In this episode Ruby finds a way to say farewell to Henry and all he has meant to her.
Mabel was wearing a cosy knit jumper and I tucked my hair under a warm hat before I clipped on her lead ready for her walk. As I crossed on the common, watching my little dog sniff twigs and scamper on the grass, my mind wandered to Henry’s funeral a few days ago.
It had been a quiet affair, held at the local crematorium and attended by a handful of people, most of whom I knew from the pub or the village shop. I suppose I had expected to see the numbers swelled by acquaintances from days gone by, friends he’d made with Audrey, from the place they’d lived when Bruce was a boy; I’d felt a little disappointed on Henry’s behalf. He was such a warm, open man, it seemed a weak representation of the connections he must have made.
The hymns were stirring. I felt confident that Henry had left instructions that we should remember him while singing something “we could get their teeth into.” I could barely stem the flow of silent tears when the pastor read the obituary which presumably Bruce had compiled.
Henry and Audrey had been so young when they had married, but their love had stood the test of time. I could hear his voice in my head telling stories of their happy life together, he was always so respectful of the woman who’d stood beside him for nearly fifty years. When their family became three, they’d sent Bruce to school, spent summer holidays at the beach with picnics and eaten Christmas dinners together, pulling crackers and wearing paper crowns.
When the mourners adjourned to admire Henry’s floral tributes in the garden of rest I had laid down my simple posy of flowers and greenery, picked from my own garden that morning. That was a legacy Henry had left, the borders he’d helped me dig were now planted with a mixture of bulbs and cuttings from his own plot. He’d shown me how to stake sweet peas and where to site spring flowers so that they were protected from the worst frosts. I could look out of my kitchen window anytime and be reminded of my old friend. I would enjoy the year round colour from flowers and shrubs that Henry had helped me plant.
People were milling around, some offered condolences to Bruce. I wondered how soon I could leave without looking impolite. Catching Bruce’s eye I smiled weakly, before heading to my car, a weight of emptiness settled around my shoulders. As I drove to work it had begun to rain; tears for my friend, which had seemed appropriate.
- – – –
“C’mon Mabel,” I called my dog now. “time to go.”
I was low-level dreading this. Bruce had called by earlier in the week, suggesting I go round to Henry’s house one last time, before the house clearance firm came.
“Take whatever you like, Ruby,” he’d told me. “I’ve already got Mum’s jewellery and a few things to remind me of Mum and Dad. They kept so much stuff, frugality bred from wartime attitudes I suppose. It all seems like junk to me, but if there is anything you can use, you’re welcome to it.”
Mabel was quite excited, her little stumpy tail was wagging as I slid my key into the lock for the last time.
“Henry’s not here, sweetie,” I spoke to her softly, but she shot off, investigating all the corners of his cosy living room. I unbuttoned my coat, but kept it on, along with my hat, the heating had been turned off since Bruce returned to Spain.
I gazed sadly at the shelf of photographs in their frames: Audrey’s arm round Bruce, formal in his scout’s uniform, Henry and Audrey on their wedding day, Henry standing with hands on his hips and their dog Archie at his feet. I was shocked Bruce didn’t seem to have taken any of the pictures proudly displayed – I picked up the one of Henry with the dog and put it in the cloth bag I’d brought.
Mabel had curled up on the armchair that she’d often shared with Henry, so I moved quietly round downstairs, selecting some items which held memories of my old friend. I opened a kitchen cupboard and took out the mug he always gave me when I came round for coffee, and the dish he liked to use for apple pie or crumble.
From his bookcase, stocked with the detective novels he’d loved to read, I removed his book on mushrooms, and another he used for identifying birds – these brought back many happy memories. There were a couple of saucy books there too, James Hadley Chase with scantily clad girls holding guns on their covers. You old dog Henry I thought, and this made me chuckle.
The red address book was near the telephone, on top of some folders which were labelled as household bills. There’s a lot to sort out when somebody dies, and I didn’t envy Bruce the task of wrapping up Henry’s affairs, although I imagined he’d left things pretty neat.
