The first day of his retirement, Mr Ross arose at his customary hour of 5:30. He saw no reason to change the habits of a lifetime simply because he would no longer be sitting at his desk at Hamlin and Sons by 8:00. In the minute or so he lay in bed between realising that he was awake and getting up, he noted with satisfaction that he had slept soundly the entire night. He had not had to visit the WC once to answer the insistent demands of his bladder that it be emptied. He took that as a good sign for the day.
He went down the back staircase to the kitchen to start his breakfast. He put the usual two slices of brown bread in the toaster and depressed the lever. He liked his toast to cool before he put the spread and honey on it, and putting the bread in the toaster was always the first task of his breakfast routine. He found melted margarine too oily—it was, to his taste, rather as if grease had been poured over the bread—and it left the surface of the toast altogether too glossy for his liking. He had put the coffee grounds and the water in the machine the previous evening after he had finished the washing up. Now he switched the machine on.
He detached a banana from the bunch in the fridge and positioned it unpeeled near the centre top of the mat in front of his chair at the table in the kitchen, with the stem facing toward the right. A dozen years earlier, after his mother had died, he had taken to storing the bananas in the refrigerator. He had long tried to convince her that they kept better that way. She pointed out, quite rightly Mr Ross was quick to admit, that it made the skins turn brown and unwholesome. It was easy enough to buy a small bunch every few days and finish it before the bananas became overly ripe and too soft. His mother, however, had enjoyed shopping. Mr Ross did not. He went every Saturday morning as soon as the store opened. Among his purchases was a bunch of seven bananas. Occasionally, when he was unable to find ripe bananas, he had to buy some that were slightly green. In such cases, he would leave them out until they had almost ripened before putting them in the fridge. That was not, however, his preferred method, and he resorted to that only when necessary.
Now that he had retired, Mr Ross had decided to make one alteration in his weekly timetable. He would change his shopping day to Tuesday morning. Enquiries had revealed that this was usually the slowest time of the week. There was, he had told himself, no reason to stick mindlessly to routines that had been dictated by his schedule at work.
The coffee machine began to gurgle as he poured out his usual glass of tomato juice and set it beside the banana. He put the tub of margarine and the jar of honey on the table, along with a plate and a knife. The bread was still toasting. It had once been his habit to return upstairs after he had set the table. While the toast and coffee were finishing up, he would shave and shower and get partially dressed before coming back downstairs to eat his breakfast. One day, however, a slice of bread had become caught in the innards of the mechanism while he was upstairs and its subsequent incineration had filled the house with smoke. He had been in the shower when the smoke alarm began shrieking. He had jumped out, hastily pulled on some clothes, grabbed his wallet and keys (he was heartened to note later that he had had the presence of mind to take the essentials with him), and dashed downstairs expecting to fight his way out of a burning house.
Luckily, there hadn’t been a fire, just a badly charred slice of toast. It had interrupted his routine, of course. By the time he had pulled the battery from the smoke alarm and manoeuvred the burnt toast out of the toaster and discarded it and opened the windows to air out the smoke, he had had to hurry the rest of his preparations in order to make the 6:48 train into the city. Thereafter, he had waited until the bread popped up before going upstairs again, just to avoid a repetition of that accident. While he was waiting, he stepped briefly into the darkened sitting room and pulled back a curtain to look out. It was January and still dark at that hour of the morning, of course, and he was unable to see much, but there was enough light to tell that there was a light drizzle. Not that it mattered to him now. It was a Thursday, and there was no reason for him to leave the house. In any case, it was New Year’s Day, and nothing would be open.
As he stepped back into the kitchen, the toast popped up. Mr Ross put the slices in the toast rack, carefully positioning them at either end so that they would cool and crisp thoroughly. He took one final look to make sure that had set everything out that he needed for his breakfast. He knew that it was unnecessary to check but he always did. Only after reassuring himself that his breakfast wanted only his presence did he climb the stairs. In the bathroom, he spread shaving cream on his face. While he waited for it to soften his beard (he had found that waiting for several minutes made it much easier to shave), he made the bed, pulling the bedclothes taut over the mattress and smoothing them down.
