She opened her eyes and knew that today was not a good day.
Lying motionless beneath the grey overcoat Eleanor could hear the laboured breathing of the old man next to her, but she didn’t stir. Time enough, she thought. When morning came she would attract someone’s attention. Until then she would ease his suffering as best she could. Warmth was the main thing and some soup to heat his innards. Eleanor gazed through the space in the rafters, seeing the stars speckling a velvet black sky, and once more thought of the woman who befriended her some years ago. She wished she could remember her name.
Reaching across to the old man she secured the blue spotted scarf around his neck and gently pushed his knapsack further into his side to block some of the draught. The old shed was full of holes but she’d been lucky to find it … and the old guy who now lay beside her on the driest part of the floor. Goodness only knows how long he’d been there. He was poorly when she arrived and in four weeks he’d shown no improvement. Bronchial trouble, she reckoned, and would have summoned the medics if only he’d allowed it. She was reluctant to interfere and override his wishes; hadn’t she left the shop doorway for similar reasons.
Eleanor snuggled into the coat and continued to gaze through the hole in the roof, trying not to think of how cold she was or that it was her birthday. She wouldn’t have known the date but for the newspaper blown against the shed two days ago. The memory of a birthday cake filtered across her mind, when that kind woman gave her chocolate éclairs that rightly belonged to her boss. Whatever happened to her? Guilty thoughts seized her, not for the first time, of that Christmas two, no three years ago, when she ran away. She couldn’t stay, could she, not when the prospect of a family Christmas was on the cards. It wasn’t said in so many words but it was plain that an invitation was forthcoming.
The first signs of morning roused her. Daylight creeping in, the start of the dawn chorus, changing perspective from night to day. It was bitterly cold so the early birds were likely thinking about breakfast. The farmer had several nesting boxes in his yard; on those times when she felt disinclined to wander the lanes Eleanor would sit outside and watch the feral pigeons. If she had any food available she would toss them a few crumbs. Reaching for her bag she checked to see if there was anything left of the crusty roll she’d bought at the local shop, found only the stick of barley sugar given to her by a young girl at the behest of her Mom. Eleanor had saved it for an emergency so she replaced it in her bag.
Hearing the old man groan, Eleanor turned to face him. Leaning on one elbow, she whispered, ‘Is there something I can do, Jed?’
Jed’s chest wheezed; he groaned and said nothing.
The shed was dilapidated, its repair probably not on the farmer’s list of priorities. He knew they were there. He’d seen her going out and looked the other way. It made Eleanor feel more comfortable about being there. The normal routine was to sleep in the shed at night and move out at first light but Eleanor knew the day was coming when Jed would be too frail to make the effort. She wondered, what was the best thing to do? The situation was definitely a downside to being homeless and without friends.
Deciding to leave Jed where he was, Eleanor collected her bag of personal belongings and left the shed, trudging up the lane towards the gate that led to the farmhouse. She was torn between getting on with her aimless day and pushing through the gate to seek assistance. She wasn’t one to cry for help but she realised that if she didn’t Jed might die in that cold shed.
Thoughts of the kind woman filtered through Eleanor’s head and she wished fervently that she could remember her name. She would give good advice if she was here. Eleanor admonished herself for thinking stupid thoughts and walked briskly away from the gate. Her mind was made up; she would get Jed some food.
Her first stop was half a mile up the road at the small market town where ablutions could be carried out and food obtained, only this time she needed to get food for Jed as well. People were already setting up their stalls so Eleanor wandered about in the hope of catching the woman who sold hot soup and bread rolls to the stallholders. On a good day she would let Eleanor have a carton of soup for free, on a bad day she turned her away with a curse. Eleanor hoped today might be a good day.
There was no sign of the soup lady which was a pity since hot liquid food would have been good for Jed. Eleanor peered longingly at the display of fruit and vegetables outside the greengrocer’s shop, thinking some soft fruit might be easy for Jed to eat, but shouted orders to clear off from inside the shop had her moving quickly away. Even though she could have paid for a bit of fruit, she wasn’t in a fighting mood.
Turning the corner she paused and sniffed the air, picking up the smell of roast meat emanating from the butcher’s shop. Chicken, she thought. Ah Jed, wouldn’t you like a taste of chicken? It had been a long time since she’d eaten meat. Eleanor walked towards the butcher’s window. As she approached she saw the soup lady coming out of the door, followed by the butcher who’d come out to inspect his window. The woman acknowledged Eleanor with a wave. She must have been in a good mood. Taking advantage, Eleanor drifted towards her, wished her a good morning.
‘Aye, but it’s cold. You must be perished.’
‘I’m okay,’ said Eleanor. ‘My friend isn’t though, he’s sick. Probably dying!'
Eleanor explained the symptoms.
The woman was horrified. ‘Sounds more like pneumonia, the lad should see a doctor.’
Eleanor told her he was an old man, very old and very sick. At this point the butcher asked where the old man was so Eleanor told him they were squatting in a farm building down the road.
‘So you’re the folk Gerry Westbury talks about. He said he had visitors on his property.’ To Eleanor’s surprise he didn’t use the word unsavoury when he referred to ‘visitors’. The butcher looked quickly at the soup lady. ‘We should investigate, Mary.’
