Per­fect Tim­ing

This de­light­ful short story by Pene­lope Alexan­der takes place around a favourite land­mark.

The People's Friend Special - - FICTION -

My grand­daugh­ter has a dilemma. Can I give her the right ad­vice?

GRAN!” Char­lotte’s voice is as breezy as ever. “Can we meet up? I’d like to come and stay with you for the week­end.” “Of course, dar­ling!” I won­der if she wants to talk, as we used to when she was younger. It’s hard to tell over the phone.

Al­though she dearly loves her mum and dad, I know they don’t al­ways see eye to eye.

Char­lotte is her own woman these days, of course, but I’m still hon­oured when she thinks I can help.

“Where shall we meet?” My grand­daugh­ter lives near her par­ents on the other side of the city.

“Our usual café, near the bus sta­tion? If I get there first, I’ll or­der the cheese toasties.”

“You’re on.”

I then add silently, “And after lunch per­haps we’ll take a walk down Wine Street.”

Walk­ing down Wine

Street is fam­ily-speak for hav­ing a heart-to-heart when­ever a knotty prob­lem arises.

We don’t al­ways lit­er­ally take a stroll through the cen­tre of the city, of course. A pleas­ant chat over tea in the shade of the ap­ple tree in my back gar­den does per­fectly well as a sub­sti­tute.

But this time, I think I will sug­gest to Char­lotte that after lunch we should brave the steep slope of Union Street.

From there it’s just a right turn and a lovely walk to­wards the old cross­roads.

At the café, Char­lotte doesn’t no­tice me straight away.

She’s tucked her hair (as long as mine used to be when I mar­ried her late grand­fa­ther) be­hind one ear to study the pages of a magazine.

My grand­daugh­ter has this abil­ity to look at home wher­ever she is, but I no­tice she’s ner­vously smooth­ing her hair be­hind one ear.

A wor­ry­ing thought oc­curs. Both Sue and

Trevor – Char­lotte’s mum and dad – have de­mand­ing jobs and my son-in-law is of­ten away.

It’s a pity if Char­lotte hasn’t man­aged to talk with them, but (I shake my­self a lit­tle) in that case, it’s just as well I’m here.

The de­li­cious smell of tea and toast wafts past and Char­lotte glances up.

“Gran!” Her ex­pres­sion changes; brown eyes sparkle as she en­velops me in a hug.

I hug her back, won­der­ing where all the years have gone since she was a round-faced in­fant with her hair in red-checked rib­bons.

“Lovely to see you, sweet­heart!” I say, sit­ting next to her.

“The food and drink are on their way,” Char­lotte says. “I or­dered Earl Grey for you. I hope that’s OK.”

“Thanks. We could eat here, and then,” I pause, “go for a walk down Wine Street?”

Char­lotte grins, recog­nis­ing the old fam­ily say­ing.

“Yes, I’d be glad if we could talk.”

“I’m all ears,” I say, know­ing this phrase makes her laugh.

Char­lotte slides me a happy, side­ways glance.

“Can we watch the Jacks after­wards?”

“Of course, as long as we’ve got the tim­ing right!”

Four road­ways meet near the old cen­tre of the city, above where Bris­tol Bridge crosses the Avon, and Wine Street is one of them.

On the stroke of ev­ery hour peo­ple gather where once an old mar­ket cross stood.

They tilt their heads to watch the me­di­ae­val “quar­ter-jacks” – two me­chan­i­cal fig­ures in bright-red coats – lift their

strik­ing ham­mers high up on the tower of Christchurch.

“You al­ways loved to see the bells rung!” I say rem­i­nis­cently.

Char­lotte cer­tainly isn’t a child these days. I long to ask ques­tions, but I de­cide I should al­low her to set the pace.

The aroma of toasted cheese en­gulfs us as our sand­wiches ar­rive at our ta­ble.

“Let’s eat first,” I say, with a smile.

****

Half­way up Union Street Char­lotte slips her arm through mine.

“Help­ing your old gran up the hill?” I tease.

“It’s a bit steep for me here!” she replies with a grin.

The leaves on the road­side trees are light green and the air smells sweet. I shake out my scarf, play­ing for time.

“Gran, I hope you don’t mind, but Oliver said the best thing would be to talk to you.”

Oliver is Char­lotte’s hand­some and very car­ing boyfriend. We all like him. They’ve been to­gether for some time, and I re­alise I haven’t asked after him. “How is Oliver?” My grand­daugh­ter steps away and gath­ers her long hair in one swift move­ment, se­cur­ing it ex­pertly with a plas­tic clip.

“To be hon­est, things aren’t so smooth.”

I frown, try­ing to frame the next ques­tion.

“I take it you’re still to­gether?”

Her lovely young face soft­ens.

“Of course we are. He’s so . . . nice, Gran.” “Uh-huh.”

Nice can be such a non-de­scrip­tion. Nice is a cup­cake, some­thing small and sweet, per­haps. Not what I’d say about the dash­ing Oliver.

I might have called my Joe stub­born, kind, lov­ing, good-look­ing, an­noy­ing – he was all those things.

But nice? I think he and I might have shared a joke about that!

“He’s sharp and clever and funny and kind, too,” she adds, as if she’s read my thoughts. “You know how much I love him!”

