The Way Things Had Been

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It was just not good enough. Not a single bond instalment­ had been paid for six months ! It was not economic policy in any­one’s language. It certainly was not economic policy to have­ allowed such a state of affairs to occur.

It was the fault of old Wallace, of course. My predecessor ­in office. A very nice person - one of the best - as a human­ being. But, towards the end of his long career, just not up to­ the mark. Not that his office staff or management could be­ faulted. Nothing like that. I fully realised what a plum it had­ been for me to move into his position when he finally retired.

But six months unpaid bond instalments!

As I said to Summers, the regional manager, “I am fully­ aware that we, as a company, have a great concern for the public­ as a whole and as individuals. But we also have a duty and a­ responsibility to our shareholders. Six months unpaid bond­ instalments is something that is economically and departmentally unacceptable.”

For some reason he could not look me in the eye. He was­ almost shifty in manner. “Well, she is a woman on her own and­ it takes a lot to keep that place going, you know.”

“She?” I queried. The printout had merely listed the bond­holder as Martel M.A. No indication of sex. How did he know that­ it was a woman?

He gave a sort of a snort and cleared his throat. “Yes, it's ­ Mrs Mary Martel who is the bond holder. A very nice woman.”

A lot of things were becoming clearer now. Of course Wallace­ would never have been able to get away with things like that on­ his own. Summers would have had to approve - or even instruct -­ the allowing of such irregular credit. I looked at him shrewdly.­ Maybe she was an old flame - or even a current one! Something­ that I would never have expected of him.

Always considered him to be a very straight laced man - very­ much in love with his charming wife. In fact I was sure of it -­and of him. That could not be the answer. Yet he was looking rather foolish and embarrassed.

The light dawned. She would be one of those woman who could­ play the weak, helpless female in need of protection. Goodness­ knows there were enough of that sort around. Using an air of­ feminine helplessness and need to get men to cut corners for­ them. And then still have the nerve to demand equal rights and consideration in everything else. - Women!

That must be it. Poor old Summers. Falling for that line.­ Well, it was something that I was not going to allow. “She may be ­a very nice woman but, as a client, she falls far short of any­ ideal, don’t you agree? I am afraid that I am going to have to­ start putting pressure on her - to pay.”

I picked up my copy of the printout. “Something that should­ have happened some time ago,” I added grimly.

Summers was staring hard at his desk pad - as if he could­ not really believe that it was there. “Don’t do that,” he said­ gruffly. “She has been a client of ours for many years. Take a­ run out to see her. Discuss things with her.”

“Go out and see her?” I was utterly amazed. It would have­ been more in keeping with things if I had demanded that she come ­in to see me. “That seems a bit - out of the ordinary. We don’t­ make a habit of seeing every client who falls into arrears, thank­ goodness.”

“No,” said Summers quietly. “We don’t. Something that I ­think is lacking in our organisation, especially in these times.­Perhaps we should make an effort to get out and see people in the­ places where they matter. Not in the halls of rules and regulations.”

I could not believe my ears. Could not believe what I was­ hearing. I slapped the printout on the back of my left hand. “You­ are quite serious about wanting me to go out - to see her - to discuss the fact that she is in arrears - six months in arrears - and­ needs to pay up?”

He lifted his head and looked at me levelly. “Yes, I am. It ­is a lovely day for a run in the country. It may do you -especially you - the world of good. ”

What he was hoping for was that I would fall for her brand­ of charm in the same way that he had done. As perhaps Wallace had­ done. Well, he was going to be very disappointed. I was immune! Ever since Nancy... ever since Nancy... Ever since I have been on my own, all my married female friends had been trying to play­ Cupid. Trying to match me with a variety of women. And failed. I­ found the majority of those wished on me to be superficial and­ ordinary. No deeper than what they wore in the way of clothes or­ makeup. And all well served with a cloying saccharine sympathy that was neither genuine, nor wanted!Now he was getting into the­ act!

“Very well, if you insist. I’ll go. I don’t have anything­ urgent on my plate at the moment. But I hope that this is not­ going to be a regular occurrence. There are procedures laid down­ for the handling of these things - quite adequate procedures, I­ feel.”

He frowned down at his desk pad again. “Sometimes procedures­ tend to make us less than human. Make us forget that they only­ exist to make routines easier to manage. Not to dehumanise our­ existence.”

I gave up. Told my secretary that I would be out for the­ afternoon - “on business” - got hold of a detailed statement­ showing the full ugly picture of the arrears, and went down to­ the staff parking lot to get my car. As I got into the old banger­ it was with a sense of, almost, nostalgia. I had been setting­ aside funds for a new car - no H.P. for me - and, within the month, would be trading in the old banger for a brand new car. I­ was looking forward to that - with a little regret. The old­ banger and I had been together for a long time now. It would be­ the last tie that I had with Nancy and....

