Bert used to go out at least twice a week. On Tuesdays, he used to go to the local shop to pick up his groceries and a paper and on Thursdays, he’d join the other OAPs at the over 70s lunch club.
Then, last year he’d had a nasty fall. Walking home from the shop with a carrier bag in each hand he’d stepped on a patch of shiny ice. His feet had slipped out from under him, his arms windmilling helplessly as he tried to balance himself. He’d crashed onto the hard pavement. His head had cracked onto the impacted snow and ice, and he’d felt something snap around his waist, which later turned out to be his hip.
Laying there, with blood pooling around his bald head and the pain flaring through his leg like a burst of fireworks, he’d had only one thought.
I can’t go to the hospital.
Bert had no choice in the end. The paramedic had tried to cajole him at first, but eventually, frustrated by Bert’s refusals, he’d told him starkly that he’d broken his hip.
The hospital had fixed him up as best they could, a couple of stitches in his head and an operation on his hip later, he discharged himself before anyone could arrange a busybody to come round his house to “look after him.”
“I can look out for myself.” Bert had grunted at the consultant who’d peered at him over his gold rimmed spectacles and shaken his head at Bert’s stubbornness.
Since then, various do gooders had tried to get him to go and have another operation. Bert was only able to get about with the aid of a walker now, but he outright refused to go back in.
As far as he was concerned, he was lucky to have got away with the hospital stay he’d had the first time. Leaving his house unoccupied was something that Bert rarely did and since the accident had crippled him, he didn’t leave it at all.
Online shopping had become his saviour. It took him hours to click each item and take it through the business of checking out, but it was worth every painful, second.
The only person that had crossed his threshold in the last fifty years was Marta. A no nonsense Polish woman who did his cleaning, laundry, and batch cooked him a week’s meals. She came every Friday morning, letting herself in with the key he’d let her get cut and bustling around his house wielding her clothes and sprays.
Bert tolerated her. Marta wasn’t the nosy sort and had no interest in Bert’s business, which suited him down to the ground.
She did her tasks, didn’t go in for small talk and then bustled off back to wherever she lived until the next Friday morning at 9 am sharp.
There was a routine to his days. Just because he was housebound, it didn’t mean he had to wallow in self-pity. He got up by 7 am every morning, made a cup of tea and two slices of toast which he consumed sitting at the small kitchen table. Bert would then lean against the sink and wash his knife, plate and mug and leave them on the drainer.
From 8 am he’d watch the morning news until 9 am when those awful shows would start. Full of self-satisfied looking presenters imparting advice with the patronising voices of adults addressing small children.
At 9 am he’d start the crossword and once that was completed, he’d work on whatever puzzle he had on the go until lunchtime. After a sandwich he’d shuffle around on his walker trying to do a few basic chores for himself. In the milder weather he’d often shuffle out into the garden and try and do some weeding but since his accident that had become something he did less often. As a result, the front of his house looked unkempt. His lawn, once pristine, was now overgrown and scattered with weeds. The flowerbeds that he’d once lovingly cared for, were full of shrubs that needed pruning and thistles as tall as himself.
It was probably the state of his front garden that had provoked the knock on the door that Thursday morning.
Wheeling himself slowly down the hall and then stretching up painfully to pull back the catch he was greeted by the sight of a cherub faced young boy of about ten. His wide grin and round freckled face would have melted the heart of most people, but not Bert.
“Whatcha want?” Bert growled
The boy, not at all perturbed by his grumpy welcome continued to grin at him and held out a leaflet.
“I’m with the scouts sir. To get my next badge I need to do a good deed. When I saw your garden, I wondered if you’d let me tidy it up for you?”
“What’s it gonna cost me?”
The boy grinned again, “nothing sir. I just need you to sign my book to prove I did it so I can get my badge. I can start now if you like?”
Bert narrowed his eyes. Not a man to ask for charity he was always suspicious of those who offered it.
“And it don’t gonna cost me nuffing?”
The boy shook his head.
“Not a penny sir.”
Bert looked around his garden. Seeing it through the boy’s eyes he could see why his had been the first house the kid had picked. He considered it for a moment. What harm could be done by the kid working outside? So long as he didn’t come in the house.
