Wise Sayings, by Barbara Baker.
When her beloved Reg died, one woman found herself cast ashore on the island of grief. Neither her children nor her neighbours could rescue her. Yet an unexpected encounter at an art class – and a thank-you note from a stranger – revealed there were other
Everything comes to he who waits, her mother used to say. And so she waited. She waited for the tidal wave of Reg’s death, crashing over her, to ebb. It stranded her like flotsam on an unfamiliar shore, and she waited to be rescued from her grief.
Her daughter, Michelle, and her husband, Geoffrey, would save her – affectionately hugging her shoulders each weekend; “It’s OK, Mum,” they would say.
But they couldn’t save her: of course not – they each had their work commitments, and their young family to think of. She realised that.
Ah, the neighbours – they would support her with respectful faces and sympathetic tea. But their proper show of sorrow dispensed with, they worked as usual from eight to five, and she was Mrs Robinson Crusoe in the deserted suburban street. “Cheer up, dear – you won’t know yourself in a couple of months’ time,” chirped Myra, a widow of four liberated summers.
So she waited anxiously for rejuvenation, but no such vessel broke the low horizon of her solitude and despair.
“Nobody understands. Nobody cares,” she whispered to the table set nightly for one. “I’m a castaway.”
Aloud, she said to Michelle, “You’d think that Jack and Beryl would have asked me out to the club. They know how Reg and I liked to go with them before ... before ... ”
“Why don’t you give them a ring?” said Michelle.
“I don’t see that it’s my place to make the overtures, I’m the one in mourning.”
On a later occasion she whined, “I’m surprised that Aunty Coral hasn’t wanted to visit me, now that there’s a spare room.”
“Now that Dad’s gone, you mean,” tittered Michelle. “The two of them never did get on.”
She replied: “Michelle! That’s unforgivable, speaking ill of the dead.”
“Neither did you or Dad at times,” her daughter chuckled, unrepentant.
“One swallow doesn’t make a summer,” she continued. “Reg and I may have had the occasional disagreement, but ...”
“Like who chooses the TV programme for the night!”
“It’s a damn sight better bickering than sitting in front of it alone!” she snapped, and burst into tears.
“There, there, Mum,” said Michelle. She grabbed a box of tissues and the opportunity with alacrity. “You’re lonely. Let me bring the children round to keep you company on Saturday night.”
And oh, she waited for them to come! Cherubs in flannelette and carrycots for whom all afternoon she had vacuumed and dusted and rearranged her bedroom, brought in extra milk and chocolate frogs for a treat.
“Hi Mum,” whispered Michelle and Geoff, tiptoeing in. “We’ll put them straight in the spare bedroom – don’t want them waking up.”
“No,” she murmured, deflated. “Have a nice time at the dinner.” She gazed upon the sleeping children with a sigh. In the hush, the house settled and a distant car accelerated quickly at the lights. “I’ll have more time with them when they’re older,” she consoled herself; but who was she kidding? Hadn’t she raised two children of her own?
She filled out crosswords to fill in the day; she took to ordering groceries she would never eat just to natter to the delivery man. Later, Geoffrey said to Michelle: “I’m worried about your Mum.”
Michelle to her mother: “You need to get out more – mix with other people. Why don’t you look for a job?”
“After 30 years as a housewife?” she said. “I’m a jack of all trades and master of none!’
“You’re never too old to learn,” said Michelle.
“What, programming and spreadsheeting and whatever else I hear that you do on a computer these days!”
“Hardly rocket science,” said Michelle under her breath, with effort selecting a jolly smile. “A craft club would be nice – lots of people your age. Why don’t you join one of those?”
“I’ve never been a club person,” she demurred. “I’ve been through so much lately ... I don’t think I’m up to it yet.”
“I’m going to sell the house, Reg,” she told his favourite hibiscus and petunias. “I’m sorry, love, but I rattle around in it now. I know you put a lot of work into the garden, but” – she brightened – “think of all the potential buyers I’ll be able to show it to. I expect I won’t have a minute to myself for weeks.”
And vainly, she waited. The real estate agent shrugged: “You can lead a horse to water ... We’ve advertised the property well enough ... But the market is slow.” In the end, they untied the For Sale placard from the fence.
Defeated, she took Michelle’s advice and enrolled in a club. Even the devil she didn’t know was better than the daily oppression of being alone.
Jubilant, Michelle phoned Geoffrey. “Breakthrough! Mum has asked me to help her buy some tights! She’s signing on in an over-fifties aerobics group.”
“Exercises for the elderly,” Geoffrey quipped.
“Geoffrey, if you so much as hint at something like that to Mum in her frame of mind, I
– personally – will puncture ev – er – y – tyre – on – your – car. Including the spare!’
At the reception desk of the gym, her mother surrendered the fee and nervously folded the receipt to fit her wallet.
“I’m a widow,” she explained. “We get a lot of those,” smiled the blasé assistant.
“Now here’s a key for your locker, and I do suggest that you go to the back of the class for today so you can watch the old hands. You’ll soon get the idea of what to do.”
Twenty-five skips later she wondered dizzily which would burst first: her lungs or her heart.
“Are you all right?” frowned the assistant, easing her onto a couch. Nobody else seemed to notice and, shortly after, more lonely than ever, she drove home.
“It’s pointless,” she whimpered, turning on the television, turning it off again. “Damn your shonky ticker, Reg!” she screamed at the walls, and sobbed herself dry.
