There he goes, my beautiful son.
Bone china skin, hair afire.
Fragility worn in cool style.
Brief nod at my frantic goodbye.
A pang of love explodes my chest.
There he goes, my beautiful son.
Bone china skin, hair afire.
Fragility worn in cool style.
Brief nod at my frantic goodbye.
A pang of love explodes my chest.
Your face on the pillow in early morning light,
touched by sleep’s youthful kiss.
Crow’s feet, which tell of love, laughter, loss,
wiped from the corners of your lids.
And I watch in silence,
afraid to stir and wake you from this contented bliss.
And I listen in silence,
afraid to disturb your relaxed breath, leaving your body at ease.
Soon the busy day will shake you awake,
deepen the creases on your brow with worldly concerns.
Your face on the pillow in early morning light,
And I am enveloped in your peace.
Looking out of the window on a damp grey day, I noticed something black and white, curled and hidden, under the bushy overgrown shrub which adorns our front lawn. At first, I thought it was my cat tucked up in her favourite sleeping place but, looking more carefully, I realised this animal was too big for her. Fat spots of rain began to fall, turning the scene outside to blurred watercolours. The black and white bundle snuggled closer into the hedge. A shiny nose cautiously stretched out from the shelter of the untidy branches sniffing the air, and a bright pink tongue tasted the raindrops. Some farm dog, I supposed, settled down for a cheeky rest from work. Still, it wasn’t usual for a dog to use my shrub for a bed.
“There’s a dog asleep on our front garden.” I told my husband.
He came to take a look.
“Poor thing,” he said, “better check it’s all right.”
“I was just about to.” I said.
On opening the front door, the dog jumped up from its resting place, tail wagging and tongue lolling happily in greeting. It seemed pleased to see me. Normally, I’m a bit wary of farm dogs as they can be temperamental and, once or twice, I’ve had a nasty nip. This pretty tri-coloured collie seemed friendly, however. It looked at me with forlorn eyes. I put my hand out slowly. At this encouragement, the dog bounded over, nuzzling and licking my hand. On closer inspection I found she was a female, small and slender; a friendly, sweet-natured animal.
“What are you doing here?” I asked her, “Run along home.”
She eyed me expectantly and sat down on the gravel. She wasn’t going anywhere.
“Are you lost?” I stroked her glossy head. She rolled onto her side revealing her pink tummy, showing she was no threat. I noticed an old faded collar but no tag.
“Well, you must belong to somebody.”
I thought she may be glad of a drink so I went around the back of the house to collect a bowl of water. She followed me to the side gate and waited patiently there until I returned. When she saw me, she gamboled ecstatically around my legs. I put the bowl down and she lapped gratefully.
“You were a thirsty girl,” I said, “but now you’d better make your way home. You can’t stay here, I’m afraid, I’ve got three dogs of my own and that is quite enough for anybody!”
I patted on the head and went inside. I hoped she would head off once alone.
Every half hour or so, my husband or I looked out of the window to check whether the dog had moved on but, each time, there she was, snuggled under the bush trying to keep dry. The rain fell in an unrelenting downpour. After three hours, I decided she definitely wasn’t intending to leave.
“What should we do?” I asked my husband. He agreed the dog would have left for home by now if she was going to.
So, unlike the rain, I gave in and went to the side gate to let her into the back garden. My concern was rewarded as she danced around me, wagging her happy tail, thrilled to see me again.
I towelled off her wet hair and feet and let her into the conservatory, then fed her a bowl of kibble. She ate hungrily and settled in the large dog basket belonging to my labrador.
“You can stay in here while I make some phone calls.” I told her.
My three dogs knew something was up. They weren’t usually shut out of the conservatory and there was a whiff of strange dog in the air. They sniffed with curiosity at my legs, snuffling and whimpering. I lifted the receiver and rang the vet. No one had reported a dog missing but they would keep my details in case somebody came in. I should bring her in to check for a microchip. Then I rang every vet in the area. It was the same story with all of them.
“Any luck?” my husband asked.
“No one’s reported a dog missing anywhere.” I explained, “The vet told me to inform the dog warden.”
We looked at each other sadly. it seemed a shame to put such a lovely dog in a cage while she waited for her owner to find her. It was with some reluctance, therefore, that I picked up the phone. Surprisingly, they seemed unconcerned. The service was overstretched, it would be a while before the warden would be able to collect the dog, would we be happy to keep her until he got in touch? I agreed, of course.
“We have to keep her until the warden has time to come and get her.” I explained to my husband, “He’s out at the moment and will ring us back when he can.”
“If she’s going to be staying with us, she’ll have to meet our boys,” my husband said, “If they don’t get on, she’ll have to live in the barn.”
“I’m sure they’ll get on.” I didn’t like to think of her out there on her own.
We decided it would be best if the dogs got to know each other in the garden where there was plenty of space. Luckily, the rain had finally stopped. A pale sun struggled to smile through the clouds. Rather than terrifying the new dog by sending out the boys in a rowdy pack, we introduced her to one dog at a time. First, Sammy, our aged collie cross, quiet and gentle. Next Iolo, our gangly labrador, barely taking any notice. Finally Monty, our yappy terrier, noisy but playful. The dogs did us proud. Their manners were impeccable. The little female collie liked them immediately and soon all four dogs were playing on the grass. I breathed a sigh of relief. It may take us a while to find the owner but at least she could enjoy living with us while we did.
Then I remembered my cats. Would she be a chaser? My dogs and cats were best buddies; friends since puppy and kitten days. This dog may never have lived with cats before. It wasn’t long until we discovered the answer. Kipper, our ginger boy and keen hunter, came ambling around the corner of the house right into the middle of the action. He confidently walked up the new dog. She sniffed him with caution. Kipper rubbed himself against her legs then sidled off. She didn’t follow or chase him. Phew! Later in the day, the other two cats appeared, feisty Mags and grumpy Maude. The new dog didn’t bat an eyelid and the cats were unphased. All remained peaceful.
