May! The very sound of her name had made the other kids taunt her at her previous school. “She may do this, she may do that” they would chant and so when she moved to this school, she deliberately made herself as invisible as possible, to avoid the same thing happening again. She didn’t ask questions, she sat at the back in the corner and shared a desk with a girl who was rarely there, so with a bit of luck the teachers would almost forget her.
May didn’t smile much and seemed older than her years. She was always quite a serious quiet child, but when her mother had left home two years before, she seemed to side-step her childhood as she assumed responsibilities to keep the home going. It had been a difficult time for her dad too, but in the early days, May could see that he was making an effort to compensate for her mum leaving. He’d try and be funny and make May laugh, but in recent months since the loss of his job, he had stopped being funny. It seemed as if he didn’t have the will or energy to fight any more and he spent hours lying on the settee, semi-propped against the cushions, watching the television, with his dog, Woods, a border collie, sprawled faithfully at his side. If anyone called, most of the time he didn’t answer. If he did, May heard him tell whoever it was that he had depression and that he was seeing someone about it. Whatever it was, it seemed to May that he just wanted to be alone with his own thoughts and so she stayed at homework club in the evenings, then went home to make tea for them both and then, and if the weather was nice she’d go for a walk, sometimes with Woods, nowhere in particular, just walking and thinking.
On one particular evening at the end of a perfect day in June, May decided to enjoy the last of the sunshine. She left Woods behind as he seemed reluctant to leave the cool of the house. May loved the sun, but even she had found it too hot that day and it was only now that it was just gloriously warm, still and quite silent as she walked along the tow-path alongside the fence leading up to the Old Rectory. She tried to peep through the holes in the fence and catch a glimpse of the old house, but it was mostly shrouded in a wilderness of overgrown trees and shrubs. Stories abounded about this house, that it was haunted by a weird old woman with wild white witch-like hair. From the little that May could see it seemed to her to be a lovely house, but she had to admit that the garden did look uncared for and neglected. There was one other much talked-about feature about this house and that was the teddy bear that sat in the bay window. He looked a bit like Paddington Bear and he had become a well-know landmark. Further along the tow path there was an opening onto the road that fronted the rectory, and May was just about to reach there when suddenly she could hear shouting. As she peeped around the corner she saw a group of young boys who were gathered like a pack of dogs at the front of the house. They had scaled the railings and one was sat on the stone pillar alongside the wrought iron gate.
“Spooky lady! Are you there?” they called in a menacing way. May felt her body freeze as if she was a statue. She knew them, oh yes she knew them and what they were capable of. She felt panic. An object like a stone went flying towards the window behind which sat the teddy bear. There was a terrifying crash followed by whoops of joy and laughter as the mob fled as one whole pack away down the road. Silence fell. May listened. She crouched low and very slowly she crept closer to the broken window, just to see if everything was okay. She held her breath and then a large strong hand grabbed her on the shoulder. She almost screamed. A man’s voice was demanding of her “Are you something to do with that lot?” She couldn’t speak. “Come with me, now!” he emphasised the now and she felt herself propelled forward. Still she didn’t speak until she was inside the house. An old lady, kneeling on the floor was collecting pieces of glass. She picked up the teddy bear and placed it upon an arm chair. “Leave that now B”, insisted the man. “ Let’s get you up off the floor”. He locked his arm under her shoulder and manoeuvred her into a comfy arm chair. “Now” he said, turning to May “explain what that was all about”!
May was near to tears. “You don’t understand she said. I was just walking and I saw a group of boys in front of the house, shouting and then I saw something fly through the air and I heard a crash and I thought I’d just see if anyone was hurt. That’s all, honestly. I’m scared, I want to go home” she added, and she felt her hands and knees trembling.
“George” said the old lady in a calm voice, “I’m alright now and I don’t think this young lady has anything to do with what just happened”. “Sit down a while dear” she said, addressing May in a soothing understanding voice. Then she added “George, please bring some tea and some juice and biscuits”. Yes, Madam, he acquiesced, if a little reluctantly.
“Do you know anything about the boys who did this at all?” the old lady asked May softly, brushing away the wild halo of white hair from her face.
The only thing I know, said May, is that they are from my school, but I’m nothing to do with them I promise you.
“I believe you”, acknowledge the lady, with sincerity. “However, she said, I am very sad to say that this is the third time that they have been here causing trouble. What I want to know is, why? Why do you think they do it?
“It’s because” ..... “it’s because” ... At this point May’s confidence failed her.
The old lady was staring at her, staring into her deep brown serious eyes.
“Well go on”, she encouraged. “I won’t mind, I just want to know”.
“It’s because there are stories about this house and they talk about a spooky lady with wild hair.” At this point May’s voice trailed off. How could she be saying this, she was asking herself in her mind. How rude she was being without wishing to be! The normally pale skin of her face was now flushed with embarrassment.
“I see”, was the only comment the lady made, sensing how difficult it was for May to explain. Silence followed. Fortunately, the man who had been sent to make the tea broke the silence as he entered the room with a tray of rattling china and glass, which he set down on a beautiful six sided table with a glass top. The man had a cardboard box under his arm and he carefully put the remaining pieces of glass into it. “I’ll mend that window later” he said. “Just popping out for some glass” he added and left the room muttering something under his breath. “Thank you George” acknowledged the lady. The tea was steaming and the cups were so delicate. In fact, as May looked around the room she realised that it was really very beautiful. The furniture, the picture frames, the vases, the soft piled carpet – this wasn’t a witch’s house!
The old lady obviously not going to let go of this line of thought and staring earnestly at May, she asked “Do you think I look spooky?”
No, of course not, stammered May, blushing even more as she realised that perhaps she was being less than honest.
“So, what is your name” the lady asked.