Mr Ross hated the sight of unmade beds. On the rare occasions he had travelled, he always made the hotel beds himself in the morning rather than leaving that task for the maids to do later. He could not tolerate sitting in a small room next to a bed with rumpled sheets and blankets. At home, leaving a bed unmade would have demonstrated a lamentable lack of discipline. Mother had always claimed that a bed should be allowed to dry completely before being made, but then she had grown up in a rectory on the Norfolk coast that had been damp and unheated. Her practice of pulling back the covers and letting the bed air thoroughly before making it had probably made sense under the circumstances. But Mr Ross felt that the ten minutes or so was more than enough time in his house to freshen the bedding.
Of course, while mother was alive, he had gone along with her wishes and let the bed sit unmade until the daily came in later. But he had never liked the idea of Mrs Brennan touching his things. He had dismissed her with a month’s wages a few days after the doctor had told him that his mother would not be leaving the hospital. Since then, he had tended to the housekeeping himself. It wasn’t at all difficult as long as one was organized and kept up with things. For every day of the week, he had a set routine. On weekdays, he had devoted a half-hour on a rotating schedule, cleaning each room in the house thoroughly once a week. Monday was the sitting room; Tuesday, the hallway and entrance and the front staircase; Wednesday, the dining room, and so on. He did the kitchen on Saturday and the bathroom on Sunday, since those required more time.
He had considered whether retirement might make a difference in his housecleaning habits, but he saw no reason to make a change in his overall system. Because of his work schedule, he had performed the daily tasks while waiting for supper to heat. He had decided that he would now do those jobs after breakfast. It made more sense to get them out of the way at the beginning of the morning and thus free his time for the rest of the day. That had always been his method. Get the routine, dull tasks done first so that he could then tackle the more important work.
Mr Ross had conducted many reviews of his plans for retirement over the preceding several months. He had evaluated each of his daily routines. The work-related ones would, of course, be discontinued. He would no longer leave the house precisely at 6:20, make a stop at the news agent’s beside the station, and purchase a Times. He had for the past few years read the online version of the Times on weekends, and he would now extend that habit to weekdays. Really, it was quite convenient. One did not even have to worry about recycling the paper. And it would be ridiculous to put on a suit and tie every day. That would be like the colonial agent in the Somerset Maugham story who dressed for dinner every evening in the Malayan jungle. No, he had opted for comfort in retirement. He had stocked up on the soft shirts, loose trousers, and trainers that had long been his preferred wear on weekends. He thought that he had enough clothing at least for the next decade. With any luck, he had worn his last tie. Most of his suits had been dry-cleaned and given away to Oxfam before Christmas. The two business suits he had worn the final week of work would be left at the cleaners on Saturday. He would stow them in bags with mothballs when they returned. He considered it unlikely that he would wear a suit again, but it was best to be prepared for contingencies.
As was his wont, he showered after he had finished shaving and dressed in trousers and a singlet to eat his breakfast. He always ate honey on his toast, and no matter how carefully one tried to avoid drips, honey did have a tendency to dribble. It was far easier to change a singlet or to sponge off a minor drip than to change a shirt or tie or a suit. Of course, mother hadn’t liked him to sit at the table wearing a singlet. Her father and the late Mr Ross senior had never worn less than full business kit at the breakfast table, and she expected her son to appear dressed for work. One had had to be so careful when mother was alive not to spill. He had almost given up honey for something less prone to drips. In the end, however, he had opted for greater vigilance and monitoring of his toast.
When he finished breakfast, Mr Ross washed the dishes. January 1 happened to be a Thursday, which meant that it was the day to clean the main bedroom upstairs. That had been mother’s bedroom while she was alive, but when it became apparent that she was not returning home, he had cleaned out the furniture and installed bookcases and a good reading chair and lamp. He had spent several pleasant evenings unpacking the books he had had to store in boxes in the lumber room and in his bedroom. He had experienced many moments of delight as he opened the cartons and found old favourites. In the ensuing years, he had installed more bookcases in every room of the house. There was literally no more space for them. And every shelf was crammed, most of them holding two rows of books.