Over the next few days, the female collie settled into our routines and became part of the family. She behaved perfectly in the house and was a clean, tidy creature. We hardly knew she was there. I took her to see the vet and discovered she had no microchip. I drove her around the neighbourhood, knocking on doors and calling in at farms. Nobody recognised her or knew anyone looking for a lost dog. Next, I took photographs and made posters to put up on telegraph poles, fence posts, in shops, at the vets, in the library, everywhere I could think of. No luck. I posted photographs and information on local social media sites. No luck. The dog warden didn’t ring. We began to think the new dog may be with us forever. Some of us may even have hoped it. We were growing fond of her calm, sweet nature.
“We can’t call you the new dog all the time,” I told her, “What’s your name?”
Over the next few hours, we experimented calling out different names and watching for a response. She didn’t seem too bothered with any of them until finally I called out, “Lucy!” she stopped in her tracks, pricked up her ears in apparent recognition and came running over. From then on, that’s what we called her.
Two weeks later, two weeks of looking after Lucy with no sign of an owner, we started to reconcile ourselves to life with four dogs. She was no trouble. When you had three, an extra one made no difference. Lucy fitted in. She was at home with us; part of the family. We all rubbed along happily together. We played in the garden. We went on walks. At night, she curled up on the floor with her doggy mates while we watched TV.
One day, two and a half weeks after Lucy had tucked herself under the bush on our front lawn, the phone rang.
“Hello,” said a lady, “I think you might have my dog.”
The lady described Lucy perfectly, down to her faded collar. She explained that she had been away, that Lucy was one of four outdoor farm dogs, that her husband had been feeding the dogs and hadn’t noticed one was missing every night. It wasn’t until she got back with her children that they realised the dog was gone. She’d spent the last week searching everywhere, finally getting my number from the vet.
“Can I come and collect her?” she asked.
My heart sank a little, “Of course.”
It was a shock when giving directions to find that Lucy had travelled six miles, crossing a busy main road, to get to our house. The lady thought she had probably been frightened by a bad storm, running in blind panic.
We said a sad farewell to Lucy while we waited for her owner to show up. Half an hour later, a land rover pulled onto the drive. A lady got out and I brought Lucy to her. The dog was very pleased to see her owner. She jumped straight into the car.
“She loves a ride.” the lady said, “Thank you so much for having her all this time.”
We waved away the offer of money for Lucy’s care. We had enjoyed her company and were just glad that she’d been happy while waiting to find her true home.
Before the lady drove off, Lucy jumped out of the car and ran back to us to say a last goodbye. We gave the little collie, who had stayed with us for a short while but touched our hearts forever, a big fuss.
“Oh, by the way,” I asked, remembering just in time, “What’s her name?”
And they drove away.
“Nadolig Llawen!” the chubby chip shop lady called as Jon left the steamy atmosphere and went out into the crisp, wet darkness of a typical December in West Wales. He didn’t reply. Christmas was not on his agenda this year. Having lost his job and the love of his life, his Spotify had been playing Joni Mitchell’s River on repeat for the last fortnight.
Jon splashed through puddles slick with oily rainbows reflecting twinkling lights from the bedecked terraced houses. He arrived at his grey, unlit door and fumbled with his keys. There were advantages to adorning your home with glowing decorations, he thought as he struggled to find the lock. The door swung open and he entered his cold, bare hallway. Since losing his job, he had skimped on the heating. The last thing he needed was an enormous bill this quarter. Lying on the mat, Jon noticed four envelopes stamped with his muddy boot prints. He picked them up and put them in the bin. His mood was too low for jolly, holly seasonal messages.
Jon sat at the kitchen table munching salty, soggy chips and sipping a large glass of brandy. A steady rain pattered the skylight above. He pulled his jacket closer. This had to be the worst Christmas Eve ever. His friends would be out by now, doing the rounds of the village pubs, laughing, hugging, sharing bad festive jokes, gathering later at Twm’s house for the party, cheering and kissing at midnight to welcome in the big day. Jon shivered and pushed the thoughts from his head. He didn’t want to think about Twm. His tinkling laugh, like sleigh bells on a wintry night. His bright eyes, as dazzling as a string of fairy lights.
Jon’s mobile phone vibrated on the worktop. He glanced at the screen; a bad habit he was trying to resolve. He wanted to ignore the messages but read every one despite himself. WHERE R U? WE MISS U. FIND US IN THE 3 COMPASSES. ROB X. What was Rob thinking? He couldn’t go to the pub. Twm would be there. He could not face Twm yet. Not tonight. Not at Christmas, a time for being with loved ones. Twm had made it perfectly clear he didn’t love Jon. Better to forget Christmas this year. To hide away at home. To climb under the duvet and stay there until it was all over. He had his bottle of brandy, another couple of glasses should put him to sleep for a while.
The phone hummed again. Before Jon could stop himself, he looked at the screen. ARE YOU COMING TO THE PARTY LATER? YOU DON’T NEED TO STAY AWAY. I’VE GOT SOMETHING TO TELL YOU. TWM X. Jon shook his head in disbelief. How could Twm torture him like this? Surely, he understood how much hurt he’d caused? Three years they had been together. Three happy years, Jon thought they were. Running a business together and being in love wasn’t always easy. There had been stresses, disagreements and rows. Bound to be with a passionate man like Twm. His temper was fiery at times but it was his energy and life that had drawn Jon. Twm was the complete opposite of him. Jon’s quiet and thoughtful personality settled Twm down. Everyone said they complimented each other perfectly. The vegan café was becoming a success. The TripAdvisor reviews were fantastic. Everything had been going great. Or so Jon believed. But he’d been mistaken. Absolutely wrong. He’d made a fool of himself or Twm had made a fool of him.