As always, old as the bus was, it started first turn of the­ key. I put her into gear and we bumbled off in our usual­ companionable way. It was a lovely day and, once clear of the­ town, the day seemed to get even lovelier. The sort of day that­ made one wish that miracles could be a part of existence.­ Miracles that had no need of economic policies...

What utter nonsense! If I wasn’t careful I would become as ­bad as Summers and Wallace. Economic policy had to be the­ watchword - and the way of life. There was nothing else - in­ business or anywhere else. Certainly not as far as I was concerned.

It was very easy to find the house with the directions I had­ been given by Summers - which meant that he had been out here­ himself at some time. I was also quite impressed with it once I­ arrived there. The hedges were neatly trimmed and the lawns ­nicely manicured without making the place look as if it was being­ tarted up for a magazine article. The paintwork was good and the­ whole place was very well maintained. True, I saw one gate that­ seemed to be dragging, - needed a new hinge probably. There was a­ tap that needed a new washer to control the dripping. But these­ were small things. Something any handyman could attend to.

It had taken money to maintain the place like that. Being a­ rather old, large house set in a good two acres of ground, money­ would sort of pour away as if in a leaky bucket. I did not know­ what sort of income Mrs Mary Martel had, but it would appear that­ it was not be enough to run the house and pay for bonds. These­ old houses were wonderful to live in - but they were not­ economical. She would have been better off with a flat in town.

And I supposed that the children took a lot of looking after­ as well. There seemed to be a dozen or more about the place. I­ couldn’t be sure just how many - I only got brief glimpses of laughing faces and disappearing figures among the trees and the bushes.

Especially the trees. There were at least six of those big,­ burly trees that God seemed to provide for children to climb.­ When I was a boy we had two - and I lived in them. Later, in my­ own house, we only had one - but it was one that Peter...

It was impossible - all the children could not be hers. For­ one thing they were all the hair colours found in humanity.­Brunettes, blondes, redheads, ginger, mouse, strawberry - every­ sort ever seen. And there were far more than the dozen I had­ first assumed.

I parked the car under a tree, tucked the envelope with the­ statement into my pocket, and got out. Pretending that I did not­ hear the giggles from behind the bush nearby. Or see the laughing­ mischief that peered from the branches of another nearby tree. Or­ hear the scurry of feet gaining the best peeping positions.

I casually walked to the front door. As I did so, it opened.­ If this was Mary Martel she was not the person I had anticipated.­ I had been expecting a suicidal blonde woman, very pink, very­ girlish and simpering. Probably clad in lots of filmy garments ­that floated. She would be overly made up, with wide cornflower blue ­eyes to beguile people like Summers and Wallace.

But the woman who waited for me was nothing like that. She­ was above medium height with shoulder length, rich chestnut hair­ cascading from her head in shining waves. She was dressed in a­ full length, plain linen sort of dress that did not conceal the curves she had - but did not make a production out of them­ either. As for makeup - as far as I could tell - she wore very­ little. And her eyes...

She did not appear to be looking at me at first - until my­ feet crunched on the gravel. Then she turned eyes, that looked­ green in the sunlight, towards me. But they still did not seem to ­see me.

Mrs Mary Martel was blind.

I hadn’t expected that either. But it could not affect­ things. I could sympathise - but not condone. I touched the­ envelope in my pocket to reassure myself.

“Mrs Mary Martel ? ” I asked. Trying to avoid making a­n effort of throat clearing. She smiled and nodded her head. I­ introduced myself and she invited me into the house.

There seemed to be an orderly chaos in the place. Clean and­ neat as it could be. With everything in its assigned place as I­ would expect in a house of a blind person. But there were toys on tables, or behind cupboards, even on chairs. This was a house­ meant to be lived in - by children.

An elderly woman poked a head around a door as we entered­ the lounge. “Do you need me for anything, Mrs Martel?”

“No, Winnie, thank you. This gentleman is from the bank -­just paying a visit.”

“I see,” said Winnie. She gave me a long considering look­ and then withdrew, closing the door behind her.

“Mrs Withers is a sort of housekeeper/companion,” Mrs Martel­ informed me as she led me, with full confidence, to a group of­ chairs in a projecting bay window.

“Is she your only staff? ” I asked. Wanting to get the­ whole picture as much as possible.

“Oh yes. I couldn’t even afford her if she wanted what she­ was worth. But she loves children - as much as I do.”

“I only asked because I noticed that there were a number of­ items that a handyman could have attended to - to save money.”

