“We are not there to sit on judgement,” Judith’s boss, Lydia, at the Ashbourne Advocacy Hub (nobody was quite sure if the acronym was serendipitous or vaguely ridiculous) reminded her. “Nor to pick and choose whom we think worthy of our help and support!” Judith would have admitted she was a bit of a grammar pedant herself, but she had never known anyone to – well, whom, the correct usage of whom came so naturally.
She liked Lydia and respected her, though at times the respect tended to eclipse the like. The trouble was, worthy and occasionally hectoring as she might be, she also had an irritating tendency of being right. Not just factually right, but morally right. And the point she made, after Judith had intimated that she could have wished she hadn’t been roped in to visit Mr Mayhew, was a fair one. They might be known as AAH, but they were not just there to advocate for the cute and for the user-friendly, for the heart-tugging and the amiable. It was not even necessarily their business to agree with the people they helped.
She knew better than to say that she didn’t like Mr Mayhew, though she suspected that Lydia agreed with her. She had high moral standards, but she was no angel, and she was also honest. She would, however, have given her that look and observed that it was not the point, and that he had as much right for his grievances to be addressed as anyone else. For them to stand in solidarity with him. That was one of her favourite phrases, and Judith had to admit it was a clever one – it did not mean like, or even necessarily agree with, but to offer support, sometimes when nobody else would.
So, with a sigh, Judith set off to pay a “home visit” to Mr Mayhew at the cottage he called simply (or someone else had) The Cottage.
The irony was that cases not at all dissimilar from his had tweaked her sympathy and engagement and, well, solidarity. She was naturally predisposed to take the side of anyone who was legally obliged (or so they said) to leave their home of many years, especially for some building project, though as she could have told them, and her own uncle had experienced such a thing, in the vast majority of cases you only ever delayed compulsory purchase orders, you didn’t defeat them, and it probably saved a lot of trouble and heartache accepting that in the first place.
But she was always prepared to make exceptions. It might have been a cottage in name, but it was not in nature. It was a squat prefab bungalow that had already existed several decades longer than it had been meant to. She heard Lydia’s voice in her mind’s ear, “The aesthetic of the thing is neither here nor there. Are you saying that only people with thatched roofs and roses round the door are entitled to our support and solidarity?” Fair point, Lydia, she silently replied. Her own home was hardly likely to feature in Scenic England. But she knew the compensation that had been promised was more than generous, and that the other people from the prefabs, who had already moved, had said that once they got over the wrench, it was one of the best things to happen to them. And the thing was, the town did desperately need a new hospital. The last few years had been a chapter of disasters. First of all there had been a fire (mercifully, no lives had been lost, but the damage was extensive) and then, during the repair works, it had been discovered that the foundations were fundamentally unsafe due to the subsidence the area was prone to and years of neglect and, frankly, them not having been lain properly in the first place. The next nearest hospital was 50 miles away, and building a new one was no luxury, it was an essential. And this piece of ground was ideal.
Mr Mayhew felt otherwise and had made his feelings plain when he came into the AAH centre on the high street. He also made it plain that with every bone in his body he resented having to seek help from wishy-washy, politically correct do-gooders. Not that he actually used those words, but he didn’t need to.
He had a way of jabbing his finger when he spoke, and of emphasising the my in my rights as if he were a member of the most persecuted minority who had ever existed, but didn’t intend whimpering about it. He did occasionally throw in a “please” or “thank you” but more as a means of punctuation than because he meant them.
“You haven’t even seen my home,” he said, “One of those single parent families or social security scroungers and you’d be calling round and fawning all over them.”
“We treat all our clients equally and don’t sit in judgement,” Lydia said.
“Well then! Prove it!” Judith was a little confused as she would have thought he was a private person who didn’t like people poking their noses in. It seemed he was just aggrieved and wanting the attention that he thought rightly his.
Always aware of the welfare of her team (you had to give her that) Lydia had told Judith that if she felt uneasy about making a lone home visit, then of course she didn’t have to. Judith assured her that would be fine. Actually, she was pretty sure it would be. Instinct told her that Mr Mayhew might be unpleasant and irritable and uncooperative, but he was, intrinsically, harmless.
Mind you, she thought the grounds for saddling her with it pretty tenuous, to say the least. Mr Mayhew didn’t speak much about his private life, but had made it known that he had been in the forces and if he’d been the kind of man who referred to the happiest time of his life, might have said it was. Judith’s father had been in the army, though he had left the services ten years ago, and perhaps if she managed to wind that into the conversation she might have more effect than the others. She very much doubted that. She knew many of her dad’s ex comrades, and through the work he still did with the Royal British Legion, had met older veterans too, and had found them all to be charming and self-effacing and funny and warm, and doubted they would have much patience with the likes of Mr Mayhew. She chided herself for being mean, but if you can’t sit in judgement sitting alone in your own car, where can you?
Judith had, for a few minutes (though she hadn’t said anything) thought that Mr Mayhew must have been wrong when he said she hadn’t even seen his house, after all, it was hardly an enormous town, but it dawned on her that it was true, though she’d seen photos.
