By Partricia Rogers
Grace had spent most of her life up on the moors above Whitby. It had not been an easy life, and she knew all about coping.
Mostly she had coped with the hard slog of day-to-day routine. When her sisters were imagining her wandering around a neat farmyard in a clean apron, feeding hens, she was more likely to be out on the fell side walling, or in the sheep fold at two o’clock in the morning getting a tup through a difficult lambing. So many springs, so many lambs.
Tom had been a good man, but he needed organising, and as times got harder it was left to Grace to find new ways of making money and keeping the farm going. She had coped with the loss of two children in infancy, and the loss of a third who made her way down to London to work in a publisher’s office and rarely had time to get home. God knows how but she had even coped when Tom was found dead out on the fells, with his gun next to him, and the farm had been sold.
She had moved down into the small village in the bottom of the valley to take over the post office. Ten years after that, when the post office had to close, she had arrived in Whitby. It had been a hard choice to move away after spending a whole life in the same dale, but she had found a place for herself working two afternoons in a charity shop, and being secretary of the WI. She kept her
tiny bungalow on the clifftop estate spotless, not because she was particularly bothered about it, but because after the years of relentless hard work she found it hard to know what to do with herself.
Grace knew how important it was to cope, and one way that she had done this was by keeping herself to herself. To say that they ‘kept themselves to themselves’ had always been the greatest compliment her mother could ever pay anybody, and Grace never forgot this. Not even the people closest to her in Whitby knew about how Tom had died, and as far as they were concerned she had only one daughter. Only Grace knew and remembered them all as she wished to, without letting other people’s pity get in the way. There had been good times at Fordhead Farm as well as bad, and she never forgot that, very good times. So her first thought, when William walked into the Age concern shop was, yes – I could cope with him.
Grace had a lot of regular customers, but it didn’t take her long to realise that William was coming in just to see her. Of course he didn’t tell her that, but she knew all the same. Her counter faced the open doorway of the shop. He sometimes came in late on Friday afternoons, and when things got less busy she would begin to look for his trilby hat coming in through the door. One particular Friday afternoon, when she was busy tidying up the clothes racks, he got all the way to the counter before she saw him. She hurried over, flustered.
“How’s life treating you?”
“Oh, mustn’t grumble,” William said happily. “There’s always somebody worse off.”
Grace shook her head smiling.
“There is that. What can I do for you?”
He frowned. William didn’t do thinking quickly and he didn’t really want anything.
Except to see Grace.
“I don’t rightly know.”
She shook her head smiling.
“You’re only just in time.”
“I could wait and walk back with you if you like,” he said. “If you’re going straight home that is.”
Grace bit her lip. She had been going to see if she could get an appointment at the doctors, but it wasn’t something she wanted to tell William about.
“That would be nice. I thought I might have a walk along the harbour wall first. You’re welcome to come with me if you’d like to.”
She watched William’s face as he thought about this. He nodded.
“I’ll come back at half past, shall I?”
“You do that.”
Grace watched him potter out of the shop with a broad smile on her face.
By the time they got down to the seafront it was high tide. The sea was throwing itself against the harbour wall, and waves were rolling back to meet each other in walls of spray. There was a grey salt dampness in the air, and if you stood with your back to the town, looking out at the horizon, you could almost imagine that the town was drifting out to sea. The abbey ruin on the cliff top had never looked darker or more gothic.
“This is grand,” Grace told William happily. He agreed that it was.
They stood together and watched the movement of the sea.
“There’s a big one coming now,” he said, pointing. “Watch yourself.”
They moved back giggling as the spray shot over the railings.
Grace was glad to see William laugh. He always seemed so serious.
“You know, William, you worry about things too much. You should relax a bit more. Have a bit of fun.”
She wondered what sort of life it had been for him. He had been married for a long time, but that didn’t tell you a fat lot. She hoped that he had been happy.
“You must miss your wife very much,” she said quietly.
William leaned on the wall, letting the waves wash over his memories.
“I do that.” He turned to look at Grace.
“Does it get better?”
She shook her head.
“No. You just learn to cope with it, that’s all.” William nodded. That was what he had thought. He patted Grace’s arm and they walked on down the seafront without saying any more.
William started to think about the idea of asking Grace to join him in the Cheerio Café for a cup of tea. He had taken to calling the Cheerio Café his second home. It was what he called a proper café. There were white tablecloths with a sheet of glass over them, a little carnation on each table, and watercolours of the bay and the abbey on the walls. There were posters too so you could always find out what was going on, and they gave you fresh milk and a good pot of tea. Megan was nice too. She was a good laugh and she always remembered what you said to her. He thought Grace might like it. One day he finally plucked up the courage to ask her to go in with him, and she said yes.
