At precisely 6 am, Yvonne Strong rose, opened the blinds and peered onto a garden shadowed by the night’s dark shroud. Shivering involuntarily in spite of the underfloor heating, it was only a matter of time before a frost wreaked havoc on all her hard work. Gardening which kept her going through the worst times was impossible now. She’d brought the potted plants indoors, but others needed covering over with a fleece. The leaves of the normally hardy palm would have to be tied up. Winter, the colourless enemy truncated all that was bright. And perish the thought, it would soon be…..only she couldn’t bear to think it, let alone say it aloud…….
Christmas! There it was. The dreaded word. Normally a time of celebration when the town was liberally festooned with decorations. Already, a large tree donated by a generous benefactor, adorned with full pine needles and glittering lights had taken centre stage on the town’s market square. She and Lyndsey had admired many of its kind over the years. They had stood in the crowd waiting for the mayor to turn up in his chain of office. The crowd sighed as he touched the switch that ignited the town into dazzling lines of flickering beams, lighting up the sky and raising gloomy spirits from dudgeon. It was impossible not to be moved by the choir’s angelic voices soaring in song. Yvonne most recalled the squeals of delight as children bestrode fairground rides which had been set up nearby.
It was Yvonne’s first Christmas alone! Not that she had to be alone. Only the other day, a committee member had invited her to join her family round the table on Christmas Day where they planned to tuck into a worthy roast. Unable to face such merriment, she’d demurred. There was only one person she wanted to share a turkey with and that person wasn’t going to be there.
Castigating herself for her weakness, Yvonne dragged on a dressing gown and descended the sleek metal staircase with an alacrity that belied her age. The house was filled with all the latest mod-cons and must-haves. Mostly, Lyndsey’s doing. “What’s the point of working hard if you can’t reward yourself every so often?”
Yvonne had known better than to argue. In Lyndsey, she’d met her match and without her influence, her life would have been austere. The kitchen would not have boasted a multi-cooker, a water purifier and a gleaming coffee maker, not to mention a state of the art chrome fridge. Neither would she have been standing in it now blending a mixture of ground beans on one of the marble countertops, making an expresso coffee with the expertise of a trained barista. Drinking it, she mentally prepared herself for the day ahead.
Energised, she unrolled her exercise mat out on the living room floor and spent the next half hour performing a series of eye watering movements. Sit-ups, push ups, squats, press ups and running on the spot were part of her morning routine For as long as she could remember, vigorous exercise had been Yvonne’s mantra and she saw no reason to stop now.
Especially not now. Silently cursing, she pushed her body to its limits. Even so, it was impossible not to think of Lyndsey whose presence filled every fibre of the house. Every join, every corner, every nook and cranny bore Lyndsey’s mark.
Lyndsey. Lyndsey. Lyndsey. Where are you when I most need you? Yvonne wanted to cry out, but checked herself. She’d never believed in an afterlife so what was the point of talking to a departed loved one? Once again, she resigned herself to the pain. If nothing else, it proved she was still breathing. As endorphins from her workout released themselves, she felt Lyndsey would have been proud of her progress. As if there was a point to being alive, after all.
Breakfasting alone was always a challenge. Yvonne had got used to cooking for Lyndsey before she set off on her daily commute to the city. It seemed pointless cooking for one, to the extent she’d considered skipping the meal entirely, but Lyndsey’s admonishment for neglecting a meal that “sets you up for the day” was too much to bear and she battled on through fried eggs, toast and vegetarian sausages. At least Lyndsey would have approved of her choices.
After valiantly finishing her plate and leaving the kitchen spotless, Yvonne scanned various notes and other agenda that had been emailed to her by one of leading lights of the town’s cancer fundraising committee. She suspected they were expecting her to take an active role in their group. Feeling she ought to oblige, she was left feeling distinctly underwhelmed. On the surface, it seemed like the ideal project for a person of her talents, but she couldn’t find the necessary enthusiasm. Setting her laptop aside, she decided to head into the town, an activity she’d avoided for fear of bumping into people who wouldn’t know what to say.
Walking briskly, through rain spattered pavements, thoughts rattled round her head like neglected orphans. The bitter December air caught the back of her throat making her wheeze, her body’s only concession to any kind of physical ailment. The river had burst its banks on both sides flooding large sections of the town’s park. A park where she and Lyndsey had spent many happy hours. Now, accusingly bare trees stared back at her defiantly.
