Wakened by birdsong, Pat pulls off her duvet. After a few seconds of running her feet through the sheepskin rug, she slips on her dressing gown and steps blearily into her new garden.
The magnolia tree’s velvet jackets have split open and transformed into lustrous white petals. She wants to wrap herself round the trunk of the silver birch, feel its comfort, but it’s too cold. The birch’s catkins slowly cascade to the ground like tiny helicopters, each one landing and forming a frizzy overcoat on the patchy grass. There’s a slight hint of frost in the cold morning air.
The blue sky makes Pat think of the sea and the dreams she shared with her husband. The sea was supposed to be a reward for all their hard work; they planned to retire there and live happily ever after. They wanted to open their windows and see white foamy breakers crashing along the shore. To smell the salty tang in the air. Nothing like the perpetual motion of the sea to put life in perspective.
The sea, the sea, the sea. They would carve out the remainder of their lives in a sailor’s cottage and indulge their passions: gardening for him and collecting shells to make into handicrafts for her. In the winter evenings, they’d light a cosy fire and snuggle up. Summer was to be filled with the grandchildren’s laughter. Watching small feet imprint the sand as they carried tiny crabs from rock pools in cheerful buckets. Marking moments of triumph by placing flags on sandcastles.
Except it hadn’t worked out like that.
Pat and Bill had forgotten about the wind and the rain.
“You must eat, love!” Bill might not be with her physically, but boy is he with her in spirit! Ordering her to eat in case she forgets. Ironic, considering she’d been the one having to persuade him to eat in the final months of his life.
“I don’t feel like eating,” she mutters. She immediately feels bad for her mutiny - he’s only trying to help.
“You’ll waste away if you don’t eat.”
Another voice enters the fray. This time the northern twang of her mother, long since passed. People didn’t live as long in those days. “You’ve always been a scrap of a thing! Nothing of you.”
“Stop haunting me, Ma.” Pat had been glad to get away from her mother when she married Bill. That was the way of it for many young women then.
“Someone has to keep an eye on you.” The no-nonsense voice, echoing tough love through the ages. Had her mother loved her at all? She must have done, but she never said she did. “Mushy words for softies,” she’d have called it. Not like now when people couldn’t manage to end a phone call without saying “Love ya.”
Elsa, had been a proud woman, always on the go. Her hands rarely came up for air. When she wasn’t scrubbing floors or slaving at the stove, she was feeding the latest baby in a long line of babies.
Pat’s offers to help were shunned. Holding a baby was the only time Elsa felt truly happy. It was all downhill once they’d been weaned, she always said. She imposed a set of rigid routines to get her family through rough times. Washing on Mondays, baking most days, but never on Sundays, a trip to the market on Wednesdays, fish on Fridays, or more often if Pa happened on a good catch. A cut of mutton was a rare Sunday treat. Always making do on a shoe-string while Pa worked the docks.
Pat had been the third youngest of twelve children. She was the quiet one, the “mouse of the family” they called her. “Pat wouldn’t say boo to a goose,” her brothers teased…
“Yes mum.” Pat forces in another mouthful of scrambled eggs and toast, but longs for coffee. There was no coffee when she was a nipper. Only tea you could barely stand your teaspoon in. She hasn’t struggled with food like this since chemo. Then, as it flowed into her body attacking the bad cells, the debilitating tiredness came.
Pat’s new home is a cocoon. Every day she winds it round herself in an orderly way. Except for the one room. The one that’s filled with Bill’s things. Pat has tried sorting out his clothes, but so far she’s only managed to part with a few shirts and trousers. She had to let go of his beloved watch because he wanted her to sell it to raise money for further research into curing cancer. “That way, at least somebody else might benefit one day.” Those were some of his last words.
Pat checks her waif-like frame in the mirror. From force of habit, she pats her Goldilocks curls. No point trying to straighten such lively hair now. Her one vanity, she was saved from the burden of having to suffer the discomfort of sleeping in curlers as a child. What was the point of it? Pat made sure her children had an easier life.
“Your hair has always been a bit kinky – like you, Patsy.” Bill was the only one who called her that. Her mother called her Patricia but only when she’d been naughty which was rare. Bill enjoyed teasing her like her brothers. An outspoken man, never afraid to tackle life head on, but then opposites attract. That’s what everyone said. She misses those big arms holding her now, sinking into them. Her loss has dented Pat.
“Keep going girl. There’s a world waiting for you,” Bill’s nagging again from the sidelines.
