Leslie Blade stopped in the overhang of the college entrance to put up his umbrella.
Rain. Rain morning and evening since the beginning of the week.
He could drive to work, but it was only a couple of miles so he didn’t qualify for a college parking permit. He could get a bus, but they were infrequent and unreliable and there was still a ten-minute walk from the stop nearest to his house.
People were dashing down the steps and out into the downpour. Students crossed the courtyard with anorak hoods pulled over their heads.
Leslie Blade lifted his umbrella and stepped out.
Until the last few months he had always followed the same route along the main road and around by the Hill, but now the Old Market Lanes had opened he sometimes walked through them, liking the cobbles and the less garish lights, looking into the windows of the bookshop and a couple of galleries, buying a piece of cheese or some salami from the delicatessen which stayed open until seven. It made him twenty minutes or more later arriving home, which his mother did not like, so he had taken to buying her some chocolate or a bag of butter toffee. It was a bribe, and it wasn’t what she really wanted, which was his company, but it worked. She enjoyed the sweets.
By the time he reached the Lanes this evening, rain was sluicing off the gutters and there were deep puddles at the side of the narrow cobbled way. The deli was closing early.
He saw her at the end of the Street, where the Lanes decanted onto the market square. She was standing just inside the light that spilled out from the pub, the collar of her jacket up, trying to shelter from the rain but still remain visible. Leslie quickened his step. This was a new place; he had not seen any of them here before. It was too near the main shopping streets and cars were not allowed to stop in the square – only buses, and taxis on their way to the rank at the far end.
But it was Abi. He was sure it was Abi, even from the other end of the street. Abi or just possibly Marie?
He skirted one puddle but hit the next and felt the cold water slosh up the front of his leg, soaking his trousers, and he almost fell as he reached the corner.
The young woman did not glance round, but instead went to join the man for whom she had clearly been waiting. Took his arm. Went into the pub.
Not Abi. Not Marie. Not one of them after all.
Leslie felt angry and he felt a fool. But there was no one to notice.
He crossed the market square and headed away from the shops and the lights, towards the Hill.
Hilary, his mother’s carer, left at four thirty and he tried to get home just after six. Tonight, it was nearer twenty past because the rain driving into his path had slowed him down. It was Thursday, one of his two nights for going out, but if it didn’t clear up, he wondered, was there much point? Would any of them be out in weather like this?
He opened the front door.
Hilary always left the porch light on for him, the kettle filled and ready. If he wanted her to do anything else, peel potatoes or put something into a low oven, he had only to leave a note and she would do it willingly, though he rarely made any requests. She was his mother’s carer, not a domestic help. He and Hilary almost never met, but communicated, if they needed to, by a series of notes – hers always cheerful and decorated with funny faces and little pencilled stars or flowers. He was lucky. He had heard stories of the other sort of carer – the Chief Librarian’s secretary had had a few bad experiences with her mother’s carers, women who had been brusque or even downright unkind, and one who had been a thief. Hilary was dependable, strong, cheerful, reliable. Leslie knew good luck when it came his way. Norah Blade was not difficult, but rheumatoid arthritis as bad as hers did not make for an even temper.
‘I’m here. But I’m going up to change, I’m soaked.’
‘It’s poured all day, I’ve watched it through these windows and it hasn’t let up since you went out this morning.’
He could tell everything by her tone of voice. Good day. Bad day. Painful day. She sounded bright. Not a bad day then.
They could have a nice evening, and she’d be settled in bed before he had to go out. Sometimes, if she was in a lot of pain, he had to stay up with her, play a game of cards, help to make the night a bit shorter. On those evenings he couldn’t go.
The strip light was on above the kitchen worktops, a pan of peeled carrots on the cooker, a chirpy note from Hilary on the pad. He felt better for dry trousers and his slippers, poured himself a lager and checked on the casserole. The curtains were not yet drawn and, as he reached up to close them, he saw that the rain was no longer teeming down the windows and the wind had dropped.
‘There’s nothing much on,’ Norah said, after they had eaten supper and he had helped her back to her chair.
