In this piece of fiction we meet Ruby, a young woman who has forged a friendship with Henry, a retired gentleman who lives up her street. When Henry has a fall which diminishes his health, she contacts his only son and visits him in hospital. Read Part 1 and Part 2 then continue …
How weary I felt when I got the call I’d been dreading about Henry from the hospital. I stood numbly, tears swimming in my eyes, as Mabel gambolled blithely around. She was sniffing leaves and tufts of grass on the common, completely unaware that one of her favourite humans was no longer alive. It made no difference that Henry’s death had in-part been expected, I still felt as if someone had chopped me off at the knees so I didn’t know what to do with myself. How could birds still be singing and people carrying out their daily business when my charming friend had shuffled off his mortal coil and was drifting about in the ether?
I clipped on Mabel’s lead and we walked home down the road. Of course I broke down in tears when I passed Henry’s house. It looked the same as always, with the curtains open and it was easy to imagine he was in his kitchen, boiling the kettle for his cup of tea and poached eggs for breakfast. I comforted myself by conjuring up an image of Henry in the slightly scruffy olive green cardigan and patched trousers that he always wore for gardening. Mabel slowed in the gateway and looked up at me hopefully.
“Not today sweetie,” I told her, stifling a sob caused by the realisation that the truth answer was, never again Mabel.
Once home I toyed with the idea of calling in sick, already a headache was tightening my temples, but I needed distraction rather than dwelling on the emptiness of a world without Henry. Once Mabel had settled in her dog bed, using her nose to nudge under the fleecy blanket, I applied some lippy then ran a brush through my hair before heading off to work.
When I got home that night, street lights were already casting an amber glow. Many houses had their curtains drawn and the soft glow of electric light showed in the fanlights above their front doors. Indoors, I’d installed a timer plug, so Mabel never had to sit in the dark. She greeted me with wags and warm licks and I was just pulling her squirming body into a hug when there was a sharp knock.
Immediately Mabel morphed from cuddly companion to fierce protector, scampering towards the front door to deliver a menacing bark. I gave her a steadying look and went to see who it was. On my doorstep stood a middle aged man I did not recognise.
“Ruby Matthews?” he asked.
“Yes.” I was guarded, I hated door to door salesmen.
“I’m Bruce. Henry’s son.”
My brain felt porridge laden, but the penny did drop. “Oh, Henry’s … Bruce … Oh goodness, I’m so sorry for your loss. Would you like to come in?”
I stepped back as I held the door open, inviting Bruce into my home.
“Thank you, yes. It would be good to talk for a few moments.”
Mabel danced around his ankles, doing her best to charm my visitor, but Bruce ignored her and stood awkwardly just inside the room.
“Can I offer you a drink? Tea? Coffee?”
“Thank you, coffee would be lovely.” Bruce had a soft voice, like Henry’s in timbre but with the edges rubbed off his once classy accent.
As I fussed about in the kitchen making our drinks and putting out biscuits on a plate, I tried to corral my thoughts so that I could ask some sensible questions. Then I carried the mugs into the living room.
“Settle down Mabel,” I chided because I noticed that she was nudging her favourite ball onto Bruce’s knee in an attempt to get him to play.
“The hospital told you he’d … that my father had died?”
“Yes, they called me this morning.” I answered, reaching down for Mabel, stroking her plush fur for comfort. “Did you manage to see him?”
“Yes,” Bruce looked at his hands, “for a few hours. But I’m not sure he realised I was there. He was drifting in and out …”
“I’m sure he was comforted to have you there.”
The silence stretched, both of us thinking about the last time we had seen Henry.
“The funeral – will you have it here?” I blurted.
“I’ll need to check his papers to see if he had a funeral plan.” He stared off to the side. “I wondered if he wanted to be buried next to my Mum.” Bruce’s voice wobbled then, so I looked away. “I gather you were friends? The hospital says you visited often.”
“Yes,” now it was my turn to fight back emotion. I picked Mabel up and settled her on my lap. “We made friends over this one.” I rubbed her velvety ears. “Your Dad was a genuinely lovely man, I used to visit him and work in his garden. Then, as we were both on our own, he’d come to me for Sunday lunch. I will miss him sharing his home grown fruit and vegetables.”
“I hadn’t seen him for years… not since Mum’s funeral. We weren’t exactly close.”
Henry had said as much. As I examined Bruce, he seemed pretty composed, but grief struck people differently. To save any awkwardness, I steered things back on topic.
“If you put a notice of his death in the local paper, that should spread the word. His red address book is near the phone, it’s how I called you. That should have numbers of older friends, people from where you used to live.”
For a moment Bruce’s composure slipped and his face blanched under the tan, but he recovered quickly.
“What’s the name of the local paper?” Pulling out his phone he tapped into its search engine the Bugle, the name of our regional paper. He got to his feet abruptly. “Right, my taxi will be here. Thanks for your help Ruby, and for your kindness to my father.”
“Not at all. Getting to know Henry, – well, the pleasure was all mine. I’m going to miss him.” I followed Bruce and we moved to the front door. “If you need help with anything else, just ask.”
I watched his figure receding down the street and wondered why he didn’t stay in Henry’s house. Then I shrugged, of course Bruce would have booked into a hotel so that he could visit his sick father in hospital. Now that Henry was gone, it might feel odd to occupy his father’s ‘space’.
As I cooked my solitary meal, and Mabel tucked into her kibble, I questioned why – when I was so very fond of Henry – I hadn’t warmed to his son at all.
To be continued …