Jon snuggled into the pillows and pulled the covers up over his head. The brandy had left a warm, soothing glow over his body and his lids were heavy. He closed his eyes and was soon deep in sleep. A glimmer of light played on the ceiling and a faint beat of disco music hung in the air. Jon stirred awake, rubbed his eyes and slowly sat up. He glanced at the alarm clock. Midnight. He’d been asleep for three hours or so. He scratched his head. For a moment, he couldn’t think where the light and sound were coming from, then he realised there must be a party going on across the street. He clambered out of bed to the window and pulled back the curtains.
Outside, every Christmas light and street lamp had gone out. His terrace was silent and black, as if in a power cut, but his clock clearly shone the time. And the room still filled with twinkling light, getting brighter by the second. Jon rubbed his eyes again. This was a hangover of monumental proportions. He started towards the door to fetch a paracetamol but a blazing flash and a deafening bang stopped him. Jon steadied himself against the wall as a glamorous woman materialised in the middle of the room. She was dressed in figure-hugging pink satin with platinum blonde hair piled up in curls and a diamante tiara placed precariously on top.
“What the…” Jon stuttered.
“Do not be afraid. My name is Letitia Splenditia and I am your magical Fairy Drag Queen, Girl.” She sashayed forward, placing a shapely leg in thigh-high silver stiletto boots upon Jon’s bedroom chair, “I’ve been watching you and I know how sad you are tonight. Nobody should be sad at Christmas so I’m here to help.”
John stared aghast at the apparition that had appeared on his cream carpet, “How did you get in here?”
Letitia smiled, showing large white teeth in her lovely, perfectly made-up face, marred only slightly by a shadow of stubble, “Now, now, you don’t need to worry your pretty head with things like that, darling.” She pointed a glossy, manicured fingernail at Jon, “I’m going to mend your little broken heart.”
“That’s impossible.” Jon pouted and folded his arms.
“Oh Girl, never say impossible to a Fairy Drag Queen. I know how much you are hurting. That naughty Twm did a silly thing but you can find it in your heart to forgive him. He wants you to go to the party tonight. And so, you will.”
“A silly thing, that’s what you call it, is it? A fling with his ex? I call it unfaithfulness…disloyalty…betrayal…” Jon’s voice cracked.
“He made a mistake. He was stupid. He drank too much and allowed himself to be flattered by that sweet-talking charmer,” Letitia put her arms around Jon and squeezed him tight. He was engulfed in voluminous bosom and heady fragrance, “but he is sorry. He is heartbroken like you. This party is an attempt to make things better. To put things right. He is waiting for you to turn up.”
Jon shook his head, “Well, he’ll be disappointed then. Anyway, I don’t believe you.”
“Take a look at your phone, Girl. You’ll find many messages there.”
Jon took his mobile from the bedside cabinet. Sure enough, Twm had sent text after text, each one more pleading than the last. The final message read: PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE COME. I MISS YOU. TWM X.
Jon sighed, “I don’t know…He’s hurt me so badly.”
“I know he has, darling. But you love him, don’t you?”
“Then I will sort everything. You shall go to the party!” Letitia squealed in delight.
“Oh yes, and just how can you do that? I’m a mess. I’ve let myself go these last few weeks. I look and smell awful…” Jon shuddered at his reflection in the mirror.
“Girl, I’m a magical Fairy Drag Queen, how can you even ask?” Letitia twirled her wand and, with another flash and bang, Jon was standing in a sharp suit, hair cut and styled to perfection, swathed in the fresh tang of citrus cologne and mint toothpaste.
“Your carriage awaits…” Letitia pointed to the window.
Under a single street lamp, Jon saw a taxi cab, clouds of exhaust fumes billowing. The driver leant against the bonnet, puffing on a quick cigarette.
“Go slay him, Girl!” Letitia winked, blew a kiss and disappeared.
Jon took a deep breath, appraised himself with pride in the mirror and skipped downstairs.
Twm’s house throbbed with loud music and lights pulsed in every window. Jon thanked the taxi driver and climbed out onto the shiny, wet pavement. With a pop, the cab disappeared. Jon pinched himself to check he was awake then darted inside the house, out of the rain. Everywhere he looked, people were dancing, cuddling or snogging in the warm radiance. Drink and food flowed in greedy Christmas excess. Jon searched each room for Twm but no one had seen him.
“That’s great.” Jon said to himself, “All this effort and he’s not even here.”
“Jon, is that you mate?” Rob came bowling out of the downstairs loo, followed by an attractive dark-haired woman Jon recognised as a nurse from the hospital where Rob portered, “Brilliant you turned up! Are you looking for Twm?”
“Yeah but it seems he’s cleared off.” Jon shrugged.
“He’s in the garden. Been there hours in the freezing, bloody rain. Tried to get him in but he said he’s in no mood for a party.” Rob shook his head as the dark-haired woman pulled him back towards the loo, “Sorry mate, things to do. Good luck!”
Outside, the rain fell heavier than ever. Twm hunched on a bench, a coat pulled up around his ears, his normally soft, curly hair plastered to his skull and dripping.
“What are you doing out here? You’ll catch your death.” Jon said.
Twm looked up, “Jon, you came after all.”
“Looks like I did. In the nick of time. Come on, let’s go in and get a drink. Warm you up. It’s Christmas.”
“One moment.” Twm looked serious, “Please sit down. I want to tell you something.”
