Grace had spent most of her life up on the moors above Whitby. It had not been an easy life, and she knew all about coping. Mostly she had coped with the hard slog of day to day routine. When her sisters were imagining her wandering around a neat farmyard in a clean apron, feeding hens, she was more likely to be out on the fell side, walling, or in the sheep fold at two o’clock in the morning getting a tup through a difficult lambing. So many Springs, so many lambs. Tom had been a good man, but he needed organising, and as times got harder it was left to Grace to find new ways of making money and keeping the farm going. She had coped with the loss of two children in infancy, and the loss of a third who made her way down to London to work in a publisher’s office and rarely had time to get home. God knows how but she had even coped when Tom was found dead out on the fells, with his gun next to him, and the farm had been sold. She had moved down into the small village in the bottom of the valley to take over the post office. Ten years after that, when the post office had to close, she had arrived in Whitby. It had been a hard choice to move away after spending a whole life in the same dale, but she had found a place for herself working two afternoons in a charity shop, and being secretary of the WI. She kept her tiny bungalow on the cliff top estate spotless, not because she was particularly bothered about it, but because after the years of relentless hard work she found it hard to know what to do with herself. Grace knew how important it was to cope, and one way that she had done this was by keeping herself to herself. To say that they “kept themselves to themselves” had always been the greatest compliment her mother could ever pay anybody, and Grace never forgot this. Not even the people closest to her in Whitby knew about how Tom had died, and as far as they were concerned she had only one daughter. Only Grace knew and remembered them all as she wished to, without letting other people’s pity get in the way. There had been good times at Fordhead Farm as well as bad, and she never forgot that, very good times. So her first thought, when William walked into the Age concern shop was, yes- I could cope with him.
Grace had a lot of regular customers, but it didn’t take her long to realise that William was coming in just to see her. Of course he didn’t tell her that, but she knew all the same. Her counter faced the open doorway of the shop. He sometimes came in late on Friday afternoons, and when things got less busy she would begin to look for his trilby hat coming in through the door. One particular Friday afternoon, when she was busy tidying up the clothes racks, he got all the way to the counter before she saw him. She hurried over, flustered.
“How’s life treating you?”
“Oh, mustn’t grumble,” William said happily. “There’s always somebody worse off.”
Grace shook her head smiling.
“There is that. What can I do for you?”
He frowned. William didn’t do thinking quickly and he didn’t really want anything. Except to see Grace.
“! don’t rightly know.”
She shook her head smiling.
“You’re only just in time.”
“I could wait and walk back with you if you like,” he said. “If you’re going straight home that is.”
Grace bit her lip. She had been going to see if she could get an appointment at the doctors, but it wasn’t something she wanted to tell William about.
“That would be nice. I thought I might have a walk along the harbour wall first. You’re welcome to come with me if you’d like to.”
She watched William’s face as he thought about this. He nodded.
“I’ll come back at half past, shall I?”
“You do that.”
Grace watched him potter out of the shop with a broad smile on her face.
By the time they got down to the seafront it was high tide. The sea was throwing itself against the harbour wall, and waves were rolling back to meet each other in walls of spray. There was a grey salt dampness in the air, and if you stood with your back to the town, looking out at the horizon, you could almost imagine that the town was drifting out to sea. The abbey ruin on the cliff top had never looked darker or more gothic.
“This is grand,” Grace told William happily. He agreed that it was.
They stood together and watched the movement of the sea.
“There’s a big one coming now,” he said, pointing. “Watch yourself.”
They moved back giggling as the spray shot over the railings.
Grace was glad to see William laugh. He always seemed so serious.
“You know William, you worry about things too much. You should relax a bit more. Have a bit of fun.”
She wondered what sort of life it had been for him. He had been married for a long time, but that didn’t tell you a fat lot. She hoped that he had been happy.
“You must miss your wife very much,” she said quietly.
William leaned on the wall, letting the waves wash over his memories.
“I do that.”
He turned to look at Grace.
“Does it get better?”
She shook her head.
“No. You just learn to cope with it, that’s all.”
William nodded. That was what he had thought. He patted Grace’s arm and they walked on down the seafront without saying any more.
William started to think about the idea of asking Grace to join him in the Cheerio Café for a cup of tea. He had taken to calling the Cheerio Café his second home. It was what he called a proper café. There were white tablecloths with a sheet of glass over them, a little carnation on each table, and watercolours of the bay and the abbey on the walls. There were posters too so you could always find out what was going on, and they gave you fresh milk and a good pot of tea. Megan was nice too. She was a good laugh and she always remembered what you said to her. He thought Grace might like it. One day he finally plucked up the courage to ask her to go in with him, and she said yes.
