I watched them arguing. Not a pretty sight, him towering over her, and her stretching up to her full height, coming only to his shoulders despite the six-inch heels she was wearing. His eyes dark with anger, he stared at her as he mouthed his obscenities.
I watched her shoulders slump as her face registered disbelief that such foul language was on his otherwise gentle tongue. Her eyes seemed to ask ‘Who is this man?’ Obviously not the man she thought, by the look on her face as she pulled herself together, though her fists remained clenched. Her language remained clean, though you could easily see the anger that sparkled in her fiery blue eyes. She repeatedly tossed her sandy hair over her shoulder and brushed the full fringe out of her eyes.
Suddenly, without warning, she turned from him intending to walk away. He reached out with his long arms pulling her back tight into him, kissing her hard on the mouth. She struggled, pushing her hands against his chest without any real effect. When he released his hold she staggered backwards a step or two glaring at him, then wiped her lips with the sleeve of her navy blouse, turning again in fury to walk briskly to a red convertible parked some yards away. The driver of the car, wearing sunglasses and a white T-shirt, pushed the door open as she approached, having the car on the move as she buckled her seat belt. She did not look back at him.
He stood watching them drive away rubbing the back of his head in disbelief. His anger not abated, he slapped a nearby wall in frustration, bending this way and that like a tree in cross winds. The anger slowly began to weaken, leaving his now white face looking something akin to sorrowful mourning. He staggered to a bench watching the road, waiting, hoping, for an hour or more.
Finally, standing slowly, he walked to a pub ordering a pint, taking it to an outside table where he could observe the passing traffic. He sighed deeply, his drink mostly untouched. After a couple of hours, leaving half a glass of beer on the table, he left the pub, striding to the park close by, where he trudged round the paths, not seeing the beautiful roses nor enjoying their perfume. He proceeded without observing, past the shrubbery where small birds hid out of the hot sun, then past the hot houses with their canna lilies outside, unaware of their beautiful colours. Continuing down the path, he finally stopped near the bandstand, where an enthusiastic brass band was playing in the glorious sunshine, while birds, defeated in their songs, listened reluctantly in the trees, looking down at the people sheltering in the shade below.
He stood staring at the band, taking time to register where he was. Eventually slumping down on the grass, as many others had, put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes to the sun to let the brass band’s tunes wash over him. There he lay for the hour and a half that the band continued to play, rising only as a tin was rattled nearby him. Getting up, he took some coins out of his pocket, dropping them in the tin before slowly, with sunken shoulders and head bent towards the ground, he returned back to the garden entrance, towards home.
Arriving home to the flat they had shared, now empty not only of her things but of her spirit, her essence gone, he walked slowly from room to room. He touched doors that she had touched, lingered in her favourite chair, though he could not settle there. Later he found a scarf of hers left lying under a stool. He picked it up, stroking it in his large hands before lifting it to his face to smell the scent of her. He picked up a book she had left on the bed. A book, she had read, a self-help book she had suggested he should read too.
Taking a seat by the window, he opened the book. He read a paragraph, stood up to wander round the flat, before sitting to read some more. This was how he spent the rest of the day and most of the night. He finally lay on their bed in the early hours in a cold deep sleep. He shuddered a number of times as his dreams tormented him. Waking the following morning he showered, dressed, ate a slice of toast before going to work, as normal. As he worked, he thought about the book she had left. Perhaps there was some truth in it all.
On his way home he passed a church, going in for a few minutes to its comforting smell of incense, the dim eternal light offering a glimmer of hope. The church was mostly lit through the stained glass windows. Taking a seat in the shadows at the back of the church, he watched, finding some solace at the quiet movement of the priests and parishioners as they went about their business. The calm settled him, returning him to a semblance of the man he thought he should be, though regretting the man of yesterday. Slowly, he stood, bowed his head and with a lighter step returned to his home with a quieter mind.