“It’s wet and cold.” Jon shuddered.
Twm took Jon’s hand, “That doesn’t matter. You’re here. I’m here. We’re together again. Please sit.”
Jon sat on the sopping seat. Water seeped into his smart new trousers.
“You look beautiful.” Twm smiled sadly, “You always do. I’m so sorry I hurt you, Jon. I was a drunken fool. I behaved appallingly. I…I don’t deserve your forgiveness but…I really want it because…I love you so much and I don’t think I can carry on without you. Nothing is the same. I’ve been so miserable…I shut up the café…I haven’t seen anyone until tonight. I only agreed to the party because I…I hoped you’d show up and maybe it would be all right again. Things are bad, Jon. They’re really bad without you.”
Jon held both of Twm’s hands, “I know Twm. I’ve been miserable too. Things are bad without you.”
Twm looked into Jon’s eyes. Jon thought Twm’s eyes were dazzling, bright as a string of fairy lights, though a little fogged with tears.
“Can you ever forgive me?” Twm bit his lip with anxiety.
“I think so…” Jon said, “I’m going to try.”
Twm smiled, “Thank you. That’s the best Christmas present I could wish for.”
Jon pulled Twm closer and kissed him tenderly on his cold lips, “Now let’s go inside, you idiot, before we die out here in this rain!”
Twm laughed, like sleigh bells on a wintry night, “Yes, let’s.”
Jon heard the faint sound of disco music and caught a whiff of heady fragrance on the wind.
A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone who reads my blog.
Lizzie Barker scrubbed the shirt hard against the washboard until her elbows ached. She looked down at her hands, scaly and sore from many hours spent in hot water. A loose lock fell from her auburn hair and she brushed it clumsily behind her ear. Once again, her thoughts turned to Nathaniel. There had been no recent news from the front. No letters full of cheerful, empty words, darkness hidden between the lines. She wondered what he was doing at that moment; prayed he was safe.
Lizzie had taken on Squire Middleton’s laundry to bring in a few shillings. It kept her and the babe going. She glanced across to the basket sitting a short distance from her in the long grass. The small, red head and tiny hands clasped together on the blanket in contented sleep. Such a beautiful, happy little girl. Almost eight months old and Nat had never yet seen her.
Lizzie rose from bending over her washtub and stretched; her muscles drawn tight over her shoulder blades. She wiped her hands on her apron and massaged her taut neck. It was a perfect spring morning. A sweet-scented breeze lifted the hair from her face. Daffodils bobbed joyous heads in her small garden. Across the lane, banks of primroses shone in the warm sunshine. Lambs skipped and hopped in the fields; their mothers’ admonishing cries filling the valley.
Lizzie lifted the shirt, twisted it to wring out the water and placed it in a basket with the others. She carried the basket over to the mangle. She enjoyed this part of wash day. Something seemed to relax in her as she fed the cloth through the runners and turned the handle to squeeze out the remaining water. She was glad for the powerful machine. Without it, she could never wring out the clothes so surely. On a day like today, they would be dry in no time.
Nat was a strong, powerful man. A good-looker, with his nut-brown skin and fair curls. Her friends had been jealous when he chose her at the annual country dance. The best labourer on the farm. Everyone joked that he never tired. Certainly, he did the work of two men. When he told her he was joining up, Lizzie had been afraid they would lose the cottage but Squire Middleton said he would let them keep it for Nat’s return.
“We need more soldiers to get this war finished,” Nat said.
“We need farmers and food too.” Lizzie replied, biting her lip in anxiety.
“I’ll be home soon, Lizzie.” He laughed, putting his arm around her narrow waist. “Don’t worry so.”
She joined the other women watching husbands and sons march off to war. The young men of the village, laughing and waving; proud to serve their country. As she crunched home through the snow, Lizzie felt an empty sadness. She saw nothing to be proud about.
Lizzie stretched up to peg the shirts on the line. They rippled in the breeze. She breathed in the fresh, clean smell. A soft mewling came from the basket in the grass. The babe was stirring; hungry for a feed. She picked up the basket and carried it inside.
Lizzie sat under the candlelight with her darning. The babe had been bathed and settled in her cradle. The cottage was still. The bright, warm day had turned into a clear, chilly night and she was glad of the glowing range. She sighed; her eyes were growing tired in the dim light. Soon she would take the rickety stairs to their tiny bedroom. Although exhausted, she prolonged the moment. She hated going to bed alone. It felt cold and empty without Nat. When she closed her eyes, the dark and quiet seemed to gather inwards, pressing her down as if to suffocate her.
A knock at the door made Lizzie start and drop the stocking she held. It was late for a visitor. She picked up the candle and went to the door.
“Who’s there?” she called. In reply, there came another, more urgent rap.
Lizzie slid back the bolt and opened the door a slit. She peered into the darkness. A large, black figure stood in the shadows cast by a pale moon. She lifted her candle higher, better to see, and gasped in surprise.
“I’m home Lizzie.” Nat’s voice returned across the darkness; thin and fragile like gauze.
“Oh, my love. Come in.” Lizzie opened the door wide.
Nat stumbled into the cottage. He looked smaller standing at the fireplace; shrunken, diminished. His eyes dark; full of exhaustion and pain. His face pale as milk.
“You must be tired and hungry.” Lizzie took his arm, made him sit in the armchair, “I’ll get you food, something to drink.”
She fussed at the kitchen table, slicing bread, cutting a hunk of cheese. She put the kettle on the range and stoked the coals. Nat sat in silence, staring at nothing. He was in the room but distant; somewhere a long way from the cottage.
As Nat ate his bread and cheese, Lizzie examined him; his sunken face, his dusty cropped hair, his dirty khaki uniform, his bony hands that shook. He wanted very little food or drink.