“I’m May” responded May, almost apologetically.
“Is that Durand, the English way, or the French pronunciation?” enquired the old lady.
“Well, it’s the English way, my Dad’s English, but in fact my mother is ..er .. was French”.
“Did she die?”
“Er, no”, May began to explain reluctantly. “She didn’t die, she ... left”.
“Oh” was the considered response. Then she added “Well, my name is Mrs Dubois. I was born in France and my husband was French, although I consider this to be my home. So, it seems that you and I have something in common” she added smiling and even May’s serious face gave way to a shy grin. “Do have some tea or juice and, perhaps we can see what can be done to solve this problem of these young marauders”.
May hadn’t heard the word marauder before, but she had a pretty good idea of what it must mean.
The next hour passed not only quickly but very enjoyably and May found herself laughing and fascinated by the stories that Mrs Dubois had to tell. She had even shared some photographs and she felt happy and strangely at home.
Then she realised that she should be back to prepare her Dad’s tea. She left the house promising to return and felt she had made a friend.
The weeks passed and every two or three days May would call in for chats. Sometimes she said more than she would have wished, especially when she explained about her Dad and his depression, but also when she admitted how she dealt with her own life so far, hiding away, being invisible. She felt that was probably a mistake. The summer holidays passed uneventfully, but the one thing that May looked forward to was her visits to the old rectory.
One day back at school, near Halloween, it was raining heavily and the classes were told to gather into the science classrooms after lunch. The boys who May had seen causing trouble at the rectory were in the classroom and chatting openly about their plan to scare the spooky lady witless and kidnap the bear as the prize. May pretended to be writing in her exercise book, but she was listening intently. Then suddenly one of the boys said “I suppose that old witch hasn’t got a dog has she? ‘Cos our Nat’s terrified of em! You should see him run if my dog goes after him”. A lot of teasing followed and she realised that Nat was the thin scruffy looking boy who May had seen sitting on the stone pillar.
So, summoning up her courage, May thought she would tell Mrs Dubois what she had heard and before she could get too worried she would suggest a plan. Mrs Dubois looked very serious. George was in the room and he growled an oath of what he do if he caught the so and so’s. “Well”, proffered May , “I have a plan that I think might work, because what I haven’t told you is that one of them is scared of dogs. Now, I have a dog, who wouldn’t hurt a fly but his bark even terrifies me and I’m wondering if he might be the answer to scaring them away”? George and Mrs Dubois smiled!
There was a moment’s silence. “Are you sure Woods wouldn’t harm anyone”, asked Madame Dubois?
“Oh, absolutely not” confirmed May, “he just makes a lot of noise and then rolls over for his tummy to be tickled. If I sat with Woods, he wouldn’t bark, but the first sign of any trouble, I just have to tell him and he will truly scare the one who doesn’t like dogs”.
“Brilliant!”, exclaimed Madame Dubois. “Let’s give them some of their own medicine; a Halloween that they won’t forget”!
And so it was that May was crouched in the out-building with Woods. She was fussing over him and he was loving the attention. Then all of a sudden three dark figures appeared at the railings, each holding a torch which they were shining upwards at their faces, trying to contort their features into frightening expressions.
George was on watch and May had to laugh because he was wearing one of those truly awful scream masks. “Wait just a second” he whispered to May, some of them have come over the wall. “Just a second” he repeated and then he gave the signal. “Bring it on Woods” he said.
“Go on” repeated May and Woods burst out of the outbuilding and rounded up the boys like recalcitrant sheep. One of them was screaming his head off and had now flattened himself against the old stone walls. George walked up to him and said in a low voice “would you like to see him close up laddie?”
“No” the boy was screaming, “get him away from me!”
May called to Woods and order resumed as George led the scared boy by the ear into the front room. The two others vaulted the fence and disappeared. Whilst continuing to hold the boys ear, George dialled the number to May’s school. “I need to speak to the head mistress now”, he demanded. “But she’s at a meeting came the rather posh reply.
“I don’t care what she is doing, I have a pupil here who has caused physical and psychological damage to the occupants of this house and my next call will be to the police!”
Almost instantly, another lady’s voice took over the call. It was the head mistress. Within 10 minutes the headmistress was standing in the Old Rectory, whilst the boy admitted what he’d done and owning up reluctantly to the identity of the others. Assurances were given that this would never happen again and the boy and headmistress left together. She could be seen talking to him briefly outside the gates and then they went their separate ways.
SUCH A DANGEROUS THING
George, Mrs Dubois and May celebrated their victory with tea and cakes and Woods was given a biscuit as a treat. It was a happy time, the turning point when Mrs Dubois asked May to call her ‘B’; ‘B’ for Beatrice. It was difficult at first, but B became the most important letter in her life. May suddenly realised the unaccustomed feeling of happiness and the fun of forgetting the checks and balances of everyday life and then her musings were cut short when she realised, with horror, that it was dark outside! Her father had always insisted that she should be home before sunset and not only was she not home on time but she had Woods with her. At that precise moment there was a hammering on the door. “Oh” exclaimed May, almost spilling her tea. “I’m so sorry, I think this may be for me.”
George went to the door, there was the sound of men’s voices, then the door opened and May’s father appeared looking stern and concerned.
“Mr Durand, I must apologise to you” B hastily started to explain. “I’m so sorry for keeping May, you see ....”
“I don’t want to know any excuses”, insisted May’s father angrily. “I just want my daughter back. She knows she should be home before dark. She’s here far too much. She’s neglecting things and I think she should stop coming here for a while. She has her studies to think about!”
May seemed to have become frail and small in just a few seconds and resumed her serious downcast look. She thanked B and George without really looking at them, quickly picked up the lead and attached it to Woods and in a few seconds she was silently walking home with her father.