Bert gave him a sharp nod, “alright. But I don’t want you starting now. Come in the morning, 9am sharp.”
Bert just had time to see the boy’s smile and hear him agree before he slammed the door in his face.
At 9 am exactly he heard Marta’s key in the door and then her voice addressing the boy from yesterday.
“Are you sure that Mr Adams told you to come today? He don’t like no-one in his house but me.”
A smaller voice responded.
“I don’t need to come in the house Miss. I’m just going to be out here working on the garden. I need my helpers badge you see.”
“Okay. I check with Mr Adams. He say is okay then is okay. You want anything, you ask me. Don’t bother Mr Adams. He don’t like bother.”
Bert almost smiled. Almost. It wasn’t something he’d done for a long time and his face wasn’t used to it.
Bert spent the day avoiding Marta. It was nothing personal, but the sprays and cleaning smells made him feel agitated and it also meant that he could avoid any conversation. He sat in his armchair and watched the boy in the garden.
The boy was working hard, he thought grudgingly. He watched him pull on a pair of gardening gloves 3 sizes too big and grab hold of a giant thistle. The boy tugged, yanked and pulled until he finally uprooted it. Dirt scattered across the flower bed and sprinkled the boy’s face, which was puce with the effort it had taken.
Just then Marta bustled into the room.
“Mr Adams. I have made you the meals and they are in the freezer. The instructions to cook them are on your pad in the kitchen. I have cleaned all the rooms and your washing is drying in the spare room. I can come back tomorrow and put it away for you or wait until next week?”
Bert replied, as he always did, “leave it until next week Marta.”
Marta nodded and then looked out of the window.
“What you want me do about him? I tell him go now?”
Bert shook his head.
“Leave him be. He’s getting the job done and sooner its done the sooner he’s out of my hair.”
Marta didn’t respond, she pulled on the large, black coat she wore summer and winter, picked up her bag and left without a goodbye.
Bert settled back in his chair. The boy had started on the next flower bed now and was diligently yanking more thistles and nettles out. Watching him struggle, Bert sighed. He got up and with a great deal of effort managed to pull the window open.
“Hey boy. If you need tools to help you, go look in the shed out back.”
The boy waved to let Bert know he’d heard him, too breathless to answer.
Bert was about to sit back down but he turned back to the window.
Hey boy. What’s your name? I can’t keep calling you boy.”
The boy grinned, panting and red faced, his freckles stood out against his flushed cheeks.
“Alright. Harry. Shed isn’t locked so just go and help yourself.”
Harry raised his hand to show he’d heard, and Bert pulled the window closed. Sitting in his armchair he heard the creak of the garden gate as Harry made his way around the back.
That night Bert tried to concentrate on the book he was reading but thoughts of the young boy kept interfering. Irritated he chucked the book down on the table and huffed to himself. The boy reminded him of himself when he was that age. Full of pep and goodwill.
Bert shook his head. Memory lane didn’t lead anywhere that he wanted to go and especially not at night.
The house creaked and groaned as it settled. The sounds were familiar, but they still spooked Bert. He pulled his walker closer and leaned on it as he heaved himself out of the chair. Pushing it in front of him he made his way to the back room.
He pulled the key from his trouser pocket. It was kept locked at all times; this was a room he didn’t want anyone in. Not even Marta.
The curtains hadn’t been pulled together and a slither of moonlight cast a beam across the centre of the room. The bare floorboards were covered by a large, ornate rug. It was a dark, royal blue with threads of gold creating a swirling pattern. The rug had been his wife’s pride and joy. The damn thing had cost almost a week’s wages, he recalled. She’d seen it hanging in the window of the local haberdashery and had set her heart on it. Bert had been a dapper man back then and he’d adored his lovely, little wife. Although he’d not given her the nod, he’d made sure to go down and put a deposit on it. He’d paid as much as he could spare without her noticing each week until finally, he’d paid the full sum.
It had been a hard secret to keep, he remembered with a smile. He remembered her disappointed face when she’d told him that it had gone from the window and that some lucky housewife had probably bought it. He’d almost crumbled then. It had taken all his willpower to just nod as though he wasn’t interested and pretend to go back to his paper. He’d almost chuckled out loud as she’d huffed at his lack of sympathy, and he’d heard her crashing and banging the crockery in the kitchen a few minutes later.
