THE WAY THINGS HAD BEEN
She waited until the bus stopped fully before getting out of her seat. It sometimes annoyed impatient passengers - and even the conductor - but her legs were too unsteady these days to fight a lurching floor. This time she was lucky - the conductor gave her a smile and a helping hand instead of a snarled grunt.
As the bus clattered on its smelly way she shifted her few parcels as she faced the road home. Goodness knows the parcels were few and light enough these days - prices being what they were - but that hill seemed to get steeper and steeper each time. However, standing at the Bus-Stop was not going to get her home. Wearily she began the walk up the hill.
It wasn’t really a long walk. It just seemed that way at times and she was glad enough when she could open the garden gate at the house. It was because she was feeling the strain that she paused at the open window of the lounge before going in. There was no intention to eavesdrop - she had not even known that there was anyone in the lounge - she just wanted a breather. But, all the same, she could not help over hearing what was being said. Especially when Sue spoke with the sharp tones that came when she was annoyed.
“....so you simply must talk to her. After all, she is your mother.”
“And what do you want me to say to her?” There was a weary desperation in Harry’s voice that indicated that this was not the first time that they were having that particular row. ” Do I tell her that you find her a nuisance in the house and you would like her to go? Where is she to go to?”
“I never said anything like that. I know we have to provide her with a home. I agreed to it when you first raised the question and I still do. But must she come into the lounge when my friends come to tea? She sits like a grey ghost among us. Never says much, since she does not know what we are talking about....”
“Don’t you mean who you are talking about?”
“Whatever - it’s our concern. But she sits there and puts a blanket over everything. No one knows what to say or what to do, so we all sit there like dummies drinking tea and grinning at one another, as if we were waxworks.”
“Oh Sue, she is just wanting a little company. You can’t expect her to sit all day in her room looking at the four walls, now can you ?”
“You are just trying to make me out to be some sort of monster. Of course, I don’t expect her to keep to her room all the time. Just to give me some privacy in my own home. Why can’t she read or something? I know her eyes are bad but they are not that bad.”
“Yes, they are. Reading just gives her a headache.”
“Well there must be something she can do while my friends are here, besides being a continual wet blanket. And another thing, she is still buying those awful boiled sweets for the kids. You know I don’t want them to have that. It’s bad for their teeth.”
Her bent body jerked at that and tears formed in her eyes as she tried to shove the packet of boiled sweets deeper into the carrier bag. They were only a few sweets, - surely they couldn’t cause any harm. As if echoing her thoughts Harry’s voice came through the window.
“She doesn’t buy much. She can’t afford much. And she only goes into the village once a week. It’s virtually her only pleasure in life now, spoiling her grandchildren. Must you take that away from her as well?”
She didn’t wait to hear any more. Instead, stumbling though the tears in her eyes, she went to the front door. Before she opened it, she dabbed at her eyes and blew her nose. Then opened the door and walked in. She waved at the frozen figures of her son and his wife.
“Feeling a bit tired so I am going to lay down.”
“Right, mum. Can I get you anything? A cup of tea, perhaps?”
“No thanks, Harry. I’m fine. Just a little tired.”
There was nothing more said as she made her way to her room. Once there she took off her coat and carefully hung it up on a hanger. Placed it in the cupboard. She went to the sole armchair and sat down. For a moment she just sat there, dry eyed and motionless. Then her head dropped to her chest and the tears came. Pouring silently out of her eyes, down her cheeks.
She felt so old and useless these days. Things were not the way they were. It did not seem so long ago that she had been someone of importance. Holding down a job, bringing up her son on her own. And bringing him up well. He had lacked for nothing of importance, of real value. Especially he never lacked love.
She had been someone who was respected, someone who gave value for being a part of humanity. How had the years changed that? Turned a once respected and valuable person into someone who was a nuisance, - a wet blanket in company?
Sue had been right! She didn’t know what they were talking about, or who they were talking about. But it had not mattered to her. It was just nice to be part of humanity. To be a part of a group of people. Not someone set apart.
She had known that she affected them in some way. They were never natural with her. Just patronising. She was old, and they were young. Or rather, - younger. It was sad how the years made a person an encumbrance when everything else increased in value.
