A tree has come down in the night narrowly missing the summer house. Not that it would be any great loss. The boards are rotten and its meagre contents spoiled by damp and rodents. Those hateful little creatures are the only ones who use it now.
Mattie used to sit on the raised verandah, cup of tea to hand, eyes closed as she lapped up the warmth of the evening sun. This part of the garden was her domain, every plant known and tended with love. Now it feels soulless, maintaining it a necessary expense carried out by two labourers who arrive in their rusted out truck each week, leaving behind them a smell of cigarettes and a tantalising glimpse of a different world filled with too much beer and indecorous women.
Gardeners used to be deferential. They had caps to doff and worked quietly so as not to disturb The Family. Nowadays they wield an endless array of noise making power tools as they chat and joke with abandon. If they notice that Bert opens the window a crack when they arrive then they never say.
Celia likes it when they are here, a welcome diversion on another monotonous day. She brings them mugs of strong tea, thick with sugar, and a tin filled with freshly made biscuits. Standing there, bold as brass, she joins in with their lively chat smattered with inappropriate suggestion and innuendo. Bert has never spoken to any woman like that.
Celia’s biscuits are very fine, or so their rare visitors say. Bert can no longer judge. His dodgy digestive system has robbed him of the pleasure he once had in good food. He tries not to complain, of that or his many other aches, pains and incompetencies.
Mattie had been a reluctant cook, learning late when Mrs Brown retired. She had donned the old cook’s aprons and searched through her library of recipe books for instructions on how to roast a joint of meat or the best way to prepare the abundance of vegetables from the walled garden, now long closed up and doubtless grown wild. Mattie regularly bemoaned her lack of knowledge and skill in the kitchen, frustrated that the efforts she put in did not result in the fare they had previously enjoyed. Neither of them had been expected to do more than carve the meat or open a bottle of wine before.
At least Mrs Brown stayed until after Emily’s wedding. What a day that had been. Laughter and dancing, children playing hide and seek in the woods, and Emily looking radiant beside that bastard who broke her heart and took half the proceeds of their fine London town house. Mattie had wanted Emily to move back home but she had already decided on a fresh start. Now their grandchildren talk with American accents and have little interest in crossing the pond.
Celia will be back soon, trying to coax Bert into eating whatever soup she has prepared for today. Soup is supposed to be a starter but is as much as he can manage now. He knows he should show more gratitude. If Emily had her way he would be living in a tiny flat overseen by a warden who waits for resident after resident to die before moving in the next ageing soul. Bert worries that he is being selfish, that he should sell up and arrange his affairs so that Emily won’t have to when his time comes. He still harbours a hope that she will want to keep the old house, even run down as it now is.
A light rain has started, rivulets on the window distorting Bert’s fading vision. The branches from the fallen tree stretch out to the summer house as if coaxing an occupant to come out to play. Bert watches as the door swings slowly open and Mattie emerges, her white dress a beacon on this grey day, lighting it up as she did his grey life. Looking across at him she catches his eye and smiles, holds out her hand. Rising from his chair Bert leaves his failing body and goes to join her.