She watched quiz games, wildlife and travel programmes, Midsomer Murders and reruns of the gentler comedy series.
‘They all look so scruffy.’
‘Goodness, Mother, you should see some of our students. The ones on television are quite presentable.’
‘There was a boy with green hair.’
‘That was years ago.’
‘All the same.’
They could continue bantering enjoyably in this way on and off until bedtime. It had taken Leslie some years to understand that Norah pretended to be grumpy and dissatisfied about small things – television programmes, the noise the neighbours made, bits and pieces in the local paper – as a safety valve. She was in continuous pain, she was limited in movement, confined to a couple of rooms, and about those things she never complained. Grumbling over the scruffiness of the young on TV was a way of letting out a scream of anguish and misery at her condition.
So he indulged her, let her grumble on. The actor who played the young detective in Midsomer Murders wasn’t as good as his predecessor; some of the wildlife programmes had too much chat from presenters and too little focus on the animals. He was used to it. He didn’t mind.
‘Hilary’s sister is expecting a baby, did I tell you?’
‘You did. When’s it due?’
‘Spring sometime. Ages yet. But of course Hilary’s thrilled to bits. They live only a few streets away from her.’
‘Yes, you said.’
Norah Blade never spoke a word against her carer and had never fallen out with her, even over something trivial.
They watched half of a vulgar new sitcom before Norah decided to go to bed.
‘I’ve got three new library books Hilary changed for me. They can’t be worse entertainment than this.’ She snapped the remote control button and the television died.
It was half past nine by the time she was settled. Leslie went into the kitchen and opened the window. He could see a few stars in the clearing sky. He cleared away the supper plates, then took out a fresh sliced loaf, cheese, tomatoes and a pack of ham, made the sandwiches, cut a bought fruit cake into slices and wrapped everything in foil. He put the food into a carrier bag, with half a dozen Mars bars, some apples and a flask of coffee. He always made enough for four, and if there were more, they had to share it.
He sometimes wondered if Hilary ever saw the large blocks of cheese and packs of butter in the fridge, the chocolate and biscuits in the cupboard, and wondered who ate so much food, and usually overnight; but his mother always said one of the best things about Hilary was that she was never nosy, never commented, waited to be told things and if she was not, did not ask.
He tidied up, then watched the news headlines. When he switched off the television, the house was very quiet. A car went past. Quiet again. They were at the end of the row, and the neighbours on the other side made little noise. He wondered if Norah might prefer to live in a livelier street, with more families passing by, children going to and from school; she spent a lot of time in her chair by the window. But she had lived in this house for fifty-three years. It had been his home all his life. There was no question of moving now.
The front room, which had once been the dining room, had been made into a bedroom, now that Norah could no longer climb the stairs; there was a bathroom in a small extension. He went into the hall. There was no light coming from under her door, but he called her name softly a couple of times. Waited. Nothing. He opened the door slightly and stood listening to her soft breathing. The numbers glowed a strange alien green on her radio clock.
She did not reply.
But ten minutes later, hearing the soft click of the front door closing, Norah Blade opened her eyes. The house was settling back into itself. She listened. Leslie parked his car on the small piece of waste ground between their house and the block of flats. Sometimes she asked him why he bothered to keep it, whether it wasn’t too much of an expense, as he didn’t use it for work.
‘I take you to the hospital, I use it for shopping, we go out in the summer. You’d miss it.’
‘You could hire one.’
‘No, once you stop driving regularly you lose the skill.’
But he used it more often than that, Norah knew; he took the car at night, twice a week, though where he went and what he did she did not know nor would she ever ask. He was a grown man. He had a right to a private life. She felt guilty enough.
She strained her ears waiting until she heard him drive away down the road. The pain was never bad during this early part of the night because she was warm and comfortable propped on her special pillows, and the medication she took with a hot drink blurred the sharp edges for a time. But she never slept until Leslie came in, just lay in the darkness, strangely comforted by the green glow of the bedside clock. He would be out for a couple of hours and when she heard him return, she would fall asleep at once, until the pain and the stiffness in her limbs woke her again in the early hours.
From the Hardcover edition.