Why are you cleaning the taps with your toothbrush, Grandma?'
The child sat at a pine table, busily pouring water into tiny cups, her small hands awkwardly tilting the plastic jug. She wore an apron covered with bears and pots of honey and one of her blonde ringlets was caught in the strap. Her granny stood at the sink scouring the taps. At least I presume she was scouring the taps, I could only see the top half of her slight frame from where I stood, hidden by a burgeoning wisteria, outside the open leaded window.
'Because it's the only small brush I've got,' Jane Goodman said. 'I've no use for it any more.'
She beamed at the youngster and I thought what a shame the smile would soon be wiped clean away. When I was ready, that is. There was no rush. Nothing would be gained by rushing.
'My toothbrush is smaller than yours, Grandma.'
'I know, pet.'
'Shall I fetch it?'
'S'all right, petal, I can manage with this one.'
Maintaining my position behind the wisteria, I continued to gaze into that comfortable kitchen, relishing the aroma of roasting meat, so inviting to a hungry man. and I was ravenous. I moved a low-growing blue raceme from my ear and tried to work out how old the child was.
The Goodman family moved to the village around the time my Sammy was born, twenty-five years ago. He courted Belinda, the child's mother, from fifteen to twenty-three, when that vixen Michelle turned his senseless head. Against my advice he married her - and Belinda bounced into an unsuitable marriage of her own. So the little girl would be three. I looked again at young Bethie. It was like looking at a portrait of Sam when he was a nipper, 'cept he never had no ringlets.
I gazed at the yellow envelope in my hand and wondered how Jane would take the news. Would she rant about Sammy's shortcomings like she did when he was a kid? It was too late for recriminations, but I bet she'd have a go. Never did like my lad, she didn't. Leastways, that was the impression I got.
Pushing her blue sleeves up her arms, Jane Goodman walked to the stove and opened the oven door. The meat sizzled louder than ever and the juices ran amok in my mouth. Bethie leaned sideways on her chair and peered around her Gran's back. She licked her lips. Perhaps she hadn't had breakfast, same as me. But Jane wouldn't allow that. For all her faults, she wouldn't neglect her daughter's child.
My granddaughter, and I never knew until the letter came from
The envelope burned into my palm. Safe in the knowledge that I couldn't be seen I withdrew the letter and skimmed through Sammy's words, though they should have been imprinted on my brain the amount of times I'd read them.
This may come as a surprise, Dad, but I have linked up with Belinda again. We met by chance last week, though Belinda puts it down to fate. And guess what I've discovered. Young Bethie is my daughter - your granddaughter. You always wanted a granddaughter, didn't you, Dad? I can't describe my joy. It was an idiot thing to do, marrying Michelle, but it's not too late to make amends. That's why Belinda and I have decided to wed when I've settled my divorce. You always had a soft spot for her so I know you'll be happy, but I'm not so sure about Mrs G. She doesn't know that I'm Bethie's father, so I wondered if you would break the news. Pave the way for us. Just fancy, in a week's time I'll be seeing my daughter. I can't believe it. See you then, Love Sam
So tomorrow they would be home. No longer could I put off apprising Jane Goodman of the facts. I slid the letter into my back pocket and buttoned my coat so as to look respectable, hastily plucking dog hairs from the sleeve. I wished I'd worn my brown jacket instead of the blue which only now struck me as looking the worse for wear. Too long ago I had a wife who took care of things like that. Far above, a lark sang and I gazed upwards for a minute or two, then, taking a deep breath, I left the sanctuary of the wisteria and advanced along the narrow path to the door. Goodness only knew what I was going to say.
The pain in the gut was acute. Nerves probably, but I didn't give in to it. Instead I rapped the door. I heard Jane say, 'Who on earth can that be.' She sounded a touch irritated and so would I be if people came calling when my dinner was waiting.
The door opened and the widow stood there, drying her hands on a green towel, her greying hair scraped back off her face. There was a smear of grease on her cheek. Her expression was severe until it registered who was visiting, cap in hand and wincing with cramps.
'Good gracious. Desmond Bowers, as I stand here breathing.'
Bethie clutched her Gran's skirt and peeped shyly at me. Seeing those deep blue eyes brought a lump to my throat. Image of Sam she was, but she had Belinda's nose, turned up and cute.
Jane relaxed and took Bethie's hand. 'Come in, Desmond. How are you keeping? And Sam ... how is he?' Her voice wavered as she spoke.
I thought, She's as nervous as me.
Jane drew me into her kitchen and closed the door behind me. She indicated a chair. 'Sit down, Desmond. Can I get you something? Bethie and I were about to have dinner. You're quite welcome to join us. As I remember you were partial to a slice or two of roast beef.'
I mulled the offer over but rejected it, stating that I didn't mind coming back when their meal was done.
Jane laughed. 'Don't be silly. I can tell you're dying to sample my Yorkshire pudding.'
'Has the man got a toothbrush, Grandma?'
Jane ruffled Bethie's hair. 'I imagine he's left it at home, petal.' Then she addressed me. 'We wouldn't mind having company. Gets a shade humdrum with just each other to talk to.'
I looked at the topside and the crisp potatoes on the willow-pattern plate. Wisps of steam rose from a dish of buttered sprouts. The smell was pure heaven. I said, 'You might regret the invitation when you hear what I've come to say.'
'I suspect not,' said Jane, 'but we'll worry about that when you've had your fill.'
The matter which had brought me to Jane's door was finally raised when Bethie took her afternoon nap, but to my astonishment it was Jane who raised it.
She said, 'So, Belinda and Sam have at last sorted themselves out.'
I was bewildered. 'How did you know?'
She took a yellow envelope from the dresser. 'I received this a week ago. You can read it if you like.'
I declined. It didn't do to read other people's mail. 'Did you know -'
'About Bethie?' Jane lifted a framed photograph of her granddaughter lying in a crib. 'I guessed. Even as a baby she looked like Sam, same features and colouring. I didn't question. I knew the truth would emerge in its own time. I was right, Desmond, and I can't tell you how pleased I am.'
I said, 'I always wanted a granddaughter.'
She placed the frame on a small table. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. 'And I wanted a decent son-in-law,' she said. 'A proper family.'
I took her hand in my calloused one. How could I have been so wrong about this woman. We'd got what we dreamed of, her and me. Sam and Belinda too. But Bethie most of all. What a day she'd had if she did but know. Gained a Dad and a Grandad in one fell swoop.' I glanced at the baby picture on the table. The kitchen window was reflected in the glass, framing the tiny face. A frame within a frame. Inside or out the sheets, what the hell. This mite had allied two families, blended them together by the consequence of birth. I looked at Jane Goodman. 'Her family's complete,' I said, 'and so are ours.'