They sat at a window table. William was pleased. This was his favourite spot, and he made sure that Grace sat where she was facing the window. You could see across the harbour and watch folk going past. Megan came up straight away. Her eyes twinkled at William, but she knew better than to embarrass him by saying anything. She knew all her customers very well, and liked them too, even if she did sometimes feel that she was running a day centre for the lost and bewildered, rather than the upmarket coffee house she had imagined when she first came to Whitby.
“Now William, what can I get you?”
“Pot of tea for two please Megan,” he said looking at Grace to see if that was all right and feeling very daring. It had been a long time since he had ordered a pot of tea for two. She nodded and he smiled and blinked happily. “And I might just have an Eccles cake.”
Grace smiled back at him.
“Go on, be a devil.”
Megan smiled at Grace.
“Would you like anything to eat?”
William nodded at her encouragingly. Grace smiled back.
“Just a piece of shortbread thank you.”
“That’s lovely”, Megan said, slipping the menu back into its holder and turning back towards the counter.
William was beaming. It was lovely he thought. Best thing he’d ever done.
“I’m right glad you came with me,” he said happily to Grace.
“Good of you to ask me,” she replied quietly.
When Megan brought their order they had a chat to her about her egg decorating. She had told William about it before but he wanted Grace to know. There were some on a shelf for sale behind the counter, and he asked about them. She said she was doing one with a tiny wedding scene inside it for her sister who was getting married in August.
“You’ve got clever fingers Megan,” William said.
“You wouldn’t always think so,” Megan laughed as she trotted off, already smiling at the people on the next table.
“Now, what can I get you?”
William looked at Grace. He hoped her shortbread was going to be all right. He had never had the shortbread.
“She’s a nice lass, Megan.”
“You like talking to people don’t you.”
William looked at his Eccles cake.
“Freda used to tell me to shut up. She said folks didn’t want to listen to me prattling on.”
“Well I think it’s nice.” Grace said firmly, biting into her shortbread. Everything went quiet, as it does when Yorkshire folk are eating.
“What does minger mean?” William asked suddenly.
Grace looked at him, wondering if he was all right.
“Jodie, my granddaughter was saying it the other day. I just wondered.”
“You’ll have to look it up.” Grace told him. “Mind you, it might be safer not to find out. They say all sorts these days.”
William nodded. It was a strange world sometimes.
“Did you see that Sidwells is shutting down?”
“There’ll be another pound shop opening. It’s getting to the stage where you won’t be able to buy anything decent here.”
William liked going in the pound shop. There were surprising things in there, and it kept changing. You never knew what you might find next. He had bought some tissues in there once. They had been very cheap and had strange writing all over them. He had found out later on that it was Polish, and he had wondered how they had come to be there. Sometimes there were liqueur chocolates with cherries in the middle, and if they had them in, the blonde haired girl filling up the piles would always tell him. Anyway, it didn’t sound like Grace thought much of pound shops, so he decided he had better agree with her.
By the time they had finished sorting out all the shops that used to be in Whitby, and what they were now, the pot of tea was empty and the shortbread was just a few crumbs on the plate. William saw Megan looking across as if she might want to fetch the bill.He looked at Grace.
“Is that it then?”
Grace didn’t answer. She was looking out of the window, watching two herring gulls squabbling over a piece of bread. He wondered if she was all right.
“Penny for them.”
“I was just thinking,” she said quietly, looking back at him. William paid the bill. Grace tried to, but he said there were to be no arguments so she said it would be her turn next time. He stored that away in his mind to think about later. Next time. He was smiling to himself as he put on his anorak. Next time. So there was going to be a next time. He was going to help Grace put on her coat, but by the time he had digested what she had said she was already going towards the door. He hurried after her, waving at Megan as he went past.
When they went their separate ways at Grace’s road end she didn’t look like she was going to lean forward to give him a peck on the cheek, but he would not have minded if she had.
It was after that first tea with Grace in the Cheerio Cafe that William started to worry a bit. It was all very confusing and not at all what he was used to after forty three years of marriage. He would look at Freda’s photo and wonder what she would say. “You and your girlfriend”, probably, or more likely “Don’t talk silly.” That was something she often used to say. But William didn’t talk silly. That was the trouble. He liked to know where he was, and he liked other people to know that too. He was going to have to do something about it.
