(Montbretia image courtesy of www.stevensandson.com)
The evergreens looked much fresher after the rain but the flowers around the front lawn looked quite downcast. Of course, they would soon recover when they dried out and at least the Montbretia still looked showy. That’s what attracted the old man’s attention.
For a man of such obviously advanced years he was stylishly dressed in well pressed jeans and an open necked pale purple shirt with a jacket in deeper shades of purple and green. It reminded Beverley of a poem about wearing purple,’ except that she thought it related more to women than men. Certain she hadn’t seen him before, Bev wondered if he was new to the area.
The stranger extended a gnarled hand and gently touched the flower before looking up and spotting Bev standing by the front door. She felt suddenly as if she’d been caught spying but the feeling vanished when she saw his face light up with a beaming smile. A remarkable face, she thought; though heavily wrinkled the skin seemed soft, almost girlish. Treading carefully on the still wet path, ducking to avoid a random shoot of Wisteria, Beverley Wilson walked towards him.
‘My wife loves Montbretia,’ he said.
‘So do I,’ Bev replied. ‘Perhaps I could cut you a bunch. The blooms are almost done but there might be a day or two’s beauty to enjoy.’
The man thanked her, saying she was very kind, and could she put some paper round them.
Rather taken aback, Bev agreed. ‘I don’t take the newspapers, I’m afraid, but I’m sure I can find something.’
The man grimaced as he picked up a paper carrier bag from between his feet and took a faltering step towards her. ‘I don’t want to cause any trouble, only my hands can’t grip too many things at once. Arthritis, you know!’
Bev did know, hadn’t her mother been crippled with it for years.
‘I’ll go and get the cutters and perhaps you can choose the best flowers.’
Hurrying into the house, shutting the door behind her, she raced through to the back garden and grabbed the gardening scissors from a hook outside the door. The thought entered her head that at least she would be armed if anything should happen.
When she returned, the old man was sitting on the low wall which started where the privet hedge ended. He was nursing his paper bag, his wooden cane propped between his knees, his right hand fondling the head of next door’s tabby cat. Obviously an animal lover, he made soothing noises as he worked his fingers through the black fur. Beverley thought how kind-hearted he was.
He tried to get up when he saw her.
‘Stay there a while,’ she said. ‘I’ll get the flowers for your wife.’ Quickly she sorted out the best, all the time complaining about the effect of recent rain on her beloved flowers. She was aware that she was babbling and tried to stem the apprehension. It was always the same when faced with strangers yet deep down she knew that on this occasion there was no need to feel anxious.
When she had finished she wrapped the flowers with some of the long leaves in several layers of tissue paper and took them to him, hoping somewhat childishly that he would like them. As she approached she thought how tranquil he was, so completely at ease. The word contentment came to mind. She could almost feel his calm, deep inside. Surprisingly, she experienced none of the tummy lurching that preceded apprehension. It was replaced by a sudden confidence, an amazing sensation. She could feel the future opening, welcoming.
‘Aye,’ he said as he admired the arrangement, ‘my wife will be delighted with these. She had a dress in that colour and the Montbretia flowers remind her of it. It was her going away dress on our honeymoon.’
Bev felt a lump in her throat. Her mother had fond memories of a particular dress she wore when she married, only hers was Hyacinth blue. It must be a thing about growing old, she thought, and wondered why she couldn’t recall the outfit she’d worn when she and Ed went on their Irish honeymoon. Perhaps it was because her marriage hadn’t been a happy experience. Ed was not the gentlest of men, he scared her most of the time. They parted after just six years and she’d been alone ever since; her own choice.
Pushing away all those thoughts, she asked the old man if he would like a cup of coffee and maybe some cake? Her boldness startled her. Had she taken leave of her senses? What on earth had possessed her to invite a complete stranger into her house, let alone offer food and drink? She wasn’t usually so sociable but there was something about the man’s demeanour that drove away her customary fear.
Once again she cursed the day of the burglar, that ruffian who burst in while she was in the back garden and made off with her purse, jewellery and several valuable ornaments. Since then she had diligently locked all doors and windows and earned a reputation for overzealously locking herself in the house. The neighbours thought she was a bit odd but although they knew of the incident they couldn’t know how her nerves had been shot to pieces.
‘Cake would be very nice but with tea, if you don’t mind.’
‘Come on into the house, then,’ said Bev, then paused and asked if his wife would wonder where he was. A last minute excuse to back out.
‘Nay, lass, she’s a patient soul. And she’ll be right pleased to see me turn up with flowers.’
Beverley led the way, guiding her unexpected guest round a rather elderly black Vauxhall and over the step by the door. For once the Wisteria stayed where it should be. She wanted to ask his name but courage failed her … a remnant from the past when her mother chastised her for being forward. At fifty-five she should have grown out of childish worries but old habits die hard when they were drummed into you by a dominant parent.
She did ask his name but not until she had made a pot of Assam tea, sliced some Battenberg cake and arranged them on one of her best Spode plates with a white paper doily to make it look nice. She felt quite comfortable in the old man’s presence, not in the least anxious; in fact, as she looked at him she thought how well he suited the surroundings, the eau de nil paintwork and lilac flowers in the wallpaper were in complete harmony with his clothes.