She had painfully read an article in a magazine in which it detailed how a bottle of wine had increased in value from a few shillings until it had reached a value of hundreds of pounds today. Of how a chest of drawers had increased in value in a like way, - and many more things.
Only a person ceased to have any value.
Only a person changed in value to become a wet blanket.
There came a knock at her door. “I have just made some tea and brought you some,” Sue called out.
Hastily she scrubbed her eyes dry and opened the door. Sue stood there with the cup of tea. A biscuit perched in the saucer. “Didn’t think it would do any harm to bring you a cup,” Sue said with downcast eyes. “We are having ours in the kitchen if you would like to join us.”
“Thank you dear. That is nice of you. But I’ll stay here, I think. I am really feeling tired. Thank you for the tea.”
Sue paused. She appeared unwilling to leave, as if she had something to say, but did not know how to say it. Or even if she should say it. Then she shook her head and left.
The old woman took the cup of tea and put in down on the shabby dresser at the window. She looked at it and a small, wry smile tugged her pale lips. Sue wasn’t a bad woman in any way. She was a good wife and a good mother to her children. She was kind. If only there was some way to close the gap that existed between them. Maybe they would yet learn how to live with each other.
The old woman picked up the framed photograph that stood on the dresser, next to the cup of tea. That was the way things had been, not as it was now. The time when there had been happiness in life, even though it had been so very short lived. So very brief.
She looked at the photo of the young man in his air-force blues. Golden wings upon his chest. Smiling out of the frame the way he had smiled in life. Gay, debonair, full of life. Full of hope of tomorrow, even to the extent of getting married in the dark days of war.
“To Mary - my wife. Always know that you hold my heart and my happiness - forever. Peter.”
“As you held mine, my dear. As you hold it even now.”
She remembered the way that it was. His arms holding her. His voice speaking to her. “I’ll always come back to you, remember that. Always.”
And he had. Until that one day when he failed to do so. And never came again. Not even to see his son born.
Missing - presumed dead.
Her pale lips quivered and the tiredness lay heavy upon her body. People had asked her why she never married again. She had laughed and said that she didn’t have time. How could she tell them that she was just waiting for Peter to come back again? Even though she knew that he would never do.
There was a sudden longing in her heart for the way that it had been. Even for those days after Peter had left for good. The days she had battled to survive with her son. There was a revulsion of the things the way that they were now. With her just a nonentity, - a wet blanket.
She shrugged her shoulders. What was the use? She could never go back, - any more than Peter would come back to her. Those things were in the past. That was the way that it had been, not as it was now.
Her head came up. Perhaps she could not go back in time, but she could go back to the place where it had all happened. Perhaps see the house where she had lived as a boarder with Mrs Grantey. Dear Mrs Grantey. She was dead, of course.
Was her house still there? It wasn’t so far away. If only she did not feel so tired.
She sat down in the chair and sipped her tea. Thinking of the way that things had been. The memories poured out of the cupboards of her memory. All the faces - all the places. And, as she placed the empty cup back in the saucer, she knew that, tired as she was, she was going back to that place. To Emerson.
She got her coat out of the cupboard and put it on. Then silently went to her door. Stopped. Turned and went back to the parcels she had placed upon the bed. Opened the carrier and took out the bag of sweets. Perhaps she could give them away to someone. She didn’t want to upset Sue again.
She put the packet of sweets into her coat pocket. Went back to the door of the room. Opened it quietly. She could hear Sue and Harry - they were still in the kitchen. Talking low voiced. She did not want them to know where she was going, or even that she was going.
Gently she closed her door and stole down the short corridor. Even more gently she eased the front door open, slipped through, and closed it without a sound. Down the hill to the Bus-Stop.
As if someone was helping her, the bus came right away, without her having to wait. She was smiling despite her weariness as she went into the village. Heaven knows what she would be feeling like tonight after a day like this. But this was something that she had to do. Something brought about by the compulsion inside her heart - her mind.