I noticed over the next few weeks his routine was to go there after work, sitting in the quiet of the church where occasionally a priest came to sit by him, sometimes in companionable silence, occasionally speaking gently to him and his tormented soul. Always he went home alone to cook a light supper before going to bed, sleeping uneasily till morning. After several months, as an elderly priest sat beside him, as he came to the conclusion he really did not belong in the outside world.
Finally, he spoke of his anguish in hushed tones. He told of the girl who had tormented him and finally took him with her. Speaking with mixed emotions, he told of his journey into factory work and the trials of the work place, while she started to torment him, wanting more than he could give. He spoke of the evening classes he undertook to improve his chances of a more rewarding life, of giving her a better future; of her previously unknown arrangement with a wealthy man who could give her everything she desired.
Eventually, with tears, he told of all he had left behind. The love. The comradeship. The quiet laughter and the learning. His desertion for a girl whose empty wishes he could not fulfil. What a fool he had been. Then the tears finally fell while raking sobs shook his now slightly undernourished body.
When the tears subsided, along with the sobs, he looked into the priest’s face for the first time. ‘I do not belong here,’ he wrung his hands, his whole body seeming to move, agitating, bowed under a grief he could no longer contain, ‘but how can I go back now?’ The elderly priest took his hand taking him to the private dining room at the rear of the church. He quietly garnered more details of his previous life, while plying him with a light supper of cold cuts with mashed potatoes containing a medley of vegetables.
Two hours later, he was accompanied by two priests back to his flat, one to sleep in a chair while the other, looked round the flat, before returning to his office in the church to make some phone calls.
Waking the following morning to the smell of coffee, I watched as he mentally ran through the previous evening. He showered, dressed and entered the small kitchen where the priest, Richard, was busy making toast and boiled eggs to go with the coffee. He smiled weakly at him as he served him breakfast. Richard asked what his plans were. ‘I have a contract to work, people are relying on me. I must finish what I have started. I will also think about whether to go back to my old life. I cannot keep swapping one for another. If I go back, if they will have me, I need to be sure it is right for me and for them.’ They parted company, one to the priest’s house, the other to his place of work, where a quieter, more stable person emerged.
I watched as he contemplated all the hurdles he had yet to jump over. I saw his inner strength return; his back began to straighten, his face began to soften. He no longer barked at those below him, but took them to his office speaking softly while listening with understanding to their own problems.
After a couple of months, I stood silently at his shoulder as he handed in his month’s notice. He wrote a letter to his ex-girl friend apologising for his erratic behaviour, saying the flat would be empty within a fortnight, and he had paid the rest of the rent till the contract ran out in three months’ time. At the end of the month, packing his few belongings, he left a final note with her scarf before closing the door gently behind him.
I stood, watching, as he said farewell to the priests thanking them for their guidance. The old priest accompanied him to the station, speaking kindly before he climbed onto the train with trepidation, the train back to the monastery where he had been living five years ago, not knowing if he would still be accepted. He had finally come to realise that it was as a monk he served his god best. Arriving at the monastery in the twilight of a summer evening, he was surprised as he approached the door, it swung open. The abbot came down the steps to welcome back him with open arms, his face alight with obvious joy. With the abbot’s arm on his shoulder they entered the monastery, chatting like old friends.
Two Bowls of Soup
and a Ride in a Police Car
I arrived at my Tai Chi session fairly relaxed. It was ‘me time’, time to leave the world’s worries behind and concentrate on me. I wrongly believed that having ‘me time’ was selfish; how I wish I had given up this foolish notion years ago. ‘Family first’ was always the mantra in my household. A lot of good that did me. Looking back over the years, ‘family first’ always got in the way of ‘me time’, a time needed to grown and assess, but not anymore.
It takes me 20–30 minutes to walk to my class; it largely depends on how tired I am. It takes most of those 20 minutes to get my head into thinking about Tai Chi instead of my daily issues. Having a leg injury, Tai Chi is one of the few exercise classes I can do without any worries. I walk in to find about half a dozen people already there, chatting about their week.