I opened the back door and stepped out into the damp garden. Unlocking the garden shed I got his fork down from its place on the wall, then I put it by the garden gate so I could collect it when I left. Once back in the kitchen I returned the shed key to its hook, everything was so orderly and logical, so very Henry.
I lifted Mabel so that I could sit in her warm spot on the chair, settling her back on my lap. One last time I wanted to enjoy this room and think back on happier times.
“Fancy a coffee Ruby?” I could imagine Henry’s low voice drifting out of the kitchen while the kettle boiled noisily. How I longed for the sound of Henry shuffling around getting out his favourite ginger biscuits while telling me about the birds he’d seen in the garden.
My eyes drifted around my surroundings, the familiar pictures on the walls, horse brasses decorated the beam over the fireplace and there was dictionary to the right of the armchair where he sat to complete the crossword. His glasses lay on top in their case and his old slippers were tucked under the edge of a footstool. That was a nice reminder of both Henry and Audrey, as I knew she had embroidered the rosy pattern on its top. I resolved to take the stool home.
Making a mental image of this room and all the comforts with which Henry had surrounded himself, I hugged Mabel before setting her on the floor. She shook and stretched, her fore-paws long and her rear in the air. It was then that I noticed some newspaper in the fireplace, alongside an empty matchbox. I guessed Bruce had intended to burn them but been foiled by lack of matches – I’m not usually nosy but my curiosity was piqued.
I bent and picked up the cuttings. Yellowed and old, they felt brittle in my hands. They referred to a court case, and Bruce’s name jumped out at me, alongside the school he’d attended. I moved to the window to better read the faded newsprint. 19 year old Bruce had stolen from the village raffle funds, helping himself to the money from ticket sales. It claimed he had access to the parish secretary’s office when he worked at her house doing odd jobs. The amount of money he’d stolen was not a lot by today’s standards, but it must have been signifcant back then.
My heart beat fast as I scoured the other articles. One interviewed the parish secretary, Fenella Benton, who was distraught, shocked that a boy from such a nice family, could be so untrustworthy. I could see her point, when you knew Henry, you hardly expected his son to have sticky fingers.
“Oh Henry,” I shook my head, “you must have felt so ashamed.”
Placing the cuttings into my bag with the photos and other mementos, I fastened Mabel’s lead and tucked the footstool under my arm.
“Goodbye Henry,” I told the empty room before I closed the front door. It was an impossible juggle to carry the garden fork too, so I took Mabel home, then returned to collect it. My thoughts were focused on these new facts, considering what impact they’d had on my old friend.
Perhaps that’s why, when he and Audrey moved to this town, he had kept to himself. Having been the subject of gossip would make a person more circumspect next time around. It explained why Bruce hadn’t reached out to old friends of his parents’ when arranging the funeral.
I took the heavy, wooden handled fork round the side of my house and into the back garden. With a force that reflected my anger on Henry’s behalf, I sank it deep into a flower bed. It looked as if someone, in the middle of turning the soil, had abandoned it – good. It could stay there as my own memorial to Henry.
It wasn’t until the weekend that I recalled Henry’s odd remark. I was standing in my kitchen, drinking my first coffee from the mug I’d brought from his house.
“It was you who realised that something was off,” he’d said to me when I visited him in hospital. That strange conversation where I was sure Henry had mistaken me for someone else, probably Audrey. “You wondered how he could afford that holiday.” The pieces now fell into place, his parents had their suspicions.
Knowing Henry as I did, I imagined he’d found his son’s transgression hard to forgive and forget, but perhaps Audrey had managed to gloss over, or find excuses for it. Henry had implied they didn’t see eye to eye on their son’s conduct.
My question was why keep the newspaper cuttings when they’d done so much to put the event behind them? Bruce had obviously wanted to erase the memories. If there had been matches in the box I’d have never discovered this secret. I felt vindicated that I hadn’t warmed to him.
Gazing at my garden over the rim of the coffee cup, I noticed a robin with a bright red breast, who alighted on the handle of Henry’s gardening fork. He admired the garden from his vantage point; cocking his head, with bright little eyes he seemed to watch me through the window.
“You were absolutely right Henry,” I mused, looking at the robin, “the truth always comes out.”