Friends

31 October 2019

Dare to be Scared (by special request)


The room was cold. The fire, now no more than dying embers, made the fireplace look like a cavernous hole surrounded by a black marble mantelpiece. The unfinished drapes hung at the window awaiting final measurement. In the swelling silence Ellie Peterson was thankful that she couldn’t see outside.

An hour ago the sound of footsteps had unnerved her. Petrified she had waited for the door to open but nothing happened and the footsteps died away. Now, except for the creaking stair, the house was eerily quiet. She sat on the hard wooden settle, her body taut against the high back, feeling the terror in her spine. Dare she move? Would the spirits know of her presence if she did?

She wanted to believe the occupants had returned but they knew she was there so they surely would have called out. Her mind switched. Maybe it had been a burglar. If it was he was being terribly quiet. There were no other noises to indicate that drawers were being searched or cupboards ransacked.

The New Year’s Eve party seemed so long ago. The usual gang had turned up at Lacey’s Wine Bar with one extra, a boy called Ram who told stories about ghosts. While they drank in abundance someone mentioned the big house on the hill, saying it was haunted.

Ellie was taken aback for that house was where she would soon be working. The owner had commissioned her to replace the drapes in the dining room while the family was away in Tobago. In a mildly drunken state, she had scoffed at the suggestion of the place being haunted, saying it was all nonsense and bragging that she wasn’t in the least scared of ghosts. She didn’t mention that as a child she was scared to walk past the turreted property in case the ghost came out to get her.

It was Tom who dared her to spend the night there. Ellie had laughed and joked that she wouldn’t mind spending several nights there. And so she was dared so to do.

She had telephoned Jacqueline McCleary the next day, asking for permission to stay until her work was completed. It would be so much better, she’d said, if she could devote all her time to the task and not have the inconvenience of travelling to and fro. Mrs McCleary was delighted, saying it would be useful to have someone in attendance during her absence. She would make up a bed in the west wing.

Ellie remembered trembling with the excitement of spending nights alone in a supposedly haunted house. Now she trembled with fear in the icy room.

The musty smelling room was lit by a dim lamp on the antique bureau, out of reach from where she sat. She couldn’t remember putting it on but she did recall switching on the central chandelier before lighting the fire, then switching it off because the light was too harsh. Although she didn’t doubt her action she looked up, seeing only flickering firelight reflected in the clear glass. But the fire was dead and she half wondered if she was too.

She twisted round to check the door, wondering if she had the courage to go into the huge, cold hall that led to the west wing. She decided against it. It would be better to stay where she was, maybe close her eyes and try to sleep. The hard settle didn’t encourage sleep but she was too afraid to move to the comfort of an easy chair. Folding her legs beneath her, she eased the tartan blanket over her arms and prayed for daylight to come, wishing she’d ignored Tom’s stupid dare.

Outside the wind howled and rain lashed against the glass. The chandelier shook and the new drapes swayed in the half light. In a room in the west wing a shadowy figure rose from a winged armchair. Her skirts floated behind her as she noiselessly glided through a heavy wooden door that led to an imposing staircase. At the top she paused and listened as the first musical notes filtered through the air.

Ellie stirred, shifted her position on the settle. In the distance she heard faint music. It took her straight back to her childhood, when she’d been so afraid. Straining to listen she became aware of an indistinct soprano voice intoning the words of The Londonderry Air.

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying
'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide.

Ellie shivered as the eerie singing grew louder, swallowed to suppress a ripening scream. Somewhere in the back of her mind was the thought that spirits didn’t like screams and anyway, wasn’t she a grown up, sensible person who wasn’t afraid of ghosts? Hadn’t she said so repeatedly before… before coming here?

The crash completely unnerved her. It sounded like something smashing against the far door. Hardly daring to breathe, Ellie pulled the blanket round her shoulders and slid from the settle, grabbing the wooden arm to keep from falling. Against her better judgement she felt she had to investigate? Fearfully, she tiptoed across the polished floor and eased the door open.

