I love her so much that I go to see her twice a day and blow her kisses through the padlocked gate. The concrete drive gives a grand view to the house and I know she looks out for me, just as I know she later watches me walk down the hill again and away. I love her so much that I tend the gardens she adores. I take her mail. I bring her flowers. I sit on the private patio and reminisce with her, watching the boats return to the harbour with the day’s catch.
I arrive today with two bunches of fresh flowers tucked under one arm and a supermarket carrier bag hanging from the other. I fumble with the key in the padlock. Rain and salty air has caused it to rust, and the key no longer turns easily. Flakes of paint hang from the wrought iron gates, flapping in the gentle breeze. It breaks my heart to see it this way but deep down I know that this apparent neglect helps to keep her safe and undisturbed, up there on the hill.
Once inside the gates I take a quick look at the empty street beyond and, satisfied no one is watching, head uphill towards the house. Weeds have begun growing through the cracks in the driveway and I wonder if there is any pesticide left in the shed. Spring had arrived. I would have gardening duties soon, but I didn’t mind. I did it for her. She loved the large gardens and their privacy, and would have enjoyed it more, with me, were it not for her poor health.
I look to the top of the hill, where the drive widens to a parking area no longer used nor needed. And there she stands, exactly as I had expected. She’d been looking out for me. She is old now, and frail, but her beauty still stops me and causes my heart to beat that little bit faster. She is tall, and despite her advancing years there is still a pride and elegance in her posture. Although it promises to be a pleasant day she’s covered up against wind and rain. Yet her beauty is still apparent to me, her good bone structure more prominent beneath the stained and crackled flesh of her sun-worn face. As I approach she smiles warmly. I reach the step, kiss her gently, and she allows me inside.
“How have you been, love?” I ask, locking the door behind us. I go into the kitchen and creaking floorboard footsteps follow me. I set the supermarket bag down on the wooden breakfast table and take out two lunches – sandwiches, crisps and yoghurt. Sunlight slants through the cracks in the boarded-up window. It gives me enough light to gaze at the room’s features and I am grateful.
I find an empty vase in a kitchen cupboard, give it a quick rinse and then part-fill it with tap water. She watched me as I carefully arrange the flowers in the vase and then stand it on the deep windowsill, where sunlight picks out the lilies. “Makes a difference!” I say, standing back to admire the colour. In the living room there is a tall vase with sorry-looking flowers on the hearth. I get rid of them, add fresh water and create a new display. The fireplace immediately looks much better. But something still isn’t quite right. I take a closer look. In the light coming from the doorway I can see a layer of dust on the mantelpiece. I draw my finger over the wood and inspect the grey smudge beneath my fingernail. I had to clean it off quickly. Although it wasn’t my job, I didn’t mind cleaning because I knew it would make her happy. But the shock of finding dust makes my heart beat faster, and my breathing quickens.
Then I hear footsteps moving around in the room above. She’s in her favourite room, the one that used to have the sea view. She would be hungry now, as I no longer bring her breakfast. I fetch her lunch from the kitchen and take it upstairs, running my hand along the banister to check for more dust. Thankfully there is none and I’m feeling calmer when I reach her room.
“Do you want to eat now?” I ask her through the closed door.
“Please,” she replies, her voice barely audible.
“There’s dust on the mantelpiece.” I tell her. When she says nothing, I add, “Did you miss it by mistake?”
“Yes,” she agrees hastily. “Yes…and…the bricked-up window. It’s hard to see in there.”
“I’ll deal with it,” I say firmly. “I won’t come in and waste any more time.” I set the supermarket things down on the carpet and go downstairs, grab the duster from the cleaning cupboard and carefully wipe the dust from the mantelpiece. I knew she was weak, but cleaning and dusting was something she could still do, and she knew how important it was. I go round the other rooms and check, dragging my finger over tabletops and wooden furniture and around the tops of skirting boards. Everything else seems clean enough. Relieved, I return to the kitchen and sit at the table and decide to eat lunch.
As I eat my sandwich slowly, I admire the old room around me. The farmhouse-style kitchen has built wooden cupboards, an uneven slate floor and an oil-fired range in a large inglenook, above which hangs an original ceiling pulley clothes dryer. The walls are thick stone. It is a pity the sash window is boarded-up, but it’s the only way I can keep her safe now that I am not allowed to live here.
I look at the wall behind me. I’d painted it several years ago and yet it only seemed like yesterday. It is lilac. I recall the day I painted the wall so well, because something quite profound happened to me. The new wall colour had been a surprise, a treat just for her, and when she saw it she whooped with delight and threw her arms around me. When I finally prised myself from her embrace and looked at her I realised I had never known a love so deep, so complete. She seemed to stare into my soul, and I into hers. It was a moment of union that joined us forever.
The irony is, it only happened because of Martha. She wanted to redecorate the kitchen. Her commitment delighted me and I trusted her – we’d been married for 10 years afterall. “You will do a good job, won’t you?” I asked her, over and over, and she would playfully push me away. “I love this house as much as you!” she said once. But what did she know? I came home the day Martha painted the kitchen only to discover the most hideous lime green on all four walls. I kicked the stepladder clear across the room. “How can you say you love this house?” I screamed at her. She dodged my fists and ran upstairs, locking herself in her favourite room. I waited only long enough for the paint to dry before I recoated three of the walls in its previous cream colour. For a special treat, and to put the horrible incident behind us, I painted the fourth wall lilac.
Allowing the memory to fade, I stand up and press the palms of my hands against the lilac wall. The rendered stone feels cool and smooth. I lean in and put my ear to the surface. Since the day I moved in, I had learned how to listen. I heard the sound of centuries passing. Within these walls I uncovered past lives and I embraced their memory. I saw people come and go, and nearby places grow and prosper, only to fail again, while the house stood tall on the hill. I discovered a noble defiance, a pride in being strong. Only then did I hear her heartbeat, a solid, vibrant pulse of life, and I learned how to breathe to that same rhythm, and for my chest, swollen with a new passion, to rise and fall with hers.
She became my love.
I clear away the wrappings from my lunch. I pause in the hallway at the foot of the staircase and, looking up, shout, “No more dust!” There isn’t a sound from Martha’s favourite room. I lock the front door behind me, check it twice, and go to the shed to look for weedkiller. There is none. I would have to attend to the driveway another day.
I kiss my love farewell and promise to see her later. At the gates I make sure there is no one around before letting myself out. I turn to look at her again. Yes, she is old now, but her frailty does not extend to her stout heart, and her years do not diminish the graceful lines of her frame. Through the bars of the gate I blow her a kiss, and set off to find a hardware store for a pesticide spray, and a better padlock for the gates.
- Copyright Phil Thomas. All rights reserved