It was for the best. Susan knew it was. It wasn’t even as she’d been happy or settled in The Crossing House since Paddy died. It was too full of empty spaces and cluttered spaces and happy memories and unhappy memories. Too many rooms that were no use and a garden that was starting to overget her, though it had seemed such a good idea at the time, when Paddy had been fifteen years younger, and in good health, and delighted to have finally got his hands, quite literally, on what he called a bit of land. He had grown tulips and strawberries and asters and snowdrops and tiny new potatoes and fragrant herbs.
But that was then. Since he’d had the stroke, it had stopped. At first, his therapist had been delighted (perhaps a shade too delighted) to discover that he was a keen gardener and spoke of the restorative powers of gardening in rehabilitation, both physical and mental. Well, thought Susan, for some people it was probably true. But both she and the therapist realised before they admitted it, either to themselves or to each other, that Paddy wasn’t going to be one of those whom gardening could help. He made very little progress. Eighteen months ago he had died of a heart attack. Nobody, including Susan herself, said it was a merciful release, but on oath they couldn’t have denied that the thought had at least occurred to them. If his heart had to fail, thought Susan, why couldn’t it have been while he was still wholly himself, without those months of frustration and suffering for him? But being an honest woman, she also knew that if that had happened, she would have said she would have happily cared for him through any illness or debility.
Susan had never learnt to drive. Paddy had always tried to persuade her, but she frankly wasn’t really that interested. Now, of course, she wished she had listened to him. Public transport to and from the village (it wasn’t even really a proper village, just houses dotted on the road) had never been brilliant, and had got even worse. Though she wasn’t poorly off, she was living off her pension and her savings, and knew that she couldn’t just get a taxi every time she felt like it without thinking about the fare. Anyway, she never felt at ease. There were always those awkward conversations instituted by the well-meaning drivers. “How are you doing today, Mrs Fairfax?” or “How are you doing today, Susan?” they would ask. Some were formal, some informal, she didn’t care in the slightest either way. But sometimes it was so tiring to have to dutifully reply, “Quite well, thank you,” or “I’m getting by” or one of the other little stock phrases. Periodically someone pointed out that people ten or more years older than Susan learnt to drive and she had nodded, and said good for them, and known perfectly well that she wasn’t going to be one of them.
Her daughter Ellen, who lived over a hundred miles away but was a good girl (well, woman now, for decades) and still looked out for her Mum and came to visit when she could, had been at pains to point out that of course Susan didn’t need to go into sheltered accommodation. And anyway, The Grange wasn’t even sheltered accommodation, not really. It was designer living for later life. “Honestly, sometimes I feel quite envious there’s a lower age limit,” said Ellen, too brightly. “You have your own lovely little flat and come and go as you please, but there are so many facilities – they even have a bowling green and a hairdressing salon.”
And I flattered myself that my daughter knew me, thought Susan, with a sigh. She recognised the skill in bowls, but frankly thought watching paint dry seemed fascinating in comparison, and went to the hairdressers once in a blue moon.
Still, she could see the sense of it, as she kept telling herself. It was for the best. She said of course she’d at least go and have a look at The Grange. She knew that there were some circuitous, almost pantomime-like wheels within wheels going on here. An elaborate and not very funny farce. On the surface she was agreeing to it to appease Ellen, but they both knew she had no intention of actually moving there. The truth was, that the pretence lay in making out it was just being polite and she almost certainly would end up living there.
She booked her cab to The Grange, and was relieved that the driver, Steve, though perfectly polite and friendly, was one of the newer ones and also one of the quieter ones. She didn’t know what she would have replied if he’d asked, “Are you visiting someone there, Mrs Fairfax?” (he was one of the more formal ones). She was, after all, an honest woman. And she wasn’t the sort to tell someone to mind their own business when a query was kindly meant.
Anyway, she had an appointment. She had already seen the brochure for The Grange and had a look online. Despite the name, it wasn’t an old country house but a modern, purpose-built complex. Susan had nothing against that – she’d discovered that living in older properties had distinct disadvantages – but couldn’t help thinking it was a bit pretentious.
She also told herself she was just being petty taking against it because the gardens were overloaded with plump, glossy tea-roses. It wasn’t even as if she, left to her own devices, had any strong feelings about them one way or the other, but Paddy, generally a tolerant man, always called them blousy and obvious and wouldn’t have them in his garden. He also said there was something perverse about a flower that looked beautiful – if you liked that kind of thing – but could give you blood poisoning. Yet he never complained a bit about the scratches he got from his gooseberries, of which he was justifiably proud. These roses were undeniably well-tended and beautiful colours with white ones interspersed, but she could still seem to hear his words .
