There are some things that are just too disruptive to mention, even to my friends. Things that are guaranteed to produce silence in the noisiest Tim Hortons. Eye-rolls, napkins finding themselves unexpectedly on the floor, bouts of noisy coughing taking up the spaces previously occupied by attentive ears. Politics won’t do this –as long as our old age pensions are deposited on time each month, most of us are beyond caring who holds the gavel. And given that our little group that meets each Thursday afternoon for Timbits and coffee, has dipped its toes in pretty well every ocean in the world, religion has long since ceased to hold our collective attention. Once we had decided it was all about the same chap playing cards using different names, we lost interest.
I’m not sure what it is that we talk about nowadays… Retirement, maybe, although even that’s pretty old hat for most of us. I think we’ve pretty well winnowed our discussions down to complaints. We don’t plan them, or anything –there’s no agenda. And even in an argument, none of us thinks twice about switching sides, or even starting a new one. It’s one of the lesser recognized benefits of a failing memory. Sometimes it’s a dying battery in a hearing aid, but mostly, I think, it’s just that we’re getting cranky. Innovations that seem to pop up when we don’t need them are particularly irritating for those of us comfortably tethered to the past.
“Why do they insist on putting the sugar in before you even get the coffee?” It was Harjit’s favourite gripe. In fact, the gathering didn’t really get underway until he’d complained about the practice.
George rolled his eyes and sighed. “It’s their way of showing they’re responsible citizens, Har –make you declare how many packets you want, and then smile sweetly as if they didn’t care if you did say 6.” George always replied the same way -every Thursday, like an invocation. The only thing he varied was the number. Six was pretty high, so the group knew there was trouble afoot.
Harjit smiled indulgently. “It’s only 3, George,” he said and glanced at the rest of us around the little table in the booth. He could read it too.
The size of our group was necessarily constrained by the number that could comfortably squeeze into a booth: me, Alan, Tony, occasionally, Hans and, of course, Harjit and George -the sine quibus non, as Alan referred to them. Without those two, we were a crowd, a bunch.
“So… How’s your day going, George?” Alan was the peacemaker in the group. In the absence of a parent, he functioned as the unofficial chair. Older than the rest of us, and still endowed with a thick, white, leonine head of hair, underlined with silver eyebrows –more moustaches than markers- he was the obvious choice. In a former life he’d been a judge, and although the exact details of his bench were never clarified, he looked the part, so we never asked.
George glared at Alan as if he wasn’t yet ready to confess, and took a large, desultory gulp of his coffee.
We were all silent for a moment; it was important for George to explain his mood.
He looked up at the slowly turning fan above our heads and shrugged. “I was just thinking what a difference a cheerful person behind the counter makes for the food.”
Tony, who had just stuffed his third Timbit into his mouth, managed a rather sugary smile. I wanted to point out an unbecoming fragment that was sunning itself on his lower lip, but he looked so happy, I held my peace and wiped my mouth just in case I might end up as a co-defendant. Alan was withering in his neutrality.
“I mean, she seems delighted in whatever you order -you know, like, ‘yes, you’ve made the right choice!’”
“They’re trained to act like that, George –the play’s the thing...” Harjit said, his eyes twinkling.
George suddenly trained the spotlight of his glare on Harjit. “Why do you always end up quoting Hamlet, Har…?”
A large smile almost split Harjit’s face in half. “Okay, how about Be myself; everyone else is already taken.” –Oscar Wilde
“That’s not quite…” Alan, started to explain before Harjit silenced him with a chuckle.
“I take liberties, okay?”
But the tension was broken, and George sat back in his seat nibbling on one of Harjit’s Timbits. When he’d finished, and picked a recalcitrant piece out of a tooth somewhere inside, he sighed. “Okay, I’ve just come back from shopping. I decided to try that new grocery super-store beside the mall.” He made a motion towards another of Harjit’s treasures, and smiled when he saw the nod.
“Cashier congratulate you on your purchases there, George?” Harjit continued to twinkle. “Admired your selection of frozen peas…?”
George managed a chuckle. “I wish. The line ups were so long I never even got close to a cashier.” He took another sip of his coffee and reached for another Timbit, and chewed on it contentedly for a while.
Harjit, blessed with the gift of déjà vu, always opted for a double order. “And…”
George stopped chewing for a moment, and leaned forward onto the table. “And I decided to try the new self-checkout thing…”
We all waited for the inevitable complaints about the tinny voice in the machine, the difficulty in finding the bar code, or the impossibility of deciding which type of vegetable and whether or not it was the organic variety to punch in. But no, he was still smiling.
“How’d you do?” Tony said, trying unsuccessfully, to stifle a burp. “Did the machine hassle you about the number of bags?”
“Or the weight discrepancies,” Harjit added mischievously.
Alan blinked slowly and sternly at Harjit. “Harjit, are you suggesting…?”
“Not at all,” Harjit interrupted again. “It’s just that we all make mistakes on those things…”
It was George’s turn to smile. At first I thought it was because he’d managed to slip another of Harjit’s Timbits into his mouth, but he shook his head as he chewed it quickly and swallowed. “Not me,” he said, with more than a hint of triumph in his voice.
We all stared at him expectantly. He hadn’t aged as successfully as Alan, and Harjit hid his age behind a silver beard and an immaculately folded blue turban. George looked his eighty years. His hands were nobbled, and his face a washboard of wrinkles. Even his voice was gravelled and heavy with years. “No, as a matter of fact, there was a pretty young thing in a store uniform that came right over to the machine when she saw me studying it. Stood real close, actually, and even helped me to push some of the buttons on the screen.” He looked around the table and winked at Harjit. “Her hands were so soft…”
He sat back in his seat, a dreamy look in his eyes. “I’m never going back to a cashier. I mean, they only touch stuff to put it in the bags.” He sighed and looked up at the fan again. “Nope, I’m definitely a man who wants to embrace the future, guys.”
We all smiled and glanced at each other. There are benefits to aging.