Inglenook Reads by Georgina Green

A Rose for the Butcher.

"Roses? For the Butcher? The one over the road?
Inglenook Reads
Inglenook Reads by Georgina Green
The florist looked at me as if I were barking mad. She was about 20ish, ash blonde hair and had one of those balanced, glowing faces; the type that's evenly proportioned, with high cheek bones and almond shaped eyes. She reached for the tag cards, eyeing me cautiously. "Yes", I said. "The one over the road. Will you write the card for me please?" I'd seen him earlier. He was usually a chirpy soul, but this morning he looked down and vaguely sad. I hardly ever bought meat from him as I like veggie things. It was his smile and wave that drew me though. Every time I passed, he'd wave hello and grin. Sometimes, he'd stop brushing the pavement in front of the shop, and would stand and chat to me. Usually he talked about the weather, how busy or how quiet he was. Other times, he would chat about his family or the various charities that he always found time to raise money for. He told me that the butcher's shop had been in his family for generations and had showed me photographs of days gone by, including the families first shop in the city centre. Images of pheasants and rabbits as well as whole sides of pigs hanging from huge metal hooks attached to the ceiling, while wood shavings covered the floor. A shop far removed from the clinical precision of the shop he now had. He sold only pork, chicken and beef now and they were cut up in neat parcels and offered on metal plates and trays, arranged neatly under glass in units of white laminate and stainless steel. The white tiled floor was always immaculate. The windows were as shiny as his face could be on summer days when the sun shone through. He told me he was one of two sons and as the eldest, the shop according to tradition, was handed down to him. "It was expected I would follow in Dad's shoes", he explained one day to me, his eyes momentarily having that nostalgia mist that can descend with a memory and the threat of tears unshed. This morning though he had been different. Not chatty. He could barely return a smile and his shoulders seemed to carry an invisible weight of unspoken worry. He seemed down, sad, obviously fed up. The girl chose a card and unfolded it before tapping the counter with her pen. Non verbal for "I haven't got all day, you know". "What would you like to say," she prompted, emphasising each word. At least she was tactful. "Have a Happy Day," I suggested and grinned. She sucked the end of the pen and waited for me to add more. When nothing more came, she scribbled furiously on the card. I could tell she was just dying to find out why I was sending flowers to the middle aged, red haired butcher over the road but also longing to get shot of me so she could get on with the canopies of red roses and lilies patiently waiting their turn to be displayed in a bouquet, vase or stand. "How many", she asked. I was sure I had grown green ears and a blue nose since I walked in. Was I really that strange, to want to send flowers to a man? "Only the one please". "A single red rose?" She had this habit of questioning everything. And yes, okay. I know. It did feel a little odd. Sending flowers to a man, especially the local butcher. This local butcher, anyway. Well, not flowers. A flower actually. My bank account wasn't up to sending a bouquet; but then that would definitely be odd now, wouldn't it. I could understand the girl's surprise. He was short and plump. A a real life version of the plastic butcher that stood outside his shop. She hadn't yet asked me why I was sending the flower though. I guess she was too polite. Or thought maybe I had a fetish for butchers, or that maybe I was his wife and sending a flower in honour of our anniversary. Well that wouldn't have been so bad. To be his wife, I mean. He doted on his wife. He always spoke of her. He told me that on the days that she was ill, he would do the cooking and the cleaning, run the business, and collect the kids from school. He was the sort you wished you'd have paid more attention to when you were younger and dating. The sort of man who was dependable to the verge of being boring. Dependable suited him. He made sure the old folk got their meat and arranged deliveries for them. He hardly ever looked down in the dumps, except for today. I wondered how such a caring loving bloke could ever consider cutting into flesh and bone as he did. And there he was, just over the road, the man who usually had a smile and a kind word for everyone, now bent over his chopping board, looking weary and far from loved. He looked sort of beaten. Beaten with the trivialities of life. I grinned as the girl passed me the rose. I shook my head. "Would you deliver it for me, please?" "Name?" "No thanks, no need for a name. Just the rose with the card." "I mean his name?" Her blue eyes and false eyelashes swept over me. "Oh, sorry, I don't know his name. Does it matter?" I could almost hear her inner detective working. I didn't know his name, so that ruled me out as his wife, or girlfriend. She was still too polite to ask. It did matter. It did matter I did not know his first name. A man who chatted to me most days, a man who did so much for the community, and yet I never had thought of asking his name. But then again, I thought he probably did not know mine. For a second she arched her brows. I could tell she was probably thinking "Something funny is definitely going on here". And she would be right, there was. Well I hoped there would be. Not exactly odd, but funny. Yes, maybe. Hopefully. Four hours later, I couldn't resist a peek. It was safer to do it in the car. I just wanted to check to see if the flower had been delivered. I drove past slowly, and there he was, this time chatting to a customer. The flower inside its case was on his counter, away from till. He had placed it in the middle of the glass serving shelf so that it was directly opposite the threshold to the shop. I parked up and made my way into the newsagents next door with the pretence of buying a paper I didn't really want. He was grinning from ear to ear. He looked different than he did this morning. His face was lit up and his shoulders back. I swear he looked taller than he usually did. He spotted me, winked and smiled his eyes now bright and alive. It was if the rose had been some sort of magic light bulb which had inspired him with the joy of life again. In the shop window, I saw the reflection of the girl in the florists opposite. She was staring at us in amazement, a vase of what looked like blue delphiniums in her hand. The butcher spotted her and waved, and turned once again to his chopping board to slice through yet another joint of beef. Now When It Is Nearly Time For Tea, I Think Of The Mary That Was Once Me We lived in fear of our fathers then. They beat us if we did anything they didn't like. I'd always do as I was told. I never questioned him. You knew, you see, what would happen if you did! Acceptance in those days was important. Acceptance that they were older than you and so knew better than you did. My father used to hit me with his hand, or sometimes with stair rods or a strap. He did not hit my youngest sister though. My mother often would slap me with her hand if I was naughty. She would sometimes tell my father when he came home and on occasions I'd be hit again. Sweets were on ration (we were allowed 4oz of sweets a month I think) and there were few toys so we had to make up our own games. We'd go blackberry picking or pick hazelnuts. It was safe then for us all to go out together, all children in a group, boys and girls. We'd go down by the stream a lot and play there, have something to eat. There weren't a lot of toys around then. Games would be ones that we made up ourselves, like Cowboys and Indians or Hopscotch. We did have marbles and a top and a whip; Jacks were little pebbles. We'd also make our own toys. We'd make stilts out of tin cans and string; make our own kites. We made our own trucks and cars from old pram or bike wheels and bits of scrap. Mum would make us soft toys from old socks and clothes. She'd often make us dolls from our old school socks. We were pretty much left to our own devices. We had to be home for teatime though, but after tea we could go back out again if we wanted to. In summer, days were very long because there was "double summer time". This was done to help farmers. It gave them extra light; the clocks went back two hours and forward two hours at the beginning and end of summer time. When I got to be eleven, I could go with friends to pick peas to earn money. I would be up at around half four in the morning and catch the bus at five to work at Bees Nurseries; we got half a crown for every hundred weight of peas we picked. That's around 12.5 pence in today's money! On Sunday's there was always a roast dinner. I'd go to Sunday school with the Salvation Army, not because I wanted to - it was because they gave you a stamp and when you had so many, it meant that you could swop the stamps for a day out, and I liked that. The day out would often be at Rhyl and we would go on the bus or the train. If we were lucky the Army would give us some spending money; sometimes this was as much as half a crown. We could buy chips with that, a