It was 2 o’clock. The sky was bright. The leaves lime, golden, russet brown. Everything was a mess. Twiggy, knotted, dying, living. Beautiful, but barren. Winter was upon us. December drew close.
The wind whipped my cheek. It felt hot. My nose was cold. I rushed here to meet him. My feet darted, though my heart dragged behind. If I didn’t tell him now, I never would. He had a right to know before he went out and bought me a Christmas gift I might never be able to open.
The sun rested on the bright auburn hair of a fox, grooming him with peace and serenity. He was curled in a ball, snuggled in the bosom of late afternoon. I’d never seen tranquillity quite like this. Birds sang and the quiet wind blew, and there he slept, a tired fox.
I had to get a picture.
There was a fox sleeping in my garden!
I snapped one through my murky kitchen window, but I had to get a closer shot.
With my baby playing happily in the lounge, I turned the key in our back door, slow, steady. I slipped my sandals on. Leaning gently on the handle, I silently opened the door and crept outside.
I’d barely got one foot on the patio when through the gap in my baby’s green slide, eyes as sharp as a thorn and as vulnerable as a rose stared right through me.
His ears pointed fiercely.
I was petrified, for myself, for him.
Not one second longer, he shot as quickly as a bullet from a hunter’s gun down the garden, through the prickly bush, scraping back and forth, back and forth, and as I stood and watched in pure fascination, he clambered up the fence and bolted right over it, never to be seen again.
And all I’ve got to remember him by is a lousy picture through my murky kitchen window.
I’m not talking to her. I am staying right here in my office, until she gets rid of one. Mm. This leather chair is comfy. A place to sit. It’s not like I have anywhere else to do that.
“Frank, you’re being ridiculous.”
Scatter cushions. What are scatter cushions? What is the point of scatter cushions? I hate them. I despise them. They take up the entire sofa! Or perhaps I’m missing something in my old age. Please do explain to this old fuddy-duddy what a sofa is used for? Because apparently it isn’t to sit on anymore. Not with all the scatter cushions in the way. Maggie came home today with four more of these oddly shaped bags stuffed with wool…or was it goose feather? Each one had a different pattern. They didn’t even match. Our sofa already has two cushions. And she’s just thrown money at another four. That makes six. She’s shoving me off the sofa to make way for cushions! This is what our marriage has come to.
“Frank Wiggal, come out of there. We are having a discussion.”
Her voice carries all the way from the kitchen through to the lounge and pierces straight through my office door, which is made of solid wood. How? Well, she’s Maggie, that’s how.
“I am not discussing scatter cushions!”
“Frank, this is absurd.” Her voice draws nearer. She’s probably in the lounge, admiring the throne for her polyester-filled monarchy.
“Yes, they are absurd,” I retort.
“They help my back,” her voice turns small and desperate.
“They get in the way of mine.”
“But Frank…” She pushes open the door, her beautiful blue eyes wide and uncompromising. The sunlight from the window washes over her honey hair, and those laughter lines break down my defence.
“Okay.” I sigh. “Maggie, you can have your scatter cushions.”
“Oh, Frank, thank you.” She races over and drops a kiss on my cheek. “I knew you’d come round.”
It’s going to be okay. Just breathe. Keep drinking your tea. You will be okay. They are only your in-laws. They are not rabid dogs. Yes. I’ll be fine. The house is a little warm though. I’ll just open the window and let some fresh air in. The sunlight streams through the window onto the dining table, which is set for three. Miriam, the snob. Derek, the leery. And me. I don’t know why Harry set this up. He had a last minute paint job in the village apparently. Yeah, right. He poked his head in, handed me a cream cake stand, and said, “the folks are dropping by, Mum loves cupcakes”, winked and drove off. I mean, talk about husband of the year. The cake stand is placed in the middle of the table, a perfect barrier between the in-laws and myself. The cupcakes are perched on the two tiers, lemon, sprinkled with rainbow sugar strands. They look like children have made them, but I don’t have time to try and emulate a Mary Berry recipe.
I slurp my tea, hearing Miriam’s thorny voice in my head, you sound like an unmannered lout. I place my tea down on the wood kitchen counter and check the quiche in the fridge, just incase a goat has climbed through the window and savaged it while my back was turned. Still there.