One never seemed to have enough space for books, no matter how many shelves one had. For the past three years, he had had to stack his new purchases on the floor. Every room but the kitchen and the bathroom had piles of books on every surface and behind each piece of furniture. That would gradually change during his retirement. He had made his last purchase of a book after he had left work yesterday. His favourite bookstore had closed early for the New Year’s holiday, but he had been able to purchase the new Ian Cheswick novel at the Blackston’s near Charing Cross. Cheswick was not a great favourite of his, but Mr Ross felt that made the purchase even more significant, given his plans for his retirement. He had asked for and received a copy still in its plastic wrapping. The clerk in Blackston’s hadn’t liked the extra work of finding a wrapped copy in the storeroom on New Year’s Eve. She had made a quite theatrical and totally unnecessary show of her irritation at the inconvenience he was causing her. Mr Ross had seen no need to enlighten her as to his reasons for asking for an unopened copy and he had made no apology.
When he arrived home, he had removed the book from his briefcase and set it, still unwrapped, on the end table beside the sofa in the living room. He had carefully cleared the table of everything the evening before. If all went according to plan, about ten years from now he would sit on the sofa, turn on the standard lamp, remove the wrapping, and begin reading it. Until then, he would dust it every Monday morning when he did the sitting room.
The book room upstairs required a certain amount of vigilance. The books did attract dust, and one had to be monitor the shelves carefully for signs of insects. Mr Ross ran the brush attachment on the vacuum cleaner over the tops of the rows of books and up and down the spines, carefully making sure that he covered all exposed surfaces. When he had finished with the dusting and vacuuming, he put the upstairs machine away in the closet. Since it was the first Thursday of the month, he stood in the doorway and sprayed the floor with bug spray. He pulled the door partially shut, and with the hand holding the aerosol can just inside the room, he directed the spray toward the ceiling, rotating his hand to cover as much of the room as possible. Then he pulled the door shut to enclose the spray within the room. He would leave the door shut for an hour to give the spray time to work. Unfortunately the spray had an odour he found annoying, and that meant he wouldn’t be able to use the room until it was thoroughly aired. But he would choose his first book from among those shelved downstairs and use his reading chair in the sitting room that day.
‘What will you do when you retire?’ How many times had he been asked that in the preceding months? He had chosen his retirement day carefully so that his last days would coincide with a period when most of the staff was taking a holiday. He had resolutely declined all offers of retirement dinners, lunches, drinks. His colleagues had shown little interest in socialising with him during the forty-odd years he had been at Hamlin’s, and he saw no reason to burden them, or himself, with a stressful bout of strained conviviality, just because he happened to be retiring. He had sat through so many retirement parties where everyone struggled to find things to say, and he had made himself a present of forgoing one for himself. Despite the rhetoric common to such occasions, the truth of the matter was that everyone was replaceable and that no one was ever missed. Mr Ross knew that within a few days someone else would be sitting at his desk and doing the same work he had been doing for years. In a few weeks, he would be forgotten. Several of his colleagues had uttered the conventional wish that he drop by from time to time and keep in touch, but he knew those were hollow requests. They were simply expressing the hope that when their time came to leave, someone else would tell them that their absence would be regretted. Mr Ross prided himself on having no such illusions.
‘What will you do when you retire?’ Mr Ross had answered, ‘A little gardening, a bit of reading, working around the house.’ It hadn’t really mattered what he said. The response was as much a ritual as the question, the minimal politeness in reply to their minimal politeness. None of them were interested enough in him to care what he did. In fact, there was no one who cared at all about Mr Ross since his mother had died. He was the only child of only children. Any possible relatives were so distant that Mr Ross wasn’t even sure of their existence or their location or their exact relationship to himself. His grandparents may have had siblings who had had children and grandchildren, but Mr Ross knew none of them. In his youth, his mother had received letters from an elderly aunt, but Mr Ross had long since forgotten her name or any details of her life. He had no friends, and he treated the neighbours with a distant formality that discouraged any attempts at closeness.
‘What will you do when you retire?’ He wondered if any of his former colleagues would have been alarmed or even perplexed or amused by his real plans. Mr Ross was not, however, so unaware of what others might think that he was willing to share his intentions with them. He stowed away the rest of the cleaning equipment in the laundry room off the kitchen and put the kettle on to heat the water for his tea. He noted that it was just after 7:00. If he could adhere to that schedule, he would be able to read at least one of the longer books or two, perhaps three, shorter ones every day.
