The oldest people on our street are moving on and I can’t help but be sad to lose this couple who have been happily married for so long
Stan and Eva, my neighbours, moved in to our street more than 60 years ago. Often, after an early morning trip to the market, I knock on their door and hand over a couple of turnips – something they use in soup and can’t buy at the local shop. They always insist on paying, despite the fact that they give me tomatoes from their greenhouse in summer and drop the magazine that comes with their Sunday newspaper through my door every week. “Eva can’t read small print and I’m not into ladies’ fashion,” says Stan.
This time, when he opens the door and looks inside the brown paper bag, he says, “Still don’t know the difference between a turnip and a swede?” I sheepishly confess that I don’t, but he thanks me still, saying that he’ll steam it and serve it with steak for dinner.
When I ask how he is, Stan tells me he doesn’t feel any worse than usual; but he was recently diagnosed with cancer. A nurse visits regularly to drain the excess fluid from his lungs. “Never smoked though,” he says, matter-of-factly.
He invites me in and I accept, keen to prolong my time away from the inevitable Saturday morning chaos at home. Inside, I perch on the sofa next to Eva, who wears Karl Lagerfeld-style dark glasses at all times. She is almost entirely blind, but her standards are high. She keeps her hair in a sharp, silver Mary Quant bob and serves biscuits on Edwardian painted plates.
Stan and Eva are moving. Ruddy-cheeked estate agents have been pulling up outside their house all week in logoed cars, trying to charm the couple to sign up with them. They talk excitedly about parquet flooring, plump with hope for the large commission that a quick sale from an elderly couple could deliver.
I have only known Stan and Eva for a short time and yet I’m sorry that they’re leaving. They are the oldest people on the street and I often watch them out of my bedroom window as they walk slowly, carefully – arms linked – up the road together. In the few years I’ve lived here, the places they travel to have become more and more limited. But they still get out, still wrap up warm and enjoy their occasional day trips to the various supermarkets. They know where the hot deals are. “Of course, it used to be the pictures, the opera, and Regent Street,” Eva says.
While I regret that they are going, I notice they are not overly sentimental. They see their slow exit from the street – and eventually from this world – as something wholly unsurprising, an inevitable event in the final chapter of their life together.
Perhaps what I’m selfishly lamenting is not simply the fact that the street will lose them, the stalwarts, the originals, but the loss of Stan and Eva as real-life role models, an example of people in a marriage that is solid, sound and for life. They must bicker, get annoyed with each other and disagree – I’m sure of that. Up until retirement they earned their living as market stall-holders in south London. “Eva always wore the trousers,” Stan says.
“But he got away with a lot because he was so handsome,” says Eva.
Life hasn’t spared them hardship, but they have endured the tough times together: the death of one of their adult daughters from cancer, which led to the loss of their once strong Jewish faith; Stan’s two heart attacks; Eva’s sight deteriorating while the rest of her body still worked perfectly well. They are still side-by-side, though: still planning their evening meal, putting their coats on every day to fetch the newspaper.
Perhaps my sorrow at their going relates to a secret hankering for this old-fashioned togetherness. It is different to how my parents are – not that they are in a miserable marriage. But they have always fought against togetherness and sometimes I wish they’d be a bit more accepting of it and each other, because surely acceptance and love doesn’t mean there is no room for pain, disappointment and differing views.
As I leave, I promise Stan a salt beef bagel from the best shop in London, a place he used to frequent. Last time they were out of salt beef, so I settled for the bagel alone, which is never quite the same. At home, I turn to R, who arrived early to watch the children while I went to the market. He looks decidedly eager to leave for his afternoon shift at work, but before he goes I tell him that Stan and Eva are leaving. I say jokingly, but with a certain, obvious longing, that maybe one day we’ll be the oldest people on the street.