On the floor was the oil painting that had been hanging in the hall, to the right of the door. Its heavy gold frame was broken, the glass lay in smithereens, but the picture seemed unmarked. Inches away lay the picture hook complete with fixtures, the screw ends coated with plaster. Ellie stooped to examine the painting, a naval officer. His stiff posture and stern expression was a little forbidding as he sat on a long wooden bench. The name at the foot of the painting indicated that this was Daniel McCleary, presumably a family ancestor Behind him, one hand on his shoulder, stood an attractive lady dressed in grey. Ellie stretched out an arm to touch her solemn face. The eyes seemed moist as if tears were falling. So sad, she thought, as she made to wipe them away. Ellie shook herself, reprimanding her foolish imagination.

Unsure about how to cope with the picture at that late hour and reluctant to delve further into the mysteries of the house she returned to the room where she had briefly slept. In the morning she would clear up the mess.

Sitting again on the settle she let her mind drift back to the picture, remembering the story of the young diva being killed, stabbed by her lover. So much for respectability, she thought.

Light was beginning to penetrate the room, making the shadows seem less creepy. Soon she would hear the dawn chorus; only then would she be able to relax. Ellie thought about the picture. Knowing she would have to explain to Mrs McCleary filled her with trepidation.

As more light seeped in Ellie found the courage to move about. Throwing aside the blanket she went to draw the curtains. She had to admit they looked good; the burgundy velvet went really well in the room. Since taking the commission she had worked hard, sewing well into the night on some occasions. Now all she had to do was measure and complete the hems. She would start early, after a drink and maybe some cereal. The need to move on with the work and leave the house couldn’t be ignored. But first she must clear up the mess in the hall.

Ellie stretched and yawned and tried to suppress a sudden desire to sleep, a long sleep in her own bed, in her own apartment. A cup of tea would revive her, she thought as she moved towards the door, reminding herself to tread carefully to avoid the broken glass.

Somewhere in the distance she heard a tinkling laugh that seemed to echo through her head, a young voice. Braver now the gloom had dispersed, Ellie flung open the door, stepped into the hall, prepared to see an expanse of broken glass on the floor. But there was not one sliver to be seen. Looking up, she saw the picture on the wall. Intact. Except that the man now had streaks of blood on his face and at his side the young lady smiled.

Completely disregarding the waiting drapes Ellie Peterson fled to the sanctuary of the outside world.


26 October 2019

THE MOLE



THE MOLE

There are two definitions of the word precocious and as a young child I was neither, although if you knew me when I was aged two you might have wondered about that.  I was born chubby, in fact I was known as the Michelin baby, but I levelled out by the time I was two.

I was born with a mole and the mole was in an embarrassing place. at the top of the inner thigh. Of course, I wasn’t embarrassed at that age, I was simply fascinated. I must have felt proud because I showed it to everyone I met. I can almost hear me saying ‘I’m two and I’ve got a mole’ before lifting the skirts to show it off.

The more the parents told me not to expose myself in such a fashion the more I did it. As soon as I met a new person I lifted the frock to show off the mole. It went on until I got to school age. I got the lecture then. I was told that the teacher would cane my bare bum if I did it in class … and after one look at the teacher I believed it. Her name was Miss Pinches and she put the fear of God in me. One look at her stern face and I was cured for all time. That woman haunted my schooldays, she moved up with me. Wherever I went, she followed. One time she smashed the ruler on my hand, breaking the nib of a brand new fountain pen. Remember fountain pens? Oh the hours I spent scrubbing ink from my fingers.

For such a quiet child, I got into all sorts of trouble … both at home and school. 

Returning to the subject of the mole. Even now, although it is no bigger than a pin head I’m reluctant to show a leg, yet if you were to gaze upon my pictures you would believe that to be a complete lie. Looking back through the old pictures it seemed to me that I did nothing else.

I repeat I am NOT a promiscuous person. 


19 October 2019

A Mind of Its Own


A MIND OF ITS OWN
(True Story, names changed at request of friends!!)

'Cheap to run and easy to maintain,' the salesman told the gathering crowd. 'And so safe you could let your granny ride it. She couldn't come to any harm on a three-wheeler.' 

He was demonstrating the Ariel 3, a new kind of motorised three-wheel machine, bright orange, with a basket at the front. The man said the contraption was designed with women in mind and, by the interest shown on the onlookers' faces, the ploy was working. 

