The winter sun had burst through the cloud the second he bade her good morning, lighting his face and igniting his smile. Or so Gentle thought. She was later to learn that his inner well-being was the cause of the illumination. Now that she was near to him, she noticed how smooth was his skin, almost baby-like in its texture. His lovat overcoat was unbuttoned, displaying a beige polo neck shirt underneath a toning sweatshirt embellished with a sporty logo. His choice of clothes belied his age, she thought, inching a fraction nearer the man she had spent hours scrutinising from afar. They were sitting on a corroding iron bench with diverse messages scratched in what was left of the basic green paint.
'Only place to be on a fine day,' he said, favouring Gentle with another bright smile. 'Though the benches are not what they were.' He gazed at her, quite candidly. 'Do you come here often?' Hazel-flecked blue eyes held hers until she felt the colour rising in her cheeks and she was compelled to look elsewhere.
'Every day,' she shyly imparted, crushing an aspiration to reveal her study of him, to disclose her approval of his demeanour, and profess to being envious of his self-assurance.
He fingered his whiskers, and then he extended his hand so rapidly that Gentle jerked backwards. The movement made him laugh, but then he was instantly contrite and concerned himself about her welfare, reassuring her with an apology. The way he was with animals, Gentle thought as she adjusted her collar.
'I was about to introduce myself,' he said. 'But maybe now you have no desire to become acquainted.'
Although Gentle's smile was coy, she felt somewhat coquettish inside, as if the practice of picking up men was routine, though she was not at all certain how she would feel in that circumstance since she had not attained such reward. Ever. 'My name's Gentle Appleyard,' she said, proffering her hand and praying he wouldn't laugh at her silly name.
'Gentle Appleyard,' he repeated, angling his head skywards as he experimented with the name. 'Gentle name for a gentle lady. Delightful.'
Gentle blushed, and wished he would release her hand so that she could mask her trembling mouth.
'And I'm George,' he said, restoring his gaze to her face. 'George Tensing.'
Giggling like a schoolgirl, Gentle said, 'That's a coincidence. I live in a property called Tensing House. I moved there when
Bridget Road was demolished.'
'Ah, yes. The motorway development.'
They debated the development and the major upheaval it had caused. The residents had been agreeably compensated, though George said he failed to see how one could be sufficiently recompensed for losing one's home. Gentle kept her own position to herself. It was, after all, no-one else's business.
They met frequently after that, always in the park. George didn't actually invite her to join him, merely specified the time he would be there, permitting Gentle the freedom to schedule her own afternoons. Nevertheless, save one occasion when a migraine kept her closeted in a darkened room, she visited the park whenever he said he would be there. Her admiration of him grew. Fondness ripened like blossoms in spring, tightly packed buds progressively burgeoning into fine blooms. Their concord was precious to her. There was an affinity she could not define, a closeness equivalent to that experienced with genuine family members. He was as vigilant as a father, as waggish as a brother. And now, at his petition, he was coming to tea. She didn't know why, but trusted he wasn't intending to propose, for although she adored him it was as a sister for a favourite brother or a daughter for a beloved father.
Gentle toured the ground floor for a final inspection, speculating on what he would say when he arrived at the imposing house. Would he judge it too grand? She had made no mention of the fact that her abode was a gift or that her benefactor chose to remain anonymous. She inhabited this beautiful home, free as a bird with no-one to call her to task, yet the plumes of perpetual puzzlement weighed heavy.
There had been no other choice for Gentle, when she was booted out of the family home in
but to accept the fantastic offer of occupancy, albeit from an unrevealed
source. It would be more substantial than an apartment, which was all she could
have afforded. At the beginning she had shrunk from moving out, believing she
was forsaking the ghosts of her family, but the conditions: the rubble, the
diggers, and the houses plummeting like swatted flies, forced her to heap her
paraphernalia into crates and get out. With tear-drenched eyes she had bid her
ghosts adieu: father, mother, two younger brothers and a sister, all dead.
Gentle's father, George, committed suicide after Matilda, her mother, died in childbirth. Twenty-five years ago. The baby, baptised Caroline, also died. The triple tragedy motivated Peter and Graham, Gentle's harum-scarum brothers, to go completely off the rails, taking to drink in a big way. Both were killed in a horrifying car crash for which they were unreservedly responsible. Ghosts were all Gentle had to call her kin.
Tensing House, as instructed by the solicitor who summoned her to see him about a most urgent matter, had been assigned to her by an unknown donor; a most generous gift, he said, looking down his nose as if the subject disgusted him, as if the transaction was disreputable and sordid. Gentle was unable to take in the significance of the settlement and implored the lawyer to shed some light. She gleaned this much: that the donator, who craved anonymity, was a friend of her mother, and as her mother had passed away long ago the likelihood of discovering the identity was remote. The lawyer remained mute when importuned and, at length, Gentle suspended the inquisition. Keys were handed over; the residence and contents were hers. Despite that, apart from sporadic checks, Gentle stayed with her ghosts until the bulldozers were well into their annihilation of
(to be continued)