The clock ticks on the wall.
I pick up my tea, and just as I take another sip, the heavy knocker on the door thuds, and my hand jolts, spilling the tea down my shirt. No! It’s splashed all down my chest. Ah, great. The knocker bangs again. This is just great.
“Coming!” I grab a sheet of kitchen roll and dab myself, running to the door.
“My, my.” Derek’s eyes pop out at my stained lilac shirt.
“I had an accident.” I force a strained laugh. “You see…”
“Leaking nipple juice?” Derek chuckles, leaning in toward me.
“Derek, please,” Miriam cautions, her grey, fishy-coloured hair combed into a high bun. “Now, may we come in, or are we to dawdle out here all afternoon?”
“Yes, come in,” I say through gritted teeth.
We walk into the open kitchen-dining area in silence.
Miriam stares at the cupcakes, then at my wet shirt, and narrows her eyes.
Pearl pink and pale yellow reflected in her wet eyes with every step she took. The salty smell of fish and chips and seawater drifted around like the boats on the still water. It was just the three of them. Sister. Brother. Mother. Like it had been for seven years. The colours in the sky were mixing, changing. A new member was to join.
He watched as the plane left a crisp white path on the blue banner. They were to welcome a strange face. Strange eyes. Strange hands. Adults though they were, inside, small children shrunk.
Seven years echoed in her thoughts. Seven. Now a new love had washed into her life, into her children’s life. It was time to open the door to him. She had told her children this tonight, and as the afternoon fell away, they sat staring silently at the shimmering, rolling waves.
Pearl pink and pale yellow reflected in her wet eyes. Couldn’t these colours stay like this forever?
There stood a red bricked-house, semi-detached, with a golden sheen licking its exterior. It still looked beautiful, common but beautiful, even as the floral netted curtains restricted my view. Who lived there? Were they happy? Rich? Poor? Lonely? Did it even matter?
Tearing my eyes away from the single glazed windows, where through the netting, I could see the frost clawing at the sides of the glass, I creaked my back and rose from the damp sofa. Bending down took several minutes, but eventually I was low enough to turn the gas fire on. Click. Click. Pow. Crackle. Ah, warmth. I rubbed my hands together, imagining my icy little bones sighing in relief.
It only took a minute for the pound sterling symbol to spring to mind. Ah! Off! Off! It was out. My hands were cold again. The bitterness clung to my broken bones, like fire to lumps of coal, and standing there, hunched over, in this barren, misunderstood room, I suddenly felt like sleeping.
The bank holiday was finally here.
Tap, tap, tap, went my fingers on the steering wheel.
Sigh, tut, sigh, went my wife, staring at the unmoving cars.
Groan, groan, groan went my eldest daughter in the back.
The sun dazzled, it glared with its unyielding rays. My son smiled at me as I glanced in the rear view mirror. His cheeks were rosy from the heat and his blond hair was messed up from napping. His bright blue eyes reminded me of the sea we were soon going to be splashing in.
The radio station came on. My wife was fiddling with the dial. Been an accident…blocked up… find an alternative route…
There was a snapping argument in the car on my right.
A woman slammed a door further down.
A horn blasted.
“Why is everyone so angry?” my son asked.
“Why d’you think, dumbo?” my daughter replied.
I closed my eyes, tired of the unrelenting sun, wishing we hadn’t planned to go away for the weekend, when our own car door opened and closed.
“What’s he doing?” My wife twisted around to see our son breakdancing on the sizzling tarmac in between cars. “Jimmy!” she called. “Get back in the car now!”
I stared at him, amused, in awe really. There was my son, someone who was getting bullied at school for taking dance lessons, catching a sour moment and spinning it into something sweet. He was leaning on his palm, twirling around his body, grinning. My daughter laughed, got out of the car, and played some hip hop music from her iPad. Jimmy moved in such a fluid way that I was envious of his freedom, his bold spirit. My daughter clapped watching her brother.
My wife sighed in defeat and kissed me on the cheek. “They’re not arguing anymore,” she said, pointing to the people in the car next to us. And sure enough they were laughing and nodding along with the traffic jam entertainment.