donkey ride and a drink. This was usually cherryade. After the war you could get ice cream. Italians sold this in our area, taking it around the houses with a horse and cart. It wasn't available in the shops for ages. We'd go to the cinema for a treat. If you went Up in the Gods (on the second floor) it meant that you were posh. That was more expensive and we didn't go up there much! We'd watch films about the Wild West, Old Mother Riley and Popeye. There was no cooked meal in the evening. You had porridge for breakfast and then a hot school lunch and maybe crumpets, or a sandwich and a cake for tea. Tea times at home were important. Dad would be home between half four and five and Mum would have to get the fire going for him and I would have to help Mum prepare a meal so that he could eat it when he came home. We were always fed in the order of the family; Dad was served first, then us and then Mum. For tea, Mum would do us toast or crumpet cooked on the fire and our cake would often be plain scones. If we had a hot pudding it would usually be semolina; I liked that. You weren't allowed to speak at dinnertime and Dad always sat at the head of the table and when we had any roast, he would carve it at the table. Hot meals were usually made up of lots of vegetables and offal. We ate ox tongues, liver and hearts, brawn which was made out of boiled pigs heads, and something called "elder", which was cow udder. There was little other meat to be had. At home, dinner plates were taken out of the oven and wrapped in paper to keep them warm. When it was cold they could be used as hot water bottles in the bed! Sometimes Mum would also put a brick in the oven to warm it before putting it into your bed. The warmth from the bricks lasted longer than the plates! A coal fire heated downstairs. We had our windows darkened in the evenings because of the war. The top windows were painted black and lower windows had thick brown paper on a frame covering them, topped off with heavy material. At first we had a two-bedded house but later we moved into a three bedded home which had a proper bathroom. Meat like beef and lamb were on ration as was bacon, sugar and tea. Because food was rationed I'd go with my Dad and we would catch a rabbit or maybe pick out some eggs from the moorhens. Dad would use wire traps for the rabbit so they were often dead when we went back for them. Mum would have newly hatched chickens in a tray that was kept in the little warming stove by the fire. When they were big enough they'd go outside and we'd have their eggs. We'd have a chicken at Christmas. If we had chicken at other times it was because the chicken had stopped laying eggs. Dad taught me how to kill and pluck our chickens. I had a baby sister and she slept in the washing basket when she was little. Before that she slept in a drawer. We'd all have to help Mum with her and with the house. We all had chores to do at home. If you misbehaved, this meant that you had to spend longer doing the chores, or do them several times over. There wasn't any TV until about 1953 I think. We got our television to watch the Coronation! Dad was the only one allowed to touch it and woe - betide you if you did when he wasn't looking! Even when you were older you had to do what he said. "If you're under my roof, you do what I say" - so you did. You never played truant then. We had a school truant officer. We nicknamed him Johnny Whacker 'cos he used to whack us if he saw us when we should have been in school. You knew what you were allowed to do, you see, and the consequences if you did what you weren't allowed so you did what you were told. You never questioned or answered back, at home or at school. At school you could be canned. You could go to school when you were four years old. We had about 40 in our class, we were all taught in one big hall that had sections in it for the classes. We were mostly taught reading, writing and arithmetic, with some RE, geography and history. I didn't do any science until I went to grammar school. Schools were self-supporting in those days and I had to take two pennies with me every week to give to the teacher. This was to help to pay for our schoolbooks and the running of the school. School at that time also gave us egg powder to take home. We were also given cod liver oil which was to keep us healthy. If you did get sick, you had to pay for a doctor to visit. My little sister got very sick when she was eleven months old. The doctor did not want to come out to us as we had no money and she died at home. Wherever you went, you had to take a gas mask and an identity card with you, to keep you safe if there was a gas attack. We had evacuees living with us - two boys from Liverpool who came when they were about 7 or 8. Dad never beat them. My brother, the eldest child did not live with us. He lived with my Dad's parents. I was the next eldest after my brother and I looked after my sisters a lot. I even used to take the little ones with me to school. Older babies could come to school with you. I remember carrying my baby sister as I walked to school. I was ten years old then. For babies under a year old, there were nurseries as women worked long hours to suit because of the war. Women would club together so that we were always looked after and grandparents would help. Mum worked on the buses as a conductor and Dad was a steelworker ad an ARP Warden; he had a tin hat, a bucket and an axe! I got through my 11 Plus and went to grammar school in Holywell. I had to get a bus from Flint. When I left at 15 I had passed all my exams but I went to work in a shop because it helped support the family. I got £1, 9 shillings and 2 pence.. I had to give my Mum a pound and the rest I could keep. I would have liked to learn how to be a vet, but as I was a girl it was expected that I should leave school and work, and then get married. I left home when I was eighteen. The Phone Call "Hello? Hello, Mrs. Tompkinson?" "Hello.... Was it me you wanted, or Louise? I'm afraid Louise is not here. She's moved in with her father and his fancy piece. I don't have their number though, sorry." "I'm many things Mrs. Tompkinson but I am not a fancy piece. It's you I'd like to speak to please, the reason I'm calling is ...." "You sound so young. Oh Lord. You're not one of Louise's friends, are you?" "Mrs. Tompkinson, I'm phoning to ask you if we could please send you back all that stuff you sent by courier yesterday. I've only a small flat you see. I've no room for all ... for all those toys and bits you sent, at least until things are sorted out." "Toys? Oh please. Does Rodger know you refer to his models as toys and bits? Have you any idea how expensive some of those are? Some of them are handmade to order." "Mrs Tompkinson... Is it okay to call you Annie please? If you could just be kind enough to take back his toy bits, well his model trains, if you could be kind enough to store them for a while for us please - and well, I wanted to talk to you about Louise." "Yes, I've heard Louise is pregnant. I do hope you and her father are feeding her properly." "She's pregnant? I had no idea!" "Yes, I'm looking forward to being a grandmother. Didn't she tell you? You will like Louise's boyfriend, the new Dad To Be, Aiden. Haven't you met him yet? He's into heavy metal, plays lead guitar you know. The band rehearses in the garage, but as I'm in the process of cleaning that out, I told them yesterday they would be welcome at yours." "Mrs. Tompkinson ... Annie ... I think we should talk about this. I've really no room for Rodger's models. Let alone a band. And definitely not Louise and her baby! I'm sure Louise, under the circumstance, would be more comfortable living back at home with you, at least until things are sorted." "I think you will find Louise has her own mind dear. Like her father has. Now, it seems to me you must be Ellie or Amy. He talked about both of you many times you know in his sleep. Anyway, Ellie or Amy, I do hope you can persevere with Rodger's railway models. They help him relax you know." "Did you say Ellie? Who the hell is Ellie?" "I really don't know, Amy dear. Does it matter who, or whom, Ellie is?" "Mrs Tompkinson... Mrs T ... Annie. Look Annie, the thing is.... I’ve been thinking. Maybe you know, this has all been a bit rash. I'm not really sure Rodger really knows what he is doing... " "I don't know Amy dear whether Rodger ever ... really knew ... what he was doing. Look, dear, I expect it's his little ways that are bothering you. You never really get to know anyone until you live with them. Older people, like older things, need a bit more maintenance and care you know. Possibly you've been serving him too many takeaways, maybe fried food? Rodger's been a martyr to flatulence ever since he hit fifty. Try a little tip from me - try eliminating them, and that should help. If not you could try some air freshener - if not well, you could always improvise, with Tentatio. Amy? Are you there? Oh now don't be shy Amy dear. I found the receipt in his pocket at Christmas. I've never really liked Tentatio you know; it's just not my perfume. I prefer something a little more elusive, but it makes a good room freshener you know. You could try it in his socks and shoes." "Tentatio? Fifty? He's never fifty? Annie, please. Surely you must want him back. I