He also remembered the look on her face when he’d marched in the house a couple of weeks later, and dramatically unrolled the rug across the back-room floor with a flourish. Back then it had been their “best lounge.” A room that his wife had planned to entertain their guests in. Not that there’d actually been any in the end.
Bert’s wife. Susan Adams. He could see her bright, sparkling eyes and the small auburn curls that escaped her sensible bun and corkscrewed around her face. The light dusting of freckles across her small, upturned nose and how brown she went in the summer sun.
Standing in this room he felt her presence so acutely it was as though she was stood in front of him. When he breathed deeply, he could pick up the faintest aroma of her perfume, something light and floral that she always wore.
Bert felt tears sting his eyes and he dashed them away roughly.
The room was silent, but Bert swore he could hear the regular thump of a heartbeat before he turned and left, locking the door behind him.
Harry showed up at 9 am on the button the next morning. Bert had flung the door open with a scowl.
“I need to finish the garden sir. Plus, I was looking at the back, and I don’t like to leave half a job, so I thought I’d have a go at that as well.”
Harry looked better prepared today. Gardening gloves that fit his small hands and black bags tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
“Do as you please.”
Harry’s smile slipped a little and Bert felt like a bit of an ogre.
“I’m a grumpy old man. I’m not good at being nice.”
Harry nodded, “it’s okay sir.”
Bert watched as Harry slaved away all morning. Pulling weeds and loading his black bags up. His face was flushed red in the sun and Bert noticed that as it got hotter, Harry got slower.
Sighing to himself he grabbed the walker and scooted himself to the kitchen. Pulling down one of the dusty glasses from the cupboard he rinsed it out and then filled it.
Moving with difficulty he wheeled himself to the front window and put the glass on the sill.
“Water for you boy.”
Harry waved his thanks and gulped down the glass in a couple of mouthfuls, carefully placing the glass back on the sill, he thanked Bert and returned to his tasks.
The knock at the backdoor surprised Bert who was deciding which meal to defrost for later. It was a choice between cottage pie and a stew.
Harry grinned at him.
“I’ve done as much as I can today sir. It’s getting a bit dark but I’m happy to come back tomorrow if that’s okay with you?”
“If you want. Surely, you’ve got better things to do with yourself than hang around a grumpy old man’s house?”
Harry shook his head, “I really want this badge sir and I’m enjoying the work.”
Bert jerked his chin at the boy, respect where it was due, unlike most young things nowadays, this kid was a grafter.
“Fine with me boy.”
Bert dug about in the drawer for a second, he finally pulled out a key attached to a small, wooden heart. The colour had once been a bright, eye catching red but was now faded and worn. Bert felt the sting in his chest and swallowed the lump in his throat. He’d shoved this key to the bottom of the kitchen drawer, unable to look at it without seeing his wife’s smiling face. He’d won the keyring at a fairground, and she’d hugged him like he’d given her the crown jewels.
“You may as well have a key boy. Won’t need to disturb me when you get here. Let yourself in if you need the loo or a drink.”
Harry took the key as though he was being offered a gold medal, his little face lit up with pride.
“I’ll take care of it sir, I promise.”
“Hmmm. You better.”
Bert shut the door on the boy but not before he’d seen him give the key an admiring look and tuck it in his pocket reverently as though it really was the crown jewels.
That night Bert let himself into the backroom. His walker moved easily across the wooden part of the floor but snagged on the edge of the rug. Stopping where he was, he sighed deeply. Standing still and silent he listened to the sounds of his house settling in for the night. Then again, he heard it. The unmistakable sound of a heart thumping.
Bert’s own heart raced in panic. The sound was below his feet, under the rug, under the floorboards. He felt the vibrations through his slippers. It was as though the whole floor was alive. Maybe it was a trick of the moonlight but to him he looked as though the rug was breathing. Rising and falling slightly and then settling as though underneath was a small, neat body. The waft of a light, floral perfume filled the room and Bert squeezed his eyes closed.
Bert turned his walker round and scurried out of the room as fast as he could without falling over.
