It’s back to work for me, but just for a week. I set my alarm clock this morning which wasn’t really necessary as I always wake up early, but you can bet your bottom dollar that today would be the day that I would end up sleeping in, so I was taking no chances.
It was really lovely to see my fellow teaching assistants again, especially my Year One partners in crime. We spent the morning sorting out the shed in our playground, something that we’ve wanted to do for ages but never had time to before now. We took the ruthless approach and binned most of what was in it whilst dodging the spiders that were lurking everywhere. It was not a task for anyone who didn’t like eight legged creatures!
Tomorrow is mine and Mr R’s eighth wedding anniversary. It’ll be a low key affair. I’m hoping that we will celebrate by eating something that I haven’t had to cook, It could end up being a Big Mac from the local Maccy D!
This is second time around for both of us, so our wedding day was fairly relaxed and celebrated exactly how we wanted to. A far cry from our previous wedding days when we didn’t know half of the guests because they were family that we hardly ever saw or were friends of the parents, ot that it was the whole shebang. Fancy wedding cars, bridesmaids, ushers, flowers in the church, the interminably long receiving line and the formal photos. We married in our favourite restaurant..alas it no longer exists…in the middle of Bristol. There were no special cars, no bridesmaids, no formality. It was about celebrating a special day with the people we cared about.
Now for my book news. Yesterday I hit my original target of 75000 words. I have to admit that I did do a bit of a happy dance. When we went into lockdown it had taken me months to reach 24,000 words. Being stuck at home has meant that I’ve been able to push on with writing and it’s given me something to focus on. I reckon another 10,000 words and I’ll be done. I’m going to add a prologue and then it will be the time to edit, edit, edit and work out how to get it published. Do I hope that there is an agent out there that will take a chance on me or do I self publish. I would prefer the former but it could be that I have to take the second option if no one likes it.
So, what with working this week and our anniversary to celebrate, I’ll doubt if I will get round to finishing another instalment until later next week.
Ooh, nearly forgot to say that I’ve taken up learning German. Mr R is learning Italian. We will be a multi-lingual household. I learnt how to say ‘The bear is drinking the beer’ this afternoon. A sentence that will no doubt never be needed if I ever go to a german speaking country!
So here is part 20. Remember that it’s the first draft and still needs to be polished. Please forgive me for any blaringly obvious typos or grammatical mistakes.
Until next time
Maggie Thornden, where are you?
Two months had passed since Gordon had started his treatment. There had been times to start with when the fatigue meant that doing anything was exhausting, but that wasn’t so bad now. Yes there was the odd day when he just wanted to sleep, but most of the time he was able to get on with his life just as before. He’d noticed that there was more hair in the shower tray after his daily shower but wasn’t fazed by the fact that things were getting a little bare down there. Maggie just reminded him that male porn stars were often hairless in that department and then wish she hadn’t when Gordon asked her how she knew about such things! He looked in the mirror one day when getting dressed and wondered if he was developing what Maggie called Moobs. He stood sideways on to the mirror. Maybe his chest did look a little fuller but he was getting older and it was to be expected that muscles got a bit flabby. He put on his shirt and thought no more of it.
The two of them were sitting at the kitchen table one evening finishing their meal of chicken and some sort of dish made up of grains and vegetables. It looked like Trill, the bird food that his parents used to feed their pet budgie but Gordon decided it was best to say nothing and eat it. Maggie was trying hard to make sure he ate a very healthy diet. No doubt it would be some oily fish tomorrow with some of her fermented vegetables. His packed lunches for work these days were mostly of the salad variety with fruit for desert. Oh how he yearned for his daily cheese and pickle crusty roll, salt and vinegar crisps and a four finger KitKat.