Pulling the smallest table from the nest by the hearth, she invited him to sit down. Helping him into the winged fireside chair, she suddenly asked, ‘What should I call you?’
‘Call me Harry. It’s Harris really but my wife thinks it sounds a bit stuck-up.’ Harry took a bite of cake, then smilingly added, ‘Her name’s Gertrude, Gertie for short. She prefers Gertie for the same reason.’
‘Do you live locally? I mean, I don’t recall seeing you before and wondered…..’
‘Just round the corner from the cemetery. Don’t get out much though with this arthritis and the relentless rain stops me from venturing far.’
Beverley felt the same way about the rain. It seemed that every time she went out of the front door the heavens opened. She could recall better summers but now they seemed to be buried in the mists of time.
Harry agreed about the rain. ‘Gertie hates it, she always says a little is worth a fortune but too much drowns the plant life.’ Harry paused to remove some crumbs from his jacket before going on to describe his wife.
Gertie and Harry lived next to each other when they were children. Although she was four years older she spent a lot of time with Harry. As children they did a fair amount of squabbling and as they grew older each took an interest in other children of opposite and respective sexes. However, there was no comparison for the friendship they shared; a friendship that matured into love. By the time they were old enough for University they prepared to go their separate ways, Harry to Guildford and Gertie to Leeds. Those were nightmare years and no amount of correspondence could bridge the loneliness each one experienced. ‘We were a couple and couples should never be apart,’ explained Harry, somewhat wistfully.
With parental permission they married young and set up house in Guildford, enjoying the experience of being together under one roof. But their hearts were in the Midlands where they grew up and after a few years they moved back to Tamworth. ‘But our wonderful marriage produced no babies,’ Harry said. ‘That was a downside for us, a real tragedy.
‘But you had each other.’
‘Aye, we did that.’
According to Harry, Gertie was a cracker which Beverley assumed meant she was a good looking woman. He wasn’t so complementary about his own appearance and offered the opinion that he had never been able to work out what she saw in him in the first place. Bev, though, could see exactly what Gertie could see. Although she had only just met him she could tell that he was a compassionate man, full of character and understanding. There was gentleness in his movements and his blue eyes and generous mouth seemed always to be smiling. She imagined him to be quite benevolent.
Harry drank some of his tea then replaced the cup in the saucer and reached for another Battenberg slice. He remarked on the china, explained that Gertie adored Spode. Bev was impressed since he hadn’t looked under the plate to see where it was made. She had a feeling that she and Gertie had lots of things in common.
After pouring another cup of tea Bev leaned back in her seat. In a short time he had told her so much about his life yet he knew nothing about her. She wasn’t inclined to talk about her lonely life either, yet when Harry said he really must go Beverley felt at a sudden loss. It had been a long time since she’d had such pleasant and interesting company.
She helped Harry to his feet, handed him his cane and his bag. She had put the flowers inside the bag so that he wouldn’t have too much to hold. Harry led the way to the door then turned to thank Bev for her kindness. Seizing her hand he leaned forward to peck her cheek.
Agreeably surprised, Beverley felt the blush creep up her neck. ‘It was my pleasure,’ she said, and meant every word. Opening the door, she saw that the weather had turned again, it was pouring with rain. ‘You’ll get soaked if you go out in that, I’ll just get the keys to the car and drive you home.’
‘That would be helpful,’ said Harry. ‘But I have a stop to make before going home.’
‘That’s fine,’ Beverley said, ‘I don’t mind dropping you wherever you like.’
The route was unfamiliar but Harry directed her like a true navigator. After five minutes driving, he asked her to pull up by the cemetery gates. Pointing to the sky, he whispered, ‘Look, the rain has lessened. See the sun coming through the black clouds?’
Bev looked out of the car window and sure enough the sun was like a beacon shining through the grey. She hoped there would be a rainbow; she loved rainbows.
Harry smiled. ‘It always does that when I come here.’ He gathered up his bag, gripped his cane, and went to open the car door. But then he turned back and asked if Beverley would like to meet his wife.
‘Well, if it’s not too much trouble.’
‘No trouble at all, Gertie will be delighted to have company. And she’ll want to thank you for the flowers.’
Without waiting for assistance, Harry climbed out of the car. ‘Come on,’ he said, a trifle impatiently, ‘she’ll be waiting.’
Bev grabbed her raincoat from the back seat, locked the car doors and followed Harry through the immense wrought iron gate, thinking he must have easy access to his house from the cemetery path. But instead of following the path round he stopped in front of a grave with an angel at the head. ‘Gertie,’ he said, ‘I’ve brought a visitor.’
For several years Bev maintained a friendship with Harry and, through him, with Gertie. He’d been right, if weather conditions were bad when they visited the cemetery, the sun always came out the minute they arrived at the gate. Bev liked to think it was instigated by Gertie, using sunshine to welcome her husband.
Beverley’s loneliness disappeared the day Harry stopped to admire the Montbretia. He brought purpose to her life, she had someone to do things for, to look after, to laugh with or console on a bad day. She was happy; through him she acquired more friends. He was a popular man. Although he lived alone Gertie’s presence was very real, it was all he wanted.
Now Harry lies beside his wife. Bev visits often, always taking flowers from her garden and her thanks for their friendship. And the sun never fails to greet her even on the wettest day.