‘I didn’t think much of the cucumber sandwiches,’ said Elsie as she walked through the front door. ‘Very wet.’
She placed her handbag on the hall table. Looked in the mirror as she carefully removed the hat pin, popped it in her bag, then took off her black hat and coat and hung them on the hat stand. She plumped up her grey hair and walked into the sitting room.
Neville, was sitting in the leather armchair, wearing his new Marks & Spencer zip through, navy fleece and reading The Telegraph. He turned the page.
‘There’s a global chickpea shortage,’ he said. ‘That fancy hummus muck has gone up by almost 30 per cent.’
‘It was quite disappointing. The usual… mushroom vol au vent, mini scotch eggs…’ Elsie hovered by the sitting room door.
‘They give off malic acid you know,’ he said as he shook the paper.
‘That’s eggs for you,’ said Elsie as she turned and walked towards the kitchen.
‘I don’t know why you go to these things, Mother,’ said Neville. ‘It’ll play havoc with your sleep tonight.’
‘Cup of tea?’ she called, turning the knob on the cooker and nestling the silver kettle into the burst of flames. The kitchen was modest and overlooked the back garden. If you stood in the middle of the room, you could almost touch both
walls. It opened out a little at one end, enough space for a small table and two chairs.
Elsie walked into the hall, picked up her handbag, returned to the kitchen and placed the bag on the table.
The kettle was beginning to sing its song, a fine mist settling onto the woodland painted tiles behind it. Her husband, Edward, had put up a little wooden shelf unit on the wall opposite, just after they’d moved in almost 55 years ago.
‘Shame,’ Elsie had said. ‘I’d always wanted a kitchen big enough for a Welsh dresser.’
‘I’ll make you one,’ said Edward as he placed his hands on her waist and swung her round.
‘Stop it,’ laughed Elsie. ‘You’re making me dizzy.’
‘Your own mini welsh dresser, just here,’ and he’d swung Elsie up onto the counter, held her hands and kissed her gently. The next day he’d set about making the top half of a dresser, three wooden shelves encased in a pine frame with an overhanging cornice at the top and two small love hearts engraved underneath. It wasn’t a welsh dresser, but it was perfect.
Elsie took down a teapot and two matching cups and saucers, counted two large scoops of English Breakfast tea into the pot and poured in the boiling water. She took a small jug of milk from the fridge and placed the cup, jug and a small tea strainer on the table. She opened up her handbag, pulled out an Order of Service and sat down.
Bernard Reid, 10th January 1920 – 21st September 2005, much loved husband, father & grandfather. Elsie ran her finger across the photo of Bernard.
‘An old friend?’ Asked Neville as he walked into the kitchen.
‘Sort of,’ said Elsie. She turned the Order of Service over so Bernard faced the kitchen table.
‘I thought Edna was going with you,’ said Neville, pouring milk and a little tea into his cup.
‘For goodness sake, mother why can’t you use tea bags like everyone else?’ Tea leaves floated around the top of Neville’s cup, like small flies.
‘She wasn’t feeling too well.’
‘I mean what’s the point of them?’ he said.
‘Your father liked a proper cup of tea,’ said Elsie.
‘They get in your teeth.’
‘Edna used to read tea leaves,’ said Elsie. ‘She read mine once.’
‘Mumbo jumbo,’ said Neville, chasing a tea leaf round his cup.
‘She told me I was heading towards stormy seas, but I’d meet someone who would calm troubled waters.’
Neville began fishing the leaves out of his cup and putting them on the side of the saucer.
‘It’d calm my troubled waters if you’d buy a pack of tea bags,’ he said.
‘I met your father not long after.’
Elsie placed the tea strainer on top of her cup and poured the tea into it. A bundle of bark coloured leaves gathered into the little sieve which she placed on a tiny tea pot shaped dish.
‘Aren’t you going to work this afternoon?’ She asked Neville.
‘Wanted to make sure you got home first,’ he said. ‘After that funny turn you had yesterday.’
‘You forgot my kippers.’
‘I’d just read about Bernard in the paper. It was unexpected.’
‘He was 85, mother. Hardly in his prime.’
Elsie stirred her tea.
‘Bernard hated tea leaves.’
Neville looked across at his mother.
‘Don’t know why I remembered that about him,’ said Elsie. ‘He was different to your Dad. Not so…’
‘Hopeless? Dad never planned for anything,’ said Neville. ‘If it wasn’t for me you’d be homeless.’ He touched the small crescent shaped birthmark which sat just above his left eye.
Elsie breathed in deeply. ‘Your Dad was one of the kindest men I’ve ever met,’ she said, slowly lifting her cup to her lips.
‘And where did that leave you after he died?’
Elsie put her cup down.
‘You knew this Bernard well then?’ Asked Neville.
‘Not really, he was older than me, his Mother was friends with mine.’ Elsie topped up her cup with some more tea. ‘We used to go to the same dance hall on a Saturday night. He just disappeared one day. His mother said he’d joined the Navy.’