At the village station she again bought a ticket to the village she still thought about as home. Emerson. As she came out of the ticket office she saw a couple of children seated on a bench. She put her hand in her pocket and felt the packet of sweets. Pulled it out. Walked across to the children.
“Here are some sweets for you, ” she said proffering the bag. The children looked at the bag, then at each other. The girl, who was the elder, shook her head.
“No thank you. My Mummy says we must not take sweets from strangers.”
“I see. Of course. That is right.” She put the bag back into her pocket and turned away. It was right. A sign of the times. But why was it that you could not even give love away these days? That was not the way it had been.
The tears blurred the arrival of the train. Hastily she brushed her hand over her eyes and boarded the train. She was on her way. It was only as the ticket collector came around that she found that long forgotten habit had made her buy a single ticket, not a return!
She gave herself a little shake. That was a silly thing to do, but, her whole journey was a silly thing, so one silly thing more was to be expected. The miles reeled under the train’s wheels and, surprisingly soon, the train pulled into Emerson.
There was an excitement in her as she got out on the old remembered platform. Certainly, that had not changed much during the passing years. But the village had.
There were many more cars running about. And the old timbered shops had all gone. Instead there were the bright, shiny, impersonal looking modern shops. The ones that always seemed piled high with goods, but with no one who had the time to sell them to you.
She was at a loss for a moment. Disorientated. Then she crossed over the main street into the tree lined street behind. At least, it had been tree lined. But the trees were gone. And so was the boarding house. Where Mrs Grantey had once gruffly poured out her love for the war widow and her small son, was now occupied by a block of flats. A concrete block which supplanted the old house and the tree shadowed grounds where she and Harry had spent so many happy hours.
Disappointment added to the tired burden that bent her body. She had been foolish to come back. Expecting to see things the way they had been. Times change. Places change. People change, become worthless.
She paused undecided. She should go back now. Before Sue and Harry had a chance to get worried. But she was so tired. So very tired. It wouldn’t matter if she rested for a moment. But where?
The park. Of course. That at least should still be there.
It was. But it too had changed. Gone was the rough charm of a fenced woodland site. Now it was manicured and forced into the same pattern of parks every where. Even the small trickle of a stream that had meandered though the old grounds had been filled in. The park was smart, tidy and tamed. Completely lifeless.
At least there were benches to sit upon. She dragged herself to one and sat down. Heavily. Soaked in the tiredness that made her limbs feel leaden. Soaked too in the waters of disappointment. Not only could she not go back in time, she could not even capture the things the way that they had been by visiting the old places. Because the old places were no more. Just as the times were no more.
They only lived in her memories now. Perhaps that was the only place left for her herself. She remembered the park the way that it had been. The grass uncut. The trees shaggy and wild. The old seesaw and swings in the little clearing.
She had not realised just how strong her imagination was. It almost seemed as if the park was changing. Going back to what it had been before. She could even see Harry, with his tongue protruding from between his lips, working on his kite. There were too many trees around here to ever think of flying it. But he loved that kite. A pity he never had a father to help him fly it.
Peter. They had had photographs taken in this park, after the wedding. Mrs Grantey had prepared a special supper for them later that day. The only honeymoon they could afford.
There was another young boy with another young mother in the park now. The young mother appeared to be a little puzzled. Looking around with a frown on her face. Maybe she was waiting for her husband to join her. As Peter had come to her. In the times that had been.
“Remember I will always come back to you.”
She looked up towards the gate. That was the way he had come. Laughing. Looking so handsome in his uniform. Just the way he looked now.
Mary wasn’t tired any more. Tiredness, disappointment, age, fell away. She was young again. A person of value - no more a wet blanket. She rose to meet her husband.
“I told you I would came back to you, remember?”
They reached for each other.
The young mother with the young boy shook her head again. “I don’t remember there being a stream over there before. Everything seems changed. Different.”
“Mummy,” said the young boy. “That old lady is asleep. But she must be having nice dreams because she is smiling so.”
“Yes,” answered his mother. “She must be.” She looked at the old woman. “I think that I had better wake her up before they lock the park gates.”
And she moved slowly towards the old woman. Reluctant. Not wanting to disturb someone so very happy