Though things would obviously change when (and despite Mr Mayhew’s dogged determination, it was “when” and not “if”) when the hospital was built, it was the kind of place you didn’t go to unless you had good reason, and unless you lived there or knew someone who did, you were unlikely to have good reason. It wasn’t that far from the main road – another factor that came into play when thinking of a site for the new hospital – yet it seemed to be in a little world of its own, though the other prefabs, though no longer inhabited, were still there – a world of gravelly soil and a rough path that was pitted and potholed, where even the weeds seemed only to grow half-heartedly. Nobody had bothered to come up with the pretence of a street name, or to call it a close or the like, post sent there was simply addressed to Prefab 1, 2, etc – Mr Mayhew’s was Prefab 5, though there was a post code. It had been allocated, because – well, because such things were allocated, but was hardly necessary. Judith supposed that the postal delivery folk would probably be quite glad when they didn’t have to come out here. Driving across the rough ground was possible, but hardly pleasurable.
Judith’s colleague, Marty, who had a habit of thinking he made things sound profound, had once said that the world divided into doorbell and door knocker people, and it told you something about them, though he never seemed quite sure what. Well, Mr Mayhew was evidently a bell person; with the kind of bell that gave a short, harsh buzz. He answered it quickly, and with a perfunctory sideways nod of the head, indicated that she should come in.
Judith realised that Prefab 5 was, at least, clean, though with a cleanliness that had more to do with bleach that probably should have been used more begrudgingly than with any concern for freshness. “Sit down, if you like,” he said, his tone of voice making it quite obvious that he didn’t much care whether she sat or not. She sat; on a sofa that she suspected might be stuffed with horsehair and reminded her of one at her Great Aunt Alice’s house. Mr Mayhew didn’t offer her a drink, and she was relieved, though she was fairly sure the cups, too, would be clean. “I didn’t think you’d come,” he said, in a flat tone that didn’t seem either grateful or greatly surprised.
“We like to keep our promises, Mr Mayhew,” she said, sounding rather prissy to her own ears.
“A shame more don’t see things that way,” which, as she realised, was the nearest she was likely to get to a compliment. “I have no illusions, Miss Prentice. I don’t know what your own opinion about this whole business is, though I suspect you think I’m a troublesome old man and I wouldn’t disagree with that, and that I ought to give in graciously. Anyway, though you mean well, you can’t do a single thing about it. I’m well aware of that.”
“There may be some alleys we can follow still, Mr Mayhew …..”
“Bunkum! You know that as well as I do. A few delaying tactics at most.” They were both silent for a couple of minutes. Judith looked round the room – sparsely furnished, but not going out of its way to be uncomfortable to prove some kind of point. Mr Mayhew beckoned her over to a little sideboard. He picked up a photo – of a young woman in uniform, trying hard to look dignified and not wholly succeeding. “My daughter,” he said, “Cecily. The name was my wife’s idea, I thought it was a bit of a silly one, but it grew on me. You may find this hard to believe, Miss Prentice, but this was by no means a bad place to bring up a child. Young children, for the most part, would much rather have a patch of ground to call their own and to be able to run around on and invent their own little worlds, rather than some sanitised park with plastic swings. She was a mixture, my Cecily …..” something about the way he said my Cecily suddenly made Judith look at him in a new light, and to really listen, rather than just hearing and nodding in the right places. “A right little tomboy, but with a vivid imagination – and when she got a bit older, a rebel, yet still determined to follow her dad’s footsteps and join the army. Her Mum was dead by then – and I don’t know how she’d have thought about it. Something tells me she wouldn’t have approved, but would have said she was old enough to make her own choices. She railed at the discipline and some of what she saw as – and I wouldn’t disagree – the unnecessary rules, but she loved the life, too, and more than once she wrote to me that it was a bit like playing on the rough ground around the house, that she thought of that when they went on training exercises, and when she was doing obstacle courses and the like. There was part of me that still didn’t feel quite easy with women in the military, but I knew better than to say that to her, and in time I started to change my mind, anyway. Truth is, I think she was far more of a natural soldier than I ever was!
He laid the photo face down in his lap. “They sent – two high-ups to break the news. I knew the minute I saw them coming. I suppose it was very good of them, it wasn’t even like she was killed in action – a road accident, the van they were travelling in came off the road.”
“I’m so sorry,” Judith said, meaning it, and yet aware how empty and superficial the words sounded.
“I just – needed someone to know, you see. Needed someone to realise that I’m not just a stroppy old man making trouble.”
They were both silent for a couple of minutes. Then Mr Mayhew muttered, “I think I will make that drink. I need one if you don’t.”
Judith took a couple of deep breaths, and looked at the photo again, and realised there were others on the sideboard, dating back to when Cecily was a baby – and several of her just playing, just running around, not even looking at the camera. A joyful, mischievous child playing soldiers on the rough ground that had become her own magical kingdom. “Don’t drink it at once, it’s too hot, it’ll burn your mouth,” Mr Mayhew said, then suddenly smiled – and it was a sweet smile, though a sad one, “Sorry. Acting like you’re a child and not a grown woman.”
“That’s fine,” Judith said, a tad unsteadily.
Prefab 5 couldn’t be saved. They both knew it. Not with any amount of campaigning or solidarity. But now Judith understood, and the warmth she felt didn’t just come from her steaming tea.