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!