Gordon had laid the knife and fork neatly side by side on the empty plate and told Maggie that he’d been thinking. Finding out that he had cancer had been a wake-up call that life should not be taken for granted and that they should be a bit more spontaneous and stop thinking in terms of saving for a rainy day. That got Maggie upset as she interpreted that the wrong way and thought that Gordon was suggesting that he wouldn’t be around for much longer. That wasn’t what he meant at all! What he meant was that life was too short to procrastinate. This didn’t help either so Gordon gave up trying to explain and said that he’d booked an appointment to get someone to come and design a new kitchen for them. This cheered Maggie up no end and she allowed him some tinned rice pudding for desert rather than the Kefir yoghurt that she usually gave him. He hadn’t the faintest idea what kefir was!
Maggie had been chatting with Sally on their usual weekly telephone call. Sally had been very supportive whilst the two of them had been coming to terms with the devastating news of Gordon’s cancer diagnosis and she’d been a great listener when Maggie just needed to speak to someone. It was Sally that had suggested a vegan and wholefood diet to Maggie. There was no way that Gordon would ever give up his meat and dairy products but the wholefood approach to a healthy diet had sounded just what her husband needed. Sally also suggested that the two of them come over for lunch one Sunday and experience a vegan meal. She reckoned that she could convert Gordon to give up animal products and eat a wholly plant based diet instead. Maggie was very dubious that Gordon would ever be a willing convert but it would be churlish not to accept the invitation. She wondered how he would react to the invitation. Actually she knew full well how he would react!
Before turning off her bedside table lamp one evening Maggie decided to broach the subject of the invitation to Gordon who was slipping a bookmark between the pages of the John Grisham novel he was reading.
“Sally has invited us to lunch at their house this Sunday. I know it’s probably not your thing and we can make excuses if you don’t want to go. You know, I’m sure that they won’t mind.”
Maggie had already worked out what excuse to give to Sally. Gordon got tired too easily and needed to rest on Sunday so that he would be refreshed to go to work the following day.
“That’s very kind of her and of course we’ll go. Why wouldn’t we?”
Something to do with the fact that you call anybody who leads an alternative lifestyle; a lazy, long haired, pot smoking weirdo? Thought Maggie.
“Well, I just thought that you’d feel a bit uncomfortable about going. They are after all very different than us?”
“Maggie, I’m surprised to hear you sounding rather narrow minded about people. That’s not like you at all. I thought Sally was your friend?”
“She is…. Maggie wondered if this newer, more tolerant husband was the result of his medication….. and I’m not narrow minded thank you very much. I just didn’t think that it would be your cup of tea.”
“Well you thought wrong. I was talking to what’s his name, Sally’s husband, at that strange Christmas do of your employers, about his job making charcoal. It was very interesting and he is actually very knowledgeable about it. Nice chap too.”
“But you do know that they are vegans and you won’t get any meat to eat?”
“I think that I can go without meat for one day. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t have any. You can always make me a bacon sandwich when we get back. Please accept their kind invitation and say we look forward to seeing them on Sunday.” With that, Gordon turned off his lamp and turned onto his side. Maggie did likewise soon after.
“Do you think people take bottles of wine to new age travellers’ Sunday lunches?”
To get to Sally and Jez’s cottage, you had to drive down a long rough track through dense woodland. Maggie gripped the steering wheel tightly as her car bumped its way over the uneven surface. She had offered to drive as she knew roughly where the cottage was and Gordon could have a glass of wine with his lunch. Gordon gripped the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc tightly in one hand and the dashboard with the other.
“Are you sure it’s down here? We seem to be in the middle of nowhere.” Asked Gordon.
“I’m sure it is. The Major’s house isn’t far from here and I know that Sally can walk there from her house. Look, there’s a cottage ahead and that looks like Jez’s van. We’re here”
The cottage was in a clearing. Typical of the region it had honey coloured stone walls, stone roof tiles and small mullioned windows. Maggie had been expecting a somewhat ramshackle house with bits of rusting car parts and abandoned furniture littering a garden overran with weeds.