Freda had been William’s first proper girlfriend, and it had been Freda who had decided that they were going to get married. In fact William had never, in all his sixty eight years, asked anybody to go out with him. It was quite clear to him that Grace was the one he would ask, that was not the problem. Freda had got him running about doing as he was told in no time. He didn’t like being on his own and since he’d had forty three years of doing as he was told he wanted a change. He wasn’t even sure that people had girlfriends at his age. Grace might think he was daft for asking. She might say that he was daft for asking. She might laugh at him. The more William thought about it the more worked up he got. It got to the point where he couldn’t even chat to Grace without getting just a bit uneasy.
As she sometimes liked to say, Grace was not so green as she was cabbage looking, and she knew something was bothering William. He needn’t have worried. She had realised that something was up, and had made up her mind to ask him whether he was tired of spending time with her, or whether something else was bothering him. She couldn’t be doing with him sitting opposite her with a long face, or walking along the sea front next to her, sighing. One afternoon, when they were back in the Cheerio Café, and he was clearly not himself, she asked him what was the matter. They had just had a good laugh with Megan about her holidays, it was a decent cup of tea and he had his favourite lemon cake in front of him. He ought to be happy enough, but she could see that he wasn’t.
Grace nodded. She was becoming very fond of William. It sounded like that woman had given him a terrible time, though he never said anything bad about her, bless him. She especially liked the way he looked after her when they were out. Like when they had got to the café for instance. He had made sure she was all right and asked her where she would like to sit, before he took his coat off. Tom would never have done that. He was a good man, but he would never have done that. She decided to persevere.
“What are you thinking about?”
“William, you must be thinking about something, otherwise it’s not thinking.”
This was obviously a bit complicated for him, but she thought he knew what she meant. There was a long silence while he had a sip of tea, then he came out with it. She could hear the words, but she could hardly believe he was finally saying them.
“Girlfriends and such like.”
Grace shook her head; it didn’t do to look too eager. She decided to play dumb.
There was no going back now. William was looking very uncomfortable.
“Do you think that’s a daft idea at my age? Having a girlfriend?”
Grace stared at her curd tart.
“Well, no. It’s not a daft idea exactly. Why?”
“Wondering about what William?”
She was beginning to smile inside. Just ask me, she thought, just ask. But he didn’t.
“Did you have anyone in mind?”
He looked at her carefully. Me William, me, she thought.
“I might do.”
“You’d better get her told if you have. We’re none of us getting any younger.”
William was looking at his watch.
“I’ll be missing Flog It if I don’t get going.”
“Come on then. It’s my turn to settle up.”
They tidied up their table and wandered back home. Grace listened to William explaining to her how important it was to clean out your grates and guttering, and wondered how long it would be before he actually came out with it. She decided she had better not hold her breath waiting. When they went their separate ways she put her hand on his arm.
“Enjoy your programme.”
“Thank you very much. Mind how you go.”
She stood for a minute and watched him potter off. He didn’t turn round.
A month or so later, when Grace had come back from her sisters, she kept her promise and invited William round for tea. It all went very well. They were good Yorkshire puddings, and the beef was good too. He had brought a bottle of red wine and they drank it straight away. Neither of them were used to this and they were both feeling a bit light-headed by the time they were getting round to the lemon tart.
“Grace, this is gorgeous.”
“I’m very glad you like it. Does it beat the Cheerio café?”
“I should just about think it does.”
William pointed at a large photograph on the wall.
“Where was that taken then?”
“Grand country. That’s where you used to live, isn’t it?”
William looked at Grace carefully. He had asked her before about where she used to live. She had told him about the Post Office, but that photo looked like a farm.
“We used to farm up there. Sheep mostly.”
“It’s a hard life, more than hard work. You need to be born into it really. I wasn’t, but I seemed to take to it all right.”
William could imagine that. It was easy to see, just by looking round him, that she wasn’t afraid of hard work. She kept her bungalow neat as a pin and she had her post office work and her work for the WI as well.
“I liked the stock, and I liked the people as well. If you live somewhere like that you have to get on with folks. You don’t see enough company to start picking and choosing, and everybody has to muck in together.”
William wondered whether he should ask his next question, but he said it anyway.
“Your husband would have farmed with you of course?”
“Tom was a good man. You had to push him along a bit sometimes, but he was a good man.”
There was a long silence, then Grace spoke again.
“You won’t know what happened to him?”
“Well he killed himself. After all those years struggling along. Took his gun up on the fells. After all that time. I’d no idea. Spent my whole life thinking I know so much about folks and I’d no idea.”
