hen Felix died, Olive didn’t get another. The hole was too big, a new dog too small. For when she’d walked Felix, she’d held his lead in one hand, and Clive’s hand in the other. They made a chain, with Olive as the reassured middle link. Clive used to throw the ball (his arm was stronger, hers useless), and command Felix ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ (his voice was stronger too). Between his own departure and Felix’s, Clive was still walking with them and holding her hand. With Felix gone, Clive’s spirit had slowly receded to a faint wisp beyond the trees. But that was his choice, she felt, not her rejection.
She’d not been too unhappy these last few years. Her job as office manager kept her mind occupied for seven and half hours a day, eight if you include a lunch break and colleague chats, ten and more if you include the walk to work and back, the dressing and making-up beforehand, and slipping into jeans and sweatshirt after.
And she kept herself busy with a regular hour of so of housework, cooking and eating some of what she cooked, watching Call of Duty, and reading (historical novels, crime, and – how embarrassing – romantic fiction).
So loneliness mostly surfaced only in those moments between turning off the bedside light, and falling asleep.
And weekends. It was at the weekends she missed Clive and Felix the most. She walked the same circuit, sun or snow, her hands free and empty. She still talked to the other dog-walkers, stalwarts who had sympathised with her for her second loss.
The route took her through the park, and as usual she fussed over Poppy the labradoodle down by the bowling green, and Axel the Staffie next to the children’s playground. She headed towards the small reservoir at the top end of the park, and circled it, detouring into the wooded unkempt parts. Then back to the sunlit path and past the anglers who listened to Test Match Special and dressed in green.
She came to a fork, where she would normally keep to the right, alongside the lake. A few yards down the branch stood a pair of bins, one for litter, one for dog waste, and on top of the former lay something shiny. She saw it from the junction. Silvery-shiny she would have shrugged off as being tinfoil, and walked on. But goldy-shiny, she had to inspect.
It was a star, just smaller than her palm. A ten-pointed star of overlapping pentagrams, with five major arms, and five minor arms radiating from the reflex angles between them. It lay dead centre on the flat top, carefully placed as if someone wanted to be rid of the thing but found it too precious to despatch into the bin’s forever. Rather leave it in plain sight for someone to pick up.
So she did. It was heavy, not gold heavy, but solid like a horse brass. Yet unlike the horse brasses displayed in pubs, it was polished to mirror brightness, as if new. It had embellishments too, and Olive fished in her bag for her spectacles to examine it more closely. She put them on and held up the star, but it was still out of focus. She blinked, and took her glasses off. Now she could see it better, the floral ornamentation of the star’s arms, the points which weren’t sharp but softly rounded, the smaller decagram in the middle, and an even tinier star glinting at its very centre.
She put her glasses on and the star blurred again. Off – sharp. On – blurred.
How very strangely her eyes were behaving.
She popped the star into her basket, on top of the cotton cardigan the weather had turned too warm for, and walked on.
It was her custom to sit a while in the peace garden. The seat was in the shape of quill pen, and surprisingly comfortable. The sculpture in front of her, with the Gandhi quote about the power of love being stronger than the love of power, rested her eyes like a mandala. Roses bloomed pink to one side, and tulips stood up like scarlet lollipops to the other. It had been their favourite spot. Even Felix used to settle down there after he’d lapped his water from the bowl they carried.
So when the dapper man in the straw trilby walked towards her, her heart sank. He lifted the hat and bade her good morning. She looked up and had to reply. He had friendly eyes, so when he asked if she minded sharing the seat she smiled and said ‘Of course not,’ surprising herself for not adding ‘I was just leaving anyway.’
The man talked about the weather, and the delightful flowers, and pointed to the sculpture, and gestured the quill they sat on. ‘I guess it’s about the pen being mightier than the sword,’ he said, but not in a know-all way, more as if musing. ‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war,’ he added. ‘Churchill said that, and I suppose he should know.’
Olive said she remembered Churchill’s funeral, but was too young to know why it was so important. The man said he remembered where he was when Kennedy died, not John, but Bobby. He was on holiday in Cornwall with his family. ‘Oh my goodness,’ said Olive, ‘I was in Cornwall too! I recall the newsstand placards.’
‘Maybe we met,’ said the man.
He offered her a Malteser. She declined, pleading a diet, and he patted his paunch as he munched the sweet and said ‘I feel a bit guilty now,’ so she changed her mind to put him at ease. She wasn’t one to binge on chocolate when she felt lonely, after returning from her walks for example, and what with the diet she couldn’t remember the last time she’d weakened. Mmm, chocolate! A taste of holidays at the cottage they used to rent in Polperro. They’d lived on chocolates, pick-your-own strawberries, clotted cream and love, she and Clive. How they’d indulged!