Maddy Fox was wide awake by this time, having travelled in by train in a half-conscious state due to the late night she'd had. She didn't remember alighting at New Street or being transported up the escalator, in fact she might have stumbled over the rope barrier had the salesman not shouted a warning. He was a real loudmouth, and he'd made her feel such a fool dragging her across the display area and inviting her to sit on the orange machine until she'd fully recovered.  She had to admit the seat was comfortable and her feet easily touched the ground, and she was quite taken with the idea of travelling to work on the cheap, but could she afford it?
              
'Money back in no time,' the man said. 'A gallon of petrol is nothing compared to the cost of travelling by train five days a week, and you'd get the extra benefit at weekends. And think of how nippy it is. No parking problems or waiting in traffic queues. Take my word for it, a whole new world would open up.'
              
A week later Maddy bought one. She had asked several friends what they thought of the new invention and they viewed it as a worthwhile buy. So, since the consensus of opinion was that these machines would become fashionable, she bought one. She had never ridden anything like it before, and before long she knew she would never ride anything like it again.

The Ariel 3 had a mind of its own. It had no problem travelling without a rider, and often did just that, but, when Maddy mounted, the thing refused to budge. She would turn the ignition key and pedal like crazy, but it wouldn't start, then when she climbed off to see what was wrong, the stupid little brake lever would disconnect and the contrivance would take off. As an added exasperation, on the rare occasions she got it going, the spark plugs furred up, yet remained in perfect condition on its solo performance. Nevertheless she persevered, and discovered that if she cleaned the plugs the night before all would be well.
               
Bernice and Margaret, the two girls Maddy worked with, were impressed, and both were brave enough to have a go. Accordingly, at lunchtime, they gathered in Church Street for a trial run, Maddy starting the machine and quickly alighting so that Bernice could hop on. Without fail it took off before she could hoist a leg, careered mutinously down Church Street, and eventually glided to a halt in a vacant parking space. Bernice slapped her thigh and declared it to be the funniest thing she'd ever seen, but Maddy was overcome by embarrassment, feeling she was doomed to be forever making excuses for the machine's devastating conduct.

One wet and windy evening, a month after taking possession of her flashy tormentor, Maddy, with a good deal of trepidation, kick-started the bike and heaved a loud sigh when for once the thing jerked into life. She quickly set off for home, cutting down the side road which led to New Street. She took the corner carefully, giving pedestrians the right of way lest the machine chose that moment to romp, then prepared to take off. Sadly, her trouser-leg caught on the pedal and the bike tipped her onto the road, then shook itself upright and advanced up the congested street amidst buses, cars and taxis, launching itself directly at the traffic lights, where it crashed, unharmed and in complete control of its own destiny, while Maddy viewed the new invention with all the hatred she could muster.

For two days, as if sensing her disapproval, the bike functioned precisely as it should and Maddy was endowed with a confidence hitherto lacking in their relationship, finally consoled that her money had not been wasted. Almost in celebration, she removed the basket from the handlebars and affixed a square case to the back, more in keeping with her role as city traveller and less likely to strew the contents on the ground. Securing the case with colourful spiders, an added precaution since her handbag, knitting, and lunch box were inside, she donned her helmet and journeyed home, exhilarated for the first time to be handling her newfangled, dutiful machine.
               
It was Friday and the traffic was bumper to bumper on the steep hill where Maddy lived, but she didn't care. Gleefully she wove slowly in and out, overtaking big cars and small ones, occasionally encouraging the Ariel's progress with a toot on her horn. But half way up the hill, as she was debating the purchase of fish and chips, she heard someone yell, 'Hey, Blondie, your bag just fell off.'
               
Over her shoulder, Maddy saw the blue case bounding on its corners down the hill. Hurriedly she parked the bike and ran to retrieve it.
               
The demon machine took off.
               
Maddy's hands flew to her face, watching with horror as it crossed the road and mounted the pavement, then rode the railway station's brick exterior like the wall-of-death, before turning an expert somersault and landing upright on the footpath. But it wasn't over. The impetus drove it back up the wall and sent it spiralling through another somersault before crashing down and narrowly missing a band of teenagers who watched with captivated expressions.

It had to go, and next day it was returned it to the garage from whence it came. Maddy demanded her money back, but was persuaded by the manager to try another machine. She did, and bought a Honda 90. Silver coloured and peaceful-looking.

