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ELEVEN ELEVEN

By Nicola Wiggins

Right now, I am a hundred and twenty years old. The doctors say it is a miracle and that I should be dead. Instead, I am sweating and swearing and queuing for a hotdog in July.

 

When I get to the van and tell the pretty girl my age, she presses her hand on mine and tells me, ‘You barely look ninety-nine, love.'

I laugh and say, ‘I bet that’s what you tell all your customers.'

I sit on the bench on the common, tipping my hat back to watch the people on the Ferris wheel and the carousel. Their bodies are dots of colour in a riotous cacophony of music and emphatic giggles. 

Ketchup leaks down my wrist and nestles itself in the folds of my aged skin but I don’t mind. I’ll keep that bit for later.

Today is my birthday. Yesterday, I asked the ladies who look after me for a cake. A big one with three tiers, chocolate sprinkles and a sugar paste bottle of champagne balanced on top. They said ‘Sure thing, Mr Ames.' I am pretty sure that when I get back, there will be a lemon drizzle waiting for me.

I was born at eleven minutes past eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning. I was a week late, but Mother said I was right on time. Any earlier and I would have been old enough to be called up with the rest of the boys in the village when war broke out. In the end, they never even reached the front line; the lot of them wiped out by Spanish flu. I joined up a couple of weeks later. I saw things then that I don’t talk about now.

I prefer to spend my words on beautiful things, the pieces of my life that have brought me joy. Which is why I want to tell you about my wife.

We first met at eleven minutes past eleven o’clock on the number 42 bus which went from Kellerton right through to Marshbrook. It was one of those rural buses that only came through the village once in a blue moon and I was late for a job interview at Wallace’s pawnbrokers. I ran after that bus for a whole mile at full pelt and caught up with it at Halebridge. A wet, tomato-faced mess I was, when I fell into the seat next to her. She couldn’t help but ask me if I was OK, but then thought me an obnoxious liar when I told her how far I’d sprinted and demanded to know the truth of it. 

I said I’d tell her over dinner that Saturday. 

It was eleven minutes past eleven o’clock in the morning, six months later, that we huddled together under my coat and the protective arms of the old oak in Farmer Turner’s bottom field. 

Hadn’t been the plan, of course. It was supposed to have been a beautiful day, but as soon as we reached the gate which I had planned to perch her on, the heavens opened. So instead, I proposed under my coat, struggling a little to keep the garment supported by one arm as my other hand fumbled for the ring in my breast pocket. 

She clung to me, as sopping wet as I was; our clothes sticking flat to our skin. I can still remember the feeling of the meagre warmth of her body pressed against mine, even in the heat of this Indian summer we’re having right now.

The big hand on my watch has just edged past eleven o’clock. Soon it will be eleven minutes past eleven and I will be one hundred and twenty-one years old exactly. 

I stretch out my legs and wiggle my feet. 

The ladies who look after me told me I shouldn’t walk to the fair today. ‘You need to take care’ they said. But I feel absolutely fine, only a little tired. I told them that when I was forty-six years old, I ran a marathon in a hundred and twenty-one minutes, but they didn’t believe me. I retorted that I only ran that far because my car broke down. It wasn’t my fault no-one was watching.

My wife always said I was a wonder. She said there had never been anyone like me before. The ‘Eleven-Eleven Man,' she called me. 

Except I don’t feel particularly special. I just feel normal, inside. Bones and muscles and a mesh of nerves and tendons connecting everything together, just like everyone else. Like the people I can see licking candy floss residue from their fingers, their children pulling on their arms and pleading for more rides. I watch a young woman knock a coconut from its stand and her companion high fives her, before pulling her in for a celebratory embrace.

She used to make excellent coconut macaroons, my wife. Crumbly on the outside, but not too dry, and perfect with a cup of tea. She used to make an excellent cup of tea too, regardless of who she was making it for. She would always remember just how strong or weak they liked it, the right amount of milk to add. I think that’s why the vicar visited so often. Less about the church flowers and more to do with the tea and macaroons, I suspect. 

My hotdog is starting to cool down but I’m in no rush. In fact, I can feel a bit of gristle has lodged itself somewhere inconvenient. I pull out my lower dentures and wipe round the underside with my finger. 

I catch the eye of a small child, no more than four or five years old, who is walking past, one hand held tightly by her accompanying grown-up, the other clutching the stick of a multi-coloured lollipop. I open my mouth wide, return the false teeth to where they belong and give a broad, toothy grin to the youngster. 

She watches the entire process with unblinking eyes, turning her head to stare until she can’t twist around any further and her view is obscured, her fellow fairground visitors absorbing her and her family into the crowd.

I check my watch again, brushing breadcrumbs gently away from its face. 

The watch was a Christmas gift from my wife. It is precious to me and pristine, having kept perfect time since the day she gave it to me. Though that can’t be said for all of her gifts. She bought me a music box for our eleventh Christmas together. The tinny chimes were supposed to play ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas,' but always missed out the last verse, curtailing the song to ‘eleven pipers piping.'

I remember the look of confusion on our friends’ faces the first time we played it for them, their mouths opening ready to sing out the final verse, then closing promptly on the realisation that the music was not forthcoming. My poor wife; she was terribly embarrassed by the whole thing. I still have that music box, though. I bring it out every Christmas and enjoy seeing that familiar look of confusion on the faces of the ladies who look after me. They never remember, the dear things.

It feels a far cry from Christmas today though. The sun’s eager rays are reflecting off the steel roof of the hotdog van and tormenting the upper right-hand rim of my spectacles. I tug the front of my hat lower and push the tortoiseshell frames back up onto the bridge of my nose. I also take a moment to turn up the cuffs on my checked shirt, baring my pale, skinny forearms to the sun’s soothing touch. 

The ladies who look after me tell me to cover up in the sun. ‘It’s cancerous’, they say. 

Stuff and nonsense. I’ve never had to worry about that.

We always loved holidays in the sun, my wife and I. We never saw the point of spending thousands of pounds to holiday abroad in the cold and wet. That’s what the Lake District is for. 

No, I much prefer relaxing in the sun. Fish and chips, ice cream, a deck chair and a beautiful woman by my side. And she was, my wife; the most beautiful of them all. If you had seen her, you would understand why I would give every second of my nearly one hundred and twenty-one years just for the feel of her hand in mine right now.

She died forty years ago today. It’s a sad thing, for someone you love to die on your birthday. I’ve lived another half a life since then. I wish she could have stayed with me longer, but then she wasn’t born at eleven minutes past eleven. Though that was the time she died. The doctor wrote it on his bit of paper.

The big hand on my watch is kissing the small, golden number two. An errant cloud blocks the sun for a second and I feel an unfamiliar shiver race through my limbs. I think I might see my wife today. I felt tired for the first time yesterday. I feel more tired now. 

I finish the hotdog and wipe the ketchup from my arm with the paper napkin. I don’t think I’ll save it for later.

Nicola is an accountant and writer, with pieces published online and in print by Funny Pearls, Pulp Fictional, Shorts, Tangled Web, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. In 2022 she was shortlisted for Anthology Magazine's short story award and was longlisted in 2023 by the Parracombe Prize, the Letter Review Prize, and others. She was raised in North Wales, but now lives in rural Hertfordshire, UK. She writes between pleas for food and/or affection from both human and non-human dependants.

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