Elsie’s face was lined with mascara as Bernard walked towards the front door. ‘Please…..’ Elsie slid down against the wall towards the floor her skirt hitched up at the back revealing gangly legs in white ankle socks.
‘Don’t leave me,’ she whispered. She put her head in her hands. ‘What will I do….? What will people say?’
Bernard turned around, the crescent shaped birthmark above his left eye pulsed. He pushed back his almost crow black fringe and then pointed at Elsie.
‘Mother warned me about girls like you. Surely you didn’t think…..’
For a moment he looked at the teenage girl slumped on the floor in front of him. He opened his mouth as if to say something more, turned back towards the door and walked out.
‘Course there was gossip,’ said Elsie as she smoothed out imaginary creases from the Order of Service as it lay on the table.
‘That he’d got some girl in the family way.’
‘Bit of a lad, then eh?’
‘You could say that.’
‘Did a bunk. Can’t blame him I suppose.’
Elsie placed her cup gently on its saucer and turned towards her son.
‘Can’t blame him?’
‘Expect she came on to him, you know what girls are like. All over you like a rash ‘til the next best thing comes along.’
Elsie stood up placed her cup and saucer in the sink. She looked out of the kitchen window for a moment. Dusk was casting a shadow over the bottom of the garden, creeping towards the back of the house.
‘What do you fancy for tea?’ She said, taking an apron down from the back of the kitchen door and wrapping it around her waist.
‘We’ve got some braising beef. Could make a pie?’
‘I’ll be out ‘til late tonight. I’ll have it when I come home.’
Elsie opened the fridge door and pulled out a smooth white dome of dough, covered in cling film.
‘I’m off to the office, put in a couple of hours before I go out,’ said Neville and walked out of the kitchen.
Elsie uncovered the dough and sprinkled a dusting of flour onto the counter top. She slapped the dough down hard and began to knead it. A fine powder of flour coated the top of her apron, dulling its vibrant pattern of pink and blue pansies.
Edward was holding a posy of woodland flowers, daisies, kingcups, cornflowers and foxglove. He’d gone out early that morning to pick them. His young face was flushed, and he stuttered slightly over his words.
‘It’ll be OK,’ he’d said as he went to hold Elsie’s hand. ‘I’ll look after you, and who knows, in time….’ He handed her the little bunch of flowers and kissed her on the cheek. Shyly Elsie took the flowers and held them to her nose. Tears ran down her face, landing on the blossoms, blending with the drops of early morning dew that still nestled between the petals.
‘Thank you,’ she said softly.
Bernard’s funeral had been at St Jude’s, just at the top of Palmerston Road. The church was full on both sides. All you could hear was feet shuffling and sniffing from rows of bent heads. Elsie’s black court shoes tip-tapped down the centre of the aisle. No-one turned. She slotted herself into a seat half way down. Her heart was beating so hard she was sure the man in the grey suit next to her could hear it. She turned to check. His head was bowed. He kept flicking through the order of service as if searching for something that wasn’t there. Elsie glanced over at the family sitting in the front row. An elderly lady in a black coat and hat sat in between two middle aged men. She kept pressing a white handkerchief to her nose, stark against her black leather gloves. The two men sat with their heads straight ahead, eyes fixed on the coffin. For a moment, the sun moved out from behind a cloud; a shower of colour from the stained-glass window splashed on the floor next to the coffin. Elsie looked up to see the sun streaming through a picture of Saint Joseph holding the baby Jesus in his arms.
Elsie felt a sharp pain in her chest, she couldn’t breathe – she couldn’t stay here. She stood up and walked out.
The rolled-out pastry fit perfectly on top of the pie dish. The bottom was filled with browned beef and onions. She trimmed off the edges and pricked a few holes in the centre. Elsie was still wearing her black dress; the only one she had for special occasions. She’d worn it to Edward’s funeral and had felt disloyal wearing it to Bernard’s. She turned and touched the little wooden shelf unit, her fingers lingering over the heart shapes Edward had cut out.
‘That’s you and me,’ he’d said. ‘Like our initials on a tree, they’ll be there for ever.’
She’d lied to Neville about going to the wake, she didn’t feel bad about that. What’s one more lie, she said to herself. Elsie sat back down at the table and picked up the order of service. She looked at Bernard’s photograph for a few moments, he must have been about 40 years old and was smiling, smiling at her, not a care in the world – with his elegant wife and two sons. She opened her handbag and took out the hat pin. Very carefully she placed the point of the pin on top of his crescent shaped birthmark and with a slow smile she pierced the photograph, inching the pin further into the birthmark until just the black onyx stone at the tip could be seen. She took her time in pulling the pin out, then placed it back in her handbag.
Elsie stood up, walked over to the kitchen counter and lifted the smooth pasty skin off the pie squeezing the dough in her fists so it filled her hands and pushed through the spaces between her fingers. When she let go it resembled a knuckle duster. She let it fall onto the counter, washed her hands and wiped them dry then smoothed out her dress before going upstairs to get changed.