How could a few sentences make my attitude flip 180? But they did, they had, and I felt as if I’d been ambushed.
I’d lived in my house for about 3 years, enjoying a fairly quiet life going to work and fixing-up my houme and tiny garden at weekends. I knew my neighbours on either side just enough to pass the time of day. Walking regularly to the common with my dog, however, I’d got talking to Henry, an older gentleman who lived a few doors down. He’d owned several dogs over the years, so we’d chat over the wall if he was in the garden. Mabel, my pug, would happily delay her walk to go through his gate and mug Henry for a fuss.
Before long, we’d struck up a proper friendship. I’d pop in for a coffee whenever I could and often I’d invite him to mine for Sunday dinner. Mabel adored Henry who lavished affection on her; while rubbing her ears he’d regale me with stories of his past. He’d had an army career and a happy marriage. Their one son now lived abroad. Henry was widowed, but kept busy with his garden and a handful of friends who he might join for a pint at the local, but it was evident he sometimes felt lonely.
When Henry took a tumble in his garden, it was my number he rang. I raced round to his house and covered him with a blanket, helping him sip sweet tea for the shock while we waited for the ambulance to arrive. He hated to cause a bother, but I could see he was in pain.
I visited him that evening, but was distressed to see him so pale and drained when he was usually rosy cheeked and cheerful. I blamed the broken bones, harsh hospital lighting, perhaps the pale green gown he was wearing (which would make anyone look washed out) but concern flared in my gut. By the end of the week he was no better. I noticed lines of strain on his face. A nurse took me aside to say he was barely eating.
“Can I call someone for you Henry?” I poured water into a cup and passed it to him. “Should I let your son know you’re in hospital?”
“Oh there’s no need to bother him Ruby,” he patted my hand. His eyes seemed to shift to the middle distance, looking pale and a little watery.
“Let me take Bruce’s number in case,” I pressed, getting my phone out of my bag.
“I don’t know it by heart,” he said fretfully, “but it’s in my red address book, near the phone.” Of course someone of his generation would write all their contacts in a book, their life wasn’t keyed into their phone.
Letting myself into his house, I brought Mabel for company. She sniffed around happily, and managed to find a corner where Henry had dropped a few crumbs. I located Bruce’s number and dialled. It went to voicemail so I left a message about his father’s broken hip and my concerns about his frailty. Before leaving Henry’s neat kitchen, I checked the contents of the fridge, disposing of some milk and foodstuffs which were past date.
I visited Henry as often as I could during his stay in hospital, I may have been the only friend who did. At first he was cheerful, joking and charming the nurses in equal measure. I encouraged him to talk about his wife Audrey, it seemed to energise him to tell how they first met and fell in love.
“She was a looker, always had lovely pins,” his face relaxed and got a faraway expression, remembering the twenty-one year old with auburn hair who had stolen his heart.
“She wouldn’t let me walk her home the night we met. Said she’d already made arrangements to leave with friends. Oh I tried everything to persuade her, but I respected Audrey for that. I admired that she stood by a commitment.”
I liked the sound of Audrey myself. Nowadays too many people had “FOMO”, meaning they’d say yes to everything, before cherry picking the best offer, thus letting down a string of people.
“It was the happiest day of my life when Audrey agreed to marry me. Though our wedding day wasn’t fancy by today’s standards, it was the start of a wonderful partnership.”
“What about when your son was born? That must come a close second for your best day.”
Henry thought about this. “Men waited outside the maternity ward back then, we weren’t allowed in to give our wives moral support. When it was all over, the nurse put your baby in a nursery for the father to view the child through a window.”
It sounded very different from the current practice, fathers filming the birth, or the newborn nestling skin to skin with its mother to help form a bond.
“Now I think about it, I watched Bruce grow up behind a pane of glass,” he continued, his voice weaker. “His mother doted on him. She was his constant companion, forgave him everything. I worried he was being spoiled but what could I do? I just about scraped home in time to read him a bedtime story, but at weekends he had little interest in helping me tend the garden.”
Henry had never talked much about his son before, so I was reluctant to interrupt his flow.
“He would help himself to my things without asking, not returning them to the right place. I often found our possessions broken and discarded. The gramophone, my watch, Audrey always had an excuse for his behaviour. She was such a sensible, principled woman but when Bruce acted out she had a blind spot.” He shook his head, his hand moving fretfully against the blanket.
“You must be proud of him now,” I tried to steer Henry to happier thoughts. “He has a good job and lives in a nice place. Have you ever visited him?”
“We were going to go, but when Audrey’s health broke, our trip was abandoned.”
Visiting time was nearly over. Nurses began coming round with trays of hot food, so I changed the subject.
“I’d better get going Henry, your shepherd’s pie is here!! I said brightly. “Oh look, fruit crumble and custard.”
I grabbed my coat off the back of the chair, then pressed a kiss against his papery cheek with genuine affection. “Hurry and get better so I can cook you a pie with apples from your tree.”
[To be Continued …]