I slowly buttoned my coat and walked down the stairs.
“Good night, Mrs. Evans,” smiled Rosalind as she passed me on the way up with a handful of letters.
“Good night,” I replied.
The late summer sun shone, but a cool evening breeze made me pull up my collar as I joined the home-going crowds that spilled onto the shop-lined pavements of town. Buses, cars, and lorries jostled along the one-way streets, and the clear air rang with city sounds.
I spotted one of the office girls outside the cinema as I ambled toward the bus station. No doubt she was waiting for her boyfriend.
An icy finger crept around my heart. I, too, had waited for Frank like that when we were young. Every day of our courtship and all through our marriage, even up to the end, everything had been lovely. Frank and I had always been together after working hours. Frank!
My soul shriveled in despair, and suddenly I didn’t feel like going home. Not yet. What was there to go to? An overtidy shell? I bit my lip and turned my back on the bus station.
Widow. I’d never imagined myself as one. Some people prepare themselves, but I never had. My strength had come from Frank. Life with him seemed something that never could end. At least, not so soon nor so suddenly. Married to the best of men for nearly thirty years—and now faced with an empty existence.
I stopped to buy an evening paper from a newsstand and discovered that my keys were gone. For a moment I felt a sickly annoyance, but then I remembered taking them out of my bag and putting them on my office desk.
I must have left them there, I thought. I would have to go back for them.
The cleaning woman let me in and I found my keys under the typewriter cover. Then I noticed an official-looking letter addressed to me lying on the desk. Someone had put it there after I left. I slit the envelope and scanned the page. Financial setbacks in the company compelled the management to dismiss some of the employees—I was one of them. I was stunned. How could I possibly face yet another change, new faces, personalities, routines, questions?
People don’t realize what loneliness is like until it happens to them. I had no relatives to speak of. Our only son had died, and my few friends seemed to have avoided me since the funeral almost as if they believed sorrow was contagious.
The air on the street was even cooler, and I was thankful for it as my breath came in spasms.
Be calm, be calm, I cried inside myself. Don’t make a scene. It can’t help you.
The breeze slowly cleared my head as I walked along the pavement. I thought of seeing a film to kill two or three hours, but the titles advertised some strange, modern shows.
Then I remembered May. It might help to call on an old school friend. She and her husband were the caretakers of an institute and lived in a flat inside the main building. The institute was a semi-permanent affair that had been put up shortly after the war. Originally made of prefabricated materials, it had later boasted a few brick walls. It was a curious place and not the least inviting. Entering the windowless foyer, I came to a corridor where doors were labeled kitchen, clubroom, cloakroom, and so on. One said caretaker.
A musical sound wafted toward me as I walked down the corridor. It was the sound of children’s voices singing. I listened:
“Little purple pansies touched with yellow gold
Growing in a corner of the garden old,
We are very tiny but must try, try, try,
Just one spot to gladden, you and I.”
Someone spoke to the children, and they sang the verse again. I was listening intently now, attracted by the words and the reedy voices.
“In whatever corner we may chance to grow,
Whether cold or warm the wind may ever blow,
Dark the day or sunny, we must try, try, try,
Just one spot to gladden, you and I.”
Something—I couldn’t tell what because it was just a feeling—reached out and warmed me. Then it was gone. I stayed awhile, but the children stopped singing. Passing down the corridor, I rang the caretaker’s bell.
Surprise registered on May’s face when she saw me, but I couldn’t be sure if I detected disappointment too.
“Lil! It’s been a long time. Come in for a minute or two and sit down.” She smoothed the skirt of her party dress.
“I was just passing and thought I’d look you up.” I sat on the edge of the chair she indicated.
It was a comfortable enough room, but it did not say “Welcome.”
“You’re just in time,” May said, reaching for cups and saucers. “I was just leaving. It’s my Lonely Hearts Club night, you know.”
“Don’t let me hold you up.” I rose, pulling on my gloves, and my hands trembled a little.
“Now you sit down a minute. You look a little tired.” May frowned, then smiled. “I’ll tell you all about this club I help to run.”
“That’s not its official name, but it’s just the thing for you. You would meet lots of people like yourself and make new friends.”
“You know I lost my husband.”
“Read about it in the local paper, dear. But you have to take up life again, don’t you?” she confided. “That’s what I always tell our new members. Take a grip on yourself, I say, and pull yourself together. You have to do it sometime, and it might as well be now as later. You’re missing loads of pleasure if you delay, so stop being sorry for yourself, I tell them.”