. Instead, what she saw was a pretty cottage with a slate blue front door complete with a shiny brass knocker and a neat front garden with boarders filled with daffodils.
Maggie felt ashamed that she had presumed that just because Sally and Jez lived a self-sufficient life style and wore homemade clothes, they would live in the house equivalent of a clapped out converted bus, painted purple and decorated with peace signs and butterflies!
Gordon must have been thinking the same “Well, this isn’t what I was expecting. I must say Maggie, I’m pleasantly surprised.”
Sally and Jez both answered the door. Sally was dressed in one of her voluminous patchwork dresses and Jez in a matching patchwork tunic.
“You made it then? It’s a good job that we’ve not had any rain for a while, that track can be a bugger if it gets flooded. The old van can get through but cars don’t stand a chance. Did you see our post box at the end of the track where you turn off the main road? We had to put that there coz the postman was getting right narked about the state of his suspension on his van and that he’d had to reverse right back up to the road the one time he came across a puddle and couldn’t go any further.”
Sally winked at Maggie “Hey Gord, hope you’ve brought your jimjams just in case we get a sudden down pour and you’ve got to stay over!”
Gordon felt worried for a moment but then realised that Sally was pulling his leg. He wished though that she wouldn’t call him Gord. He’d have to have a quiet word with Maggie and ask her to discreetly tell Sally that he didn’t like his name abbreviated if she carried on doing it.
“Right you two, you coming in or are you going to stand there on the door step letting all the cold air in?” said Jez spying the bottle of wine in Gordon’s hand. “Shall I take that off your hands mate?” Taking the bottle he looked at the label. “Nice! I’ll add that to our wine collection and drink it another day. You don’t mind do you? The thing is we make our own wine and we thought that you might like to give that a go. We’ve got gallons of the stuff so be prepared for a bit of a session!”
Gordon had been looking forward to drinking a glass of the wine he’d chosen. He dreaded to think what went into Jez’s homemade wine. Probably nettles or potato peelings.
The downstairs of the cottage appeared to be one large room with stairs in one corner of the room leading to the rooms above. There was a kitchen area with a large pine table surrounded by a mismatch of chairs at one end and a sofa covered in crocheted blankets facing an inglenook fire at the other end. A fire blazed away in a wood burner which was surrounded by neat piles of chopped wood. Rag-rugs covered the flagstone floor and a guitar stood leaning against the wall in one corner. At the kitchen end were open shelves filled with crockery, pans, bowls and many jars of all sizes filled with what looked like flour, grains, spices and preserved food. Bunches of dried herbs hung from a ceiling beam. On an ancient cooking range sat a large casserole. The room was warm and homely and smelt of wood smoke and spices. Gordon noticed that there was no television and Maggie couldn’t see any electric kitchen appliances other than a battered old fridge.
A pretty young girl with long red hair, who Maggie assumed was Zora, Sally and Jez’s daughter, was busy laying the table with mismatched plates, cutlery and glasses. In the middle of the table stood a jug full of daffodils and catkins.
“Zora, say hello to our guests. This is Maggie who looks after Major Sidney with me and this is her husband Gordon.”
The girl smiled at the guests and said hi before carrying on with her chore.
Jez appeared with two glasses and handed them to Maggie and Gordon. “Right, that’s elderflower cordial for the lady and my special elderberry wine for you mate. Drink up, because there’s plenty more where that came from.”
Gordon cautiously took a sip expecting it to taste awful but was rather taken back that it was actually rather good. There was no doubt that it was full bodied and packed a punch but was most definitely a very quaffable glass of wine. He took another much bigger sip.
“So what do you think? Admit it, it’s not bad for home brew is it?” asked Jez.
“I must admit that I’m pleasantly surprised how good it is. Do you make any other wines apart from elderberry?
“Come with me and I’ll show you where the magic happens.” Jez called over to Sally who was talking to Maggie “Sal, have I got time to take Gordon out to the shed before we eat?”