The man stood up and doffed his hat once more. ‘I’m George,’ he said. ‘Perhaps we’ll cross paths here again. No need to go to Cornwall!’
She smiled and before she knew it had said ‘I’m Olive. I’ll look out for you.’
‘Ah, so you can hide,’ George said, his eyes a-twinkle, and she giggled.
He walked away, turned and waved, and was gone. She picked up her bag from beside the bench, and saw the star catch the sun, gold on top of the lilac cardie.
The town centre was busy. A young man in a beret stood playing accordion and she threw a 50p piece into the case in front of him. He played the Toreadors March from Carmen, and she sat on the bench beside him to listen. After La Vie En Rose, she put a pound into his case and asked if he did requests. She assumed he was French, but he answered in a Birmingham accent, ‘Anything you like as long as it’s on the playlist. What do you fancy?’
She asked if A Case Of You was on his list. It had been their song, Clive and Olive, Case Of, C and O, they danced to it at their wedding, not the first verse of course. They looked into each other’s eyes when Joni sang ‘love is touching souls.’ She thought the busker would be too young, but he said ‘I love that song,’ and played it for her as a slow waltz, and she blinked back tears in the sun.
He sat down next her, taking a break. ‘You play wonderfully,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ he smiled. ‘Do you play?’
‘Oh no, a bit of piano a long time ago, but no, not really.’
‘If you can play piano, you can play accordion.’ He took it off his shoulders and draped the straps around hers. He positioned her fingers on the bass buttons, told her they need tapping not pressing, and explained the wave motion that starts in the shoulders and ends in the pull and squeeze.
The melody came back to the fingers of her right hand like the taste of chocolate. Her left played the chords he showed her, and at the third ask, by the time she got to ‘I would still be on my feet,’ she was not thinking about her fingers, she was back on the dance floor slowly swaying.
A child was given a coin which chinged into the accordion case still on the ground, and she was suddenly aware of the shoppers, so she unhitched the instrument.
‘You’re a natural,’ the young man said as he took it back to resume his busking.
Olive picked up her bag. The star again beamed up at her. The buttons and keys had all been in focus when she played, she had not needed her glasses. It made little sense that her eyes behaved like they were young again. It made little sense that George had flirted with her, and none at all that she liked it. Clive didn’t seem to object. And to be able to play a passable version of A Case Of You on a strange instrument that she had never picked up before, when even on piano long ago when she was in practice, it had been difficult, that was little short of miraculous.
Across the plaza was a newsagent whose window advertised lottery tickets on sale. She got up, walked over to the shop, joined the queue of two, and when she got to the front she touched the star in the bag, and bought five lottery scratchcards with a free sixth. Then before she left she decided to buy a box of chocolates too, for later.
She came back into the sun and found another bench, her third of the morning, and scratched at the cards with a rounded point of the star. The first was not a winner. The second was not a winner. Nor the third, the fourth, or the fifth. She took a deep breath before scratching the bonus card, and squeezed the star tight in her hand. The jackpot was £100,000.
She scratched off the coating.
She opened the box of chocolates and put one into her mouth without even checking which centre it was. Hazelnut. Life could be worse. She had another. Strawberry praline. Yummy!
Olive went to one of the town centre litter bins and discarded the failed lottery hopes. She took the star from her bag, and considered the centre of the bin’s flat top. Somehow just leaving the star there didn’t seem the right thing to do, for all that its time with her was at an end.
She walked homewards through the crowds of shoppers and teenagers, infants in buggies, and dogs on leads. La Vie En Rose grew fainter, and disappeared altogether as she descended the ramp into the subway under the roundabout.
In the dim light a man sat on a cushion on a flattened cardboard box, the cushion barely thicker than the board. A tattered sleeping bag separated him from the wall behind. Beside him a Jack Russell terrier looked up, its head on its paws but its eyes ever-attentive. Between his feet, shod in trainers whose uppers were freeing themselves from their soles, was an upside down baseball cap, inside which lay a pitiful few coins. Olive had given him money before, but today she’d spent the last of her change on scratchcards and chocolates.
She squatted by the man. He was unshaven for several days, and she noticed that his stubble had no grey in it – he was younger then he first appeared. And he smelled.
‘How are you today?’ she asked.
‘Mustn’t grumble’ said the man, although he was evidently not yet on the list of good causes supported by the lottery, and that was surely worth a gripe.
‘I don’t have any change today,’ she said, ‘But maybe this will bring you luck, or something.’ She put the star into his hat.
He picked up the star and ran his dirty thumb curiously over it. He smiled shyly up at her, and thanked her. She patted the terrier who wagged its tail, then she rose and walked on homewards.
People coming the other way, into town, saw a lady smiling at them this day, and some wondered why the contented expression. Olive was thinking maybe of getting a dog.