“You’re not hungry. I expect your appetite will come back with good, country air.” she said, “How long are you home for?”
“I’m here now,” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.”
From the cradle in the corner, there was a muffled moan. Nat turned noticing the baby for the first time.
“Our daughter, Nat.” Lizzie explained.
“Daughter…” Nat repeated.
“Yes, our beautiful little girl. Did you not get my letters? You left me with child.”
“With child…” Nat whispered, his eyes filled with tears.
Lizzie smiled. “Do you want to meet her?”
He nodded. Lizzie brought the babe to him and settled her into his arms. He held her tenderly, awkwardly, as if frightened he might break her. Wet lines streaked his hollow cheeks and tears dripped on to the baby’s blanket.
“You’ll make her all wet.” Lizzie wiped Nat’s face with her palms. “It’s all right, my love.”
“An angel.” he said.
“I haven’t named her, Nat. I was waiting for you to come home. What should we call her?”
“An angel…” he said again.
“Angel. Yes, that’s perfect.” Lizzie agreed, “Our very own Angel.” She put the sleeping baby back in her cradle. Nat watched her.
“Do you have to go back, Nat?” Lizzie asked, “When will this awful war be over?”
She sat at his feet and put her head on his knee.
“I’m here now, Lizzie.” Nat replied, “Let’s enjoy this night.” He stroked her thick hair.
“You’re filthy.” Lizzie said, “I’ll boil more water. Give you a wash down.”
Nat sat gazing into the unknown while Lizzie got water, filled the kettle and set it to boil. ‘Where are you, my love?’ Lizzie thought, ‘What is it you see?’ She poured hot water into a large bowl. She gathered a wash cloth, towel and Nat’s nightgown.
“Let me help you with your clothes,” she touched his arm and he flinched like a terrified child, “I’m here, my love, don’t be afraid, I’ll look after you.”
She undressed Nat. A slow, arduous process. His limbs were heavy and stiff. He made little effort on his own but followed her instructions like an automaton. She bathed his wasted body. She caressed his bruised, sore-ridden skin. Burning tears threatened in her eyes but she forced them back. This stranger was her husband. Her strong, handsome, lively Nat was gone.
“Oh, my love, what have they done to you?”
When she had dried him, she pulled his old nightgown over his head and led him up the narrow stairs to bed.
“I love you, Nat.” Lizzie held him close under the blankets, as if to prevent him from ever leaving again, “I wish you could stay forever.”
Nat only repeated the same words in his tired, thin voice, “I’m here now. Let’s enjoy this night.” She kissed him gently.
The next morning, Lizzie woke to early pale sunlight trickling through the flowery curtains. She turned to embrace Nat but the bed was empty. His place cold. Perhaps he is feeling better this morning, she thought. He was an early riser and liked to bring her a cup of tea. She listened but the cottage was quiet. Quickly, she got out of bed and crept downstairs. The kitchen was empty. Angel still slept peacefully in the corner.
Lizzie slipped her feet into clogs and wrapped a woollen shawl around her shoulders. She opened the back door to the garden. Nat often enjoyed early morning walks. He may have needed air to clear his head; make him feel better. She looked up and down the deserted lane. She scanned the misty fields and distant hillsides. Angel began to cry. Lizzie ran inside. It was time for her morning feed. She settled in the armchair cradling Angel to her breast. Nat could not have gone far. He would not have left without saying goodbye. Soon he would be home, hungry from his walk, and she would make them a hearty breakfast.
Angel suckled happily until she was full. Lizzie propped her in the basket.
“You are a good girl, my Angel,” she said, “Dada will be home in a minute and you will see what a handsome man he is. Last night, you were too sleepy to say hello but, this morning, your Dada will be so proud of you.”
There was a brisk knock at the door.
“Nat?” Lizzie called, “Just come in, my love. You don’t need to go knocking.”
Another tap, louder and more insistent. Lizzie went to open the door. Mr Jackson, the old postman stood on the step. His face drawn and anxious.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs Barker.” He handed her a small, brown envelope.
Lizzie took the telegram with shaking hands.
This is my microfiction story Oxford Summer as featured in The Simple Things magazine in June 2018.
The long, hot summer before you left, days stretched like elastic; tense with waiting. Too tired to move, we lay naked on the floor; limbs outstretched, fingertips touching. Mouths parched, the awkward words stuck in our throats. Your bedsit tidied into neat boxes, there was nothing to drink. And I hated the tap water, stale on my tongue. We stole powdered milk; mixed it with guilt in the tiny kitchen. Barely palatable, we gulped it down along with our foreboding.
The last goodbye arrived; a hurried kiss under burning sun, engine running. And I noticed your hands were shaking.
Goodbye old friend and thank you for the loyalty and love. Even at the end, your wagging tail brought relief as your eyes closed for the last time. Happy to please; you never complained, never made a fuss. Settled for a stick thrown, a quick cuddle, an opportunistic walk. Accepted your lot, put up with our human chaos. There is an empty space where you used to sleep. There is an empty space in our hearts. We are grateful for the sixteen years you gave us. For the fun, the energy, the purpose you brought us.
Rest in peace, Samwise.
Sue sat looking over the neat rows of flowers and sharp-edged lawns. It was hot inside so she had flung the windows wide. Cool air soothed her softly-lined skin. She looked down at her veined, wrinkled hands; spun her wedding ring round with her fingertips. Bill would have liked this garden; orderly and easy to care for. He’d always moaned about their place. The hedges, orchard and meadow were unkempt; difficult to control. He would have liked this small, tidy flat too. Less to maintain than the old, sprawling farmhouse they’d bought when first married. Forty-eight years they had spent there, not all of them happy. Sometimes Bill had reminded her of their home and garden, uncontrollable and wild. His depression, his drinking, his temper.
