One Thursday morning in early November George Cartwright found a lemon meringue pie on his doorstep. There was a note with it.
“I made the lemon curd in this myself. Eve Jackson- number 23.”
It was a good pie too- he ate every bit- but he was in a real state about what to do with the dish after he had eaten it. Just leaving it on the door step might seem unfriendly, but he didn’t think it was right to be going round there visiting on his own. Margaret wouldn’t have allowed it. Then he remembered that Margaret couldn’t tell him what he should do any more, being dead. That was a funny feeling. He didn’t quite know whether he was pleased about it or not, but anyway there was no way round it, he couldn’t be rude. He was going to have to take the pie dish back and he was going to have to knock. After all, she might not be in.
But when he did knock on the door Eve Jackson was in, and she was smiling at him. Suddenly, without knowing quite how it had happened, he was in her front room, sitting on her settee, with a very thin china cup of Earl Grey tea in his hand and a bourbon biscuit. It was a pale cream carpet and it was all he could do to sit there answering back politely, and not spilling tea or biscuit crumbs on it. He could see that it was very neat, what Margaret would have called immaculate, and there were nice things. He looked round with wide eyes at two large jet black dogs with glass eyes, a whole flight of tropical birds underneath a shining glass dome, Beswick cattle marching along a shelf on the back wall, and a tiny set of white animals with coloured crests on them. There was even a horrible green rabbit with sunken eyes and a hunched back, just like the one Margaret had wanted to buy at the antiques fair in Buxton. She had a whole menagerie in there. George was very impressed and wondered about the dusting. He nodded when the serious looking man who was in most of the photographs was pointed out. It was her husband Jack, who must have been in the army by the looks of it. Since there were some flowers next to one very big photo he supposed he must have passed away, but it didn’t seem right to ask. Anyway Margaret told him about it after a while. He had been brought home in an aeroplane after he died of a heart attack while they were on holiday in Florida. George looked into his teacup and said that he was sorry. Then he realised that she was waiting for him to tell her about Margaret, so he did. He felt like every beady eyed animal in the room was staring at him. He told her as fast as possible because he didn’t like thinking about it.
“She passed away two and a half years ago. Very sudden like.”
Margaret had fallen down in the street right next to him, and when the doctor told him that it had been a heart attack he hadn’t been able to believe it for a long time. “Your wife was a walking time bomb,” the doctor had said. It just didn’t seem real, but at the same time there was something about Margaret that made the idea of her being a walking time bomb exactly right. There had been many a time, if he brought the wrong thing back from the shops, or forgot something she couldn’t do without, when that was just what she had been. His mind was wandering, but he must have said the right things because Eve was nodding back at him.
“I’m so sorry. It’s very hard. Very hard.”
It was hard. He remembered going to the bank not long after Margaret had passed away and the nice girl behind the counter hadn’t understood a word he said. He had had to say it all again, even though he had no idea what had gone wrong.
Eve poured him some more tea.
Still, life goes on doesn’t it? Whether you like it or not. I should think you’re well settled here now.”
George agreed that he was. Somehow saying that seemed to make it closer to being real. Anyway he wasn’t going to go telling somebody he hardly knew, who used bone china tea cups, how he really felt, even if she did make good lemon meringue pie. Margaret was the only one he could tell that to, and she was just a photograph now. A photograph, and a pale grey ghost like coat hanging in the back of the wardrobe. That coat had been her favourite. George liked to stroke the fur collar when he was hanging his shirts up. Sarah had wanted to get rid of it but he wouldn’t let her. So long as it was there to touch, and sometimes bury his face in when things got really bad, there was still a small part of Margaret living in the house.
“I was saying I expect you’re well settled here now.”
George realised that he must not have answered.
“Oh yes thank you. Well settled.”
George explained his routine, and asked if Eve had ever been in the Cheerio Café. She had, but not for Sunday dinner. He nodded at her enthusiastically.
“Oh, you want to get yourself down there. £7.50 for three courses. You can’t go wrong. Very nice.”
Eve smiled politely, and held out a biscuit.
“I shall have to make a note. I know their cakes are very nice.”
