‘Faith, Hope and Love’ Part 4

In the gathering dusk I approached my neighbour’s front door with an unusual, childlike dread. The gate creaked loudly as I opened it and then stood stupidly trying to latch it shut behind me. I gave it a pointless shove, then abandoned it as my legs threatened to get tangled round my elbow crutch. Certain I was being watched from the living room, I had no desire to linger. Up the path, stooping in the unfamiliar doorway, I pushed the bell. It sounded very far away, but before I had time to wonder, the door was flung open and Arthur was saying, “Come in, I’ve just got the kettle on….”

I saw his back retreating in double quick time and felt strangely thankful for the careless reception. We could skip pointless questions like, “Had a nice day?” and there was no need to fib or fluster as the toe of my shoe caught on the edge of the door frame, which I hastily clutched for support. Pleased not to have to apologise or explain, I liked it here already.

Arthur was reaching out an arm. “Don’t you want to take off your coat?” I felt heat from the hall radiators wrapping comfortably around me. “My wife liked it hot, and I haven’t got used to turning the heat down.” Without thinking, I leaned and patted his shoulder, “No worries!” It could have been embarrassing, but then, my neighbour had already seen me crawling.  “Come through” he said, “I was just making tea.”

I passed a clutter of dishes and a newspaper opened out over an old kitchen table. I recognized the same daily as mine, and could not resist leaning over to see how the crossword was going. Most days I try the cryptic, because doing it reminds me of Karl and I sometimes feel he is close beside me, as I try to work out what ‘Lady with pink vest some say in past tense’ might mean. It’s a foreign language, but I like it.

Arthur busied himself with mugs and plates of biscuits. “Never really been one for crosswords, but Lilian was very good at them…”

“Yes,” I muttered, “That’s the same with Karl”.

“Karl?”

“My husband.”

There was a tiny awkward pause as I dithered, deciding what to say, how much to share. Not only did our respective spouses like crosswords more than we do, but they are both has-been spouses. There seemed no point in being frigid about the fact that Karl is dead. Still, I couldn’t face filling the space with the sound of my voice, sharing my sorrows. Before I could decide, fate stepped in.

“Here, have a seat.” My host moved a chair at the kitchen table out for me. “You’re in luck. The place is tidy because my woman came yesterday…”

“Your woman?”

“The cleaner, you know….”

A plate Arthur was bringing to the table wobbled in his hand. He frowned as he moved about, fetching mugs and teaspoons, then started to pour tea into two mugs.

“Will you have some? I forgot, you said you don’t… I can offer you something else, if you would rather…?”

That he was considering me, I found unexpectedly moving. I aimed my glance over his shoulder for a second, trying not to blink and answered, “Weak tea is fine.”

“I’ve got some rock buns…” The plate, on which sat soft, yellow dollops was set between us. Rock buns? I hadn’t seen one of these since I was at school. I could hardly believe they still existed in the world of retail baking. I lifted one and bit into it, just to see if it tasted the same.

“I thought you said you weren’t much for cakes?”

”I did say that, yes, but you asked me if I wanted one, and I do.”

“Ah, so you don’t eat rock buns, you just taste them, is that it?”

“Well, it’s a very long story.”

“I’m not in a hurry. Are you?” Arthur’s face was calm and relaxed, but there was a lift of sad humour in his voice.

“Not at all. Though Elaine might wonder where I’ve got to.”

“Your daughter?”

“Yes. She is thirteen going on thirty. You know what kids are like.”

“Actually,” Arthur coughed, “My wife and I – Lilian – we, ah, we never had children.” Arthur caught a crumb in his throat and coughed again, then wiped his eyes.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean…”

I reached across to pat his hand, suddenly aware that there was only tea on the table and that my cup was empty. To mute the sudden tenderness I felt for a man I had only just met, I rose quietly and poured myself half a mug of hot water from the shiny kettle perched on the kitchen top. I resumed my seat then topped up with the brown stuff, just as if I had been living there forever. He forgot that he should be playing host. His wife just died.

***
(to be continued)

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