by Jane Spirit
Reg had always taken an interest in other people and looked out for the clues they left in their wake. He could remember even as a boy of seven or eight returning from school and seeing how the curtains were still drawn next door and a milk bottle left on the red polished step when it should have been taken in hours earlier. At home he had chewed over those observations along with his bread and jam tea, though he felt too shy to tell his mother what he had noticed and quickly jotted in his pocket notebook. The next day mother had told him that Mrs Prentice had died the previous day. After that, he found that when he discovered things it always seemed to lead to bad news, like when he first saw his father shuffling out to the dustbin at dusk, carefully lifting the metal lid to avoid it clanging, then quickly raising the newspaper parcel of potato peelings, and placing his empty bottle beneath it. Weeks later he came home from school and noticed that every window in the house was shut. One of mother’s pale blue best stationary envelopes was sellotaped to the letter box, but there was no letter included for him, only the back door key inside it. Reggie realised then that sometimes what was missing told you just as much as what was right in front of your eyes.
Now that he was an old man Reg continued to take an interest in other people and in clues. At least it gave him a toehold in the real world. These days he could turn what others might see as nosiness to some use, even if it was just to reassure his neighbour Carol that she had not missed the delivery van when she had popped to the shop. She had rung earlier from the other ground floor flat. He could be relied on to notice those kinds of coming and goings. Carol had been grateful. She had explained that the delivery was for her mother who had been in hospital recently for a knee op and was coming to stay for a couple of weeks to convalesce. Reg had welcomed the information but had been careful not to ask Carol too many questions. He did not want to appear overfamiliar.
Reg would have liked to have a daughter like Carol, or a family of any kind really. In the past several women had befriended him, and he had thought that he might have a future with one of them, Susan. He remembered enjoying showing off to her, telling her everything that he had observed about the people they passed when they went out on dates together. She had seemed to find it endearing, calling him her sweet little spy. She even told him that he looked a little bit like Roger Moore straight after they went to see Live and Let Die. Then on their bus back to her part of London, in between little bites from her small bar of Caramac, she had ditched him. She had had a lovely time, but she wasn’t quite sure that they had enough in common. He knew her words were a coded farewell.
Carol rang again in the evening using hushed tones. Her mother would need to take things easy, but she just wasn’t the kind of person to sit around and had already been talking about doing a winter tidy of the little strip of garden in front of Carol’s flat. It dawned on Reg that Carol was gently recruiting him to spy on her mother whilst she was not there to monitor her movements. Of course, Reg had seen Carol’s mum arriving by taxi earlier and, with Carol’s help, using her crutches to walk into the house. He had heard her proceeding slowly to the right-hand side of the downstairs lobby and in through Carol’s door. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘and tell your mother, sorry I don’t know her name, to let me know if she needs anything whilst you’re out’.
‘Beryl,’ said Carol. ‘Her name is Beryl. And thank you, that’s very kind of you’.
The next morning he only intended to watch the garden for a few minutes at a time between reading chapters of the book he had picked up yesterday from the charity shop next to the Spar. In readiness, he placed his dining chair to the side of the bay window, hidden slightly behind the curtain, so that he could not be seen by passers-by or anyone using the front door. Through force of habit, he placed his pocket notebook and pencil ready on the windowsill. Despite knowing he needed to concentrate on the John Le Carré with its complex plot, he found himself constantly looking up from the book into the garden. There was no sign of Beryl. Under his window the hot cream radiator curled round against his knees, and he could feel himself becoming drowsy with warmth and stillness. He could only have been asleep for a few seconds when he woke to the sound of clumsy movement around the door and in time to see Beryl emerging, using two sticks, onto the tiny lawn. She seemed then to be turning quite unexpectedly and teetering towards the low wall onto which she collapsed. Reg hesitated. Noting down his sighting was not going to help Beryl who might slip to the ground at any moment. He hurried out from his flat and through the main door, though still being careful to adopt what he thought would seem like a nonchalant air, as if he had not noticed Beryl’s awkward perch on the wall straightaway.
‘Hello,’ he said.
‘Hello, you must be Reg … Carol told me you would be here keeping an eye on me.’
‘Oh … yes, well … I was just … is … is everything alright?’
He looked at her directly now. He was too preoccupied with her precarious situation on the wall to observe more than some kind eyes and a smiling face.
‘Oh dear … yes… I know I’ve been stupid trying to come out for a little walk. It’s probably much too soon.’
Before he knew it, he was smiling too.
‘Yes, but it’s such a bright day for November.’
‘I know. Carol is so good to me, but I did feel I was going a bit stir crazy in the flat. The thing is,’ and now she lowered her voice conspiratorially, ‘When anyone tries to tell me what to do, I just can’t stop myself doing the opposite. I’ve always been such a rebel, but now look at me stuck on the edge of this wall.’
She was laughing. He laughed too.
‘Would you let me help you? I can support you like this with my arm,’ and he moved closer to Beryl. She leaned on him, heavily at first, to get up and reach for the sticks propped by the wall. Gingerly they made their way back inside and through the door to Carol’s flat.
Reg was soon seated on the sofa and Beryl back in her chair. She followed his suggestion and let him prop the mending leg once again on the footstool left by Carol. The brief quietness between them was a comfortable one, the ease between two old friends rather than the hesitancy of new acquaintances.
‘I’m so glad that you were keeping tabs on me today,’ Beryl said then.
‘I am too,’ Reg replied. ‘Still, let’s not mention anything about how I saw you, or about you being out in the garden. It can be our secret for now.’
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