They sat at a window table. William was pleased. This was his favourite spot, and he made sure that Grace sat where she was facing the window. You could see across the harbour and watch folk going past. Megan came up straight away. Her eyes twinkled at William, but she knew better than to embarrass him by saying anything. She knew all her customers very well, and liked them too, even if she did sometimes feel that she was running a day centre for the lost and bewildered, rather than the upmarket coffee house she had imagined when she first came to Whitby.
“Now William, what can I get you?”
“Pot of tea for two please Megan,” he said looking at Grace to see if that was all right and feeling very daring. It had been a long time since he had ordered a pot of tea for two. She nodded and he smiled and blinked happily. “And I might just have an Eccles cake.”
Grace smiled back at him.
“Go on, be a devil.”
Megan smiled at Grace.
“Would you like anything to eat?”
William nodded at her encouragingly. Grace smiled back.
“Just a piece of shortbread thank you.”
“That’s lovely”, Megan said, slipping the menu back into its holder and turning back towards the counter.
William was beaming. It was lovely, he thought. Best thing he’d ever done.
“I’m right glad you came with me,” he said happily to Grace.
“Good of you to ask me,” she replied quietly.
When Megan brought their order they had a chat to her about her egg decorating. She had told William about it before but he wanted Grace to know. There were some on a shelf for sale behind the
counter, and he asked about them. She said she was doing one with a tiny wedding scene inside it for her sister who was getting married in August.
“You’ve got clever fingers Megan,” William said.
“You wouldn’t always think so,” Megan laughed as she trotted off, already smiling at the people on the next table.
“Now, what can I get you?”
William looked at Grace. He hoped her shortbread was going to be all right. He had never had the shortbread.
“She’s a nice lass, Megan.”
“You like talking to people, don’t you?”
William looked at his Eccles cake.
“Freda used to tell me to shut up. She said folks didn’t want to listen to me prattling on.”
“Well I think it’s nice.” Grace said firmly, biting into her shortbread. Everything went quiet, as it does when Yorkshire folk are eating.
“What does minger mean?” William asked suddenly.
Grace looked at him, wondering if he was all right.
“Jodie, my granddaughter was saying it the other day. I just wondered.”
“You’ll have to look it up.” Grace told him. “Mind you, it might be safer not to find out. They say all sorts these days.”
William nodded. It was a strange world sometimes.
“Did you see that Sidwells is shutting down?”
“There’ll be another pound shop opening. It’s getting to the stage where you won’t be able to buy anything decent here.”
William liked going in the pound shop. There were surprising things in there, and it kept changing. You never knew what you might find next. He had bought some tissues in there once. They had been very cheap and had strange writing all over them. He had found out later on that it was Polish, and he had wondered how they had come to be there. Sometimes there were liqueur chocolates with cherries in the middle, and if they had them in, the blonde haired girl filling up the piles would always tell him. Anyway, it didn’t sound like Grace thought much of pound shops, so he decided he had better agree with her.
By the time they had finished sorting out all the shops that used to be in Whitby, and what they were now, the pot of tea was empty and the shortbread was just a few crumbs on the plate. William saw Megan looking across as if she might want to fetch the bill.He looked at Grace.
“Is that it then?”
Grace didn’t answer. She was looking out of the window, watching two herring gulls squabbling over a piece of bread. He wondered if she was all right.
“Penny for them.”
“I was just thinking,” she said quietly, looking back at him. William paid the bill. Grace tried to, but he said there were to be no arguments so she said it would be her turn next time. He stored that away in his mind to think about later. Next time. He was smiling to himself as he put on his anorak. Next time. So there was going to be a next time. He was going to help Grace put on her coat, but by the time he had digested what she had said she was already going towards the door. He hurried after her, waving at Megan as he went past.
When they went their separate ways at Grace’s road end she didn’t look like she was going to lean forward to give him a peck on the cheek, but he would not have minded if she had. It was after that first tea with Grace in the Cheerio Cafe that William started to worry a bit. It was all very confusing and not at all what he was used to after 43 years of marriage. He would look at Freda’s photo and wonder what she would say.
“You and your girlfriend”, probably, or more likely “Don’t talk silly.” That was something she often used to say. But William didn’t talk silly. That was the trouble. He liked to know where he was, and he liked other people to know that too. He was going to have to do something about it.