The Common

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Decline

Decline

At this point, a tree’s very survival is threatened. External stresses continue to impact the tree, sometimes in a big way. These stresses take a toll on the tree, making it more susceptible to everything. Pests and disease can get in and have an impact until eventually, it succumbs to the pressures. It then gives way to other growing plants on the property that have greater potential.

© 2019 MR. TREE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Jim

Jim spent the next few days at home. Thursday came and went. He avoided the common and took to walking Boo-Boo around the playground and playing field in the other direction. He felt he couldn’t see Emma until he had decided what he was going to say. He kept playing over the facts. Emma’s husband was in a country park carpark at lunchtime. Fact. He had been with a woman, who wasn’t Emma, who had got out of his car. Fact. But after that, he had nothing. Jim had picked up a vibe of intimacy, but he hadn’t witnessed anything. It could have been a business meeting, over lunch. It could have been an important client. It could have been his sister, or cousin, or school friend, or boss, a colleague who was leaving work. The more he tried to think of all the legitimate reasons and people Emma’s husband could have been with the more it seemed unlikely. So perhaps it wasn’t Emma’s husband, he hadn’t really got a good look at him when he saw him at the care home, and he wouldn’t really be able to pick him out in a line-up now. There could be any number of forty something professional men who chose to wear business shirts with casual trousers and brown shoes, who drive silver Audi’s, in the area. Right?

Jim couldn’t chance meeting Emma, until he’d decided what he was going to do or say. He needed some advice, but from who. Caroline would ask too many questions, and Peter, or any of the table tennis gang may be too close. They might not realise the sensitivity of the case and ask their wives and then it would be out there. Everyone would be wondering who he was talking about and if they knew the couple in question. It could get out of hand. But the dilemma was beginning to impact on his sleeping. He kept replaying the scene and piecing together the snippets of conversation he’d had with Emma about her husband. Was he a good man? Was he kind? Had he sounded like the sort of man who could do this? And why was he so concerned anyway. What was Emma to him, just a casual acquaintance he had met while walking a dog, that wasn’t even his. Soon the dog would be gone and maybe Emma was right, he’d never go to the common again.

The following week he saw Mrs Andersen at the convenience store on the corner. His immediate reaction was to duck behind the cereals and turning, he pretended to be studying the products. He wasn’t really concentrating on what he was looking at, he was listening to her conversation with the shop keeper. He listened through the transaction, he heard the packing up of the shopping and the conversation coming to a close, the customary, ‘have a good day’ and then footsteps getting closer and passing him. But then they stopped.

“Oh, hello Mr Clarke, I thought it was you. Thinking of doing some baking?” At first Jim was confused. He hadn’t rehearsed a conversation in his head for this eventuality and he looked at the products in front of him for inspiration. The shop didn’t have much of a selection, but he was in the position of someone who was looking at the cake mixes. He picked up a chocolate cake mix.

“Well, I just fancied a bit of homemade cake”, he said rather lamely.

“Well you don’t want one of those. You’d be better off making your own, it’s easier than you think.” The extent of Jim’s baking knowledge had run out and he had nothing more to add on the subject.

“Perhaps your right, I think I’ll just get these.” He indicated his basket, which had a couple of cans of dog food and an individual pork pie.

“Tell you what, why don’t you pop over this afternoon, I’ll run up one of my famous Vicky sponges. It’ll be nice to catch up.” Mrs Andersen started to walk off, “say, three o’clock?” Jim stuttered, he really had no thoughts in his head, no planned excuses, no stock phrases to use to get out of it.

“Okay.” He couldn’t quite believe what he was saying.

When he came out of the shop Mrs Andersen was waiting for him, and they accompanied each other towards home. Then Mrs Andersen wanted to take a detour to the chemist on the High Street, so he walked as far as he had to with her and made excuses to get off.

“Quite right Mr Clarke, we don’t want to use up all our conversation or we shan’t have anything to talk about this afternoon.” She threw her head back in laughter and reached out her hand which rested on his arm for a moment. Jim felt himself smiling back, wondering how it was she could have read his mind so clearly.

At three o’clock he had gone next door and shared tea and cake with Mrs Andersen. She wasn’t wrong in promoting her ‘Vicky sponges,’ as she called them. Either it was one of the best he’d ever tasted, or it had been so long since he’d eaten any home baked produce, he really should be giving it a try at home.

“I have something of a dilemma,” he said quite unexpectedly. There had been a pause in their conversation, and although he had found the company of Mrs Andersen quite pleasant and hadn’t felt the need to speak at all, it had come out and he wasn’t sorry for it either. In fact, he felt relieved.

“Mr Clarke, surely we don’t have dilemmas at our age. I think we are at a time in our lives where there is little consequence in whatever we might do or think.” Jim considered this for a while. He supposed she was right.

“I think I saw something, that I think might impact on someone I know. But I don’t know if I should say anything or not?” Jim was trying to genuinely receive advice, giving as little detail as possible. Mrs Andersen, seeing Jim’s seriousness, didn’t answer immediately, she appeared to be replaying the dilemma in her head.

“Hmm, not much to go on…”

“There was someone with someone else, when they perhaps should have been somewhere else with someone different.” He clarified.

“Ah, I think I know what you mean.” Mrs Andersen started, “and from what you have said, you ’think’ you saw, they ’perhaps’ should have been with someone else. You don’t seem very sure. How well do you know these people?” Jim paused. How well did he know Emma’s husband? Not enough to remember his name. And Emma? Well, they had seen each other a lot over the last six months or so. They had shared some details, some life stories but, did he know her second name? How old she was exactly?

“The ‘instigator’ not that well at all, the potentially ‘injured party’? We’ve spent some time together but only incidentally, I suppose.” He felt saddened at the admission, who was he to Emma, a friend? A casual acquaintance?

