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Good Intentions

Monday, 30th January 2012

Categories: Moving Stories

Author: Peter Barry

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition

Written by Pat Ashford

My daughter, Elspeth, has just finished adjusting the drapes for me, and I’m stepping back to admire the subtle combination of dove grey and pink when my new neighbour appears on the doorstep, bearing gifts.  That is, if you can call some rather indifferent fairy cakes iced in the most slap-dash way and a flask of watery coffee gifts, but as my daughter insists, it was a kind thought and as I intimate to Elspeth, I daresay I shall be able to take her under my wing and give her a tip or two in the catering department.

     ‘Just don’t patronise her, Mum,’ she says in a warning voice and I’m sure I don’t know what she means, ‘just try not to patronise or offend any of your new neighbours, eh?’

     Then she says she has to fly to catch up with her work and not to get my feathers ruffled again, it’s been a long day. Well, it’s been a long day for me too what with those rude removal men’s bad language when all I’d asked them to do was keep readjusting the furniture until it was exactly right – it’s not much to ask, after all, but you just don’t get deference these days that you got years ago.

     Well, I suppose I’d better get rid of the rest of those appalling cakes and ditch the dregs of that coffee – how Elspeth could drink it, I don’t know! – and then I can return the flask and the plate. I’m just in the act of doing this, when she comes round again, this time armed with net curtains.

     ‘Thought this might come in handy,’ she says, ‘it’s brand new, a spare set but I don’t need it and as your kitchen window’s the same size as mine ….well, it’s here if you want it.’

     ‘I’m having a Venetian blind fitted,’ I tell her frostily, ‘I never use net – too dated for my liking. Oh by the way, I have your flask and plate here.’

     She’s looking a bit nervous, a bit flustered now. Probably overawed.  I invite her in to put her at her ease and to show her round.  She might learn a thing or too about drapes in the process.

     ‘Ooh,’ she says, ‘you’re so organised already. It’s lovely.’

     ‘Thank you,’ I say, ‘now would you like a real cup of coffee. You’re very welcome to join me.’

     She follows me through into the kitchen where I percolate coffee and offer her one of my excellent cinnamon cakes specially packed in a tin ready for the move, only Elspeth would insist on accepting and eating those dratted fairy cakes instead.

     ‘I don’t even know your name,’ she says now, ‘I’m Jenny.  My partner, Jim, and I moved in only recently too.’

     Partner indeed! – They seem to make the rules up as they go along, these days. I’m glad to say my Elspeth’s married, even if he is a bit pig-headed when it comes to accepting well-meaning advice.  Still, must be civil, mustn’t we.

     ‘Clara Billington,’ I say extending my hand, ‘I lost my husband two years ago and decided the time had come to downsize though I hope in the process, I haven’t come too downmarket.’

     She doesn’t join me in laughing. People don’t readily appreciate my dry wit.

     ‘Only joking,’ I say, ‘oh by the way, I have something you might find useful. I actually bought it for my daughter, Elspeth – you met her this morning – as a new bride, though of course, you’re not a bride are you, but still – now where did I pack it?’

     I leave her imbibing my cakes and coffee and go for a quick rummage through the last remaining packing case in the spare bedroom until I found what I was looking for. A copy of ‘Baking for Beginners or How not to Fail at Fairy Cakes’ which I thought Elspeth might find amusing, but she must have forgotten to take it with her when they moved out and it’s never been opened. Well, it will certainly come in useful now.

     ‘There you are,’ I say laying the book on the table in front of Jenny, ‘we all have to start somewhere and there’s nothing like a bit of solid advice.’

     ‘Thank you,’ she says, looks at it a bit sniffily, fingers it in a desultory fashion and then when she gets up to go, nearly forgets to take it with her until I remind her.

     ‘Oh by the way,’ she says on the way out, ‘your neighbour on the other side, Mabel Hutchinson, is quite an old lady… She’s in hospital at the moment but should be coming out next week.’

     ‘Her garden’s overgrown,’ I say, ‘and that hedge is a nightmare.’

     ‘She has no-one to do it for her,’ she says a bit sharply when I was only making a reasonable point after all.  I mean I have to live next door to her don’t I?

      Come next morning, I’m on the phone to Fred Appleby who specialises in what he calls tree surgery which translates in my book as getting rid of unruly hedges and untidy trees. Of course, it’s going to cost me but it’s well worth it and I’ll have a fence put up instead. This Mabel Hutchinson’s in for a nice surprise when she comes home.  No-one can accuse me of not being a good neighbour though there are plenty in the past that have called me an interfering busy-body when I was only trying to do them a good turn.