For two weeks, she returned home dutifully each day and didn’t bother to go for a walk. Then, one evening two men called at the door and asked May’s dad if he’d like to join them at the club. They would buy him a round or two – and with a little reluctance her father agreed to go. May knew he would be gone for some time and took the opportunity to walk to the Rectory.
George opened the door and gave May a friendly grin. “Come on in” he said. “Look who we’ve got here. It’s good you’ve called, we could do with a bit of cheering up!”
B was sat in her front room, staring at the log fire. She glanced up and smiled, though somewhat distantly. “Come on in dear” she said “warm yourself by the fire. George, another cup, I think”.
May watched her and realised that something was wrong. “Are you alright” May enquired gently. “Mmm, well, I suppose I am” said B. “But I’ve been thinking about things. Do you think I’m a spooky lady, May?”
“No” said May emphatically.
There was a small pile of photographs on the table and B spread them out facing May.
“Those photos are of me” she said. “Do they look like me?”
May considered the photos of a beautiful lady, with a young fair haired boy and a tall, well-dressed handsome man. Oh dear, another of those questions she thought. If I say yes, I’m lying, if I say know, I’ll hurt her feelings.
“I think the lady is very beautiful”, said May, avoiding the answer. “Who are the other people?”
“Those people are, or were, my husband and my son, May”. May was shocked to see a tear slowly forging its way down the old lady’s cheek. “You see May, as I told you, I was born in France, but many of my happiest days were spent in this house, which my father had inherited from his father-in-law. My mother died when I was about 14 and not long after I was sent to France to say with my grandparents and there I went to college and later university to study art. I trained as a teacher and taught art near Paris, where I met my husband. When my father died, I wanted to move back to England and live in the house I loved, but my husband did not want to. There were money problems too and I gave a lot of time to my job. We had arguments; too many arguments. He started going on long business trips and then one day I received a letter through the post saying that he wanted to start a new life, that it was the hardest thing he had ever had to do, but that he had found great happiness with someone else and he wished me and Jean-Paul, our son, all the happiness in the world. I only saw him once again, when he turned up with some friends in a large van to collect his things. I cried a lot for a while, but my work and our son kept me going. Jean-Paul took this turn of events very badly and started to blame me for what had happened. I was working hard and just couldn’t cope with his growing mood swings. He started saying that he wanted to be with his father”. B was silent for a while, fighting against the great tide of sorrow that seemed to be overwhelming her. “I’d had enough that day” ... she continued falteringly “ I screamed at him to go. “Just go! Be with your father. Get out!” I said. Oh May, anger is a dangerous thing” she added shaking her head with remorse.
B moved the photographs around on the table to allow time to recover, then continued “David ran upstairs and then an hour later, without him saying even goodbye, I heard the front door slam. It was the last time that I would ever see him”. There was a long silence and May could almost feel herself holding her breath as a mark of respect. “You see May, on the way to see his father he
hitched a ride with some young people. It seems that they’d been drinking. The car swerved off the road into a deep ravine and Jean-Paul was killed instantly. My grief and guilt gave me only one choice and that was return to England and to hide away in this house. For many years I couldn’t smile, couldn’t bear to live with myself. I felt so guilty, so ashamed, such a failure as a mother and a wife and so absolutely bereft”. A heavy silence followed as she stared into the fire and struggled to regain her composure. “Then one dark day, you walked into our lives and for the first time I felt that my guilt was lessening its grip, like winter ice as it begins to thaw in the Spring. I even began to feel a little happy. But now I am beginning to realise what I have become, an object of fun and I’m not sure how to go forward”.
“Is the bear in the window because of your son”, enquired May, quietly.
“Yes ... it is. It’s just my way of saying, my secret way of communicating to my darling son, that I’m so sorry for not being more understanding and I will never forget him, not for one second. I will always be here for him”.
May waited for a few moments, and B continued to stare at the dying embers in the fireplace.
May sensed that B probably needed to be alone and offering her excuses of having to prepare tea for her father, she stood, waiting for a moment and slowly left the room, shutting the front door quietly after her.
May’s walk home was full of thoughts of what she had just heard. How did people cope with such terrible things in their lives? If only there was a way of making everything alright again. Would there ever be a day in the future when B would be totally happy. The strange thing is that it never occurred to May, what she herself had been through and coped with, indeed was still coping with.
Woods was padding excitedly in the garden. He leapt up her as she opened the gate. Her dad was stood there with a glass tankard of beer in his hands and behind him were two men that May recognised from the club her father sometimes went to.
“May” exclaimed her father exuberantly. “May, good news, your father is now a working man!”
May’s dark eyes reflected a range of emotions; happiness, apprehension, shyness as she wondered how to react. “Well done Dad she said” and he drew her to him in a big bear-hug. She slipped out of the hug and smiling nervously passed the men and disappeared into the kitchen. “Don’t worry about tea” her Dad called after her. We’re going out tonight!”
Timidly May re-emerged from the kitchen and coyly asked “Dad that’s brilliant, um, but I haven’t finished all my homework. Could I stay here?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want to do” said her dad and to his friends he stated with pride “my daughter, she’s so conscientious. She’ll go far she will!”
Dad slept in late the next day complaining of a headache. When he did finally wake up, he called May over. “May”, he said, “I’ve been thinking about work and about you and, um, well you see, I’m going to have to work most weekends. Do you think that ‘old bird’ of yours would let you stay with her?”
May pursed her lips disapprovingly on hearing the rude reference to B.
“I’m sure she would Dad”, replied May. “I’ll ask her”.
“No, no”, insisted her dad. “As a responsible father, I have to ask her myself. The next time you are going there let me know and I’ll come with you”.
