Sally is on her morning walk. She’s pacing, puffing; her heart rate high, her body alive. As she passes the homes and their gardens she steals a peek. Even stops to smell a rose at a house with a front yard taken straight out of the botanical gardens.
Sally jumps, startled by the voice from nowhere. Looking around, she sees an elderly man, tending the garden, not far from where she stands.
‘Sorry, love, didn’t mean to frighten you.’ He chuckles, and wipes his brow. ‘Just that I can’t seem to not chat when someone passes by.’
‘I’m fine. Thanks.’ Sally clears her throat. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry, but you have a beautiful home and your garden is outstanding.’
‘Was the head gardener at Fawkner Park for many years, love. It’s in my bones.’
‘Well, it’s gorgeous.’
He takes his secateurs and snips roses from different bushes. Before Sally can say anything, he’s fashioned them into a small posy. ‘For you,’ he says. ‘To match your youthful beauty.’
Despite herself, Sally blushes. She’s not really young, but concedes that to this man, she’d be a spring chicken. ‘Thank you.’ She nods and looks at the ground.
‘Pleasure to meet you, Jack. I’m Sally.’ She clears her throat. ‘I really must get going. I’ve held you up long enough.’
‘Oh, love—err, Sally. I’ve got a whole day ahead of me. You’re not wasting my time.’ He walks to his front gate. ‘How about a cuppa. Make an old man’s day to have company.’
Sally shifts her weight from one foot to the other; unsure what to do. She doesn’t want to upset Jack, but how many times has she read about a woman being the victim of a random attack, at the hands of a stranger. As the thought bubbles up, she quickly chides herself for such stupidity. Jack’s an old man, surely in his late 80s. He’d no more harm her than a fly.
She is thirsty, though. This exercise caper has its drawbacks, for sure. And it’s not like she’s got anyone to rush home for. Not these days. Before she knows what’s happening, she says, ‘Oh, Jack. That’d be wonderful. Thank you.’
‘Great!’ He flings the gate wide and leads the way to his front door. ‘Come in, come in.’
Once inside, Jack fills the kettle and places it on the stove, while Sally looks around. There’s no woman here, but there was. And she’s not long gone, either, Sally reckons. The decor of the home has the touch of an elderly female: chintz sofa, complete with antimacassars. I mean, who still uses those? There’s a vase on a side table with fake, fabric flowers. Strange, given Jack’s garden. She places the small posy he just gave her on the coffee table.
‘My wife, June, died six months ago,’ Jack says sadly. It’s as if he’s read Sally’s thoughts. But perhaps she’s been obvious, looking around the home with no sense of discretion. She abhors nosy folk, yet here she is, doing just that.
‘I’m sorry, Jack. I didn’t mean to pry.’
He picks up a jacket, slung across the sofa. ‘Please, take a seat. It’ll be nice to chat.’
She sits. Her eyes glance around at the numerous photos: a black and white wedding photo, a family portrait, with a much younger Jack—handsome, broad shoulders, tanned skin—next to a petite and stunning woman, with four children standing behind the couple.
Jack brings over a tray with a teapot and two cups and saucers. June had lovely taste and looked after her things. Sally’s eyes scan the matching set and she estimates it’s from the 1940s, and probably quite expensive. Royal Doulton, perhaps. Or Wedgewood.
He’s noticed she was looking at the portrait. ‘Taken in the 60s, when the kids were still young. God, how life stretched ahead of us then. Thought nothing could harm us.’ There’s tears in his eyes as he takes the photo from the side board and thrusts it in front of Sally. ‘That one,’ he points to a girl, closest to June. ‘Died in a car accident when she was seventeen. Terrible time. June never got over it. Never forgave the driver, her boyfriend. Oh he wasn’t to blame, of course. But poor June could never understand why he lived, and her girl suffered and died.’
Sally swallows. ‘I’m so sorry.’
‘And this one.’ Jack points a gnarly, arthritic finger to a young man. The eldest, she guesses, given he’s head and shoulders taller than the others. ‘He got caught up in the drugs. No idea where he is these days. Don’t even know if he’s dead or alive.’
The room spins for Sally. She’s got to go; she can’t get caught up in this grief. Not now that’s she’s doing so well. Not now that she’s climbing out of her own dark tunnel.
‘Jack,’ she says. Her hands shake as she places the cup and saucer on the coffee table. ‘I have to go, I’m sorry. Got to get to work.’
Jack nods. Wipes his eyes. ‘Been lovely to chat with you, Sally. Please come again.’
Sally is torn with guilt. Part of her would love to get to know Jack better, but his pain is contagion. It’s already seeping into her blood supply, infecting her thoughts and mood.
He shows her to the door. Gently touches her shoulder and nods. ‘Thank you,’ he says.
She smiles, small and wan. Walks to the fence. Hears Jack close the door behind her. She runs home, flees indoors and throw herself on her bed as the darkness of grief settles over her like a heavy, scratchy blanket.