We are mostly an older group, though recently four younger ladies joined us. There are five men in the group of twelve who turn up each week. We are a motley group; most are retired, though not all. One teaches a different type of exercise class, one works as a part time receptionist, another and his cheerful wife are photographers traveling the world in the hope of getting ‘the one photo’, a special photo to put their names on the world stage. Their wedding photography as well as portraits of animals and people keep them busy.
Those who do not work have an interesting array of hobbies. One is in a photography group, another a gardener. A lovely lady called Cath and her husband like visiting local towns, spending the day looking at the latest in the shops, walking through the parks and so on. Sandra is on call to look after her new grandchild. As her son lives far away, it usually means a week or two at a time going to stay with them. Brett whose wife comes ad hoc to the group due to charity commitments, have a caravan and toddles off as and when to visit this member of the family or another, sometimes travelling quite long distances fitting in friends along the way. Knitting, craft groups and bridge groups are also common interests.
A lovely couple of a similar age to myself also have a caravan. They enjoy their holidays across Europe, frequently meeting up with friends at camp sites to share news.
Cath, a short lady with a gorgeous smile, shouts out ‘Hello!’ followed by ‘What have you been up to this morning?’
‘Making soup,’ I reply.
‘Making soup… is it worth the effort?’
‘Absolutely, there is nothing so warming as homemade soup.’
‘What kind of soup did you make?’
‘Butternut squash, my absolute favourite, though I have been told it is one of the worse the waistline.’
‘Why is that?’ Jake chimes in.
‘Apparently the starch in it turns rapidly to sugar, so I don’t make it too often. Then I made a sprout soup.’
A loud chorus of ‘Sprout soup?’ A silence fell, though it did not last for long.
Pat asked, ‘Does it taste alright?’
I laugh. ‘Yes, it does, much better than I thought it would, though I did add some chicken bones to the soup, straining them out when cooked, just so the meat left on the bones would give it some protein.’ I reflect for a moment or two. ‘I guess you could add cheese, but I don’t because I am lactose intolerant.’
Our tutor, a lovely young man with lots of knowledge about the body, calls us to start the class. We work on a new Tai Chi exercise.
As I leave Cath asks me to wait a moment. Outside the hall she tells me that Peter’s partner died last Thursday. She only mentioned it as the two groups that Peter runs has been cancelled for a couple of weeks.
I walk home with Peter and his lovely partner Gavin on my mind. I have a great admiration for Peter. They were so very close, both so different. Two halves of a whole. They have been through such a lot together and both are generous with their time, being involved in many groups, just to share what they have or raise funds for local charities.
Arriving home, I find the delicious smell of soup lingering in the air. I had left them out to cool so some could be frozen to eat at a later date. I rummage round the cupboards for two suitable containers pouring a different soup into each one before putting them in a convenient bag to carry. As Peter lives not five minutes’ walk from me, I am soon knocking on his door.
A very pale, unfocused Peter answers the door.
‘I am so sorry Peter; I’ve just heard. You must be absolutely devastated, how are you coping?’ Peter opens the door wider to let me enter. ‘I hope you don’t mind,’ I say as I look round at the flowers festooning the house, ‘I brought you some homemade soup. I thought you might not want the bother of cooking all the time for yourself. Each can be used as a main meal or split if you want just a snack.’
We have walked into the kitchen, strange, really, as I have not been in there before. The kitchen is tidy with a tray set for tea, complete with a couple of scones, butter and jam. I put the two soups on the countertop.
‘When did you eat last?’ I ask Peter, who shrugs his shoulders. I give him a big hug as the tears swell in his pale blue eyes and his light beard rests on my head. My hands stay wrapped around his waist for a good few minutes.
We both prefer coffee, so when Peter releases me I put the kettle on, asking him where the coffee and cups are. Soon we are in his study, where Peter tells me that Gavin just collapsed in his beloved garden.