“Well then, I think you shouldn’t say anything at all. People do things differently now. There are different rules than in our day. You probably shouldn’t share that sort of information without knowing the facts and without being one hundred percent sure. It wouldn’t be fair, if you in anyway got it wrong, don’t you think?” Jim knew Mrs Andersen was right. At least with the details he had given her. He decided not to say anything to Emma, yet. He wanted to see her and size up the situation first. He was sure Emma and her husband had a functioning relationship, but if he ever picked up that they didn’t, he would find it hard to keep schtum!

**********

“Hi, Dad?” Caroline sounded cautious.

“In here,” Jim called out from the kitchen, he had the door to the garden open, and was contemplating taking the tea he had prepared for them both out onto the grass. Jim had an old table and a few weathered wooden chairs there. Ruth had enjoyed eating outside. Although Jim had never been too sure. There were bugs that sat on your food outside and the food was never as hot as it should be. Just the short walk from the kitchen would cool a dinner down, then you needed to remember salt and sources and a bottle opener or a drink and by then it could be completely cold.

“Go and take a seat in the garden I will bring the tea out. Mrs Andersen has even made us a cake.”

“Oh yeah?” Caroline raised her eyebrows and winked, nodding in the neighbour’s direction.

Jim scowled and mouthed, ‘No!’ Whispering, “she could be out there” as he passed her daughter with the tray. Mrs Andersen it had transpired, was a very good baker and had been providing Jim with nearly a weekly treat since their meeting in the shop. Jim had grown quite fond of their conversations. Mrs Andersen was good because she didn’t seem to want anything from him, they sat in silence or talked at a semi-serious level, they seemed to have skipped the small talk phase. They were just two people who were alone and who spent some of that alone time together. And he didn’t want to upset that by laughing at Mrs Andersen behind her back, or in earshot at least.

While Ruth had been alive Mrs Andersen had been a bit of a family joke, a woman of a certain age with no known husband or any visiting children. They had joked about whether her husband was buried under the patio and would think of her as something of a hypochondriac, having once gone into great detail with Ruth about a minor health issue that she had. Jim and his family had had a good laugh at that, and the way she had used coded words to imply where the problem was. In fact, it became a family joke to use ambiguous language to describe any private part or intimate area, like ’nether regions’ and being in the ’altogether’ “as Mrs Andersen might say”. But looking back it didn’t seem so funny anymore, especially as Mrs Andersen was as well as she had ever been, and Ruth was not here at all.

“So, it’s been decided. Barbara is coming down on the twentieth and she’ll take Boo-Boo back with her then.” Caroline had been sitting for some time and had broken the silence by just coming out with it.

“Right” said Jim, trying to sound nonchalant. He had been practicing and testing himself by changing his routines, so they didn’t revolve around Boo-Boo and their walks. Once or twice he hadn’t taken the dog out all day, and when he’d gone to say something out loud pretending to talk to the dog, he would change his mind and whisper it under his breath. He was just going to have to get used to being truly alone again. “Is she coming to the house, or are we meeting her somewhere?” He asked.

“Well, it’s up to you really. Would you rather I take him and meet her somewhere, so you can say your goodbyes in private.”

“Oh, for God sake Caroline, it’s a dog, it’s not like it’s your mother.” Jim knew he sounded rude and instantly regretted snapping.

“Dad, I am trying to be sensitive. You can pretend you don’t care but I’ve noticed how much that dog means to you, even if you haven’t.”

“Sorry. I suppose I could be more upset than I expected. Perhaps it would be best if you met her somewhere else, but I’ll think about it.”

“Fine, we’ve got plenty of time for ironing out the details. I know she is really looking forward to it and she’ll be so pleased you’ve looked after him so well.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not been easy.” He grumbled.

“Is something else the matter dad? I haven’t seen you like this…for a while” she hesitated not wanting him to snap again.

“What would you do if someone told you Paul was having an affair?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“I mean, it was just something Mrs. Andersen and I were discussing?”

“Mrs Andersen? You were discussing affairs with her?” She lowered her voice trying to look through the hedge in case she was there, “what are you doing discussing that sort of thing with…” she nodded in the neighbour’s direction.

“What’s so strange about that, we talk about many subjects, what’s on the news, what’s in the local paper. So, what would you do?”

“Well…first of all, I know he would never have an affair. Paul is awful at hiding anything. He always let’s slip any surprise he has planned for me, and I always know when he’s been after my chocolate stash because he’s useless at covering his tracks. And, I just know he wouldn’t ever do that.”

“Well, okay.” Jim desperately tried to rephrase, “If you had a friend and you thought her husband was having an affair, what then?”

“You seriously talked about this with Mrs Andersen?” When Jim smiled in response, she went on. “Well, you would want to be sure.” Caroline was getting into this question now, she sat back and looked like she was truly considering her options. “How well do I know this person?”

“Well, perhaps not that well, but you like her.”

“I would think if she had said anything to me that made me think her marriage was wobbly. I would ask how things were, generally, put the feelers out. I don’t think I would ever come right out and say it. I would put myself in her shoes and ask myself would I want to know?”

“And?”

“Well, I suppose I would. But I wouldn’t want any old person telling me.” Caroline looked thoughtful, “having said that, I wouldn’t want to hear it from a really good friend. That would make me feel as if everyone knew except me. May be, it would be best coming from someone who was close but not that close, you know not a complete stranger, but someone a little removed who couldn’t witness the fallout in graphic detail.”

“Okay, so you would tell her?”

“Well now, wait a minute. What am I saying? I would never tell anyone I suspected their husband of having an affair! It’s none of my business. She’ll find out soon enough.”

