One Day in a Cold November
Arthur was tired. Between the greyness of the November sky and the rough dirty brown surf of the North Sea he stood alone contemplating the unfairness of what life had become. He heard the sound of the seagulls bickering in circles of discontent above him and the faint yet discordant reverberations of an occasional bus that wound up the hill to where the town stood. As the cold biting wind hurried past him he stiffened the muscles in his neck and with hands in pockets began to walk down the shoreline wondering how they would survive another winter without the money to pay for the heating.
Joan shuffled into the small kitchen at the back of the terraced house. She shivered as she turned on the cold tap to fill the small whistling kettle her Mother had bought for one of her wedding presents so long ago. It was getting so terribly cold and yet the memory of her Mother warmed her enough inside to make her smile as she pictured the small bespectacled lady pottering in her beloved kitchen radiating a happiness that she just wished she could feel in hers.
She lit the gas and once the kettle was on the boil she prepared the mugs with just one tea bag between them. Arthur hated weak tea but they had to make cutbacks and trying not to worry about how they would manage another cold winter she shuffled back into the small lounge. As she lowered herself into the frayed brown armchair she sighed more than spoke ‘we’ll be alright Mother dear, we’ll be alright’. But her face remained slightly strained as she gazed down at the barred electric fire and waited for the kettle to boil.
Arthur moved slowly up the steps. He knew that because of his lack of sleep he had to be careful to watch what he was doing, it could get slippery and though he had never fell in the forty years he’d made this daily morning walk to the beach and back something made him consciously concentrate on his physical actions today. He sensed that he would be late for his routine cup of tea with his wife but it couldn’t be helped.
There was a strangeness about the day, it felt different, as though an expectancy hung forebodingly in the atmosphere. Perhaps he really was just getting old and as he stepped onto the concrete pavement and flat ground he turned and looked up at the circling gulls ‘what are you all bickering about, bloody birds’ he said holding on to the railings. His laboured breathing gave him the appearance of a badly played accordion longing for respite from its owner’s hands.
She sipped her tea gently, there was still a good amount of unused tea in the tea bag but for the first time in so many years Joan hadn’t added the hot water to it. She sensed that Arthur would be late. In all their married years he had never been late for morning tea. As the tea bag cooled in his empty mug she took another small sip of tea and then stretching awkwardly to the small coffee table placed her drink on the mosaic coaster Arthur had bought her on a holiday to Malta. She took a small Rosary out of her pocket and held it gently in her hands. Lowering her head she remembered briefly before she began to pray, the story a Maltese priest had told her when they’d visited The Parish Church of St Mary in the town of Mosta. He’d said that in 1942 when a service with three hundred parishioners was taking place, a German bomb had pierced the roof of the church and landed in the central aisle where it lay unexploded. With her eyes closed she recalled that she hadn’t believed it until she’d seen the bomb on display in the church. It was there as a witness to the miracles of God. Her mind focussed on the opening prayers of The Rosary but drifted back to Arthur and the coming winter.
Outside the wind ran through the streets. In houses throughout the town many were oblivious to the anxiety and terror of the coming cold for those who had such little income. They bathed in the warmth and were aware of only their expectancy of comfort. Perhaps they would never be aware of miracles. Perhaps they would never be worthy of them. But for two elderly people in a small North Eastern town, miracles were very much in their minds, for it seemed that it was the only thing that could save them from their enemy, the bitter cold.
Arthur stood before The Church. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing but he didn’t want to go inside. The last time he’d been here was when they’d buried Joan’s Mother. Anyway the doors were locked and would only be opened later for when the official daily Mass began. He looked a forlorn figure as he walked around the building. Only a postman noticed him as he sped by on his bike but he thought nothing unusual of it. There were many old men who lingered around graveyards in their grief and sorrow and hope of finding respite in nearness to those no longer physically here.
At the back of The Church Arthur stopped and saw that there was a crack in the old cement that lined the partitions of the limestone wall. He remembered the story of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and how prayers would be written on paper and placed in the cracks to be somehow kept safe and remembered in the presence of God. They needed a prayer to be answered for Arthur and Joan were in dire straits. The biting cold winter had come and they were running out of money to pay the heating bills. It would not warm up for months and months and they had no other income except their meagre pensions and a tiny state heating allowance. Arthur was a pragmatist, he knew very well that the cold killed the old much faster than the young. He looked around desperately for a scrap of paper he could write upon. The temperature was as cold as it had been since he had started his daily walk over forty minutes ago but the clouds were thinning out slightly and he felt less despair than he had when he’d stood on the beach.