“Sure you have. I’ll send our Zora over when it’s on the table. Now don’t you go getting our Gordy boy pie eyed will you? Remember he’s a sick man!”
Gordon was about to say that he was perfectly well but Jez had grabbed his arm and was steering him through the back door.
“So, how’s things with Gordon?” asked Sally when the men had left “Is the treatment doing the trick?”
“He’s fine, a bit more tired than usual some days but he doesn’t seem to be suffering much with any side effects. It’s still early days though and he hasn’t been back yet to see the specialist. Fingers crossed and all that.”
“He’ll be fine, just you wait and see, although what state he’ll be in by the time you leave here is anyone’s guess. Some of that stuff Jez brews is bloody lethal! “
The two women laughed. Although they rarely saw one another, there was a real bond between them. Maggie felt that she could easily confide in Sally if she needed to and maybe she would tell her about her trip to Devon one day, but today was not the day. Gordon could walk back through the door any minute.
The food was on the table and Sally had sent Zora to tell her dad and Gordon to get their arses in gear and get back to the kitchen. Ziggy the youngest appeared in time for lunch wearing a colourful Peruvian hat and a duffle coat. Apparently he’d been in the woods making a den. Maggie wondered how he knew it was lunch time seeing that he didn’t appear to be wearing a watch. There was no sign of Zephyr the eldest and she noticed that there were only six places laid at the table.
Maggie couldn’t help noticing that Gordon looked rather flushed as they sat at the table. He was also making light work of the glass of wine that Jez had topped up. Sally served everyone wedges of roast cabbage with lentils in a tomato sauce and a mountain of golden roast potatoes. If Gordon was disappointed not to have slices of roast meat on his plate, he didn’t show it and was tucking into his meal with relish.
“Sally this is delicious. If you’d have asked me before now if I’d eat a roast without meat I would have laughed in their face. But seriously, I’m not missing it. Maggie insists that we have meat at every meal, don’t you old girl!”
Maggie shot him an incredulous look but decided not to say anything.
“So tell me, if you’re vegans how come you keep chickens because I assume that you don’t eat eggs?” asked Gordon, taking another sip of wine.
“For the money mate.” answered Jez. “We sell the eggs to the village shop and use the money to buy groceries. He buys our lovely free range eggs and we spend what he gives us in his shop. We help each other out. Same with any excess veg that we grow. Sal is also a dab hand at making pickles and chutneys and we sell them on too. You can come and look at our veggie patch after dinner if you like. I’ll give you the guided tour.”
“Excellent. I’ve been thinking about getting an allotment so it’ll be good to know that I can ask you for advice.”
First I’ve heard of it thought Maggie. Gordon had never shown the slightest interest in having an allotment.
Gordon concentrated on eating his food for a moment and then stopped with his fork half way to his mouth. He looked as though he’d just thought of something profound.
“So tell me….”
If he says ‘So tell me’ one more time… mused Maggie
“So tell me, you must miss having a telly?” slurred Gordon “I mean, how do you keep yourself occupied in the evening? Mind you I can think of a good way, eh Jez old boy!” Gordon winked theatrically at Jez.
“GORDON!” warned Maggie, nodding towards the children who were giggling behind their hands. He was beginning to get embarrassing. What on earth had he been drinking in the shed?
Jez laughed “That’s alright Maggie, we don’t believe in holding anything back here. Why would we need a telly? We keep ourselves busy most of the time. We have our crafts, my home brew, we go foraging, read, sing or sometimes just have a chin wag. When the days are long I keep working for as long as I have daylight coz I don’t get much done in the winter. That’s one of the drawbacks of working outside. Most of the stuff that’s on the TV is utter crap anyway. It’s full of people wanting their five minutes of fame or politicians who don’t know their arses from their elbows most of the time. Nah, waste of time watching telly. We are happy as we are, aren’t we Sal love?”
