“I was seventy last week. You’ve seen it done, but you never think you’ll do it yourself. I suppose it’s just about not being dead. “Three score years and ten” it says in the Good Book. Somewhere. And that’s your lot. My GP says it’s not quite my lot – should run for a good few years yet, if I don’t get run over. But, of course, that could happen to anyone.
The children were very good about it, made a lot of fuss. Eric and Martin came up from London, and booked lunch in a smart hotel. Sally and Troy – whatever possessed his parents to call him that? – came over from Florida. I had prawns as big as your arm – I can’t pronounce what they were called. Then Beef Wellington. And I wasn’t going to have pudding – I don’t hold with eating when you aren’t hungry - but the raspberry Pavlova looked so nice… And some neighbours came over afterwards, and friends from church. I sent out little cards “Audrey Rigby invites you to Tea & Champagne to celebrate her Three Score Years and Ten”. Sally brought the Champagne – I’ll be drinking it for months – merry widow, me! I can’t help feeling a show-off when I introduce them to Eric and Sally. They’ve done so well – I overheard Vera, my neighbour for thirty-odd years, saying to Eric “I think your car’s worth more than my house”, and he said “I can tell you for a fact it is”. But he said it nicely, and they both roared with laughter. It would be nice to have a grandchild to show off too, but you can’t have everything in this life.
Seventy. That means I was married more than half a century ago. Arthur’s been dead a decade, but we made over forty years. Didn’t seem worth celebrating, but we had a go; if you can bake, you might as well make the effort. Sally didn’t come over for that one. Life changes, doesn’t it? When we met he was tall, and dashing, and a lovely dancer. Forty years later, he was fat, boring, and dead. There, now I’ve said it. The fatness was partly my fault – I fed him up when he ought to have been on a diet. He’d had an accident at the factory and done his knee in. That meant he got early retirement and compensation, and he should have got a diet too. But I’ve never held with them. If you’re greedy enough to eat, then eat. I can still get into my wedding dress. Just. Sally wore it for hers. Well, the first two. Then she sent it home. The third time, I think she wore blue.
We got married for the old, old, reason. I think I would have married for love, at least that’s what I thought I was feeling. But there was what you might call “time pressure”. My father was furious, of course, but then he always was. Never known such an angry man. He said Arthur would never go anywhere or achieve anything, and of course, he was quite right, which is vexing in itself. But Elsie – my big sister – had her first out of wedlock and rather than face the shame again, he paid for the wedding. In fairness to him, Arthur would always have done the decent thing.
So, little Arthur came into the world a little early, as you might say. I didn’t know Little Arthur was a character in history at the time. My little Arthur’s been a character in history for a long while now. Fifteen months we had him. Then, meningitis. By the time they’d worked out what was wrong, he was gone. Arthur carried the coffin himself. We never talked about it. Never a word. Never a tear. I’ve carried that little white coffin ever since. White wasn’t done in those days, but I insisted. “At least make sure God knows he was an innocent and gets to the right place”. It’s daft what you think when you’re young and stupid. And grieving. The vicar was nice. In fact, he looked quite upset himself, which surprised me. Well, they’re used to death, aren’t they?
We went home to an empty house. Of course, it wasn’t really empty – we had furniture and all sorts, mostly from Cousin Violet – she was Mother’s cousin, so a generation older, a spinster, but generous with it - and the rest on the never-never. I put a stop to that in the end. I don’t hold with debt. But with Arthur’s family, it was a way of life. But furniture doesn’t much compensate for the sound of a child’s voice. The doctor came round – it’s a small village, and they did in those days, probably charge you now – and he said “I think you should have another one as soon as possible”. I said “I’ve only just lost this one”. “Women dwell, Mrs Rigby, much better to have a new child to dwell on – you’re both young and healthy, and there’s a world to be lived”. That suited Arthur. He never much bothered about the children, but he didn’t mind putting in the work to creating them. Not then, anyway. So a few months later I fell pregnant with Eric. It was odd at first. As though he was a sort of lodger in little Arthur’s house. Maybe that just sounds silly. But he came out all right, and the poor little mite couldn’t sneeze or cough or burp without me taking him to the doctor. I wasn’t going to lose another. He turned out fit as a fiddle, lovely, handsome child. And oh, so clever! Arthur wanted to call him Arthur but I put my foot down – “he’s not living in the shadow of his father AND a dead brother, that’s too much”. I think perhaps I was beginning to grow up then. So, we compromised, which is adult, and he was named Eric after one of Arthur’s friends at the pub. He became his godfather, and he was a good one, too – birthday cards, days out, football. He never married, but I don’t think that was anything to do with it, I really don’t.