“Ok, if you insist.” Lucky no one can hear her talking aloud to thin air, or what would they think?
Mostly, these days, she has to talk herself into doing things. Like getting dressed and leaving the house.
That’s how Pat finds herself standing at the town’s medieval bridge gazing at the river’s depths beneath its arches. The swan that built a nest in a stagnant section of the river has gone. It’s all too easy to miss the spot unless you know it’s there.. A stiff-necked heron now stands vigil, its sharp eyes missing nothing.
Further along the path, Pat lingers – her mother would have called it dawdling. Stop that dawdling Pat. Keep up with your brothers and sisters.”
The glistening river branches out. On one side, a swan (in all likelihood the one that built the nest), drifts along, trooped by ten fluffy signets. It fans out, rippling the water.
The last two years have been so very hard! Fighting cancer is the hardest battle. Nothing comes close. Pat cried when she got the “all clear.”
She was ready to move on with her life, but then her husband got ill! He agreed to take part in various cancer trials. He was given “ground-breaking treatments” – he was willing to try anything! “I don’t mind being a guinea pig,” he said. It extended his life for a while – until nothing more could be done.
“No point fighting. I’ve had a good innings, girl,” he said.
Pat replays the conversation she’d had with her oldest daughter, Lucy. About dad.
“He’s been gone over a year now, mum. What about moving to Steeply? You’ve always loved it there.” No easy way to fix grief, but everyone agreed a change was as good as a rest.
“Do you think dad would mind if I moved? I wouldn’t want him to feel he was forgotten.”
“He wouldn’t, mum. He’d want you to be happy. He knew how much you loved the Steeply. You used to enjoy visiting it together, remember?”
“We’ll never forget him, mum, but a fresh start might do you good. And you’ll be nearer to me.”
“That is the best part. It does seem a friendly sort of place.”
“It’s a real community. You’ll be part of it before you know it.”
Pat has lived in Steeply for two whole months and she tells herself the signs look good. Pausing one final time on the bridge, Pat catches people strolling along the park’s walkways, or sitting on benches, watching the world go by. Dogs let off leads press noses into freshly cut grass.
Keep walking Pat and you’ll catch sight of the town’s main pub. There it is – just ahead of you. People are sitting under green parasols soaking up the sun. Like she and Bill once did. A breeze waves the parasols and glasses glint in the sunlight.
The path levels off and town’s shops open like a canopy. Pat is only interested in one shop though. She used to visit the charity shop with Bill. Preoccupied, she doesn’t see the volunteer fixing a poster to the inside of the window.
Pat steps into a bright space. Her eyes are drawn like magnets to the huge banner on the wall. “COME AND HELP US BEAT CANCER.” That’s what it says. No messing about here. Let’s all beat the sucker. ONCE AND FOR ALL…
The charity shop is about so much more than its shining wooden floor, ample chrome rails, pine shelves and ample stock. No mustiness here, not like in some of them. Pat can’t abide not taking pride in what she does. If she worked here, she’d polish every counter till it gleamed. The door would be permanently open.
Pat looks at the banner again. A reminder that proceeds from all sales go towards raising precious funds. How many customers really think about that when they grab the latest bargains or haggle for reductions?
A few metres from the till, a man flicks through a stack of vinyl, and judging from his growing pile, he’s not exactly displeased with his selection.
“This is my favourite shop,” a young boy tells his mother. He points to a spinning-top on one of the shelves.
“I know you like it here, but remember, I can’t spend any more - unless you want to dip into your pocket money.” That’s what his mum says.
The boy glances round, spoilt for choice. He clutches the spinning-top with its picture of brightly-coloured farm animals. He’s much taken with the toy train set that’s running round on a track in the window..
He purses his lips. “It’s hard to decide. There are so many nice things here. I like all of them.”
“Well, while you decide I’m just going to look in the jewellery cabinet.”
“If I worked here, I’d get to see the toys every day.”
“That’s right, but at the moment you may be a little too young to help. You could always ask the assistant wearing the lanyard at the counter. He may be able to advise you. He seems nice.”
While the boy mulls, a woman squeezes past bearing an armful of clothes.
“Excuse me, I just want to try these on in the changing room,” she says brightly.
Pat investigates the homeware section at the back of the shop. Plenty of items, some suitable for her new kitchen. The sorting-room door is ajar and she picks up the good-natured banter of the volunteers helping.
The assistant has moved from the till and is standing nearby, expertly tidying a rail of trousers.
He nods to Pat.
“Hello.” He certainly has a pleasant way about him.