Mr Ross thought it would take him about ten years to reread all the 5,000-plus volumes he had in the house. He planned to begin by reading the older books. When he had first filled the house with bookcases, he had organized his collection by author, beginning with the A’s in the sitting room. The P’s had originally started upstairs. But as his collection had grown and he had had to double-shelve the books, he had given up all hope of retaining the alphabetical order. Within a few years, he had simply begun stacking the books on the shelves as convenient. Since he rarely reread any books in his collection, preferring instead to read his latest acquisition, that meant that the older books had gravitated to the back of the shelves.
He intended to begin with the first bookcase in the sitting room and pull out a random book from the back row on the top shelf. He was curious to discover what it might be. An Abbott or an Adams perhaps? Ackerley? What other authors might be lurking on that first shelf? When he finished that book, he would select a book from the top shelf of the next case. He had found a small piece of coloured plastic to mark the shelf from which the next book was to be taken. Part of the ritual of selecting a new book would be to move the marker to the next shelf in the rotation. He would work his way around the house. When he reached the final top shelf upstairs, he would return to the first bookcase and take a book from the next shelf down.
As he finished each book, he would discard it. He had thought about donating the books to the local library or selling them to a second-hand dealer. But he had decided against both options. The books contained his life stories, and Mr Ross did not want to share his life with others. Mr Ross knew that he hadn’t lived very solidly in the real world, at least not as other people lived in the real world. But he had lived so many lives in his books.
There were some novels in which he was the main character, the hero or heroine—the conqueror of distant lands, the recipient of honours, the lover of desirable men or women. He had stood beside Nelson on that fatal day at Trafalgar as chain shot sundered the masts overhead. He had ridden a decrepit steamship up a broad tropical river with the jungle pressing close upon its banks and watched unperturbed as crocodiles slithered into the muddy stream. He had solved innumerable mysteries that had baffled the finest minds of the ‘Met’. He had enchanted Mr Darcy with his wit. He knew the African veldt and the American West first hand. He had battled aliens on distant worlds. He had been part of the Raj, been Frodo’s companion. He had seen wonders. He had plundered the Spanish Main, rollicked and frolicked around the world, in ancient and modern times. Books had been his frigate to life.
There were other novels in which he was only a supporting character, in which somehow the main characters wouldn’t allow him to inhabit them. But they were still his life, even if he had been only a spectator. His real friends, his colleagues, his co-adventurers.
And now, on the first day of the year, the first day of his retirement, he would begin revisiting each of them. And as he closed each book, that life would end, and he would move on to the next one. Rereading his books would be his way of reliving the only lives that had ever meant anything to him. As he read his way around the house, the shelves would slowly empty. In seven or eight years’ time, he would have read all the books on the shelves and moved on to the stacks on the floor. Eventually there would be only one book left—Ian Cheswick’s latest book—his final purchase. It would rest, protected in its wrapping, on the table next to the sofa. His final life. The one life he had never lived before. He hoped it would be a good life, but that was in the end of no consequence. It was a life, enough life for Mr Ross at any rate, and that was all that mattered, he had found.
And when he had finished the Cheswick and had no more lives to live, he would clean up his house one final time. He would donate such furniture and clothing as were still useful to a charity. He would stow whatever remained in its place. He would put his papers in order and package them for his lawyer. He would throw away any uneaten food. He would write a letter to the police informing them of his arrangements and mail it. Then he would return home, climb the stairs to his bedroom, lie down on his bed, and swallow the sleeping pills.
The kettle whistled. Mr Ross poured the boiling water over the leaves in the pot and let them steep for a few minutes. Then he carried his cup of tea into the sitting room. He placed it on the table beside his reading chair, with the handle of the cup positioned so that he could lift the cup easily. He switched on the light. With a small smile of satisfaction that he was well and truly embarked on his final series of adventures, he walked over to the first bookcase, withdrew a handful of books from the row in front, and reached in and pulled out a volume.