‘Faith, Hope and Love’ Part 8
One afternoon when I was outside, I heard Arthur’s voice drift over the fence. “Marian! Hello?”
I straightened up. “Hello, Arthur.”
“I have to go away for a while.”
Bleakness flooded through me at the prospect of his leaving, though that did not seem to be the right time or place to say so. It was none of my business, after all. I had no claim on my neighbour, especially at this time of year: goodwill, festive whatnot, family time. But the absurd hope remained, that we might have been part of his plans.
“Tomorrow, unless something better turns up.”
“Would you like me to, I don’t know, water the plants or anything?”
“Come over, we can talk about it.”
Ten minutes later we were in his living-room, me perched on the couch, Arthur seated in his usual chair by the window. The room was familiar by now, yet something had changed. I was puzzled and then I understood – it was cold. In place of the usual warm glow from the fireplace, there was only darkness. The standing lamps usually shed a welcome glow. The kitchen, too, was quiet. Where usually there were layers of mess, now it felt too tidy.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Arthur asked, standing over me. I could not see the expression on his face.
I felt uncomfortable. “Arthur… Is it anything I said?” I tried a smile, but he winced, shifted on his feet and said nothing.
“All right then, anything I did?”
“Of course not!” Suddenly he was flaring, anger shimmering, shaking his body with unaccustomed emotion, which I found reassuring. I prefer anger to indifference any day. He proceeded calmly enough to explain, as if he had been working through his thoughts for a more palatable solution.
“I have to go to Southampton. My friend is ill.” Leaning over me he switched on a light. I longed to lift my hands over his shoulders and pull him closer to me.
“Must you?” I asked, “I mean, must you go? There are surely others who can help.”
“I suppose there are….” His eyes shone both doubtful and hopeful, casting an appealing mess of wrinkles across his forehead.
“Well, then, stay here for a while. The weather forecast is bad. If you have nothing in, you could always come to us.”
I realized I was rambling, but could not stop. “Elaine wants to meet you,” I said. It was a total lie, as apart from her friendly questions, she had shown little interest. Elaine knew very little about Arthur, though she had noticed that I was more cheerful.
“Look,” Arthur said, new decision breaking through the unhappiness in his voice. Once again, he came and held my hands. “I have not been totally honest with you.” A sinking feeling crept over me. “I have commitments in other parts of the country.”
“What? What is it?” I forced myself to speak gently. There was a long pause, so long that I thought Arthur had not heard me. He answered softly,
“I have a son, with another woman.”
“But that’s great!” I said.
“She doesn’t love me,” he went on. “But she has her boy and uses him to keep a hold of me. She has not been well for months and now she sort of expects me to help her. I don’t know what to do. I would so much prefer not get more involved with her than I already am, but James is totally under her thumb and has been calling me, begging me to go down. He says she may be dying. I don’t know what to do.”
I had never seen this quiet, elegant gentleman at a loss before. I didn’t think there was much I could say, but again he forestalled me, “But you are here with me. Thank you.”
“Shall I go and put on the kettle? Or, if you like, you could tell me all about it over supper with us? It is time Elaine met you.” That he made no response to my suggestions concerned me more than all the fuss he could kick up. I hobbled over to his seat and clumsily placed my arms across his shoulders. His hands clasped me hard around the waist as if he was suddenly scared to let go. I leaned into him, and we stayed together, comfortable and awkward, just breathing.
“Do you want a cup of something?” I gestured hopelessly in the direction of the kitchen, but his only answer was to pull me more closely to him. I kissed his cheeks. I stroked his shoulders and felt them relax, inching into restfulness. But his face was down, gazing into nothing.
“I could put the fire on?” Silence.
“I could make us something to eat?” Each suggestion was left hanging in a stillness broken only by breathing, holding arms and closed faces.