An old man is sitting still on a sofa. One hand dangles from the armrest, while the other trembles on a familiar indentation in the upholstery beside him. His head moves with his breath as he looks around the room from the corners of his eyes. Over an unused fireplace, a mirror hangs. When he coaxes himself up onto his poles and raises his head, the mirror frames his head and shoulders with exquisite gold. A little television sits on a corner table, its flex wrapped inside a travel bag. Window blinds provide a slatted view of flats on the opposite side of the shared yard behind it. Except for two coasters, the coffee table in front of him is barren. They convey faded pictures of a forgotten vacation spot, waves that sound like muffled automobiles going by, the roar in his ears of an ocean of quiet broken only by the insouciant tick-tock of a clock that he never notices unless he listens for it. The letter N is emblazoned on a mug on the coaster in front of him. In the kitchen cabinet, there’s one with a V.

He straightens his back to commence action, just as she used to tell him. He referred to it as nagging, but it was the only way she knew how to care for him. He contemplates the challenge of going, possibly behind a bush in the yard so he can smoke at the same time, the cigarette thrusting proudly out beneath clinched eyelids as he strains his neck up as far as it will go. He chooses not to do it. There is too much inertia to move right now. If everything else fails, there’s a bottle next to the sofa. And there’s still time. He has lots of time now that he is old.

Is that correct? Old? It’s not that he denies it outright, but this morning he mulls over the adjective – old – as if he’s just learning it, like in school, contemplating first its imprecise implication of age, then its accoutrements of aches and pains, the slowness it ushers in, the frailty of control that sees agency slip away, the vulnerability of having to rely, the loneliness of the loss it’s had time to

What good is he now?

He allows his thoughts to roam back in time. All of the things he believed he’d accomplished appear to fade away like a record. His brow furrows and he shuts his eyes, his spectacles still resting on the bridge of his nose, so accustomed to their presence.

He recalls going to a restaurant. It merely glides into his consciousness. He’d walked along a high street, presumably after a fight with his mother, perhaps about money, asking the same question at each shop and leaving his phone number on pieces of paper. Perhaps it was fortunate timing, a gap to be filled before checks and balances made such things more complex, but the next day, or perhaps the week after – time distorts memory, and memory distorts time – He recalls the noise, the bustle, the table staff frantically waiting for him to load their trays, ‘any time today Nick,’ the shouts of food plated up from kitchen staff whose accents he couldn’t place but who would produce whatever he fancied for his break with a smiling efficiency that always left him slightly awestruck.

He also recalls an old gentleman who used to come in for his meal. He’d head for the same upstairs table every time, leaning slightly against the counter of the bar if the usual table wasn’t free, gnarled hands resting tremulously on his sticks, bald blotched head turned slightly towards the kitchen at the far end of the dining room, looking through the tops of grey eyes and wild eyebrows to compensate for the hunch of his back and the droop of his neck. His jacket and tie were somewhat creased, and his flannel pants had faded around the seat. A grey handkerchief with the letter N stitched on it would protrude from one of the pockets.

He was thought to be a composer. It had been stated by one of the kitchen employees. He was evidently well-known. Nicholas imagined musical notes dancing around the old man’s head as he walked past the bar: crotchets gently bouncing on his crown, quavers hovering around his shoulders, maybe a semiquaver or two playfully hanging off one or both of his ears for a moment, then joining the others in a dance, scattered treble and bass clefs and sharps and flats adding to the mix, the whole ensemble conducted in the time signature of a great musical mind. The dancing notes would whirl over the composer’s head as he made his way to his seat, stopping to chat with guests at other tables before returning to the orchestra pit to swarm inquisitively over the composer’s table, bob around his placemat, and land on his menu.

The old guy would always request a glass of lemon tea with the tea bag still in it. He was really fussy about it. After a time, Nick assumed that it must have been a comfort that a regular bartender had arrived and understood his preferences, even if a new table attendant had gotten it wrong. He’d make the tea meticulously, first slipping the glass into a metal holder to protect the old man’s fingers, then hot water swooshing into the glass from the dispenser, then a tea bag added to the lemony water, a saucer to carry the glass on, a serviette between saucer and glass, two cubes of sugar next to the glass, and a long tea-spoon perched on the saucer. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. He’d watch the tea being brought, envisioning the delicious lemon infusion contributing to the composer’s creativity, notes and tones taking shape in his imagination, perhaps meant for an LP, possibly destined for a concert hall full of admiring people. And he’d smile and nod to himself, knowing that he’d made a modest contribution to the rare world of genius and inspiration. The glass would be returned for cleaning later, the cubes gone, the shriveled tea bag moulded to the spoon on the saucer, the delicious perfume of the dregs following the tea bag into the broken swing-bin beneath the counter.