It was hard to believe it was exactly a year ago. A year since her beloved Lyndsey had died. Even harder not to be bitter at losing her to cancer after so many years of fighting it. They had fought it together like conquering heroes. Groundbreaking treatments had given Lyndsey precious time. Ironically, it wasn’t the first time cancer had blighted Yvonne’s life. She’d been a young woman when she’d lost her baby sister to it. She’d vowed the time would come when she’d find her own way to fight the disease.
That time came when she found herself giving up a well paid position managing a law firm in London to manage her hometown’s only cancer charity shop. Its motto was “We will beat cancer together,” something Yvonne strongly approved of. Before that, she’d occasionally visited the store as a customer when she had a weekend to spare from a busy schedule. Admittedly, she hadn’t been blown away by the experience. The volunteers who ran the store clearly did their best, but the shop appeared to be floundering. After a few enquiries, she discovered it had been months without a shop manager, but all that was to change.
The shop thrived under Yvonne’s leadership, eventually becoming the most profitable shop in the area. Yvonne loved the work in spite of it being poorly paid and sometimes thankless. Lyndsey encouraged her all the way and helped redress the pay gap by continuing to work at her well paid job in the city. It was she said, a way of killing two birds with one stone. On the one hand, Yvonne was doing a job she believed in, while Lyndsey was able to give something back to a cause that had saved her. Thanks to treatments funded by the charity, Lyndsey had been given her the precious gift of life. And the day when she’d received the ‘all clear’ from her breast cancer was the best day of the two women’s lives.
The problem came when Dave, the charity’s area manager and Yvonne’s immediate boss, resigned and a new area manager took over.
Unfortunately, as as soon as Clarissa stepped through the door in her power suit and stilettos, announcing her plans for revamping a tired-looking shop, there was an immediate clash. Yvonne was affronted that all the hard work she and her team had put into the shop, counted for nothing.
While Yvonne firmly believed in tradition and giving the town’s people what they needed for affordable prices, Clarissa’s planned to raise prices and modernise. She saw herself as the new broom come to sweep the place clean.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was a phrase that regularly sprung to Yvonne’s lips, as far as her new boss was concerned.
“She’s a fool not to recognise your contribution,” Lyndsey said.
“The trouble is she sees herself as a new broom come to sweep the cobwebs away.”
“And did she find any?”
For a split second, Yvonne looked sheepish.
“She actually did find one or two. In the window bed. You know how it gets with all the leaves and dust coming in from the street. She said the place looked like it hadn’t been swept for days. It made my blood boil. Especially as one of the volunteers had swept it the night before. Clearly, not adequately in her eyes.”
“Has she missed the point here?” Lyndsey said angrily. “The fact the shop takes the most in the area and the customers love the shop.”
“I don’t think she cares. She’s on a mission to prove herself and anyone who gets in her way is toast.”
“Oh dear.” Seeing trouble ahead, Lyndsey braced herself for the fallout.
Sure enough, it came a week later when Clarissa had the affront to declare the clothes Yvonne had hung on a rail in the sorting room were unsalable. “This is where they should be,” Clarissa dramatically swept them to the floor. If she expected Yvonne to pick them up, she was in for a disappointment.
“Well, they’re definitely not going to sell there.” Yvonne tugged at her belt for her shop keys.”I think you’ll be wanting these,” – she hurled them at Clarissa’s feet, narrowly missing one of her stiletto heels. For a moment, she had the satisfaction of seeing Clarissa turn crimson. “Tell you what? Why don’t you run the shop if you think you can do a better job?”
Fuming, Yvonne stormed out of the shop on a peak of indignation, most of which had dissipated when she related the kind of day she’d had with Lyndsey as they commiserated together over a bottle of wine.
“The trouble is I’m going to miss the volunteers and the buzz of raising money.”
“Perhaps all is not lost,” Lyndsey said unexpectedly. “You could always say you’d had a change of heart.”
Yvonne’s hackles were up again. “Never! I can’t allow her to treat me like that.” But she had to admit it wasn’t going to be easy leaving a job she loved.
“”You’ve done the right thing,” Lyndsey reassured her.
But a frown creased Yvonne’s brow. “You’re right, but I shouldn’t have allowed Clarissa to have got the better of me. On the other hand, I am close to retirement age. It’s just going to happen a bit sooner than I expected.”
“Well, what’s done is done,”Lyndsey said fatalistically.