“I so envy your lifestyle. Don’t you agree with me Mags? Isn’t our life dull by comparison? We work, we eat, watch a bit of mindless TV and then go to bed. Same old thing, day in, day out. Week after week, month after month, year after year. What do you say we go home and get rid of the old box? Throw it out. Do stuff together. Be pro..duct..ive!”
“Yes dear, great idea!” Maggie thought it best to humour him whilst he was like this. By the time they got home he would have forgotten this conversation anyway. He was beginning to make a show of himself so she was going to have to stop him from drinking Jez’s wine before he ended up doing or saying something stupid. If only Jez would stop topping up his glass. How many glasses had he drunk? This had to be at least his fourth and that wasn’t counting whatever he’d drunk in Jez’s shed!
Fortunately, Sally saved her from having to tell Gordon that he’d had enough and risk him having a moan about her being a spoil sport by whisking away the wine and clearing the table of the dirty plates.
“Pud anyone?” announced Sally as she bought a huge dish of apple crumble to the table.
Gordon rubbed his hands with glee. “You bet. I don’t suppose vegans have custard?”
Sally smiled whilst spooning out a large helping of the delicious looking pudding into Gordon’s bowl “Course we do. Can’t have crumble without custard can you. It just wouldn’t be right!”
The rest of the meal was spent mostly listening to Jez talking about environmental issues and how the planet was doomed if mankind carried on the way it was going. Gordon was struggling to stay awake. He was sinking slowly in his chair and he was finding it hard to keep his eyes open.
Lunch done, Jez suggested a walk around their garden. He was keen to show off his chickens and their vegetable beds.
“Do you mind if I sit this one out?” Mumbled Gordon “It’s the medication that I’m taking that’s made me feel suddenly very tired.” He wobbled as he stood up and stumbled over to the sofa. “I just need to rest my eyes for a few minutes.” he said as he lay prostate and pulled one of Sally’s blankets around him and promptly fell asleep.
“I am so sorry you two. He does get very tired at times.” Maggie knew full well that there was no pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes by making out that Gordon was tired. It was very obvious to all that he was indeed very drunk!
“Hey Maggie, it’s not a problem. He’s having a good time and that’s what it’s all about. You’re our friends and we don’t do airs and graces in this house. If Gordon needs some shut eye then that’s what he needs. Come on, let’s leave Sleeping Beauty to his beauty sleep and get some fresh air.”
The garden at the back of the house was much larger than the one at the front of the cottage. Whereas the front garden was neat and orderly, the back one was quite the opposite. Most of it was taken over by vegetable beds of various sizes. Planks of wood served as walk ways between the plots. Tarpaulins and old carpet covered some of beds, weighed down with old tyres, whilst others were full of vegetables ready for harvesting. At the bottom of the garden was a polytunnel. Its sliding door shut to keep out some of the cold early spring air.
Stacks of terracotta pots leaned precariously against the walls of a large dilapidated shed. An axe stood upright, its blade partially buried in the cut surface of a felled tree trunk, next to a huge pile of logs. The chicken coop contained half a dozen or so birds clucking away and scratching the ground looking for something to eat.
Maggie had expected to see a burner outside for Jez to make his charcoal but he explained that his kiln was in the local woods belonging to the Smythe-Robinsons. He was one of only a few charcoal burners left in the country and as it was a seasonal job, he spent most of the late autumn and winter coppicing and hedge laying. Maggie asked him what it was about burning charcoal that he enjoyed.
“I know that this is going to sound corny and clichéd but I really love being at one with nature and it might sound a bit weird there’s so much energy in the woods. It’s really peaceful yet you’re never alone. I get to share the space with fallow deer and the likes of snakes, dormice and woodpeckers. I sit there at night swaddled in blankets keeping an eye on the burning and just take it all in. It’s bloody magical. Mind you I’m not feeling the magic if it pisses down with rain!”