The next morning his eyes were gritty, and his throat was scratchy. He felt as though he was coming down with something. Probably a summer cold, he grumbled to himself.
Right on the stroke of 9am, Harry showed up. Without knocking or disturbing Bert in any way he made a start. Bert heard the back gate creak as Harry made his way to the shed and back a few times. He watched the lad pulling weeds and pruning the shrubs. The pruning work only started after Harry had watched something on his phone. Bert was curious despite himself.
At around 11am he noticed that Harry had settled down to take a break. He’d bought a small rucksack with him, and Bert saw him pull out a bottle of water.
Opening the window, he called out.
“You alright boy? I can make you a snack if you’re hungry?”
Harry jumped up and blushed as though Bert had caught him sleeping on the job.
“I’m okay sir. Sorry, I’m feeling a bit under the weather today.”
Bert felt a pang of guilt, the kid had dragged his poorly self over here and he’d just been sitting around the house paying the boy no mind. In fact, he was such a miserable ogre that the poor lad had bought his own water, so he didn’t have to ask for one.
“Not feeling so hot myself boy. Think I might have a summer cold coming. Maybe you’ve got the same thing?”
Harry nodded but still looked awkward at being caught sitting down on the job.
Bert sighed. He heard Susan’s voice, as clear as though she was in the room with him.
“For Goodness sake Bert! What’s wrong with you? Let the poor boy sit indoors out of the sun for a minute.”
Bert eyed the boy.
“Want to come in? Get out of the sun. Have a minute.”
“Are you sure that would be okay sir?”
Bert nodded stiffly, “just use the key to get in. Saves me the effort.”
Harry appeared in the kitchen, Bert was buttering bread and had got some ham and cheese out of the fridge.
“Ham and cheese sandwich, okay?”
“Thank you, sir. I can make both our sandwiches though. Not to be rude, but you look as though you’re struggling a bit.”
Bert grunted and handed Harry the knife
“I like pickle in mine. You’ll find it at the back of the fridge. I swear Marta hides it on purpose.”
Harry busied himself making ham, cheese and pickle sandwiches for them both. He carefully cut them on the diagonal making two triangles each. Placing them on the plates he waited until Bert had taken his seat before sitting down himself.
“Thank you, sir. This is really good pickle. Better than the one my mum buys.”
Bert swallowed his mouthful.
“My wife’s recipe. Marta helps me make a batch every year.”
Harry stared at the sandwich in awe.
“You make that yourself?”
Bert felt the start of a smile. It felt uncomfortable on his face but at the same time it felt good.
“Yes boy, I make it myself. Or at least I used to, and now I make it with Marta’s help.”
They both ate in companiable silence for a while.
“You don’t need to call me sir. Call me Bert.”
Harry swallowed his own mouthful. Too quickly because it made him cough. Bert passed him his glass of water and waited until he’d cleared the blockage.
“That doesn’t feel right sir. Is it okay if I call you Mr Adams?”
Bert nodded, “if that feels more comfortable.”
Remembering earlier, when Harry had been checking his phone before starting the pruning he pointed at the boy’s mobile.
“What were you watching on there this morning? Looked as though you got to the pruning straight after and looking at it, you did a good job too.”
“I wasn’t sure what to do with them, so I googled it and watched a video online.”
Bert was impressed, the boy had put a lot of effort into getting his garden back up to scratch.
The silence this time seemed to drag and Bert could see that Harry was struggling with something he wanted to say.
“Spit it out boy.”
Bert waited and Harry eventually decided he may as well ask.
“I found a photo in the shed Mr Adams. Is this your wife?”
Harry held out a sepia-coloured photo and Bert took it; he pulled down his glasses and could see it was indeed his Susan. Smiling and with her arm linked into his own, she was resplendent in the dress she’d worn on their wedding day.
“That’s her. Susan her name was.”
Harry scrutinised it, “she was beautiful Mr Adams.”
Bert felt a lump in his throat, his eyes blurred.
“Yes Harry, she was.”
That night Bert struggled to get to sleep and then when he did, he had vivid dreams. Dreams of Susan. In his dreams her usually kind face was scrunched in disapproval. Her eyes were sad, and she shook her head in disappointment.
“You can’t keep living like this Bert.”