May turned and widened her eyes with a look of horror at the prospect.
And so it was that B was asked, May’s Dad looking uncharacteristically apologetic. B, smiled warmly and evidently enjoying the prospect of sharing more time with May.
One of the unexpected discoveries which enthralled May, was being allowed to go up to ‘the studio’. B of course had trained as an art teacher. After the tragic loss of her son, she had given up all painting and her art materials were still in cardboard boxes piled by two easels in a light airy room upstairs. May had never been upstairs before. The rooms were huge. In places they were a little sad with the ingress of dampness in the corners of the ceilings, but they were gracious rooms with intricate mouldings and large light windows. Over time May opened all the boxes and set out the brushes and paints, pencils pens, papers. Some of the paints had not lasted well, others were still very usable and sometimes whilst B was reading or taking a nap, May would do some drawing or painting. May was indeed a hard worker, though no one would say she was brilliant. Her good marks were the result of solid dedication, not inspiration. But, when it came to art, she had a true gift. She had an innate ability of interpreting not just image, but movement, light, and feelings into a
visual form. Her art teacher had remarked upon this, but May’s father was unimpressed as art held little importance in his world.
The discovery of the paints and art materials were to May like finding a treasure chest. She felt safe and able to lose herself in her own world in the studio. B had arthritis in her knees and rarely climbed the stairs. So, with all the resources at her disposal, May began to draw what she wanted to draw and experiment with the paints.
One Saturday, May’s father had woken grumpily. He was enjoying his job, but he was late and grumbled at May for not helping to get him up on time and not providing a bowl of cereal or boiling the kettle! May felt annoyed by what she considered to be unfair and hurtful comments. She was always there for her dad. It wasn’t right! It was this that perhaps made her a little edgy that day. On arriving at B’s, George let her in and indicated that B was upstairs. May ran up the steps and to her astonishment found B looking at her work. “May” B greeted her happily. “I’ve just seen your work. What a talented girl you are! I had no idea that you could paint and draw like this”.
May stood awkwardly, twisting one leg behind the other. “I didn’t really want you to see them” she stammered.
“Well, May” continued B, “it’s just my opinion, but I think you should be entering the competition for the best young artist, which they are currently running at the Town Hall. You’d win easily. I’ve laid out four here, any one of which would be worthy of winning!”
May felt a sudden pang of panic. She was being pushed out of her comfort zone. B was intruding on the most personal area of her life. May’s mother was the one who was the artist. Dad had packed up all her paintings and hidden them in a box, but when she was on her own, May would find the box and stare for hours at her mother’s skilful artistry. May didn’t like showing off. She didn’t like competition, either the winning or the losing. Right now she wanted to go but perhaps more than that she wanted to scream her anger at B!
B realised something was wrong. “What’s the matter May! I’m just saying that you should show people what you can do and stop hiding away!”
That was it! The bubble was pricked! A step too far! Why had she ever told B that she hid from people! How dare people judge her and tell her what she must and must not do!
“How can you tell me not to hide away”, May retorted angrily. You hide away! You’ve hidden away for most of your life and what do you do? What do you show people? You just live with your self-pity. Well, leave me alone!” Overwhelming emotion welled inside May and she ran downstairs and out of the door.
B stood there in the silence. There was something so final about the slamming of a door.
A long week passed and a weekend when May stayed at home. Her Dad didn’t know. As far as he was concerned, she was with B. On Monday, about 11.00, in middle of a lesson, the door opened and in through it came a nervous year 7 student, who handed a small white piece of paper to the teacher. “Ah”, acknowledged the teacher. “May, could you please go down to reception?” May was embarrassed at being the subject of this interval in the lesson and with an expressionless look on her face silently slipped out of the room. The receptionist said that the headmistress wanted May to show a visitor around the school. May could see the headmistress further down the corridor. She could also see the fur coated back of a well-dressed woman, with shiny heeled shoes, who May assumed to be the visitor.
“May dear” said the headmistress, breaking off her conversation. “Would you please take Mrs Dubois around the school for me?”
A flash of puzzlement crossed May’s face. She knew that name, not a common name, so who could this be? Then the figure turned. May tried not to stare but although the fine features were familiar the sophistication, the deftly applied make-up and smooth shiny hair captured in a diamante clasp, confused the signals of recognition in her head. Could it really be her?
The fur-coated visitor winked and May re-gained her composure.
As they walked around together, B explained that May had made her realise the need to grasp back her life. She’d looked into her finances, which were the one point of comfort, for her father had left her well off. The money invested after his death had produced handsome results and so she had come to the school as a benefactor. She had decided to make up for the lost time and do something
with her life. She had also offered her services to fill the vacant position on the board of governors and was currently working on a new initiative to fund the development of the new sports centrel!
May was speechless!
“Wow” she said and then added “I am so, so, sorry though. I really, really, didn’t mean to hurt you”.
Don’t you worry at all, said B. Tea tonight?!
A NEW SKILL
One afternoon when they were just generally chatting, B talking about her school days and how things had changed, out of the blue, she asked May, “What do you prepare for your father’s tea, May”? May was a little taken aback and looked a little sheepish. “Well, she hesitated, nothing special really. Sometimes sandwiches, maybe a baked potato with some beans, pasta ...” her voice trailed away, realising that this wasn’t an amazing menu.
“Oh” replied B with an inference of perhaps some inadequacy of nutritional content.
“Do you like cooking, May”.
“Yes” said May, “but I don’t like the cooker!”
B laughed. “What do you mean you don’t like the cooker?”.
“Well”, grinned May, “it’s just that I can’t light it. I’m afraid of it”.
“Oh, I see”, laughed B. Is it like the one I have? Just come and have a look” and May followed B into the kitchen.