Sally punched Jez playfully on the arm “And I, my darlin’, don’t feel the magic when I have to scrub the bath clean after you’ve been in it.”
Jez squeezed his wife in a big bear hug “But my darling wifey, I know that you really experience the magic when you get to scrub my back” and then gave her an enormous snog.
“You know Maggie, when me and Gordy were sampling some of my home brew before dinner, your hubby was really interested in what I do in the woods. Asking loads of questions he was and it nice having a townie interested in country ways. I can tell you now, that don’t happen very often in these here parts. He ought to come along in the summer and take a gander for himself. I reckon that he might enjoy a night under the stars.”
“Do you know what Jez, I reckon he probably would.”
Gordon was sitting in the passenger seat of the car. It hadn’t been easy waking him up when it was time to go home and he was unsteady on his feet as he said good bye to Sally and Jez. Maggie hoped that he would make it home without throwing up.
Jez had rushed back to get a bottle of his elderberry wine to take home with them. Maggie gave her friend a hug.
“Thank you so much for today Sally. We had such a lovely time. You must come to lunch at our house sometime soon. I can’t promise that my vegan meal will be a patch on yours though.”
“Rubbish. It’ll be delicious.” Sally’s smile faded and she looked concerned. “The major wasn’t himself on Friday. He looked tired and frail. He said he felt that he had a chill brewing and told me to stop fussing. But I do worry about him. Keep an eye on him for me will you.”
“I’m sure he’s fine Sally. Simon or Lucinda would have been in touch if he was ill. I’ll phone you tomorrow and let you know how he is.”
Driving home, Gordon stirred from his sleep.
“Well that seemed to go well didn’t it Mags. They’re actually really nice people for hippies. Pity I got so tired. Strange that because I felt perfectly okay before we left.”
Before she could reply he’d fallen fast asleep again.
The following morning Maggie let herself into Manor Farm House with her key as she normally did and called out to the major that she’d arrived. Maggie would normally pop her head around the door to say good morning and then go into the kitchen to pop the kettle on and prepare a tray of coffee for the two of them. She was expecting to see her elderly friend sitting in his favourite chair, smartly dressed and reading a newspaper through his magnifying glass. She was a bit taken aback then when she discovered him still in his dressing gown with his hair uncombed and unshaved.
“Good morning Major. Did you fancy a lie in this morning?” Maggie asked trying to sound upbeat, but in truth she was feeling concerned. The Major wouldn’t dream of appearing anything but well dressed and perfectly groomed especially in the presence of a lady. Sally had shared her concerns that the Major wasn’t his usual chirpy self the previous day and Maggie had to agree that as well as not being dressed, he did look tired and his face looked pale with a greyish hue. She sat down in the chair facing his. The blanket that had been covering his knees had slipped. She picked it up and carefully tucked it back into place. She wanted to take his hand, but knew that The Major would be embarrassed by such an act of familiarity.
“Is everything alright Major? Are you not feeling well?”
“Just a bit peaky Mrs Thornden I’m afraid. I really have to apologise for my unacceptable appearance this morning. I really do feel rather embarrassed to still be in my dressing gown, but I just didn’t have the energy to get going this morning. A cup of your excellent coffee should get me going and I’ll then go and make myself presentable.”
Maggie noticed that he sounded slightly breathless as he talked and that the bin next to him was full of tissues.
“Does Simon or Lucinda know that you are feeling unwell?” They hadn’t been in touch so they were obviously not worried.
“I wasn’t too bad yesterday. A bit of a cough but otherwise as well as can be expected for an ancient old chap. I didn’t have a good night though. Blasted cough kept me awake.” And as if on cue he started coughing. He grabbed a tissue and put it to his mouth. It was a hacking, chesty cough which worried Maggie. Her grandfather had died of pneumonia and she remembered him coughing and struggling for breath.