There had been good times. The early days when the children were small. Raising a family in the countryside. Cricket and badminton on the meadow. Hide and seek in the orchard. Apple and plum pie. Busy, happy times with people around. As the children grew up, moved on, made their own lives, things got difficult. Bill became introverted, quiet. He drank lots then. He shouted at her; impatient and irritated. The names were cruel; meant to cut, to cause pain. A flying fist could hurt too. Not often but enough for her to be afraid; to become a child, a mouse. Bill was certainly able to control her.
Still, she missed him. This flat was too silent. The days ached with empty hours. She tried to find things to do, to fill the spaces. She cleaned, read, went for walks, watched TV, spent hours staring out of the window. Everything seemed pointless on your own. The other residents were friendly but so, old. They spent their days in the communal lounge gossiping; discussing the comings and goings. She wasn’t ready for that life yet.
Sue sighed. When Bill died of liver disease, she’d discovered there were debts. Their savings were gone. The profits Bill had made from selling his building firm had gone too. She’d found herself without the home she loved; sold to pay everything off. Lucky to keep enough to rent this retirement flat. Not the place she’d envisaged for her final days. She was a young seventy; fit and trim. Years ahead of her, all being well. She shouldn’t be stuck in this home for the elderly. She should be in her farmhouse; her family around her. She wanted to move nearer to the children, but there had been nothing she could afford. Mark regretted he had no space for her. Five kids in a three-bedroomed house. Sarah had just started a family. She didn’t expect to move in with her and a new baby. No, she never wanted to be a nuisance.
A knock on the door interrupted her thoughts. Sue rose in a daze from her chair. She glanced at the clock. It would be Fred, her next door neighbour. A sweet man who loved gardening. He looked after the communal gardens. Three days a week he knocked at eleven. Brought her flowers cut from the beds; chrysanthemums, dahlias or sweet peas. She loved brightening the flat with their colour and scent. Sometimes he stayed for a cup of tea. Not always. He took some persuading. Sue had come to rely on these meetings. An unexpected friendship had developed over a cup of the aromatic, amber liquid. On the days when Fred was too busy, or too shy, to come in she felt disappointed. Today she would insist he stayed. She hurried to open the door.
Another day had passed without visitors. Sue sipped her tea and nibbled at a garibaldi. Crumbs fell on the table and her knees. Brushing them off carelessly, she sighed into the hushed emptiness. She picked up the red leather case hiding quietly under the pile of newspapers. The tablet Mark had bought her.
“We’ll be able to talk face to face, Mum,” he said, guilty about how rarely he could visit, “It’ll be as if we’re actually here in the room.”
“That sounds great,” she replied, “but will I be able to use it?”
“Of course, it’s easy. I’ll teach you.”
Sue had agreed to keep him happy. Now she talked to her family several times a week. At other times, the tablet sat mute and forgotten. The grandchildren had shown her how to play games and search the internet. She couldn’t muster any enthusiasm. Sarah had even joked about online dating.
“About time you found someone to care for you…all those years you put up with Dad,” she hugged Sue tight.
“Don’t be daft. I’m too old for all that!” Sue shrugged.
“You’re the one being daft, Mum,” Sarah admonished, “You’re still a very attractive woman. A great catch. What about your neighbour? Fred, isn’t it?”
“Now you are being silly…he’s not my type…we’re friends, that’s all.”
She’d seen an advert for a dating site on the television. Beautiful blue-eyed blonde with a handsomely dark man. With looks like that you wouldn’t need help finding someone. Bill was a good-looking man. Broad and strong. Those painfully deep eyes. Troubled eyes. She could almost see his soul. She remembered how he had made her feel that first meeting. Bill walked in the pub; assured, confident. Her legs jellified. Happy in his skin, he was then.
“That’s the girl I’m going to marry,” he had announced to her best friend, Janet.
Arrogant sod. Anyway, that was past. Bill was gone. She was alone. Lonely. Maybe she should try a dating site. Start thinking about the present. The future. She typed ‘dating for old people’ on the touch pad.
Sue opened the front door. Fred stood; sweet peas clasped in front of his chest. He was a short, round man with bald head, rosy cheeks and kind, blue eyes behind his spectacles.
“Good morning,” Fred said, holding the bunch out to her.
“Thank you, my favourites,” Sue smiled, taking the flowers, “better get these in water. Will you come in for a cuppa?”
Fred’s cheeks reddened further, “Well…I don’t want to put you to any bother…”
“It’s no bother. We haven’t shared a cup of tea for a while. Come in, I’ve got custard creams,” Sue insisted.
Fred wiped his feet briskly on the mat and followed Sue inside. He looked around the small lounge and nodded with satisfaction.
“You display them so well,” he said.
Sue studied her flat. It was like an indoor garden with vases of cut flowers on every surface. She smiled broadly. Bill wouldn’t have liked it; dropped petals and pollen, vases gathering dust, damp rings on the furniture. But this was her home and she could do what she wanted.
“I’ll just get these sorted and put the kettle on. Make yourself at home,” Sue pointed vaguely towards the table and went into the kitchen.
Fred pulled out a chair and sat quietly down, folding his hands in his lap. He could hear the chime and tinkle of tea things being prepared. Earl Grey; their favourite. In a teapot, sugar bowl, milk jug and two pretty bone china cups with saucers, very civilized. Sue made the perfect cuppa. His favourite times of the week. At least, when he found the confidence to come in. He sat still and silent, wracking his brain for things to say. It had been a couple of weeks since they’d last had tea together. He’d missed their chats. He must have some news for her.
