"Hello Grandad. How are you today?"
'Grandad' just grunted. He always grunted. He was known by all the nurses at Bide-a-Wee Rest Home For Retired Gentle Folk to be their grumpiest resident. He never spoke to them at all - he just grunted. It was just his way. They said.
Mr Ernest Brown was actually not grumpy by nature. In fact, those who knew him found him to be very friendly, extremely witty, and the sort of man who was everybody's mate. That was the experience of those who knew him.
But the nurses did not know him. Which is why they called him 'Grandad'. And why he grunted back at them.
He was no grandad. He wasnt even a father. He wasnt even married - had never been married. He had not been engaged, or even had a girlfriend. And he was certainly no grandad.
Had the nurses read his records, had they talked to other residents of Bide-a-Wee, had they even talked to the Social Services who had placed him there, then they would have perhaps known a little bit more about him - known perhaps that he had a name, known that he was no grandad. But they did none of these things. They simply came to work, called him Grandad, and went home. None the wiser.
And things would have gone on that way if it wasnt for a little girl called Gina.
Gina had no family. She had been in a number of foster homes after her parents were killed when she was only a couple of months old. For some reason things had never worked out and she had spent most of her small life - about six years - being shunted from one home to another. She was alone.
At the time of the story, she was living with a good family called the Robinsons, but the years of instability had brought about a type of isolation - perhaps it was a protection. Although they cared for her, and tried to show love for her, she remained unaffected. She was alone.
One day Mrs Robinson called in to see her mother who lived at Bide-a-Wee. Her mother was feeling poorly and it was very much an emergency trip. There had been no time to organise a sitter for Gina, so Mrs Robinson had brought the girl with her.
And so it was that while Mrs Robinson sat by her mother's bed, holding her hand, Gina wandered away unnoticed, through the halls and relaxation areas of Bide-a-Wee, past the dining rooms, and ultimately to a small enclave in an out-of-the-way spot, favoured by one Mr Ernest Brown.
"Hello" said Gina.
"Hello" said Mr Ernest Brown
"Are you a prisoner here?" asked Gina.
"I suppose I am" answered Mr Ernest Brown.
"What did you do wrong?" asked Gina.
"I got old" said Mr Ernest Brown. But there was a trinkle in his eye.
Gina looked at him solemly, and he regarded her thoughtfully. She had big brown eyes and a face that held the sort of seriousness that takes most people a lifetime to gain. She had a story to tell, and one far beyond her years. It was a story of childhood lost, but not of adulthood gained. He smiled at her.
"Have you got any children?" she asked.
"No." said Mr Ernest Brown. "I never had a wife, so I never had any children."
"Are you all alone then?" she asked. It was more of a statement than a question though. She knew he was alone, had been alone all his life. In him she recognised a kindred spirit.
"Yes" he said. "Always have been, guess I always will be".
Unbidden, she climbed onto his lap. He winced at the pain as his arthritic legs struck out in protest at the unexpected weight, but he said nothing.
"Can we be friends?" she asked. "I don't have a friend".
He looked down at the little face looking deeply into his. He didn't have a choice, and he didn't want one.
"Yes" he said. "That would be nice," He paused, then continued "as long as you don't call me Grandad".