“But you would want to know?”

“Yes. No. Well, may be. I can’t believe you talked about this with Mrs. Andersen.”

“Oh, it’s some plot line of a soap she’s watching, I think.” Jim said feeling pleased with himself at thinking of such a convincing cover story.

Caroline left soon afterwards after asking him to count backwards from twenty. None of his research had made it any easier. On the whole, it was a resounding no, to telling Emma, but something didn’t feel right. It didn’t sit well with Jim. In one way he was in the right position to tell her, being close but removed, but that also meant it was none of his business. Jim had asked about Emma’s general wellbeing last time they met, and she didn’t seem great. Jim felt responsible for her somehow, she was a similar age to Caroline. He wouldn’t want Caroline to be unhappy or mistreated by her husband.

After a couple of sleepless nights, he had made his decision. He would mention seeing someone who reminded him of Emma’s husband, and talk a bit about when and where and give her as much information as he knew and see what happened then. He wouldn’t be gossipy or intrusive, just the facts.

Now he had made the decision he felt he had to see Emma, right there and then. But it was nine o’clock at night on a Friday. He would have to wait until Monday now and then he wasn’t sure of her shifts, he hadn’t been going to the common that regularly recently.

The rest of the weekend passed slowly. Jim felt a bit guilty as this was one of his last with Boo-Boo, he felt it should have been marked in some way, but he spent his time pottering. Pottering in the garden, pottering in the house, doing half jobs, here and there. He weeded until it got too hot, then he went back inside and cleared the cupboard under the stairs. He tried to cull his ‘bags for life’ that seemed to be taking over, some of which appeared to be slowly decaying. He wondered whose life span their name was based on. Bags for the life of someone too old to remember he had twenty bags for life at home, quite possibly. It felt the summer had finally arrived, light evenings, opened windows, the clatter of crockery from neighbour’s gardens. No one did summer like the British, making the most of every last ray of sunlight, as if there may never be a summer again. It seemed to bring out the best in everyone. More smiles on the street, more enquiry into one’s health. Red noses and sunburnt shoulders.

Then at last the weather broke and there were downpours and flash flooding, typical.

Emma

It had been weeks since Emma had seen Jim on her walks across the common, it didn’t seem to matter which route she took or time of day she went, he wasn’t there. Emma wondered if Boo-Boo had been returned to his former owner and that was the reason. Although, there had been that one day.

On that day Emma had taken the children to school by car, she had an early shift and didn’t want to be late. After falling for a set of ‘surprise’ traffic lights, that weren’t there the day before, on her way to the school, it meant she had taken a short cut through some residential back streets to get to work on time.

It happened quickly, Emma was concentrating on making up her own diversion route and it was the dog that had first caught her eye. She wasn’t exactly speeding, but it was a good job she was in her own car, as she wasn’t taking particular care in going over the speed bumps. Chris would have been extremely critical if he could have seen her, and she wouldn’t have dared to drive this way in his car. Chris always described her driving style as ‘rally car,’ and had made a point of clutching the passenger door whenever she drove, releasing gasps and breaths between clenched teeth.

The dog stood patiently on its lead looking out onto the street, resigned to its captivity. Emma smiled at the thought of it but getting closer recognised it as Boo-Boo. She passed the couple with the static dog; a larger woman shielded the other figure from her view. Intrigued, her eyes followed the group, first in her rear view then in her wing mirror. It must have been Jim with this woman but as she drove further away all she noticed was the woman reach out and touch his arm, throwing her head back in laughter. Emma had a rush of feeling, first relief that Jim still existed and still had Boo-Boo, then something that could have been described as jealousy, but she preferred to recognise as concern. Whatever it was it manifested as a physical pang in her chest.

That was three weeks ago now, may be more. Emma was getting accustom to walking alone again, she took more notice of her fellow walkers again, the elderly lady with Rosie and parents she might have recognised from the school gates. But mostly she was enjoying her own company. Despite having witnessed the changing of the seasons, the new life and new warmth and colour in the natural world, this barely impacted on her mood.

Things were still difficult for her. Chris was still distant, her mother hyper-critical and Clara still deeply unhappy, whilst Bertie simply existed, a fact Emma felt terribly guilty about. The flood gates had well and truly opened with regard to Clara at school. What had started as a concerned chat with the Head Mistress had unravelled into talk of educational care plans and specialist provision. Almost every day, at pick up, the teachers would approach her, leading a reluctant Clara and tell Emma all the things Clara had done or not done, all the things she couldn’t do or should have done better. Emma would listen while looking at other parents, looking at her. Some looked genuinely relieved it wasn’t them, others appeared to look at her with something like distain, the mother of one of ’those’ children.

When she met Clara’s eyes, as the teachers monologue continued, she would see Clara’s eyes desperately trying to ‘read’ Emma. How much trouble was she in, what was it that she had done, how wrong had she been. And Emma never knew how she was supposed to react. Was she supposed to discipline Clara right then and there, in front of everyone? Just to show how serious she thought it was? Was she supposed to threaten sanctions, knock time off her screen time or currency off her pocket money? Emma listened but with another part of her brain she consciously arranged her face to illustrate what she thought was expected of her. Concern, disappointment, apology. Then she would thank the teacher for letting her know, and taking Clara’s hand, walk away. Sometimes she would collect Bertie first but mostly she would try to spare him hearing the misdemeanours of his elder sister and collected him later, way after the crowds of first-time parents had gone.

In the woods, Emma noticed the effect of the recent rains, the beautiful spectrum of greens. She stopped to study an overhanging branch of a tree she hadn’t noticed before. She suspected the winds and heavy downpours of the last few days had swayed the young tree and the weight of the rain had bent the branches over the path. The storm had passed but had left tiny droplets of water suspended from the new buds of the tree. If it were still raining these would gather more volume and drop to the ground but as it was, they hung like tiny bulbs of light.