never really wanted him to leave you, or his home, or even Louise. It was just ...." "A bit of fun Dear. Yes. I know. Now that's what I've missed out on for so long. Fun. Now it's my turn, and no, I do not want him back. So sorry Dear, for Rodger now is your dilemma, not mine. I do so enjoy the extra free time I have. And the peace and quiet! Oh now I remember. I really must send you Rodger's library of organ music. He'll be lost without it. It helps him to sleep you see." "Oh, but there really is no need, Mrs. .... Annie. I'm sure he is missing you; he talks about you all the time. I think, I know it's you he loves... He's, he's never stopped loving you. You must still love him too after all these years." "No, Dear. Not at all. I only stayed with him because of Louise. I'll send the CD's on to you tomorrow. Someone will have to be in for them as they will need signing for; after all we don't want them to go astray, now do we. Rodger would be most upset and we can't have that. Amy, I do wish you good luck. I'm afraid you may need it. You don't sound like one of his usual floozies. You sound ...." "Floozies?" "Oh yes Dear. There have been a number of them over the years. I'm afraid Rodger finds fidelity impossible. Oh, and there's just one more thing," "Yes?" "We were never married." "Oh but I thought you were! Rodger said ...." “Definitely not." "But, but isn't he due half?" "Half of what, Amy?" "Half of the business, and the house? And the BMW?" "Oh those. Oh they're not his dear...You see I'm afraid Rodger's only employed with us. He doesn't actually own anything. Anyway, half a car wouldn't do at all, would it? Everything, including this house, is all tied in with the business, Simpson & Steggles." "Simpson and...?" "Simpson & Steggles solicitors Amy. They fired Roger yesterday. Rodger hasn't been turning up, as you know, for work." "He's on holiday. And it's Tompkinson an' Steggles ... isn't it? "Is that what he told you?. My Dear, you have a lot to learn, but you are young, there is plenty of time to learn. Anyway, about the BM. Mr Steggles junior is calling on you both tomorrow to collect it. Will you be in, my dear? Dear?... Oh Lord, I'm sorry. I gather you are not aware that the BM is a company car." "No, I didn't. Mrs. Tompkinson, Annie ...." "Now, now. Try not to fret so Amy dear. Rodger really isn't worth it. Now, don't forget. I'll send you the music, Mr Steggles will come for the BM, and if you give the bathroom a really good spray with the Tentatio, it will stay fresh. Well at least for a few hours at least. Cut out the starch, and you'll be fine. Now, I really must go. I have to check on my roses before it gets dark. I'm sure you and Rodger will be very happy together, and Amy ....” "Yes?" "Should you find that you are not, I am sure Simpson and Steggles will give you a discount. Just tell them Annie Simpson recommended them to you. Ties That Bind At the art exhibition, Edwin was waiting patiently for Ellen to open up. He watched her as she undertook the last minute preparations; from a quick dust over to once more making sure there was sufficient change - just in case, in her till and then finally tidying her hair - It was always swept back elegantly, and today it was held in place with a hair clip. It was her favourite, the one he had bought her all those years ago. She only used on special occasions; it was something that she was very fond of and she liked how the sky blue velvet contrasted against her silver grey hair. It would not be long now. Ellen was pleased to see a small queue waiting, but disappointed to that James was not amongst them. Ellen sighed; she had prayed that for once, he would be there, on time. It had been almost two years now since she had found his work splattered in conspicuous glory on the old carriages that lay in the sidings. It had taken her four months of waiting in all weathers to catch him with his spray cans. At first he was wary, but she had persisted in befriending him. One thing she was good at was confidence building. That, together with the odd hot meal and canvas, brushes and gesso had won him around. She was proud of him, the way he had come on since she first knew him. And now, his finest work yet! It was hard work when featuring just one artist, to gain enough interest for an exhibit. Showcasing the work of local artists was what she did. Her raison d'être. She created opportunities for those who created. Her love affair with new art won the friendship and respect of influential buyers and art magnets; people like Gareth Bernstein, who had accepted an invite to attend tonight's exhibition. She hoped Gareth would be impressed enough to feature James in Artist Monthly. But where was James? He ought to have been here by now; It was his one failing, his abysmal time keeping. The only thing that grated on her. Ellen was punctuality personified. Edwin was pleased for her. He hadn't seen her smile as much as this in a very long time. A youthful glow of pink smattered across her still high cheek bones. He reached out to touch her, but just as she did so, the church clock opposite struck seven. It was time to open! Ellen turned the key and bent to undo the bottom bolt of the door. The exhibition would be on, whether James was there or not. As agents, buyers and guests made their entrance, Edwin stepped out of the way and retreated to the back of the hall where he could watch from a distance. He had waited such a long time. Patience was a virtue. He smiled. Edwin had grown accustomed to patience. It was one of the few sensations he had left, that and love of course. He had plenty of love. James, hands stuffed nervously in his jacket pocket, was not far away. James only felt patient when he was painting or sculpting. Funny thing that. He could capture movement perfectly. The ebb and flow of muscle, colours hinting at evocative expressionism. He grinned. He was never one for learning. Not one for socializing To James life should be as free as the air he breathed. And yet what he yearned for most was recognition. Of being appreciated. Or rather, of having his work recognized and appreciated. To James, his work was living, breathing beings. He gave birth to them that was all. What people thought of him did not matter, but what they thought of his work, did. So he, like Edwin, waited. He was waiting out of sight at the corner by the booksellers. Clad in black jeans, the new white shirt Ellen had bought him, and his Dad's "lucky" leather jacket, his hair washed. The only thing he had to do now was attend his own exhibition. To date, his only exhibition! The jacket was the only thing his father had left him, but somehow tonight he hoped the jacket would live up to it' reputation. That he would be lucky. That for once, he would get his break. Tonight there was hope. Life was not worth living if he could not create. The ecstasy of the possibility of actually selling something for a decent price at last! Ellen had so much faith in him. He could then repay her, maybe even look after her as she had him. Make sure she was always comfortable; perhaps even make sure her gallery always continued being a beacon of new art, of new inspiration. There was something about her that he had grown to love, to appreciate. Maybe it was the way she mothered him. His own mother had left when he was three. Motherhood had not been her thing, Dad had said. "Try not to blame her". That was what his Dad had always told him as he had grown. But he did blame her; especially when Dad died early, not leaving much savings despite working every hour to support James at art college. It was the only thing they argued about. His art course. "James is an exemplary artist. Faultless. Of our teaching that is. Too often he misses class". James was not ready for the criticism. He wanted to slip in unannounced. He wanted to see what people thought without them knowing he was there. He saw Ellen open up, saw her meet and greet. It was his time now, his chance - James s squared his shoulders. It was his time now. Perhaps the jacket, and his work, would be lucky...For Ellen's sake... Edwin liked James. He did not mind when James joined him. The two men stood side by side watching minglers mingle and those that were bored and plain hungry eat. James spotted Chris the same time as Edwin. Chris always had stood out in a crowd, even at school - James remembered him as an overgrown teenager who towered above his peers and most of the teachers. Chris, he recalled was accustomed to one simple rule - that he could take what he wanted when he wanted it. James had a feeling of unease as he watched him, but he did not want to spoil an evening that Ellen had spent so long planning for and had invested so much of her energy and money in. By 9.30, eight pieces of art had been purchased and two reserved for a forthcoming exhibit in London; James was also booked for an interview and photo shoot for Artist Monthly. Compared to his earlier work, his paintings had now, finally, today, fetched a good price. His dad would have been proud. He was proud. Of himself, of his work, of Ellen. The last sponsor left, and a very tired but happy Ellen gave a grateful sigh as she bolted the door. James made her a cup of tea, and together they sat down at her desk, an opportunity to swop their stories of the night and share in