I winced. How little she understood!
“Do you have many members?”
“About a hundred or more. Of course, we don’t get that many every week. It depends on the program. Sometimes it’s dancing and games. Sometimes we have films and other weeks we visit the theater. In the summer we have two or three bus trips into the country.”
She looked pleased as she added, “In September, I’m organizing a long weekend on the continent—Paris! You’ll have to be quick if you want to come with us; we’re almost fully booked for that.”
I thought of the pleasant holidays that Frank and I had spent. Sometimes we had walked in the Lake District or toured the old fishing coves of the west country. Occasionally we had gone abroad. But this weekend that May was arranging would be a far cry from the creative hours we had spent either in Versailles or the fairytale Rhineland or discovering the Dutch bulb fields in full bloom.
I sipped warm liquid from the cup she pushed toward me. The action steadied me a little. “It sounds as though you’re keeping busy. Does your husband go to the club too?”
“No! He’s not bothered about it, but he doesn’t mind my going. It’s my friend who runs the club, you see. She asked me to help her when she first started it. I enjoyed it so much that I kept going.”
“What time does it begin?”
“About eight. But I’ve promised to be there early tonight. We’re having special refreshments because a couple of members are moving away. We’re giving them a send-off party.”
She pulled a simulated fur coat over her glittering dress. “That’s it. Now we’re ready.”
As I preceded her into the windowless corridor, a shaft of sunlight suddenly sprang through the clubroom door and several children poured out.
“Quietly! Remember where you are,” a gentle voice half scolded, half encouraged. Then I heard the speaker, a young woman, call out, “Why, Mrs. Evans! Hello!”
I turned and discovered it was one of the girls from work. “Rosalind! You look as if you have your hands full.” I felt an unmistakable sense of relief flood over me at the sight of the girl. Perhaps it was because May didn’t understand me and I dreaded the lonely hearts. Here was a possible alternative.
“They’re not really a handful,” smiled the girl, “and there are plenty of us to cope. We’ve been holding Primary. I love it. But of course children always burst with energy.”
“I’m sure of it. Are you going home now? I catch the same bus as you, I think.”
I must have sounded pleading, because she looked a little worried as she replied, “I’m sorry. We have MIA in half an hour and I stay for that.”
I was going to ask what MIA stood for when May tugged my sleeve. “We’d better go, Lil.”
I held my hand across my eyes for a moment. I wanted to be inside my own four walls. The thought of being jollied around and encouraged to pull myself together was unthinkable. An impossible situation. The sight of a roomful of lonelies burying their true feelings under a thin coating of glamour made me feel sick. But to be fair to May, I felt she might be helping some of the people and finding friendships for others.
“Not tonight, May.” I saw her disappointment and promised, “Another time.”
When I got home, I switched on the television and settled in a cosy chair to eat the omelette I had prepared. It should have been delicious with its chopped mushrooms and bits of smoky bacon, but like all food, it lacked Frank’s presence to bring out the flavor. Eating had become mechanical.
I put the plate aside. Machine-made laughter rattled the TV set. Summer rain spattered glistening drops against the window.
Oh, Frank, Frank. My heart seemed to twist inside me. Frank! I wept for a long time.
Later, I heard a blackbird singing and saw that the shower was over. I hadn’t noticed the birds this year. This one sat in a silver birch tree halfway down the garden, his golden beak contrasting his rounded, black body. The sun shone still. There would perhaps be a rainbow.
Suddenly I needed to smell the damp earth and feel the wet grass under my feet, to be part of the tangible world again. I flung open the French windows. For a long time I had just existed, wanting to run away from myself and my smothering situation. But running was useless, I had quickly discovered. Chasing off to London or the seaside only magnified the stifling awareness of being alone. My problem followed at my heels.
The garden had been Frank’s pride. We had worked in it together, enjoying the results on warm days by lounging in garden chairs. Frank would read the paper and snooze while I sewed or knitted. But I had neglected everything this year. I made a promise to remedy the fault. This weekend I would begin by tidying the flower borders.
The blackbird sang mightily. I smiled, silently thanking him for his welcome cheer. Away, across the sky, I caught the suggestion of a rainbow.
Something snagged my leg. Bending to disentangle a thorny branch from my stocking, I noticed suckers on the rosebushes. It was unforgivable of me to have ignored them. I pulled at a few grassy weeds but stopped. Pansies—little purple pansies, touched with yellow gold. I remembered Frank sowing the seeds and promising me, “Pansies are for thoughts, love.”