Presently, on this couch, shocked this ought to be returning to him, the lines on Nick’s brow clear a bit and the sides of his mouth lift to welcome the dream. To his eye, the writer’s notes dance towards him, across an age of existence, into this virus relax, making music with no perceivable tune or structure except for music none-the-less, filling his head, flowing into his chest, suffusing his heart with a sensation of energy, a foam not felt for quite a while. With neither expectation nor exertion he eases up from the misery and the forlornness and experiences an idea that nothing isolates him from those days; that when it’s all said and done it should have been yesterday, or recently, or even presently, that he is there, and here, joined by a brilliant string of presence that kills the desolates of time and breaks the shackles old enough. Associated by and by with loud clients, pushy table orderlies, vivacious culinary specialists and the arranger and his lemon tea, an ensemble of notes comes to across the circular segment of his life conveying a silent message that all has adequately been, not any more no less, barely enough; recounting to him that everything in his story is a basic piece of a mysterious riddle, essential for the satisfaction of something of which he is, has forever been and will forever have been not any more however no less significant a section than any person or thing else; helping him that his thought to remember accomplishment, of common achievement, of adornments and approval and potential and amazing open doors both seized and wasted is and consistently has been of his own structure, brought into the world of a fight wherein there has just at any point been one bellicose; guaranteeing him that the lemon tea, alongside a horde different things to which he could never customarily have connected any importance at all, was and remains some portion of an entire, full in its own specific manner, no less significant than anything any other individual has done or will at any point do; not any more convoluted than the basic truth that it was and stays a vital piece of an extraordinary unfurling of which he can get a handle on an understanding as much as any other individual.

His tired eyes well up with tears. Years of suffering at his own hand drip down his cheeks and onto his collar and tie, a deep sense of relief at the relief of truth in all its shoulder-shrugging humility at his core. The relief fades into a calm respite from the restlessness, and gratitude dawns like a sunrise on him.

The restaurant memory comes back with a subtle focus that wasn’t there before. He can smell goulash and bolognese in the dining room, dregs of wine and coffee in the sink, and cigarette butts in the bin; and behind the chorus of shouting voices in the smoke-filled dining room, the clanking of cutlery and crashes of dishes ring out like Russian percussion. The tea towel draped around his thumb from the glass he was drying is motionless. He notices the composer, who is sitting at his usual table with his back to him; he notices a jowl stop moving, a cheek slowly turning towards him; he notices him putting one arm on the back of the chair and turning his head right around so that their eyes meet. In an eternal presence, notes flutter. The composer cracks a grin. Nick is gently rocking on the sofa, his eyes closed and both hands tremulously turned to the ceiling, as if expecting something. He remains motionless, returns the composer’s gaze, and smiles back, a wave of liberation washing over him from deep within. The composer nods once, then returns his attention to his meal, while the boy behind the bar resumes his work.

He returns to the waves of traffic breaking on the windows and the tick-tock of the clock on the wall, suddenly self-conscious. He blinks open his eyes, takes a handkerchief from his pocket, and blows his nose. Without the heaviness that usually comes with this time of day, he shuffles forward, taking his sticks into his gnarled fists, rising laboriously from the sofa with an involuntary expiration that sounds like ‘ha,’ straightening as much as he can so he can look out the tops of his eyes at the mirror, catching his balance. He muses that his reflection only appears when he notices it. Or, at the very least, he’s only certain it’s there when he looks at it. Perhaps it’s always there. He wouldn’t know unless he looked at it. Anyway, he muses, the mirror is only one way to see his reflection.

He notices it in others.

Smiling, the composer moves his gaze away from the mirror, sets his sticks in front of him, and makes his way to the kitchen for his mid-morning glass of sweet lemon tea.