Old, old Eric Mutterbaum creaked down the steps from his porch to the front garden and stood in the whirl of leaves that the early winter wind whipped up around his feet. He pulled his cardigan tighter around him but it just made him colder, stretching out the threadbare thing until it was little more than crochet lace, holes loosely tied together with wool from some long-dead sheep.
His right slipper was biting at the sore on his heel again, and he kicked his foot at the ground to try to force his toes further in. They were themselves too swollen, though, and the pain was excruciating. He buckled forwards, caught himself on his walker, then tried to right himself against the wind. It was hard work. The wind was bully strong, rushing down the canyon formed by the long straight road and the tall terraced houses on each side of it, and a gust came that almost pushed him off his feet, it was so fierce. He clung to his walker as though it were a railing at the edge of a cliff, and between him and the wind there was a stalemate. He could not pull himself up to his full height (as much as he could anyway, any more), the wind could not drag him away from his garden and bundle him willy-nilly up the street towards the old parts of town, the stomping grounds, the drinking pits, the places of memory and lore and half-remembered history.
Eric was patient, though, in a way that the wind could never be, and in between gusts he could sometimes inch forwards a little, shuffling the walker just that tiny bit so that he moved closer and closer to the great horse chestnut tree at the pavement end of the garden. It was a painful slow process, and he could feel the wind draining his heat faster than he could make it. It seemed like he had never been warm - he could not feel his left side, which was facing the wind, and his left eye (the good one) could see only through a thick film of tears that the wind was stinging into it. He pushed forwards, nevertheless. He could have found the tree in the pitch dark with his hands tied behind his back (another thing that was no longer really possible, since his right shoulder refused to relax backwards that far). He had walked to the tree so many times over the last decades that his feet would know the way on their own.
What did I miss? he thought. The choice of word was unthinking, but as he said it to himself he know that there was a deeper point to it. That was truly it - what was important was what he had missed, some vital clue or spark in the first place that would have helped him to understand life in the way that other people seemed to. Then, beyond that, the experiences he had not had because he was too busy trying to work out how to go about having them.
The front of him reached the lee of the tree and with a tremendous effort he pushed forwards and turned so that his back was to the trunk, the walker out in front of him. The storm whipped around his windbreak, little gusty fingers snatching at him as it to try to pull him away from his shelter, but their force was no match for the chestnut trunk and the effect was just to tear at his clothes so that his tatty cardigan whipped open and closed.
Everything in him ached. His right toes still hurt from where he had tried to push them into the shoe, and both feet were swollen slightly either with arthritis or some build-up of fluid, he was never sure which. His leg bones ached with a sort of tired burn, and the muscles hanging off them were weak like a newly-woken kitten, barely able to keep him upright after their Atlasean struggle to carry him there from the house. His hips, of course - his hips, which his doctor had constantly hinted would have been replaced by now if he was rich enough to be a private patient - his hips were a bowl of pain that he absent-mindedly supped from whenever he forgot that he was not paying attention to them. They were the pain of last resort, when all other pains had been attenuated by drugs or the stupid exercises that the doctor had given him, or by alcohol when he could get his hands on it. All the other pains were negotiable, but the hips were a constant, a background radiation of pain which he could only notice when other miseries were gone but which was powerful in its own right. Above his hips were his aching joints, the burning sensation in his lungs, the sore throat which he had constantly now - acid reflux due to being overweight in his youth, his doctor said - and of course the mild headache, the punishment for wearing his glasses for too long without getting them checked out.
Still, here in the protection of the tree he could rest a little. He felt the rough bark pressing against the bones of his spine, he listened to the ferocious rustling of the leaves and branches above him. Although down below the tree was winning the fight, above it was being slowly disintegrated, and he could see a constant rain of orange and brown leaves in the gardens to the west. In the old days he would have cursed the tree for giving him more work to do tidying up the garden, but now he was past such toil and he had learnt to live with it, to let time and later winds do the job of clearing the lawn for him.
In the far west, on the top of the hill, he could just make out the weathervane on the church spire flapping erratically from side to side.
What did I miss? he thought again.