She laughed. “I know what you mean. The need of a man about­ the place. Unfortunately neither Mrs Withers nor I are able to do­ the odd repairs needed. They just have to wait until we can­ afford to get a man to do the work.”

We sat down and I looked out over the lawn to the shrubs­ where a group of children were chasing each other in laughter­-tied groups.

The numbers puzzled me. “You do seem to have a lot of­ children around, Mrs Martel,” I said casually. It was really none­ of my business but if she wanted to explain...

“You can see them?” She sat forward in excitement. “You­ really can see them?”

I gave a gruff sort of a snort - not intending to get on any­ friendly basis. “It would be rather difficult to avoid seeing­ them, ” I protested.

She smiled and her whole face lit up with a sort of shining­ wonder that comes of a well nourished love. “I can’t see them, of­ course. Only hear them - and feel them.”

I shifted a little uncomfortably in my chair. What can a­ person say to a remark like that? It was unsettling. Her next­ remark was even more so.

“When did you lose your child?”

My body jerked as if I had received an electric shock. “Who­ said that I lost a child?” I spluttered.

“You must have done....” she began. Then stopped. An odd­ look on her face. “It is in your voice, I think. The hurt there.”

It was absolutely none of her business. None at all. I­ should have told her so. I wanted none of that artificial,­ meaningless sympathy that women were so prone to hand out. Then­ I realised that none was being offered. Just a factual statement.­ I heard my voice telling her about Nancy - and Peter.

“Peter was seven, just seven when he and Nancy, my wife,­ went on an outing with her sister. It was a birthday treat for­ him. Four years ago. I never saw them alive again. All three were­ killed in one of those multiple car accidents. Five others died­ as well - but for me there were only two who mattered.”

She nodded. “I know how it is. I lost my husband and­ daughter in a similar way, seven years ago.”

I blinked my eyes to try and clear them before I made a fool­ of myself. She had no right to probe my wounds. No right at all.­ Nor show me hers. It could not affect the matter I had come to­ see her about. Nor did it explain the children.

“Just how many children are there in the house ?” It was­ difficult to keep my voice in the aloof, uninvolved tones my­ mission required.

There was a soft, warm expression on her face as her head­ turned to follow the sound her ears must have picked up. The­ sound of the children.

“I really don’t know, for sure,” she murmured. “The numbers­ vary from day to day. But it doesn’t matter. There is always­ enough love to go around for them all. Everyone.”

“But who is responsible for them,” I protested.

“No one is responsible - unless you mean God.”

I shook my head. Either the woman was a little mad, or very­ irresponsible. “Do you mean they are strays....”

“Like unwanted cats and dogs,” she asked crisply. “No they­ are not strays. They are our children. And we love them very­ much.”

“That is all very well - but does Social Welfare know about­ them? Are the laid down procedures being followed?” There were­ a dozen other questions I had to ask - but I never had a chance.

My one hand was hanging down at my side, next to the chair.­ And I felt a little hand slip into mine. A very tiny hand. A­ child’s hand. It was there. But so small, so insubstantial that­ it need not have been there at all.

It was only then that I understood.

Whatever it was that affected me, she knew about it as soon­ as I did. “Now you know,” she said quietly. “That is why you­ could see them. Only those who have loved a child - and lost one­ - are able to do so. Maybe your Peter came here as well. As did­ Mrs Withers’ two girls. On their way to where all children go. We­ seem to be a sort of resting house of love for them. A place of­ reassurance. A halfway house for those who had been loved - a­ place of healing for those who had suffered.”

I don’t really know how long I stayed there after that. I­ know that I never got around to talking about the six months of­ unpaid bond instalments. In fact I can’t remember even driving back to the office and parking my car.

I met Summers in the corridor on my way to my office. He­ looked at my face and nodded to himself. Stopped. “I lost my son­ as well, you know. Ten years ago.” He nodded again and went on­ his way.

I sat at my desk and pulled out the envelope containing the­ statement. Took it out and looked at it. It just made no sense -­ignoring a thing like that. It was not good economic policy. I­ looked out of my window. Into the car park where my old banger was waiting to take me home.

It wasn’t really economic sense to buy a brand new car, when­ my existing one was giving such good service either. The old­ thing could certainly take me out to the house again. As many­ times as I needed to go. There were so many things that I could­ do. As the handyman that they needed. And I would like to see­ Mary again. As often as she would let me.

I pulled out my cheque book and wrote out a cheque. Attached­ it to the statement and placed it in my out tray. That made­ economic sense - of a sort. At least the books would balance now.­ And obviously they needed a man around the house as well. It made­ economic sense. Saving the cost of a professional.

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