“Major, I’m worried about you. I really think that it would be a good idea to get the doctor to check you out.” Maggie said passing him a glass of water.
“Please don’t fuss Mrs Thornden. It’s just a bit of a cough. I’ll get over it and there’s no point in phoning the doctor. I imagine that they are very busy people and have more important things to do than deal with some old fool’s cough!”
“Hmm, you’re definitely no old fool and there’s every point in phoning the doctor. You probably just need a course of antibiotics and then you’ll be a right as rain. The last thing we want is for that nasty cough to get worse. At least let me phone Simon to tell him that you’re still feeling under the weather. He’ll want to know.”
“But I don’t want to worry him. He’s such a busy man.” protested the Major.
“I know for a fact that he’d want to know and he’d be angry with me if I didn’t tell him. Now you don’t want me to get into trouble do you?” Maggie hoped that this would work and that the Major would agree to her phoning Simon.
“Heaven’s forbid. That’s the last thing I want. I don’t want to get into trouble with that son of mine either, so of course you must phone him if you felt it necessary.”
“Good, that’s settled then and I will suggest that we get the doctor to take a look at you.” This time she had no qualms about putting her hand over his. It felt cold and the liver spotted skin felt like tissue paper under her touch. Rather than pulling his hand away, he turned his palm over and weakly squeezed Maggie’s hand. He sank back in his chair and briefly closed his eyes before another bout of coughing wracked his frail body.
When the coughing had ceased Maggie went into the kitchen to make him some tea and porridge. He hadn’t had the strength to make him-self any breakfast that morning and agreed to eat something. Whist he ate, she lit a fire in the grate. The heating was on and the house didn’t feel cold but she knew that the Major enjoyed a fire burning and thinking about his cold hands, she hoped that it would warm him up.
Maggie telephoned Simon and told him of her concerns whilst the Major was sleeping. He’d managed to eat a few spoons of his porridge and drink some of his tea, but just doing that exhausted him. Simon agreed that the doctor should be called. The family had a private GP and when Maggie telephoned his practice, the receptionist promised Maggie that the doctor would visit later that morning. Simon was at a meeting in Oxford but was leaving and would get to them as soon as he possibly could.
Maggie sat with the Major as he slept. His breathing was noisy and shallow. She feared that it wasn’t just a simple chest infection that was making him unwell. His aged and frail body couldn’t fight off an infection the same way that a younger person was able to.
When he woke he asked Maggie to hand him the photograph of himself and his late wife Clemmie on their wedding day to him. With trembling hands he took it from her.
“Did I ever tell you about the time that I first met my Clemmie? I was a young officer then and it was back in the mid 1950’s. She was the sister of one of my chums. Reggie Lansdown was his name. He invited me to stay the weekend at his parent’s country house not far from Weymouth. His parents were having a party to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. Quite a do I seem to remember. I knew that Reggie had a sister. She was a few years younger than he was and me being a naïve chump didn’t realise that he was trying to set the two of us up.” The major paused, no longer in the here and now but lost in his memories. He closed his eyes and a hint of a smile played on his lips.
“Mrs Thornden” he said, opening his eyes and returning to the present. “Do you believe in love at first sight?” He didn’t wait for an answer. ”I first saw Clemmie sitting crossed leg on a garden chair on the terrace reading a book. A red polka dot scarf was tied around her hair and she was biting her finger nails” he chuckled “she was always complaining about the state of her nails.” The Major continued. “She must have heard us coming because she looked up and smiled. Oh, what a beautiful smile it was too. It was at that very moment that I knew that she was ‘the one’ for me. What she saw in me; gawky, skinny and awkward, was a mystery to me, but something clicked between us and, that, as they say, was that.”
“She was such a pretty girl. The two of you look so happy on your wedding day” said Maggie.