“Anyway, I can safely say I’ll never apologise to that jumped-up piece,” Yvonne declared firmly. “If anything, she should apologise to me. Except, she’s not the type.”
Yvonne suddenly noticed how drawn and tired Lyndsey looked. “Whatever’s the matter love?” she asked.
“It’s come back,” Lyndsey said quietly. “The cancer’s spread.”
When Lyndsey nodded, Yvonne felt the bottom of her life drop out, a descent into chaos, but she simply took her partner’s hand and said, “I’m here for you.”
From then on, the shop was the last thing on her mind. Now, her focus was on Lyndsey. As before, they were determined to fight the cancer together. Lyndsey bravely tried the latest treatments to keep it at bay.
“I don’t mind being a guinea pig if it helps others,” she said stoically. The treatments which included targeted radiotherapy and immunotherapy, gave her months rather than weeks of life. Precious time which the pair spent in traveling. They visited all the places on Lyndsey’s bucket list and a few more besides.
But in the end, Lyndsey decided she’d gone as far as she could with the treatments and wanted the last weeks of her life to be ones of quality. Most of all, she wanted them to be spent with the person she loved.
Yvonne came to a standstill when she saw iron railings drawn across the shop. Taken aback, she pressed against them trying to make out the interior. Eerily obscured, the shop was all shadows and dim lighting, with dust blankets covering the counter-tops. A pair of dismembered mannequins lay abandoned in the window like victims of an disaster. A notice had been pasted on the window which read:
Due to staff sickness, this shop will be closed until further notice.
Yvonne was appalled. She’d never known the shop to be closed for more than a few days and then only due to public holidays. It would never happened in her time, she thought crossly, not when there was all that money to be raised.
As soon as she got home, she rung Jackie, one of the shop’s supporters. Not without a touch of anxiety - for Jackie was a no-nonsense type, prone to bluntness, although her heart was in the right place.
“It’s good to hear from you. At last,” Jackie said. “I take it you’re back from your travels and ready to rebuild your life.”
“Yes, I got back about a month ago.” Yvonne kept silent about the new life part.
“I was sorry to hear about Lyndsey,” Jackie said matter of factly. “You two were good together.”
“Thank you.” Yvonne tried not to be crushed by the mention of Lyndsey’s name. She wanted to tell Jackie it was the anniversary of Lyndsey’s death, but Jackie had other ideas.
“It was all downhill after you left, you know. They got a new manager, a younger version of Clarissa. You could see she wasn’t going to last long. It was just a stepping stone for her.” She snorted. “So much for that! Have you ever thought of coming back Yvonne? It’s not been the same without you.”
“I’m supposed to be retired.”
Jackie snorted again. “I wouldn’t think you’re one for retirement. You’ve got too much to give. You shouldn’t let your talents go to waste.”
Yvonne hesitated. “I’d love to if it wasn’t for Clarissa. I don’t think I can stomach working with her again.”
“But you wouldn’t have to. She left a few months ago too. And good riddance. Far too high and mighty.”
“Really?” There was a faint smile on Yvonne’s face.
“Apparently, she didn’t get on with her boss.”
Yvonne couldn’t help laughing. “It takes one to know one I suppose.”
“Just think, you could probably get the old team back. Most of them left after you went,” Jackie said, warming to her theme. “I’m sure some of them would still be interested – if you asked them nicely.”
Yvonne’s feet crunched across the gravel path that led to the shop’s garbage bins. Disposing of the shop’s rubbish was hardly the most glamorous of jobs, (she thought back to her banking days), but somebody had to do it. She was a firm believer in not asking her helpers to do something she wouldn’t do herself. It had been two months since she’d returned to her old position and the place was transformed. Many of the old team had returned and new recruits were eager to help. Clarissa had been replaced by Steve who’d worked as a charity store manager and knew the realities of the job from the ground up. More than happy to get his hands dirty, he and Yvonne hit it off straight away.
The park was no longer flooded. The frost had dissolved and the trees were forming buds as a new life cycle began. Lyndsey’s step had always been more sprightly as Spring approached, and the trees blossomed, Yvonne recalled. In spite of the mess it created, every year for a few weeks, the house with filled vases of pink and white sprigs. Yvonne didn’t have much of a faith, but she hoped Lyndsey could see her now. She’d have been pleased to have seen the shop lively and buzzing. She’d have wanted Yvonne to flourish and prosper, not wilt away like some discarded flower.
Yes, Yvonne thought. Lyndsey would have expected nothing less.