That was the last thing he remembered before he woke up. It was 2am and he was coated in a sheen of cold sweat. His heart was pumping so fast he thought he was going to have a heart attack.
He laid there for a bit. Staring at the ceiling, eyes wide open. The crack was still there. The one Susan had said looked like a map of Italy.
A solitary tear trickled down his craggy cheek. He could feel her weight on his arm as she laid on his chest. Her tinkling, laugh as she pointed to the crack and told him she’d like to go to Italy one day. He remembered how she’d press her ear against his chest and tell him she could hear his heart beating.
In this very bed they’d made love, smoked cigarettes and made plans for a future they thought they had.
Susan looked frazzled. Their daughter had been up all night, teething apparently, and by the time Bert got home from work he could see that the day hadn’t been much easier on his wife. Holding out his arms he took the baby and held her close. Leaning in, he smelled the scent of milk and baby shampoo.
As her crying died down to a hic-cup Susan shook her head.
“Typical. She’s awful to me all day and the minute daddy holds her she’s good as gold.”
Bert grinned at his wife’s expression
“Daddy’s little girl” he crooned, and Susan rolled her eyes
“Knows where her bread’s buttered more like!”
As his daughter’s eyes fluttered and finally closed, he pointed towards the stairs to indicate that he was going to try and put her down. Susan had nodded and started to peel the potatoes for their tea.
Bert laid her down in her crib. Her little thumb had wandered up to her mouth where it rested on her rosebud lips. He stroked her soft hair and felt the slight depression of her skull where it hadn’t quite finished forming. His beautiful daughter, who thank god, looked more like his wife than him.
His little Milly, the beautiful creation that had completed their lives. He often wondered what life had been like before she’d come along.
They’d eaten tea together, washing it down with cheap white wine and tipsy from the drink he’d swept her into his arms and danced her around the kitchen. He remembered her long, white neck as she’d leaned back against his arm. Her gentle touch and how she’d brushed his cheek with her warm lips.
Bert’s face was damp with tears. Sometimes it felt like only yesterday. Knowing he wouldn’t get any more sleep this night he awkwardly got himself out of bed. Using the stairlift to get himself downstairs he pushed his walker into the kitchen and filled the kettle. May as well have a cuppa since he was already up.
Bert realised that he was watching the clock and waiting for young Harry to show up. Irritated with himself, he didn’t like depending on anyone else, he turned the news on. A daily dose of misery should sort me out, he thought wryly.
Harry was late. Unusually so.
It was nearer to 10am when he finally showed up. Bert was alarmed to see how pale his face looked behind the vivid freckles.
Ushering the boy into the house he fetched him a cup of milky, sweet tea.
“You don’t look so good boy”
Harry shrugged and tried to brush it off.
“I’m okay Mr Adams. Just that summer cold.”
Bert wasn’t so sure, Harry looked terrible. His round face was pale, and his eyes were ringed in black.
“I think you should go home and rest Harry, lad. Take it easy for a couple of days. My garden isn’t going anywhere.”
Harry had shaken his head, but he was too exhausted to argue as much as he usually would’ve.
“How about you give me a hand in the house today? I need some help finding the corner bits on my new jigsaw puzzle.”
Bert had found doing the puzzle more fun with another person helping. They’d good naturedly bickered about where bits should go and despite still looking peaky, Harry had been in and out of the kitchen fetching them snacks and drinks.
After Harry had gone home Bert felt an emptiness. The house seemed too quiet, and nothing felt right without him.
Bert had scolded himself; you can’t get too close to the boy. He’ll just up and leave when it’s all done.
Bert had the dream again. It must have been night, 30 years since the last one, but it was as if it was yesterday.
Bert could hear his daughter screaming as he put the key in the lock. Another bad day for Susan, he thought.
It had started raining as he’d walked up his street earlier. He could feel the cold droplets of rain, dripping down his neck and chilling him to the bone. Bert longed for a long, hot shower before dinner but knew it was more likely that he’d need to take over baby duties.
The lights weren’t on in the hall. Bert frowned and looked up as though the bulbs could tell him if they needed changing or not. It wasn’t like Susan not to have the lights on. No smell of dinner and a screaming daughter, who from the sounds of it, had been demanding attention for a while now.