“Yes”, May confirmed. “That’s just like ours. A monster!”
“I think, if you want to, that I might be able to help you” B offered, wondering whether her proposition might be rejected, again. Sensing it was alright, B proceeded. “Each week we could cook something new so that you can take it back for your father. I’m sure he would be grateful. What do you think?”
May hesitated initially, but was surprisingly open to the idea. “Okay she agreed. That would be really kind of you and I’m sure Dad would enjoy a change!”
“And it would be good for you too”, added B in a kind reassuring tone!
But then, to B’s surprise, May twisted her mouth awkwardly to one side, as if to disagree.
“You don’t think it would be good for you?” said B with surprise.
“You see, I don’t eat meat” May confessed.
“Oh you’re a vegetarian. Well, that’s okay. We just have to make two things, one with meat and one without”.
“Oh no”, complained May.
“I’m afraid life is rarely simple May and it requires effort to carry out something we believe in.”
May, nodded acceptingly and later in the week B showed her how to light the oven and how to cook a meat and vegetarian shepherd’s pie. May’s Dad was astonished when he saw what was on the table and ate like a starving man, stretching back his arms at the end as if to make room for more. And that was how May learned to cook!
B had been a teacher and now that her life was beginning to take shape again the familiar strands of care and guidance re-emerged from her past existence in the classroom. There was a governor’s meeting and afterwards B asked Jane, the Headmistress, what had happened to the young lads who had been such a bother earlier in the year. Jane frowned as if a dark cloud had past across an otherwise sunny sky. “The main lad is still here and we’re doing our best with him. The other two left, one because his mother was moving away with her new boyfriend, the other because he wanted a new start. Nat, the main one is doing quite well, but it’s proving very difficult for any of the staff to really reach him. He gives and takes just enough to get by”.
“Mmm” pondered B. “Have you an idea what could motivate him?”
“A difficult one” said Jane. “He spent his early childhood on a farm in Shropshire. Then he came here to live in the block of flats, the ugly ones built back in the 60’s and I think the heart of his life was taken away. He had a dog that he was very fond of and he had to leave that behind too. His brother was old enough to leave home, his father, well, we think he went to New Zealand after the divorce and so Nat’s mother does her best. She works hard and she cares for Nat, but it’s not an uncommon story. My personal belief is that Nat is in a permanent state of grieving for the loss of his dad and it may not be possible to change it until he reaches the big wide world and if, perhaps, fortune shines on him!”
“Could I see him for a brief chat?”, enquired B.
“Surely, but I don’t know how forthcoming he will be”.
“That’s okay said B. How about tomorrow, Friday, in the afternoon”.
“Say 1.30pm said Jane, straight after lunch, will that do?”
“Perfect!” agreed B.
Nat stared at the floor. It was obvious that conversation was unlikely to be easy, but B took it slowly, with no reference to the past. She started to talk about the plans for raising money for the swimming pool and how they were thinking of holding the event in her garden in October. Then she gently eased onto the subject of preparing the garden and how it used to be. She laid out a few photographs on the table, images of the most beautiful garden with archways garlanded with roses, a circular fountain with a cherub holding a vase from which poured a trail of water sparkling in the sunlight. Another photograph showed elegant benches beside dahlia filled flower beds and then a picture of the walled vegetable and herb garden. The last photograph was of an elderly man wearing a suit, simple shirt and cloth cap, smoking a pipe, leaning against a chicken coup.
“Wow”, said Nat. “They’re beautiful”.
“Yes”, mused B. “The problem is that George, my, I think you’d call him a handy-man, is getting on a bit now and needs a little help. It just occurred to me, but then I realise a young man like yourself probably wouldn’t be ... but I wondered if for a small compensation you might like to help by restoring some of the garden, perhaps at weekends?”
Nat’s gaze rose to hers for the first time. There was a distant spark somewhere in his eyes but then he enquired “Is this a kind of punishment? Would this George person be telling me what to do?”
“No”, reassured B, “he’s got far too much to do. He would just be happy if you got on with it, though I’m sure he would give you some advice if you needed it. He’s a very good gardener and knows a lot”.
“Obviously”, she continued, “we would have to buy you the basics, but if you drew up a list of what you needed, I’d see what we could do. I think we’ve got most tools, though they’ll need a sharpen and a clean, but as it is Spring, you will need some seeds and plants”. B pushed forward a plant catalogue. “Have a look through that” she said and make a list of the sort of things you think would be good to have. As I said, George is there for advice if you want it. He’s not really an ogre you know. Once you’ve got started, you can just let yourself in at the back gate whenever you want to”.
Nat half smiled. “This isn’t a trap is it?” he said.
“Far, far from it said B. You would be doing me an enormous favour. We need your help to make this event a great success. I have an image of the fund-raising day with people gathered in the garden, with tables full of all the things that your fellow students have made over the summer, in their free time. And then people will see what you’ve created Nat. Just come and have a look, perhaps this weekend if that suits you. Spend a little time there and see what you would like to do”.
“Can I go now”, said Nat.
“Yes, of course dear”, said B – feeling momentarily low as she wondered how much she had really connected with him
He muttered a cursory ‘thanks’ and left the room, leaving the door slightly ajar.
Saturday morning dawned brightly. The sky was a magnificent blue and the first emerging buds of spring were set like pale jewels against the perfect cloudless. There was a single knock at the door. George opened it and with a look of some dissatisfaction, beckoned to the scruffy figure in front of him to come in.
“Take your shoes off”, grumbled George rather sternly and the figure obediently complied.
Nat stood in the doorway, his mousy thick hair in its usual dishevelled state, dark rings under his eyes. He was potentially good-looking but there was something of an urchin about him, which was partly endearing, and yet disturbing. B had the feeling of wanting to see him washed and scrubbed with his hair thoroughly combed, so that he re-emerged as some new being.