Emma walked on and came across a puddle in the ground, another time she might have stomped all the way through it but today she stopped to observe. It was clear and still. She bent over it and studied how it could have been a sheet of smoked glass, or a tinted mirror. It reflected the world in some dimmed way and reminded Emma of those pictures of tree roots as far reaching as branches in this world. Emma felt herself tempted to jump in the puddle with both feet and imagined disappearing through into an alternative reality. Perhaps one where a parallel Emma had a happy marriage with well-adjusted kids and a successful career.

“Hi,” came an upbeat voice she recognised immediately, “you might struggle to drown yourself in there.”

“What makes you think I want to drown myself?”

“I don’t know, just a hunch.”

Boo-Boo and Paddy raced around manically, while Emma tried not to show just how happy she was to see a friendly face but not just any friendly face, Jim’s.

“Long time, no see.” She said trying to sound as nonchalant as she could.

“Well, you know, busy, busy, busy.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Well actually no. Where’s my coffee, anyway?” Jim asked with a gentle smile.

“I stopped buying you one. They are not cheap, you know. And it turns out I go mental on two!”

They kept walking, slowly, a stroll, a meander even. Neither of them seemingly in a hurry. Although Emma had sports day later and had promised Bertie, she would see him race. All she knew was she needed this time, she needed to be here right now, side by side with this person on this day. After the first flurry of cheeky conversation they went on for a bit in silence. Jim was the first to break it.

“How are you, anyway?”

“Oh, you know. Up’s and downs, you?”

“Well, I still have custody of Boo-Boo, as you can see, but there’s a date for his departure. The twentieth.”

“A couple of weeks grace then. Is there any chance the lady will change her mind?”

“I don’t think so. But we’ve made peace with it, haven’t we Boo?” Jim leant down and patted the dog on the head. It was as if Boo-Boo had picked up on a change happening and he seemed more subdued and attentive to Jim today.

Emma felt Jim was more subdued in himself and more attentive to her too. She felt him looking at her when he spoke, really looking at her. He asked questions about the family, how her mum was first, then the children and he searched her face as she responded, it felt like he knew. This made her wary, and she adopted a subtle shutter mechanism, the one she used with casual acquaintances when they asked her how she was, but they didn’t really want to know. She felt that if she even hinted at the turmoil inside her at that moment and he picked up on it, she wouldn’t be able to stop.

Emma knew Jim enough to know he was kind and gentle and he was further enough away from her real life to not make judgements about her and her seemingly desperate position. A dangerous combination. When it came to Jim asking how Chris was getting on in his new job, she nearly crumbled, but she held it enough together to say something benign. This triggered her to talk about all the extra money he was earning and then she remembered her exciting holiday plans and then she was on safe territory again. He didn’t seem as interested in detail, like Anita and Leah had been, in fact his eyes appeared to glaze over and if she didn’t know better, he seemed distracted, far away, lost in his thoughts.

“Are you okay?” She finally asked.

“Oh yes, sorry, miles away. I seem to have a lot to think about at the moment.” And in that moment Emma believed it was Jim who looked as if on the precipice of a confession. She felt that if she pressed him, he would crack and blurt out some dark secret of bodies buried in his back garden or something. But she didn’t push it, and neither did he, and as they walked their separate ways both felt a little happier for having seen each other and for sharing something, if only a bit of company.

Jim

The day came as Jim knew it would. Caroline came around early. She tried to be cheery and he tried responding. They had discussed the plan on the phone so there was no need for many words. Neither of them knew quite what to say, neither of them knew the etiquette of losing a pet that wasn’t theirs in the first place. A foster dog, as it were. Jim just pointed out where Boo-Boo’s stuff was. Jim hadn’t realised how much he had accumulated, a toy here and there, an extra blanket, a spare lead. It made quite a pile in the hall, so Jim found a canvas bag to put it all in and left it by the front door. The bag must have been one he’d used before for a holiday because, when it caught his eye in the hours he’d had it ready the previous evening, he had felt a pang of excitement first, before remembering what it really was for. He wasn’t going anywhere, his life was going to be as it was before, it was Boo-Boo who was moving on.

After the flurry of action, calling the dog, collecting his bag and clipping on his lead. The rushed goodbyes and loading of the car, Jim shut his door and couldn’t believe the silence that surrounded him. It felt quieter than he had ever experienced although, it must have been the same returning from the hospice those two years ago. Boo-Boo had never made a lot of noise but there was the occasional bump upstairs as he jumped off the spare bed. Or the step-land, step-land of him coming down the stairs. But nothing.

Jim made himself a cup of tea, then let it go cold as he sat at the kitchen table, staring out at the garden. He had been watching the birds. They had just been carrying on, living their lives as they always did, pecking at the grass, returning to a nearby branch, with occasional bursts of racing around together with Red Arrow type thrills and accuracy. As Jim headed to bed, he realised that day, he hadn’t spoken a single word out loud. Not since telling Caroline the months of the year in reverse as she left the house.

********

The next few days, then weeks, passed in a fog of ready meals and store cupboard dinners. If he wasn’t thinking about Boo-Boo’s departure, it was Emma’s marital status. He wondered how she was. It had been too much. He hadn’t been sleeping well. He would fall asleep easily enough but then would wake in the early hours and not get back to sleep. This morning it had been 3.17 am. He had watched the clock almost minutely until 5.36am. Then he suddenly realised what he felt he had to do, but it was too early. He paced the floor of his bedroom for the next 28 minutes. A conversation running through his head, “I have something to tell you,” “I just thought you should know”. He thought through his side of the conversation and had different scenarios for Emma’s responses.

