Sometimes it's like a family dinner that just won't end. At the time you just wish everyone would piss off but if they actually did it wouldn't be long before you missed them terribly and spent your time remembering the good old days when everyone was together bickering and breaking bread.
I always hoped I'd live to be very old. Not 'piss the bed, who the fuck am I?' old, but old and able. And then I'd die in my sleep, content after a long life and unaware that I wouldn't wake up again.
But I didn't really think it would happen. I smoked for fifty seven years. I drank, though not problematically. I ate whatever I liked and exercise was an infrequent habit. And yet. Here I am. Ninety Two years of age, sound of mind and achy of limb. And finally slim! My appetite like my sex drive has finally sacked it in when it no longer matters much.
Things I hadn't anticipated include thinking that everyone from Doctors to Prime Ministers seem so young. Barely qualified. The strange truth that inside I still feel exactly as I did at thirty, forty. The mirror is shocking. But I still see myself in there. Same eyebrows, same crooked tooth. I have my mothers skin, still surprisingly smooth with that elasticity unique to the mediterranean.
But the most unexpected thing of all, the one possibility that I never gave any credence to, was that I would be the only one remaining.
I never had or wanted children of my own but I had a nephew, Ben, oh christ I love him. I love him as though he were my own. And I outlived even him. He married a nice man called Oliver and they had a good long life together but Ben died, two years ago, a heart attack at the age of seventy one. And Oliver decided to move back to America so I lost both of them.
I never believed I'd be alone in the world at the end.
And as fate would have it, I'm not.
And I'm pretty sure I'm not losing my mind. I still do cryptic crosswords and my online scrabble score is through the fucking roof.
But here they are. Ben, my sister Rosie, mum and Dad, my uncle Walt who was always the great mind of the family. He could have done wonderful things if only he hadn't been destroyed by booze.
'Walt, I was just thinking – you could have been something extraordinary if it weren't for the drink.'
Walt looks up from his game of chess with Dad.
'I know Terri, I know. But that wasn't what life had in store for me. Maybe next time round eh.'
They all chuckle.
'Are you warm enough Auntie?'
Ben is fussing around me as usual.
'Tuck the blanket around your legs.'
He's frustrated that he can't touch it himself. None of them can touch me or anything around me, not now. But the chess board they brought with them. And some jigsaws. And my old and dear dear friend Claire somehow managed to get a keyboard set up, she plays old hits from the 90's on it and reminds me of the good old days when life was a wonderful adventure yet to be seized.
It's funny to see them occupied with such old fashioned past times. We gave up all that shit years ago. Decades of Mac books and Pc's, everything fast and easy, and it turns out you can't take them with you. The afterlife is terribly old fashioned. I have no idea why.
I got a shitty bout of flu last year. It was a game changer. Up til then I'd been able to get out and about. Do my shopping, have a coffee on the way home at Luke's Latte's. The young ones today. It's hilarious. At some point, I guess thirty five years or so ago, ink went out of fashion again. My peers are wandering around, bent of back with faces like a sack of arseholes covered in tattoos and the ghosts of piercings. Jen, who works at Latte's tells me 'clean is the new cool'. They all look like adverts for good christian living. I suppose there was always going to be a backlash. But they are fascinated by my ink. Jen is always asking to read bits of me which is fine. Some are illegible now but that doesn't stop them trying.
'We learned about this phase at college,' she tells me. 'You're like living history. So excellent.'
It's in those details that I see how ancient I am. Not the shit about 'living history' – who gives a fuck right? But the fact that I'm delighted by their attention. That's where I'm old. The young seem like miracles to us now. All that life coursing through them, all that energy. Same stupid ideas and bad choices but now those things seem glorious. They have so much time.
Life isn't short. It's long. Really fucking long. And you lose so much along the way. By the last twenty years or so it feels like losing things is all you do. Glasses, keys, purse, friends, interests, agility.
Mum comes over and crouches down in front of me.
'It's cold in here darling. Put the heating on.'
'I can't be bothered.'
'Don't be lazy. I don't want you dying in a cold flat. It's such a sad ending.'
'Who gives a shit! I'll be dead!'
Ben clears his throat.
Everyone bursts out laughing.
They've been here, waiting, for a week. I should have died by now. It's ridiculous. I'm ready. I'm done. It's been great thanks very much I'd like to toddle the fuck off now please.
But it just hasn't happened.
Ben arrived first. I hadn't gotten out of bed in two days and I thought I was good to go. So did he. And then, I don't know, I was just so surprised to see him and we got to chatting and before you know it I'm up, shuffling to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
We spent the afternoon on the mac flicking through old photos.
The next day mum and dad showed up wanting to know what was taking Ben so long.
Then Walt came. Then Claire. A few others have popped in and out, just to say hi and tell me to hurry the fuck up. They're all waiting for me.
The door bell goes and I check the window on my mac. It's Sophie, the neighbour.
I sigh and pull myself up. Bloody hell! Every bit of me is slow and sore and just ready to fucking well shut down. But I hobble to the door.
'Hello Miss Caster!'
Sophie is very peppy.
'How are you today?'
I want to tell her I'm fucking fine and please fuck the fuck off and stop talking at me like I'm old.
But that's just me being a bit of a cunt isn't it. She's just being kind. In that weird christian way the youth of today have.
'Can't complain love. Haven't got the energy.'
I'm joking. Obvs. But she looks so sad and concerned. I grin at her.
'Honestly I'm fine. Nothing to see here. Shouldn't you be out doing something? It's Friday night isn't it?'
'I'm staying in tonight. Just wanted to make sure...do you need anything?'
Fuck. She's so kind. I think it's fashionable to be community spirited again. It had died a death when I was her age but like all things it's come around again.
'I need for nothing darling. I'm all good in the hood.'
She looks momentarily confused by the expression.
'Okay, well, I'm just next door. Just bang on the wall. Or IM me. It's cold tonight isn't it.'
'It is a bit, don't worry about me. I have a blanket and a bottle of gin.'
'You know that stuff will kill you. I have some great infusions of - '
'Don't you dare!'
She bursts out laughing.
'Okay, well, I'll let you get back in. Sleep well.'
'I will. Thanks.'
I shut the door and shuffle back in to the living room.
'She's sweet,' Ben says.
I nod, suddenly exhausted, and inch myself back in to my chair.
Something shifts in the room. A subtle change in atmosphere as I close my eyes and lean my head back in to the cushion.
I listen as my family and friends crowd around me and talk in hushed tones about the good old days.
'Hey, remember that christmas when you got pissed and served us raw turkey?'
'...Ben was only six and wanted a glittery unicorn and you said...'
'...that walk, you know, the one by the river wit that huge old tree was before...'
They talk and laugh and remember and I feel their warmth spread through my limbs. The stiffness, the aches, the weakness recedes and I feel light. Light and utterly present as I slip away. Away and back.
I stand up and look down at the shell I've been wearing all these years. Much loved and no longer needed. All that time. Worrying about lumps that were nothing, filling it with food and thought. Fussing over hair and hairs. Warm, cold, full, empty. All mine. And so loyal. I want to brush the hair from my forehead. Give that armour a cuddle and thank it for keeping me safe.
I feel Ben kiss my cheek. I feel it. I turn and see him looking at me with such love, such relief.
'Finally,' he says.