the success that both of them felt. The evening had secured a good future for James - a recognition that he had so long deserved. Ellen felt surprisingly nostalgic. James reminded her so much of Edwin. On her desk was a pencil sketch in a heavy gilt frame that Edwin had done of her 45 years ago when she was only 17. She had not a care in the world then. James had often teased her about it. He had given a wolf whistle when he had first spotted the sketch; "Well fit", he had said, grinning at her. She smiled at the memory, smiled at the picture. Edwin had talent too. He could have been a brilliant artist, had he the opportunity. Different it's true, to James. Both of them though, truly gifted. It was why she had dedicated her life to launching the work of aspiring, creative youngsters who had no other means of marketing their work. Their talent, at least would not be wasted. Her thoughts seemed to strike a sentimental chord too in Edwin. He cared not that his life as an artist was cut short. All he cared about was Ellen. It was almost time and then the long wait would be over. Edwin knew what was coming, and when the door burst open he was ready. James though was not expecting the attack. The gunshot braked with Ellen's scream, and blood-blasted, he was somehow jerked from chair to floor. It was then that he saw Chris. Chris, taking aim for the second time, determined, unemotional, and ice cold steady. There could be no pleading, no negotiation, and no witnesses. Vaulting himself upward and forward, James hoped to get Chris before Chris's bullets got him. The gun went off for a second time, smattering the framed sketch on Ellen's desk and ricocheting into the wall. Then came the third shot. It was time. Edwin stepped forward and bent over a slumped Ellen. She was still breathing but her breath was light and shallow, her throat contracting with the effort that it took to cling to life. Edwin took her left hand, stroked her cheek. She gave a small gasp of surprise. He smiled at her, experiencing a harmony within his spirit. It was similar to the feeling he had when he had put the final depths of light and shade into a sketch; it was a sense of completion, of wholeness. James's lithe but muscular frame rammed itself into Chris who was thrown sideways into the wall, his hand bunching and breaking against the brick, his gun jettisoning with the impact to the floor. As he fell with Chris, James reached for the split photo frame and smashed it against Chris's head.. Glass met skin. Chris groaned. It was not over. James grabbed the nylon cord Ellen often used to tie brown paper wrap to secure and protect paintings. Part of him wanted to hang Chris with it, but instead he used it to bind Chris's hands and feet. Ellen watched all of this activity as if it were a misty film unfolding before her, feeling no pain, just the curious sensation of warm fluid seeping down her body. Her pink wool wrap had become soaked in orbs of bright crimson. She had a vague sensation of someone stroking her cheek and became intensely aware of her heart, which furiously thumped and faded alternatively fire hot. Ellen allowed herself to simply be. To float within this flow of existence, this vacuum of being. She did not feel frightened. Why should she be, for James was there, and...? Edwin. She was with Edwin. She heard his voice now, saw his features clearly. She heard James in the distance, screaming for her to stay with him, but she didn't want to. She wanted Edwin. It had been so long. James would be alright, she reasoned. It was his time now. Things would be okay for him. Better than they were before. He was on the verge of something very special, as she was. She tried to whisper that with the last breath that she had. She heard in the distance an ambulance siren but knew they would be too late. She relinquished herself, released herself from the ties of life, and became free, as Edwin was. Together Ellen and Edwin watched as James threw his Dad's jacket over Ellen's lifeless body and cradled her to him. Edwin loosened the clip in Ellen's hair gently. Masses of auburn hair fell to her shoulders, and he laughed. "My love", he said. "My love." They were the last words he had said to her all those years ago when he had left, a day after their marriage, in his uniform, a volunteer in a war that Ellen had not believed in, but knew it was a war that could not be stopped. Ellen had held onto his hand, running along the platform as the train slowly left, holding onto his hand until her fingers slipped from his. In those final seconds he managed to lean further out from the window to place the hair clip in her hand. "My love", he had called as the train now gathered speed and left the platform, his words drowning in the hiss and spit of steam. He could only hope that she had heard him. They were the last words he had said to her. The telegram had come 6 months after he had left. She never got over loosing him, but was never bitter. She somehow knew he would keep his promise, that he would never leave her, either in life, or in death. He had said that to her - "no matter what happens, Ellen, I will always be with you". Ellen was content. Her years of widowhood had come to an end. "My love" she said and slipped her arm in his. Judgement Day It arrived, the parcel did, on August 15th. Phoebe was always buying the most oddest of things. Our house was full of the latest "must haves." I had lost count of the number of designer shoes she had. Even without the help of this seasons Jimmy Choo heels, she stood half a head taller than me. The first time I saw her I was drawn to her trim ankles and neat calves. Elegant, classy. She was a good looking woman, my wife. At the time she was concentrating on the parcel that had arrived and was attempting to slice through the thick parcel tape using the silver Tiffany & Co. bread knife that had only arrived the week before. "Allow me," I said moving forward to help but she waved the knife in front of me. "This is my parcel, Andrew. I'm quite capable of opening it". I cleared my throat. To Phoebe, I was weak, useless and clumsy, yet when she married me I was strong and sexy. Or at least, my bank account was. I was always more at home programming bank systems than I was working out at the gym. Phoebe raised the knife, thrusting it at the tape again. This time the tape gave way, and she lifted out a small wooden box and then what appeared to be some sort of figurine. "Lovely," I managed to say, but somehow it came out as a whimper. "This" Phoebe said with a certain edge to her voice, thrusting the odd looking ornament towards me, "Is the Roman Goddess Diana" It was how she spoke to me that hurt. Like I was something small enough to be crushed under one of those chic and terrifyingly sharp heels of hers. The knife glinted, half buried beneath wrapping. The heel of her shoe tapped impatiently. I was not sure what I was expected to say. "Very nice," I managed. "And what’s in the box?" "As if you care." It was half said, half hissed. "It's the Goddess Tarot," she continued. “Diana’s the Moon Goddess, the Avenger hunter of men, for women. Such a bargain." I wondered how many more bargains my bank account could cope with. We had an overdraft now to match my parent's first mortgage. I worked every programming job I could get hold off. It was never enough for Phoebe. It seemed I did not earn enough for her to allow me back into the bed we once had shared. "Trouble is, An-drew, you never listen to me. You never know what I like, or need." Whatever it was that I never listened to, or did not know about, prompted her to snort at the end of every single sentence that she said to me, but his time the snort sounded akin to a nasal sob. I looked at the diamond that shone on her finger; my gift to her over 10 years ago. She had sobbed then too, as she threw her arms around my shoulders telling me that I meant everything to her. Phoebe shuffled the cards and offered them to me, telling me to draw one. I remember her telling me it was 20, Judgement. She handed it to me. I looked down at it. It felt odd. Kind of heavy. It was only a card, yet it felt heavy. As heavy as the bread knife she was using could feel when you were trying to cut a loaf with it at the end of a 16 hour working day. I remembered my father's favourite biblical quote. It was from Roman's 12-19. "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God". "Significant changes,” the card read. "Decision time." I wished I had listened more to my father. He spoke a lot of sense. He had told me Phoebe wasn't the one for me. That perhaps her outer beauty was not an indicator of her inner beauty. The artwork of the card though was beautiful. The image of Diana on it reminded me of Phoebe. The same sharp blue eyes, strong mouth, the neck - slender, white like alabaster. I paused, the memory of that day too much. I wished I had listened more to my father. My hands felt hot and clammy again. I yearned for my lap top, for my desk. For normality. For even the sodding sofa. The photo of the bloodied blade the barrister had showed the jury could not replace the vision of when I had withdrawn it from Phoebe's soft and pliant flesh. I wished I had paid more attention to that quote from Romans. 'Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God. ' I made eye contact