‘The ambulance seemed to take an age to get here, but it wasn’t really that long. I stayed at the hospital with him, though I wasn’t allowed in the resus. unit. Eventually they moved Gavin to a side ward. It appeared he’d had a massive heart attack.’ Peter pauses, his shoulders slumped and shuddering. I hold his hand with my left hand, giving him a tissue with the other. When Peter has settled, he continues. ‘They couldn’t do anything for him.’
Silence enveloped us. The ticking of a distant clock could be heard, unusual in today’s world of digital clocks. Peter suddenly said, ‘It belonged to his mother.’
‘The clock you can hear.’ A sniff and a shudder, though this one was less violent. ‘We only had it repaired a couple of months ago. It was his pride and joy, left to him in his mother’s will…’
I look round Peter’s study. It is as I remember it. Always so very tidy, the opposite of mine which seems to be littered with a multitude of things I’m ‘working on.’ We met at a local club for retirees some ten years ago. Peter’s group was one of the first I went to. Other opportunities arose, but not before I learned to admire Pete and Gavin, who were generous with their time outside of clubs and groups.
Peter broke into my thoughts. ‘How did you hear?’
‘I met Cath at Tai Chi. I wanted to say how sorry I was and let you know I’m thinking of you.’ I watch him as he unfolds out of his seat to his full height, towering above me even when I’m standing. ‘I’ll come back another day.’ I lead the way to the front door then turn back to face him. ‘Peter, I only live just round the corner, let me know when the funeral is and if you need any help, even if only for washing up.’
Peter nods his head. I open the door to walk down the garden to the front gate. The door is already closed as I turn to put the catch on the gate, to stop the light wind blowing it open.
Walking to the gym on the following Monday in a colder wind, I am glad I have put on my colourful jacket, one I had bought for a special occasion some twelve years before in a little boutique in Nottingham. The background is dark mauve, with various triangles in red, green, blue and yellow. It is much envied, with plenty of offers to ‘throw it in my direction when you are finished with it,’ met only with smiles from me.
A steady stride of twenty minutes usually takes me to the gym, my warm up time, I remind myself, as a Police patrol car pulls up a few yards in front of me. Two officers get out, one to stand in front of me.
‘Excuse me madam,’ the younger officer said. ‘Would you mind coming with us for a chat?’
‘Why, what have I done wrong? I am on my way to the gym!’
‘Probably nothing at all, we just need you at the station to answer a couple of questions.’
He pauses as his mate continues, ‘We’ll drop you off at the gym once we have had a chat.’ His face focuses enquiringly on mine.
I look at him for some moments, then look towards the way to the gym. I look at the police car where the second officer, slightly taller, is standing by the open rear door. I look from one to the other, then reluctantly walk to the car.
I am soon seated in an interview room. The taller officer asks if I would like a cup of tea.
Grumpily, I reply, ‘Coffee with alternative milk and one sweetener please.’
‘Don’t think I can do alternative milk madam.’ I dive into my sports bag, just an old favourite carry bag, bringing out a small milk flask.
‘Good job I brought my own then. So it’ll be black coffee, I’ve already sweetened the milk.’
They both smile at me. With one standing by the door the other leaves to make my coffee, or to get someone else to make a coffee. He returns with a paper cup of black coffee, complete with a spoon and a couple of wrapped sweeteners.
I smile my thanks, adding some of my milk then sipping the coffee. How I hate drinking out of paper cups. I just cannot abide the taste of cardboard. Plastic is worse though. Having taken a sip, I ask, ‘So what is the reason I am here?’
‘Just a moment madam, someone from C.I.D wants to interview you.’
‘Just a formality. They will be about ten minutes.’
‘Could I use a loo then?’ I am given strange looks. ‘Look, the first thing I do when I get to the gym is spend a penny, I had walked most of the way there when you two asked me to join you. Now, if I am to wait for someone else, I need a loo, or you might need a mop!’
I accompany a cheerful, fair-haired female officer to a cloak room. We speak about the gym and how long I had been going there, just incidentals. We chat on the way back to the interview room to find my coffee had a plain clothes officer to keep it company. He stood, held out his hand.