6.04 am. He began his morning routine, from the absent-mindedness he had been living life with recently, he now felt clear headed. He ate a good breakfast, he had time for as much of an English breakfast as he had in. Beans, eggs, tinned tomatoes and some tea and toast. Even with the cooking, consuming and clearing up of breakfast things and crockery and cutlery from the last few days, he was still too early. It wasn’t even 8.30am. Children would only just be heading off for the school run, Emma wouldn’t be walking Paddy by now. After brushing his teeth and looking in the mirror and checking he looked presentable, Jim felt overwhelmingly tired and went into the lounge to sit down for a few minutes.

He hadn’t meant to sleep. He didn’t even think he had closed his eyes. He had just sat down facing the street, watching rushing mother’s pushing laden buggies, waiting for Mrs Andersen to appear and disappear wherever she was going today. Now it was 10.30 am. He panicked; he would have missed Emma on the common. He had to see her today, he couldn’t live with himself for another day after he had made this decision.

What should he do? Think. Think. He got his keys and left the house, not really knowing what his plan of action was. He headed past the common, just in case she was late for any reason. But there was no sign of either her or Paddy there, no matter how much he stared into the trees. There was a chance she could be in the High Street. He didn’t think he would be so lucky as to catch her in the café but perhaps in the convenience store or the chemist.

Jim couldn’t believe his luck when he passed the café and in looking in the window saw Emma’s friends; Emma wasn’t at the table but perhaps they would know where she was. He headed in and noticed Emma at the counter asking for a spoon, he walked up to her purposefully, he couldn’t remember what he said exactly, but afterwards, on the way out, Emma’s friends asked him why he was leaving so soon. Jim had realised he hadn’t even got his wallet and the women laughed when he said it must be the senility setting in.

Now all he had to do was wait until 2pm. Sounded easy but he couldn’t settle at anything. He felt relieved he had set the ball rolling but also as the adrenaline had dissipated, he started to wonder if he had done the right thing. The day had changed from a chilly morning at first light to a mini heatwave, if he was the shorts and t-shirt type that would have been what he’d wear, instead he went with imitation linen.

Emma

Emma walked fast; she was practically pulling Paddy along. To him it was just too hot to go anywhere, he’d have been quite happy spread out in the back garden. But Jim had been insistent that they meet today, and Emma had never seen him so decisive. He had appeared from nowhere whilst Emma had gone to get a spoon to scrape out the last bubbles of her cappuccino froth, the remnants that had stuck to the side of her coffee mug that she so enjoyed, a dissolve in your mouth flavour of chocolate and coffee, so satisfying to consume, worth the £3 spent.

“Can we meet, by the bench, this afternoon. I have something to tell you.” Emma had looked up to smile at him thinking he was joking but saw the expression across his eyes, this was serious. She had looked at her watch, it was 10.52 am, if they met for two o’clock, she could sort the things that had to be done at home and meet him before the end of school.

“Okay, two o’clock?” He smiled briefly and walked to the café door, stopping to say goodbye to the girls and Emma could just make out Anita saying,

“Leaving us so soon?” and Jim replied with something Emma couldn’t hear but Leah laughed, and they watched him leave before turning to each other and giggling some more. It wasn’t long after that that Emma made her excuses and headed

home intrigued by Jim’s urgent request.

It was hot, one of those early summer days that always take you by surprise, you dress in one thing and find by 11.00am you need to scale down and strip off. Emma had slung on a summer dress, this one she had bought for a holiday and had never really intended it for home use, it required no bra as the halter neck, held what chest she had securely enough in place.

She couldn’t believe the massive difference on just entering the woods, the temperature lowered noticeably by some degrees. Paddy now realised how much he liked walks and stopped panting quite so much and busied himself sniffing and urinating around the route. Emma didn’t know why but instead of just making her way to the bench directly she walked her usual route.

It was different being in the woods at this time, in this heat. No one was around. But it was so cool and exhilarating. Everything seemed greener, the smells earthier, she could hear insects buzzing above her head in a swarm. It felt as if she was on the precipice of something, the new season perhaps?

As she made her way along her usual route, she became aware of the fabric of her dress lightly brushing against her nipples. With each step it touched her purposefully, rhythmically. She felt herself becoming physically aroused, there was a concentration of energy between her legs the power of which she couldn’t believe. She felt the urge to run but checked herself. What was she thinking? What was she thinking? She was thinking that if she didn’t touch or feel another human being in the next few minutes she would burst. Her breathing quickened, now she wished she had made her way to the bench directly. She checked her watch, 2.07pm. He was going to be there, wasn’t he? At that moment it didn’t matter what he wanted to say, just that he wanted to see her, someone wanted to see her, just her.

Rounding the corner Emma saw Jim, with his back to her looking out to where her quickest route would have been, she approached him and like the first time they had met she wished to stand on a stick or tread on a patch of dry leaves just to alert him she was there before she made him jump. She had almost reached him when he turned around and Emma just embraced him. She held him, aware one of her arms was against his back while the other around his waist. She was trying to explain to herself what she was doing. Maybe it was because she was lonely, may be because he was too. Maybe it was because he had been kind to her, maybe she had felt a closeness to someone who had no connection to her, her family, her situation but was removed enough to care. Just when she thought she should pull away and apologise, she felt his arms around her shoulders, he pulled her closer. Jim must have felt something too. Emma was aware of him gently brushing his head against hers and they stood there for some time.