with the jury of my peers and waited for the delivery of their verdict. Taxi-ride "I can't seem to open the door," his passenger said in exasperation. "I know, but if you get out now, you will never remember," he replied, looking at her through the windscreen mirror. Linda remembered that she had her mobile and reached for it, hand trembling. He twisted in his seat to face her, his face half in shadow. "Never remember?" she said, trying to keep her voice steady. He noticed that here was just the faintest hint of silver shining at the roots of her hair. "And I unable to forget." He smiled. Her eyes met his. "Trying to forget someone you loved once," he added, "is like trying to remember someone you never met." She dropped the phone. "OMG", she breathed. It was a phrase she often heard her daughter saying. She had quite liked it. These days she had to be more careful now her grandchildren were around. But her daughter was far from her thoughts right at this moment. "And you never met me, remember?" He smiled again. A lopsided smile, Knock-‘em- dead gorgeous smile. Kind eyes. Brown. Well dark hazelnut, actually. Like some sort of mocha coffee colour swirling in creamy white. She remembered now. Once-upon-a-time she would have blushed crimson at seeing him. At school he had been really dishy. The sort that gave you butterflies when he walked past. She remembered being in biology. It was on the ground floor, and at half past the hour he would walk by, satchel in hand and a grin that was larger than life. O.M.G. He'd asked her out but he was The One and Only at school. The good looking sort that you thought of as you turned the pages of Jackie and read up on the latest boyfriend/girlfriend goss. Back then he reminded her of Donny Osmond. Back then she was a touch over weight, and had long auburn hair that reached her bum. He had asked her out at the end of year dance. Well, to be more precise, the very last end of term, end of school years dance. Not worthy, sprung to mind. He cannot be asking me, surely? Maybe it's a joke. She had never been asked out before by One Such as Him. She had seen him once chatting up Sylvia; the Sylvia thing she knew had been a set up. A bet. So she never went. Because of the Sylvia thing. They'd arranged to go to the pictures and she never went. She never saw him again, until now. "I had such a crush on you at school," he told her. He was enjoying this now. Her face had a mixture of expressions. Relief, surprise and then embarrassment. "I so often tried to drum up the courage to ask you out, but I always felt I was never good enough for you. You always seemed to have your head in a book, or be with your friends - let me see, was it Val, and oh! The one with the dark cropped hair, what was her name?" "Darice?" "Yes, that's right. You often looked at me, but every time I looked at you, you looked away. I thought you never liked me you know, and that end of school dance was my last chance to ask you out on a date. I was gutted when you never turned up." Linda swallowed hard and fiddled with her wedding ring, a habitual distraction for those moments when she was not sure quite what to say. For some reason John had always stayed in her memory. He and his slightly lopsided grin. It gave him an older than his years look. Her courage failed her. She glanced out of the window, watching the last commuters hurry for their train. She had only booked a taxi to the station. It seemed right now, she was no longer in a taxi but on a roller coaster ride back to the years of her youth. "I thought you asked me for a bet", she said and laughed. It was a nervous laugh. She twirled her wedding ring and felt her face shimmer pink. "It's good to see you, Linda. I thought about you so often." Linda twiddled her ring again. If she didn't go now she'd miss her train. Her divorce had come through last week. She had not yet taken off her ring. "As it turns out, this is my last run of the night. Have you time for a coffee, we could catch up maybe. Or is your train due?" It was. One more twist and the ring came quietly off. She tucked it deep in the crevice between seat and door. "Coffee would be great, I'd like that, John," she heard herself say. The butterflies in her stomach settled. She would miss her train, but this was a second chance, an opportunity that this time, she was not going to miss out on. Mother's Day Sasha from the hospital suggested writing things down may help. I don't see how it will because there is nothing I can do now for you. Three years of taking care of you and now nothing... I stayed with you as long as possible. It's only been twelve hours but I can't go into the flat yet. Not without you. The keys are in my pocket. If I try really hard, I can see your face at the window, looking out for me to come home. But I know you can't be there. I don't want to remember the way you looked at the hospital. You didn't look the same you know. They hadn't put your teeth in, so your face and cheeks looked different. I told them you know. I said "My mum never went anywhere without her teeth in, and she's not going anywhere now without them". So they put them in for you, and I held your hand until they told me it was time to let you go. I was okay at the hospital. I brushed your hair just as I've been doing these last two years, and cleaned your face for you. I know you like the peachy lipstick. I put some on your lips. I know you normally manage your lipstick yourself, but you see you couldn't last night, so I did it for you. Did I do okay, Mum? The hospital staff gave me a cup of tea you know. They gave me all your things in a brown paper carrier bag. Your wash bag, and your watch and necklace. The one I gave you last year. You loved the colour as it matched your eyes. You told me, remember, that for a man, I had a good eye for good jewellery? Sasha, the nurse said I could keep them but they are yours, not mine. They belong with you Mum. So I put the necklace on you and thought you smiled. I really thought you smiled. Like you were so glad to be wearing it again. Did I do right Mum? I thought that's what you would have wanted. Then I put the watch on you, and we just talked, you and I. Well, I talked, I'm sure you listened. And I held your hand. I tucked in the sheets around you to keep you warm, but then I had to let them see to you. Sasha said you would want me to go home, get some rest, but she doesn't know does she Mum, there's always been just you and me. I need to go home now and open the door and choose some clothes for you. I'm not having you without clean clothes; I managed that didn't I. Dad said I was useless and good for nothing, but between the two of us, we managed. I did all the washing for us. I'll iron too before I bring them; you'll be proud. I'm thinking what dress you would like. I only have to put the key in and open the door. But you're not there. You won't be there, will you Mum? I thought maybe I would still see you at the window, waiting for me. But no. So I'm sat here, on the bench that we used to feed the ducks from, hoping to see you. There's our window, over there, look, and there's your bed room. We enjoyed our little flat didn't we Mum. The times we've watched someone fishing here. The warm days we spent on the balcony, watching the barges or people walking their dogs. I'm looking but I know you're not there. I still can't see you. Where are you now, Mum? Dad always used to argue with you remember. You said there was a heaven, he said there wasn't. That when you're dead, you're dead, and that’s all there is. Where are you now, Mum? You're at the hospital. And I'm here. What am I to do without you? I have to go in, and I have to go on, now, without you. Sasha said not to worry, that just going through the door is the hard bit and I can go back to the hospital when I've had a sleep and I can bring your things for when they come and get you. It's the Co-Op that is coming for you Mum, that's who you wanted, the Co-Op. I haven't phoned them yet. Oh Mum. I can't go in without you Mum, because when I do that it's when I know I will not see you sitting in your chair again, with the lovely special smile you always had whenever I came home. But I need to go in. I need to go in and phone the Co-Op. I need to do it for you. And for me. I need to go in and get your things so you can look nice. You always looked nice Mum. I made sure of that. The cream dress we got you for your birthday, I think that would be nice, and that purple wrap you like. I can make sure they put it around you, and I only washed it yesterday. All I have to do is open the door and walk in. I know it's Mother's Day and I should be giving you the card I left. It's still in the kitchen! Instead I'm writing this. Love you, Mum. Rainbow After the Rain Stella woke as she always did at five thirty. There was something about living in the country that made her wake up much earlier than she had done in the city. The early morning light greeted her as she opened the curtains. The view of the valley beyond and the Welsh mountains never changed, but the lighting and colour always had something a little different. This morning, the mountains looked as if they were wrapped in mist, like someone had painted them in water colours. She hoped the rain would keep away, as she hoped to finish off some of the work that