‘You must persevere, Mum. If at first you don’t succeed,” said Geoffrey. He riffled desperately through the Notices in the local rag. “Here’s one to appeal to you – art classes on Wednesday mornings at St Saviour’s church hall. You used to always say how you wished you could paint.”
“Dreams are the names we give to our failures,” she then retorted bitterly.
“I’ll ring the organisers and find out what you need.”
“Talent!” sneered his mother-in-law.
“Give it a try,” pleaded Geoff. “I’ll bet they’ll all be friendly, and beginners just like you.”
“Wrong, Geoffrey!” she recorded mentally as she diffidently entered the hall. “Good to have you on board,” boomed the instructor jovially. Intent, self-absorbed, the faces
glanced up, smiled mechanically, dropped back into their work. Aloof. Casually but expensively groomed. Out of her league.
“If you wouldn’t mind sitting next to Betty, just for today,” commanded the instructor. Heads jerked back up; she heard the quick suck of breath, apprehensive eyes followed her to a corner.
“Betty’s a dab hand with the brush,” he bellowed, well pleased with his little pun.
She sidled onto her stool. Oh God! – Betty! – lumpy beside her – topsy-turveydom in her fishbowl eyes; a thread of dribble on her chin. “I ’ike the ’ady, Tony,” grinned Betty.
She heard the group exhale a collective sigh and turn back to its work with relief.
Tony winked. “Keep an eye on Betty,” he whispered. “She gets in a muddle at times.” He scampered out of her range before Betty could make problems for them and, bitter, she allowed the art instruction to slip by.
Her disappointment focused on only one thing: that she had come for companionship, and had been lumbered with someone she needed to look after. She was being used.
Class over, she had hoped for introductions, but with sympathetic smiles, the artists melted away to avoid the awkwardness of Betty cemented like a barnacle to her side. Tony scurried up abjectly. “There’s been a hitch. Would you mind driving Betty home?”
She opened her mouth – “It’s on your way,” he hastened to add – and shut it again like a baited fish. “Wouldn’t a taxi ...” she spluttered. Tony referred to the woman between them with a glance. “It mightn’t be safe. She likes you. Here – I’ll help you stow her art gear into your car.” He handed her an address. “I’ll ring ahead,” he said.
In the passenger seat, Betty nodded and giggled at the changing pageants of the suburbs. “Home!” she said as they curved into her street. An elderly gentleman waited in ramrod duty at the gate, coming forward as they got out of the car.
“So kind of you,” he intoned stiffly. “Thank you – I can manage her – I’d rather you didn’t come in.”
“Snob, snob, snob!” she fumed all the way home. I’d rather you didn’t come in. Thinks I’m not good enough. I saw the quality in his slacks and shirt! Him and his Lord Kitchener moustache and his clipped hedges! But I’m good enough to drive his Betty home. Used, that’s what I was today. Not an ounce of sympathy for me!
Disillusioned, lonely, she was cynical when the note arrived.
“Thank you so much for looking after our Betty on Wednesday. I had no idea that her carer had left her at art class alone – goodness knows what tale she spun Tony before she sped off – or that she had failed to return in time to bring Betty home. It’s my morning out, too, you see. (As it happens, the carer handed in her notice and left the same day. They don’t make life easy, do they?)
“I am sorry that my father didn’t invite you in to say ‘thank you’ properly. However, you would be very welcome any time you cared to call. “Gratefully,
“Oh, I’ll bet you’ll be grateful,” she sneered. “You’re hoping I’ll be stupid enough to mind Betty again now that the carer has gone.” She committed the note to the bin and began preparing lunch. The selfishness of Vera Knowles astounded her. The woman had a problem, but did she honestly expect everyone else to wait on her?
She froze, oblivious of the kettle overflowing under the tap. People in glass houses, her mother used to say, and suddenly she saw herself through those transparent walls. Like Vera Knowles, she had been expecting people to knock on her door: her family, her neighbours, Jack and Beryl, Coral, even total strangers who were house-hunting or cavorting in the gym. And not once had she found solace or eased her loneliness for long. Why? She snapped back to attention and jerked off the tap. Slotted the bread into the toaster. Sliced tomato and cheese. Why? Heaven helps those who help themselves, whispered her mother’s ghost. “Oh no, Mother, no!” she cried aloud, jubilant. “You’re wrong! Heaven helps those who help others! That’s what Heaven is!”
Illuminated, she dived for the bin and retrieved the discarded note. There was another proverb of her mother’s that she remembered, almost too late: read between the lines. Breathless, she deciphered the code embedded in Vera Knowles’s courtesy.
Yes, it was more than a thank you – it was a plea for help, a plea for friendship from a woman living, she saw now, a restricted and difficult life. Looking after our Betty; it’s my morning out too, you see; they don’t make life easy, do they?; very welcome any time you cared to call. Perhaps Vera Knowles was as hungry for good company as she was. Perhaps Vera Knowles needed support, and she could help.
Perhaps Vera would turn out to be a crashing bore, but she had to try, had to start again somewhere, didn’t she?
She flicked the note card over. No telephone number. Where was the envelope? Surely the back of the envelope ... she rummaged again in the bin, found the crumpled ball, smoothed it out anxiously. Thank heaven! The number was embossed there ... and she carried it hopefully to the phone.
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