Pat wonders if he recognises her, or is just being polite.
“Hello.” Pat takes another breath, tries to summon the question that is uppermost in her mind, but it’s like a craw in her throat. How hard can it be? The assistant doesn’t look like he’s going to bite.
Why can’t she do this? It should be so simple. She’s passed the shop enough times, popped in to check out the latest items. It had been painful handing over a bag of her husband’s clothes. He had asked her to donate his special watch too. Pat was relieved when the staff member had taken her bag and said, “Thank you” so nicely. Maybe she’d been through the same thing herself.
The assistant moves to the till and serves the man with the records.
“Looks like you’ve found plenty to be going on with there.”
“Oh yeah, hours of listening pleasure. Some fun additions for my man cave. And some of them quite collectible too, but I can see that’s reflected in the prices. Still, overall, pretty fair.”
“It’s always good to get a bargain. Hope you enjoy your listening.”
Checking out the homeware, Pat thinks of her youngest daughter, Chloe. She’s in her second year at university. Students go through plates and cutlery like there’s no tomorrow and Chloe is no exception. It was Chloe who encouraged Pat to start donating items to the shop. “It’s a great way of recycling stuff and helping the environment, mum. Everyone’s doing it these days.”
The woman has emerged from the changing room and is waiting to be served. She checks out the less colourful blouse, holding it up for the assistant to see.
“What do you think? It might do for work.”
“It looks nice. Erm, very springlike.”
Pat waits patiently, ready to pay for her goods.
“Ah, what I need is a woman’s opinion.” She turns to Pat. “What do you think?”
Glad to be of service, Pat places her set of plates on the counter. The blouse is ok, but somehow doesn’t reflect the customer’s vivacious personality.
“I think it’s nice, but the other top is more you. Definitely.”
The woman holds the garment up to the light. “I’m inclined to agree with you, but seeing it’s a good cause I think I’ll buy them both. I can always re-donate one if I’m not happy.”
“That’s a great idea,” the assistant agrees.
“Much better than having to refund it,” Pat says.
The woman seems surprised. “Do people want refunds in charity shops?”
“You get such great donations here. I was actually looking for a watch for my son’s birthday. He likes vintage stuff. Have you had anything in lately? I’m happy to pay a decent price.”
“Nothing at the moment. We had an amazing one in a few weeks ago. A very distinctive man’s watch with a black strap. It had matching silver hands and button. Really nice. I wasn’t there when it was donated but the donor who gave it to us asked us to get a good price for it.”
“And did you?”
“Well, we actually sent it to auction and it fetched €1,000! Imagine that!”
“It made everyone’s day here, I can tell you.”
Pat is quietly beaming. She hopes Bill is listening!
“That was such a generous donation!” The customer turns to Pat again. “Sounds like this lady knows what she’s talking about, when it comes to selling things.”
“Er, yes.” Pat is lost in thought. “I worked in a clothes shop a few years after I left school.” An image springs to mind of her younger self. What had the manager said? Wait for it. It was trickling back.
“There’s more to you than meets the eye, Pat.” That’s was it.. … the words had been stored away like hidden gems in a treasure chest, buried away, waiting to be retrieved. She draws on them now when they are most needed.
“Well, you certainly have a way with customers, I’ll say that for you.”
“Thank you.” Pat feels a flicker of something returning. Something that had been lost. It’s like seeing a thin strip of light at the end of a long tunnel, a resurgence of something old and precious. Scrolling back the years, she glimpses the person she was before Bill. Confidence re-emerging. Somehow, give it time, she will get used to standing on her own more. Maybe she will even learn to like it.
The woman hesitates. “Have I seen you here before? Your face is familiar.”
“You might have done. I only moved to the area recently, but I usually pop in twice a week.”
“Perhaps I’ll see you again, then. I’m pretty much a regular here.” The woman grins mischievously. “If you’re not careful, they’ll be asking you to be a volunteer next. I’d offer to help myself if I had more time.”
“We are always looking for volunteers,” the assistant perks up.
“Oh, I thought you might have enough helpers already. I meant to check the window to see if you needed anyone, but I forgot.”
“My name’s Graham.” The assistant searches under the counter and passes Pat an application form. “
“Hello. I’m Pat.”
“Hi Pat. Nice to meet you. And don’t worry, we can always find you something to do here.”
Pat’s step is light as she leaves the shop. For the first time in a long time, the road ahead seems clear. She didn’t have to ask about volunteering after all.
But she’s sure she’d have got round to it eventually.