When he did pull away, his lips lightly pressed against her forehead and he ran his fingers down her arms to hold her hands, leading her to the bench. Now they had touched, really touched, neither of them felt like letting go. They sat down. Emma felt like she did as a girl, when someone she liked, liked her, and they wanted more of each other, but couldn’t or didn’t know how to ask. She stroked his limbs, then pulled away, waiting for permission from someone, anyone. Emma bit her lip at being so forward and flirty but couldn’t read Jim’s face. She tried to explain his expression as surprise, but it was more serious than that, he looked…concerned. Then she remembered he had wanted to tell her something, that must be it.

“What was it you wanted to say?” she felt almost confident that what had just happened had answered or eliminated whatever Jim was about to say. But he took a deep intake of breath and at that moment all her confidence drained away. She was about to be rejected now; she was sure of it. “Jim...what is it?” He looked at her in the eye.

“I don’t know what to say…” he stuttered.

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t help myself. It’s the heat. It’s the day. I’m having such a hard time with Chris… I’m so sorry.”

He paused, for a second and she heard something that sounded like, “it is Chris,” but she wasn’t sure. He stopped, hesitated, and said louder this time,

“It’s Boo-Boo,” he laughed superficially, apologetically, “he’s gone back to live with his owner…my daughter’s colleague…” Now it was Emma’s turn to look confused, “we won’t be seeing so much of each other from now on. I won’t have a dog to walk, there won’t be a reason to meet.”

And there it was, a rejection of sorts.

“Oh,” Emma felt exposed, and all of a sudden, she shuddered with the chill of the shade. She felt awkward and uncomfortable and just wanted to leave the situation. She was cringing with regret, “it’s nearly three, I have to go.” She started to walk off. “Look, you know where I get my coffee, we’ll see each other around, right?” and she walked off out into the sunshine as quickly as she could without breaking into a run and without looking back.

Jim

After Emma had gone, Jim sat on the bench alone. He just sat there, motionless on the bench, in his own world of thoughts and recriminations. He had missed his chance. Not only that, he had reacted badly to a declaration from Emma. He wasn’t quite sure what she was declaring, but he didn’t think he had responded how Emma had anticipated or, how he anticipated he would, for that matter either. He suddenly felt, very old and tired.

It was a barking dog that brought him round. A little Jack Russell cross was at his feet barking and barking specifically at him. The weather had changed, he could hear heavy drops of rain, but where he was sitting he was sheltered, it was only the odd drop of warm liquid that landed on him, and he found it a comfort to feel anything.

“Rosie! Rosie!” said an elderly lady coming from the trees. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what’s got into her.” The dog continued to bark as the lady caught up to it and clipped her on her lead, she then looked up at Jim. “Are you feeling alright?” Jim nodded and managed a half smile. “It’s been a scorcher today, hasn’t it? Let’s be thankful for the cloudburst and hope this herald’s in a beautiful summer”. She dragged the Jack Russell away. The little dog went reluctantly and couldn’t resist one more spate of barking as it went.

Jim got unsteadily to his feet; he must have been sitting for longer than he thought. He headed home, dreading seeing anyone he might know, he felt rough and the lady’s reaction in the woods convinced him he couldn’t be looking his best.

As he got to his road, he looked out for concerned neighbours, specifically Mrs Andersen. The last thing he needed right now was sympathy or concern. He lent against the inside of the front door, once he had reached home and let himself in. He lent there for a few minutes enjoying the coolness of his house. What was he going to do now?

For the second time recently stillness hit him, he could hear nothing, only white noise in his ears and that was only if he really concentrated. Then he became aware of another sound, it was him. His breathing had quickened, and it seemed deafeningly loud now. He covered his ears in an attempt to block it out. Then he felt a searing pain in his chest, which he clutched at as he made his way through the house in the direction of the garden, he needed air. He tried opening the backdoor with one hand, but he was gasping so much now. He felt that he might die, here, alone on the kitchen floor. Jim fiddled with the lock, he wasn’t going to die here, like this, he had to get out. Out into his garden, he needed air.

Eventually the lock turned, and he staggered to the chairs under the cherry blossom tree. He gulped at the air at first, talking to himself the way he did whilst Ruth was dying. He told himself that, ’it was okay’, that ’everything would be alright’, ’don’t worry,’ ’I’ll look after everything’. In time his breathing became easier, the pain subsided, and he felt himself slowly unwinding. It was going to be okay, everything was alright, he wasn’t going to die, not that minute anyway. While he sat there, he tested all of his responses, he could still feel his feet, move his legs, lift his hand to touch his face, his skin was clammy, but everything seemed to be working. Still he felt very shaky.

It reminded him of the time Gareth had run out into the road in front of a car. Jim had shouted at him, feeling helpless as he stood watching his son in the road and the car approaching, everything slowed down. He had to make Gareth hear him. At the last-minute Gareth turned and as he did, he saw the car, and the car saw him, it swerved as Gareth froze. It must have missed him by inches. Once the scolding was over, he held Gareth tight believing that that was the one brush with death that would befall Gareth for the rest of Jim’s life. The events of the next eighteen months would prove him wrong. But on that day, once Gareth had told Jim he was sorry and had run off to play football, Jim had shaken as he did today. He had felt just as weak and infirm, being reminded that life was so temporary, and events were so beyond his control, it physically hurt.

Jim took himself off to bed. He didn’t undress, he didn’t shut the curtains, he just watched from his bed as the summer evening was drained of light. Too tired to think he fell asleep.

When Jim awoke, he was disorientated. The light from outside was as it was when he had first lain down. Had he slept at all? He looked at the clock it said 4.23 am. The room was airless, and he felt hot now, in his clothes. He decided to get a drink of water, change into his pyjamas, and brush his teeth. Downstairs he saw his mobile flashing to say he had messages. He had three missed calls from Caroline. He was in half a mind whether to text back now but thought better of it, thinking she might be more worried about a text in the middle of the night, than no text at all. After opening his windows wide and closing the curtains shut, he got back into bed, and fell back to sleep.

