Arriving at the coffee shop, I look around for him as I usually did; the old man, one half of the couple that was Fred and Alice. We had been next-door neighbours since my husband and I had moved to Redstone Road fifteen years ago.
I remembered not so much loving the house but coveting the large shed behind it, with its own electricity and water supply. We moved in and before we had finished unpacking, I had set up my ceramics workshop in the shed.
Fred and Alice welcomed us with a hydrangea cutting to start our new garden. I had shyly confided we had always lived in a flat before and this was our first garden. I politely accepted the plant, even though it was old-fashioned and not really in keeping with our plans for the garden.
Fred and Alice had moved to Redstone Road when the houses were first built. Their neat front and back lawns edged with rainbows of flowers put our neglected patch to shame. They brought over their hefty garden tools to help us clear the jungle behind our house, tactfully identifying for us what to throw in the garden waste bin and what to keep.
When I expressed our thanks and protested it was too much, Alice winked at me. ‘We’re glad Vince, who had the house before you, has gone,’ she said, ‘and taken his two huge dogs with him. He left the poor things in the back garden while he was at work. They were forever jumping up at the fence and barking. We were always afraid they would eventually break through the fence and get into our garden.’
Alice told us about our other neighbours, not in a malicious way but out of the familiarity of long association. It made us feel less like incomers and more like we belonged on the street.
My ceramics business thrived and outgrew the garden workshop. My hand-crafted pots and planters became popular buys at a local garden centre. So I moved the business into a rented outbuilding onsite. Visitors to the garden centre often came to watch me work and to buy my creations.
The neglected hydrangea also thrived virtually unnoticed in a corner of our garden. It was full of huge blooms in late summer which lasted well into the autumn. It was funny how these once derided plants had suddenly become desirable again. The garden centre now sold tons of them every year.
The houses on Redstone Road were really too small to accommodate modern family living. Most of the families we knew moved out once their second child was on the way. Their houses became short-term lets, rented out to a succession of strangers. I missed pausing to chat with our neighbours as we worked in our front gardens on warm summer evenings. The neat front gardens were no more. They had been tarmacked to provide much-needed parking space. We all came and went in our cars, occasionally waving an acknowledgment but rarely speaking.
Fred and Alice had their pretty back garden dug up and paved over. We knew what a heartrending decision it had been to make but, as they said, it made the garden a more practical space for them. They were a sociable couple and at one of their barbecues, we got to know their daughter Carole and her family. Her husband Rick worked in the construction business and the family went wherever his work took them. It impressed me that the children spoke several languages. I could hardly get our son Toby to speak to me in English at times. We loved Carole and Rick’s tales of their travels to exotic places. The four of us and our children became good friends. We looked forward to their visits and missed their exuberant presence when they returned to wherever home currently was.
Alice became increasingly frail and was moved into a care home. Fred returned from his visits to Alice at the same time every afternoon. If I happened to see him on my way home from work I would stop and say ‘Hello, how are you both?’
Apart from ‘We’re fine, thank you’ Fred did not elaborate and I did not enquire further. What could I say?
The first time I saw Fred sitting alone in the garden centre coffee shop, my heart contracted with sorrow for him. I took my coffee to a nearby table, unsure if he would want my company. He looked tired and thinner. He looked up and saw me, smiled and asked me to join him.
We met regularly at the coffee shop after that. He often stayed for lunch before catching the bus to the care home for his afternoon visits to Alice. He told me stories of his travels with the Royal Navy and passed on news of Carole and the grandchildren. He said Alice was better cared for than he could manage and she seemed content. But it was hard to leave her as she always assumed she was going home with him.
One morning Fred was not at the coffee shop. The following Saturday my husband noticed an unfamiliar van parked on the drive next-door. Full of foreboding, we went outside just as Carole walked out of the house, a large box in her arms.
‘Oh, hi there,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry to tell you Dad has passed away. I’m here on a flying visit to see Mum and try and sort out some of their things.’
‘Can we help at all?’ my husband offered, ‘It’s a big job for one person.’
Carole looked relieved. ‘Thanks, Dan. I’d really appreciate a couple of extra pairs of hands.’
At the end of the day, the three of us collapsed, exhausted, around the table in our garden. We shared a home delivery pizza and sat sipping wine, watching a perfect sunset unfolding in front of us.
‘Dad often spoke of accidentally meeting you at the coffee shop, Lucy,’ Carole said. ‘Thanks for keeping him company and listening to his stories.’ Looking around her, she added. ‘Living in Dubai is great but even if you are lucky enough to have any outside space it’s too hot to grow much. I’d so love to have a proper English garden like you’ve got and Mum and Dad used to have.’ She swallowed hard. ‘We need to decide what to do about the house. It’s way too small for all of us.’
I sit in the coffee shop stirring my flat white. I cannot help but look around for Fred. Dan notices and squeezes my hand. I give him a small smile. Old habits die hard. I listen to the dry rattle of leaves being stirred up into mini whirlwinds outside.
Almost as if blown inside by a gust of wind, a family bursts through the door. I am jolted out of my reverie.
‘Here we are, at last!’ Carole exclaims, running her hands through her wind-swept hair. Carole, Rick and the children arrange themselves around the table, pulling up extra chairs. We touch on the recent sad times before moving on to happier memories. Their daughter joins in the chat and laughter. The three boys sit quietly together. All three have their eyes lowered, furtively texting under the table. For once, Carole and I let it pass without comment.
As we are about to leave I pick up the carrier bag by my feet. ‘Here you are, a house-warming present from us,’ I say. ‘It’s growing strongly and should flower next summer. The pot is one of my new designs, I hope you like it. Good luck with the move. We’ll come and visit once you’re settled.’ Carefully I place on the table the bag containing a hydrangea cutting in a brightly-painted ceramic pot.
Denise D'Souza lives with her husband in Surrey in the UK. After graduating with a BA in English, she worked in publishing. She was voted Spillwords Author of the Month in June 2020. Her short stories, articles and poems have been published in e-magazines and Clarendon House anthologies Cadence, Miracle, Blaze, Poetica, Gleam, Lantern and Poetica 2. Two of her poems appear in Alpha One, the inaugural anthology of Linden Books.