B greeted him warmly, walked him part way down the garden. The whole garden covered about 5 acres. There was the top garden, which was mainly set to roses, which George did his best to keep in shape. Then following the central path one came to five wide shallow steps down into what had been a beautiful flower garden, but which was now terribly overgrown with weeds. Beyond that was the orchard and then the walled garden. Finally, there was also a small cottage and a wooded area at the end. B showed Nat around and then released him into the wilderness
Stay as long as you like she called after him.
Nat stayed there for two hours and left by the side gate.
On Monday B called back at the school and had a chat with Jane about putting together the fund-raising event. Just as she was about to leave, Jane called after her and handed her a crumpled envelope addressed to Mrs Dubois. In it were some cut-out pictures of potatoes, broad beans, peas, lettuce, runner beans, primroses, dahlias, and roses.
Over the week, B bought the items, plus a new shiny spade and fork with green handles, secateurs and a couple of shiny trowels and asked Nat’s form teacher to hand him a note from her, discreetly. The note just said “have all the items you want. Feel free to come and go as you please. Good gardening! Look forward to seeing the results”.
There was a well of happiness inside B the day that she looked down and saw Nat in the garden and then day after day. A couple of weeks later she asked George how Nat was getting on. George was unmoved, though he did say “he’s a grafter, I’ll give him that!”
A few weeks later, on a deliciously warm day, B went down the garden carrying a plate of warm buns that she had just cooked. She called to Nat and George who were discussing something over by the compost heap. They came over and Nat even smiled as he saw the cakes. The plate was soon empty. Nat looked embarrassed. “Don’t worry she said, an empty plate is the best complement! Then she added, is it time yet for me to have a look?”
“Sure” said Nat, more positively that she had expected, and as she descended the wide steps in the ‘flower garden’ garden she stepped back in amazement. The fountain was working!! The borders were dug. Then as she went in to the vegetable garden, she could see lines of crops beginning to grow and beyond that, three or four chicken were clucking contentedly.
“I am overwhelmed she said. Nat this is brilliant!” He smiled and lowered his head. “It wasn’t just me he said. It was George here who kept me on track. I love it though. I love this garden!”
“Then it’s yours for as long as you want to care for it”, said B, trying not to sound emotional.
Nat was more sensitive than he appeared. He understood. He filled the moment remembering that George and he had a gift for her. “The first eggs” he said, offering them to her. B laughed.
“Well I suppose I’d better make some more cakes she said decisively” and returned to the house.
Just before the summer holidays, B was called by Jane to assist at an assembly in preparation of the fundraising weekend in October. It was the first time for many years that B found herself in front of so many eager and some not so eager upturned faces, as they sat cross-legged on the floor. Around the edges of the room were the older students. This was a full assembly to set out the aims and the hoped-for results of the special day. The addition of a sports facility had been on the agenda for many years. And it made sense as many adults in the community would happily pay a small subscription to use the facility out of school hours. The request to the students was therefore to ask for their creativity during the summer holidays; to sew, build, collect, cover, paint, all manner of things that could be sold at the event. And so they were sent away to think about what each one could do.
For May the summer was a long one. Her father was working and so life continued much as normal, but without school. She did spend a lot of time painting though and B provided the frames and taught her how to mitre and glue the frames together. For Nat, it was much the same. His mother had three jobs; one in the morning, one in the afternoon twice a week, and an evening job in a bar. The poor woman frequently looked very tired and was quite relieved that Nat was occupied and happy with the garden and the chickens at B’s. The dahlias bloomed splendidly and the gladioli and roses. B and May baked cakes and May learned quite a few recipes for main meals too. Often she would take the finished results back for her father to taste and judge which were his favourites. May even began to enjoy and laugh at the anticipation of the look on his face when he first tasted
her culinary adventures. Mostly, he was very appreciative and when it wasn’t so good, he let her off lightly with just a few suggestions for areas of improvement!
Sometimes May would take a break and just go and sit in the garden listening to the bees, observing the blackbirds dipping in the tufts of grass, the butterflies spreading their glorious wings on the buddleia. Sometimes she would wander down the steps into the lower garden. Nat didn’t say much, but he seemed to appreciate her praise for what he had done and once whilst she was with the chickens, he picked a pretty posy for her, handing it to her unceremoniously, but with a cheeky grin on his face. In fact, by the end of summer, she really looked forward to seeing him, but he seemed strangely shy; a difficult person to know.
School began again with the anticipation that always awaits a new term; results from the GCSE’s, new books, new courses, new rules, a new start. And, of course, it was hoped that there would be offerings of crafts undertaken in those long holidays to raise money for the sports centre. Some of the students obviously had made things and could be heard loudly trying to out-do each other’s efforts. Others realised that the summer had passed without getting round to anything and panicked into trying to fit the extra creativity around their normal homework.
October 5th was the big weekend. On the Friday parents and students were invited to B’s garden to set up the tables, marquee, chairs and barbecue. Sausages, burgers and bacon were brought in from the local butchers, rolls, juice, wine, glasses, paper plates, napkins, tablecloths. The list was endless. Contributions to be sold were placed in the pretty pagoda which George had restored. On the day the tables were decorated and the cloths fixed with tape. Empty food tins which had been decorated with lace were filled with flowers from Nat’s garden. Another 12 hens had been acquired over the summer and the hens obligingly provided several boxes of fresh eggs. One of the parents brought jars of honey. Added to this were Nat’s vegetables, which had grown so well. Tomatoes,
which were George’s speciality, still smelt of the delicious leafy pungency that accompanies freshly picked fruit. Then there were May’s paintings and a colossal number of craft items from all the students; jewellery boxes, hand painted glasses, peg bags, table mats, decorated candle holders and flower pots, bird tables and boxes, garden ornaments, photo frames, soft toys, corn dollies, necklaces and bracelets, racks to hang up garden tools, just a few of the things that piled high ready for sale – not to mention the high quality bric-a-brac and simple antiques; copper jugs, porcelain statues, clocks. There were cakes, jams, biscuits, bread, scones, chewy bars, all manner of scrumptious food and the weather was, unbelievably beautiful and set to remain so for the weekend.