When he came around again, he had been hearing what he thought was an alarm. Sharp bursts of noise, bells ringing. It took a while to recognise them as his front doorbell. His immediate response was to sit up. He thought about making his way down to answer it immediately but then caught sight of himself in the mirror in his room. He couldn’t let anyone see him like this. He checked his clock 11.04am. Eleven? It took him while to focus himself, at that moment he couldn’t even think what day it was.

He heard the person at the door walk back down his path. He listened intently. He heard more footsteps on next door’s path. Another knock. He heard Mrs Andersen’s voice, it travelled quite clearly being more or less directly underneath his window, give or take a meter or so. And then Caroline’s voice not so loud or clear, she sounded muffled but the feeling he got from her tones were urgency. He closed his eyes and pretended he could be asleep.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t seen him…it’s a shame about the dog, I always knew what time it was if I saw them in the mornings, 8.45am they would head off… Anyway, I think I heard him in the garden last night, pottering around… I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about…it’s probably taken it out of him a bit... that’s an idea, I’ll let him know if I see him.”

Mrs Andersen’s front door shut, and Jim heard footsteps back down the path. It seemed to take a long time for anything to happen then, so Jim got up and gingerly made his way to the window. If he stood back, he could look through a chink in the curtains. From that angle he could see Caroline’s car parked at the front of the house. He could just see part of her standing; she must have been looking at the house. She made a phone call, then got in the car, and drove away.

Jim felt terribly guilty, he knew how worried Caroline would be. He knew he had to quickly get himself together, she’d probably gone home to get her set of keys or something. He expected her back and by then he needed a good story and he needed to look good, presentable at the very least.

Jim was in the garden when Caroline arrived, he had managed to shower, get dressed and put a wash on. She bustled into the garden ashen faced.

“Have you any idea how worried we have all been about you!” was her opening statement, spat with venom. He could say nothing in response, so she continued. “I must have called you three times last night and why weren’t you answering the door this morning? I nearly called the police!” Jim didn’t have the energy to make anything up or put a spin on it.

“I didn’t feel well, I went to bed early, I woke up in the night and then fell back to sleep and woke late.”

“Is that it? What do you mean not feeling ‘well’? Seriously dad, you can be so selfish sometimes. I’ve been worried half to death.” She slowed down then, seemingly running out of anger. “I suppose I may have overreacted, it’s just that… Well, you know, you have no company now. You haven’t been alone like this for a while, I just thought…” Jim didn’t fight back. He knew exactly what Caroline meant and if he hadn’t felt he had nearly died of natural causes, he may have considered an alternative option. “I’ll make us a cup of tea.”

Caroline made tea and kept coming to the door of the kitchen to check on Jim. She was observing Jim’s pallor, he didn’t seem himself. Even Jim’s complaining about Boo-Boo was preferable to this. “You haven’t got much in, Dad,” she called. “I’ll go to the shop before I go, get in some bits”.

Jim managed a smile, but not much else. He knew he wasn’t doing himself any favours withdrawing into himself. He knew that would mean more home visits and phone calls, but perhaps that’s what he needed. Every so often he would think of Emma and the embrace and he felt a jump deep inside him, then a melancholy he couldn’t fully explain.

Later, after Caroline had topped up his cupboards, she left. She didn’t ask him a dementia identifying question, she wasn’t sure she wanted something else to worry about. Jim made himself a boiled egg and toast soldiers, then sat in front of the television to eat it. He spent most of the rest of the day there, interspersed with a round of the garden, which took him under a minute. Jim found, whereas before he happily sat around the house for days on end, since having, and then losing a dog, he missed the enforced exercise.

Caroline’s visits began to be as often and as business-like as they had been in the weeks and months after Ruth’s death. Somehow, she managed a near bi-daily visit before work. Which meant Jim needed to be up and about before 8.00am by which time she was always knocking on the door. Had Jim got enough of this or that? Had he sorted out this bill or that bill? Joined any clubs or societies? Returned to table tennis?

Most of the time Jim was ready for her, but as time went on and her visits spaced out a bit, Jim had occasionally been caught in bed. On one occasion when Caroline was early, he had been woken by Mrs Andersen’s voice again from what sounded like just outside his window. He sat up with a start, checking the clock he realised he had overslept, but it was only 7.35am. He hurriedly started his morning routine keeping one ear out to work out how long he might have. He managed a quick wash before he caught an interesting snippet of conversation.

“You might want to have a look”, Mrs Andersen was saying.

“Okay, sounds interesting. Whereabouts is it in the shop?”

“Well it’s next to the lottery stand. I only mention it because I noticed it had a pet’s section at first. You know, kittens for sale, lost dogs. Then I thought I saw someone wanted to rehome a dog. It didn’t really register until I got home, and I wished I had taken more notice. Anyway, I thought I’d let you know.”

“Well, thank you. That’s a really good idea. I had been thinking of looking into fostering a pet or something, but haven’t got around to it, yet. I might go there now. I am a bit early today.”

Jim didn’t like the sound of this ‘intervention’. Another pet forced on him. When had he forfeited the right to make decisions for himself? He thought rather indignantly. ’Another bloody dog to look after.’ But as he made his way downstairs, he began to think of Emma and the common. He felt rather ashamed of himself when he thought of Emma. He had often thought he might go to the common and see if he could catch her and sometimes, if he had been on the High Street, he had looked out, but he had always been quite relieved when she hadn’t been there. He had no idea how to communicate with her now.

Women, he thought, had always been unfathomable, even as a younger man, but now, he was used to not even trying to work them out. Gone were the days of trying to work out why Ruth would lock herself in the bathroom in tears or his teenage daughter would storm off slamming doors. He would rack his brains trying to understand what he could have said wrong. Or if it was the way he’d said it? Deep down he had always felt blameless and a little irritated when he found himself having to apologise to get dinner on the table or free up the bathroom.