“Does he say he loves you?”

“All the time,” she an­swers steadily.

I pat her hand.

“I know, dar­ling,” I say softly. “I felt just like that when Grandpa Joe pro­posed.” A sud­den thought strikes me. “Has Oliver . . .?”

Char­lotte bites her lip. “Yes, he has.”

I wait, hop­ing she’ll tell me what her re­ply was, but she doesn’t.

“Mum said you and Grandpa waited a while be­fore you mar­ried. Is that right?” Char­lotte asks in­stead.

“One year and one hun­dred days.”

Joe used to say, with a wink, that I was worth it.

“Wow!” Char­lotte says, blow­ing out her cheeks on a huge sigh.

“It wasn’t un­usual then, and any­way, we were far younger than you two,” I tell her.

“We still saw each other ev­ery day. But we had no money. We needed to save up, you see.”

Char­lotte’s eyes are full of tears.

“Oliver in­sists noth­ing mat­ters as long as we’re to­gether.”

“But what do you say?” “I didn’t know what to say. You see, he wants to stay put and get a job in­stead of tak­ing up this of­fer of fur­ther stud­ies. We had a big row over it.”

“I should think you did!” I said, stop­ping in my tracks. “You don’t want him to re­gret miss­ing an op­por­tu­nity like that in a few years’ time.”

Char­lotte’s shoul­ders slump. We’ve reached a bench, and by un­spo­ken agree­ment we take a seat be­neath the trees.

I take her hand.

“I know you’re only try­ing to think of what’s best for him as well as you. I’m sure he’s do­ing the same. That’s what lov­ing is all about, isn’t it?”

Char­lotte nods silently. “You can still be to­gether while he stud­ies, can’t you?” I ask. “Take time to get to know each other even bet­ter?”

“Not if he has to go abroad to study next year,” she says mis­er­ably.

“That’s what he’s plan­ning?”

“Yes! He wants me to go with him.”

I be­gin to un­der­stand her prob­lem.

“Let me get this straight. You’ve def­i­nitely said no, not be­cause you don’t love him, but be­cause you don’t want to move away?” Char­lotte nods.

“He can’t un­der­stand why I’ve re­fused. But with all my ties here, and ev­ery­thing as it is at home, I just don’t feel the time is right.”

I squeeze her hand within both of mine. What does she mean by “ev­ery­thing at home”?

“So what’s re­ally wor­ry­ing you, sweet­heart?”

The poor girl is mop­ping the tears from her face again. I hand her a fresh packet of tis­sues.

“Lis­ten. There’s noth­ing in this world that can’t be sorted by a good dis­cus­sion. On the other hand . . .”

I hes­i­tate, afraid of of­fer­ing bad ad­vice.

“On the other hand, per­haps this is ex­actly the right time for you two – be­cause Oliver needs you. You know that’s why he’s even think­ing of giv­ing up a chance like this, don’t you?”

Char­lotte turns to­wards me.

“That’s the prob­lem, Gran! Be­cause, well, you know how it is at home right now, with Dad of­ten away and Mum al­ways stressed. I feel I shouldn’t move so far be­cause Mum and Dad might need me, too.”

A small si­lence falls while I work out ex­actly what Char­lotte has just said. A pi­geon flies down and set­tles on the pave­ment near our feet.

My daugh­ter and her hus­band have had ups and downs in their mar­riage, it’s true, but they’ve al­ways re­mained close enough to work things out for them­selves.

Luck­ily, I stop my­self from re­ply­ing to Char­lotte with the first thought that comes into my mind: that her par­ents are not her re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In­stead, I tell her what a lovely, car­ing daugh­ter she is to feel as she does. I re­as­sure her that her par­ents’ mar­riage will sur­vive. That no­body wants her to cast her­self as the fam­ily ref­eree.

Fi­nally, blink­ing, she nods and gen­tly frees her hand from mine.

We stand up, and she dries her eyes. Slowly, we walk arm in arm along

Wine Street to­wards the cross­roads.

I glance at my watch. I think we’ll get there at just the right mo­ment to hear the bells ring.

****

“Hi, Gran!” Char­lotte, at home once more, has tele­phoned to thank me for hav­ing her at the week­end.

“It was lovely to see you,” I say. “Don’t leave it so long next time, and bring Oliver, too.”

“Thanks. Gran, I told Mum all about our . . . chat.”

“And what did your mum say, Char­lotte?”

There’s an un­mis­take­able chuckle in her voice as she replies.

“Ac­tu­ally, she said while I was away she and Dad took the chance to have a heart-to-heart of their own! They both agreed they’d been work­ing too hard and needed to do some ad­just­ing.”

“Good for them.”

At the other end of the line, Char­lotte clears her throat.

“Es­pe­cially as there’ll be a wed­ding to ar­range in the not-too-dis­tant fu­ture.”

“Just what I was think­ing, sweet­heart. And speak­ing of wed­dings, wasn’t it grand to hear those city bells ring?”

“Just like the old days,” Char­lotte agrees. “I love those quar­ter-jacks!”

I laugh, and tell her I was glad we were there, on the hour, and saw the full chime. Our tim­ing was ex­actly right.

The End.

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