needed doing in the garden. Stella opened the window nearest to her and breathed in the crisp air of dawn. She was surprised to find how much better the garden looked; she had only spent about four hours in it the day before but she had made a difference. Yesterday she had raked the fallen leaves from the path and lawns, and had found time to prune the roses that had finished blooming. She wanted to do what she could before any frost set in. It seemed to her that every hour she spent in the garden brought back memories of her parents and how they had tended it. She was remembering more of their skills and expertise day by day. What worried her most though was the apple tree in her garden; it had been growing taller and the branches spreading so that the boughs were getting to be almost as broad as the tree was tall. She had already harvested the apples, but they were much smaller than in previous years and did not taste as sweet. She had ditched most of them into her green garden recycle bin. The tree needed pruning but she had not a clue how to do it without causing damage. It had been planted when she was born. If only Dad were here to ask... Cradled in the comfort of the bay window she recalled the many happy hours she had spent there as a child when she would watch her mum and dad working their allotments and flower beds. At this time of year, her mum would gather in the apples and use some of them in chutneys; her Dad would always be out there tending this or that no matter what the weather was like or indeed, the time of day. Dad had been disappointed that she had not wanted to be part of the small market garden that was both their home and their business. Stella knew it could never support the three of them sufficiently. There was little hope for her to have a flat and a car if she had stayed at home; and in any case as she grew older, the clamorous hub of the city appealed much more than village life. Her Mum and Dad enjoyed the serenity; it gave them peace but to the young Stella, the quiet made her want to trade the fields and gardens for shops, nightclubs and a flat of her own. She sighed. It was now eighteen months since the accident. She remembered the knock on her door on that December morning. . She had been so happy then. The night before she had got engaged to Stephen and was looking forward to telling her family she was going to be settled. She never got the opportunity to see their faces. She shuddered at the recall of that sound on the door. It was a hard knock, in more ways than one. Wounded with the impact of loss, Stella returned to her childhood home of security and warmth. Stephen chose to remain in the city; battered with his indifference to her situation, she made a home and a new life for herself in the place that she had always known but not always been a part of. On her own, the cottage felt huge and the gardens even larger. To manage better she had sold of some land to the neighbouring farmer, who was pleased at acquiring the extra acres. To sell quickly, Stella had sold cheaply. The price did not reflect her father's work or indeed the true value of the land. She wondered whether the farmer felt guilty too; but then no. She knew he wouldn't. He would at least ensure the land was worked; better used to support and uphold rural village life than be plundered and misused as a building plot to erect new build houses on. He was a nice man, that farmer. Stella stretched out her legs and wondered if there was any time for a second cup of coffee. There wasn't. She was tired of each day worrying about what was to be done before winter set in, and to-day she was going shopping. The car boot they were going to was the largest in the area. Stella loved car boots. These days she had to be content with buying only what was needed, and what was needed at this time were some tools that she could use without feeling exhausted. Most of her Dad's tools seemed much too heavy and antiquated. For now though it was the geese she needed to attend to. There was always something to be done here; she rarely was bored these days. A bit lonely, sometimes, yes, but never bored. She just had time to change their water and top up their feed when the birds told her of Catrin's arrival. They knew as soon as any vehicles ascended the lane. Stella quickly slipped on her coat that she had left on the bench, and grabbed her bag. Catrin greeted her with a huge smile and a huge tub of chocolate and strawberry cupcakes. "Just in case you get any thinner! You need to eat, you know! And don't even think of putting them in the freezer! We'll have some when we get back home." In the car Stella found Catrin could chat almost as fast as she could drive. "Can't hear myself think! I could hear the honking yards down the lane. Those geese! Better than guard dogs. Oh so glad to be here you can't imagine the morning I've had. Owen' drew a large dinosaur on his bedroom wall with the crayons, but you know my Llew. How easygoing he can be. He just said "kids will be kids…" Raindrops began to fall, splattering against the windscreen, smearing the mud and grit deposits with them until Catrin put the windscreen wipers on. For a few moments both of them were quiet. Theirs was the only vehicle on the road so far. Catrin hesitated, and being her usual straight talking self, asked "You heard Stephen has finally got the job in Belfast, then?" Stella hadn't but then again, she hadn't heard from Stephen for a very long time. "Oh right, well he was due a promotion soon anyway, although I'm not sure he will like Belfast you know. New York or London, maybe. Belfast, no. I'm over him Catrin." The fact that Stephen could not bear to leave his city job to join Stella in the country had meant weeks of separation; as the weeks passed into months, Stella found that she did not miss him. It seemed to Stella that the only things they had in common was city life. There was nothing between them any more. Nothing of any value anyway. It was time for her to change the track of the conversation. She was not interested anymore in whatever Stephen was up to; she reached out and took a large mint from the dashboard and chewed on it. She thought again and said: "You really shouldn't worry about me you know. I've the cottage, and my job, the gardens, the geese…" Catrin laughed as she spotted Stella's expression from the corner of her eye. "How is the bookkeeping going then?" The bookkeeping was certainly easier work than the gardening. Stella grinned and brushed away some hair that had fallen across her forehead. "Steady," she answered. "And I'm getting better at the gardening. The geese though are doing better than me at keeping the grass down". "Any eggs yet" Catrin queried.. "I wish you had kept your promise Stella and had some ducks instead. Duck eggs are brilliant for baking with; they make everything so light and kind of creamy." The rain began to become a drizzle and by the time they arrived at the car boot it had stopped. They parked up near to the catering van; a hot coffee was just what they needed and in any case, the car boot was bound to get busier. It would be easier finding their car if it was next to the coffee van. The first few rows of stalls only offered household wares or second hand clothing. Stella began to doubt that there would be a choice of tools to buy. The wet day maybe had put off some of the usual sellers. "Don't you worry yourself, Stel. I told you we should find some tools today, and that's exactly what we will do." Catrin sounded so much like an older sister, reassuring the younger. The two of them did feel more like sisters than friends. Catrin seemed to know without being told how Stella felt. Stephen had told her he would stand by her and be her rock of solidarity; but it was Catlin who had been there for her, not Stephen. It was the main reason why Stella had decided she was better off living life her way. Stephen's support had as much strength and solidarity as the cupcakes had that Stella had given her that morning. Yes. Stephen was full of the promise of being sweet, Stella thought. But like a cupcake, his sweetness didn't last long and once tasted, all that was left were irritating crumbs. He wasn't worth thinking about. As quickly as she had wiped the hair from her face, Stella wiped the memory of Stephen from her mind. Today, she wouldn't think about being alone. It was time to shop so she could look after the garden better; to chat, to share an enjoyable day with a friend. To laugh again. It was time to live again. Catrin's amber eyes were very watchful as she scouted the field. "Come on. No time to loose. The early bird and all that". Catrin strode purposefully onward towards the centre of the boot park and a rather bemused Stella dutifully followed on, barely noticing where Catrin was headed, her attention wandering to the stalls, to the buyers and sellers. She wondered whether any of these people needed a good book keeper, and decided next visit she would take some business cards with her. Maybe too she could think in the summer of having a stall to sell her cut flowers. If the tree could be pruned correctly, she might be able to sell some of the fruit next year, perhaps even make and sell some chutney. She was sure she had her mother's recipe, somewhere… Catrin came to a halt. Stella almost bumped into