Sue entered carrying the tray. She put it on the table and sat down opposite Fred.
“So, what have you been up to?” she asked.
“Well, not a lot…been busy in the garden. The veg patch is going well. They’ve agreed I can sell any surplus in the common room,” Fred said, blushing with the effort.
“That’s wonderful,” Sue enthused, “I knew you’d been too busy to share a cuppa but I’d no idea.”
“You haven’t been walking in the garden lately,” Fred said, “so, you wouldn’t have seen…”
Sue poured the tea and offered the plate of biscuits. She felt a little ashamed. Embarrassed. She hadn’t been walking much lately. She’d hardly been out of the flat. Fred’s reticence had been her excuse for not asking him in. Poor friend she had been. Too busy setting up her online dating account, scrolling through possible matches, making lists of pros and cons, arranging meetings. Her first date was tomorrow. Whatever would Bill think of her? Silly tart probably. A hot flash swamped her body. He was dead. She had to stop being a child, a mouse. She had to start living her life.
Fred noticed her reddening, “I didn’t mean to…”.
He slurped his tea quickly to cover his awkwardness.
“Fred, you haven’t offended me…I’m the one who’s sorry,” Sue apologized, “I’ve been busy. I’ve missed the garden. I’ll make sure to come and see your patch soon.”
“That would be lovely,” Fred smiled, “I hope everything’s…all right?”
She seemed distracted. He was worried. Sue saw his discomfort; felt he deserved an explanation.
“Well, to be honest…. I’ve been feeling rather lonely. I miss Bill. His company. I suppose.” Sue explained, “I haven’t adjusted to being on my own.”
“Course not, these things take time.” Fred agreed, “When Anne died, it took me a good two years to feel…like I was managing.”
“I’m not managing, not…happy,” Sue said, “Anyway, Sarah suggested a dating site and I’m giving it a go. My first date is tomorrow night, Charles, his name is. He’s a bachelor, sixty-eight, plays tennis, likes fine dining, does amateur operatics, looks handsome in his photo…”
She tailed off. Fred was far away. In a different place. He didn’t know what to say. He felt sad, as if he’d lost something.
“That’s lovely. He sounds an interesting man. Just right for an active, attractive woman like you.”
“It’s only a first date. You’ll have me getting married next!” Sue laughed, half-heartedly, “I’m… not sure I’m doing the right thing. Seems disloyal to Bill.”
She fiddled with her wedding ring.
“Bill is gone. You deserve some happiness.”
Fred removed his glasses, wiped them, put them on, sipped his tea. He looked around the room. A rabbit searching for a bolt hole.
“Thanks, Fred. You’re a good friend,” Sue leant forward, patted his hand.
Fred rose, swept crumbs from his trousers.
“Must be going. Thanks for the tea…Good luck for tomorrow.”
He left hastily, no backward glance or wave.
“Poor Fred,” Sue smiled to herself, “I’ve embarrassed him, baring my soul like that.”
She began clearing the tea things.
The room was a shambles. Dirty plates and glasses smeared the coffee table. Newspapers and books sprawled over the sofa and floor. A pile of laundry, of unknown cleanliness, hunched in a corner. She hadn’t expected this. They’d had a lovely evening. Fancy Italian restaurant; wine, roses, music. Charles, immaculate and handsome in a pinstripe suit. They had talked and laughed. She’d readily agreed to come back for a drink. To think he lived in this mess.
“I was in a rush tonight,” Charles said with explanatory shrug, “Please sit down, I’ll make us coffee.”
“Tea for me, please,” Sue said, “Earl Grey if you have it.”
“Afraid I don’t, coffee man myself…may have some English Breakfast hiding in the cupboard somewhere.” Charles said, “Will that do? No pot I’m afraid…have to make it in a mug.”
Oh dear, that was not ideal.
“Yes, that’ll be…fine,” she said politely.
Charles disappeared into the kitchen. Sue surveyed the seating and decided the armchair looked the safest. Pushing magazines and clothing aside, she perched elegantly on the cushion edge. Bill would have had forty fits. The muddle, the chaos, the grime. Wouldn’t have stayed for one moment. His body aching and twitching from desperation to clean up. Life was chaotic too. Bill couldn’t cope when things didn’t run smoothly. A black mood would smother him. Then he would drink to forget. Hiding under an alcoholic blanket. Anyway, Charles seemed a nice man. They’d had fun. More important things than a tidy home.
A shriek brought her back to the room; dreadful wailing from the kitchen.
“Everything all right in there, Charles?” Sue called in concerned tones.
“Marvellous.” Charles replied returning with two steaming mugs, “My part in the Mikado…must keep practising. I do love to sing…can’t help myself…all day long.”
Goodness, Sue wasn’t sure she could put up with that racket.
“Lovely…” she said as she took the mug of tea, “Thank you.”
She tasted the dark, murky liquid. Awful; bitter and strong. He must have squeezed the teabag. This wouldn’t do. Couldn’t work. She’d laugh about it with Fred, over a delicious pot of Earl Grey in the morning.
Sue was worried. Anxiously, she checked the clock again. Half twelve. Fred should have knocked ages ago. She wondered what could have happened. He never missed his days. Always on the dot, she didn’t know how he did it. She sipped at her teacup. Fragrant, delicate…and cold. Something was wrong. Quickly she rose, slipped on her cardigan, checked for her door key and left the flat. Two doors down, she knocked decisively. Silence answered.
“Fred!” she called, “Are you there?”
There was no reply.
She hurried down the stairs to the communal lounge. Old folk sat comfortably around the room edges. The buzz of chatter ebbed and flowed like road traffic. Quiet settled when they noticed Sue. Unusual for her to come in here, kept herself to herself.