Jim was ready by the time Caroline returned with some staples to get him through the next forty-eight hours or so. She looked very pleased with herself.

“There’s an advert at the corner shop. Someone wants a home for their dog. They have had a change of circumstances. There’s a number, do you want me to call it?”

“I know, I heard from your discussion with Mrs Andersen. Do I have ‘sap’ tattooed on my forehead?”

“That’s not a ‘no’ then.” Caroline smiled. “I mean I have no idea how long the advert has been there. They have probably found a home for it by now. But they must be local and it’s not a puppy, otherwise they would have said. So, they’ll be no house training. I think it’s worth a try. Some of these dog charity adoption services are pretty strict and time consuming.”

“Caroline, it’s not that I don’t appreciate your concern, but I am an adult. Can’t I make my own decisions. I don’t really want another reject pet.”

“But the rejects are the best kind. And there must be a special place in heaven reserved for people who rescue pets. You’ve got to admit you were a good dog owner and a dog was good for you. There’s so much research on getting out and mental health and …” She ran out of reasons and just stood waiting for Jim’s response.

“You can phone them up, if you like”. He eventually said. “Find out some details, but please report back to me before you promise anything. Okay?”

“Okay.” Caroline turned away but Jim couldn’t help noticing a flash of her victorious face.

Caroline went off to work promising to let him know before she made any rash decisions. As she left, Jim thought he could have called the number. However, on reflection, he probably wouldn’t have.

Another few days passed. It was difficult to say how Jim filled the time. He had gone back to keeping a low profile and avoiding Mrs Andersen. Jim didn’t want her to know how affected he had been by Boo-Boo’s absence, especially as he always maintained the dog had been a strain to look after. Jim wasn’t ready to admit he had been knocked sideways. He would continue the relationship with Mrs Andersen only when he was good and ready, he was sure they would pick up where they left off, just not yet.

Five days since he had last seen Caroline and she called from her mobile on the move. The wind was blowing so the line was crackling and she kept breaking up.

“Hi Dad, well it’s a boy dog, and [something inaudible] …thinks it’s about seven, so that’s the same as [something inaudible] … it? It’s been living with a [something inaudible] … well trained. What do you want me to do?”

“Well, I should probably meet him, or something.”

“What? I’m going over [something inaudible] … come to you.” The phone dropped out.

Jim tried to piece the parts of the conversation he had, collecting all the available information to make some sense. All he really knew was it was a male dog, a good start, and about seven and that it was ‘well trained’. He had ascertained Caroline was going there and then coming to him. Surely not with the dog?! He felt a little jittery, excited even, as if he might be going on a blind date.

“So?” Jim met Caroline at his front door. Caroline seemed as excited as he was.

“Well. I spoke to them on the phone and they asked me straight round. The house was in the estate the other side of the Post Office sorting offices. Nice house in a quiet area.”

“Are these details necessary?”

“I’m just setting the scene.” She explained. “You want to know where he’s come from”.

“And?”

“Anyway, a woman came to the door, about your age, may be a bit younger. She didn’t say much just that the family had had a ‘change of circumstances’. But I noticed cards in the living room behind her and while I was there a bouquet of flowers arrived. The woman took them in a way that made me think that someone might have died. It was all very formal and straight faced.”

“What about the dog, tell me about the dog. Did you take pictures or anything?”

“Okay, well no, but she was fairly keen that I should just take the dog. The dog came over to me, really friendly and I explained a bit about you but… well to cut a long story short…He’s in the car.”

“In the car!” Jim paused to process all the information, “well, shouldn’t you get him out?”

“I wanted to give you the chance to back out. I knew if you met him you wouldn’t be able to say no.” Caroline went to the car, Jim could see her fumbling in the back, probably getting the dog’s lead on. Jim turned into his house and looked around thinking of anything that needed tidying, as you would if an unexpected human guest was about to arrive.

The dog Caroline was leading up the path was enthusiastically pulling towards Jim wagging his tail. Jim felt familiarity, he spent a split second feeling reassured but then he realised. The dog now coming into his house was Paddy. His mind raced with questions. Why was Paddy here? what did that actually mean? If Paddy was here, where was Emma?

“I know that dog. It’s Paddy.” Paddy approached him happily, tail wagging, sniffing at his trouser legs and the room corners he found himself in. “Hello Paddy”, he couldn’t help the tears in his eyes after days of holding everything in.

“You know him? This is Paddy. How do you know the dog?”

“He’s Emma’s. I walk with her on the common sometimes. She would never give Paddy away. He is such a huge part of her life… I think it must be a mistake”. By now the tears were flowing uncontrollably.

“Oh Dad, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say. Maybe it’s not what you think.” Caroline racked her brains for something else to say. It made sense to her now. The woman’s demeanour, her reaction to the flowers, her hurry to get the ‘transaction’ done.

Paddy spent the rest of the afternoon at Jim’s side. Whenever he walked out of the room, Paddy followed. Leaning up against the toilet door when Jim went to the loo. Whatever had happened, Paddy was obviously insecure about something. Before she left Caroline bought in Paddy’s belongings. She hadn’t said much since the big revelation because she really couldn’t think of anything constructive to say. Caroline didn’t even know whether or not to leave Paddy there, take him back or claim him herself, and she didn’t know how to ask. When she did eventually leave Jim was sitting on a chair in the garden, rhythmically stroking Paddy who had his head in Jim’s lap. Caroline couldn’t work out who was comforting who. She mouthed “I’ll call you” as she left, then felt foolish at the thought of not wanting to disturb a dog.

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