her and lost about a quarter of the coffee she still had left. Most of what she lost had dripped down her coat. She wished she had put a more appropriate coat on, something wipeable, something waterproof. She was sure the hem would be muddy by the time she got back home. They kept on walking until they reached the far end of the field where there were some disused cattle sheds. In front of them were a small number of market garden type stalls, with shelving units and tables full of shrubs, pots and tall garden plants. The larger vans parked nearby had tarpaulin ground sheets filled with all different types of tools, car accessories and even old gates and fencing panels. Stella and Catrin began to feel more positive. The rain fell, the droplets becoming larger by the second. They made a dash for the cattle sheds, thinking at least they would be undercover. The cattle sheds had been altered, one shed leading to the next. One was of more interest to them than the others. On one side it had all sorts of hardware like screws and nails, hammers and drills, and on the other there several larger garden tools such as mowers, spades and forks. There was also a pasting table which had shoe boxes and plastic containers, all containing very different bits and pieces. In one of the larger plastic containers there were a collection of handles. One of those caught Stella's attention. It was a long, D shaped handle hand carved. It was not brand new; it had obviously been used for a number of years. But it was strong looking; she could tell it was one very similar to the one that was now broken at home. Stella took the handle and held it in her hands, holding it as though it was something that could be cherished. Catlin raised an eyebrow, and waited for a moment, wondering why her friend was so interested in what was, after all, a part for a spade or a fork, but decided against it and wandered off to investigate a set of rather ancient, but hardy looking wicker baskets that were in the corner. Catrin winked at the stall holder who was watching them both with interest. "Well you look busy," she said with a smile. "Quiet today?" "Yes, it was busy earlier on," he said. "Morning". Marc gave a quick flip to the lid of his baseball cap. His women customers always appreciated his politeness to them, and tradition was something he liked to uphold. "It's the rain; it is a bit unsettled, puts off some of the family groups especially at this time of year." He smiled back at Catlin and as usual, she came straight to the point and offered him a price for the baskets that he was happy with. He had the kind of smile you see on toothpaste ads; white, evenly sized teeth, but it wasn't as dazzling as the smile in his eyes. He had the smile that made his whole face light up. It was an honest, down to earth, open smile; the smile of a country person who had spent many summer days out in the open. Marc put the baskets to one side and asked her if there was anything else she wanted. She shook her head but pointed out her friend. He nodded, listening to her with his head slightly to one side. He reminded her a little of her old Labrador Rory; he had the gentle, loyal eyes that her Lab had, but there was a little sadness in them too. There was a hint of the sadness that Stella’s eyes sometimes had. They discussed what stock he had of lightweight spades, shovels and forks. He showed her a few that were almost new and some that had signs of age. They talked price, durability and weight and by then Stella had joined them, bringing the handle with her. Sometime later they had come to a total price for everything that they wanted, including the tools Stella needed, the baskets and the spade handle. By then, rain had begun to fall more heavily. While Catrin was wondering whether they would get everything in the 4 by 4, Stella was wondering at how broad Marc's hands were. She noticed how long and bulky looking his fingers was and that his nails had streaks of soil and grime. They were the hands of an outdoor worker; of a Gardner. Maybe Marc would know something about how to prune her apple tree. So she asked him. It came of no surprise to her that Marc did know about maintaining fruit trees. He had worked for a while as a tree surgeon for around five years or so, before going on to manage a small garden centre. "I'll come Wednesday", he promised. I'll have a look then at the tree for you. Don't worry about taking things home with you to-day; if you like I'll bring everything with me then. It will be easier for you. I'll give you a receipt so you know what you've paid for". He saw some concern cross over Stella's face and he patted her hand. "Don't worry. I'll have a look at the tree for you free of charge", he told her. In exchange, though, for a cup of tea or two…." The girls nodded agreement although Stella could not bear to leave the handle behind. So she took it with her. Marc had packed it in a bag for her, and when she got home, she placed it very carefully on a shelf in one of the sheds. Wednesday came and Stella had polished the whole house from top to bottom. She had even cleaned the oak floor boards with some vinegar mixed with warm water. She then carefully went over them with some wood care cream that her mother had sworn by. It was in a huge tub and had a lovely, fresh smell that reminded her of wood and bees and fir cones. She felt she wanted to show off the cottage. She never thought though to show off herself, but on Wednesday she didn't have to. The thought that someone would come to help her put Dad's treasured apple tree to rights, warmed her heart and her spirit. She was up early once more. At least the day so far was dry and it was a little warmer than it had been on Sunday. The geese again honked about five minutes before Marc arrived at the door. By then she had pulled on a lilac jumper over her shirt and jeans. There seemed little need for a coat and the sky showed no sign of any rain. He already had backed up his van in the front drive and was busy unpacking the tools she had bought from his trailer. "Thought if you put these where you want them Stella, I'll get on and have a look at the tree for you. I can start on it straight away for you if you like". She grinned at him, unlike her Dad whose first thought for the day was that of coffee, much like herself, Marc seemed set on getting on with things, and she was relieved she could put the tools where she needed them without worrying about helping him with the tree. She would rather not watch branches being hacked off anyway; although she wanted the tree pruned she had not been looking forward to seeing it being done. She showed him the path that led around the back of the house, and watched him for a while as he inspected the tree. "I'll let you get on", she said. "Tea, coffee?" "No thanks, Stella. It will need some of the limbs taken away; it will hopefully improve the size of the apples. I'll take out the wider branches too. Take me about two hours or so?" She nodded. He noticed she had her hair down today. The rich conker colour contrasted well with her jumper and she had put a little lipstick on which suited her. She seemed less serious looking to-day, Marc thought. More relaxed more upbeat. Stella did feel less stressed. She felt like the last few days had been almost a sorting out of the past trauma of her life. Whilst before she had a jumble of half tackled tasks in her head, she now had a clear "to-do" list which now seemed manageable. Part of that list was to have somewhere she could do her book keeping. Normally files and boxes were either strewn on her kitchen table or stacked in one of the kitchen cupboards, and the extension lead she used for her lap top had to trail over the kitchen worktops. Tidying up the house for Marc's arrival, she had thought that she couldn't continue to do this. Maybe one of the sheds could be made into a small office. She would ask Marc what he thought. There was one thought though that crossed her mind from time to time, and that was to do with the handle that she had bought from him. Helping her convert the shed to an office was one thing, but trusting his advice on the handle was another. Stella took refuge in the kitchen with a hot coffee. Actually it was one of those packet cappuccino’s; she kept those for days like this. Days when she felt fine and hopeful but needed to make a decision on something and wasn't quite sure. Usually a packet of cappuccino worked. She wasn't sure how; but it did. It was to do she thought with how long it took to stir everything in, and that comforting creamy froth. By this time Marc was already working away at the branches. As she sprinkled some nutmeg in her drink, she couldn't help but watch from the kitchen window. Stella tried to concentrate on him rather than the tree, but felt slightly guilty she was watching rather than working. She tried to reconcile it was a necessary evil; she wasn't investing in taking the tree back to a stump, only in preserving it's health and vitality for future years. Coffee half drank, she went outside to tackle some of the tulip bulbs and for a while, the two of them worked, not speaking but both happy in their respective tasks. Every so often Stella stole a look. He was so focussed that he seemed almost at one with saw and tree. His hands seemed more caring