Bert felt his way to the coat hooks, he peeled off his soaked coat and kicked off his shoes. Touching the wall with his palm he found the light switch.
Bert pushed the switch down and was relieved to see they worked. The hall was immediately illuminated in a warm glow.
He looked towards the stairs, maybe Susan had fallen asleep and hadn’t yet heard their daughter screaming?
Walking towards the stairs and still looking upwards he didn’t see her until his feet touched something soft. He looked down.
Susan lay at the bottom of the stairs. Her neck twisted to an impossible angle and her eyes sightlessly staring at the ceiling.
For a moment he thought he was imaging it. He rubbed his eyes. Still there.
He closed his eyes, took a few breaths and then opened them again.
Crumpled and broken like a toy thrown to the floor by an uncaring child.
Bert reached for the phone. And then withdrew his hand.
He bent down, he laid his face next to hers and waited to feel her warm breath on his skin but there was nothing. He reached out a trembling hand and pressed it to her head. Cold.
No warmth, no softness.
Bert moaned. His Susan. The woman he’d courted, danced around the kitchen and whose white throat he’d kissed was gone.
The screams from upstairs grew louder, he glanced upwards and the magnitude of what had happened hit him like a physical blow.
He would be alone. A lone father raising a daughter. A widow that everyone pitied. At first, they’d be full of offers of help and concern but eventually they’d drift away. Then it would be just him, shouldering the burden of parenthood.
His mind raced through the scenario, pictures of a future that was bleak without his Susan. Standing at her graveside and watching as dirt was shovelled onto her coffin. Wearing his best suit, the one he’d bought for christenings and weddings. The sympathetic looks that were tinged with a “thank goodness it wasn’t me”
Bert lifted his wife into his arms. Her body was light as a child’s, and he held her close to his chest. Her head fell to one side and for a moment he could pretend she was listening to his heartbeat just as she used to.
He hadn’t really taken the time to think. He’d just known that he couldn’t give her up. He’d tenderly laid her down on the rug that she’d so cherished and rolling it up from the other side he’d taken his toolbox and lifted the floorboards.
As he’d slipped her body into the small, dark space, he’d sent up a prayer of forgiveness to whoever might be listening to him.
The tears had streamed down his face as he’d hammered the boards back into place. He’d pulled the rug back over and then laid down on it. His cheek against the spot where he knew her head would be.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d laid there but his daughter’s screams had shaken him from his stupor. Almost in a daze he’d made her a bottle of milk, changed her wet nappy and fed her. He rocked her slowly, his hips swayed from side to side in the age-old way that parents have soothed their children since time began.
He laid her gently in her crib and ran his bumpy, calloused hand over her soft head. She’d smiled in her sleep, almost as though she knew her father was there.
Bert had managed to hold it together. All through the lies to his neighbours and friends that Susan had left him and even through the times that his daughter had screamed and fretted. Always a difficult baby she became impossible. It was as though she knew what had happened and was craving a mother that was no longer here.
The social worker was kind. Firm and blunt but kind enough to help him make excuses to himself for what he was about to do. A lone man couldn’t raise a girl by himself. He was helping a couple who couldn’t have children of their own. She’d have a better life with them. Two parents and everything she’d want.
Bert had even managed to hand her over without breaking down. Dry eyed and with only the tremble in his hand betraying what he was feeling he’d given his beautiful daughter away.
He watched from the window as the car pulled away from his house, he saw it drive down the road. He watched as the indicators flashed and it turned left and then disappeared from sight.
It was then that he broke and once he started, he couldn’t stop. The tears streamed, his nose ran, and he sobbed until he couldn’t catch a breath.
Bert opened a bottle of whisky that night and drank it until he passed out. When he woke up, he did it again and again the next day until finally he lay, spent and broken on the floor. His mouth felt like cottonwool balls and his head pounded.
Standing up on wobbly legs he drank four glasses of water and swallowed two aspirin. Getting his tool bag, he walked up the stairs. That day he took down the cot that they’d chosen together. He folded the tiny clothes and threw all the toys into a box.
Loading it all into his car he drove to town and dropped it all at the first charity shop he saw. It wasn’t so easy to pack away how he felt but eventually he managed it.