He scoured the grass with squinted eyes, perhaps he could find an old crisp packet or discarded label or something. He moved cautiously, edging around The Church now and trying not to step on the graves of the dead. As he moved around the corner of the building he saw a glimpse of colouring near the drainpipe. Bending down he fingered through old twigs and pulled out a small metal object, it was the pull ring of a can. He stared at it and shook himself. ‘what on earth am I doing’ he said out loud. A seagull squawked behind him from the edge of a new headstone and he started from the sound. ‘Bloody bird’ he shouted and he turned towards it angrily, stamping his feet on to the ground as he marched forward. The gull watched him coming, his grey windcheater matching the wild greyness of his hair, his brown corduroy trousers stretching as he marched purposefully towards it, arms outstretched and fists clenched in anger. The bird began pecking frantically at the grassy edge of the gravestone almost in panic and just when Arthur was almost close enough to deal out a mighty kick it jumped hastily away and flapped off into the air. 'Bloody bird’ Arthur repeated and watched it fly off and past the bare old sycamore tree that graced the far end of The Churchyard. There was loose dirt by the gravestone and a small piece of clear plastic protruded from the earth there. Arthur wiped his nose as he stooped over it, he should be getting home now, a nice cup of tea and a rest was what he needed, Joan would be getting worried about him.
From his unspoken sense of tidiness he tugged briefly at the bit of plastic to remove it from the earth so that the area around gravestone would remain neat and in order. As the plastic came out something solid fell from beside it and Arthur jumped as it rolled towards his foot. He recognised it before he had even picked it up and it made his heart beat faster. He stood up and gasped the air with his hands on his side. The cold grey sky offset the headstone that he looked beyond, the headstone that Joan had picked almost a year ago to the day. ‘My God’ he thought as his breath returned to a normal pace, ‘it was exactly a year tomorrow that she was buried here’. As he contemplated the thought, the air began to fill with cold raindrops and Arthur hurriedly headed home.
Joan was asleep when he got home. Boiling the kettle but before it began to whistle he took it off the heat and made his tea. The fire was still on the one bar and he quietly sat next to his sleeping wife and warmed himself by the heat. After a few minutes he felt better and took off the damp grey windcheater and laid it on the arm of the armchair. As he finished his tea he noticed the Rosary in her right hand. He didn’t have a Rosary but he’d always found it interesting to note that the word ‘Rosary’ was an anagram of ‘a sorry’. He felt tired again and he needed a sleep. He got up from the chair and kissed his wife gently on the head before he headed upstairs.
She let him sleep, he must have been exhausted and she didn’t want to disturb him but he had slept all through the day for over seven hours now. She’d have been worried if she’d not heard the reassuring sound of his snoring. She’d woken up to find Arthur’s windcheater on the other armchair, so she’d hung it up for him as she always did and checked the pockets for his keys to hang them up too. Finding Mum’s old gold ring in there was just unbelievable.
It was just before she’d died that she’d given it to Joan ‘You keep this my girl’ she’d said as she’d placed it in her hand.
‘If things ever get desperate it will come in handy I tell you’.
After the ensuing argument and just to please her Mum, she had accepted the ring. But she knew how precious it was to her Mum because it was the wedding ring from her loving husband, Joan’s Father, who had bought it for her long ago. She had never parted with it for even a moment. So a year ago when the funeral took place and her coffin was laid into the ground Joan had secretly thrown the ring in amongst the soil as the hole was being filled.
Joan shook her head in disbelief as she held on to the banister and slowly went downstairs. How had Arthur found it? He was not dirty, he had not been digging or anything like that perish the thought. Anyway he hadn’t known she had thrown the ring in the grave. Downstairs she sat in the armchair but she couldn’t relax. She got up and went through to the kitchen. She filled the kettle and lit the gas ring on the stove.
What a strange day it had been. She glanced up at the calendar on the wall and suddenly realised that tomorrow it would be a year to the day her Mum had been buried. She took the gold ring from her pocket and laid it on the kitchen table. She felt as though she could hear the words of her Mother again.
‘If things ever get desperate it will come in handy I tell you’.
Cold sleet slashed against the small kitchen window but as she made the tea not once did she feel aware of the bitter cold. In fact she felt quite warm inside, like she always did when she remembered her Mother.