“Hello dear,” said Mrs Jackson peering over her knitting.
“Hello…” said Sue distractedly, “I’m looking for Fred…”
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” Mrs Jackson’s face lit up with gossip, “Last night, he had a nasty fall…in the bath, think it was.”
“A fall?” Sue interrupted, “Is he all right? Poor Fred…”
“Ambulance came. He went into hospital…” Mrs Jackson continued, a nodding hum of agreement rippled from the chairs.
“Sit down dear. Have a cup of tea. You’ve gone very pale…” Mr Francis hobbled out of his seat; offered his place.
“No, no thanks…I’m fine,” Sue said, backing out of the lounge.
She found herself in the garden. Fred’s haven; where he worked so hard. Alone. His vegetable patch looked calm and organized. Sue’s insides were in chaos. Dear Fred, such a reliable friend. Always there for a cuppa and a chat. His pleasant face and quiet conversation reassured and supported her. Without him, her life would feel empty, be empty. Fear pushed tightly in her chest. If Fred was to…She didn’t know how she’d carry on.
How shallow and stupid she had been in her loneliness. Online dating, looking for a new partner, someone distinguished like Charles. A disappointing let down. Someone tall and handsome like Bill. An abusive drunk. She hadn’t noticed what she had. A good, kind man. She walked through Fred’s flower beds. Bright dahlias danced in the sun. The scent of sweet peas filled her nostrils. Sue smiled. She wasn’t a child or a mouse. She knew what she must do.
The hospital smelt of disinfectant and stale food. Fred was in Green Ward, just off Yellow Suite. Sue was reminded of diarrhoea and sickness. Whoever chose such colours? She clasped her bouquet nervously. The nurse had told her Fred’s condition wasn’t too serious. She edged her way along the ward, glancing at each bed; examining the inmates shyly. There was Fred, thank goodness. Lying still and quiet, thoughtful expression on his face. Leg raised in plaster, empty teacup on the bedside table.
“Hello Fred,” Sue said.
Fred turned to face her. A smile spread across his features.
“Sue…how lovely to see you,” his cheeks coloured, “fancy ending up in here. I’ve been an old fool.”
“I’ve been the fool…” Sue said presenting the bouquet, “Now, it’s my turn to bring you flowers.”
Fred looked at the dahlias, chrysanthemums and sweet peas.
“From my garden?” he asked.
“Our garden.” Sue said, “From now on, we’ll care for it together.”
“Together?” Fred’s eyes wore a question mark.
Sue took Fred’s hand.
“Yes. Together.” She smiled, “Now, how about a nice cup of tea?”
It’s never too late to find true love. I hope you have some romance in your lives on this Valentine’s Day!
“’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Alfred Lord Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H, spoke from the heart about the loss of his friend and the grief he felt.
On Boxing Day, we had a car accident in a surprise snowfall. My husband lost control, despite driving at a sensible speed for the inclement weather, and the car skidded. As we danced a graceful pirouette, a full 360 degrees across to the opposite side of the country lane, time seemed to elongate. I watched in horror, completely powerless; thoughts of dread that my son or daughter might be injured or killed filled my mind. “It’s all right…Hold on everyone!” I said aimlessly. I braced myself against the seat as the car returned to the correct side of the road and landed with a gentle bump against a fence post. When we stopped, the relief that everyone had escaped without harm was immense. Walking the three miles home through freezing sleet, feet slopping and slipping on the wet snow, I felt protective of my two children and husband. I led the way, torch in hand, fussing about our insufficient coats and footwear. I needed to regain some sense of control. It felt as if I had nearly lost everything that mattered to me, everything that I loved, and that shook me far more than the accident.
When I was a child, I had a recurring nightmare. I stood watching as my parents and brother descended an escalator straight into a sheet of plate glass. Every time I had this dream, I would awake crying and shaking, believing that it had happened. I was alone; I had lost everything. Since having my children, I regularly experience anxious dreams. A multitude of horrible images where they have been maimed or killed in all number of horrific incidents. When they were babies, I would imagine falling down the stairs with them in my arms. These nightmares leave me feeling drained and afraid. There is nothing I can do. I have opened myself up to this vulnerability; I have no control over what may (or may not) happen to my children. I love them and this involves the risk of getting hurt.
A few days ago, my lovely old dog had a funny turn. My husband and I returned home from searching for a replacement car and he ran excitedly to greet us, then collapsed trembling and letting out a long stream of urine over the carpet. As we bent down to help him, he looked up at us with confused, frightened eyes and we both burst into tears. We thought it was the end for him. He is nearly sixteen; his weak heart makes him pant continuously and he stands on shaky legs, often falling over. Miraculously, it was not the end and he recovered, carrying on much the same as before. I realize this cannot continue forever, of course. Every day, week, month spent with him is a bonus. Soon, we will have to face the heartache of losing him. We made the decision to get a dog; to let him become part of our family. We allowed ourselves to love him and must suffer the pain that is to come.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why choose to have partners and children and bring pets into our homes? Why do we allow ourselves to love when we know it will mean pain and loss at some point? Would it be better to protect ourselves from this pain; to avoid love?
Quite simply, to love is to live. Life is about having relationships with others; to make connections. I have had many moments of fun and laughter with my dog. My children have enriched my life and made it more worthwhile. If we do not allow ourselves to love through the fear of being hurt, then we do not truly live our lives. Having relationships and loving others helps us to grow and learn. It gives us meaning and purpose. There will be times when it brings us pain and loss, but living a life alone and afraid would be unbearable. Life is difficult, we must share it with others – family, friends, neighbours, pets.
I have found somebody who explains it more eloquently than I am able:
“Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart.
Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.” Henri J M Nouwen