Part 1.17

Joe returns with two pints of Doombar ale, and sits down heavily. We’re at the Spotted Dog, the only decent pub in Islington, and one that tends to draw a different crowd from the usual hoard of lager louts that frequent the bars and pubs in this area.  The pub is quiet, and in the hearth a large fire roars to ward off the bad weather.  I like to imagine that we are not in Islington, but in a little Norfolk country pub. 

Before he died, my father would sometimes take us with him to his local, where we’d sit staring quietly at the flames.  Joe was with foster parents at the time, having been abandoned as a baby, and he loved my father dearly.  I knew that my father, though a man of few words and even fewer overt emotions, had a soft spot for Joe.  An intensely practical man, he owned a small boat engine repair business in Stokesby.  He was trustworthy and honest, so did good trade.  Joe and I often helped him over weekends in return for some pocket money, and through this we grew to share my father’s wonder of mechanics. 

“Are you going to take the charity gig then, lover boy?” said Joe, interrupting my reverie.

“I think so,” I reply, ignoring the jibe. “Just to try it out, mind you.  It all feels a bit sudden.”

“At our age there isn’t time to be measured,” he says. “Go for it, Aaron.”

I smile, knowing I will, and that my hesitation is fooling no one.  I am clearly smitten by the little Elsbeth, and spending more time in her presence is a no brainer.  I have been alone for too long.

The bell rings for last orders but we drink up and head our separate ways.  It’s raining heavily so I walk home as quickly as the old knee will let me.  A group of hooded youths loiter around the entrance to my block of flats, talking in low tones, but they step aside to let me through.  I am filled with an unfamiliar fear, but try not to show it, passing by without speaking.  As I walk up the stairwell I hear them laugh out loud and am filled with anger at my timidity.  Old age is a cruel business.

At my flat, I find Harry curled up outside my door.  When he sees me, he comes to nuzzle my legs.  I reach down to scratch him behind his ears.  “Hello, fella, nice to see you.”  We enter the flat together, and I give him a saucer of milk before I head off to bed. Soon I am sleeping, and my dreams are filled with piles of endless junk that need sorting out, hooded figures lurking in the dark, and memories of long ago.

Part 1.16

The train pulled away from Stokesby station, meandering through grasslands mottled with dopey-eyed sheep. We had about an hour to go before reaching Paddington, after which would come a further three-hour train journey to Bristol, so I decided to settle down with a book.
"You're not seriously going to read the whole time?" Joe asked, scowling.
"And why not?"
"Because, old man, I am terribly bored and we need some female company."
"Joe, you go ahead. I'm not in the mood." Molly’s farewell tears were still vivid in my mind.
"You never are,” he replied, “but that's why I'm here." Joe snatched the book from my hands and darted out of the compartment.
I leaped up after him shouting, "Hey!", but he was already running and whooping, half way down the corridor.

Part 1.15

Amy has unwittingly snapped me out of my gloomy self-absorption, so later that morning I phone Joe to arrange meeting for a drink later, and then take advantage of a break in the weather to go for a walk.  I head for the park but don’t expect anyone to be there because of the rain, and indeed, it is deserted. I decide to walk on along the canal instead.  Against the steady hum of London city life, birds chirp brightly amongst dripping branches, and the occasional canal barge squeaks against its moorings.  The sun peeps briefly from behind a grey tumble of clouds and lights up the trees in a shower of glistening raindrops.  I stop and gaze at this display and am for a moment actually glad to be alive.
Startled, I turn around.  Elsbeth is standing behind me, smiling. 
“Am I interrupting?” she continues.
I return her smile, conscious of reddening cheeks.  “Just admiring the sights,” I mumble.
She looks up at the sparkling trees.  “Yes, gorgeous,” then turns to me. “I was wondering about you – haven’t seen you in a little while.  I thought perhaps I’d scared you off.”
I gaze with amazement at this precocious little woman in front of me, and then gather myself.  “I wasn’t feeling well.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.  But you are feeling better now?”
“Yes.  Just taking advantage of a break in the weather.”
“Me too.  Fancy a stroll?”
“That would be nice.”
So we do, heading further up the canal, towards Rosemary Gardens, where we stroll for twenty minutes along dappled, tree-lined paths, before finally turning around and ending up back at the playground.
“I need to go back to work,” she says.  “It’s just up there. Cancer Research.”
“The charity shop?”
“Yes.  I help out there as a volunteer.  Nothing much, just sorting out donations, arranging displays and so on, but I like it.”
“Sounds fun,” I say, not really meaning it.
She turns her head sharply, and with flashing eyes replies, “It is for a good cause. My husband, Tom, died of cancer.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to be flippant.” 
“It’s fine,” she replies.  “It’s not everyone’s passion, and it has been ten years since he passed on.”  After a pause, she adds “Well, it’s been nice chatting to you.”
“I’ll walk with you.”
She peers at me intently.  “You don’t have to.”
“I want to.”  And seeing her searching expression, I add, “Really.”
“Well okay then.  It’s this way.”
We head up St Peter’s Street, just a few blocks from the Packington Estate where I live, and arrive at a little shop nestled between Boot’s Pharmacy and Fred’s Chippery. The window is filled with a motley array of unwanted items hoping for a new lease of life.  I wonder if these places make any money at all.  Certainly nothing in the window sparked any interest in me.  Everything looks faded and tired.
“Want to come inside?” she asks.
I don’t particularly, but I say yes, and we enter.  A little bell above our heads rings as the door opens and an elderly chap behind the till notes our arrival.  He looks as dusty and worn as the items in the shop.
“Hello Elsbeth.  Nice walk?”
“Yes, James, thank you,” she replies, then points to me.  “This is Aaron. He’s just having a little look.”
“Oh, well, please do,” he replies brightly. “We welcome anyone interested in volunteering.”
I begin to splutter before Elsbeth jumps in with “Oh, no! I’m just showing Aaron where I work.” 
She pauses and looks towards me, waiting for confirmation, but then in a rare moment of heart over mind, I hear myself saying, “Well, I could help out today if you like.  I don’t have anything pressing on.”
And that was that.  I was put to work out the back, sorting donations into large heaps.  It was absolutely chaotic, but since I was alone there, I decided to implement a production line, the first decision point being whether to keep the item or pass it on, the next being the type of item, and then finally whether the item needed repair or washing.  After an hour of work the chaos had been replaced with an orderly row of heaps.
The door opens and Elsbeth walks in.
“Grief!  What have you been up to?”
I can’t work out whether she is pleased or not, so I begin to explain, but she only laughs at my expression. “It looks marvellous, Aaron!  I think we’ll have to promote you to chief sorter-outer.  You wouldn’t have line management responsibilities, but you would be allowed an extra biscuit with your tea.  How does that sound?”
I’m not sure if I really want to commit to an unexpected career in unwanted items, and Elsbeth senses my hesitation. “It would just be two days a week.  We usually don’t get that many donations.”
I make my second heart decision of the day, and reply, “Only if I get embossed business cards.”
“I’m sure we can sort something out, if you don’t mind them being in someone else’s name.”
We laugh together, and I want to reach forward and touch her, but have used up my courage for the day.