Her friends, Bernice and Margaret, liked the look of the Ariel so much they each acquired one. Only Bernice had trouble, when her machine drove backwards through the Queensway tunnel - on its own.
               
Maddy wondered ... but surely it wasn't possible. Her bike was locked in a garage.
               
Wasn't it?


                                 

12 October 2019

Eleanor Nobody - the sequel.

Several times I was asked to write a sequel to the story about Eleanor Nobody. For a long time I tried and continually got it wrong. Why? It’s simple, I was trying to write the wrong conclusion. So I tried again and this was the outcome.

~~~~~

She opened her eyes and knew that today was not a good day.

Eleanor lay motionless beneath the grey overcoat. She 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 ├ęclairs 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!'

‘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 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.’

05 October 2019

Eleanor Nobody (a repeat from way back)


The draper's doorway was shaped like a fifty-pence coin cut in half, with the shop door situated in the shortest stretch. That's probably why I didn't notice the poor soul huddled in the dark recess. The March wind was as cutting as a sculptor's chisel the morning I cut into the doorway to wait for the city bus. Five years ago in March. I know the date exactly. It was Jimmy Brain's fiftieth birthday. He was the office manager where I worked and he'd detailed me to get cakes for the staff. Fresh cream cakes, he'd asked for, but I'd cheated and bought them the night before; kept them in the fridge in an airtight box. Jimmy was too busy lamenting his age to worry about the freshness of cream cakes.

But it's not the birthday I'm telling you about, it's the encounter with the bag-lady. To this day I remember her peculiar stench, a stink like fetid drains wafting from her meagre person whenever she moved. The skin on her cheeks was so stretched I almost expected it to split, and I reckoned it had been some time since she'd had a proper meal. I gave her two chocolate eclairs. They were both mine, so it didn't matter. I should've only had one, but Jimmy wasn't one for keeping tabs on his purse strings. The woman's eyes shone when she saw the cakes. You'd think I'd dished up a three-course meal.

By the April, she got round to trusting me. Every day, after she'd sorted the contents of her plastic bag into prioritised order, she devoured my offerings of corned beef sandwiches and a beaker of soup. Even at weekends I took her something. I couldn't bear the concept of her starving while I gorged on bacon and egg.

Her name was Eleanor. Eleanor Nobody, she grumbled on one of her bad days. Arthritis plagued her when it was damp and that April was wetter than most. I couldn't conceive how someone with such a genteel name ended up sleeping rough. And why she chose the one by the bus stop was an utter mystery. I suppose it was interesting in a freakish sort of way. Something to look at. Same could be said for the commuters: it gave them something to blether over. Eleanor's outfit would be the talk of the town.

I always imagined vagrants as a grey race: grey underclothes, grey outer clothes, grey skin. Not so with Eleanor: she wore a coat the colour of winter berries, a midnight-blue skirt, off-white tee-shirt, green cardie, thick black stockings, and brown zip boots. All stained and tattered, in keeping with her current status. She had a yellow silk rose that had seen better days. Wore it like a medal on her chest. If she accidentally knocked it off, she'd scrub around until she located it and pin it back on. I took her one of those pins with a safety catch when I got to know her better and that put an end to her disquiet when the rose slipped off. I knew she was grateful by the cheerful grunt. Mostly, if I touched on a topic she didn't like, the grunts were harsh and unfriendly. Not that I took any notice. I'd got used to the fluctuating moods. I figured if I was in her boots I'd have entered the raving loony stage within a week.

Some days she was really informative. She had a son somewhere. Hadn't seen him since he was a teenager. Bastard, she called him. Born one and behaved like one. Ostensibly, she was ostracised by relations for begetting an illegitimate son. That was in Worcestershire. She couldn't remember precisely where; or else she didn't want to. It was May when she told me that. We were eating the ham rolls I'd saved from the night before. I considered it a great coincidence, her mentioning her son the day after my Jason's birthday. Jason was thirteen and I'd done a Sunday spread for a few of his cronies. Pizzas and quiche, that sort of thing. I should have known by their indelicate speech they wouldn't appreciate such fine savories. Right lot of agitators, they were, complaining about the lack of chips. Perishing cheek, when they were eating for free. Not wanting to upset Jason on his birthday, I pacified them with portions of french fries. My old man, Gerry, remarked that Eleanor would have been glad of a few slices of quiche. He's got a kind heart. Certainly, Eleanor didn't find fault with cold pizza next morning.