Harry didn’t show up the next day or the day after that.
Bert paced his floor, pushing the walker in front of him he wondered how he could find out if the boy was okay.
On Friday morning Marta let herself in, she was unloading cleaning products from under his sink when he walked up behind her in the kitchen.
“That boy didn’t show up.”
Marta glanced up, “maybe he get bored? These kids are all the same. They start something but they don’t finish.”
Bert shook his head, “he didn’t seem that sort to me.”
Marta shrugged, “they all that sort. My boy, he went away with his wife and I no see him for four years now.”
Bert stayed quiet; he didn’t think that Harry was like that, but he didn’t feel he knew Marta well enough to say so.
“He wasn’t well last time he was here.”
Marta got up and placed all the products on the table, she looked him over and then nodded.
“The boy lives on the estate at the back of the supermarket. I see his mother. She work there.” Tearing a sheet of paper from the pad she left his cooking instructions on she scribbled and handed it to him.
“Address is here.”
Bert gave a nod. He picked up his keys, “won’t hurt to check with her. It’s not far.”
Marta shrugged again, “as you like Mr Adams. I clean, you check on boy.”
Bert found he enjoyed the walk to the estate. It was another warm, sunny day and feeling the tingle on his skin and seeing the deep blue of the sky made him feel better than he had for years.
Knocking on the door at the address he’d been given Bert could see the house looked tired and worn. Soft footsteps heralded the houseowner approaching and he leaned on his walker to give his aching hip a rest.
The front door swung open. Bert stepped backwards in shock. His foot caught on a crack in the path and as he tumbled to the ground he saw the kind, warm eyes of his Susan looking down at him.
“Are you okay?”
The voice had a tinge of anxiety to it. Bert forced his eyes open and then immediately closed them again. This woman looked like his Susan. So much so that he felt a hand squeeze his heart and butterflies explode in his stomach. The same auburn curls and the sprinkle of sandy freckles across her small, upturned nose.
“Shall I call an ambulance?”
Bert managed to shake his head, he eased himself up until he was sitting and then using his walker to steady himself managed to get back on his feet.
“I’m looking for Harry.”
The woman gasped, the blood drained from her face, and she swayed from side to side. Bert reached out and grabbed her arm, afraid that she would fall to the floor, and he wouldn’t be able to help her up.
Using his walker to support the both of them he managed to get her into her house. She collapsed into an armchair and Bert looked around the room.
From every wall photos of a smiling Harry depicted every age from birth to present. Bert smiled; his Susan would’ve called it a shrine.
Shoving his walker impatiently in front of him he found the kitchen and fetched the woman a drink of water. She gratefully gulped it down and then grasped his wrinkled hands in her own.
“You don’t seem like a cruel man. Why would you come here asking for Harry?”
“Harry’s been helping in my garden. Needs some badge or other for the scouts.”
The woman gave a thin smile.
“When was this?”
Bert made a show of working it out.
“He hasn’t been for the last 3 days but before that he was regular as clockwork.”
The woman shook her head, her eyes filled with tears.
“Someone was playing a prank on you. Harry died last year, he’d not been well but by the time the doctor did all the tests and found it was leukaemia it was too late.”
Bert felt the floor spinning up to meet him, somehow, he managed to hold his balance. Waiting until he could speak in a voice that didn’t waver, “I’m sorry to hear that lassie. I must have been mistaken.”
The woman wiped under her eyes with her finger and tried to smile.
“Please call me Milly.”
Susan curled an arm around the freckled faced boy who looked so much like her Bert it hurt her heart to see him sometimes. He looked up, his mouth curled in a warm smile
“Did I do good grandma?”
Susan ran a hand through his hair, “you did brilliantly Harry. The job is done, and we can go now.”
Harry looked longingly at his grandad and his mum; Susan read his expression. Holding his face in her hands she bent down to his height, so they were eye to eye.
“I miss them too. So much that it hurts more than I think I can bear but sometimes life has other plans for us. Me and you, we’ll be together, waiting until the day when our loved ones join us.”
Standing up she took Harry’s small, warm hand in her own and with a backward glance at the newly reunited father and daughter she led him into the light.