Reader’s Story – Old Romantic

by Alan Smith

My right hand ached, and I knew something was wrong with my wrist. I held that arm tight against my chest and had the heavy shopping bag on my left. I had a struggle with the gate. I put the bag down and fiddled with the old iron fastening, picked up the bag, and kicked the gate shut. Then there was the 50-odd yards up the drive, a rutted lane with bits of grass in the centre strip. I’d left the door unlocked, and it was a relief to stand for a minute in the cool air, the soft half-light of the hall. I could see through into the kitchen and the kitchen window into the garden. Wrong time of year for something wrong with your hand and wrist to have the ache of it going up into your arm. There was a lot to do, and I’d been looking forward to it since Christmas: pruning and planting, doing the digging and raking the soil so that it became a fine crumbled surface waiting for the drills and the seed, ready for the lines of seedlings, the beans and potatoes. I got out of my coat and did it hurt but only an ache, nothing sharp, and I thought: Yes, that should be okay. I went into the kitchen and ran the tap cold for a glass of water. I kept my right arm on my chest and rummaged, one-handed, in the freezer for the frozen peas. I sat at the table, hand and arm flat down with the bag of peas resting on top.

With some luck, I thought, I’ll be okay: cold compress and ibuprofen. I ought to have known, ought to have been prepared. I felt pleased with myself and thought that meant I was sane. I had never heard of a psychopath, any nutcase, being pleased with themselves, having that feeling of having done something worthwhile. I had, I had done something worthwhile and placed myself in danger when I did it. Good, I thought, it hadn’t come out of the blue. It was something I’d thought about, considered, and planned. Before the planning, I had thought about my way out of it. Not so much my way out of it physically, but more than that, my moral, emotional way out. Too often, I’d seen good people living with the consequences of things. I rehearsed it; the role played, went through everything I might feel and came to see that anything that might happen to me, me being the man I am, would be fine. I didn’t want this one thing to ruin me, ruin the rest of my life. Inaction, shaking my head and turning away with some wet cliche that would destroy my life.

“I felt pleased with myself and I thought that meant that I was sane.”

Just down the road, there’s a new house. It’s a beautiful house, a little bit modernist, a little bit art nouveau, brilliant. Five years ago, I sold them the land for what seemed to me to be a lot of money, but Henry, ‘call me Harry’, said yes, straight away and wrote a cheque and gave it to me before any of the business with solicitors had even been considered. I thought he was an oaf, but I put it into the bank, and it didn’t bounce.

I met his wife at the stables. She was a nice girl, blonde hair in a plat behind her helmet. She was straight and strong looking, so you felt sorry for the horse she was bossing. Now and again, we hacked around together, and I told her about the village, gave her the gossip and the innocent countryside scandal. She was forty years younger than me, and I fell for her in that happy, take it or leave it, harmless way that older men do. There was that lovely relief of friendship, that unlooked-for bonus of age. I can’t say that I saw much of her, and I suppose I made much of her in my imagination. Not, of course, anything inappropriate, nothing erotic, but I guess I shall have to admit to a certain amount of romance, a certain amount of looking forward to seeing her, making her laugh, and being invited back into the world—an easy thing to do inside my mind. I am the sort of man who might, perhaps, wake up in the night, in this dark silent house, and be pleased to be awake and spend a couple of hours reading or writing a letter. Sometimes it is nice to sit in the garden and wait for the dawn.

“I fell for her in that happy, take it or leave it, harmless way that old men do.”

I knew that he was knocking her about. She was missing from the stables, and then I saw her in the village, getting out of her big, vulgar car in that slow gingerly way and, when I looked for it, the swollen, cut lip, the makeup. I said to her: Is Call Me Harry knocking you about? Which was, I know, a bit crass, a little bit too much to the point. But she cried, and, Christ, the sight of that turned me inside out. I knew I couldn’t fight him; he was a big ponderous man with a thick jowly neck and forearms like Popeye. Once, maybe a couple of decades ago, I could have kicked him down the street. Not now. But I have always been impulsive.

Early this evening, the police came round—two of them, in uniform, in a car that my neglected drive splattered in mud. I watched them, didn’t go out to them but waited for them to bang the knocker on the door. I waited a bit, opened up to them, and asked them in. We sat in the kitchen, and they didn’t want tea, but they told me about Call Me Harry lying dead in his porch with a big hole going through him. Of course, I would check my doors and windows. Some maniac, I asked them. They shrugged. Plenty of police about. Just precautions. They got up and left, walked down the hall to the front door, past my shopping bag on the floor with my grandfather’s Army 45 still in it.

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NorthernLife July/Aug 23