Jane declared the event open, with special thanks to Mrs Dubois, and to May and Nat. The smoke was already curling upwards from the barbecue as the sausages and bacon were turned and the first visitors bit into their freshly cooked breakfast.
The weekend surpassed all expectations. It was a wonderful gathering of people drawn together, getting to know each other, sharing each other’s achievements. On the Sunday evening, no one wanted to go. They kept the barbeque going and the local butcher brought down some steaks, whilst others made salads, contributed bottles of wine, and left the local corner store bereft of marshmallows, which they toasted on a bonfire late into the evening. B watched from afar, the reflected light of the fire dancing in her eyes.
May was especially pleased because she had sold some of her first paintings. One had been her favourite, her first portrait, a painting of B sat in her armchair. Poor B had endured a long sitting for that one.
The following year was GCSE year. May and Nat found their time more restricted, but B was still always there for them, encouraging and inspiring where she could. Nat was much more talkative these days and B was hopefully that she had managed to get through to him that although working on the land was what he wanted to do, he still needed the results!
Nat seemed to be more settled. He was working, albeit rather late on in his school career, and considering his late entry into the world of study, managed good enough grades to get him on to the A level course. May did brilliantly in art, as predicted, and indeed well all round.
As would be expected, they both changed a lot in the 6th form, and so did B. She was aware that one day soon her ‘family’ would be on its way to greater things. And that’s when she began to think about the future and the part she could play in the next stage. The prom evening and presentations to the 6th form were looming.
B had asked for a meeting with Jane. “So to what do I owe this pleasure B?” she said smiling.
B laughed. “Jane I’ve been thinking about something I would like to do. This is not just a question of favouritism, but I have my own personal agenda, and I would like to offer financial support for two scholarships – one in art and the other in horticulture – on-going, for as long as it can be sustained”.
Jane’s eyes widened. She thought for a moment. “Well, that would be brilliant B, but have you thought how these scholarships could be justified this year?”
“Well, for this first year, you know who I would be thinking of and I think in all honesty, no one would query the choice of May for the art scholarship and, furthermore, I don’t believe any of the students have been able to demonstrate the dedication and success that Nat has when it comes to work on the land. Would you agree?”
“Very well. It is indeed very generous of you and your gift is most gratefully received” said Jane. “So is this to be a complete surprise for May and Nat?”
“Yes” said B confidently “to be announced after all the other prizes”.
“Have you thought whether Nat is up to it? He is working harder, but can he get the qualifications”.
“He’s a bright lad said B. We both know that! Life has just not given him much of a helping hand in the past”.
Jane wasn’t sure, but the gift was a generous one and just maybe Nat would come up trumps.
And so it was agreed.
Open evening, the drifting groups of parents viewing the exhibits, startling experiments in the science lab, gruesome models in the history room, classrooms changed beyond recognition and then the long awaited bell finally summoning everyone into the assembly hall. Parents chatted excitedly making more noise than all the children ever could and then the collective lowering of volume and focussed stare on the stage. B looked around at the older students standing in front of the curtains to the side of the seated audience. She closed her eyes tightly. Could it really be that after all this ... Where was he?
She beckoned to one of the students. “Have you seen Nat” she asked.
“No” was the response. “His mother’s been looking for him too. She’s outside, or she was”.
B excused herself and went to search for Nat’s mother. “Mrs Bryant” said B with concern. “I believe you’re looking for your son too”.
“Oh I am, and he’s going to know about it when I find him. The headmistress rang me up, asking where he was. I have had to take time of my work to find him. He gives me grief that boy of mine!”
B put her hand on her arm. “Do you know why he isn’t here?”
“Yes, I do she said. I’ve slaved for that boy all his life and now he should be leaving school and getting a job so that I can put my feet up a bit. But what does he want to do, go to college to study bloomin’ plants! Forgive the pun” she added. “So, I told him to stop dreaming and to grow up! And now he’s giving me problems. He’s just like his father, all airy fairy. Doesn’t get a grip on what life is really all about!”
B couldn’t speak for a moment. Should she say something, or would that just make things more difficult for Nat. “I’ve got to go back in the hall now Mrs Bryant, but don’t worry. He will turn up. I’m sure he will and all will be fine. He’s doing very well at the moment you know”.
“Right then” said Mrs Bryant, a little calmer “I’ll go back. Said I’d only be a few moments. Thanks”.
B took a deep sigh. She went to the office and phoned her home. George answered. “George” she said. “Is there any chance that Nat is there”.
“Oh, aye said George. In a bit of a mood though!”
“Right George, could I have a word with him please?”
“Yes, surely, but are you alright?”
“Yes, George. Just need to speak to Nat, but she could feel the emotion in her voice”.
“Nat” she could hear George call. “B for you!”
“Hello” he said.
“Nat” prompted B, “why aren’t you here?”
“Nat?” she repeated “please speak to me.
“Look, I don’t want to be there. What’s the point? I won’t be going to college anyway. It’s all just a load of nonsense.”
“The point is that we can’t always second guess what we’re going to get in life, Nat” B persisted. I want you here right now and looking smart! Do you hear me?”
There was silence the other end.
“Put George back on Nat and get yourself here quickly! You have a chance to do something with your life and I won’t take no for an answer. Is that understood?”
