Three days in bed with a bad cold and she needed to escape the house. She had forgotten the smell of fresh air. Now, the sky was full of whipped clouds; the legacy of a northern storm leaving behind unseasonably mild winds, brushing warm against her milky skin. She walked briskly, glad to be in the open again. Passed the ‘posh’ houses overlooking the course; golfers in their Christmas jumpers getting in a round before lunch. Her footsteps echoed in the underpass but no sound of trains today; the New Brighton line was quiet. The sight of open sea greeted her. In the distance, a strand of sunlight giving a golden glow to the far-off Crosby Sands. The wind; stronger now. Seagulls, flying against it like a powerful river current, almost held in a freeze-frame. Then, thrown backwards until they found another airflow and glided to their destination. She spread out her arms, bird-like, pushing against the force. For a moment she was breathless, motionless.
The turbines, docks and river, all familiar sights, yet each time they seemed fresh and new, with light and shade painting them on a different canvas. They never ceased to bring her some kind of peace. The Mersey stretching out like a twisted finger to meet the Irish Sea with its vast grey skies. It’s a simple thing to walk along a promenade; to watch the ebb and flow of tides, the shadows of seasons. It cleansed all the soot that clogged her veins, the unnatural dark places in her brain that somehow had a way of taking charge of her and bringing her to her lowest. Church bells faded in and out on the wind but the lonely beach didn’t know their significance. The river, unaware of time or season, needed no reason to flow.
A few cars, their backseats full of Christmas parcels, off to family and friends or Grandma’s who
cook for them. She felt a well of cynicism and thought, Bah humbug!
She took in the vista for a good half an hour until her legs seemed tired and unwilling to go any further. Walking back up past the links, there was the faint smell of bacon, even some roasting turkey wafting into the early morning air.
She turned into her street, still sleepy in its silence. She put the key in the door, the house felt warm. As she took off her coat she caught sight of herself in the mirror: those fifty-something eyes looked tired. The strands
The river, unaware of time or season, needs no reason to flow.
of grey almost matching her wool coat. She pushed her feet into fluffy slippers and switched on the kettle. Then, she stared at the large turkey and the pans of peeled vegetables. How on earth would she eat them all on her own?
The evening before the phone had rung. It was David. “Mum, we’re so sorry we won’t be able to make it. The kids have chicken pox – can you believe it? Christmas Eve! Sandy’s so sorry to let you down.”
“Oh, no! Are they poorly with it? I have everything ready here for you.”
“It’s a real bugger I know. We can’t really bring them down. What about shingles? We don’t want you to catch it, you’ve already been poorly.”
“That was just a cold. I don’t mind really. If they’re well enough to travel I would love to see you.”
“No, mum we couldn’t …”
“But what will you do for food David?”
She sensed a tone of reluctancy in her son’s voice.
“Mum, honest, we have a freezer full of stuff: fish, pizzas you name it.”
“On Christmas Day – pizza?”
“We’ll be fine. If they’re well enough we’ll come over for New Year, how’s that?”
“I don’t think this turkey will last till then.”
“Just cook it mum! Give some to the neighbours – what are you always saying about that crazy bloke across the road? Looks like he could do with a good meal inside him.”
“David, I don’t really know him, you can’t go knocking on people’s doors on Christmas day, can you?”
David was itching to move on, he had made the ‘difficult call’ and now wanted his mother to accept the situation. Her questions were irritating.
“Mum, it will be fine, it’s only a day after all. Put your feet up, watch TV and we’ll all get together next week when the kids are better. I’ll call you tomorrow evening to see how your day was. Bye.”
How my day was? She thought. How does he expect it to be – Dinner for one and a tree full of unopened presents.
She stared at the green monster in the corner surrounded by boxes in their shining paper and bows. She had made a special effort this year for the grandchildren, now they were just at the age to appreciate it all. Here she sat, in her extra-tidy living room, staring at the mantlepiece full of cards from people she could barely remember. After last year was such a non-event, she would now face another lonely Christmas.
Okay, she told herself, it’s just another day like any other – just treat it like another day. Dinner for One? It’s always dinner for one, so what’s the difference? She wasn’t convincing herself. Instead, her eyes scanned the view through the front room window. There he was – the Crazy Man at No.6! What was he doing? Gardening? On Christmas morning – was he mad? Well, she had already established he was a little crazy. Could her eyes believe it? Him, in khaki shorts and a sun hat. “It’s December for Christ sake,” she blurted out. “I know it’s mild but he looks ridiculous!”
Without thinking, she found herself putting on her coat again. Then forgetting to change her fluffy slippers, she marched, down the path and straight over to the gardening maniac.
“Don’t you realise what today is? It’s Christmas! Surely the garden can wait for one day mister…mister…” She suddenly realised she had no idea of Crazy Man’s name.
“Yes I do know it’s Christmas, and it’s Robinson.”
She was so surprised by her own extraordinary outburst; she opened her mouth but nothing came out. A voice inside her was asking who? Robinson Crusoe? He certainly looks like he’s been shipwrecked with that hair and beard. Instead, she managed, “oh, Mr Robinson, forgive me, I just meant it seems strange to be working on….”
He smiled, “it’s just another day to me, like any other.”
She was trying to bite her tongue to make sure it didn’t run away with itself again but all she managed was, “no family then?”
Mr Robinson leant his spade against the wall and took off his sunhat, probably because he thought that maybe a sunhat in December was one step too far and she noticed a twinkle in his eyes she’d not seen before. Well, she’d never really been this close to him before.
“I do have family, yes but I don’t usually spend Christmas with them. They prefer the ‘in-laws’. I’m not really the sociable type.”
