He told me one last story. He used his aged, ruined voice like an old man’s hands to pick the lock on his past.
I don’t know why he had chosen me for this, only that he needed me to listen. I tensed as he drew his first breath, my pen ready in my hand.
He looked at me and pointed at the mantelpiece.
“That photo sits there, reflecting the light of the candlelit mantelpiece so that I can only see the sadness of her smile. Whenever I look at it, regret fills me, flowing through my blood until my heart beats so fast I can feel it pulsing through every part of my body. That’s how she used to make me feel when we were young, a long time ago for you, I know. All those years ago; and the feeling remains until now.”
He shuffled slowly towards the mantle, careful not to crack his knee; stiff from all the times they ran in the rain, he told me, hand in hand, thinking only of that moment.
“Old age didn’t matter to us then. It’s amazing how things have changed. Happiness was made of ignorance, but now I see what I fool I was to be ignorant.
“Stupid old man, you can never return to the past. You will never be able to remake that choice. You will never be able to have her again. I say these things to myself, over and over again, but you wouldn’t understand, would you, unless you have done what I’ve done and feel what I feel. It’s true what they say; youth is wasted on the young.”
I looked down at myself, my twenty-four year old body in the neatest suit I could find, clutching pens and paper, interviewing a famous old man. I couldn’t imagine such a wrinkled person being young if it wasn’t for all the films which captured his youth in black and white.
I waited for him to continue.
“And even though I’m what you consider to be successful, I dwell upon the memories before I became rich and famous. Before I was left with this bitter regret. Hollywood was a dream then, a possibility for one in a million, a chance everyone would die to take. I took the chance, and I became that one, yet I’m still dying. And even though I’ve known all these beautiful famous people, I am still alone.”
Even with the sadness of his words, there was still grandiosity in his character. I watched his face as he remembered, but the years of acting had dulled the truth in his eyes.
“I remember thinking that one day I would tell my grandchildren how I became famous, and how I let go of my first love to find wealth and fame, and met someone more beautiful, who would make me more happy. That would be my love story. I would have spoken of my sadness and regret, but still have been content at the realisation of what my future would become.” He sighs. “But all I can think about is her, and what could have been. Her smile and her grace remain in my memory forever, as do the sadness and pan in her eyes when I left her, alone and shamed. She only ever wrote to me once while I was in Hollywood, telling me that all was well, and my son had been healthy. I requested to see him, but I never saw either of them again.”
My hand couldn’t keep up with the flurry of thoughts in my mind. Joseph Conner, the biggest Hollywood star of the 50s, had a son? How did this never make it to the tabloid? An unfamiliar feeling of excitement rose in my stomach. I was the first to know. I would be the first to publish this story. I was ecstatic. My hand started aching, but I scribbled on.
“I tried very hard to find them…” A horrible cough rose in his throat then, and he staggered, pushing against the wall to steady himself. I watched in horror as two men ran in and lay him down on the sofa next to me. They told me to leave.
“He won’t be able to talk anymore. He’s very sick. Thank you for coming.”
And that was the end. I had a great story on a dying man and his biggest regret in life. A woman and a child he’d never found, and a love that was lost forever.
As I walked out of Joseph Conner’s grand mansion I shuffled through the notes I had taken, my many years of experience allowing me to read the messy handwriting on the smooth lined paper. What would my boss say if I gave this to him? I wondered. Would a magazine publish the sad confession of a dying man?
Rubbish. Of course it would. The media would publish anything to get more viewers. Another man’s life is of no concern when the paying advertisers keep rolling in.
And as I speculated and contemplated how to set the story to make it an article no one would forget, I remembered his words.
You can never return to the past. You will never be able to remake that choice… And even though I’m what you consider to be successful, I dwell upon the memories before I became rich and famous.
I took one last look at the paper in my hands before I tore them to pieces. I shredded them with my fingers, over and over again, until nothing but tiny snowflakes remained. On closer inspection, you could see the black blemishes on the white paper, where all the words used to be. And I watched as the wind carried them away from me, some pieces catching in the branches of a tree, while others flew to get as far away from me as possible. In a few seconds it was all gone.
So I walked the long way home, and prepared my story for my boss in the morning.