I always knew him as Mr. Bensley, the next door neighbour, and still do not know his first name. He was around the age of being characterized as ‘very old’ by children. He always looked the same. He wore the same sweater everyday and carried a stick in his hand. His hair was a tuft of silver and his hands resembled a bulldog’s skin, droopy and loopy. As a kid, I and my two brothers used to trespass into his garden to pluck mini oranges, the ones which were sour even when they were ripe. Most of the time we would be able to evade him, take our booty and scamper back into our garden through the hidden opening in the dividing wall between our plots. But if we got spotted by either Mr. Bentley or his Labrador Retriever Alvin, they would chase us all over the garden and then we had to jump over his gate and scurry homeward. I and my brothers discovered that if we brought treats for Alvin, he would not raise the alarm till he was done with the biscuits and we could quickly plunder Mr. Bensley’s oranges. One summer, my brothers grew tall and muscular and stopped fitting through the hole in the wall. Being the youngest of the lot, I started venturing in Mr. Bensley’s garden all by myself. By now I was 11 and Alvin had accepted my presence in their garden. Or maybe he had just turned old and stopped chasing me around.
My brothers were had been sent away to hostel and were not home for the holidays yet. My parents were at work and I was all by myself at home. One cloudy morning of my Saturday solitude, I had the urge to grab a few berries from Mr. B’s garden and enjoy them. So I sneaked into the garden and was mid way through the first branch on the tree when a strong gush of wind started blowing. The clouds were very dark and looked like it could start raining anytime. So, I resumed picking berries and stuffing them into my pocket with a renewed vigour. Within a couple of minutes, there was lightening, thundering and heavy downpour all around me. I started towards the hole in the wall and saw that the soil around it had become muddy and slippery and since I had heard a lot of stories about quicksand, I decided to take my chances with Mr. B and Alvin. So I started walking towards their gate. To reach the gate, I had to pass by one side of the house. I do not know what compelled me to look in through the side window, but I did and saw old Mr. Bensley, all wrinkly and pale, lying on the floor next to his bed, and Alvin pawing at the ground near him. I thought of going in to check on him but I decided against it and rushed home as fast as I could with the rain beating against my face. I called up my mother and told her what I saw. She got panicky but told me to relax and stay indoors while she would call an ambulance and Mr. B’s sons. Twenty minutes later, I heard the sirens of the ambulance and saw them enter his house by breaking in Mr. B’s door. They came out two minutes later with him stretched out on the stretcher. They hauled him into the back and drove away. The rain was still pounding on our roof but I heard Alvin howling. I did not want him to feel lonely or hungry so I made up my mind to go to Alvin and stay with him till Mr. B came back from the hospital. So I took an umbrella, took a packet of biscuits, braved the rains and went to their house. Alvin was happy to see him but he was very restless and anxious. I tried to distract him by giving him biscuits but he refused to eat them. I had seen Mr. B playing fetch with Alvin so I settled on a new plan of action – look for the ‘fetch-ball’. Since this was the first time I was inside their house, I did not know where I would find it. The main door opened into the drawing room. The walls were adorned with blue coloured wallpaper with some kind of little flowers on them. There were photo frames hanging on the walls and kept in shelves. I started going through them one by one.
The photographs must have been arranged in a chronological order. The first one on the shelf was a double heart shaped frame with a photo in each heart. One was a black and white photograph of a 20 year old girl and the other was of a 20 year old boy. The boy looked a lot like Mr. B’s grandson, Jake, with whom I had played a few times when he came to visit with his dad. I deduced that this must have been Mr. B in his young age; the girl must have been Mrs. B. I moved onto the next photo. It was of their wedding day. They were kissing in this one. Being an 11 year old, I felt shy and must have blushed. I quickly moved onto the next photo where Mrs. B had a baby in her arms. In the next one Mr. B had a baby in his arms and a toddler next to him. In the next one all four of them were in the picture, all of them a little older. The next two were again double heart shaped frames. One had Mr. B’s both sons’ graduation photos and the other had Jake and Leah, his granddaughter’s photo. The next was a photo of Mrs. B in the garden. She was wearing her gardening gear and was crouching in front of my favourite place in their garden; she was planting the orange plant. Tears stung my eyes as I realized why Mr. B tried to chase us away from his oranges. Because they were not his oranges, they were Mrs. B’s. She looked so happy in the photograph. She had still retained a little resemblance to the first photo of the 20 year old girl but all her hair was white in this one and she seemed really skinny. I had heard my parents discussing that she had died of some illness the same year I was born.
While I was thinking about all this, I suddenly heard nothing but silence in the house. The rain had stopped. I called for Alvin and he reluctantly came. I gave him another biscuit and was about to sit down on the armchair behind me when I saw the next photograph – Mrs. B was sitting on this very armchair and knitting. She had a walker next to it and Alvin was just a little puppy sitting at her feet. Her face seemed bonier than in the previous photograph. This was the last photograph on the shelf. All of a sudden I realized that the sweater which Mr. B always wore was the same sweater Mrs. B had been knitting in the photograph! I don’t exactly know why but a tear dripped down my cheek. Something made me go into the room where I had seen Mr. B lying on the ground. His bed was a mess and his dresser must have tipped over when he fell. On the floor was a strip of four photo booth photographs. It had writing behind it which read, “Our first date.” I picked it up and turned it over. They were black and white photos of Mr. and Mrs. B. The top one was of them sitting side by side and smiling. Mr. B had turned to look at Mrs. B in the next. She turned to look at him in the third one. And they were kissing in the last one. Mr. B must have been looking at it before he fell down and it must have dropped out of his hands when the ambulance guys took him.
I waited a long time in Mr. B’s house with Alvin but no one came. So I took him home. I took the booth photographs with me so I could safely restore them to Mr. B upon his arrival. My mother returned home earlier than usual, joined by my father within five minutes. They told me that Mr. B would never be back from the hospital because he had died of a heart attack. I did not know what to feel and I felt no emotion at the news. Jake took away Alan. I decided that I would take care of the orange plant until someone else moved into Mr. B’s house.
At his open casket funeral, I put the photograph between his fingers. I compared his 80 year old face to his 20 year old visage. He looked so different but yet similar. I imagined how I would look when I would turn 80. And more than anything, I wished I would find a love as sweet and loving and true like Mr. and Mrs. B’s.