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Anna’s Choice Anna comes to terms with her loss

Without Patrick, she really didn’t know what she wanted…

- By Valerie Bowes

Anna sneaked another glance at her watch. She thought she’d been unobtrusiv­e about it, but Liz was on to her immediatel­y.

“Will you stop doing that! You’ve got all the time in the world now, so relax and enjoy your coffee.”

Tears reddened Anna’s eyes and Liz’s voice softened. She laid her hand over Anna’s.

“Sorry, love. It’s just that I hate to see you still expecting him to ring. But I didn’t mean to bully you. You’re your own boss now.”

Anna nodded. She knew her friend was only thinking of her, but the reminder still brought a lump to her throat. The freedom Liz thought she should be so keen to embrace seemed limitless. Too big to contemplat­e. She wasn’t sure she could cope with it.

“How’re you coping, anyway?” Liz asked, as though she’d read Anna’s thoughts. “I can’t imagine what it must be like for you to be on your own after all this time.”

“OK, I suppose, but I miss him so much.” Even her best friend could never understand how much Anna had loved Patrick, and how scared she was of the huge hole he’d left in her life. “But Derek’s been really helpful,” she said, resolutely blinking the mistiness away. “Derek?” “Next door.” “Oh, him.” Patrick had thought it hilarious that poor, shy bachelor Derek, with his jug-like ears and prominent Adam’s apple, should have formed such an obvious devotion to Anna, and pretended to believe that it was reciprocat­ed.

She’d felt sorry for Derek, but Patrick’s jokes did get very wearing and she’d found herself avoiding any mention of his name.

Still, she’d have found it even harder to cope without Derek’s help in the past few months.

Liz poured out the coffee, and Anna stopped herself from checking her watch again. She didn’t have to wait for Patrick’s phone call, ready to jump up and leave whatever she was doing to talk to him.

She’d thought it such a romantic thing for him to do, at first.

“Romantic, my foot!” Liz had said, years ago. “He’s checking up on you.”

And Anna found soon enough that it could be a mixed blessing. The very first time she hadn’t been in when he rang, in the days before mobile phones, he’d been ominously silent when he came home that evening.

“Where were you at midday?” he said, when, dismayed, she pressed him to tell her what was wrong. “I thought badminton finished at eleven-thirty.”

“It does, yes, but we were chatting for a while afterwards.”

“I see. You’d rather talk to your friends than me. Fair enough.”

“Come off it, Pat!” she’d laughed in astonishme­nt and, after a moment, the green look had vanished from his eyes. He’d given her a repentant kiss and next day he’d brought her an enormous bunch of flowers.

Yet it seemed, however hard he tried – and he did try, bless him, Anna thought – he could never keep his jealousy from bubbling up. The only exception was Derek.

“Funny thing, about Derek,” Anna said, selecting a cake. “Patrick actually asked him round to that last barbecue. He even suggested he should go with me to that concert in the park.

“I know he was feeling really rough by then and he hated classical music anyway. He knew Derek loves it as much as I do, but wasn’t that weird?”

“Weird? Come on, Anna! What do you think he was up to?” Liz said.

Anna couldn’t think of anything Patrick could have been “up to”, but positively encouragin­g her to take notice of any other man was so unlike

him. She thought back to the time when a male acquaintan­ce had smiled and greeted her in the supermarke­t. “Hi, Anna!” “Hi, Dave.” She’d smiled tightly at him and walked on down the aisle, knowing her cheeks had reddened and that Dave would be wondering what he’d done to offend her. There was nothing to feel guilty about, but Patrick’s suspicions always brought the blood rushing into her face. And then, of course, he was certain she had something to hide.

“Who’s that?” he demanded, scowling over his shoulder as Dave looked surprised. “Dave Thrower.” “Where do you know him from?” “He’s just started playing badminton.” “Who is he?” “His name’s Dave Thrower, and he plays badminton with us.”

What else was there to say? It was all she knew about the man.

“How come you’ve never mentioned him?” Patrick demanded.

“Hasn’t come up in conversati­on, I suppose – that’s all.” “Does his wife play?” “I don’t even know if he’s married.” “How come he can play during the day? Doesn’t he work?”

“I don’t know! Perhaps he works shifts or he’s part-time, like me,” she’d said, exasperate­d at Patrick’s unshakeabl­e conviction that you couldn’t partner a man at badminton without wanting to sleep with him. “I’ve never asked. Lighten up, Patrick! You don’t have deep and meaningful­s while you’re playing, and I’ve hardly said a dozen words to him off court.”

It was plain that he hadn’t been entirely persuaded. She’d given up going to badminton in the end. It had just made life easier.

And yet… he had positively thrust her at Derek.

S he pushed the memories away as Liz suggested another cake. “Better not,” she said regretfull­y. “I’ll never manage one of Derek’s dinners if I do. I’ve been having most of my meals round there. I still haven’t got the hang of cooking for one, and neither has he since his mother died.

“He’s a brilliant cook, actually. It’s a good job Patrick made such friends with him in the end.” Liz slammed her cup down. “Wake up, girl! Can’t you see what he’s doing?” “Who? Derek?” “No, not him. Patrick!”

“But Patrick’s dead!” Anna said, shocked into bluntness.

“He may be, but he’s still trying to rule your life.” “How can you say such a thing?” “Anna, he resented anything that took the tiniest bit of your attention away from him. He didn’t even want you to have a cat, did he? And look how he tried to stop you seeing any of your friends – especially me. I think he reckoned I’d encourage you to rebel.”

Liz grasped Anna’s wrist and shook it. “Then, near the end, he couldn’t bear to think you might ever fall in love with someone else. So he tried to make sure you’d get safely hitched to Derek. No competitio­n, don’t you see?

“Don’t fall for it! You find your own man if you want to, and stay footloose and fancy-free if you don’t. It’s your choice – not Patrick’s. And have another cake!”

Driving home, Anna couldn’t stop thinking about her friend’s words. Patrick wouldn’t do a thing like that. Liz must have got it wrong. They’d never had much time for each other, Liz and Pat. The thought occurred to her that they were too alike.

And what was all that about making her own choice? Of course she would, she thought with a twist of defiance, but the anger faded as she looked into an uncertain future. Suppose she didn’t have a choice? She curled up inside at the thought of being on her own for the rest of her life. At least Derek was there, ready to hand, dependable and devoted.

Anddull. The thought of being anything more than his next-door neighbour gave her the shudders.

Derek had obviously been watching for her return. “Ah, there you are,” he said, peering over the hedge as she walked up to her front door. “I’ve got a lovely steak-andkidney pudding all ready.”

Anna hesitated, hefting the carrier bag containing the bottle of wine and the fresh sea bass with samphire that she’d fancied for her meal. Maybe she was burning her boats. Maybe she should think again. Maybe she could manage one more steak-and-kidney pudding, despite that second cake.

But she made her choice. For better, for worse. This wasn’t fair on Derek, any more than it was on her. He shouldn’t be used like this. She wouldn’t let them be pushed into a relationsh­ip of convenienc­e by Patrick’s obsession. Or because she was afraid. She smiled at him, and shook her head firmly.

“It’s very kind of you, Derek. You’ve been such a help these past few months. But there’s no need for you to put yourself out any longer. You’ve got your own life to live – and so have I.”

She might even start playing badminton again.

“Don’t FALL FOR IT! It’s your CHOICE, not Patrick’s. And have another CAKE!”

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