I met Kym at AA. She was a slim woman, with sharp cheekbones, dark velvety skin, and a soft smile. I was truly stunned by her. It wasn’t until she told her story that I remembered where we were, who I was, and what foolish thoughts I was having. Oh, nothing untoward, but the line, would you like to join me for a coffee, did cross my mind. Of course, a woman like her would never look twice at a man like me. I wasn’t entirely unattractive, nor was I vain. I had blond hair, the colour of dry sand, swept to the side, as if by the ocean breeze. My arms were thin like the legs of a heron, but not strong, and my skin was pale and freckled. It was my inside appearance to fear. I had been sober for only four weeks. My wife left me three years ago, along with my children. I was a wreck, always had been. Of course that was the very reason I was at AA.
The next week, as I poured myself a coffee before the meeting, Kym approached and asked my name.
I gulped. “John.”
Do you know what she did next?
For one year after that day, Kym and I shared a coffee on Haven Beach every twice Sunday. We talked, laughed, shared. I never plucked up the courage to ask her out on a date. We weren’t dating, you see, we were supporting one another as friends, but I felt more on the receiving end of it. Though I never really had her love, she gave me more joy than I had felt in a long time. Kym…she saved me.
Then one day, a man, a nice fellow in the restaurant business, proposed to Kym, and as I watched her float down the aisle in white satin, a wonderful thought drifted by. Could this woman have been sent to me as my guardian angel?
I still visit Haven Beach with a coffee. Only these days I’m standing on my own.
We ate cheap tasteless bread. We moaned about lecturers. We said we’d jog at the start of each term. We didn’t. We drank too much. We worked through the night. We slept through the day. We ran on medicine. We travelled home with bags of dirty washing. We kissed. We argued. We made up. We fell in love. We said it would be forever. We didn’t do well at the end of our second year. We fell out. We spent time apart. We made up. We flirted. We danced. We cycled together. We raced. We got warning letters from missed lectures. We argued. We ate noodles. We drank coffee. We were worn out. We said it would last forever. We both wanted different things. We went into hibernation. We worked. We missed each other. We worked. We cycled. We knew something had changed. We were coming apart. We argued. We kissed. We cried. We said we wished it could last forever. We rode on our bikes for the rest of the day. We laughed.
“In five minutes our baby girl would be turning eighteen,” Jeff said, and then frowned at his wife, “goodness, she’d be an adult.”
“Why won’t it stay straight?” Sarah snagged the safety pin from the paper with her race number on it, and fished another one out of Jeff’s rucksack. “Why do we even need numbers anyway?”
“To keep everything in order. There are thousands of people to organise.” Jeff cast a concerned glance over his wife. “Are you sure you’re okay? You don’t have to do this, you know. If you don’t feel up…”
Sarah shot him a warning look. “Up to it?”
“Well, I mean…” he searched for the right words but his wife’s stare was always his downfall. “Here, have a banana for the energy.”
“I don’t want a banana, I want this pathetic piece of paper to stick to my chest.”
“Don’t you think you should attach it to your stomach?”
She jabbed the safety pin at her blue running top and winced.
Jeff sighed, dropped the banana and the course information he’d remembered to bring, and took the pin from his wife’s hand.
“I can do it,” she muttered.
“No, you can’t. Let me.”
After he had fixed her race number, she looked up with fragile eyes, the same bright blue as her top.
Jeff kissed her forehead. “It’s alright.”
“Why wasn’t it me, Jay?” She covered her mouth like she was trying to stop a belting cry from escaping her. “She was seventeen, she was so young.”
He said nothing. Her. Their daughter. Why did it have to be either of them?
“She’d be proud of you today,” he said. “She knew how much you hated exercise. Jogging in particular.”
“I’ll be running,” she said.
“You might even be swimming if this rain doesn’t hold off.”
They shared a smile.
“Now, we’ve just got to attach this monster of a thing to the back of you, and you’ll be on your way,” Jeff said, staring at the inflatable boob costume.
Sarah kissed Jeff on the lips. “Our baby girl would be turning eighteen today, and also a very bright shade of red if she could see me now.”