A single tear fell on an open-faced flower, but I was smiling. “Thank you, Frank. Thank you, my dearest.” A great deal of him was still here with me, I realized. Picking one of the flowers, I held it to my cheek.
A tune haunted me. Where had I heard it? The children, of course. Rosalind’s Primary children singing about pansies. I couldn’t remember the words, but their message was still with me. The children were to be cheerful and brighten dark places.
I seemed to recall a bit of another song. Somewhere in the depths of my mind, it was stored away. I had sung it as a child in Sunday School. What was it? “You in your small corner and I in mine,” but how did it begin?
“Jesus bids us shine with a pure, clear light,
Like a little candle burning in the night.
In this world of darkness we must shine,
You in your small corner and I in mine.”
My soul suddenly wanted to sing like the bird in the tree. “Thank God,” I cried, “for the Rosalinds of this world and the fund of precious truths they implant in children’s minds!”
I could remember my Sunday School teacher. She had had a smile but it wasn’t so all-embracing as Rosalind’s glow. That was it—a glow! Rosalind carried it everywhere. I scooped up a handful of dark earth and let it flow through my fingers. What was it May had said so furtively as we left the institute?
“They give us no trouble. Tidy and respectable, but strange in their ways. Mormons, you know. But they always pay on the dot.”
Poor May. She had a great deal to learn. I hoped it wouldn’t be the hard way. She meant well and did her best, I could tell. No doubt she brought a ray of sunshine to many lonely folk.
“But tomorrow,” I decided, as I made a final tour of the garden, “I’ll talk to Rosalind. I’ll see if I can discover the source of her light.”
“I’ll have to chase up another job too,” I remembered. Frank had left me well provided for, but I needed to be occupied. The doctor said so.
Later that evening I was looking down the help-wanted column of my evening paper when Rosalind paid me a visit.
“I do hope you don’t mind my coming,” the girl apologized, “but I may not have an opportunity to see you tomorrow.”
“Come in, come in.” I was amazed to see her. She had never called before. “How nice of you to come!”
“I mustn’t be long, though,” went on the girl, glancing toward the car in the road. “Jimmy and Val are waiting.”
“Bring them in too.”
When the young people were seated, I offered them refreshment, but all they would take was orange juice.
“You’re easy to please,” I commented as I made them comfortable in the living room.
“I suppose it’s a bit of a cheek,” began Rosalind, “but I had the job of typing the redundant notices today and one was for you.”
“I know. I’ve already seen it. But last in, first out is always the rule at such times,” I said.
“That’s true. But you see, I think I can suggest a new job, if you are interested. Someone I know has a little firm that he runs himself at his home. But now that it’s growing, he needs someone to look after the office side of things, do the bookkeeping, and so on.”
Her nervousness had gone and she went on eagerly. “I saw him tonight and told him about you. He suggested that you see him tomorrow evening if that’s suitable for you.”
“Oh, I do hope you don’t mind, but I’m sure you’re just the person he is looking for.”
“It’s all so kind of you,” I said, smiling, “and so sudden. I didn’t know I was being observed.”
She blushed, so to avoid further embarrassment, I said, “I’d be so pleased to visit your friend. Thank you for being so thoughtful.”
“Actually, he’s our MIA president,” she went on. “His wife has been helping him a little but now they have a new baby, she hasn’t the time to spare.”
“You’ll like him,” said Val.
Jimmy added, “Terrific man.”
“He sounds popular,” I laughed.
And when the young people had left, I laughed again and then again. It was a good feeling. It lifted my load. The dark tunnel I’d been traveling for so long was coming to an end. I could see the pinpoint of light in the distance; and one day soon, I would burst into daylight with a rush.
Though the sun had set, I declined turning on the electric lamps. The day would disappear the moment the switch clicked down. Taking a candle from the kitchen cupboard, I set it beside the tiny vase of pansies. I was glad I had gathered a few. The glow from the candle and the sweetness of the flowers filled me with a deep peace. Someone did care about me after all. I was very lonely still and would always be aware of that cavernous gap in my life, but these simple tokens and a girl who was concerned about other people had sought out a dark corner of my heart. They had made me remember things long forgotten. If they could gladden one spot, why couldn’t I gladden others?
Tonight I would sleep. An almost forgotten pleasure. Tomorrow? There was something afoot; the feeling was unmistakable. Something good was in store for me. A new life, perhaps? Surprised at myself, I looked forward to it.