“Blissfully happy, and we carried on that way for just over twenty years. You know, we were resigned for a long time that it was just going to be the two of us. We so wanted a baby but it didn’t happen and then, low and behold eight years after getting married Clemmie discovered she was pregnant. We’d pretty much given up hoping at that point so it was such a wonderful blessing when we found out that we were actually going to be parents after all.”
“Simon is such a lovely son. I know that you are so proud of him”
“We couldn’t have asked for a better son, mind you he could be a right little rascal at times when he was little. Ran rings around us at times. The boy’s done good though. If only his mother had been here to see him grow up into such a fine man.”
Maggie noticed the tear running down the Major’s cheek. He took a tissue and dabbed at it. “
Clemmie had a heart condition that we didn’t know about. We were on the beach in Devon. The three of us were larking around, jumping in the dunes and seeing who could jump the furthest when Clemmie suddenly collapsed. Her heart stopped and she died. Simon was twelve and he had to run for help. A boy of twelve should never have to do that.”
The major held the photo to his heart whilst slowly shaking his head.
“Mrs Thornden my dear, I’m feeling awfully tired. I think I need another little nap. I’m afraid that I’m not really up to listening to you read today. Maybe tomorrow.”
The major closed his eyes and fell asleep again, still clutching the wedding photograph.
The doctor arrived a little while later. He examined his elderly patient and listened to his chest. He told the Major that he was most probably suffering from pneumonia but he needed to go to the hospital to have an x-ray and blood tests. Maggie expected him to resist going to the hospital but he had no strength left in him to put up a fight. Simon arrived not long before the ambulance. He asked Maggie if she would mind sorting out the house and locking up before she went home. He promised to keep her informed about his father’s condition.
Maggie put out the fire in the library. Tidied away the half eaten porridge bowl and tea things and gently placed the wedding photograph back to where it lived. She thought that she should set the alarm, but didn’t know how so she left it. She’s let Sally know about it when she rang her when she got home. She’d know how to sort it out.
Taking one last look around the house. She locked the door, got in her car and drove home.
Two days later Major Sidney Smythe-Robinson died just as the sun was setting. The people he loved were with him at the end. His son Simon had sat at his bedside throughout, only leaving when the nurses needed to attend to his father.
It was a tearful Sally who phoned to break the news to Maggie. Maggie thanked Sally and ended the call. She sat at the kitchen table and felt incredibly sad at the loss of a man who was a gentleman to the end. She was going to miss his quick wit, his gentle manner and above all his friendship. He’d lived a full active life, loved and lost the woman that he adored and then had to bring up his son alone whilst continuing to his career in the British Army.
The funeral was a simple affair. His will stipulated that he didn’t want any fuss. It took place on a beautiful spring morning in the pretty village church. There was some warmth in the sun and fluffy white clouds skittered across the pale blue sky. The pale oak coffin topped with a simple posy of white roses was carried into the church to Elgar’s Nimrod. A shaft of sunlight lit up the stained glass window and colours of the rainbow danced across the coffin as it was gently placed on the bier in front of the alter. The Major’s friends and colleagues had either long since died or were too infirm to attend, but the villagers who remembered the smartly dressed gentleman who popped into the shop for his newspaper, drank a pint in the pub or sat watching the village team playing cricket on the green turned up to pay their respects. In the front pew sat Simon, Lucinda and their children. Simon’s eyes appeared red rimmed and there were dark shadows beneath them. Francesca leant into her mother and wept quietly. Owen fiddled nervously at the order of service. Maggie and Gordon sat with Sally and Jez who looked so unfamiliar wearing a suit and tie.
The Major was laid to rest next to his Clemmie in a far corner of the church yard next to a cherry tree heavy with blossom. A sudden gust of wind scattered petals the colour of the smooth surface of a shell over the mourners at the graveside. Simon looked upwards and smiled. His parents used to sit in deck chairs under the branches of an old cherry tree in the garden and watch their son play. It was their special place. At last the two of them were reunited, to lie together forever, protected by the branches of the tree.