by Liz Cox
a nice cup of Earl Grey
Alicia Ward opened her eyes. It was Sunday. The morning sun filtered through her cornflower-patterned curtains. She enjoyed the womb like cosiness for a few moments longer, and then she placed one foot onto the faded bedside rug. It was cold, the embers of last night’s small fire having long since died
With an almighty effort, she jumped out of bed and shrugged on the faded velour robe her sister had bought her on the last Christmas they had spent together. She drew back the curtains allowing sunlight to flood the shabby room.
‘What a beautiful day,’ she cried out loud, as she opened the window to let in some fresh in, ‘just the day for a walk in the park.’ She was aware she said this every Sunday, come rain or shine.
She switched on the oven and the kettle. Although she hated to waste gas, on Sundays she always warmed her two croissants until they were crisp and flaky. It was her weekly treat. She took the delicate rose painted cup, saucer, and plate she had inherited from her mother and placed them just so on the embroidered tablecloth along with a silver knife and teaspoon.
Her table was placed in just the right position to see the street, yet not be seen. The delicate muslin curtain at the long window screened her from prying eyes. The curtain fluttered in the breeze from the open window, and just for a second, Alicia was visible to the world, if the world could have been bothered to notice. She shut the window and took her breakfast from the oven, savouring the rich buttery aroma that wafted across the room.
As the clock chimed half past ten, she left the flat as usual and made her way towards the park. With her head lowered, she took her usual route past the discreetly elegant town houses on the right-hand side of the street. She turned left by the plane trees on the corner and entered the park by the side gate. She spoke to no one. The early spring sun was shining low through the trees, and Alicia hurried along.
She pulled her red scarf closely around her neck and face, as she battled against the chilly wind. The first crocuses were in bloom. The swathes of gold and purple flowers were like jewels strewn on the black, velvet earth. The beauty of the delicate flowers and the rich smell of the soil reminded her of another spring long ago. She moved swiftly towards the second bench on the right after the slate path. She always sat there.
Today, much to her dismay, there was someone else sitting there. She waited and hoped they’d leave. She couldn’t possibly sit anywhere else. She thrust her hands deep into her pockets and waited.
She could see out of the corner of her eye that the figure was a young man. He was wearing denim jeans and a black sweater. His thick brown hair curled on his neck. His hands were thrust deep into his sleeves. He seemed oblivious of Alicia’s presence, as he slouched down on the bench.
Alicia decided she had to say something. This was her bench, hers, and Charlie’s. She always sat here on a Sunday morning. She paced up and down a few more times, throwing icy looks towards the seated figure. Finally, she could stand it no more, and approaching the bench she faced him squarely.
‘Excuse me young man,’ she spoke in her most imperious voice, one she hadn’t used since she was a young woman, ‘but I always sit here on a Sunday.’
The young man looked up at her,
‘Pardon, are you for real? What did you say?’
She could feel the colour rising in her cheeks. She thrust her hands deep into her pockets to stop herself trembling. ‘You’re sitting in my place, and I must ask you to move somewhere else.’
‘Your place?’ His voice was cold. ‘I’m sorry, but I didn’t know people had their own places in a public park.’ He looked down again and ignored her. His attitude caused Alicia to crumple a little. Then fired by her indignant sense of right and wrong, she shouted at him furiously.
“It’s my bench, I always sit here on a Sunday; you have no right.” Exhausted by her uncharacteristic outburst, she began to cry. ‘It’s not fair.’
The young man squirmed in his seat, as all eyes in the park were on them, but he did not move.
‘I’m sorry you feel that way, but I was here first, and I intend to stay here.’ The young man turned away from her and huddled deeper into his sweater.
Alicia began to sob. The young man looked around him to see who was watching. Then he touched her hand. ‘Come on lady don’t cry. It can’t be that bad. Have your bench, I was going anyway.’
As he got up to leave, Alicia turned to him. ‘It’s not your fault,’ she said between sobs, ‘Sunday’s the day I visit Charlie.’
‘Who’s Charlie? He was now looking interested and sat down again.
‘Charlie was my fiancé. He was killed in the war. On that last morning before he left for the front, we sat here making plans for his return. It was a morning just like this, alive with crocuses. When he died, so did I.’ The realization that she had wasted her life hit her. ‘I was so impossible that my family and friends gave up on me long ago, even my sister who loved me more than most. Do you know, all I have left of her is a threadbare dressing gown? I betrayed his memory by forgetting to live, when I should have been living life for the two of us.’
Startled by her own admission, she wiped her eyes with the end of her scarf then straightened it. She stood up and apologized to the bemused young man.
“So terribly sorry to have bothered you,” she stated, trying to disguise her ravaged eyes and red nose, “you’re perfectly right, no one has the monopoly on a park bench.”
The young man smiled up at her. He has a lovely kind face, she thought, not unlike Charlie’s.
‘It’s perfectly alright,’ he countered, letting out a deep sigh. ‘Anyone can have a bad day. I’m sorry about your fiancé. Please, why don’t you sit down beside me for a while?’ With a sweep of his hand, he indicated the empty space beside him.
‘If you’re sure, then thank you I will.’ The young man shuffled up the bench to make room for her. It was quite a new sensation for Alicia to find herself in such proximity to another person. She could feel his warmth across the space. She visibly relaxed and continued to do her usual things, feeding the squirrels, watching the ducks on the nearby pond. The next half hour passed with both them deep in their own thoughts.
Alicia glanced at her watch and made to move away. A sudden thought came to her, and she turned around to face the young man. She touched his arm.
‘Thank you, you’re very kind. Seeing as how we’ve shared a bench; it would be nice to know your name. I’m Alicia.’ She paused and held out her hand, the young man took it. His hand was cold and rough.
‘You seemed troubled when I arrived. Is something wrong?’
The young man turned to her. For a fleeting moment he reminded her of Charlie. The illusion passed.
‘I’m Rick, and yes, I have a few problems to try and sort out. My mother has just died, and my stepfather doesn’t want me living with him. We don’t get along. Never did. I was just trying to work out how I was going to manage on my own.’
He sounded lost and vulnerable, and Alicia realized that he was much younger than she first thought. Not much more than a boy really. She began to feel very sorry that she had reacted in such a stupid way to what was a trivial matter. She could talk to Charlie from any other bench.
‘Have you no other relatives you could go to?’
‘I’ve got my grandma, but she’s old now and I haven’t seen her since Dad died. Mum didn’t keep in touch after that because Grandma blamed her for Dad’s death. Mum had affairs you see, and Dad committed suicide just before I was five. I don’t think she would want me living with her.’ He hung his head.
‘Try her, you might be surprised. I think she’d be delighted to see you. I suggest you contact her and take it from there. Everything will work out, you’ll see.’
Rick raised his head and smiled at her, ‘do you really think so?’ Alicia nodded. She felt warm and alive and suitably humbled. If only she’d allowed someone else into her life before, she might have been able to live it.
With that, she rose and marched towards the park gates. She glanced behind her and waved at Rick. He waved back.
She walked home with a light heart and a new spring in her step. On the way, she looked all around her as if seeing it for the first time. The breeze carried the myriad smells of the street in its path; the crocuses, the budding trees, the aroma of coffee from Sunday breakfasts, even the fumes from passing cars. Alicia breathed in deeply enjoying the new experience. Why hadn’t she noticed these things? It was never too late to begin again.