She was greeted by the manager, Ms Sharon Warden, in person. In principle Susan could see exactly where women were coming from in using Ms, and had, indeed, in an act of minor rebellion against a custom that was still prevalent when she and Paddy got married, always insisted on being Mrs Susan Fairfax and not Mrs Patrick Fairfax. Not that Paddy had any objections at all! But something about the sound of it reminded her of a wasp. She also couldn’t help, although the residents were utterly free to come and go as they pleased, finding a certain irony in the name Warden. If you believed in such things (and she didn’t, she told herself) it didn’t bode well.
Still, Ms Warden was very pleasant, and didn’t have that horrid condescending manner some folk did when talking to the elderly. Naturally enough, she drew Susan’s attention to the amenities, and the little flat she showed her was undeniably very pretty, with a view out to the rose garden (of course she kept Paddy’s view on roses to herself) but there wasn’t any attempt at a hard sell. She even said, and Susan warmed to her immensely because of it, “I know that this is a massive decision and that most people come to us with, at least, mixed feelings.”
Of course she did sing praises where she thought it was due, and as they passed the little hairdressing salon, she said, “I know you’re not supposed to blow your own trumpet, but we are rather proud of the fact that we have the services of Nadine Alderney – she’s well-regarded, you know!” Susan, who was no expert on the matter of hairdressing nor its celebrities, didn’t know, but nodded politely. Truth to tell, the name had caught her attention irrespective of the hairdressing skills and fame of its owner.
Her best friend at school, Cynthia Rowlands, had married a man called Robert Alderney! They had joked about the name, and said at least it was better than Jersey or Guernsey if you had to be called after one of the Channel Islands.
Cynthia had been one of those girls, and turned into one of those woman, who truly are characters, and don’t have to work at it, and don’t grate on you in the attempt. She was fearless and had a rampant imagination (both of which had got her into trouble in her school days!) and – Susan remembered – been an excellent tennis player. Funny how such things came back to you. They had said they’d always stay in touch, and had meant to, but as is so often the case, it had petered out. But she still could picture up an image of Cynthia and see her infectious grin and remember their days at St Olive’s. She had been known as Cynthia’s partner in crime and although Cynthia generally (not always) had the basic idea she was a willing and able accomplice.
Looking into the salon, Susan could hardly believe it. It was almost as if she had stepped into a time machine. For a split second she wondered if stress had played games with her mind but then realised, no, of course it wasn’t Cynthia who was, as it happened, not doing anyone’s hair at the time but appeared to be checking some bookings or order sheets or something of the like. But that slightly heart-shaped face, those eyes that looked serious and mischievous at the same time, that distinctive strawberry blonde hair (that she knew at once was natural) and even that unconscious habit of shifting from foot to foot – all of them reminded her so much of Cynthia.
“May I have a word with Ms Alderney, please?” she asked.
“Of course,” Ms Warden said at once.
She noticed that Ms Warden knocked, and liked the fact, though Nadine – for it must be Nadine – called out, “Come on in, Sharon!” even as she knocked.
“Hello there, Nadine. This lady may possibly be joining us, though of course she hasn’t made her mind up yet.”
Even the way she held her hand out was the same – and that handshake that was warm and firm, but not bonecrushing. “You – may think this a strange question,” Susan said (already knowing that she knew the answer) “But is – or was –“ (she made herself add that rider, though she didn’t want to) “Your grandmother’s first name Cynthia?” She had realised, guessing Nadine’s age, that she would have to ask about her grandmother and not her mother.
“Well, goodness me, it is!” she exclaimed. “Do we have a mindreader on our hands?”
“Not really,” Susan said with a smile, and went on to explain.
“Well if that doesn’t beat all!” Nadine exclaimed. It had always been one of Cynthia’s favourite expressions, too. “The two of you absolutely must have a chinwag!”
“You have her phone number?”
“I do. But why phone her when you can talk in person? She’s one of our residents here, isn’t she, Sharon?”
“She is indeed,” Ms Warden said, “Our troublemaker in chief, too. But she’s an absolute character, and I mean that in the best sense.”
Two months later, Susan moved into The Grange. And after decades, Cynthia had her partner in crime back!