Mary agreed and offered to take soup and bread. The butcher said he would supply some cooked chicken portions and whatever else he thought might be easily digested. Eleanor was overcome by their kindness and overwhelmed when the butcher transported her and Mary to the farm in his blue van.
Jed was where Eleanor had left him, no longer covered by the coat. He seemed almost lifeless, his face drained of colour. He was conscious but it was obvious he was a very sick man. The butcher whipped out his mobile phone and dialled 999, giving details and emphasising the urgency of his call. Eleanor removed her coat to cover Jed but the Butcher told her to put it back on or she’d freeze to death. He went out to his van and collected some green tartan blankets to wrap around Jed.
The farmer’s wife appeared while they were all bending over Jed, the butcher arranging blankets while Mary spooned a little soup into his mouth. Feeling frightened, Eleanor knelt beside him holding his hand.
Folding her arms against her chest, the farmer’s wife said, ‘Well, well, if it isn’t my friend Eleanor Nobody.’
Eleanor froze, then released Jed’s hand and slowly turned. She’d known who it was the minute she heard the voice. Judith. At last she remembered.
As Judith walked towards her, arms outstretched, Eleanor struggled to stand. Using both arms Judith hauled her to a standing position and embraced her. She felt elated that the woman she had worried about for the last few years was here on her farm. Looking Eleanor straight in the eyes, she murmured, ‘Welcome to my home.’
Eleanor felt in her bones that today was a good day.
Eleanor went with Jed to the hospital and she stayed with him until he died, holding his hand so he’d know he wasn’t alone. She could have just left him there but she couldn’t abandon a friend when he was poorly. The only friend in the world, she’d thought, until today proved her wrong. Judith had been her friend but she couldn’t see it at the time. If only she hadn’t crowded her private space!
A week later, Eleanor sat in the empty cowshed gazing at the paraphernalia for milking cows. It was warm in there, yet she shivered. She felt stifled and fretful. Any minute now Judith would call her in for dinner. Eleanor didn’t know if she could tolerate another meal in that homely kitchen. A meal on a china plate, a flower painted cup on a saucer, things she had grown out of. Judith was a fine cook and her pies were real tasty but Eleanor wasn’t used to eating regular meals. Her stomach couldn’t cope with the sudden influx of food. Casting her mind back she recalled that it was food that made her run away from this caring person. That, plus the fear of again being beholden.
Her work was done; she had seen that Jed ended his life in the care of professionals, now there was no time for daydreaming. And the offer of a job on the farm was just that, a daydream. She’d come a long way in a week. Judith had insisted she stayed with them, although she was tactful enough not to suggest that she slept in the house. Instead she had a room in one of the outbuildings, cleaned out and done up for visitors. It was peaceful … and oppressive. Sometimes four walls were worse than none at all. Sleeping in a bed wasn’t for her, so every night she had slept on the floor with her coat for covering and her bag for a pillow. Same as always. She was too old to change.
Maybe she should be grateful, maybe she should be a lot of things, but she couldn’t alter who she was. The outdoor life suited her; there were no commitments to worry about, no arguments to mar the day, no worries. She had everything she needed to get by and no-one to tell her what she should or shouldn’t do. No rules, no obligation.
Automatically Eleanor’s hand slid up to her chest to the place where she used to pin a yellow rose. Of course, it was lost, and that’s how she felt. Lost! It had been a reminder of days gone by, given to her by a nurse in the ward where she bore her son. ‘You’ve got no flowers,’ she said, ‘so I brought you this.’
She had treasured the silk flower; it was a reminder of the joy she felt for producing a boy. Later it became a reminder of the badness she’d brought into the world. Her son, a wicked man who lied, and stole, and gambled away her home. Perhaps it was as well she lost the rose when she moved on. Perhaps losing it had turned her fortunes. Judith’s reappearance in her life might be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps one day she would find peace.
But not here, not in these four walls, with a full belly and an obligation. She needed space to gather her thoughts and her wits. The kindest thing she could do for Judith was to go away, like she did before. It would hurt her more the second time, but Eleanor knew that she must lead her own life, return to the wilds, the roads, the haystacks, and freedom. She would never forget her; even though she treated her badly, Judith was the only person in the world she could truthfully call her friend.
For a brief moment Eleanor sat on, gazing blindly at an old copper kettle that lay in a pile of hay, and for the second time she prayed to God that Judith would understand. Eventually, she rose, picked up her bag, and moved slowly to the ill fitting door. Opened it, stepped outside. The wintry sun was shining, the grass by the door glistened. It was a pretty sight. After a brief and surprisingly sentimental glance towards the farmhouse, she opened the five barred gate and began the long walk down the lane.
Behind the kitchen window Judith watched, a single tear trickling down her cheek. She’d had great hopes of helping Eleanor to lead a normal life yet deep down she’d known she would feel uncomfortable, that she felt threatened by ordinary things. It was not in her power to change things. ‘Goodbye, Eleanor Nobody,’ she whispered. ‘May your God go with you.’