”. We end up talking for a good while, he has plenty of stories, whilst we have some biscuits and yet more tea. Bruce wanders in, and after an initial, cautious inspection of Henry’s shoes, leaps up and sits on his knee. Henry clucks and coos at him, and makes a fuss. Bruce, who is normally an asshole on the rare occasions I have a visitor, seems to love the old bloke. Henry asks if he can watch The Antiques Roadshow. I find it and stick it on, and within minutes, he’s snoozing. With Henry asleep, I sit and wonder what to do next. What if the weird thing doesn’t happen soon? It’s too late to put him on a train to Bolton now. I figure I’ll have to put him up for the night, so I quietly get up from my seat and go up to set up the sofa bed upstairs. I’m halfway up the stairs, when I suddenly have a feeling, a gut-feeling that he’s gone. I run down and into the room and sure enough, Henry has left, leaving behind a seriously confused and distressed Bruce. “Christ”, I wonder aloud, ” I hope he’s not appeared in the middle of the road somewhere”. I wait around for a while in the living room for him to show up again. I sit for a bit, then pace around the room for a bit more. No sign. I give up and go to bed.
In the morning, I get up and immediately run downstairs, like there’s a brand new games console waiting under a tree for me down there, but the kitchen is unoccupied and the front room the same. I feel a pang of disappointment. Still, I think he might appear again, so I call in sick at work, blaming a possible case of man-flu. After I hang up, I question myself. Why am I skipping work to wait for some old guy to appear in my house, is it the distinct possibility of biscuits, endless cups of tea, and more talk of the past? Am I that lonely? Wait a minute, I counter, this is seriously weird business that warrants investigation! Don’t forget, this man appears to be able to teleport! Admittedly only between my house and Bolton, and without any real control, but still! To be honest though, it was just nice having him there. As I said before, it was rare that I got visitors, the few friends I had are all living elsewhere now, and I can’t afford to get back home as much as I’d like. I suddenly realise Henry and I hadn’t even talked that much about the fact he could magically travel across England, it just hadn’t come up again after a while. I feed Bruce, then take myself up for a shower. I’m on my second belting chorus of ‘I Get Around’, and about to wash the suds out of my hair, when the room is suddenly filled with a loud shout. Terrified, I cower into a corner of the shower and peel the curtain back, to reveal a similarily terrified pyjama-clad Henry, toothbrush in hand, and mouth foamy with toothpaste. “Bloody hell!” says Henry.
After calming down and gently ushering Henry out of the bathroom and downstairs, I finish my shower and get dressed. I hear the kettle boiling, and when I get downstairs, I find a plateful of toast and a mug of tea waiting for me. Henry is reading the paper from yesterday, and slowly chomping on his breakfast, like a paisley cow. “Morning, Henry” I say, and just then, he’s gone. Before I have time to react, he appears again, still reading, still chewing. “What did you say, son?”, he says, peering up at me, “Just, good morning Henry. Nice to see you again”. I decide to leave it, probably a glitch in the old man Matrix. I sit down and eat breakfast. “I see you’re not in work today then, eh? You poorly, lad?”, asks Henry, sounding concerned, “Nah, just fancied a day off. That was a weird one this morning, eh? Took me quite by surprise, so you did”. “You’re telling me!” he replies, then laughs, spraying toast crumbs, “Be thankful I weren’t sat on the toilet, eh?”.
After breakfast, we retire to the living room, and stick on the TV. There’s an old film on, The Big Sleep, so we watch that. Henry tells me all the actors’ names, and marvels at Lauren Bacall (“Oh she were summat else, her”). Midway through a story about sneaking into a cinema with his mates one time, Henry disappears again. Just for a few seconds, and then he’s back, still in full flow. I feel an uneasy sensation, like when you know a fuse is about to go, but I try not to show my concern. Bruce is nuzzled by his feet, but when this signal interference happens, he’s not impressed and so hops up onto the sofa beside him instead. Henry appears none the wiser, and happily indulges Bruce with head rubs. The film ends, and we sit in silence, Bruce’s contented purring the only sound. I’m still thinking of something in the film’s plot that didn’t make sense to me, and I’m about to ask Henry about it when he speaks first, “I’ve enjoyed these, these visits, y’know”. I nod, “Me too, Henry”. “I still don’t understand them, and I don’t think I ever will, but they’ve been nice all the same”, says Henry, and raises his mug of tea in a salute of sorts. I raise mine too, and then we talk more about Humphrey Bogart, and Raymond Chandler books.
When I come back from the toilet, and find the living room less one Henry again, I’m sad, but not surprised. I had the feeling again that he was gone, and so felt a little more prepared for his absence. I sit with the cat and read till it gets dark, and I’m just about to reach over and switch on a lamp, when Henry appears on the chair opposite. He is phasing in and out, his image flickering like a bulb about to go, and I feel sad and happy at the same time, overwhelmed. He raises his mug, smiles and nods at me, and then…gone. I sit back in the sofa and breathe out slowly. “That’s that”, I say pointlessly to Bruce, who looks up at me, non-plussed.
The next day I call in sick again, and I hang around the kitchen, and I linger in the living room, but to no avail. My Mum calls, and I talk about the weather, and I talk about work, and I promise to come visit. At no point do I mention the randomly materialising pensioner whom I befriended over the weekend, I figure she has enough to worry about. Henry doesn’t reappear that night, and I realise now that I have no address and no phone number, no real actual normal way to contact him. Whatever cosmic error that led to our paths crossing has now apparently been fixed and things are seemingly back as they were before. Bruce meows from the kitchen, probably starving. I go in, and put the kettle on.