We left the area in the September. Gerry changed his job, see. He was still with the same hook and rivet company, but he was transferring to another branch near Cannock. It meant moving house. Gerry was more than happy to leave but our Jason was a bit down-in-the-mouth about ditching his ruffian mates.

I told Eleanor at the end of August. She looked quite presentable that day, dressed in my old lilac coat and plaid skirt. She'd discarded the red coat as soon as I took it from the carrier. You should have seen her elation. It was an absolute joy. Anyway, to get back to the tale. Not for one minute expecting her to take it badly, I broached the subject of the move. Straight up, it was a good couple of weeks before she could converse properly but at length she softened and began taking an interest in our plans. I'd left work by that time so I could lengthen my visits to the doorway. Without considering the consequences, I plotted a going-away do. A big breakfast, with tablecloth and camping stools, regardless of the inquisitive eyes of the strap hangers-on the bus. Gerry thought it was a bit foolhardy but I carried on. Trouble was, I inadvertently leaked the idea when I asked if Eleanor liked black pudding fried. She had a look of disbelief about her, treating me to wary glances when I surveyed the inlet for the best spot to lay a cloth, then checked the shop's opening times. I needn't have bothered. Three days before the event Eleanor Nobody disappeared.

The new house was terrific but I couldn't settle. I made it nice for Gerry and our Jason, but not having a job gave me too much time to brood. You'll think it daft but I was worried to death about Eleanor. What if she hadn't found a shelter as convenient as the last? Eventually, contemplating the possibility that she might have returned to Newtown, I resolved to investigate. With Gerry's blessing, on Christmas Eve, I went to check it out. Gerry was as guilt-ridden as me over deserting Eleanor, though I pointed out that in the end it was she who deserted us, in a manner of speaking. Gerry said, if I found her I should bring her home for Christmas. Naturally, Jason shouted his mouth off. He said he didn't intend sharing the house with a smelly down-and-out. Not that he was the most sweet-smelling individual himself,but I guess he was entitled to a view.

The weather was as cold as that other day in March, especially at six o'clock in the morning. Calculating the journey would take three-parts of an hour I worked out that if I left at six I'd be there well before the draper opened up. If Eleanor had resumed occupancy she was certain to be there when I arrived.

I found, not Eleanor, but her treasured, ragged, yellow rose. It was on the floor, partially covered by newspaper, in the dark recess where Eleanor would have slept. I picked up the paper, a week-old edition of the Evening Mail folded so that the middle page was uppermost. Funny that, I never knew if she could read. As I leaned despondently against the shop window, it occurred to me that in nine months I'd learned very little.

The city bus drew up, on time as usual, its occupants on a final spree before the Christmas shut-down. I studied the faces as if I would find Eleanor there. Automatically, I rearranged the news-sheets in numerical order. Where on earth could Eleanor be? It was Christmas for goodness sake. She shouldn't be roaming the streets at Christmas. Pathos swelled inside me and, yes, the mournfulness that accompanies a graveside vigil. Folding the paper neatly, I bent to lay it beside the rose. Laying it to rest, I thought, shuddering at the implication. It was then I spotted an article ringed in red. Festive cheer for the Homeless. I read on. I was curious to know how people who had been abandoned by society could find festive cheer anywhere.

According to the feature St John's Crypt was the place for the homeless to be that Christmas. Several volunteers would forego their own festive repast to serve turkey dinners and plum pudding to the less fortunate ... Santa Claus would bestow appropriate gifts. Why is it that patronage often comes across as charitable condescension? At that time, the phrase foregoing their own festive repast smacked of pure pretension. I know better now.

Gerry took me to the Crypt the next day. And Jason. Gerry'd won him over with the promise of a computer. Second hand, admittedly, but Jason deemed it better than nothing. Clutching Eleanor's rose, I searched the queue outside the church. Eleanor wasn't there. Neither was she in the Crypt. The helpers didn't recall having seen a woman of her description.

I never saw her again but the lessons she unwittingly taught me, the importance of independence and the value of respect, have lingered on. Every Christmas since Gerry and I have helped at the Crypt. And Jason, bless him, on the strength of the episode with Eleanor is currently training to do social work.