by James McCormick © 2002

‘Well May,’ Jack said putting the phone down. ‘Helen’s on her way. Happy now?’ His old face looked irritated for a moment, then softened. ‘Anyway,’ he went on, ‘what say I make us a nice cup of Earl Grey while we wait, eh?’

He shuffled over to the hallway door, not realising his mistake until he opened it. ‘Oops,’ he said, scratching the top of his bald head. ‘That’s not the kitchen, is it.’ With a little chuckle he turned and went through the other door.

He filled the kettle and set it to boil on their ancient gas stove. As he waited he called through to the other room, ‘You know May,’ he said. ‘Helen made a terrible fuss when I told her. I said she could wait until after work, but she wouldn’t listen.’

As he waited for the water to boil his eyes fell on the faded black and white picture hanging on the wall just to his left. It showed the young, smiling faces of a newly-wed couple. The woman, not much more than a girl really, wore a white dress; the man, a dark suit and top hat. Jack blinked, who were they? He had to know that. Why else would he have their picture up? He studied the man’s handsome features, the dark, slicked back hair, the deep cleft in the strong jaw. Then it came to him. It was him, of course, all those long years ago. How could he have forgotten that?

May had been a pretty young thing then, he recalled, but she had been so nervous on the day that she had got his name wrong at the alter, calling him John instead. Since then, whenever he had attempted to tease her about it, she had always discouraged him with an icy stare. He knew that stare only too well.

The kettle whistled, making him jump a little and he set about making their teas.

‘I’ve given you a cookie dear,’ he said bringing the teas through. ‘I know Doctor Price says you shouldn’t have sugar ... but one little biscuit can’t hurt, can it?’

He placed the cup and saucer before her and sat himself down in his favourite chair. He picked up the paper, left open at the cartoon page and began reading, chuckling to himself between sips of tea.

‘Hits the spot, doesn’t it’ he said after a time. There was no answer and Jack lowered the paper, ‘Something the matter dear,’ he asked. The cup was still full.

‘You’re not drinking.’ A mischievous look appeared on his face, ‘Maybe a little sugar in it?’ he suggested. ‘It can be our little secret.’ He dropped the paper and got to his feet, shuffling over to the hallway entrance.

Suddenly, the sound of fists pounding on the outside door startled him.

‘Okay, okay,’ he muttered, ‘I’m coming.’ He went to the door and undid the safety chain. ‘Hello Helen,’ he said, pulling the door open to see the plump, middle aged woman standing there. Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard as if she had been running. She pushed Jack aside as gently as she could and raced into the house. Jack followed her, and found her crouched by May.

‘Oh dad,’ she said , her pale blue eyes filling with tears. ‘This is my fault. I should have kept a better eye on you both.’ Fighting back sobs she went up to him, laying a hand on his skinny arm, ‘Dad, listen to me, okay, listen very carefully; mum’s ...’ she bit her lip, unable to finish.

Jack blinked. ‘She’s not drinking her tea,’ he said, hoping he was being helpful. He could see Helen was upset. He hadn’t really wanted to bother her when May first complained of the pains in her left arm. But when she had fallen.

silent, fixing him with one of those icy stares he had had to give way, as always. Helen pulled a cigarette from her coat pocket and lit it with trembling hands, ‘I’m going to make a couple of phone calls okay?’ she said from behind a cloud of tobacco smoke. She ushered him over to his chair, sitting him down.

‘You read your comics, and soon someone will be coming to see you, some nice people.’ She took another draw on the cigarette and tried to smile. ‘Just relax, okay?’

Jack nodded and returned to his cartoons. He felt relieved. There wasn’t going to be a fuss, after all.

x x x

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