     Fred arrives and doesn’t waste time in getting started.  By teatime, the hedge is no more. It’s then that this Jenny Living-in-Sin-and-Can’t-Cook person returns home from work and looks aghast, even though it’s my hedge to do as I like with – well, admittedly shared with this old Mabel Hutchinson woman, but so what – I’m doing her a favour.

     ‘I wouldn’t be in your shoes for a pension,’ she has the nerve to observe. I nearly tell her she’ll never be in my shoes, she wouldn’t know how to carry them off, but I restrain myself, so determined am I to be nice and start off on the right footing.

     ‘Look, I’m sure even you will admit it badly needed attention.’  I look pointedly at her own garden, only fractionally better than Mabel Hutchinson’s, ‘she’ll be so relieved, you’ll see.’

     ‘If I know Mabel, she’ll be absolutely furious,’ she says, ‘you’ve probably disturbed all her hedgehogs and things.’

     Then she told me she’d been putting milk out for these creatures every night whilst Mabel was in hospital.

     ‘Of course, you weren’t to know that,’ she says hastily, seeing my aghast expression. She’s obviously got me wrong – had I known that, it would have firmed up my resolve to do away with that benighted hedge.

     ‘Hedgehogs,’ I say, trying not to snort, trying to be patient, ‘are in anyone’s book nasty flea-ridden vermin.’

     It’s her turn to look aghast, even hurt, as if I were somehow insulting her.  Then she turns on her heel, shakes her head and goes. I can’t understand why she looked so sad. Does she seriously want to invite a multiplication of fleas all over the neighbourhood? Whatever next?  Thank goodness, that hedge has gone!

     I tell all this to Elspeth when she calls round to check on me.

    ‘I couldn’t have tried harder to be neighbourly,’ I tell her, ‘I even gave her a book which was a tactful way of suggesting she could improve on her baking skills.’

    ‘Tactful!’ snorts my daughter, ‘since when were you ever tactful, Mum?’

     I ask her what she means by such a remark.

    ’What’s tactful about removing a hedge you share with someone else without even consulting them, even though it’s on your side? What’s tactful about destroying a wild life habitat you happen to share with someone who obviously cares?’

     Right from a small child, Elspeth was always questioning every wise word I spoke, then as an adult, taking sides against me. Not biddable like Elaine but then, Elaine’s living miles away, needed space to breathe, she said.  Well, she’s certainly got that in Australia.

     ‘Why do you never see my side?’ I ask, ‘why are you always against me? Elaine never is. She always supports me.’

     ‘Oh yes,’ she says in that withering way she has if I as much as mention her sister’s virtues, ‘well, where was Elaine all day yesterday and the day before that when I - and Alex come to that - were struggling with your house move?’

     I tell her I appreciate all that, of course I do, though it’s only my due when I think of all the sacrifices I’ve made for her and Elaine too, come to that. It’s just that she doesn’t support me when other people are making life hell for me like they usually are.  Take the removal men, for instance, Elspeth actually apologised to them for what she called my impatience, never mind making them apologise to me for their bad language.

     ‘But never mind,’ I say, ‘you might be a mother yourself, some day, and then you’ll understand how I feel. That’s if you and Alex don’t leave it too late.’

     She’s nearly forty after all, been married fifteen years and to my knowledge, been talking and dreaming of getting pregnant for at least ten of these. 

     Now what have I said?  She’s flushing deep red and biting her lip like she always did when she was a girl and trying not to cry. I can’t seem to put a foot right with folk these days without them taking the hump or getting over-sensitive. That’s what happens when you try to do your best for everyone – you end up pleasing no-body.

     A week has passed already though I’ve seen no more of that Jenny, but Mabel Whatsername arrived home by ambulance today. I can see her through the window now. She’s just hobbled out of her house on two sticks and she’s looking, just looking at the new fence.  Very smart it is too and newly creosoted.  She must be thinking how lucky she is to have such a thoughtful neighbour.

     So why is she looking up as if she guesses I’m here and shaking her stick at me? Perhaps, it’s her way of acknowledging me, being friendly.  I’ll just pop round and see her.

     There, she’s coming to meet me as I make my way down to the fence.  At least I have one grateful neighbour. But why is she waving her stick again. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she was going to attack me with it; probably gone a bit senile, poor old thing! Oh well, on with the good work, Clara. Keep your distance from that stick and be your usual tactful self. That should work!

Written by Pat Ashford

This is one of the twelve shortlisted entries for the Peter Barry Short Story Competition