Three years later we had Sally. I wanted to call her Penelope. Or Penny – she could have had the choice. I thought that was clever – between something posh and classical, and the cheap coin. Arthur said “don’t be daft, woman”. So, Sally it was. I didn’t like the name at first, but of course if you love the child, you learn to love whatever name it has. It was a hard labour, and I thought “I don’t think I want to do that again”. But as it turned out, I didn’t have to.
So I had my children, Arthur had the factory and the pub, and we had to get on with that. To be honest, I was bored. I started teaching them letters and numbers because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Then we had books and sums. When they finally went to school they were yards ahead of the other children. And I kept on reading. In fact I think you could say that it was my children that taught me to read, not the other way round. While they lived at home I always could say to Arthur “the books stay, the children need them”. When they left, I told him “I need them”. He said “you can’t eat books” and walked out to the garden. He was planting roses, and I thought “well, you can’t eat them either, you old fool”. After he died I put them all in his room, the books, that is, not the roses. Made it a lot more interesting than when he was alive.
I shouldn’t be unkind about him. He was a good man – always paid the bills, put a roof over our heads, kept the house nicely decorated, never lifted a hand against the children – or me, come to that. He just – what was that word in the crossword yesterday? – “ossified”. He wasn’t interested in anything, and that means you can’t be interesting yourself. But he didn’t want to be. And then he had his accident, and was at home the whole time. That drove me to tears of fury. Those last few years he was mainly under a newspaper with the telly on too loud, fast asleep. As soon as you tried to turn it down – or, heaven forbid, off – he woke up. I cooked for him because I couldn’t think of anything else. He had no hobbies, couldn’t do the garden anymore, couldn’t get down to the pub. No friends. His friend Eric was dead by then. No, not that. Liver cancer. Gone in a month. With Arthur, it was like living with a ghost.
Then I found him. I’d been to the shop on the corner for milk and eggs. I wanted to make Yorkshire pudding. We both liked that – well, who doesn’t? And there he was, in the hall, at the bottom of the stairs. I knew from one look that he was dead. He’d been offered a heart by-pass a few months before, but he said “you’re not chopping me up”. They said he could have another ten years. He said no. So, he took the tablets – he was good at doing as he was told. But the tablets meant he had to go upstairs a lot. We were thinking of putting a downstairs one in. Eric would have paid – he even mentioned it one time, very quietly in the kitchen when Arthur was asleep with the telly on. But I thought we could afford it ourselves, until I found a builder and asked for a quote. And then I didn’t like to ask Eric. But what difference would it have made?
Looking back now, I still have a little, let’s call it a twinge, that my husband of forty years didn’t want to make it fifty. But then, he spared me another ten years of boredom. So, I suppose, after all these years, I’m grateful. Maybe dying was the only imaginative thing he ever did.
Being a widow is meant to be lonely. To be honest, being married was lonelier. I make my own friends, do my own things. I’ve always had a knack for baking, so I take something to church most Sundays, cakes, or biscuits, things like that, to make people feel welcomed. I look after the garden, and can have whatever radio or television I please. Or just silence. It’s more often silence. And I can travel around a little. I don’t like to go too far from home – there’s the cat – but London’s only two hours away, so I can see Eric and Martin.
No, Eric wasn’t a shock. I found something under his bed when he was about 12, and I knew he was going to be different. Maybe I knew a long time before. There are some things you notice without thinking about them. At school he didn’t have a girlfriend, but he had a lot of girls who were friends, if you see what I mean. They say that’s a clue. Did I mind? Oh I don’t know. He was always so bright and funny. But there’s a bit of you that craves a grandchild. Another generation to read stories to. Someone to set up your DVD machine for you. Or a girl to buy dresses for and cook with in the kitchen. Oh, no, we’re not meant to say that these days, are we? Well, another child to love, that’s what I mean, really. Vera’s grand-daughter was over the other day, my neighbour. She said, with such a smile “that’s my Gran”. “My Gran”.
But Eric was so clever, he zoomed through school like a dose of salts. We still had Grammars in those days. We still had grammar, come to that. He got an Exhibition to Oxford. I wasn’t even sure what that was – it sounded temporary. When I said so, he laughed. Of course, he knew what he was doing. Mainly has ever since. He studied mathematics. Didn’t get the best degree, but he had a little growing-up still to do. There were one or two “practice runs”, as he calls them, before he met Martin.