William had no idea what to say. Sorry didn’t seem to be enough, but saying nothing didn’t seem to be a good idea either so he said it anyway.
“I’m sorry love. I really am.”
Grace shook her head quickly.
“Oh, there’s no need for that. It was a long time ago now. I’ve come through it. Many a time I wondered how I was going to do that on my own, without Tom next to me. I blamed him something rotten for leaving me on my own. Called him all the names under the sun, but he did the only thing he thought he could do when it came to it. I wasn’t blaming him really, more blaming myself for not stopping him. For not seeing.”
“It weren’t your fault.”
“I know that now. It took a long while, but I do know that now.”
She looked at him seriously.
“I haven’t told anybody else, and I’d rather you didn’t either.”
William nodded hastily.
“Not that I’m ashamed or anything. It’s just………well there’s no need for folks to know everything is there?”
“Course there isn’t,” he said firmly. “I’m glad you told me though.”
Grace put her hand out and touched his arm.”
“I wanted you to know. And I’m glad you came.”
“Of course I came.”
There was a long silence while he looked at his tart. Grace watched him. Finally he looked up.
“I’m very fond of you.”
“I know you are,” Grace said. “Thank you.”
“You don’t think I’m being daft?” William put down his spoon. “Soft like?”
“Of course you’re being soft. And I think it’s very nice. More folks should try it.”
William smiled back. He had second helpings of tart and a bit more cream.
After they had finished Grace made some good strong tea and they watched a programme she had recorded about shire horses. When it finished they looked at each other, and Grace yawned. William got up.
“Well, times getting on. I’d better be on my way.”
This time, when he left, Grace did lean forward and gave him a small peck on the cheek. William was very pleased. He wondered whether he had a girlfriend.
This question was sorted out the next day. He met his friend Kenneth while he was doing his shopping.
“I hear you’ve got a girlfriend.”
William’s jaw dropped.
“You know more than I do.”
Kenneth had been talking to his brother, who knew Grace’s niece.
“She said Grace’s right enjoys your trips out to the café.”
“Trips out? We’ve had a cup of tea down the road a few times.”
“There you are you see. You’ve been spotted.”
“She’s a nice lass is Grace.”
William agreed that she was, and scuttled off before things got difficult. He wondered how many more people knew.
Later in the week William went round to Grace’s. She was sorting out some agendas and annual reports for the WI AGM, so he helped her put them into piles. When he had finished explaining what had happened to her and said he was sorry if there was any misunderstanding she smiled at him.
“Well, surely that’s for you to decide isn’t it?”
“Whether you’ve got a girlfriend or not.”
“You’re not upset then?”
“Why would I be upset?”
“I don’t know. I just thought, well I just thought you might be, that’s all.”
William stood there, looking uncomfortable. Grace realised she was going to have to take him in hand.
“Look, if you want me to be your girlfriend, that’s all right by me.”
They stared at each other. Grace sighed.
“Well say something.”
“Yes, I mean I would like that very much. Thank you.”
“Oh for goodness sake!”
Grace moved towards him. They gave each other a hug, and a very nice kiss too. After that William felt better than he had done for a very long time, and Grace put the kettle on. He sat down in the front room among the piles of papers, shaking his head. What on earth had he gone and done. He felt as though he needed to explain to Freda, say sorry even, but she wasn’t there and Grace was. When she came back in with two mugs of tea she looked at him sharply.
“You’re not having second thoughts are you?”
You have to live your life William. It’s not wrong to want company and friendship. She wouldn’t mind.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. There were an awful lot of things she minded about.”
“She would want you to be happy, and so do I.”
“I hope so.”
It was time to put some cards on the table. Grace put down the mugs and sat down next to him.
“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying each others company. If you have a chance to be happy you should take it. It’s as simple as that.”
And that was how they left it. A cup of tea, another hug, another kiss, and William was back home. Home among the photographs of Freda, the cushion covers she’d made, and the ornaments she had chosen. He looked at the large pottery cat she had insisted on bringing back from a day trip to Durham. It had brown and black swirls all over it and big staring eyes and he hated it. Well there was something he could do about that at least. He picked it up, carried it through into the kitchen, held it out over the hard tiles and let it fall onto the floor. Its’ face lay there in two pieces, still staring at him.
He could almost hear Freda’s voice behind him.
“Now look what you’ve done you daft thing. You’ll have to clear that up now.”
He got out the dustpan and brush and swept it away into the bin. He could start on the rest tomorrow.