“Yes” said Nat. This was a different B from the one he was used to. “How long have I got to be there?”
“15 minutes top whack” said B.
B put down the phone defiantly and took a few deep breaths to regain her composure. She returned to the hall. The prize-giving began, starting with the younger students. After the main prizes were given out, the headmistress took her place on stage. “And now” she said “we have a very special part of the evening. We are very, very fortunate that a local person in the community who would prefer to remain anonymous has donated two scholarships which will be ongoing. One of them is for artistic achievement and the other for nature studies or horticulture. The first of these scholarships for the study of art is awarded to May Durand who has shown outstanding potential as an artist and the second to Nat Bryant in recognition of his dedication and achievement in horticulture. Please give a round of applause for May and Nat”.
May was shocked. She really hadn’t known anything about this and she couldn’t take it all in at first. A scholarship, what would it mean to her? Looking a little embarrassed she made her way to the stage to great applause and good wishes from the assembled parents. Most surprising of all was that her father was there, beaming from ear to ear. B was clapping, but looking anxious for any sign of an arrival. May descended from the stage, the clapping died down and it looked as if that was all. Then the curtain was briskly pushed aside. Standing there was a young man who was barely recognisable. He looked clean, his shirt tucked in, tie well tied and his hair was combed. He looked nervous and awkward and hesitated for just a little too long. People started turning their heads and then B took the moment and said, “A big round of applause please too for Nat everyone. Thank you”.
“Come on up” endorsed Jane. Nat slipped passed the other students, quickly climbed the steps up to the stage. Jane shook his hand warmly and he shyly took the envelope. A couple of students whooped. This was an unaccustomed experience for him.
There was a huge amount of appreciative applause, then the audience stood and the hall was soon almost empty. B felt exhausted and just gave one last look behind her at Nat, surrounded by four or five other boys, all trying to read what was in the letter.
“Was it you that gave the scholarship” May asked B some days later.
“What makes you think that” B answered dismissively. “No, my dear” she endorsed.
May was not convinced, but she wouldn’t push the matter.
And there they were, gathered in the garden, May, Nat, George and B. This was a farewell as May and Nat were off for fresher’s week at university. It was such a happy day, just like the old times. There were hugs and promises of being back soon. Lots of laughter tinged with sadness, and yet the frisson of newness, excitement at what was to come.
Nat and May closed the gate waving and smiling. B had a stoic look on her face as they left and George couldn’t help but feel concern for her. This was her family now. This would be hard for her to take.
Three times a year Nat and May would pop in and update B on all they were doing. The finals came and went and they were due to return home, with the usual visit. But in the morning George had found B, with the Paddington bear in her arms, asleep ... at least at first he thought she was just asleep!
In her Will B left the house to May to do with as she wished and the cottage and the garden to Nat, with the remaining two acres to be used as a community centre. George was also left a handsome sum of money.
Nat spent hours in the little cottage for the first few days and wouldn’t speak to anyone. Eventually he said to George that he had to get away. Would George stay in the cottage and care for the garden. George agreed willingly. And so it was. He didn’t even say goodbye to May, which hurt her a lot and yet in a way she understood.
So much can happen in five years. So much establishing, understanding, re-assessing! May was now an independent and relatively successful artist, with several exhibitions to her credit. Nat had been employed by the head gardener of a stately home in Devon. His moodiness had not helped him at first, but little by little his considerable ability made him stronger, more secure about himself.
One day, he was looking through the few possessions that he had brought with him and suddenly life made sense. He felt an unaccustomed contentment. He’d achieved what he’d always wanted and now he knew where he wanted to be. He’d asked for a long weekend away. It was October, so the head gardener agreed. Usually Nat felt sad around this time of the year, thinking about the descent into winter, but today was almost unimaginably glorious with an intense cloudless blue sky, hedgerows of orange, yellow and red berries, the stunning amber and red of acers and sycamore leaves. Glistening spider webs, glossy sweet chestnuts nestling in the crisp fallen leaves. He watched intently as the countryside flashed past him as he stared from the window of the train. Three hours later he was almost running, running back ... running back home! He arrived at the door. He was here! The door, freshly painted, was wide open with a trestle in front of it pointing to an exhibition. He ran up the steps. A young lady, unknown to him was standing behind a desk. “Can I have a look?” he asked. “Please do” she said “smiling just a little too long at this handsome young man who had just come in off the street.
He stood in the room surrounded by paintings. Each one of them was amazing. This could only be May’s work. It was astounding.
He heard a group of people came in, engaging the girl in conversation.
The place had changed a lot, but he slipped up the winding staircase to the corner bay window which overlooked the road. The receptionist didn’t notice he wasn’t there any more.
May came back quite late after lunch, chatted for a minute with the girl she had left in charge and then went into the exhibition room and stopped in her tracks. One of the pictures had been removed and in its place was the portrait she had done all those years ago, the portrait of B, with her wild white hair, soft blue eyes and gentle smile. She turned to talk to the girl, but then turned back, picked up the portrait climbed the stairs.
She entered the small corner room and placed the portrait on the small glass-topped table. To her surprise, framed in the window, was a Paddington Bear holding a bunch of roses. She put her hand to her mouth. Had he been here? Had he come back? And then, a familiar voice broke the silence. “Do you remember what the bear meant, enquired the voice softly?”
May didn’t turn. It might just be a dream? Could it be? No she told herself. Then slowly she said in a hushed voice “it meant I’ll always be here for you. I’ll never forget you”.
Then she did turn and there was Nat. They hugged and cried and laughed and then both fell silent as they looked down at the portrait of the woman who had transformed both their lives, to whom they owed so much, the original, incomparable, magical Spooky Lady!
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