than destructive. It was not long before the tree was regaining its lovely conical shape. The branches were all neatly cut back and he had attended to some strange fungus that had begun to form on the trunk. Stella offered him sandwiches or leek and potato soup; he chose the later. She was pleased that Catrin had brought her some homemade crusty bread the night before. Stella had placed the bread on a huge pizza platter that she had, and they sat at a scrubbed out wooden table and had their soup, shared the bread, and drank their tea, and each felt comfortable with the other. So comfortable, that for Marc there was this slow, uncomfortable gnawing in his heart. Like there was this connection between himself and this pretty girl that he barely knew. She had a fresh, pretty look about her. It was a face that didn't need makeup. She was just perfect as she was; there was a hint of freckles remaining on one side of her nose, a healthy glow in her face that was full of life and a subtle trace of coyness about her eyes. After lunch, Stella showed Marc the smaller of the sheds, the one she thought would make a good office. It was the one closer to the house. She thought that it would be easier to get heating in there as it already had electricity; and that was one thing she would need. The cottage was set on very high land and winter often saw the cottage being battered by cold gales in winter months. It was when Marc was taking the shed's measurements that he noticed the handle she had bought from him laying on the top shelf, and he grinned at her. "You know, Stella you bought one of the best handles I have ever had! I was going to keep it for myself as a spare." Stella's eyes misted over and Marc realised perhaps he had said the wrong thing. He went quiet again. He wanted to take away the frailty he saw in her eyes as quickly and deftly he had taken away the heavy lower branches of the tree. At that moment, he wanted to make life better for her. To ease her sadness and the loss that she felt. Perhaps he had touched a nerve. Perhaps there was something there, something to do with the handle… Stella somehow managed to stop the tears that threatened to flow. She took the handle and led Marc to the second shed. Unlike the first one, the second shed had no electricity. It was much larger, and when the door was pulled back, the day light trickled into the darkness. The whole shed smelt of grass, plant cuttings and fertiliser. Inside was an array of tools, neatly displayed and carefully suspended within brackets. There were shelves with trays laid out neatly with smaller garden tools, gloves and pots. On the floor were tubs of topsoil and compost. The only item that was out of place was a spade with a broken handle. Marc felt a lump rising in his throat. The shed was obviously still very much her Dad's shed. He gazed around the shed, marvelling at how precisely things were kept. These were her father's tools, and Stella had gone to great care to keep the shed pretty much as her father would have done, with everything in its rightful place. Everything bar for the spade. But that wasn't important. What was important to him was the fact that Stella had allowed him into this shed. If a shed could be like a church, this one was. It was full of respect, of a sense of place; it had a purpose. There was a wholesome peace there; a harmony and yet, with the broken spade, there was also the suggestion of disharmony. Of something that was not quite right. "May I?" Marc's voice was low and gentle. Like "I understand, I'll take care of things. Don't worry. I'm here now". He waited and she nodded and watched how his hands folded around the spade and saw how carefully he picked it up. With his other hand, he picked up the broken handle. She was suddenly very aware that the only hands that had been around the spades handle was those of her father, and his father before him. To her knowledge, she was the only other person to have used it. . She doubted even that her mother had handled it much, as her father was very particular with this tools and spent time cleaning them. It was her father who had always stored them safely away. Everything in the shed had a home to rest in, to be stored in. "Dad said a good spade handle will mould itself to the grip of your hand," Stella said. Her voice faded almost to a whisper. "It's at least 70 years old. Dad said it was the strongest spade he ever had." There was a silence. The only noise came from a stray fly whose wings seemed to whirr the stillness into a gentle throb of something that was barely audible. Like hope, waiting, waiting to be heard. Was it possible? Was it possible that something that broken, that was once so strong could be fixed? "Can you…" she said. "Yes." His reply was just as short. Brief, to the point. No doubt at all. He did not dare look at Stella. He kept his concentration on the broken handle. The effort not to look at her was almost too much. "I was so busy one day I left it out and it rained all night. I tried to use it last week to dig up a thistle and it …" "Split". "Yes". "So you spotted the handle I had for sale, and thought it may be a good fit?" "Yes". "It should be, Stella. I'll show you". Marc gently turned the shaft of the spade over in his hands, examining it carefully, and gestured for Stella to come a little closer. As she did, he pointed out where the rivets were and explained to her how he would take those out. He continued to speak gently, taking his time, longing to put his arms around her waist to comfort her, yet instead knowing each word would bring the comfort that she so longed to hear. That what was broken could be put right. It would take a little time; he would carefully burn out any old or splintered wood and then re-rivet the handle that Stella had selected. "Ash", he said, not taking his eyes away from the spade. He tried to explain. "The rain is one thing, but it's the drying out, maybe you brought it into the warm house and dried it off, thinking that would help? But …" He finally looked into her eyes. The tears then fell; she had. She had dried it with a hair dryer, before placing it back in the shed. It was her own folly that had split the handle of one of the tools her father had held so dear. She knew she should have known better. She was her father's daughter, after all. She wished she had taken more notice, listened to him more as he told her tips and hints all those years ago. It was her first day of tears. She had never cried before. But there, in that shed, on that day, with Marc, she cried. "Oh! Stella." He wished he had not said anything now about the rain. He carefully laid down the spade with its broken handle, took the other handle from her gently and placed that down on the shelf too. With as much tenderness as he would use if he was picking up a bird with a broken wing, Marc took her into his arms and she nestled her head into his shoulder and sobbed. With one arm around her waist and one arm around her shoulders he held her in a warm, affectionate but solid hug until her sobbing became quieter. He wasn't sure how long she cried in his arms for, but he didn't care. He would remember that day for the rest of his life. He felt connected again, like once more he had a purpose. Like he could make a difference to someone, be there for them. He gently stroked her hair and laid his head against hers. "You know what I believe Stella", he whispered, and waited for a second or two before continuing. He needed her to listen to him, to understand his sincerity. "What I believe is this. That which is broken, can be fixed. Sometimes we can't replace them, but we can fix, repair, and mend. All broken things, including us, we can be made whole again. It's more than what I believe, Stella. It's what I know." His heart ached and he longed, wanted, needed to be the one to mend her. Years ago, as a small boy, he had found a pigeon whose wing was broken. His father had helped him to bind the wing, and together they nurtured it to health again and the bird became strong enough to be released. Stella in some way, reminded him of his fragility. He remembered how helpless he was seeing the bird and not knowing how to help, in the same way he felt helpless now, not being able to ease her pain completely. But he could be there for her, and somehow he knew she would be there for him. Stella nodded, and wiped away her tears. She stepped back a little, still remaining in his arms, He touched her chin gently, tipping up her face towards him. "Your dad and mum would be so proud of you. But you don't have to manage here on your own now Stella. I'll help you, if you'll let me." She smiled. He took her hand and held it for a moment. "Come with me, and we'll go and check on your tree, see how it's doing, and then maybe you will let me buy you some dinner later? I'll pick you up at about eight, is that okay, would you like that?" As if to answer for her, the geese that had been strangely quiet began to honk as if in agreement. As they left the shed, Stella closed the door and as she did felt the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle of her life slot into place. Life was sweet, and she just knew that next year, the apples on the tree would be too. She and Marc would make sure of it.


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