She took a moment before the smile crept over her lips, “to be honest, neither am I. Look, if you’re on your own, maybe you would like a coffee and a mince pie…or something?”
That would be most acceptable.. Mrs…?”
She felt a slight flutter somewhere in the pit of her stomach, as if a trapped butterfly had suddenly awoken and was flying up, up to find the breeze.
“Err Walton… but please, call me Caroline.”
“Caroline, I’m Bob. I feel now I should’ve introduced myself sooner. After all we’ve been neighbours for a few years now. I find it difficult to be… proactive in socialising, I’m afraid.”
“Well, I am sure we’ll find something to chat about over a cuppa.”
Her mind was busy working overtime. Don’t mention the depression or the early retirement, she thought. Think of something positive – anything – flower arranging! God no, that’ll put him off. Off? Well, you don’t want him ‘on’ do you Caroline? I mean, this is just being neighbourly. The Christian thing to do at Christmas. What? You’re not even a bloody Christian – mind you, by the looks of him neither is he! Just say something normal.
“So, what do you prefer tea or coffee with your mince pie?” she smiled.
“Well, if you’ve got a skinny, oatmeal latte with a splash of caramel and a sprinkle…I am only joking Caroline. A cup of tea will be fine.”
She felt a slight flutter somewhere in the pit of her stomach, as if a trapped butterfly had suddenly awoken and was flying up, up to find the breeze...
She thought, well, he has a sense of humour at least. It was then, she noticed the gold ring on his right hand, not his left. Widowed or divorced, she wondered? She was divorced but had never worn the ring since, so she reckoned he must be a widower. Funny she couldn’t image him ‘married with a family’. Somehow, she had him down as an old hippy musician, or perhaps an explorer or even, heavens above, an eco-warrior.
She passed him a cup as he sat in her favourite chair and made himself comfortable.
“This is very nice, Caroline, thank you.”
“Are you a keen gardener then Bob?”
She wasn’t sure about beginning the conversation; she was no expert at socialising either.
“No. not particularly, I like to potter, ‘though I do prefer to settle down with a good book.”
“Really? I am a bit of a bookworm myself actually.” She found herself feeling strangely relaxed.
He continued as he munched the mince pie; one of M&S’s specials as her culinary skills never stretched to pastry.
“Well, went with the job, I used to teach you know? English.”
“How interesting. Here at a school on the Wirral?”
He chuckled and swallowed his mouthful.
“Actually, I was a university professor at Bristol.”
At this Caroline almost choked on her pie. How could I have got it so wrong, she thought. The Crazy Man is a genius and he’ll probably think I’m the idiot with only a few ‘O’ levels to my name.
“What did you do Caroline?” he asked.
“Nothing of any great importance, just accounts, admin, that sort of thing.”
“As long as you enjoyed it?”
“It paid the bills and, how about another mince pie?”
The past was not a place Caroline particularly wanted to visit.
“I suspect you’re not from the peninsula Caroline? Or indeed the Northwest?” He enquired.
“No, is it that obvious? I’m ‘a stranger in a strange land’. I love it here, don’t get me wrong but I don’t really call it home.”
“Then where is home may I ask?”
He suddenly looked pensive, as if he was really interested and not just making a casual, passing remark.
“Born Suffolk, lived in more places than I care to remember. My ex moved with his work; we were always moving.”
“Then, I’m a stranger too. I didn’t move to this part of the world until after my wife passed away. Sometimes it hard to know where you really belong. This place can really touch your senses, the river, the skies, the open vistas are beautiful. I spend a lot of my time walking here. I like the tranquillity and yet, inside I can’t say I feel completely at home.”
She found herself hanging on his every word, this crazy, rather scruffy, clown of a man had expressed exactly how she felt. Yet he said it better than she ever could.
“Yes, exactly. I’m not unhappy here. There’s so much to like about it. Yet, there is something missing.”
He stroked his greying beard, like some wizard pondering.
“I think home is not a place, home is people, maybe just one particular person. For me, this place, the Wirral, has helped me find a contentment. It has filled a gap I suppose.”
The two sat in silence sipping their tea, perhaps each wondering who should speak next. Suddenly, she said, “Bob, what are you doing for Christmas Dinner? I have a turkey in the kitchen screaming to be cooked – it may mean we won’t eat till late but if you like, you can come for dinner.”
Bob quickly jumped up. Caroline was alarmed and spurted out, “I’m sorry, was that too presumptuous of me? I just thought…”
“It’s a splendid idea and an invitation I’m happy to accept.” He smiled and she saw again that twinkle.
“So where are you going?” she asked.
“I have a nice bottle of red in the cupboard waiting to be opened and I need to get out of these ridiculous shorts.”
With that, he disappeared down the hallway just as the phone rang.
“Mum, it’s me. Thought I’d give you a quick call to check you’re okay. Sandy says she feels really bad and that we should really make the effort.”
“What about the kids, the chicken pox?”
“You know kids, they’re bouncing around the living room today. So, how about we drive over later? Have you cooked that turkey?”
“What about me getting shingles then?”
“What? Oh, you’ll be fine I’m sure…well, we couldn’t leave you to have dinner for one could we? – not on Christmas day!”
“David, I appreciate you thinking of me.” There was a slight sarcasm in her calm manner, “but you really shouldn’t worry. After all, you have pizza and I will be serving dinner for two.”
With that she put down the receiver whilst her son was left speechless.
As she placed the turkey in the oven, the not-so-crazy man from No.6 had returned, not only in smart clothes and carrying a bottle of red but with a Christmas Rose picked fresh from his garden.