“She’s a nice lass Megan. Easy going. Makes everybody feel at home. Margaret used to like it in there.”
Eve looked down into her teacup and George felt sorry for her. He had better change the subject.
“Do you grow tomatoes then?”
Eve didn’t grow tomatoes, but she grew plenty of other things, especially dahlias, and she showed George the bulb catalogue she ordered from. She had also been on five Lochs and Glens tours, and she showed him all the photographs. George nodded and made the right noises, but the truth was that they all looked the same to him, even if he didn’t say so. Scenery was all very well, but you could have too much of it. He began to wonder if she was looking for a companion to go with her on tour number six.
An hour later he was outside the door with a piece of Madeira cake wrapped up in a napkin. When they said goodbye she leaned forward as if she might be going to give him a peck on the cheek, and he hurried away quickly. He had a feeling he might have asked her to pop in for a cup of tea at his bungalow when she was passing. It was all a little bit worrying.
When he got home he switched on his television and flicked through the channels. It would soon be time for Deal or No Deal. He liked the man on that. He always seemed cheerful and George liked watching the contestant’s faces. Once a very nice woman had won £57,000 and he had been almost as pleased as if he’d won it himself. Some of them were a bit full of themselves mind you. He had noticed it was often that sort who pushed their luck too far and didn’t get to win much at all. Sometimes he was quite pleased about that too. It was obvious he was meant to want everybody to win, but he didn’t. Not always.
He didn’t get the chance to settle down to watch it today, because just as he was reciting the opening speech, his lips moving silently along with the presenter, the doorbell rang. It was Freda from over the road.
She had a carrier bag in her hand. For a minute he thought it was going to be more food, but it wasn’t.
“I thought you might like these George. Some daffodil bulbs.”
George did like daffodils.
“Thank you very much.”
“They’re just spares. I’ve nowhere to put them, so I thought you might as well have them.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
George could see her eyes peering through the door. He wondered whether he should ask her in.
“I was just going to make some tea. Would you like some?”
“Well, I’d better not- I’ve got my dirty boots on and it’ll be time to get the tea on soon.”
“Just as you like.”
“Oh, go on then. Just a quick cuppa.”
George was amazed how quickly Freda’s boots came off . Before he knew where he was she was standing in the middle of his front room, “weighing things up” as Margaret would have said.
Now this time George really was worried. Freda’s husband Henry was definitely not dead. He was out there in the garden opposite George’s bungalow most days, and George wasn’t sure what he would think to his wife having tea on her own with another man. Anyway, it was done now. He made the tea and settled down on the sofa. He could still see the boxes on Deal Or No Deal with the sound off.
Freda seemed to have a lot to say about Henry. As she drank her tea she explained to George about his lack of gumption in supermarkets, the way he kept filling up the bin when she had just emptied it, how long she had been waiting for her new shelves in the spare bedroom, and why she had to make sure that he had his keys before he went out. The phrase “useless article” kept coming up. As the boxes opened one by one George started to imagine they had Henry’s shortcomings marked on the lids instead of amounts of money. Not taking the rubbish out would be 1p or maybe £10, and not knowing where the milk was in the supermarket would probably be £5,000. He wondered which of Henry’s faults would be worth £250,000.
“So there we are.” Freda said finally, sitting back and helping herself to a rich tea biscuit. “These things are sent to try us, as they say.”
George smiled. He knew what it was like to be in the wrong all the time, and he felt a little bit sorry for Henry. He would make sure to have a word with him next time he was outside in the garden. The strange thing was though, that Freda didn’t seem at all bothered. She didn’t look like somebody who was fading away, cursed with a useless no hoper of a husband. In fact she looked like she was thriving on it. The banker had just offered the contestant on Deal Or No Deal £21,000, and she didn’t look anything like as pleased with herself. Folk were strange sometimes.
“Well, I’d better be getting on.”
“Right you are.”
After a quick lesson in how to plant daffodils, which George didn’t need, she was on her way. George watched her bustle across the road and shut her door noisily. When he turned back to the television he found out that the contestant had said ”No Deal”, and lost all but £250 of her £21,000.