No, we never told Arthur, and Arthur never asked. Martin never came here while Arthur was alive, but he doesn’t hold that against us. I used to say to Arthur, “I’m off to London to see Eric” and he’d say, “see you later then, love”. And I’d come back eight hours later, after a lovely lunch, and lovely wine – they introduced me to wine, we never had it at home – and he’d be asleep under his newspaper. When he woke up he just used to say “you’re back then”, which was perfectly bloody obvious. Then waited for his tea. Never asked.
Martin’s a lovely man. A lawyer in the city. He helped me no end with my will – which shows he’s not proud. Eric paid off the house for me, and when Sally found out she sent an enormous cheque, so I’m very tidily off, what with Arthur’s work pension, and the state pension as well. I’ve put it all into trust for them. You’ve got to leave something to your children, haven’t you? I get it for life, then it’s theirs, and then … Well, I don’t know what they will do with it. No children to leave something to.
Thinking about it, that’s not quite true. Martin has a child. A son, called Paul. Martin was married before. The divorce wasn’t nice, so he sends cards and presents, but they haven’t met since Paul was a toddler. There are photographs of him then, but not later. He told me just the once – it was after dinner, and Eric was already asleep, either because of an early morning, or a few too many at dinner, I can’t remember which. I’ve tried to mention it since, but he won’t talk. Gets quite uptight. I think he feels the loss deeply. I know what it’s like to lose a child.
I never quite understood why Sally didn’t have children. Her first husband was James, from Durham. They met at college, both doing the same course – English Literature – although they then both went into advertising. I felt that was a shame, you know, a couple with the same trade – what would they have to talk about? As a girl you couldn’t see her without her nose in a book. She got a first. Oh, that was a happy day - graduation. James was there, and seemed nice as pie, but when they married, which was soon after, he got more difficult. There’s no bossing Sally around. Of course, she was too young to know whether she could stand him full-time, but then I wonder if she’d ever stand any man full-time. Four years, they lasted, and there was nastiness at the end which I don’t want to talk about, although I was glad she felt she could talk to me.
Then there was Colin. He was from the same firm, which I’ve always thought was a mistake. A nice boy. Simple – not in the head, in his manners. I think he adored her. He wanted to have children, and she went along with it. To shut him up, maybe. But he couldn’t. You’ve never seen a man weep so much. I think Sally was relieved. Her heart was never in it. Nor in Colin. He married again soon after, and they’ve two children now. Not sure how they did it. Well, none of my business, really. But someone is a grandmother. Well, two women are, I suppose. And then she had this brilliant job offer to move to Florida. She’d got bored of England, too many ghosts, I think, and the money was huge. I saw her pay cheque once. Truly astonishing. And then Troy came along. He’s older than her, not much, but enough to have made it unlikely she’d have children with him, and he didn’t arrive with any of this own, which seems surprising in your forties. They have the most enormous house in Florida, and they keep dogs and go on wonderful holidays all over the world. It was Antarctica last year. The photographs are lovely, they send them on the e-mail.
Yes, I bit the bullet on the computer. Everyone was telling me about it, and I thought, well, why not? It was confusing at first, but Martin showed me, and now it’s become rather fun. A good way to stay in touch with Sally without using the telephone. I know she’d foot the bill, but people of my generation always feel anxious if a call goes on too long. My friend Betty was telling me about her son in Australia – he keeps sending photos of his children on the e-mail, so she feels like she’s keeping up, even though she’s only been there once, and two of them weren’t born then. He’s got four now. Some people have all the luck. If I were her, I’d emigrate.
I stayed at Eric and Martin’s one time – Betty was looking after the cat – and after I’d done some washing up and sorted the laundry, I sat down at Martin’s desk with a cup of tea. I don’t know what possessed me. There it was – “Address Book”. I didn’t know what to look for – would it be under Paul, or under their surname? Of course, it was the surname – Martin’s too efficient to bother with intimacies. And there he was. Paul. With an address and a telephone number. I’ve always kept a little notebook in my handbag, just because you never know what you’ll need to remember. I fished it out. I don’t know if I should have done, but I did it and it’s done now. It’s in front of me on my little bureau. Paul.
I don’t know what to do for the best. The boy will be as much a stranger to his father as he is to me. He’s probably already got a Gran. And teenagers don’t want old people in their lives. I think. Although my two liked their grandparents – my miserable old father turned into a nice grandpa. Don’t know how he did it, but grandchildren change you.
Should I telephone? Send a letter?
I just want a child to belong to.”